Friday, 23 October 2020
Seth and the Seed Goddess (or where did a week go?)
Sorry I haven’t been posting updates—I have been working steadily but slowly on the book, as best as my current very trying circumstances allow. The short piece below about the Ancient Egyptian myth of Seth and the Seed Goddess, part of a much larger argument about sex and myth, has taken me all week to write. This is partly because every single source I consulted told me completely different things about it. Even Lise Manniche’s excellent Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt (1987) still thinks that the goddess with whom Seth mates is Anat, rather than the unnamed Seed Goddess, who seems to be an aspect of Hathor; still thinks that the Great God who is out walking and sees the goddess is Re, not Seth; still thinks that the God Above is the sun not the moon. I find Jacobus van Dijk’s 1987 essay very convincing on all these points. But to give you a window on my life, this piece of writing will probably not even make it into the book—I was just trying to work out for myself what the heck a particularly compressed and confusing myth was actually about, and it has involved five days with my desk piled high with contradictory books on Egyptian mythology. I enjoyed it, though. And it may prove useful to any of you unlucky enough to be bitten by a scorpion. Thank you again for your patience.
Someone bitten by a scorpion in the reign of Rameses II in Ancient Egypt might well have had a magical incantation spoken over them four times to counter the poison. It is a long spell, and one of the interesting things about it is that it doesn’t mention scorpions at all.[i]
The myth, or historiola, embedded in this and several other healing spells is rather obscure, but its function is to provide a paradigm of the desired healing, in this case the expulsion of poison from the body. It tells how the ever-lustful Seth seeing the Seed Goddess bathing, copulates with her “like a ram”[ii]. The Seed flies up into his forehead, thus poisoning him. The goddess Anat, one of Seth’s consorts, goes to plead with her father Ra, who is aged and tired at the end of the day, to cure him, and though initially reluctant he sends the goddess Isis to do so with a magical litany.[iii]The Seed that lodges in Seth’s forehead is in fact the seed of Ra’s rebirth.[iv]
There is another myth in which Isis cures the child Horus of a scorpion bite, and there was also a protective goddess Serqet who was especially associated with the scorpion, and whose priests had a role in the treatment of poisonous bites and stings. So what is the point of introducing this myth of Seth and the Seed Goddess, a deity who can be identified with Hathor, who received the setting sun and protected him until he was born again in the morning?
It plays on the fact that the same word, metut (or mtwt) means both poison and semen.[v]Semen is the great creative force in the very beginning of the Egyptian universe, when the sun god creates the first gods, Shu and Tefnut by an act of masturbation or auto-fellation, spitting them out of his mouth. In their Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods, Meeks and Favard-Meeks note how not just semen but all the bodily fluids of the gods have creative potency: “Blood, sweat, tears, and spit never went to waste.”[vi]
In the myth of Seth and the Seed Goddess, the goddess is ready to receive the semen not of Seth but of “the God Above”, who will impregnate her with fire. Jacobus van Dijk convincingly argues that this God Above is not the sun but the moon; van Dijk sees this as the nocturnal manifestation of Ra, and it is worth noting that Khons, the god of the swelling moon, is particularly associated with semen[vii]. This ties the myth in with the part in The Contendings of Horus and Seth where Seth has been tricked into swallowing the semen of Horus, and when the moon god Thoth summons it to appear, it does so as a golden disc on Seth’s brow; Thoth seizes it and places it on his own head. So we have in this one short myth rebirths of both sun and moon, and a symbolic rebalancing of the cosmic order, ma’at, which has been unbalanced by Seth’s chaotic impulses. A similar rebalancing must take place for the victim of the scorpion’s venom to recover.
These deities are abstract concepts, personified ideas, complex emotional and psychological vortices—they can coalesce and separate, they can die and come back to life—but they are also grossly human. They have sex, they get old and tired, they take to their beds when they get ill. Although there are magical, supernatural, hyper-unrealistic elements, the myth of Seth and the Seed Goddess is also profoundly human: a seductive woman, a man overcome with desire, punishment for transgression, a sick husband, a daughter pleading with her grumpy old father.
[i] The spell is in the fragmentary 19th Dynasty Chester-Beatty Papyrus VII in the British Museum. Kaster 1968, 144-8. See also Manniche 1987, 54
[ii] van Dijk 1986, 33
[iii] This myth is extensively discussed in Jacobus van Dijk “cAnat, Seth, and the Myth of Prēc” in H.L.J. Vanstiphout, K. Jongeling, F. Leemhuis, and G.J. Reinink, Scripta Signa Vocis (Groningen, 1986); Manniche 1987, 54 still refers to the earlier interpretation that it is a myth about Seth raping Anat
[iv] van Dijk considers this myth and the myth of the death and resurrection of Osiris to be “two divergent mythical statements of one and the same myth”. van Dijk 1986, 43
[v] Nunn 1996, 53
[vi] Meeks & Favard-Meeks 1997, 70
[vii] Roberts 1995, 78