I've been thinking a lot about nomes.
There's this illusion, you see, of a unified religion in discussions of ancient Egypt, usually a variant on the Heliopolitan cosmogony, with Amun-Ra instead of Atum-Ra, and sometimes with bonus Ptah in around the edges. The different myth cycles of each nome vanish in a kind of vague, generic lens of past culture unification. (Much like, I imagine, the particular mythologies of Athens dominate discussions of Hellenic culture, though for different reasons in that case.)
But each region had its own myth cycle, its own stories, its own emphases, its own take on things. A book I'm reading at the moment had a Roman-era mention of a fight breaking out between delegations from two different towns on the subject of crocodile veneration or crocodile smiting - the subtext of which was "honor Set" vs. "execrate Set". And that isn't, as is usually handwaved, the "Oh, Set's reputation tanked as one went on in Egyptian history", that's two contemporary groups with profoundly different theologies.
And every so often I run into someone who is deeply agitated about some bit of myth - often Set, not always - and I am coming to think that the perspective of "You have to be okay with this god, here's why" is a bad idea. Or at least an unnecessary one. The ancients certainly never sorted that shit out, if they were having slapfights about it while bemused Romans took notes.
Here's a complete approach, entirely supportable by mythos:
The regular workaday patterns of the world are a seamless whole which must be preserved. Into that smooth fabric of being, disruptions are introduced, things that do not need to happen: the storm blows your roof in, or someone dies, or some other needless and painful moment happens. This happened in the sacred stories, too, and restorative justice only goes so far: Wesir was not returned to his wife and family, but was established in the Duat. Set becomes the beast of burden, confined to the polar stars so that he may not threaten the fragility that he created, one whose name is cursed.
Not only is this or something like it functional, supportable, and findable in multiple places, it's something that satisfies most people's needs. Wrestling with the question of those unnecessary disruptions does not require tangling with grey areas; they did harm, so we cast them out, we curse them, we make wax figurines of donkeys to go with our wax figurines of snakes, trample them and burn them.
Here's another complete approach, also supportable by mythos:
An unchanging system is a stagnant one, a vulnerable one, and its weaknesses will reveal themselves in time. To be powerful, it needs to be tested, prove itself, and overcome that which challenges it, and thus the function of challenge is essential to the health of the system. Whether it is Heru-Sa-Aset winning the potency, cunning, and self-determination required to become an archetypically powerful king, or Wesir himself learning the secrets of rebirth rather the hard way, the road to revealed power cannot go the easy route that has no conflict. The workings of Set, while not necessary to the functioning of an ordinary stable reality, are signposts marking the way to a change of condition.
This is a road for revolutionaries, for kings, for spirit-workers in the shamanistic style who are torn to pieces and put back together by the spirits, for those who can afford to imagine a different world and for those who can't afford not to. Those are the people who need Set, or something like him.
I tend to figure most people don't fall into either group, and they can choose which they feel more aligned with - or something else entirely. Theological conformity isn't that important.
20 February, 2013
I've been thinking a lot about nomes.