Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Time to Talk Chaos

Ancient Egypt can be confusing when one starts to talk about Chaos and Order. In most Western societies, perhaps in most societies in general, there is a feeling that order is good and chaos is bad and that these two things are opposed to each other. This idea is not true in Egypt.

For the moment we are going to leave order to the side and just talk about chaos. Two gods of Chaos exist. (we are going to set aside Set for the moment as his relationship to chaos is most likely a hold over from the Persian invasions and not actually an Egyptian ideal.) We are going to stick with the two original gods of chaos Apep (Ahh-pep) and Nun (Noon), we can also put Naunet (Now-net), Nun's consort, in the same category as Nun.

Nun holding the solar boat aloft.

Apep was in the Egyptian mindset the worst of the worst ever, destroyer of the sun. There was a belief that even saying or writing his name would bring horrible chaos. Nun, on the other had, was considered wise and creative. He was called by Ra on several occasions to give counsel to the gods in times of distress. How could chaos be so different in the mindset of one culture?
Apep's name in hieroglyphs showing the way he was
"disabled" through the showing of him being killed.

The Egyptians had a dual concept of chaos. Chaos could be beneficial, productive and creative. In the beneficial form things such as floods which brought soils, wild animals, rain storms, rebellion against oppressors and the like were classified. These were things that, while extremely chaotic, brought about the continuation of creation, life and order. This is the chaos brought by Nun and Naunet. Apep was a purely destructive chaos that had no purpose other than destroying order. Examples of this would be murder, vengeance, apathy, wrath and so on. Apep was associated with things that didn't really have a positive for anyone or anything involved.

In the Egyptian concept of the world creative chaos (Nun) and order (Ma'at) were companion ideals. Both necessary for creation and the continuation of the world. Destructive chaos (Apep) was the enemy of both creation and order.
Set slaying Apep from the solar boat in the Duat.

Before we leave the subject we'll take a moment to go back to Set and Chaos. Originally, and in the Egyptian mindset, Set was the slayer of Apep. In this he was an agent of order or at least positive chaos. Even in his murder of Osiris he proves as a vehicle for gods and mortals alike to attain eternal life through the creation of mummification by Anubis. The demonization of Set came from two things. First, he was always the god of foreigners because of his protection of people as they traveled in the desert. When the Persians and later the Greeks and Romans invaded Egypt they took on Set as their god and it was the beliefs of these invaders and what they said about Set that started the demonization. An example of this is the Greco-Roman association of Apep, Set and Typhoon as the same entity. However, this belief was contradictory to the beliefs of the Egyptians themselves. So, in this way to an Egyptian Set is an agent of creative chaos. Though he does so bad things.. controls sandstorms, murders, creates thunderstorms and night.. his behavior brings positives and he himself does positive things such as protecting miners and traders and in the end killing Apep himself. When the Persians and Greco-Romans got a hold of Set and gained political power in Egypt then Set was cast as an agent of destructive Chaos. If we look at the myths though it becomes clear that the deity these invaders used was Set only in name. The mythology was that of Apep and Typhoon. Only the frameworks of the Isis/Osiris myth remained. It is believed that he was kept in this mythology because the invaders could not rule or keep control if they meddled in this core Egyptian myth very much. We can further see this difference in the names used. Seth, the Greco-Roman name, is almost exclusively used when Set is demonized.  The exception to this rule is early translations of papyri and tombs that relied on the Greco-Roman god names because the Egyptian names hadn't been all translated or early Egyptologists who believed the Greco-Roman names were more correct for the deities... or at least easier to pronounce.

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