The Ring of … Set?

Listen, my lord. I was a great sorcerer in the south. Men spoke of Thoth-Amon as they spoke of Rammon. King Ctesphon of Stygia gave me great honor, casting down the magicians from the high places to exalt me above them. They hated me, but they feared me, for I controlled beings from outside which came at my call and did my bidding. By Set, mine enemy knew not the hour when he might awake at midnight to feel the taloned fingers of a nameless horror at his throat! I did dark and terrible magic with the Serpent Ring of Set, which I found in a nighted tomb a league beneath the earth, forgotten before the first man crawled out of the slimy sea.

— “The Phoenix on the Sword”

Can there exist an REH aficionado who doesn’t recognize that passage? Probably not. It’s Thoth-Amon speaking, the dark and terrible sorcerer from Stygia, that sinister land where wizard-priests ruled and serpents were worshipped. As Damon Sasser says, REH used the character sparingly, keeping him in the background — there was never a direct confrontation between Thoth-Amon and Conan in Howard’s own stories — but de Camp and Carter had him running amuck in their pastiches, and turned him into a cartoon villain. As someone else once remarked, the only melodramatic cliche they didn’t have him utter was, “Curses! Foiled again!”

Stygia in the Conan stories was REH’s prehistoric and supernatural version of Egypt. The Styx and Acheron in Greek myth were two of the dark rivers of Hades, hence the adjectives “Stygian” and “Acherontic”. Stygian darkness became a stock phrase for hellish and gloomy murk in English. In Howard’s stories, Stygia and Acheron were twin evil empires whose borders marched together, in prehistoric times, before the northern barbarians, the Hybori, invaded and destroyed Acheron and swept on southward, driving the Stygians back into their original homeland.

And the Stygians worshipped Set. In REH’s stories he seems to have been their only god, really. In The Hour of the Dragon, Howard writes (Chapter XVII) “ … serpents were sacred to Set, god of Stygia, who men said was himself a serpent.” In the story “The God in the Bowl” Thoth-Amon sends a deadly gift to an enemy of his cult — one of Set’s ancient children, a man-headed serpent asleep in a bowl-shaped sarcophagus. “The thought of Set was like a nightmare, and the children of Set who once ruled the earth and who now slept in their nighted caverns below the black pyramids.” Highly-placed sorcerer-priests of Set, like Thoth-Amon and Thutothmes, his rival, have the power of killing with a mere touch of their open hand. It leaves the black print of palm and fingers on the victim’s flesh (The Hour of the Dragon).

Well and good. Set was a genuine and documented ancient Egyptian god. He was also – certainly in the popular culture of REH’s day – considered an evil god, the murderer of Osiris, and persecutor of Isis and the infant Horus. The name was evocative in a modern Christian land – Set/Serpent/Satan. Like most of Egypt’s other gods, though, Set had many aspects, and there were many myths about him, which had developed and changed down the centuries. Trying to follow them from the beginning, and sort them out, will lead us on a trail as convoluted as a snake’s twisting in itself.

First and definitely, he was not a snake. Like many deities of Egypt, he was represented with the body of a human being and the head of some animal or bird. Thoth had the head of an ibis (and was also represented by baboons, who were said to be wise), the warlike Sekhmet a lioness, Horus a falcon, the maternal, nourishing, and supportive Hathor a cow. Set, in keeping with his puzzling and many-sided qualities, wore the head of a beast hard to identify. It had a curiously shaped muzzle and long, square-tipped ears. It has been suggested that the animal was a wild desert ass, an aardvark, a pig, or a composite of all three.

Like certain other Egyptian gods, though, Set was not always depicted with a non-human head. He was occasionally described as a man with red hair and red eyes – red being the color of evil in ancient Egyptian symbolism. He wasn’t considered always or exclusively evil until very late in Egyptian history – but that can be covered at another point in the post.

Set may even have been a Libyan god originally. He was always associated in the Egyptian mind with foreigners and the desert, with fierce storms and violence. He was first called Setesh, with a later hardening of the sound to Setekh or Sutekh, and a final abbreviation to Set.

(In passing, an old Doctor Who adventure, “The Pyramids of Mars,” featured one of the fourth Doctor’s most powerful adversaries, Sutekh the Destroyer, last representative of an alien race named the “Osirians”. Sutekh was a megalomaniac who regarded all life as his enemy and had devoted himself to wiping it out, like a living version of Fred Saberhagen’s berserker machines. If Sutekh escaped from the tomb in which his fellow Osirians had confined him – it was all over, since the others had long since died and no power except theirs could overcome him. When the Doctor’s human assistant asks, “Not even your lot? The Time Lords?” the Doctor answers dryly, “Not even my lot.”)

Even if he began as a Libyan deity, Set became one of the most important and powerful Egyptian gods at a very early period. He was recognized as the Lord of Upper Egypt (the south), with Nubt (the golden) as his sacred city. At least one very early Pharaoh, Peribsen of the Second Dynasty (28th century BCE, well before the Pyramids of Giza were built) went so far as to abandon his formal Horus name (Hor Sekhemib; Horus is Powerful of Heart) and take a Set name instead (Set Peribsen; He Who Comes Forth by the Will of Set). The change is so significant that it has led Egyptologists to create all kinds of theories to explain it, including a religious revolution during Peribsen’s reign. Maybe it was nothing so far-reaching. It’s very possible that Peribsen effectively ruled Upper Egypt only, which was from time immemorial Set’s domain. Maybe Peribsen called on Set for help during a crucial campaign, received it, won, and showed his appreciation by taking that deity’s name – as his purely personal patron.

Horus was the Lord of Lower Egypt (the north and the Delta). It’s plausible that the traditional enmity between Set and Horus passed into myth because the southern and desert tribes worshipped Set, while later invaders entering the Delta were followers of Horus, the Falcon. They may have struggled for a long time to dominate the Two Lands of Egypt, just as Set and Horus do in the myths.

They were supposed to have reached agreement and a truce at last. An enduring symbol from ancient Egypt is the Samtaui. This shows Horus, with his falcon’s head, and Set, with the head of his mysterious totem animal, standing on either side of a sacred pillar and binding a knot around it with the stems of the lotus and the papyrus, the plant symbols of their territories. This represents the union of Upper and Lower Egypt.

What about the stories that make Set the evil murderer of his brother Osiris and would-be slayer of the infant Horus? Ah! That takes us back to the very, very early days of Egyptian kingship. The royal sacrifice, the slaying of the king, was a ritual in many primitive societies, and there are indications that it was practiced in Egypt. The king’s reign was limited to twenty-eight years, after which his doom was proclaimed, traditionally by the jackal-headed god Anubis, one of whose titles was “Announcer of Death.” The Pharaoh was put to death by snake-bite, in the most ancient times the bite of the horned viper. Another title of Anubis was “Chief of the Hill of the Viper.” The Egyptian word for viper, FU, appears in the names of some early kings, notably Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza. When the sun-god Ra became the deity of kings par excellence, RA (or, as the fashion is now, RE) replaced FU in the majority of royal names. Osiris, in fact, is only the Greek form of the Egyptian Usira, or Usire. And Osiris in the story was murdered by Set in the twenty-eighth year of his reign.

I wouldn’t know if there ever was an original story which had Osiris meeting a ritual death by snakebite. I’ve never heard of one. If it existed it was knocked on the head and buried at an extremely early date. The story the Greeks passed on to us has the jealous and violent Set plotting to kill his royal brother and usurp the crown of Egypt. With other conspirators he laid a scheme to kill Osiris without shedding his blood. He had an exquisitely beautiful wooden coffin made, and showed it to the royal and noble guests at a banquet. He said he would give it as a gift to anybody who fitted it exactly. Everybody, a bit drunk at that stage of the revels, probably, wanted to try it, and finally Osiris climbed in and lay flat. The conspirators slammed the lid, fastened it down and poured molten lead over it, suffocating Osiris inside, after which they hurled it into the Nile.

Set became Pharaoh. The widow of Osiris, Isis (Eset), was a goddess, though, and a mistress of magic, so what had happened wasn’t necessarily the last word. She discovered the coffin in the marshes of the Delta, recovered her husband’s body, and animated it again by her powers, long enough to conceive a child with Osiris’s still-living semen. The child became Horus. Set, learning of this, drove the pregnant Isis out of Egypt into foreign lands, and made sure of his brother’s corpse this time, by hacking it into pieces and feeding his phallus and gonads to a Nile fish, or in some versions a crab. Osiris became Lord of the Dead in the Afterlife and was represented as mummy thereafter.

In the Osirian religion – that is, in popular and common belief – the child Horus grew to manhood and returned to overthrow his wicked uncle, thereby avenging his father. But Horus was worshipped in a number of aspects. The sky and falcon god of Lower Egypt – also named Horus, or Hor — became identified with the sun-god Ra and was considered the brother of Set, not his nephew.

In Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, the Stygian god Set is an arch-demon in serpent form. REH loathed snakes as much as Indiana Jones did (and if Indy had been a real person they’d have been contemporaries). We don’t have to infer his attitude to serpents from his stories. That could be misleading; after all, they’re fiction. But REH wrote in one of his letters, “I hate snakes; they are possessed of a cold, utterly merciless cynicism and sophistication, and sense of super-ego that puts them outside the pale of warm-blooded creatures.” That doesn’t sound too much unlike REH’s snake-worshipping Stygians themselves. In “Shadows in Zamboula,” a Stygian in a tavern watches Conan leave, going to what he believes, informed by his wizard’s perception, is an unpleasant death, and gives “a ghastly laugh of inhuman cynicism and mockery … The arts studied by a Stygian scholar are not calculated to make him share the feelings of a normal human being.”

The hero’s battle with a huge snake often features in REH’s stories, such as “The Valley of the Worm” in which James Allison’s prehistoric incarnation, Niord, kills the giant serpent Satha and obtains its venom in order to scotch an even more horrendous monster. Niord describes the big snake in this passage:

Let me speak of Satha. There is nothing like him on earth today, nor has there been for countless ages. Like the meat-eating dinosaur, like old sabre-tooth, he was too terrible to exist. Even then he was a survival of a grimmer age when life and its forms were cruder and more hideous. There were not many of his kind then, though they may have existed in great numbers in the reeking ooze of the vast jungle-tangled swamps still further south. He was larger than any python of modern ages, and his fangs dripped with poison a thousand times more deadly than that of a king cobra.

He was never worshipped by the pure-blood Picts, though the blacks that came later deified him, and that adoration persisted in the hybrid race that sprang from the negroes and their white conquerors. But to other peoples he was the nadir of evil horror, and tales of him became twisted into demonology; so in later ages Satha became the veritable devil of the white races, and the Stygians first worshipped, and then, when they became Egyptians, abhorred him under the name of Set, the Old Serpent, while to the Semites he became Leviathan and Satan. He was terrible enough to be a god, for he was a crawling death. I had seen a bull elephant fall dead in his tracks from Satha’s bite.

In a Conan story, “The Scarlet Citadel”, the Cimmerian encounters a giant snake of that very species, also named Satha. It lurks in extensive pits beneath the citadel of the title, the stronghold of the vile wizard Tsotha-lanti. Conan evidently lived thousands of years later than Niord, and Niord/James Allison implies in “The Valley of the Worm” that Satha’s species was growing rare even in Niord’s day, so perhaps Tsotha-lanti resurrected an extinct creature by his sorcery, just as the wizards of Xuchotl in another Conan story, “Red Nails”, resurrected a long-vanished species of dragons to guard their weird city. In any case the description Howard gives in “The Scarlet Citadel” tallies closely with Niord’s.

It was a snake that dwarfed all Conan’s previous ideas of snakes. Eighty feet it stretched from its pointed tail to its triangular head, which was bigger than that of a horse. In the dim light its scales glistened coldly, white as hoar-frost. Surely this reptile was one born and grown in darkness, yet its eyes were full of evil and sure sight. It looped its titan coils in front of the captive, and the great head on the arching neck swayed a matter of inches from his face. Its forked tongue almost brushed his lips as it darted in and out, and its fetid odor made his senses reel with nausea. The great yellow eyes burned into his, and Conan gave back the glare of a trapped wolf. He fought against the mad impulse to grasp the great arching neck in his tearing hands. Strong beyond the comprehension of civilized man, he had broken the neck of a python in a fiendish battle on the Stygian coast, in his corsair days. But this reptile was venomous; he saw the great fangs, a foot long, curved like scimitars. From them dripped a colorless liquid that he instinctively knew was death. He might conceivably crush that wedge-shaped skull with a desperate clenched fist, but he knew that at his first hint of movement, the monster would strike like lightning.

This is clearly identical with Niord’s monster snake, except for its albino whiteness, which Conan supposes is due to its having been hatched and reared in darkness. Perhaps that was how Tsotha-lanti did raise the creature; but he may have either chosen (or created) it frost-white and able to see sharply in the dark. It appears to have been a denizen of his dreadful pits for the whole of its existence. Conan, after finding and setting free a fellow captive in the pits, a wizard, is still edgy because of Satha’s presence, and says so.

  … Conan remarked uneasily, “There is a cursed big snake creeping about this tunnel. Let us be wary lest we step into his mouth.”

“I remember him of old,” answered Pelias grimly, “the more as I was forced to watch while ten of my acolytes were fed to him. He is Satha, the Old One, chiefest of Tsotha’s pets.”

It’s settled by now that the actual Egyptian god Set was not a serpent. Fair enough, but was there actually an immense serpent and great power of evil and destruction in Egyptian myth? Yes, there was. His name was Apep, and he personified darkness and destruction. He was the sun-god Ra’s greatest enemy. Ra, born each morning as Khepri, the young renewed sun, would travel across the sky until sunset, when he would enter the underworld, the Duat, now aged and feeble, in his sacred golden boat, to travel under the earth from west to east in order to be reborn. Until then, in his senile and helpless aspect, he was vulnerable, and each night Apep would attack him in an effort to plunge the world into eternal darkness, which he would rule.

Ra needed protection against the monster. Oddly enough, it was the ferocious and warlike Set who stood in the prow of the sun-boat, harpoon in hand, to perform that duty. While savage and uncouth, he was one of the few gods powerful enough to fend off the serpent Apep. The demonic snake is not mentioned by name until the Middle Kingdom, but there are representations of monster serpents even on predynastic pottery. Because of his huge size, and his ability to threaten Ra himself, he was known as the “World Encircler”. This makes him sound like the Norse demon, the Midgard Serpent, who coiled about the world under the sea and would rise to the surface at Ragnarok to destroy the gods.

Robert E. Howard might have been describing his ophidian demon in one of his poems, “Serpent,” which was in a letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, dated June 23rd, 1926.

I am the symbol of Creation and Destruction
I am the beginning and the end.
With my tail in my mouth
I am the Circle of Eternity.
Wisdom is in my eyes
And the dusk of wisdom lurks amid my coils.
My track circles the world
And I loop my coils around the Universe.
My head waves among the stars
And the nations fall prostrate before me.

In the Middle Kingdom, too (12th dynasty onward) Apep’s constant enemy Set is referred to by the honorific “the Majesty of Set.” This is significant, because at the time no other god except Ra was given the title “Majesty”. Set was indeed traditionally a ruler, the ruler of Upper Egypt, and wore the White Crown. When the Two Lands were united, by Menes, it is said, the Red and White Crowns were combined into the Double Crown, the Pschent. Thus it is plain that Set was not regarded as exclusively evil until quite late in Egyptian history. Violent and dangerous, yes, a god of the desert and storms, but because of that very power, needed to maintain order against the demons of chaos.

His descent into complete disfavor began when the Hyksos, the Asiatic “Shepherd Chiefs”, invaded the Delta and conquered it. The Egyptians remembered them with loathing afterwards. The Hyksos kings were foreign, of course, invaders from the desert, and Set was a deity of foreigners and the desert. The Egyptians regarded the Hyksos as spawn of Apep, and even called at least two of the Hyksos rulers “Apepi”. The Greeks later altered that to “Apophis”. So a confusion of Set with his ancient enemy, Apep the Destroying Serpent, began.

(In passing, this blogger can’t resist pointing out a certain resemblance between Set and the god of the Hebrews in the Pentateuch. They were foreigners on the soil of Egypt, they were a desert people, their god was relentless, implacable and fierce, and often manifested himself in the storm and the whirlwind. He was strong and he encouraged war. Also and notably, he brought plagues and death upon Egypt. Coincidence?)

Set’s necessary qualities as a defender and lord of battle weren’t wholly forgotten, though, even in the discredit that came upon his name after the Hyksos were expelled. In the New Kingdom, when Egypt established an empire, two Pharaohs were named Seti (Man of Set), the first of them being the father of Rameses the Great. The latter, as he re-organised the Egyptian army into four main divisions, gave each one the name of a god – Ra, Amun, Ptah and, that’s right, Set. There was also the Pharaoh Setnakht (Set is Victorious), father of Rameses III, the last great fighting Pharaoh.

Once the Ramessides and the Egyptian Empire passed, any remnant of glory attached to Set’s name faded likewise. His reputation as the god of evil, the murderer of Osiris, eclipsed his other qualities. He became identified more and more completely with the serpent Apep. The Greeks reckoned him to be the same as their own mythical monster Typhon, who had a hundred horrible dragon’s heads and immense serpents for limbs.

Robert E. Howard was a voracious reader and may well have known much of the above. But he was a writer for the pulp markets with a sure instinct for drama. He didn’t want prissy accuracy, he wanted a name for his Stygian arch-demon that would evoke a strong feeling of terrible, ancient evil. For that purpose, Set beat Apep six ways from Sunday. If he’d called his hellish serpent-demon Apep, his readers would have furrowed their brows and muttered, “Apep, what’s that?”

Being a bit obsessive and inclined to prissy accuracy myself, I suggest that the people of REH’s dark prehistoric realm of proto-Egypt did perhaps refer to their dreadful serpent-god as Apep, not Set. But what about it? Richard the Third was neither grotesquely deformed nor an out-and-out villain, and in all probability never murdered his nephews. I’m not about to revise Shakespeare’s plays on that account.

That brings this post back to the Serpent Ring of Set (?), which the dread sorcerer Thoth-Amon possessed for a long time. It was the source of his power, or much of his power, until it was stolen and he fled from his enemies into foreign exile. (The way Thoth-Amon gloats over it, in “The Phoenix on the Sword”, when he finally gets it back, grasping the ring “in both hands, his dark eyes blazing with a fearful avidness,” whispering “in terrible exultation”, “My ring! My power!”, “crouched over the baleful thing, motionless as a statue, drinking the evil aura of it into his dark soul,” reminds one very much of Gollum with his “precious”.) He declared that he had found it “in a nighted tomb a league beneath the earth, forgotten before the first man crawled out of the slimy sea.” REH describes it in “The Phoenix on the Sword.”

It was of a metal like copper and was made in the form of a scaled serpent, coiled in three loops, with its tail in its mouth. Its eyes were yellow gems which glittered balefully.

Unless Thoth-Amon was indulging in hyperbole, the ring was older than the human race by eons. Yet it had been made to fit on a finger not unlike a human being’s. Maybe it had originally belonged to a great sorcerer of the race of serpent-men, who were still giving so much trouble from the shadows when King Kull ruled Valusia. Maybe it had become lost for long ages even then, and lay in that subterranean tomb beyond the ken of even the serpent-men. If they had still possessed it, they might have overthrown the human species as they desired to do.

The ring appears again in modern times in another REH story, “The Haunter of the Ring.” A foul occultist named Vrolok is using it to force a young wife to murder her husband. He has tricked her into wearing it and now she cannot take it off. The woman’s husband describes it as “ … a fantastic thing – copper, made like a scaly snake coiled three times, with its tail in its mouth and yellow jewels for eyes.”

Vrolok’s nemesis, John Kirowan, who hates him because of what Vrolok did to another woman, long ago, recognizes the ring. He specifically calls it “the ancient and accursed ring of Thoth-Amon, handed down by foul cults of sorcerers since the days of forgotten Stygia. I knew that ring was yours, and I knew by what ghastly rites you came to possess it.”

Therefore, after the likes of Thoth-Amon and his rival Thutothmes perished and plunged into the unutterable depths of hell, others like them possessed the Serpent Ring until a cataclysm like the one that had destroyed Atlantis rocked the world, wrecking Stygia and the other nations. The Serpent Ring survived and came down through the succeeding ages – first in prehistoric Egypt, no doubt, afterwards in Persia, Greece and Rome. We can suppose it later passed into the hands of the most depraved sorcerers of the Middle Ages. In the sixteenth century, Solomon Kane might have crossed its path in the wilds of Africa. Only the talismanic staff of Moses and the original Solomon, which he carried, would have allowed even him to survive in that situation. He would probably have tried to destroy the ring, so it’s also a fair assumption that he found it indestructible, and hurled it into some inaccessibly deep pit or the ocean instead. Sadly, in the end it must have appeared in the human world again.