Here’s the thing about this post… I’m under duress to write it, but I’ve been actively trying to figure it out from as many sources as possible (and lots of help from Devo and Kiya). And you know what I’ve learned? Apparently, crafting your own theological path with a Kemetic basis is damn hard. The ancient sources are hard to come by or damaged or phrased to make your head explode. So then, maybe, you ask an expert on FB for some aid or clarification only to have your head explode even further when you realize that there is no dumbing down (as I’d prefer) or simple answers. And it’s at this point that I find myself, pushing my sleeves up, and going at it with rabid desire because for fuck’s sake, I’m getting this shit done.
First things first, what exactly is isfet in the first place? Now, if you ask people, some of them are bound to tell you that it is a concept that is beyond our fragile, tiny brains. Now, I don’t really believe that this is true. If we can describe and understand the concept of ma’at, then why can’t we understand its counterpart? If we can get through the whole ma’at without having to do much, if any, borrowing from the goddess persona, then why in the hell can’t we understand what isfet is? Not to mention (warning: side track rant), how is anything beyond the pale of humanity to understand from a theological standpoint? We all are created in the image of the divinity that we worship. In that image, we should be able to grasp any possible theological concept. The concept itself may be something we can only figure out after years of study or on another plane of existence in the ka‘s journey, but it’s a concept that we will grasp at some point in time. I mean, isn’t that what faith is all about, the eventual grasping of concepts that only show up in a bout of epiphany? So, there’s that.
Let’s get back to isfet though.
Isfet is a multi-meaning word. It is a core concept to the basis of Kemetic religion, but it has many different translations. The most common translations seem to see it as the exact opposite of the concept of ma’at, which is often seen as translated as “order” or “truth.” So, in that regard, we could view isfet as “disorder” or “untruth.” Since the ancient Egyptian word for “lie” was actually gereg, we should probably reconsider what the translation of isfet is. We can’t just look at things in the simplicity of the duality that is common in ancient Egypt. It was necessary in all things, this duality, but we can begin to assume that after three thousand or more years of a religion that things had changed and morphed over time. So, too, can we assume that the definition and translation of the word isfet changed over time. It wasn’t just the simplicity of an “untruth” or “disorder.” It was all things that brought true fear to the heart of the ancient Egyptians: it was dying nameless and alone; it was the act of turning away from the True Religion of the time; it was the act of our bodies being forgotten and unfed; it was the moment of not knowing who the next Pharaoh would be; it was the act of destruction of our bodies so that our spirits could not return; it was the end of the world. To make things easier, as it is shown in the title of this blog entry, I’ve personally come to see isfet as “uncreation,” “disorder,” and “chaos.” The specifics of which I listed above in the fears that (I see) were core fears of the ancient Egyptian populace.
There doesn’t appear to be a single moment when we can clearly say, in ancient Egyptian belief, that isfet began; there is no moment where the Big Isfet Bang happened and isfet flew into the universe. It appears that isfet always was, which I think rings a bell for interest. If I’m not mistaken, it was the goddess Tiamat in Babylonian belief that the world was created out of and she was a monster of chaos. So, if we look into things in that way and in a general view of creation myths, we tend to find that chaos was the beginning, the all-time, the first moments in which everything got its start. This, to me, makes a lot of sense. Without isfet and its chaos and disorder, there is a possibility of nothingness but there, too, also lies a possibility of isfet coming together to bring about a creation of sorts.
What I’m thinking here is that isfet was be-bopping along in its chaotic path and doing its isfet thing, similar to how we view the Big Bang Theory: “According to the Big Bang theory, the Universe was once in an extremely hot and dense state which expanded rapidly. This rapid expansion caused the Universe to cool and resulted in its present continuously expanding state… After its initial expansion from a singularity, the Universe cooled sufficiently to allow energy to be converted into various subatomic particles, including protons, neutrons, and electrons. While protons and neutrons combined to form the first atomic nuclei only a few minutes after the Big Bang, it would take thousands of years for electrons to combine with them and create electrically neutral atoms.” (Source: Wiki. Emphasis mine.) So, if we think of isfet in relation to the Big Bang theory, then we can see isfet as be-bopping along and doing its thing before particles of isfet came together to create… the Nun.
The Nun is, what Kiya refers to as, “primordial potential chaos.” It is an aspect of isfet that was from the before time, before creation, before anything at all. The Nun are the primordial waters from which all life sprang in the form of the lotus blossom, the ben-ben, and the Ultimate Creator Deity*. But before the creation, it was nothing more than primordial chaos. We can liken it to more of the Big Bang theory: “Giant clouds of these primordial elements would coalesce through gravity to form stars and galaxies…” (Source: Wiki.) Instead of seeing it in images of star formation, we should look to it as the pre-formation of said stars, a surrounding dark waters so to speak. Actions of isfet throughout the universe prior to the big moment when the UCD finally puts in an appearance.
(* Until I decide on a specific cosmogony, I’ve decided that I’ll refer to all of the creator deities of ancient Egyptian myth as a conglomerate Ultimate Creator Deity, or UCD.)
Then at the moment of UCD’s creation, so too does ma’at come into existence. The action of hu goes into effect and all things begin to form, coalesce, create, organize… But, after this moment, we still have the “primordial potential chaos” in the background: “Nun continued to exist at its margins and would one day return to destroy it and begin the cycle again.” (Source: Egyptian Myths.) It is in this aspect that we can see the Nun as being, almost, an agent of isfet, in this we see Kiya’s referring to the Nun as “primordial potential chaos” again. This is an ancient agent, though, that has seemingly kept itself at a distance. We see his actions in ancient Egyptian myth, as far as I can see, only the once with the whispering in Re’s ears just prior to the Destruction of Mankind. We can, again, liken the Nun to another creator deity: the Christian YHWH. So, too can He make the world, so too can He unmake the world; we should look to the Nun in this way, as well. Only whereas it appears that YHWH would be doing thus in an effort to save as many souls and bring them to Christianity and that religion, the Nun would be doing so as an agent of isfet but instead of saving souls and lives, the Nun would be doing so on the basis of beginning again.
So, we have isfet at the beginning of all things, in the creation of the world and mankind and the gods and all of that. Now, though, we can begin to see isfet developing in the forms of a personification, of sorts. As I equated the Nun as an agent, so to speak, of isfet, we can look and see that while ma’at had a personification aspect in the godly divinity of Ma’at, we don’t have the exact same thing with isfet. Instead, we have another agent that acts on behalf of isfet: Apep. This particular demon or deity was seen as the arch-nemesis of the solar god. In his personification of isfet, it was seen as his job to try to stop the course of the solar bark each night. In effect, his exact duty was to unmake the world. He seems to have been the only deity of ancient Egypt that was considered “all-powerful” since no matter what the gods did or the people did in ritual, he would always come back the next night to try to destroy the solar god on his journey through the Duat.
“Apep led an army of demons that preyed on the living and the dead. To defeat this malevolent force a ritual known as ‘Banishing Apep’ was conducted annually by the priests of Ra. An effigy of Apep was taken into the temple and imbued with all of the evil of the land. The effigy was then beaten, crushed smeared with mud and burned. Other rituals involved the creation of a wax model of the serpent which was ritually dismembered and the burning of a papyrus bearing an image of the snake. The ‘Book of Apophis’ is a collection of magical spells from the New Kingdom which were supposed to repel or contain the evil of the serpent.” (Source: AE Online.) And yet, no matter what was done, he kept coming back again. A sort of serpentine version of the Energizer Bunny, I suppose we could say.
Thus far, we’ve found isfet at the beginning of creation (even before creation, really) as well as in the personification of specific gods. Now, let’s look to the planet that we live on to see what type of isfet we can find… And yes, isfet was in the world, too. It was there, always on the outskirts of the land of Egypt. At first, this was personified with the above-mentioned waters of the Nun, but later seemed merely to refer to as “outsiders.” As long as spells were uttered and performed correctly, rituals were uttered and performed correctly, the Pharaoh held ma’at in his hands and in his heart, and all things were done just this perfectly, then isfet was held at bay. It was only as ancient Egyptians began to identify with “foreigners” in a more positive light (as opposed to the Hyksos period of ancient Egyptian rule) that we see that those foreign countries were no longer viewed as being a part of isfet.
As well as being viewed as all things the ancient Egyptians didn’t understand/want to know/learn about/care about, isfet was also seen as the evil that can take place in a person’s heart. In this regard, we should really consider the translation of isfet as “sin” or “evil” or “wrong.” With each act against ma’at, our heart grows heavier with isfet. The end result of all of this wrong-doing would be at the moment when we are judged by the Feather of Ma’at in the Weighing of the Heart ceremony: our hearts would weigh heavier than the feather and therefore, eaten by the demon, Ammit. This would lead to the dreaded second death, meaning that THE SOUL™ would not move on, there would be no living in the Field of Reeds with Wesir, and we would become uncreated, part of the ultimate isfet instead of merely the isfet we had created within our hearts by our misdeeds.
So, as a Kemetic, when we begin to think about isfet, we have to be weary. We have isfet in regards to acts that we can commit, we have isfet in regards to unknown things or beings, we have isfet in regards to the chaos that gods may or may not commit (which I did not discuss fully as I think I am insufficient in this regards since I am not a follower of Sutekh, though I did my best with the mention of Apep), and we have the ultimate isfet in regards to the creation of the gods and the Nun. When we begin to think about all of these things, we have to consider that each portion of isfet, while related to one another, are incredibly different when placed side-by-side. The portions of isfet that I mentioned and discussed in the start of all of this are concepts that are cosmological in nature, however the portions of isfet that I discussed towards the end of this are in regards to human nature, belief, and our faith. So, when we begin discussing isfet and how to combat it and what to do in regards to it and whether or not we should even talk about it, then we really have to be quite clear about what type of isfet we’re really discussing.
Tune in next week when I try to discuss isfet in my thoughts, in how it works in my theology, and what we can do about it!