Over my years of being in the Kemetic community, there is one particular saga that has persisted year after year, and that is the appearance of people who want to worship a/pep. In response to this consistent flow of questioning, I thought it prudent to create an informational post for such questions that goes over what a/pep is and isn’t, and what it means to place a/pep at the center of your Kemetic practice.
Foundations: Key Concepts, Terms, and Definitions
In order to really understand what a/pep is, you will first need to understand both isfet and ma’at, as well as what these concepts do within our religious structure. While it’s easy to use very basic definitions of the concepts: ma’at is justice, truth, or balance; isfet is disorder or chaos; these definitions really don’t get into the workings of or scope of what these concepts actually are.
Most Kemetics would agree that ma’at is the tenet that all of Kemeticism revolves around. In the ancient Egyptian worldview, gods and humans alike exist within a sphere of creation. Ma’at is what allows said creation to continue to exist. Ma’at is in the air we and the gods breathe, it’s manifested in the food that we eat, and in the natural cycles that allow us to successfully live within this world. To the Egyptians, if you maintained ma’at properly, you would have successful harvests, the Nile would flood to the right degree–not too much or too little, and everyone more or less prospered. Ma’at is the ideal that we all strive to embody because it is vital to, if not synonymous with, our very existence.
Then there’s isfet. Isfet is a natural force within the universe that works against creation in every aspect. Many people like to use the word “entropy” to describe isfet in a succinct way. In so many ways, isfet is everything we are not. Creation is very noisy and active and isfet is not about that. The bubble of creation mentioned above exists within the Nun. The Nun is often referred to as a “watery abyss” or a “void”. It’s essentially the ocean that creation was borne out of. Everything could exist or ever will exist exists in the nun, and that includes isfet. The Egyptians often viewed the gods riding a boat along the edge of this bubble of creation, pushing away isfet as much as possible, so that creation can be preserved. Another way to view it is how our atmosphere protects us from the solar radiation that bombards our planet every day. The atmosphere is the ma’at that allows us to live and blocks the caustic, isfetian solar radiation from reaching us.
Now you may be thinking “solar radiation is an inherently neutral thing, how can we label it as isfet?” and that’s where the trickiness of these two concepts comes into focus. Sometimes the only difference between labeling something as isfet or ma’at within a situation depends purely upon who you are focusing on within the situation. To use the old phrase “what is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly,” so too can go isfet and ma’at. In order to sustain ourselves, we must partake in food. We must ultimately commit isfet (kill something, whether plant or animal) to survive, which ultimately creates more ma’at.
In most instances, the only time that isfet is allowed to be remotely revered within the Kemetic paradigm is if it is used to create more ma’at. We’ll come back to this.
Finally, I wanted to explain where a/pep actually fits into all of this. Many people use a/pep and isfet interchangeably, but the truth is that they’re not exactly the same. Isfet is the natural destructive force that flows through the universe. a/pep is giving that force a particular form that can be destroyed. Ancient Egyptians loved to execrate isfet so that ma’at could be maintained, but it’s quite hard to direct your execration at something so formless. To bypass this problem, they gave isfet a form that could be directly attacked — a/pep. So when you’re talking about a/pep, you’re talking about giving physical form to the inherent energy that is working to unmake everything. a/pep isn’t an entity in its own right, its merely a catch-all term to serve as a point of focus for execration.
Now that you have an understanding of what these concepts are and do, let’s take a look at the historical context of these concepts within our religion. Even if we don’t want to utilize much history in our practice, I think that it is always beneficial to consider what the Egyptians thought and did with their own religion before embarking into new territory. While the Egyptians did a lot of stuff that was questionable, and therefore should be left in the past, the central idea of certain key concepts within Kemeticism should remain intact to some degree, otherwise you’re not really practicing Kemeticism– you’re practicing something entirely different.
One thing that is important to understand when viewing the historical applications of ma’at is that the ideological tenets of ma’at did not always shake out in practice. On paper, ma’at is about sustaining existence and creating a world where everyone prospers and looks out for one another. But in practice, Egypt utilized the concept of ma’at to enforce a rigid social hierarchy that pooled all of the power with a handful of people that existed at the top of the societal food chain. To the Egyptian state, ma’at meant maintaining the crown and the bureaucracy that supported it.
This means that ma’at underpinned all aspects of how the state/crown ran the country, including justifications for colonialism to how temples handled their daily affairs to how the legal system operated and doled out punishments. This led to extensive abuses of power and oppression of people throughout all of Egyptian history. By extension, the pharoahs framed and wielded ma’at in ways that ultimately generated extensive amounts of isfetian energy.
And as the following examples will show, if the pharaoh is always the sole arbiter of ma’at, then anything he doesn’t like is bound to be isfetian.
I think the most commonly cited example of daily maintenance of ma’at is how temples did daily execration rituals where a/pep was identified by name and ritually slaughtered as a means of reaffirming the Order that the pharaoh, Horus, and Re upheld. I make sure to specify that some of those destroyed were mentioned “by name” because it wasn’t uncommon for known peoples and enemies of the State/Egypt to be listed on the execration effigy or mentioned in the rubric as someone for their heka to destroy. Anything that was viewed as a threat to the pharaoh’s power was fair game to be thrown into the execration pot.
It is also worth mentioning that we do have at least some historical records showing that those destroyed weren’t always effigies, but actual living beings. This may sound extreme to some, but when you view how Egypt’s legal system operated, I really think that you’ll start to see how this isn’t really abnormal for their culture.
…the ideological reasoning behind sanctioned killing seems to have remained the same. By far, the most prevalent reason for engaging in sanctioned killing was the perception of rebellious acts. Certain actions – and as noted those actions did not remain temporally static – caused one to be characterized as a rebel. Rebellious acts lifted one from the temporal sphere to the mythological. In the mythological realm, the destruction of the forces of Isfet was necessary to maintain Ma ‘at, and once one was mythologically identified with Isfet, sanctioned killing was necessary. This violence served to reestablish order.Violence in the Service of Order, Kerry Miles Muhlestein pg. xxi-xxii
When you skim through various court documents and cases from ancient Egypt, you will find that even remotely threatening the crown would result in harsh punishments. If you stole state-owned copper? Death. Rob a tomb? Impalement. Desecrate any site that is viewed as sacred? Also dead.
There are even cases where not only were the culprits of crimes sentenced to death, but so too were those who neglected to stop them (x). To the Egyptian legal system, anyone who dared to let isfet pass without regard was just as culpable as those committing the isfetian act. Usually anyone that was found to have helped perpetuate isfet was condemned to die. The state had literally no room for anyone who would dare to think of shaking up their monarchy.
From this perspective, I feel like I understand why someone may be drawn to worshiping a/pep. If your only exposure of ma’at is through how the crown of Egypt interpreted it, there is a lot left to be desired. It may not matter to you that a/pep wasn’t worshiped historically when considering what the crown viewed to be isfetian.
What’s sad is that the amount of isfetian tomfoolery that the Egyptian state engaged in wasn’t even restricted to matters of killing those who would harm the crown. Egypt has even been known to wreak havoc on local ecology as they sent certain species to the brink of extinction and beyond to fuel their temple-based animal mummification industry. All of this so that people could purchase rituals where these votives were offered to the gods in the hopes of a better afterlife experience. In many ways, Egypt’s interpretation and implementation of ma’at was short-sited to say the least.
This has always been a point of contention among modern Kemetics, as some believe that ma’at should be interpreted in the way that the Egyptian state did, including replications of both monarchy and hierarchy. But there is definitely a growing number of Kemetics that lean towards interpreting ma’at as its described in its more ideal form, where it’s removed from the power grabs of humans and gods alike. The Kemetics in the second category would argue that the actions of the state of Egypt were often actions of isfet, made to maintain a structure that is isfetian at its core. This is also why Set is such an important figure for a lot of modern Kemetics within this camp, as he is the voice of those steamrolled by the ma’at that was enforced by the crown. I will be covering both of these aspects more in-depth below.
When Isfet Begets Ma’at
It’s at this point that I think it is useful to address one of the largest friction points I see when discussing worshiping a/pep, and that is the matter of when isfetian events/occurrences/acts could be considered ma’atian in nature.
For example, death is considered a form of isfet. When Osiris is felled, he is attacked by forces of isfet in such a horrible way that the Egyptians refused to outright say that he had died. The act of death is so heinous that it is only referred to indirectly such as “put on his side” or “felled” or “laid down.” Death is unequivocally associated with isfet.
But as seen in the examples above, the pharaoh had no problems committing acts of isfet when its to maintain his vision of ma’at. Similarly, killing animals for consumption — an act that is mandatory to sustain life (an inherently ma’atian thing) — is simultaneously viewed as both isfetian and ma’atian in nature. Going back to the Osirian myth, even though a horrible act of isfet has been committed against him in the form of death, it’s also stated multiple times that his corpse breeds new ma’at. His exudations create fertile ground for growing, his back is the fields upon which life is sustained. From isfet, ma’at was born again because sometimes isfet begets ma’at. Isfet performed for the right reasons can help perpetuate ma’at. The whole part of ma’at being about balance is that its really easy to shift from “I’m committing this singular, unavoidable act of violence to further ma’at” to “I’m colonizing entire nations because ma’at.”
You can see this clearly in the myth where Re sends Sekhmet to destroy mankind for not worshiping him in the way he wanted to be worshiped. In his anger, he wields Hathor/Sekhmet, an embodiment of ma’at in its most protective and loving form, and sends them out to kill his enemies — enemies that have been labeled as rebels against him. As she commits violence in service of ma’at, he comes to realize he’s made an error and has to do substantial work to bring a halt to the isfet he has wrought. In so doing, he loses his standing with the humans on earth and retreats to the sky in defeat. He also does significant damage to his relationship with some of the most intimate parts of himself — Sekhmet and Hathor. The damage is so bad that Sekhmet leaves and must be cajoled back into the fold later on.
When the gods go beyond the point of balance, they are almost always punished for it. There is a line between committing isfet in the service of ma’at and committing isfet for isfet’s sake. The context and wider scope of your actions matters in determining which is occurring.
Since isfet is sometimes warranted to create ma’at, many of the people who have shown an interest in worshiping a/pep argue that they’re honoring these parts of isfet, where its nature helps to beget more ma’at. However, those aspects of isfet are arguably already contained within our gods. Many of our gods are known for having the capacity to be both beneficial and violent. As much as Sekhmet is said to heal people, she is also the one who releases plague upon this world, particularly during the dry seasons of summer. These curses are argued to be isfetian to humans, which places Sekhmet in a position of being a goddess of ma’at, but also a goddess that could send out isfet to wreck your day.
This is why each god was to be propitiated as much as possible to keep their benevolent face forward, to keep people safe from their ire. Despite their dependency on ma’at, isfet sometimes came from them all the same. This brings up an important distinction that needs to be made when discussing isfet.
Man-Made Isfet vs. Naturally-Occurring Isfet
Isfet can be said to come in two flavors – naturally-occurring and human-created. Natural isfet is like dying of natural causes, unforeseen accidents that cause harm, natural disasters, black holes, etc. These sorts of isfet are generally regarded as unavoidable natural parts of creation, and are part of the give and take of existing within creation. They are types of isfet that are to be overcome and moved past. This is generally regarded as the only sort of isfet that may be wrought by our deities, and is often framed as leaving room for ma’at to grow from what has occurred, as with Osiris’ body being fertile ground for crops.
Man-made isfet, though? That’s a completely different ball game.
Man-made isfet is usually unnecessary strife, struggle, or oppression that’s generated by humans onto the world around them. Man-made isfet is when pharaohs did basically anything that was mentioned in the historical section above. Man-made isfet is when rich humans decide to exploit the planet and destroy several ecosystems all at once. Man-made isfet is when people abuse, manipulate, and destroy those around them. Man-made isfet is completely avoidable and yet becomes nearly inevitable whenever people or deities accumulate too much power into too few hands, and then wield it in self-serving ways.
All monarchies strive to keep the largest amount of power in the smallest amount of hands, and Egypt was no exception. When power is pooled in this way, those of lower status are forced to bow to the whims of those in power. The whims of the powerful end up determining the living conditions of an ever-growing number of people and ecological systems, and a whole isfet-making machine is born.
When Kemetics work to execrate isfet and a/pep, we are generally working to destroy man-made isfet because man-made isfet is the most toxic kind there is. You need only look at the state of the world you live in to understand how far-reaching and devastating this sort of isfet can become. We are all staring down the barrel of multiple global extinction events in our lifetimes because of man-made isfet.
It is considered an incredibly bad idea to support or fuel this sort of isfet because no one in their right mind would want to support the very forces that will cause creation to collapse. When Kemetics express concern or mistrust over people wanting to worship a/pep, it’s because no Kemetic in their right mind would want to fuel the very things trying to destroy us.
Because of the nature of isfet and a/pep, there is no getting around this problem. There isn’t a way to only worship the a/pep that may lead to better things, and at that point, you’d be better off fueling the ma’atian outcome you’re hoping for, not the face of the isfet that is occurring. Our gods are beings that are capable of reforming isfet into ma’at, so there isn’t really a solid reason to fixate on a/pep.
“Chaotic events which would lead to the need for an Isfet-destroying killing would generally not be portrayed or preserved textually. When they were, it could only be done within certain genres and presented in careful, indefeasible ways – ways which insured that the chaos was not recreated, or was at least perpetually overcome. The Egyptian reticence towards preserving vitiating events touched with lsfet must be continually kept in mind”Violence in the Service of Order, Muhlenstein pg 39-40
A Pot Full of Unrest
I would argue that there is a god within our pantheon that has the most intimate experience of being intertwined with isfet, and by extension, a/pep. He is one of the best in the pantheon at killing a/pep, as he does so for Re every night in the Duat. He is also one of the only gods in our pantheon to be repeatedly and directly execrated as a/pep. It is his confederates that are set ablaze in the execration pot, it is his very form that is held in the hands of nearly every god in the pantheon. A sign that is considered a form of dominion because the gods were incredibly concerned about keeping his power within their control.
Despite being a pre-dynastic god, Set’s position within the Egyptian pantheon has always been precarious. Both as the god of foreigners and the god who killed that other god, Egypt had plenty of opportunities to put Set to use as an agent of isfet that could be controlled and coerced back into their structural idea of ma’at.
If a/pep is the catch-all label applied to anything aligned with isfet, then Set is the catch-all label applied to anything isfet that the crown needs to transmute into ma’at.
In the earliest parts of Egyptian history, Set played a role with Horus in teaching the king how to be a good king. But as the Osirian myth really began to take hold, Set’s role within the pantheon became increasingly aligned with a/pep. So much so that by the Greco Roman Period, he was practically synonymous with a/pep in most places. Most Egyptologists believe that his slow descent into disfavor largely due to the influx of foreigners and multiple foreign invasions that occurred in the latter half of Egyptian history. But before he became reviled outright, he played a crucial role in maintaining ma’at. Unlike a/pep, Set’s chaos and disorder served a purpose.
There is a reason that Set is the one who felled Osiris, for that’s a major part of Set’s function within the pantheon: whenever something is disrupting the gods’ dominion, they grasp ahold of Set and bring isfet to heel. To try and summarize succinctly, when early mummification practices were getting started, there was a need to justify the level of intimacy and destruction to the body that came along with the mummification process. It’s theorized that forming the Osirian myth in that fashion was a way to mythologize and justify the process that was occurring. From that perspective, it’s no wonder that he is associated the adze that mutilates the corpse for mummification and burial. He is the one who carries the coffin across the river to the necropolis. He is the rebel whose confederates are punished and banished before he himself is refolded back into the pantheon. It’s his violently removed foreleg that serves as the perfect offering to the Foremost of the Westerners and the akhu.
Even though Set has been used as execration fodder many, many times, the Egyptians and the gods both considered him their protection, and it was through his strength that order could be maintained to the degree that it was. Just like the people that were killed by the crown so that ma’at could be “upheld,” Set was also destroyed in much the same way, and as a byproduct he has become synonymous with oppressed and marginalized people.
To me, it seems that Set is the better option if you’re actually interested in worshiping someone who supports the oppressed and undoes isfet where possible.
So back to the original question that started this post: if you were to place a/pep at the center of your practice, what would it look like?
Essentially, you would be putting your energy and time into the physical manifestation of a force that wants to erode the things that allows you to live well. Given that a/pep is a label or mantle and not an entity in its own right, I think it would be very hard to bypass all of the awful man-made, destructive isfet to only venerate the aspects of a/pep that relates to people who were wrongfully labeled a/pepian. Epithets and mantles often work that way — where utilizing the label impacts and encompasses all of the entities/beings that have held that label/mantle/title, not just the specific one you’re referring to. As such, I think it begs to ask whether this is something worth doing given the other options within our pantheon.
Further, when people say that a/pep has talked to them or responded to them, I think it begs the question of who is behind that label, because a/pep as its own entity doesn’t really exist. Anytime I hear people say that a/pep is an entity that is said to be supportive or needing of support because they have been cast out unfairly, I can only think that this more accurately describes Set as a/pep, and I can’t help but question whether many of the people hearing from a/pep are actually hearing from him. Since placing the mantle of a/pep at the center of your practice would only continue to fuel isfet, it seems like worshiping Set or a ma’atian being that can transfigure isfet into ma’at would be the better choice.
To you who would worship a/pep I would ask: we already have so much rampant isfet in this world and better ma’atian beings to choose from, why should anyone place there veneration at a/pep’s feet.
- Ma’at as a System | Isfet as a System
- A Model for Determining Ma’at from Isfet
- Ma’at was always political