Thursday, September 3, 2020

Agency in the Face of Adversity by Olivia Church

Art by Elisabeth Slettnes

The story of Aset and Wesir is a famous one, which cannot be explored in full detail here; however, a summary of key moments serve to provide a portrait of Aset’s sense of agency. The first section of stories belonging to this mythic cycle survive through the combination of the Egyptian Stela of Amenmose and the retellings of the Greek authors, Plutarch and Diodorus Siculus.1 The myth unfolds with Aset and Wesir ruling as successful divine monarchs over Egypt. Their brother Sutekh (Greek Seth), God of the desert and thunderstorms,2 was jealous of Wesir’s good fortune, and from the Middle Kingdom onwards Egyptian sources assert that Sutekh was responsible for the death of Wesir.3 The most common method recorded is that Sutekh tricked Wesir into entering a coffin whereupon he sealed the lid and cast him into the Nile to drown.4 Aset was stricken with grief. She had just lost her beloved in a devastating act of violence at the hands of her own family. The story goes on to describe how Aset fled in search for Wesir’s body and “did not rest until she found him…”5 Even as a mourning widow Aset did not succumb to her grief, determined to recover Wesir’s coffin. She trusted in her own magic to help him somehow and could not allow Sutekh to get away with his terrible crime.

Plutarch elaborates, explaining how Aset recovered the coffin containing Wesir’s body in the ancient city of Byblos, in modern day Lebanon.6 Aset brought his body back home to Egypt, but was unsuccessful in hiding it from the knowledge of Sutekh. Furious with Aset’s audacity to retrieve the body, Sutekh proceeded to viciously tear it into thirteen pieces and scatter them across the Egypt.7 Although a devastating blow, Aset still refused to give in. Accepting that she needed help, she called upon her twin sister Nebet-hut (Greek Nephthys) to retrieve each part and perform a funerary rite which would restore Wesir back to life, long enough to conceive an heir. This is beautifully illustrated on numerous reliefs, with Aset in kite form hovering above Wesir’s body as Nebet-hut weeps.8 Though it may appear that Aset is the epitome of resourcefulness and strength, she is not devoid of feeling. The tears shed by her during this time were enough to cause the Nile to flood its banks:

“…I desire to see thee!

I am thy sister Aset, the desire of thine heart,

(Yearning) after thy love whilst thou are far away;

I flood this land (with tears) to-day…”9

The cries of grief expressed by Aset and Nebet-hut as they searched for Wesir were akin to the screeching of kites seeking carrion.10 Wesir’s funerary rites were likewise desperately sad:

and our eyes are weeping for thee,

the tears burn.

Woe (is us) since our Lord was parted from us!”11

The events described above serve to demonstrate three key things: First, Aset recognises that sometimes even powerful individuals, such as herself, need help from others; she is not too proud to ask for this and trusts her sister (who is also her enemy’s wife) to support her.12 Second, once again, Aset refuses to give up when something traumatic happens to her and despite the turmoil, she is able to think rationally about how to handle her situation. Refusing to allow Sutekh to get away with his actions, Aset knew that in order to regain her sovereignty she would need to produce an heir, who would challenge Sutekh’s claim to the throne. Third, in addition to displaying an iron-will to carry on, to fight against her aggressor, and to regain her authority, this queen remains in touch with her emotions. She cries literal floods of tears, she screams in rage, and is comforted by her sister. This shows how being in touch with one’s emotions does not compromise one’s strength in the face of adversity.

An excerpt of a longer essay entitled ''Agency in the Face of Adversity'' by Olivia Church from our upcoming anthology, On The Wings of Isis: Reclaiming the Sovereignty of Auset.


1 Stela of Amenmose; Assmann, J. (2005). Death and salvation in ancient Egypt (trans. D. Lorton). Ithaca, Cornell University Press; McCabe, E. (2008) Anexamination of the Isis Cult with Preliminary Exploration into New Testament Studies. Maryland, University Press of America (pp.5, 13).

2 Pinch, G. (2002) Egyptian Mythology. A guide to the Gods, Goddesses and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford, Oxford University Press (p.192).

3 Hart, G. (2005) The Routledge dictionary of Egyptian gods and goddesses (second edition), London, Routledge (p.117).

4 McCabe (2008), p.6.

5 Stela of Amenmose; translation fromAssmann (2005), p.24.

6 Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, 14-17; Plutarch, Moralia, Vol. 5, ‘Isis and Osiris’. trans. F. C. Babbitt (1936). London, Harvard University Press.

7 Lesko (1999), p.162.

8 Wilkinson (2003), p.147.

9 Bremner-Rhind Papyrus 3:13-16; translation from, Faulkner, R. (1936) The Bremner-Rhind Papyrus: I. A. The Songs of Isis and Nephthys. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. 22 (2), pp.121-140. Please note that I have replaced the quote’s original “Isis” with “Aset” for consistency.

10 Bailleul-LeSuer, R. (2012) Birds in Creation Myths. In: Bailleul-LeSuer, R. (eds.) Between Heaven and Earth. Birds in Ancient Egypt. Chicago, Oriental Institute Museum Publications, pp.131-134 (p.134).

11 Bremner-Rhind Papyrus, 3:17-19; Faulkner (1936), pp.121-140.

12 Pinch (2002), p.171.

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