The Serpent From the Dawn of Time: A Tale of Prehistoric Egypt

In the earliest times, when the gods had withdrawn into the starry recesses of their celestial chambers to purify themselves and to dream languorous dreams of the infinite cycle of time, after they had created the Earth and all of its inhabitants, the human race, without the gods having established the laws and customs by which their creations might know and rightly serve them (for that was their original intention in the creation), lived in a manner that did not differ from that of the animals’ in any way.  Since it had not yet received the mandates of the gods by which it might know truth from error, no one among mankind was unable to distinguish between that which was clean from that which was defiling; each one ate whatever he killed without cooking it and took what he wanted from his fellows without compunction, not even showing regard for his own kin or offspring.  Mercy and compassion were unknown on the Earth; and wherever there were men and women living together, there could be found only bloodshed and the single-minded struggle to survive.

Such was the way of Khuti and his wife Nebta, who lived in the village of Abudje.  They had come down from the cataract to the south of Souan after the god Khepera, the Fashioner of Beings, had brought them up from the Earth, as he had fashioned all others; but, being fashioned from blacker, more fertile soil, they were larger and stronger than the people of Abudje, so that they were able to compel many of them to be their slaves and to labor for them.  Khuti and Nebta had two children, a boy named Sekhri and a girl named Ankhet.  Both of these offspring were of a savage disposition, Ankhet no less than Sekhri; and, like vicious dogs, it was their habit to bite the legs of their parents’ slaves when they saw them beating them.

One day, Khuti sent one of his slaves to the well to fetch some of the sweet water which he and Nebta wished to drink.  When the slave attempted to complete this task, he found that there was no water in the well, only thick mud.  Fearful that his master Khuti might beat him if he returned without the water, he peered more closely in the vain hope of descrying some amount of water, no matter how small, that he might bring back to Abudje.  He saw none; but he did see that there was a serpent, about five feet in length, coiled up in the mud.  Thinking that even a serpent was better than no water, inasmuch as it might be eaten, the slave caught it firmly by the head and took it back to Khuti.

The slave was of course beaten, and his ankles bore once more the crimson marks of Ankhet’s and Sekhri’s little teeth.  But the beating was less severe than he had feared, because Khuti and his family were pleased with the snake, whose variegated markings made it beautiful to behold.  It was for this reason that Khuti decided to keep it alive rather than allow it to be eaten.  At first, he kept the serpent in an earthenware jar, where it was content to remain with perfect docility.  However, it was soon too large to be kept in that jar, and Khuti had to put it in another, larger one.  Still the serpent kept on growing, both in length and in girth, and it was necessary for Khuti to transfer it to another, larger jar every few weeks.  After a while there were no more jars in Abudje that were large enough to contain it.

“Wife,” said Khuti to Nebta, “I cannot find any more jars in which to contain the serpent.  I have taken all the largest ones from the villagers, and now it has outgrown even those.”

“Don’t concern yourself with it,” was Nebta’s reply.  “The serpent is harmless: let it roam around as it pleases.  Little Sekhri and Ankhet, moreover, enjoy riding on its back because it frightens away the other children, who would otherwise attack them in retaliation for all of the cruelty they have endured at their hands.”

“Yes, I see what you mean,” said Khuti, puffing himself up (for he was proud of his offsprings’ behavior toward the villagers, which mirrored his own).  “I only hope that the serpent does not turn on them and eat them.”

“It is strange that you mention that,” said Nebta.  “Have you not noticed that the creature never eats, as if it lives on air?”

“I have noticed,” Khuti admitted.  “But I cannot help but think that that is a state that will not persist indefinitely.  All creatures must take food sooner or later, or die.”

“It has grown so much without food so far, I don’t see why it would need it at this point.”

And with that, Khuti forgot about the matter.  But one day, some months after this conversation, a terrible thing happened: the serpent, for the first time, spoke.  By this time it was very large, at least thirty feet in length; and its girth was like that of the leg of an old bull elephant.  Its appearance, moreover, was made more august by the crest which now arose along its head and spine, and the hoary beard which hung from its dewlapped throat.

“Khuti,” said the serpent with a dire hissing, “I have lived with you for a long time now, and you have never given me any food.  I find this strange, because you are a strong man who takes what he pleases from anyone, and from whom no one has the power to take anything; and yet, lacking nothing, you offer me nothing.”

“I did not know,” Khuti replied, “that you required food, because you have lived so long and grown to such size without it.”

“Your error is therefore reasonable and easy to forgive,” the serpent replied in turn.  “However, the period of my life where I am to fast is now complete:  I now do require provender if I am to continue to grow in size and magnificence.  You must give me Ankhet; she has ridden on my back for many months now, enjoying the protection that I give her, and the sight of her plump little body has stimulated my appetite.”

The thought of handing little Ankhet over to the serpent to be devoured did not please Khuti.  But since the serpent was now so large and terrible, and raised its head so threateningly, he knew he could not stand against it.  And so, having no choice, he seized Ankhet and handed her over to serpent.  The latter devoured his meal at leisure in slow gulps, as snakes are accustomed to do; and the dying screams of his victim filled all of Abudje for two or three hours, so that all could hear them.

Because of this, Nebta said to Khuti, “This does not bode well for us.  If the other villagers know that there is one who can overpower us, they will submit to us no longer.  Then they will take our lives in revenge.”

“Be patient, wife,” Khuti said.  “There is no sign of revolt on the part of the people of Abudje so far.  It may be that we simply must make certain sacrifices to the serpent in order to ensure its ongoing protection, and it that way preserve our authority.”

Nevertheless, a week following the gruesome meal, Khuti overheard two of his slaves discussing what had occurred.

“Khuti and Nebta are no longer the most powerful creatures in Abudje,” said the first slave.  “Did you not hear how that hideous serpent, who has been the guardian of their children, compelled him to hand over his daughter to be devoured?”

“But the serpent still protects their son and lets him ride on its back,” said the second slave.

“Bah!  Clearly the allegiance of the serpent to Khuti has its limits.  We should approach it and offer to deliver up Khuti and Nebta, as well as their wretched little boy, to be its next victims.  Then it would protect us in case others like them came to Abudje, and we would be rid of them.”

Alarmed, Khuti sought out Nebta, who was bathing in the river at that particular moment, in order to warn her.  But before he could reach the riverbanks, the serpent intercepted him.

“I am hungry again,” the serpent announced.  “Now that I have eaten your daughter, I would like to eat your son Sekhri.”

As it happened, Sekhri was riding on the serpent’s back right at that moment.  When he heard what the serpent had in mind, he began to cry and begged Khuti to save him.  Khuti grabbed him and struck him with a blow that broke his neck, and thus ended his life.  Then he delivered up the body to the serpent, who devoured it slowly, as it had done Ankhet.

Khuti went to the riverbank and related to Nebta both the conversation between the two slaves which he had overheard, and of the fate of little Sekhri.

“It is good that you killed the child before giving it to the snake,” Nebta said.   “That way it will be a few hours at least before the villagers discover what has occurred, and we now have time to flee Abudje.”

“But where will we go?” Khuti, disconsolate, asked.

“We will go to Hetep downriver -– that is the closest village,” Nebta replied.

“But we do not know the people there,” Khuti said.  “It may be that we will have to submit to a strong man there, just as the people of Abudje have had to submit to us.”

“Who is stronger than we?” Nebta demanded.  “But your apprehensions may turn out to be well-founded.  In that case, we will submit to the more powerful persons there and bide our time to see if we cannot usurp them.  Such is the way of the world -– have you not by now noticed this, husband?”

Khuti and Nebta fled to the village of Hetep.  It was as Khuti had predicted: there was another strong man, Aataf, who, along with his exceedingly cruel wife Sesheta, held the villagers in his thrall.  Khuti and Nebta were forced to submit to them in order to be allowed to live in the streets of the village and eat whatever the villagers had thrown away.  They were very dejected over the turn that their lives had taken, but nevertheless, they watched for ways in which they might gain more power as time went on.  This they were able to accomplish within a few short months, so that they found favor in the eyes of Aataf and Sesheta and became their right hands, despoiling the villagers on their behalf.  Thus they quickly forgot about what had taken place in Abudje.

Then one day, to their horror, the serpent who had been the cause of their downfall in their former abode appeared slithering in the streets of Hetep.  It was now so large and terrible that Khuti and Nebta could immediately see that it had eaten most of Abudje before coming downriver to seek more food.  They went at once to Aataf and Sesheta and told them, for the first time (for they had not considered it prudent to reveal the entire truth at once), the history of why they had come to Hetep in the first place.

After a moment’s consideration, Aataf said, “This snake is not an enemy that one can conquer through force.  It is therefore necessary to destroy it with intelligence.  We must formulate a plan by which we can do this, and quickly.”

“That is not difficult,” Sesheta said.  “Gather your slaves, dear husband, and arm them with iron mattocks.  Take them to well, bid them conceal themselves among the date-palm groves, and tell them to await me, and then do as I command them.  But first, take three of their children and stuff them in a leather sack; when you arrive at the well, put a scorpion in the sack with them, and then drop the sack into the well.”

Aataf went off to do what his wife suggested; and then Sesheta approached the serpent.  She alone of the village of Hetep had the courage to enter the streets where it lay basking, while the remainder of the villagers cowered in their homes.

“Snake,” she said in a nonchalant tone, “why is it that you have come to bask in the streets of our village?  Is the heat of the Sun any different here than it is in the wilderness, which is your natural home?”

“It is not the heat of the Sun that has drawn me,” the serpent said.  “I am hungry, and would like something to eat.  I see that there are many people here, and they may be willing to give me some of their children to eat.”

“We have many children, it is true,” Sesheta said after feigning consideration for a moment, “but they are not the tastiest, richest, and fattest provender available in these parts.”

“What do you mean?” asked the snake.

“Down by the well, there is a very large she-elephant who just gave birth.  The elephant-child must be very large, because in her travail, she trumpeted loudly throughout the night -– so loudly that no one in the village was able to sleep.  The elephant-child would make a very suitable meal for so large and fearsome a serpent as yourself.”

The snake, pleased at Sesheta’s solicitousness for his well-being, as it seemed to him, and hungrier than ever at the prospect of eating such a tender and voluminous repast as a newborn elephant, followed her to the well.  There he could hear the cries of the elephant-child, but could see no elephant.

“I hear the elephant-child, but cannot see him.  Where is he?” the serpent demanded.

“I think that his mother, in her irritation at his difficult birth, may have thrown him in the well,” Sesheta said.  “Yes, I can distinctly hear the sounds emanating from the well; why don’t you go have a look?”

Of course, the squalling of the elephant-child was in reality the screaming of the slaves’ children in the sack as the scorpion vexed them.  The sound of their mingled voices resembled the cries of a newborn elephant, and that is how Sesheta fooled the serpent.

The serpent peered into the well.  “All I see is a leather sack!” it cried in a rage.

But it was too late.  Sesheta had already alerted Aataf’s slaves hiding among the palm-groves.  They fell on the serpent from behind with their mattocks and slew it. As it lay dying, the serpent said, “As I lived, so have I perished!  I who despoiled am now myself despoiled.  When the gods created me from their own spit this was decreed for me: such was their will.  The world is such a cruel place in it present condition, one without hope or mercy for any being.  May it be that the gods who created it return to establish order, so that man does not oppress man, and each one gives care to his kin and offspring.”

Aataf and the villagers wondered what the serpent meant; for they as yet knew nothing of the gods, or how they came into being in the first place, nor had they ever taken the time to consider how the world in which they live had been created.

Aataf had the body of the serpent taken back to Hetep, where he commanded his slaves to cut it into pieces so that it could be eaten.  When the slaves cut it open, to everyone’s amazement Sekhri and Ankhet emerged, alive and whole.  Their appearance was altered, however, so that they were no longer the brutish children of Khuti and Nebta, but two radiant beings who shone like the Sun.  The mob of villagers stood entranced by their beauty.

(There were also remnants of the other villagers whom the snake had eaten; but these had not undergone any resurrection of transformation, so that only bits and pieces of them remained, mingled with the serpent’s intestinal fluids.)

“People of the Earth,” they said, “we have emerged from the bowels of the loathsome serpent at the behest of the gods to provide you with instruction.”

The people were further amazed; for this was the second time now that they had heard reference to the gods, the existence and nature of which they still did not know.

“Until now,” the transformed Sekhri and Ankhet continued, “the gods who created the Earth and fashioned mankind from the soil have been content to remain within their chambers in the astral realm, taking little care for the creatures which they had brought forth into being.  For this reason, none of the people of the Earth have received any instruction: and as a result, there is no distinction between what is unclean and what is pure, and each man eats what he catches without cooking it, and thinks only of himself, taking what he wants from his fellows without compunction, and giving no thought to kin and children.  While we lay within the serpent, the goddess Maat, who is the Voice of Atum-Re, the First Among the Gods, came to us and instructed us in what we are to instruct you.  The final words of the snake rose from the Earth and reached the ears of the gods, so she informed us; and, looking down on their creation, they were filled with horror at the cruelty that prevailed.  For this reason, the gods have resurrected us to be the first guides of the people of the Earth, so that they will know the divine decrees of Justice and Harmony, and balance will be restored.”

Thereafter, not only the folk of Hetep, but all of the people of the Earth came to hear the instruction of the two beings who had been Sekhri and Ankhet, but who came to be called Sekhu and Sekhaya, which were the masculine and feminine forms of the word for “Life” in the primordial language of the Earth: for by instructing humankind in the divine ways of mercy and compassion, they had given it life indeed.  No longer did the people live in ignorance: they cooked their food and ate what was clean; they showed mercy and compassion to their fellows and did not despoil them; and the love between kinsfolk and that of a parent for its child became established.  Sekhu and Sekhaya, moreover, established the proper rites and observances of religion and commanded the temples to be constructed, so that human beings could fulfill their purpose in serving the gods; and in this way also did the people of the Earth forget about their former, brutish ways.

In the meantime, Atum-Re emerged from the recesses of his chambers, purified and radiant, and reordered the Earth so that it was no longer the paradise that it had been.  For up until that time the Earth had a place of pristine beauty, a veritable garden, a limitless locus amoenus exhaling the fragrances of its fruit trees and watered by streams of sweet water, where green expanses of sward gave view to the life-giving Sun – the Eye of the Gods! – to him who sought it, or offered umbrageous retreat in solitary groves gave to the one who craved solitude.  There were as yet no desert wastelands engirdling the world at its equator, nor were there dismal expanses of unending frost and cold blanching the poles.  Need and want did not yet exist; only abundance and its consequent ease could be found.  Thereafter Atum-Re created the deserts where there had been none, and decreed that the poles of the Earth should be covered in perpetual cold and snow.  To his son Set he gave the power to send storms upon the Earth, destructive in their power, and to command the beasts which are noxious to man; and to his daughter Sekhmet he gave the power to engender the spirits which were to live in the desert places and bring illness and destruction to those who countermanded the decrees of the gods.  Atum-Re reasoned that when the Earth had been a perfect abode for mankind, the people were given over to cruelty and error; from now on, He decided, they will see the Earth to be as hard and unyielding as their ancestors once were, and they will remember to do otherwise.

But Amun-Re in his compassion also decreed that the Amenti, the Underworld, should come into being beneath the surface of the Earth, through which the souls of men, upon their deaths, could pass and receive divine purification, should they have neglected the will of the gods in their lifetimes.  The Amenti was fashioned in the form of a vast serpent, so that the penitent souls would pass through its manifold chambers before receiving absolution, just as Sekhu and Sekhaya had been purified and transformed in the bowels of the serpent-devil.

Likewise, Sekhu and Sekhaya were crowned by the people with the Uraei, the serpent-crowns, as a sign of their emergence from the snake; they became the first Pharaoh and his wife, and this was the beginning of the custom by which the Pharaoh always married his sister.  They lived for two thousand years; and when they died, the people of Egypt (for that is what the land in which they had lived had come to be called) housed their bodies in a great tomb so that their memory would never be lost.  The remains of this tomb can be seen at Saqqara, in Egypt, today, although only the foundation remains.

[Darius M. Klein is a translator of esoteric texts in Seattle, Washington.  He has translated The Incantations of Circe by Giordano Bruno and Jocus Severus (The Serious Joke) by Michael Maier from Latin into English for Ouroboros Press, a Seattle-area publisher of Hermetic and esoteric texts.  Additionally, he maintains a blog of his own translations of obscure and otherwise untranslated Latin texts.   He has a background in Classical languages and was awarded an M.A. in Comparative Literature from the University of Washington at the end of last year, with a focus on Qur’anic Arabic, Latin, Native American languages and oral literature, and textual studies.  He studied the Arabic language and completed a bibliography for H. Rider Haggard’s She (unpublished) at the American University of Cairo, Egypt, in 2011, where a visit to the ruins of Saqqara left him with a deep and abiding fascination with the culture, history and religion of Pharaonic Egypt.  He is currently working on Hermetic texts related to the homunculus with Joseph Uccello of Viatorium Press, also a Seattle-area publisher of of Hermetic and esoteric texts; and he is additionally completing, along with Dr. Paul Remley of the University of Washington, a translation and textual study of Ibn Umayl’s The Silvery Water and the Starry Earth (الماء الورقي و الارض النجمية), an Arabic Hermetic text from 9th-century Egypt.  In his spare time he writes strange and mythological fiction with Near Eastern themes and makes desultory attempts to avoid complete impecuniousness.]

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