The Sekhemeti and the Bubastilian: Comparative Religion and the Critique of Tragedy

Part 0: The Birth of Tragedy

When Nietzsche sat down to pen is original oeuvre, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, he had little… perhaps no conception of the history of appropriation that his anti-Christian manifesto bore. To some extent, I would be inclined to grant him forgiveness for this transgression, as even the man himself saw fit to critique this failed first attempt at extricating God from European discourse. In his prefatory essay, included within later publications of the book, An Attempt at Self-Criticism: he declares The Birth of Tragedy to be, “something poorly written, ponderous, painful, with fantastic and confused imagery, here and there so saccharine it is effeminate, uneven in tempo, without any impulse for logical clarity…[1]” With such a unabashed distain for the source material that even its author had, I have always been curious as to why the text so often permeates Critical Theory. Considering this, I find it prudent to maintain a continued scrutiny towards the more problematic elements of asserting the dichotomy of Apollo and Dionysus.


Before dissecting the particulars of Nietzshe’s theories concerning Dionysus, it is good praxis to first explain why he references the Greek and to articulate on the logic of asserting Dionysus and Apollo as intellectual rivals. I once more cite from the more lucid explanation of his reasonings, An Attempt at Self-Criticism, “A totally opposite way of evaluating life, was invented, something purely artistic and anti-Christian. What should it be called? As a philologist and man of words, I baptized it, taking some liberties (for who knew the correct name for the Antichrist?), after the name of a Greek god: I called it the Dionysian.”[2] Nietzsche is positing Dionysus as a sort of pagan antithesis to Christ. At first glance, this seems a logical thesis. Christ, in Biblical mythology, is logical, forgiving, unwavering in his beliefs. As testified in the Gospel of Matthew,


Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted… the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.


“If you are the son of God,” He said, “Throw yourself down for it is written: He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”


Jesus answered him, “It is also written: Do not put the Lord your God to the test[3]…”


This event stands in complete polarity to a similar myth surrounding the fate of Dionysus’s late Aunt. As Euripides records in the Bacchae, “And all the female offspring of Thebes, as many as are women, I [Dionysus] have driven maddened from the house, and they, mingled with the daughters of Kadmos, sit on roofless rocks beneath green pines. For this city must learn, even if it is unwilling,”[4] In some versions of this myth, included among these Thebian women is Dionysus’s aunt Ino, the woman who raised Dionysus far from the gaze of vengeful Hera. She, along with the other women of Thebes… throws herself from a cliff. Dionysus stands in sharp contrast to Jesus. Despite the Greek’s worship of him, Dionysus is comparatively more morally aligned with Satan than he is with Christ. However, unlike Satan… Dionysus lures mortals to their deaths, not out of hatred or ill intent, but from madness. Nietzsche posits that Dionysus is the God of chaos, the natural opposition to the social morality imposed by the church.


If Nietzsche argues that Dionysus is naturally opposed to Christian morality, his counterpart, the equally pagan Apollo must logically be in agreement with said mores. The issue with one such reading is this, that The Apollonian (at least in the mind of Nietzsche) is less a sentient ideal and more of an ingredient to the success of Dionysian exploits. Nietzsche uses the word Kunsttriebe, or ‘artistic impulse’ to describe this event. To Nietzsche, the combined principles of the Dionysian (or aesthetic) with the Apollonian (or the moral) is what leads to the success of Greek tragedy. (These terms were borrowed from philosopher Natalie Wynn’s rewrite of The Birth of Tragedy.[5]) In order for kunsttriebe, one must blend the moral and the aesthetic. The Apollonian and the Dionysian. If these two weights are unbalanced, as they were with the writings of Euripides by the insertion of Socratic rationalism, an event described as the Untergang, the tragedy is robbed of its chaotic foundation.


There are some issues with this dichotomy, however. While I would agree with Nietzsche’s claim that Dionysus represents a clear opponent to Christian morality, I take umbrage with Apollo as the Christianity’s moral parallel. While much of Apollo’s patronage supports this claim. Namely his relation to the sun, truth, medicine, healing, education, pastoral protection, colony, and ‘averting evil.’[6] He is, however, also patron God of the Muses, who’s influence includes dance, music, and comedy. These pastimes are also strongly associated with that of drink and theatre, both of which are under the jurisdiction of Dionysus. Despite some differences, there is a cogent argument to be made on the comparative similarity of the half-brothers. If Dionysus is chaos and Apollo is order, then truly the scientific process of wine production and the formative order of theatre are misplaced in Dionysus… as are the sometimes-chaotic art of writing and music under Apollo.


As to why the German philosopher Nietzsche would so fetishize the writings of long dead authors of ancient Greece, we cannot know for certain. One potential clue is hidden within a collection of unpublished papers, known as the Nachlass, where Nietzsche reveals his Western bias. He describes non-whites, women, and the proletariat as “the sick and the corrupt,”[7] and their emancipation as, “the leveling of the European man.” Both talking points not unlike those posited by Richard Spencer[8] and other voices of contemporary white supremacy. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Nietzsche’s selection of the oft whitewashed history of Ancient Greece was not out of chance or miseducation, but from a Eurocentric motive to avoid discussion of non-western culture or religion. While interest in the mythology of Ancient Greece is, in and of itself, not problematic; the misrepresentation of these ideas and gods as original is. As is often the case with Western philosophy, however, marginalized voices are ignored. Not only is this methodology problematic, it is uneducated, as studying the history of religion that predates Greece lends helpful insight to the dichotomy of paganistic chaos and order. In that vein, I present an update to Nietzsche’s thesis: The Sekhmeti and the Bubastilian.


Part 1: The Sekhmeti

Apollo has no clear Egyptian counterpart. Unlike most Greek gods, his name has no Minoan or Egyptian origin. Instead the etymology of Apollo may trace back to the Dorian Greek, Ἀπέλλων or Apellon.[9] A cognate to the Doric male right of passage festival apellai. However, he may also originate from Hittite form Apaliunas, which would relate his origin to Aplu Enlil, the Hurrian god of plague. This is not out of the question considering his medicinal domain in later texts. The clearest Egyptian counterpart to Aplu is Sekhmet. Like Apollo, she is the offspring of the nearest Zeus equivalent, Ra, and is similarly given domain of medicine, order (as pertains to combat), the sun, and interestingly is sometimes described as “(one) Before Whom Evil Trembles.”[10] This is clearly reminiscent of Apollo’s title of “Averting Evil.” As with Apollo, it is not entirely possible to posit her as the “Order God[ess],” she is often depicted as being vengeful and bloodthirsty. As one myth goes, Sekhmet… on the orders of her father, Ra, is sent to seek and destroy mortals conspiring against him. However, her thirst led her to destroy almost half of humanity. Just as Apollo likely began life as a plague-god, the desert mistress, Sekhmet, can be cruel and just simultaneously. Likewise, she is given domain over both healing and plague. While we may, reasonably, see them as cruel… it is prudent to understand that the ancient definition of order and ours are different. In a time period where reaching 30 years of age was rare, hungry lionesses and plague-gods… in other words, death, was order. If death is the ancient world’s conception of order, what then is her antithesis? For that we look to the origin of Dionysus.


Part 2: The Bubastilian

In the Greek interpretation of the Egyptian pantheon, it is Osiris who is linked to Dionysus.[11] Herodotus records their combination as Dionysus-Osiris. A form that Mark Antony famously appropriated during his stint as Pharaoh. However, unlike Dionysus, Osiris is a poor fit as God of Chaos. His domain over the dead posits him as a god of logic. After all, even in its early depictions, entry to the afterlife is based on pre-standing logic. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, this practice literally involves weighing one’s soul against the feather of truth.[12] Considering the evidence and the lack of any corollary to the relation of Osiris and Dionysus, their combination is most likely due either a mis-translation or due to the similarity of their origin myths. Likely, the Egyptians deigned Osiris as Dionysus’s predecessor due to a claim made by Heraclitus, that the Greek god of the Dead, Hades, and Dionysus are unified into the essence of indestructible life… and thus are the same god.[13] In southern Italy, there is strong evidence for a cult connection. Heavy iconography of death was often associated with Dionysian worship. In a version of the Rape of Persephone, Demeter refuses to drink wine after her child is abducted, stating that it would be against themis (good council) for her to drink wine. Implying that Hades is simply a different name for Dionysus when he assumes the role of God of Death. It is unlikely that Nietzsche knew this when he selected Dionysus as his icon of chaos… as the Greek depiction of Hades is anything but chaotic (though modern translations have affected his role, often linking him to the Christian devil.) I posit that there is a far more suitable Egyptian counterpart to the chaotic, late-Ancient Greek depiction of Dionysus… Bast.


Depictions of Bastet vary depending on what version of Egyption Mythological canon one chooses to reference. In early mythology, her depiction is often linked to that of her sister, Sekhmet. This being that of an angry lioness warrior goddess. However, later in Egyptian mythology, while Egypt was seeing a great abundance of wealth and a rising middle class. We see her depiction change. I theorize this relates to the self-domestication of cats. Egypt’s granaries were fuller than ever, and a surplus of rodents took advantage. Felines helped stem this rodent infestation and, due to their proximity to humans, self-domesticated. After the advent of house cats, depictions of Bastet as a gentler… dark-furred, feline headed goddess emerges. Herodotus records an important festival held in honor of the goddess. Each year a great number of worshipers assemble in the city of Bubastis. Dancing, music, and drinking followed. According to Herodotus, more wine was consumed on that day then was it the remainder of the year.[14] It was likewise labeled the “Feasts of Drunkenness.” And was likely followed by orgies and revelry. It needs not be remarked how similar this bears to Greeco-Roman depictions of Dionysus as the god of Satyrs, wine, and dance. Bastet is so interwoven with dance that she is almost always depicted with a sistrum (sometimes mistaken for a baby’s rattle).


Part 3: Comparative Religion

If the similarities seem circumstantial, even now, there is more evidence for the sisters as comparative religious predecessors to Apollo and Dionysus. They both came from the God of Gods, Ra, the closest Egyptian precursor to Zeus. And like the Greeks, their religious importance varies by region. As Apollo’s order was sought by Greeks in no-man’s land of Phocis and in regions stricken from plague, so too was Sekhmet’s judgment in the often-war-torn area of upper (geographically southern) Egypt. And as Bastet’s popularity grew in the prosperous lower (geographically northern) Egypt, so was Dionysus often favored by richer lands like Athens, Thrace, and Phrygia in the great theatres dedicated to him. Truly, given the evidence, it is hard to mount a case against the act of Greek plagiarism.


Part 4: Why Does it Matter?

For the sake of concluding this argument, I am going to assume the reader to be convinced, at least in small part, that my position is valid. As such, the reader’s next question will undoubtably be… why does any of this matter? It matters because, if we are to position a god or goddess as the antithesis to Christ… to Christianity, Greece is a poor culture to draw from. Positing that the antichrist is another western deity is a fallacy. Nietzsche came to this conclusion during a different era, one where the philosophy of Greece was once again in the public consciousness… and had been for some time. No, if we are looking to truly subvert the morality of Christianity, what better culture to draw from than Ancient Egypt. I challenge you to locate any such deity with a stronger polarity to Christ than that of Bastet.


Now, one may be inclined to argue that the true polarity to Christ is Satan, but there are some issues with that claim. Citing the ‘evil’ Satan is incorrect because it assumes an objective morality. This is one reason why Nietzsche originally claimed Dionysus over Satan, because the opposite of the order of Christ is the chaos of paganism. Note that, despite his evils, the Christian devil is not truly chaotic. His actions are reasoned, as are his punishments. He seduces and beguiles, but not at random. He is lawful in his evil. Stripping away the objective morality, he and Christ are both moral… simply they operate on a different definition of morality. For the true antithesis of Christ, we look to Bastet. She has no laws, decrees, nor discernable rituals… other than the “Feasts of Drunkenness.” She is the aesthetic, without any semblance of morality. Her worship involves the enjoyment of life; to revel in the pleasures of this world as one sees fit. This is an opposite to Nietzsche’s observation of Christianity’s, “Disgust and weariness with life, which… only decorated itself with the belief in an "other" or "better" life. The hatred of the "world," the curse against the emotions, the fear of beauty and sensuality… all that, as well as the absolute desire of Christianity to value only moral worth[15]…” And what, I ask, is more opposite to the world hating, Eurocentric, white Jesus, than a hedonistic goddess of color with a feline head. Unless someone finds a paleolithic Rosetta Stone, you will find no more suitable candidate for the role of Christianity’s antithesis.




Works Cited


Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Birth of Tragedy, the Case of Wagner. New York: Vintage Books, 1967.

Genesis 1: Matthew 4:1-11

Euripides. Bacchae. New York, NY: ClassicBooksAmerica, 2009.

Wynn, Natalie. "For Whom the Belle Trolls." YouTube. July 31, 2016. Accessed May 20, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ubc2CRwBGTk.

Hoffmann, Herbert. "Helios." Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 2 (1963): 117.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Will to Power. Dover Publications, 2019.

Spencer, Richard. “Who We Are.” National Policy Institute. Accessed May 20, 2019. https://nationalpolicy.institute/whoarewe

Van der Toorn, Karel; Becking, Bob; Van der Horst, Pieter willem. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. Brill. p. 73. 1999.

Germond, Philippe. Sekhmet et la Protection du Monde. Editions de Belles-Lettres. 1981.

Rutherford, Ian. Greco-Egyptian Interactions: Literature, Translation, and Culture, 500 BCE- 300 CE. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.300.

Budge, E. A. Wallis. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Papyrus of Ani. London, 2009.

Heraclitus. Untitled. Kerenyi. 1976

Herodotus, and W. G. Waddell. Herodotus, Book 2. Bristol: Bristol Classical, 1998.

[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Birth of Tragedy, the Case of Wagner. New York: Vintage Books, 1967.


[2] Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy.


[3] Genesis 1: Matthew 4:1-11


[4] Euripides. Bacchae. New York, NY: ClassicBooksAmerica, 2009.


[5] Wynn, Natalie. "For Whom the Belle Trolls." YouTube. July 31, 2016. Accessed May 20, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ubc2CRwBGTk.


[6] Hoffmann, Herbert. "Helios." Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 2 (1963): 117.


[7] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Will to Power. Dover Publications, 2019.


[8] Spencer, Richard. “Who We Are.” National Policy Institute. Accessed May 20, 2019. https://nationalpolicy.institute/whoarewe


[9] Van der Toorn, Karel; Becking, Bob; Van der Horst, Pieter willem. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. Brill. p. 73. 1999


[10] Germond, Philippe. Sekhmet et la Protection du Monde. Editions de Belles-Lettres. 1981.


[11] Rutherford, Ian. Greco-Egyptian Interactions: Literature, Translation, and Culture, 500 BCE- 300 CE. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.


[12] Budge, E. A. Wallis. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Papyrus of Ani. Place of Publication Not Identified: IAP (Information Age Pub.), 2009.


[13] Heraclitus. Untitled. Kerenyi. 1976


[14] Herodotus, and W. G. Waddell. Herodotus, Book 2. Bristol: Bristol Classical, 1998.


[15] Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy.