Roger Zelazny, Creatures of Light and Darkness

by Esteban

I first read this 99-page work by Zelazny in my youth. It was my introduction to Egyptian theogony, and it set me on a lifelong path. Rereading it decades later, I realize that it is a poor introduction to the mythology of ancient Egypt, but we all must start somewhere. It kindled a profound curiosity in me.

I am struck by Zelazny’s poetic style, it rarely bores, and it often enchants. This book was first published in 1969 by Doubleday. I do not think that they realized what a classic it would become. I suspect that it took awhile to find its audience.

Casting about for a thesis, I come up empty. So I will just quote my favorite excerpts.

“Can life be counted upon to limit itself? No. It is the mindless striving of two to become infinity. Can death be counted upon to limit itself? Never. It is the equally mindless effort of zero to encompass infinity.” (P. 10). 

Here is another.

“It is life and it is death. It is the greatest blessing and the greatest curse in the universe.” (P. 11).

Relief of Lady Isis at the foot of the sarcophagus of Ramses III (Louvre) Public Domain Wiki.jpg

Winged Isis, flanked by jackals of Anubis, with her throne icon on her head. This relief is from the foot of the sarcophagus of Ramses III. (Public Domain, Wiki).

I love that Lady Isis is a protagonist, but Zelazny fails to accord her her proper place. I sense that Zelazny wrote this as revelation, the words were delivered to him by an unfathomable agency. He does not understand who and what The Queen of Heaven is.

As far back as historians can trace, Isis was first mentioned during the Old Kingdom (circa 2686-2181 BCE, Fifth Dynasty) at the heart of the Osiris myth, which is the core myth of the Egyptian legendarium.

You can read the complete text of Plutarch’s Moralia, On Isis and Osiris, courtesy of Bill Thayer’s complete rekeying of Frank Cole Babbitt’s translation (pp. 1-191) of Volume V of the Loeb Classical Library edition.

Isis was one of the nine gods of the Ennead of Heliopolis, descended from Atum, also called Ra. Her mother was Nut, goddess of the sky, and her father Geb, god of the earth. Her siblings are Osiris, Set and Nephthys, her sister. Her husband was her brother, Osiris, making her mother, sister and wife of kings. Pharoahs often married their sisters.

Mistress of magic, Isis reconstructs dismembered Osiris, searching Egypt for the parts of his body scattered by Set, who murdered Osiris through guile. Isis never found his phallus:

“Of the parts of Osiris’s body the only one which Isis did not find was the male member, for the reason that this had been at once tossed into the river, and the lepidotus, the sea-bream, and the pike had fed upon it; and it is from these very fishes the Egyptians are most scrupulous in abstaining. But Isis made a replica of the member to take its place, and consecrated the phallus, in honor of which the Egyptians even at the present day celebrate a festival.” (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, 18).

Isis constructs a simulacrum of a penis for Osiris. Isis is also a sexual goddess: she stimulates Osiris (he is otherwise inert), despite his artificial phallus, and successfully copulates with him. Impregnated, the god Horus was the result. Osiris then retires to the Duat, the underworld, leaving Isis as the Lady of Heaven, and Horus as king on earth.

Like all goddesses which are templates of the Mother, Isis restores the souls of the deceased, and as the mother of Horus, she is emblematic of the maternal. She is the mistress of life, with dominion over fate and destiny, her power over nature gives her authority over humans, the blessed dead, and the gods.

In time, as Isis was a Moon goddess and Queen of Heaven, Isis Invicta was conflated with Aphrodite, Hathor, Astarte and other goddesses, to a point where all goddesses became her. She is the prototype for Mary, mother of Jesus Christ.

Zelazny portrays Isis awaking from sleep and returning to sleep, as she feels the weight of millenniae and loss. Isis was also a goddess of dreams.

“Let there be ten cannon crashes and remove them from the air and the ear, preserving the nine crowded silences that lie between. Let these be heartbeats, then, and felt throughout the body mystical.” (P. 16). 

Zelazny calls her the Red Witch.

“Trade life and death for oblivion, but light or dark will reach your bones or your flesh. Morning will come, and with it remembrance. 

The Red Witch sleeps within her cathedral-high hall, between the past and the future.” (P. 17).

Isis (L) & Nephthys (R), Anubis Ministers to the Deceased, Winged Isis at top 13th century BCE, reign of Ramesses II.png

Winged Isis is at the top, and depicted at left, assisting Anubis, with Nephthys at right. 13th century BCE, reign of Ramesses II. (Public Domain, Wiki).

Zelazny nails it, describing the goddess:

“Now, some say her name is Mercy and others say it’s Lust. Her secret name is Isis. Her secret soul is dust.” (P. 33).

And this:

“Sleep. Sleep, and let the Middle Worlds go by, ignorant of the Red Lady who is Lust, Cruelty, Wisdom and mother and mistress of invention and violent beauty.

The creatures of light and darkness dance on the guillotine’s lip, and Isis fears the poet. 

The creatures of light and darkness don and discard the garments of man, machine and god; and Isis loves the dance. The creatures of light and darkness are born in great numbers, die in an instant, may rise again, may not rise again; and Isis approves of the garments.” (P. 96). 

One character in Creatures of Light and Darkness that enjoys no place in Egyptian mythology is the Steel General. He is the spirit of rebellion. His steed is a creature out of no mythology, a burnished metal horse with eight diamond-hooved legs.

“Given sufficient warm-up run, it is said that it could circumnavigate the universe in a single stride. What would happen if it kept running after that, no one knows.” (P. 20).

The Steel General “wears a ring of tanned human flesh on his little finger, because it would be senseless and noisy for him to wear metal jewelry. The flesh was once his; at least, it helped to surround him at one time long ago.” (P. 21).

The Steel General cannot be killed, as human defiance can never be defeated.

“He is dead already,” says Horus, slowly, “for was it not I that destroyed the Steel General himself?”

“Osiris does not answer, for he, too, once destroyed the Steel General.” (P. 29).

And:

“Behold the one who comes upon scenes of chaos, and whose cold metal hand supports the weak and the oppressed.” (P. 32). 

Zelazny has chops.

“All know of the General, who ranges alone. Out of the pages of history come the thundering hoofbeats of his war horse Bronze. He flew with the Lafayette Escadrille. He fought in the delaying action at Jarama Valley. He helped to hold Stalingrad in the dead of winter. With a handful of friends, he tried to invade Cuba. On every battleground, he has left a portion of himself.”  (P. 38).

I know this General as I know myself. Zelazny continues:

“He camped out in Washington when times were bad, until a greater General asked him to go away. He was beaten in Little Rock, had acid thrown in his face in Berkeley. He was put on the Attorney General’s list, because he had once been a member of the IWW. All the causes for which he has fought are now dead, but a part of him died also as each was born and carried to its fruition. …

“And so again he fought the rebel battle, being smashed over and over again in the wars the colonies fought against the mother planet, and in the wars the individual worlds fought against the Federation. He is always on some Attorney General’s list and he plays his banjo and he does not care, for he has placed himself beyond the law by always obying its spirit rather than its letter.” (P. 38). 

I love the way that Zelazny writes description.

“The Steel General, who has dismounted, stands now before Wakim and Vramin like an iron statue at ten o’clock on a summer evening with no moon.” 

Then there is this:

“How can you treat death so lightly?” she asks. 

Because it happens,” he replies. “It is inevitable. I do not mourn the falling of a leaf or the breaking of a wave. I do not sorrow for a shooting star as it burns itself up in the atmosphere. Why should I?” (P. 30). 

“…one can never be sure whether wisdom produces or merely locates…” (P. 33). 

“Granting that any place you can think of exists somewhere in infinity, if the Prince (Who Was a Thousand) can think of it too, he is able to visit it. Now, a few theorists claim that the Prince’s visualizing a place and willing himself into it is actually an act of creation. No one knew about the place before, and if the Prince can find it, then perhaps what he really did was make it happen. However–positing infinity, the rest is easy.” (P. 33).

The Prince Who Was a Thousand was married to a goddess, Zelazny names her Nephytha, apparently conflating her with the Egyptian Nephthys. She says:

“…And I know that all wives be bitches unto their lords, and I ask of thee thy forgiveness. But to whom else may I address my bitching, but to thee?” (P. 34). 

I will leave it at that. If you would like to download and read Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness, here is a link.

Here is the Wiki on the book.