A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, October 20, 2014

British Eccentrics in the Middle East: Umm Seti, Egyptologist and Reincarnation of a Priestess of Isis

Umm Seti in old age
During the pre-colonial and colonial periods, many Europeans who spent their lives in the Middle East displayed a certain amount of eccentricity. Sometimes this could reach a point verging on madness, as we saw in our series last summer on Lady Hester Stanhope, or steeped in fantasy like some pyramid cultists; often it was a quirky personal eccentricity, as with Gordon of Khartoum or T.E. Lawrence, who were functionally productive despite their quirks.

In the latter category falls Dorothy Louise Eady (1904-1981). Better known as Umm Seti (Omm Sety, etc.), she made serious contributions to Egyptology, was longtime Keeper of the Temple of Seti I at Abydos, a writer and draughtswoman who assisted a number of prominent archaeologists in their work, published contributions in her own right, and devoted her life to the study of Ancient Egypt and the survival of ancient folkloric practices in the modern Egyptian countryside.. But she also held a nearly lifelong conviction that she was a reincarnation of a priestess of Isis named Bentreshyt from the reign of the XIXth Dynasty Pharaoh Seti I (ca. 1290-1279 BC). She believed that she had been impregnated by the Pharaoh, was told by the high priests that Isis would not forgive her for violating her vow of virginity, and committed suicide, being reborn in the early 20th Century as Dorothy Eady.

After a fall downstairs at the age of three, she had become difficult with her parents and teachers, but on visiting museums claimed to recognize familiar scene in pictures of Ancient Egyptian temples. After some time in and out of sanitariums she moved to Egypt and married an Egyptian, becoming immersed in her study of Ancient Egypt. She named her son Sety, so the title of Umm Seti or Omm Sety was earned. Despite the Muslim prohibition of all forms of paganism, she was tolerated despite being the only known person in Egypt purporting to believe in the old religion, and her offering of gifts and prayers to Isis and Osiris on key feast days.

Umm Seti
Many found her fascinating; believers in reincarnation considered her case as prima facie evidence, while many skeptics nonetheless saw her as making genuine contributions to Egyptology. Much of the online material and many of the YouTube videos relating to her are from paranormal, fringe science, or similar sites.  You can read more or see more video at those sites, but the Wikipedia page actually gives you the basics.

And while skeptics of reincarnation, of whom I count myself as one, may dismiss her explanation for her fascination with Ancient Egypt, she learned hieroglyphics and spent a life preserving and interpreting the sites, particularly the Abydos temple. Bentreshyt may be a figment of her delusions, but Dorothy Eady made a genuine if amateur (assuming you discount her claimed memories) contribution to Egyptology.

Sadly, a 1980-81 BBC documentary on her is unavailable online, though I think this may be  clip from it:

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