THE SEARCH FOR OMM SETY A Story of Eternal Love By Jonathan Cott In collaboration with Hanny El Zeini Doubleday. 256 pp. $17.95
IN 1907, according to her reminiscences, Dorothy Eady, a 3-year-old London girl, fell down a flight of stairs and was pronounced dead by the attending physician; but by the time he returned with her death certificate, she was very much alive and completely normal. After the accident, the child Dorothy began to feel an estrangement. She kept talking of going home; and when she became older, she recognized "home" in periodical pictures as ancient Egypt. In sequential dreams she began to remember another life as a minor priestess in the temple of Isis at Abydos. There, a beautiful, blue-eyed, blonde young Egyptian, she had been abandoned by her mother at about age 3 and taken into the temple as a sacred virgin.
When Bentreshyt, the Egyptian girl, was in her late teens, old King Sety I happened by, was attracted by her remarkable beauty, and they secretly became lovers -- a horrible violation of religious law. Similarly, when Dorothy Eady was about 16, one night, as she lay sleeping, she was ravished by the mummy of King Sety. Bentreshyt eventually committed suicide to cover up the king's crime, but Dorothy carried on. A fat, unattractive young woman, she was exploited by her father to do vaudeville acts in a motion picture house in Plymouth.
Reincarnated Egyptian princesses or priestesses are, of course, a dime a dozen in occult circles. As Dr. El Zeini states, "I cannot honestly remember the number of Ramesses, Nefertitis, Cleopatras, Hatsheputs et al. I have encountered." Most such persons remain satisfied with boring their friends with details, but Dorothy Eady differed from the competition, and here lies her fame and interest.
Still in her teens she began to study ancient Egypt seriously, haunting the British Museum and taking lessons in ancient Egyptian from the great scholar E. Wallis Budge. This interest increased as she grew older. At about age 29 she accepted a proposal of marriage from an Egyptian student and as Mrs. Imam Abdel Meguid settled down in Egypt. She bore a child, whom she called Sety, and in accordance with local folkways became known as Omm Sety, the mother of Sety. She later candidly admitted that she was a poor wife, and there is a suspicion that her marriage was simply a way to reach Egypt. Her heart really lay with King Sety, and her marriage collapsed in divorce. Omm Sety was now free to serve the gods of ancient Egypt, in whom she firmly believed.
Omm Sety, now an Egyptian citizen, obtained a job with the Egyptian Department of Antiquities as a draughtsman and ghost-editor, and continued her studies. King Sety welcomed her back, physically manifesting himself to her, nights, as a normal man, and having intercourse with her. He talked much of state and cultural affairs, and on occasion took her to Amenti, the Egyptian afterworld, where she met Ramesses II and other notables, and finally learned the reason for her double life: The gods of ancient Egypt were giving her and Sety a chance to expiate their ancient crime.
In the everyday world Omm Sety became a valuable assistant at the many archeological digs in Egypt. Although she lacked formal training, she had an enormous amount of practical experience, empathy with the subject, and an intuitive grasp of fragmentary knowledge. She eventually became a legendary figure in Egypt, especially when she moved to Abydos in 1956. She lived like a native Egyptian among the villagers and took part in their lives. As a woman she had access to a great deal of family life that would have been closed to a man, and she is said to have done good scholarly work on the survival of ancient beliefs among the modern Moslems. She cured their ailments with her version of ancient magic, and variously mothered and terrorized her neighbors. They accepted her despite her being an open idolater of the ancient gods. Crusty, feisty, bossy, warm-hearted, incredibly generous, she lived a reasonably happy and productive life, even if, as one guesses, her legend is exaggerated. When she died in 1981, she was mourned by both her villagers and her archeological friends.
WHAT CAN a reader make of this strange visionary? An orthodox Freudian would pick up the obvious about her and her father, and an eclectic psychiatrist might classify her as a schizoid who gained strength from her delusions. But at least one of the authors, El Zeini, is willing to accept Dorothy's own conviction that she was a reincarnated priestess of Isis.
Oddly enough, the authors, who do not question the story of Dorothy's life in England, even though there seems to be no real evidence supporting it, do not observe a very striking component in her second life. As I read through the book, I felt a growing sense of familiarity with her previous incarnation, her romance, her childhood experiences, her modern Egyptian vision. They really amount to the scenario of a low-grade silent motion picture or a synopsis of a bad novel of the 1920s. This is not surprising, since Dorothy Eady grew up in the era of E. M. Hull's novel The Sheik (1921), in which a handsome, ruthless Arab rapt away a young Englishwoman and made her like it. This was also the time when H. Rider Haggard's works were still being issued (Wisdom's Daughter, 1923); when Algernon Blackwood, Dion Fortune and lesser authors were writing of Egypt, romance, and reincarnation; and when W. E. Henley's poem "A King in Babylon" was popular enough to be turned into a motion picture.
It says something about the early 20th century that a woman of two selves, one given to high erotic fantasies, could receive little formatting from her culture. In an earlier era, she and friend Sety might have been taken as witch and incubus and treated accordingly. Or, what with her "mystical marriage" to Sety, she might have become a St. Catherine of Alexandria, or, with her ability to organize from her visions, a St. Teresa of Avila. But in Edwardian and early Georgian England a secondary personality could only fall back on newsstand fiction or the silver screen of Plymouth.
Omm Sety is an interesting personality, partly as a member of the company of British eccentrics like Lady Hester Stanhope, and partly as a strong woman who could build a productive life on what to many of us seems a meretricious self-deception. But whether Cott and El Zeini have done justice to her and to us readers is another matter. While their book is not another raucous Bridey Murphy, I still find myself annoyed by the disorganization and repetitiousness, the uncritical and unanalytical approach, and the attempts at high coloration. :: E.F. Bleiler, author of "The Guide to Supernatural Fiction" and editor of "Supernatural Fiction Writers," has also written on topics in occultism.