The Curious History of Omm Sety

Michelle Keeley-Adamson

The Story

It is 1904 in Greenwich, London. Caroline Eady and her husband Rueben Eady have been married for six years, and they have just welcomed their first (and only) child into the world. Their little girl, Dorothy Louise Eady, began her life in a comfortable, middle-class environment. For the first few years, life for the Eady family was normal. Her mother looked after the home while her father worked as a Tailor, they diligently attended Church on Sunday mornings, and little Dorothy displayed no signs of being anything other than a perfectly ordinary child. This wholesome family picture would be shattered when, at age 3, little Dorothy fell down the stairs, hitting her head, and knocking herself unconscious. The Doctor was called to examine her and gave Mr and Mrs Eady the devastating news that the fall had killed their beloved daughter. Her little body was gently laid out on her bed, and the Doctor hurried off to prepare a death certificate. However, when he returned, Dorothy was sat up on her bed, playing. Her parents were, understandably, angered by the mistake made by the Doctor. I imagine after expelling him from the house and embracing their daughter that they expected life would return to its usual pace. Perhaps one day, it may even make a good anecdote for dinner parties. But this one moment would change the course of Dorothy’s entire life. Almost immediately, Dorothy began to yearn for ‘home’ and started to dream of an ancient Egyptian temple. A short while later, her parents took her to the British Museum, where she, for the most part, didn’t show much interest in the displays and artefacts from around the world. As soon as she stepped foot in the Egyptian gallery, everything changed. Dorothy raced around the gallery in a state of joy, falling to her knees in reverence at the feet of the Kings, Queens, and Gods of ancient Egypt. “And then I just went crazy! I went and I sat down by a mummy in its glass case. When they were ready to leave and called me to come home, I refused to come. So, mother came to pick me up and she said I yelled out- in a very unusual voice - I said ‘leave me be. These are my people!’ Omm Sety from a BBC Interview 1981 Dorothy’s strange dreams of the temple continued and a few years later when reading a magazine, she discovered that the place she saw when she closed her eyes to go to sleep was in fact a real place: a temple in Abydos, Egypt. “It wasn’t until I was about six, and I saw a photograph of the temple in a magazine, but of course as it is now ruined. At once, I recognised this place. This was the place I had been dreaming of, and it was my home. Also, a photo of the mummy of King Seti. I knew that man is a nice man. A good kind man.” – Omm Sety from a BBC Interview 1981 She continued to visit the British Museum and it was during one such trip that she was noticed by the famous Egyptologist and Curator of the Egyptian collection, E. A. Wallis Budge. He took her under his wing and was impressed by her ability to quickly decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Following a close call with a bomb during the First World War, Dorothy was safely absconded to her grandmother’s house in Sussex, where she continued her self-directed learning into all things ancient Egypt. In her teenage years, the pieces would begin to fall in to place. Night time, once more, brought vivid dreams of a temple, and of a King who had once loved her. Presenting himself as ‘Hor-Ra’, he showed Dorothy her previous life as the virgin Priestess Bentreshyt. Bentreshyt and Seti I became lovers, resulting in an unexpected pregnancy and rather than face execution, she killed herself. Her soul remaining dormant for thousands of years until it was awoken when a small child fell down the stairs and hit her head. At the age of 27, Dorothy took up employment with an Egyptian magazine, creating political illustrations in support of Egypt’s independence. It was here that she began a romantic relationship with an Egyptian student named Eman Abdel Meguid. With his return to Egypt approaching, he proposed to Dorothy. They married and in 1931, the couple made the move to Egypt. While living in Cairo, Dorothy gave birth to a son – the only child of her and Eman Abdel – and against her husband’s wishes, named him Seti. Shortly after, she was employed as a Secretary and Draughtswoman by the famous Egyptian Egyptologist, Selim Hassan. Her work featured in his publication ‘Excavations at Giza’. Throughout this period of her life, she rubbed shoulders with other prominent Egyptologists, who came to admire her for her knowledge of ancient Egypt. She also took on work for Dr Ahmed Fahkry, starting with the Dashur Pyramid Research Project in the 1950’s. It’s also reported that she made a number of important Egyptological discoveries using the memories of her past life. With her move to Abydos at the age of 56 came the continuation of her Egyptological work and she translated a number of texts. It was also during this period of her life, that she took the name ‘Omm Sety’ meaning ‘Mother of Seti’. It would be a few years yet until she retired from her position at the Antiquities department, although she continued to advise Egyptologists and lead tours of the Temple of Seti I at Abydos. It’s fascinating, isn’t it? Reincarnation, a young girl chosen to study under the tutorship of a famous Egyptologist, a love that transcends space and time, travelling to Egypt, the discovery of ‘lost’ tombs… But now we come to the part of the article where I burst your bubble. (I know. I’m sorry.) A large chunk of Omm Sety’s story is, alas, fiction.
The Curious History of Omm Sety
A photograph of a young Omm Sety.

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Finding Truth

As fascinating as the reported history of Omm Sety is, it left me scratching my head. Historians are (more often than not) truth seekers. Sure, we come up with theories, but we also look for patterns in the information that’s available, and we absolutely want to know exactly what the sources are. So, faced with the numerous online entries and written biographies of Omm Sety (some of which contain conflicting information), I started to ask myself questions. Just a few of these can be found below: • Could the fall have triggered a physical and psychological response? What about Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS)? Where is the evidence to say she fell down the stairs? • Did her parents corroborate her story? Where is the evidence? • Why would Wallis Budge take such an interest in a random kid in a museum and where is the documented evidence for this? • Was she inspired by literature, magazines, and popular culture? • What magazine did she work for in London? Are there surviving copies? • Some accounts say that she travelled to Egypt in 1931, some say 1933 - what can ship records tell us? Questioning the tale of Omm Sety like this might seem a little cynical of me, but I don’t mean it to be. I might not believe her tale of reincarnation, or other claims she has made (eg her being tutored by Wallis Budge), but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss her story. Far from it! In cutting through the half-truths and untruths of her life, one fact remains: Omm Sety, was an incredibly interesting woman. In fact, if we start to remove the myths, I’d say her history was far more interesting than any tale of reincarnation! So, I want to focus on some things we can say with certainty: • She went on a journey of self-directed learning, absorbing as much information as she could about ancient Egypt from texts, and did not let her lack of university education stand in the way of her learning. • According to shipping records, she appeared to be travelling alone by ship to Egypt in 1933 – an impressive feat! • She lived alone, as a divorced woman, and despite the taboo nature of her situation, managed to not only obtain employment, but thrive in an Egyptological environment. • Following the breakdown of her marriage, she lost custody of her son, and it’s unclear if she was ever able to regain contact with her child. • She worked on publications for famous Egyptologists and provided illustrative and editorial work for Selim Hassan’s publication ‘Excavations at Giza’ and worked as a draughtswoman and Secretary to Selim Hassan. • She became an author in 1949, with her work ‘A dream of Egypt’ published by the Egyptian State Tourist Board. • She undertook work for Dr Ahmed Fahkry during his Ashur Pyramid Research Project in the 1950s. • Her art wasn’t limited to ancient Egypt, and she created lovely art-deco illustrations, one of which survives today. • She moved to Abydos at the age of 56 and began work cataloguing artefacts at Seti I’s temple. • She refused to simply retire from her position at the Antiquities Department at the age of 64 and was allowed to continue to work for a few more years. Even after her ‘official’ retirement, she continued to study and undertake consultancy work at the Temple of Seti I. • She was the keeper of Seti I’s temple at Abydos, and despite her increasing health and mobility issues, she still managed to make the trip up to the temple in her later years. • Her legacy has inspired writers. Not only for biographies, but for creative works such as this 1991 poem by John Greening. This is merely scratching the surface. So why don’t we hear more about her? I think a good explanation for that is that the lore that surrounds Omm Sety and her tale of reincarnation drowns out her fascinating history. Not to mention that Omm Sety was also a practitioner of Kemetism: a neopagan religion based on the foundations of ancient Egyptian religion. These things combined have arguably contributed to filing Omm Sety’s history under ‘not credible’. It is because of this that there hasn’t been enough research been carried out about the true story of Omm Sety to date. I don’t know about you, but I certainly want to know the full truth of her impact on Egyptology and her relationships and interactions with Egyptians, how she got on with her neighbours in Abydos, and how she dealt with the personal blows in her life, like losing access to her son and hear poor health in later years.
Ancestry UK

In her own words

A lot is written about Omm Sety. Biographies, obituaries, blog posts, articles - all of which claim different things to varying degrees. In 1981, Dorothy herself stated ‘people have written articles about me in the papers…usually a lot of nonsense!’ Then there’s the books. The most well-known work about Omm Sety is ‘Omm Sety’s Egypt’ written by Hanny el Zeini and Catherine Dees (published in 2007). The book uses Omm Sety’s own diary entries and tapes to chart her life. Hanny became friends with Omm Sety when she arrived in Abydos, noting assumptions that he made about her being a bit of a ‘crank’ before they met. However, Hanny goes on to say: ‘When I encountered on my first visit to Abydos that December was hardly a crank, but a sharp-witted, vital woman with blue eyes and light blond hair. And wonderfully funny. The day I arrived she lost no time in giving me her opinion of the British, which included some choice and very earthy Arabic swear words. I had never met anyone quite like her.’ The story of Omm Sety has taken on a life of its own. Especially online. But we’re fortunate that Omm Sety’s life spanned the decades that saw the rise of the media and TV. Remarkably, fragmented footage of an elderly Omm Sety being interviewed still exists, meaning we have a chance to hear her story in her own words. In 1981, Omm Sety was interviewed by the BBC. Then, in 1982, the National Geographic released footage of her in their documentary ‘Egypt: Quest for Eternity’. Something strikes me about these documentaries and the interactions she has with Egyptologists: they are warm, and they are kind. She is not dismissed as a mere eccentric but is listened to and gently probed for her Egyptological knowledge. Lovely examples of this can be seen in both documentaries. In the BBC documentary, Professor Rosalie David brings her a magazine and discusses her research on rites, and in the National Geographic documentary, a group of Egyptologists sing ‘Happy Birthday’ as she blows out the candle on her cake. Even in her own words, Omm Sety’s story undoubtedly developed over the years so while I do take things with a pinch of salt, I did enjoy her response to a question she was asked by the BBC regarding her thoughts on her reincarnation story. Omm Sety stated: ‘I wonder, either the fall downstairs knocked a screw loose – and yet everything was so – what shall I say? Logical after that. I mean, the obsession. I mean…if I had a screw loose, I might dream about a temple. But not that one particular temple, and dream about it correctly. And then some people have suggested I might really have been dead, and an ancient Spirit got in!’ Omm Sety passed away in Egypt in 1981, just a few days before the BBC aired its documentary about her and maintained her story of reincarnation right up until the end. Footage of an elderly Omm Sety being interviewed for the BBC in a temple still exists on YouTube, where she rather poignantly states: “I was beginning to think I wouldn’t see it again in this life…I’ll see it in the next one, though.”
The Curious History of Omm Sety

Michelle Keeley-Adamson

Michelle is a graduate of Egyptology (MA) from Liverpool, UK. She is currently undertaking independent research on all things Joseph Bonomi the Younger and the reception of ancient Egypt in Victorian England. She has a particular interest in Victorian Egyptianising architecture, especially when it comes to graves! She is also the founder of the Mapping Egyptian Revival Graves project. She has spoken at a variety of events including giving a talk for London Month of the Dead at Highgate Cemetery, and a research paper for the Notes From the Nile conference at the University of Birmingham. She has also appeared on the Haunted History Chronicles podcast talking about Ancient Egyptian ghost stories. Her research on Egyptianised graves is due to be published in a forthcoming text on Global Egyptomania. Michelle is passionate about contributing to making Egyptology an accessible topic, and challenging the legacy of classism and colonialism associated with the topic. When she isn’t busy with Egyptology, you can find her drawing, reading, or listening to Vincent Price radio plays.
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