Set and Horus (Part One)

Set and Horus have been fighting one another from pretty much the beginning. It is supposed that Horus was the head god of Upper Egypt and that Set was the head god of Lower Egypt. When the king of Upper Egypt decided to unite the two Egypts into one under his own rule, this decision manifested itself into the well-known mythological struggle between the two brothers Set and Horus. Later, with the growing of the cult of Osiris, the roles changed a little and it became a tale of deceit, fratricide and revenge, and Horus became Set’s nephew.

The depiction of Set as an unknown cannine animal

As with many of the other gods, Set’s origins are obscure and not much is known of the earlier cult that worshiped him. It would appear that Seth began as a desert deity who represented the forces of disturbance and confusion in the world. Archaeological evidence indicate that he was a known deity already from the Naqada I period (c. 4000 – 3500 B.C.) . During the Second Dynasty (c. 2890 – 2686 B.C.), the figure of Set appears next to the hieroglyph of the pharaoh Peribsen along with the figure of Horus, indicating an equality at the time between the two gods. During the Old Kingdom (c. 2650 – 2134 B.C.) Set had lost some of his importance though he appears many times in the ‘Pyramid Texts’, and by the Middle Kingdom (c. 2040 – 1640 B.C.)  his status as the defender of Ra from the snake deity Apophis and as the brother of Osiris, has already been established. During the Hyksos period (c. 1640 – 1550 B.C.) Set was identified by the Shepard Kings with their god Baal, however this association saw to Set’s  demise from the Twentieth Dynasty (c.1186 – 1069 B.C. ) . From the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty (c. 760 – 656 B.C.), the importance of Set had all but died out.

Set as he is depcted from the New Kingdom

Set had a dual character, he was known as the personification of violence and chaos, thus opposing Maat, the goddess of order, yet, he was also the god of cunning and great strength, qualities that can also be used for good. Set was originally described as an unknown canine animal, with a curved head, tall square-topped ears, and erect arrow-like tail. The animal in earliest depictions is shown standing, while later it is shown seated or crouching. There are theories that such an animal had once existed in the desert dunes of Egypt but have since become extinct. During the New Kingdom, Set is depicted as a man with the head of this canine animal. Set had cult centres throughout Egypt, but his most centred place of worship was located in Upper Egypt.

Isis and Horus the Child

Isis holding Horus the Child

The name Horus the Child is given to a number of divine male infants, the most famous of which is the son of Isis and Osiris. Horus the Child is usually depicted as a child sitting on a papyrus plant and sucking a thumb. He is sometimes known as ‘Horus hidden behind the papyrus’ (Har-hery-wadj) as an indication to his origin. The most famous form of Horus the Child is seeing him seated on his mother’s lap, suckling her breast. There are two versions to the story of Horus’s birth, the first is from the ‘Coffin Texts’, the second is from the stela known as the ‘Magical Stela’ that is currently located in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The first version gives a short account of how Isis turns to the other gods and asks for their protection over her while she is pregnant with Horus. When Horus is born, he immediately proclaims himself his father’s heir and that he will take revenge against those who have wronged his family.

The second version gives a more detailed account to what happened after Horus was born, and the dangers he and his mother had to face. After Isis gave birth to Horus the Child, she hid him among the papyrus in the Delta from the evil of his uncle Seth, while everyday she left to find food to feed them both. She knew that it was Horus’s destiny to revenge his father’s death. One day, whilst Isis was away looking for food, Seth discovered the whereabouts of Horus the child. Seth disguised himself as a snake and bit the child. Isis came back and found her child suffering, picking him up, she started wandering around the Delta asking for help from the people there. Though they were sympathetic to her plight, none could help her, until one women suggested to Isis to check if Horus was poisoned, and if so, to appeal to the sun-god Ra to help heal him. She then appealed to Ra to stop the sun-boat and come help cure Horus was healed, which he did. Isis, joyful that Horus was now safe, continued to raise him in the Delta area until he was old enough to face his uncle.


Isis as depicted on the walls of Nefertiri's tomb (late 18th century B.C.)


 Isis is the most important goddess in the Ancient Egyptian pantheon, though her origins, like those of Osiris, are lost in the mists of time. There is no mention of Isis before the 5th Dynasty (c. 2465 B.C.). The first time her name appears is in the ‘Pyramid Texts’ where she appears more than eighty times assisting the deceased pharaoh on his way to the ‘Field of Reeds’. Later on, Isis is seen as the protecting and nurturing mother not only to the pharaoh, but to all the deceased, noble and commoner as one. Her cult and worship swept over all of Egypt until at one point her importance overshadowed that of Osiris himself. Her worship was not limited only to Egypt but was also found in the Middle East and in Europe, there is even a temple of hers in England, and her cult was one of the last pagan worship to die out after Christianity swept across the Roman Empire (c. 6th century A.D.). Isis has several roles including that of a loving wife and sister, she is associated with the moon, and along with her sister Nephthys, Isis represents the archetypical image of the mourner, and she is the goddess most connected to magic. Isis is usually depicted as a human female wearing a long sheath dress wearing the hieroglyphic symbol for throne which represents her name. From the 18th Dynasty on (c. 16th century B.C.) Isis is shown wearing on her head the horns and the solar disk that were usually associated with the goddess Hathor. Isis is sometimes depicted holding the sistrum rattle (another Hathor attribute), but more often she is seen holding the ankh and the papyrus staff.  

Isis can be recognised by the hieroglyph of a throne on her head


According to Plutarch in his work De Iside et Osiride, Isis ruled alongside her husband/brother Osiris. She always suspected that Seth intended Osiris harm and when Osiris did not return from the banquet, she grew concerned. She put on her mourning clothes, cut her hair short, and left the palace in search of her husband. She wandered for a long time searching for his body because she wanted to bury him properly, as is appropriate for the king of Egypt. In another version Isis does not wander alone but with Anubis, the god of embalming, who is here described as the son of Osiris and Nephthys.  

 After a time, Isis discovered that the chest containing Osiris’s body washed up near Gebal and that he is now being used as a pillar in the palace of the king. So, off went Isis to Gebal. She reached the shores of Phoenicia, where she sat, waiting. After a time, the women of the palace came to bathe in the sea and they noticed her sitting there. She came out to them and taught them how to braid their hair (something that apparently women did not know before). Intrigued by this stranger, the women took her back with them to the palace where the queen of Gabel charged her with taking care of her children. Isis then took the queen’s sickly son and cured him by letting him suck on her finger, and at night-time, when no one was looking, Isis took to puting the baby into the fire, whilst at the same time she transformed into a swallow and circled the pillar, lamenting. One night, the queen heard the cries of Isis and saw her son in the fire. She panicked and started to shout at Isis who then transformed into her true form, as the goddess of Egypt. Isis then informed the queen that by taking her son out of the fire, she had deprived him of immortality (this story is very similar to the story of the harvest goddess Demeter, mother of Persephone, Queen of Hades, in the Greek mythology). The king and queen of Gabel tried to appease Isis by giving her gifts, yet she wanted none, she demanded only the pillar that contained the body of Osiris. Isis took the chest and Osiris’s body back to Egypt where she opened it. She then used her magical powers in order to conceive a child, and to do so she transformed into a bird and flew over the body of Osiris until, somehow, she received his seed and became pregnant. After this, Isis placed the chest on the Nile and then ran away to the Delta to hide herself and her pregnancy from Seth.  

 One night, Seth was hunting near the Nile when he spotted the chest between the reeds. Recognising the chest, he pulled it out and opened it. Angry, he then cut Osiris’s body into fourteen pieces and threw them into the Nile for the crocodiles to consume. When Isis heard of this she set out on another journey to find the pieces of her husband, along with her sister Nephthys. There ae two versions to what happened next, the first tells that every time Isis found a piece she buried it on the spot, the second tells that Isis and Nephthys collected all the pieces (apart from his penis which Isis modeled a new one), and with the help of Anubis and Thoth, she put him back together creating the first mummy. Then, Isis used her magical powers to revive Osiris who then became the king of the Underworld where he is to live for all eternity. 


Osiris and Isis

The origins of Osiris’s myth are lost in the past therefore it is unknown when his worship began, but there are archaeological evidence to his cult in Abydos during the First Dynasty. It is thought that Osiris was originally a fertility god, or water god (associated with the Nile’s inundation), and according to Lewis Spence, Osiris originally came from Africa. With time, Osiris and his cult gained popularity swiftly and soon he assimilated many other gods and took on their characteristics and attributes. It is not known when it happened, but at some point Osiris became the God of the dead, ruling in the Underworld. It is before him that the deceased had his heart weighed against the feather of Maat (the goddess of order). Osiris is usually depicted as a human male wrapped up as a mummy, his face can be either white, or black to symbolize the muds of the Nile, or green to symbolize fertility. He is depicted either standing or stiffly sitting down, in both instances, his legs are bound together and his hands are protruding from beneath the wrappings to hold the crock and flail (symbols of the pharaoh), his chief attributes.

Osiris as depicted on the walls of Horemheb's tomb from the 18th Dynasty (c. 14th century B.C.)

Osiris is first mentioned by name in the ‘Pyramid Texts’ where his importance is evident because his name is one of the three that are mentioned most frequently in the whole document. However, it is not known when the story of Osiris was completed, or how much of it originated from other stories of deities long gone Most of what we know derive from two main sources, the first is from the ‘Book of the Dead’, and the second was written during the Greco-Roman period by the Greek historian Plutarch in his work ‘De Iside et Osiride’.

According to both sources Osiris, or Us-Ir, is the first-born son of the sky goddess Nut and the earth god Geb, and he was chosen to rule over the land because he was found worthy of this. He ruled the land well and was remembered as a great and wise pharaoh, and Egypt flourished under his rule. He not only brought order and law (maat) in Egypt, but he also brought his order to the barbarians in the lands surrounding Egypt. Supposedly, the barbarians worshiped the ground he stood on.

Osiris had three more siblings that were born after him, the first two were the goddesses Isis and Nephthys, and the youngest was his brother Seth. Osiris was married to his sister Isis, while Seth was married to Nephthys. (This is where the Egyptian tradition of the pharaohs marrying their sisters originate from). Unlike Osiris, Seth was the bringer of destruction, confusion and disorder, and he was Osiris’s worst enemy because he wanted his throne. According to both versions, Seth killed Osiris and usurped his throne, however, the version in Plutarch’s account is fuller and I shall use it to relay Osiris’s story here.

After Osiris finally returned from his glorious journeys beyond the land of Egypt, Seth and seventy-two conspirators decided to do away with him. In order to execute this, Seth invited Osiris to a feast, a glorious feast, with the finest food and the most beautiful and exotic dancers. After a time, when Osiris was fully enjoying his brother’s hospitality, Seth pulled out a chest, a beautiful chest made of cedar wood, richly fashioned and adorned that caught the eye of Osiris. The name of the game was whoever could fit perfectly into the chest could keep it as a gift. One by one, the other guests tried to fit in, but one was too tall, the next was too short, one was too fat, one too thin, until finally Osiris decided to try his luck, and to his delight, he was the perfect match (because Seth took his measurements secretly before having this chest made). Having caught Osiris in the chest, Seth slammed the lid shut and nailed it, making sure that Osiris could not get out, and thus the great king died. After they made sure of Osiris’s death, Seth and the other conspirators threw the chest into the Nile.

The chest swept towards the sea and eventually reached the shores of Phoenicia, near Gebal (known overwise as the Greek Byblos), where it stuck, and a mighty tree grew around it. The tree became famous for its might, beauty and sweet scent, though no one knew that at its core lay the chest containing the body of the mighty king Osiris. In time, the king of Gebal decided to cut down the tree and make out of it a pillar to place in his palace.

The Afterlife: ‘Coffins Texts’

The ‘Coffin Texts’ are a collection of religious spells that derive from the ‘Pyramid Texts’ of the Old Kingdom. These texts were already found at the end of the Old Kingdom and were used extensively throughout the Middle Kingdom (c. 2066 B.C.). Unlike the ‘Pyramid Texts’, they were available for all the deceased no matter what class they came from. The ‘Coffin Texts’ are found inscribed mostly on coffins of officials and their subordinates, though they could appear on tomb walls, stelae, canopic chests, mummy masks and papyri.

Not all the spells in the ‘Pyramid Texts’ are found in the ‘Coffin Texts’, though new spells have been added. Very popular during the Middle Kingdom was the set of spells that ensure the reunion of deceased family members in the Afterlife. These texts also include protection spells against any danger that the deceased might encounter in the Underworld, as well as transformation spells to transform into a bird or into various deities. The growing importance of the Afterlife is demonstrated through the numerous ‘Coffin Texts’ that are found in many tombs.

During the New Kingdom the ‘Coffin texts’ were replaced by the famous ‘Book of the Dead’. The ‘Book of the Dead’ consists of religious spells, some that originated from the previous texts, and were written mainly on papyri, though early examples of these spells have been found on mummy cloths and coffins. The most illustrated and complete copy of this book is known as the Papyri of Ani, dated from the 18th Dynasty (c. 1400 B.C), and is found today in the British Museum.

The ‘Book of the Dead’ consists of religious spells that help the dead, royal or commoner, to find their way to the ‘Field of Reeds’. According to this text, everyone has a place in the Afterlife, not just the pharoah. Also, unlike the ‘Coffin Texts’, there is a clear decline in the use of the wish to reunite between dead family members in the Afterlife.

Parallel to the ‘Book of the Dead’ there is another set of texts known as the ‘Books of the Netherworld’. The content of these books vary from period to period, but they mainly deal with the description of the Netherworld and the journy of the gods during the twelve hours of night. These books also describe the eternal nightly struggles that erupts between Ra and the other gods against the demons that threaten the balance. The most powerful enemies are in the form of a snake, the most famous of them is Apophis.

During the Greco-Roman period another set of texts emerged known as the ‘Books of Breathing’. There are two such texts, the first was supposedly written by the goddess Isis for her husband Osiris and the second was written by the god Thoth. Both these books are manuals that deal with the importance of breath for the deceased (i.e. the preservation of the body after death), and most importantly to prevent the soul from dying a second time. There are descriptons of how to keep the body purified and intact, and formulas of answers that need to be given to the gaurdians of the Underworld in order to pass them and reach the ‘Field of Reeds’.

One of the books that deal with these texts is ‘The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife’ by Erik Hornung (trans. David Lorton). This book gives a nice short description of the different books and gives a fuller explanation of what each text consists of. Regarding the ‘Papyri of Ani’, there is a beautifully illustrated book that translates the spells by one of the prominent Egyptologists. ‘The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day’, trans. Dr. Raymond Faulkner (intro. Dr. Ogden Goelet).