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ANCIENT LUXOR
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SETH

Casandra Birrell
 

The ancient Egyptian god Seth has had a bad press for thousands of years.  In order to understand the mythology surrounding him we have to forego 20th century thinking of 'good and evil' and instead take ourselves back to the concepts and ideologies of the ancient Egyptians.  There were no such entities as good or evil.  The opposing forces in Egypt were those of order and chaos.

Seth’s genealogy can be found in the Ennead of Helipolis as one of the androgynous children of Geb and Nut: As Isis was the wife/sister of Osiris, so Nephthys was the wife/sister of Seth.                       

Nun
I
Atun (Ra)
I
Tefnut _________________________________________________________________  Shui
__________I__________

.....................................................................................................Nut                .....           GGeb    

                  ........................................................................................................................,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,..............I
.......................................................................................................................................,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,..............Horus the Elder

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family treeI                                         I                                     I                             I
Isis                                 Osiris                          Nephthys                  Seth


               .......................................................................I                                         I
          .......................................................................Horus the child                        Anubis

 
One of the earliest pictorial references to Seth appears on the Scorpion Macehead (pre-dynastic 3100-2686) where two standards can be seen, both bearing the Seth-animal likeness. (Watterston 1996, Hart 1986)   But Seth took many forms and his iconography can be confusing. He was originally depicted as a recumbent animal with a dog-like head, a long snout, pricked ears, almond-shaped eyes and an erect tail. But he was later seen in anthropomorphic form with a human body and an animal head.  He has also been depicted as a wild pig, a black boar, a donkey, a hippopotamus (the Temple of Horus at Edfu) and a crocodile.  There are references in the Pyramid Texts to Osiris succumbing to a fatal attack by the Seth-animal and spells painted on coffins in the Middle Kingdom unequivocally point the finger of blame for the death of Osiris squarely at the feet of Seth (Hart 1990).

 

sethseth with horus and Ramses IIIsth in canine form
......................................................................Image of Seth ......................................Seth with Horus and Ramses III ......................................Seth in canine form

But Seth did not always represent the forces of chaos.  Indeed, In early Egypt he was worshipped as a benevolent god by many people, particularly in the Delta region and North East Egypt, where he was portrayed as the deity responsible for ensuring the fertility of the oasis.  His cult centre was at Nbt on the west bank of the Nile some 30 km north of Luxor (Watterson 1996, p101).  He was also the god of the desert - the Red God - and as such he was associated with wind and rain, storm and thunder.   The Egyptian word for desert was h3st and was the same as the word used for ‘foreign lands’.  Thus, Seth became known as Lord of Foreign Lands.  There always appear to be two ‘sides’ to Seth, emphasising the ancient Egyptians’ concepts of dualism - he was worshipped for his power but feared for his ability to harm and destroy.  It is said that the god Geb split the land of Egypt into north and south. Horus was given the White Crown of Upper Egypt and Seth the Red Crown of Lower Egypt.  Horus ruled well and wisely but Seth proved to be a cruel and bad ruler.  Geb was so displeased with Seth that he deposed him in favour of Horus.  And thus began the long-lasting quarrels between the two gods.  Whereas Horus was regarded as the sky by day, Seth was seen as the opposite - the force of darkness and terror.  Opposing forces;  opposing balances of order and chaos.

In the New Kingdom, however, Seth was viewed in a different light.  He became the protector of the Sun God, fighting off the underworld serpent Apophis which attempted to destroy the Sun God each night.  As such he is depicted in the Papyrus of Herytwebkhet at the prow of the Royal Barque (21st Dynasty) (Wilkinson, 1992) Probably the most well known myth surrounding the feuds of Horus and Seth was written by Plutarch (c. AD 40-120) in which Seth is referred to as the brother of Osiris and uncle of Horus.  According to Plutarch, Seth was jealous of his elder brother and desired to sit on the throne of Egypt.  In order to gain the throne he murdered Osiris by tricking him to get into a chest which was then sealed and thrown into the Nile. Eventually Isis, the wife/sister of Osiris found the chest and the body of her husband.  Seth was enraged.  He stole back the body and chopped it into fourteen pieces (although the numbers seem to vary according to different scholars)  which were scattered throughout Egypt.  Isis was distraught. She was joined by Seth’s wife/sister, Nephthys, in her search for the missing pieces of Osiris’s body.  She eventually found them all, except for the phallus, which was supposed to have been devoured by a fish.    Isis and Nephthys gathered  the parts of the body together and bound them with bandages.  Could this have been the first Egyptian mummy?   Isis hovered over the body in the shape of a kite and gods enabled the union of Osiris and Isis.  She gave birth to Horus ‘Horus the child’ but was forced to hide him in papyrus reeds to keep him safe from the vengeful Seth.  On reaching adulthood, Horus who was then known as ‘Horus the Elder’ swore to avenge his father’s death.  It had to be thus.  Horus was the rightful heir to the throne as the son of Osiris. The line of kingship could not be broken.  And so the many battles and challenges between uncle and son were started, culminating in the eventual victory of Horus over Seth which is portrayed at the Temple of Horus at Edfu where he can be seen defeating Seth (as his uncle) who has turned into a hippopotamus, becoming smaller and smaller in the depicted symbols.

In the legends surrounding the battles between Horus and Seth, Seth is seen as a bungler, vain, arrogant and displaying the traits of a bully and a liar.

There are references in the Pyramid Texts which tell us that in the final battle between Horus (the Elder) who was already the reigning king, and Seth who was said to be the brother of Horus, Seth lost his testicles and Horus lost an eye.  Each kept the part he had torn from his adversary as a trophy.   Throughout the many confrontations between the two gods, eventually each retrieved their missing members - to much mutual relief.  The recovery of the eye, however, was symbolic and restored Horus to his rightful place on the throne.   And it was now that the land was finally unified and placed under the sole authority of Horus.  (Meeds and Favard-Meeks 199)

On one occasion, in order to prove his superiority and his claim to the Throne, Seth issued a challenge to Horus to make a boat out of stone.    Horus made his boat out of cedarwood coated with gypsum and launched it in darkness when its details could not be seen clearly.  On seeing the boat, Seth believed that Horus had achieved his task and so he (Seth) chopped off a mountain top and fashioned it into the shape of a boat. Before the Ennead of the Gods, both Seth and Horus went on board their boats.  Horus’s boat floated;  Seth’s sank to the bottom of the Nile.   In fury, Seth turned himself into a hippopotamus and sank Horus’s boat.   This was the final act in the Seth/Horus battles and Seth was brought before the gods. Seth conceded his right to the throne.  The feuds were over.  Ptah asked what should become of Seth and Re-Horakhty decided that Seth should live with him as his son.  Horus was given the throne and Seth became the thunder in the sky.

And yet Seth was not always vilified.  Indeed, in the 19th and 20th Dynasties, several Ramesside Pharaohs took their names from him - Seti I for instance took the title ‘He of the god Seth’ and dedicated the city of Avaris to him.   More interesting, perhaps, is that Ramses II in his battle against the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh named one of his army divisions after Seth’s warlike form, Sutekh (Watterson 1996 p 103).

So we have a brief picture of one of the most ancient of the Egyptian Gods.  A picture of two sides emphasising the ‘binary’ world of the time.  Seth is seen to represent the desert;  the harshness of the environment of the red lands.  He is also viscious in nature, an alleged murderer of his brother.  He would stop at nothing to gain what he saw to be his lawful right to sit on the throne.   He was single-minded, devious, sly.  But this appears to be balanced by the softer side as the god of the fertility of the oasis, the protector of Seti I and a god of veneration in the 20th and 21st Dynasties.  There had to be that balance - it was the Egyptian way.

References:
Hart, G. (1986) A Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses.  Routledge
Hart, G. (1990) The Legendary Past - Egyptian Myths p. 31.  British Museum Press.
Watterson, B. (1996) Gods of Ancient Egypt, p 101.  Sutton Publishing.
Wilkinson, R.H. (1992)  Reading Egyptian Art, p 153.  Thames & Hudson
Meeks, D., Favard-Meeks, D (1997) Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods, p 97, John Murray (Publishers) Ltd.