Seth: The God of Death from Egyptian Mythology


     Seth is, in Egyptian Mythology, the God of Death and Storms, always associated with bad events. Seth was one of the most prominent gods of ancient Egypt, as well as being a mortal enemy of Horus.

Seth in Egyptian Mythology:

     Set or Seth, in ancient Egypt, is the god of death, deserts, storms, disorder, violence and foreigners in ancient Egyptian religion. In ancient Greek, the god's name is given as Sēth (Σήθ). Set played a positive role, accompanying Ra on his barge to repel Apep, the Serpent of Chaos. Set played a vital role as a reconciled combatant. He was lord of the Red Land, which was the balance for Horus' role as lord of the Black Land.

     In the myth of Osiris, the most important Egyptian myth, Set is portrayed as the usurper who killed and maimed his own brother, Osiris. Osiris' wife Isis reassembled her corpse and raised her dead husband with the help of the goddess Nephthys. The resurrection lasted long enough to conceive his son and heir, Horus. Horus sought revenge against Set, and many of the ancient Egyptian myths describe his conflicts.

In ancient Egyptian astronomy, Set was commonly associated with the planet Mercury.


     Seth is the son of Geb, Earth, and Nut, Heaven; his brothers are Osiris, Isis and Nephthys. He married Nephthys and begat Anubis, and in some accounts he had relationships with the foreign goddesses Anat and Astarte. From these relationships it is said that a crocodile deity named Maga was born.

What animal did Seth represent?

     In art, the god of Egypt Seth is often depicted as an enigmatic creature referred to by Egyptologists as the animal of Set, a beast not identified with any known animal, although it can be seen as a species of aardvark, an African wild dog, a donkey, a hyena, a jackal, a pig, an antelope, a giraffe, an okapi, a saluki or a fennec fox, or even a tapir. The animal has a down-curved snout; long ears with square ends; a thin, forked tail with tufts of hair in the shape of an inverted arrow; and a slender canine body.

     Sometimes Set is portrayed as a human with a distinct head. Some early Egyptologists proposed that it was a stylized representation of the giraffe, due to the large, flat-tipped "horns" that correspond to the ossicons of a giraffe. The Egyptians themselves, however, used different representations for the giraffe and Set's animal. During the late period, Set is portrayed as a donkey or as a man wearing a donkey-head mask.

Myth of Horus and Seth:

     An important element of Seth mythology was his conflict with his brother or nephew, Horus, for the throne of Egypt. The dispute between them is often violent, but it is also described as a legal judgment before the Ennead, a gathered group of Egyptian deities, to decide who should inherit royalty. The judge in this judgment could be Geb, who, like the father of Osiris and Set, occupied the throne before them, or it could be the creator gods Ra or Atum, the originators of royalty. Other deities also play important roles: Thoth often acts as a conciliator in the dispute or as an assistant to the divine judge, and in "Contents", Isis uses her cunning and magical power to aid her son.

     The rivalry of Horus and Set is portrayed in two contrasting ways. Both perspectives already appear in the Texts of the Pyramids, the oldest source of the myth. In some spells in these texts, Horus is the son of Osiris and nephew of Set, and the murder of Osiris is the main impetus for the conflict. The other tradition describes Horus and Set as brothers. This incongruity persists in many of the subsequent sources, where the two gods can be called brothers or uncle and nephew at different points in the same text.

     The divine fight involves many episodes. "Contendings" describes the two gods appealing to various other deities to arbitrate the dispute and competing in different types of disputes, such as racing on boats or fighting each other in the form of hippos, to determine a winner. In this account, Horus defeats Set repeatedly and is supported by most of the other deities.

     However, the dispute drags on for eighty years, mainly because the judge, the creator god, favors Set. In later ritual texts, the conflict is characterized as a great battle involving the followers of the two reunited deities. The strife in the divine realm extends beyond the two combatants. At one point, Isis tries to harpoon Set while he is in combat with her son, but she attacks Horus, who then cuts his head off in a fit of rage. Thoth replaces the head of Isis with that of a cow; the story gives a mythical origin to the cow's horn headdress that Isis commonly wears.

Seth abuses Horus:

     In a key episode of the conflict, Seth sexually abuses Horus. Set's rape is intended in part to degrade his rival, but it also involves homosexual desire, in keeping with one of Set's main characteristics, his vigorous, potent, and indiscriminate sexuality. In the earliest account of this episode, on a fragmentary Middle Kingdom papyrus, the sexual encounter begins when Set asks to have sex with Horus, who agrees to Set's condition to give Horus some of his strength.

     The encounter endangers Horus, because in Egyptian tradition semen is a potent and dangerous substance, similar to poison. According to some texts, Set's semen enters Horus's body and makes him sick, but in "Contents", Horus frustrates Set by taking Set's semen in his hands.

     Isis retaliates by putting Horus' semen on the lettuce leaves Set eats. Set's defeat becomes apparent when this semen appears on his forehead as a golden disc. He was impregnated with his rival's seed and, as a result, "gave birth" to the disk. In "Contendings", Thoth takes the disk and places it in his own head; in earlier accounts, it is Thoth who is produced by this anomalous birth.

Protector of Ra:

     He was depicted standing in the bow of Ra's barge defeating the dark serpent Apep. In some Upper Period depictions, such as the Persian Period Temple of Hibis at Khargah, Seth was depicted in this role with a falcon's head, assuming the guise of Horus. In Amduat, Seth is described as playing a key role in overcoming Apep.

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