Seth was the son of Geb and Nut, and the brother of Osiris, Horus (in some accounts), Isis and Nephthys. Set, Setesh, Setekh, and Sutekh are all variants of his name. He was the divine embodiment of war, strife, cruelty, and lechery. The earliest Egyptologists by some misapprehension called him Set. The modern Egyptologists now call him Seth. His consorts, in different accounts, were Nephthys, Astarte, and Anat. Seth was the most Asiatic of the Egyptian deities and wore a Syrian helmet with a solar disc, 2 sharply pointed horns and a long ribbon attached to the crest and falling almost to the ground and ending in a triangular flower.
Prehistoric Egypt was made up of many principalities each with their own king and gods, each believing that the supreme deity dwelt in the king and he had the creative powers of God. In the eyes of the people, the king was the incarnation of their local god and was worshipped as such.
Under Seth, the primitive kings were sacrificed at 7 yearly intervals unless they found a substitute to stand in for them. The sacred drama of the dedication and sacrifice of the Incarnate God (King) can be followed in the Pyramid Texts and by the hymns and prayers used. The fact that those texts were deliberately placed in the actual burial chamber of the kings is a fair indication that each one was sacrificed as the God Incarnate. By his death the earth was rendered fruitful again. Over time a substitute was used. He took over as king for a week, and then died. The king and earth were thus symbolically renewed.
Seth was at one time the Lord of Upper Egypt, while Horus was the ruler of the Delta in the Lower Kingdom. When King Menes, who ruled from 3100-2850 B.C., united the Upper and Lower Kingdoms, the struggle for control of Egypt became reflected in the mythology. At first Seth’s position was high but when Osiris worship was regularized, the savagery of the ritual of Seth was held against him. He was a god to be feared, not respected or loved, and in the official religion of the 22nd Dynasty, apart from in his cult centers, he was the Evil Power, fighting against the Power of Good represented by Osiris. As was usual, any war meant the local god went from being the Creator and Giver of all good things to the Principle of Evil, the Great Enemy of the God of the conquerors. “The God of the old becomes the Devil of the new.” Seth, who was at one time the great Creator and Ruler of the world, became the Wicked One, the Enemy of Osiris, the Good Being.
Seth and the Legend of Osiris
Seth became known as the adversary of his brother Osiris, eventually killing him and spreading his body parts all over Egypt. Osiriss wife (and sister), the goddess Isis, gathered up his remains and then gave birth to Horus. Osiris was sent to rule the underworld, and Isis raised Horus in secret. When Horus grew up, he avenged his father by battling Seth, and after being judged the victor by the council of gods, was declared the ruler of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms. In some versions Seth was killed by Horus, in others he went to live with Ra where he became the voice of thunder.
It seems likely in early times that the priest of Seth, disguised as the god, actually put the king to death, and this would explain the detestation in which he was held in later times. Whether Horus as Osiris’ heir then slew the slayer is uncertain, if so it happened later for originally it was the heir who sacrificed the king. This is clearly stated in the Pyramid Texts: “O Striker, thou hast slain thy father, thou hast killed one who is greater than thyself.” The evidence of the ritual and hymns shows that the slayer was himself slain, for Horus to have sacrificed the enemies of Osiris.
By the time of Ramesses II (1279-1212 B.C.), Seth had assumed the headdress and loincloth of Baal and lost practically all resemblance to an Egyptian god. Horus and Seth are now seen as engaged in a titanic struggle all the time as forces of Law and Order against Chaos. This contest stopped only at the end of the 3rd month of the season of flooding when peace was granted to the world. Horus is given all of Egypt as his personal possession and Seth, the whole expanse of the desert. (Remember the Hathor link here as she was called Mistress of the Western desert). At this time, in the presence of the other happy gods, Seth assumes the red crown and Horus the white one. Ramesses II assembled a pantheon where Amun and Seth – age-old foes – were side by side. His consort was no longer the sister of Isis but Anat (Anath) a goddess of Canaan.
For Egyptians all days were divided up into one of three types – good, auspicious, or menacing/hostile – according to the nature of what happened on that day when the gods lived on earth. The anniversary of Seth and Horus’ great struggle is the 26th day of the first month of akhit and this day is not merely hostile but downright menacing. On such days, even kings spent the whole day in complete idleness and neglect of their own persons. So did private individuals. They stayed home during sundown and all night, or didn’t go out at all in extreme circumstances.
Prohibited activities might include bathing, embarking on a boat, a journey, eating fish or any water-dwelling thing, or killing a goat, ox or duck. On some days no fire was lit, on others you couldn’t listen to a cheerful song or utter the name of Seth who was the divine embodiment of strife, cruelty and lechery.
In centers of worship of Osiris, Horus, or Amun, the deeds of Seth were remembered with detestation (perhaps because of those early sacrifices of the king every 7 years) but in Paremus and eastern Nile Delta, the central Delta, the 11th Nome, and Upper Egypt at Noubit and Oxyrhynchus, all the cult centers of Seth, his actions were much admired and their anniversary was auspicious.
Illustrations on this page are, from top to bottom: Seth, Horus, and Osiris.
- Ancient Egyptian Religion by Stephen Quirke.
- Ancient Egyptian Religious Poetry by Margaret A. Murray and D. Litt.
- Everyday Life in Ancient Egypt in the Times of Ramesses the Great by Dr. Pierre Montet.
All illustrations on this page are from Tilted Mill.