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Set (Seth) - God of the Desert, Darkness and Chaos
Category: Egyptian Mythology
Seth – God of the Desert, Darkness and Chaos
Set (Seth, Setekh, Sut, Sutekh, Suty) was one of ancient Egypt’s earliest gods, a god of chaos, confusion, storms, wind, the desert and foreign lands. In the Osiris legends, he was a contender to the throne of Osiris and rival to Horus, but a companion to the sun god Ra. Originally worshiped and seen as an ambivalent being, during the Third Intermediate Period the people vilified him and turned him into a god of evil.
Depicted as a man with the head of a ‘Sut animal’ (or a ‘Typhonian animal’ because of the Greek identification with Typhon), or as a full ‘Set animal’ the god is unrecognizable as any one particular animal today. He was also identified with other animals, such as the hippopotamus, the pig and the donkey, which were often abhorred by the Egyptians. These animals were sacred to him. Set’s followers took the form of these animals, as well as crocodiles, scorpions, turtles and other ‘evil’ or dangerous creatures. Some fish were sacred to Set, too – the Nile carp, the Oxyrynchus or the Phagrus fish – because they were thought to have eaten the phallus of Osiris after Set chopped him to pieces.
The ‘Set animal’ has long, squared ears and a long, down-turned snout, a canine-like body with an erect forked tail. He may have been a composite animal that was part aardvark (the aardvark that the ancient Egyptians would have seen was the nocturnal Orycteropus aethiopicus which was between 1.2-1.8 meters long and almost 1 meter tall, and was generally a reddish color because of the thin hair, allowing the skin to show through), part canine (perhaps the salawa, a desert dwelling creature) or even a camel or an okapi. The sign for his name, from the Middle Kingdom hieratic onwards, tended to replace the sign for ‘donkey’ and ‘giraffe’, so he was possibly linked to the giraffe, as well.
He was also believed to have white skin and red hair, with the Egyptians comparing his hair to the pelt of a donkey. Due to his association with red, red animals and even people with red hair were thought to be his followers. These animals were sometimes sacrificed, while the link between Set and red-heads – usually foreigners – gave him godhood over foreign lands. With the relationship to foreign peoples, Set was also a god of overseas trade of oils, wood and metals from over the sea and through desert routes. He was given lordship over western Asia because of this.
As Set was a god of the desert and probably symbolized the destructive heat of the afternoon sun, and thus was thought to be infertile. The hieroglyph for Set was used in words such as ‘turmoil’, ‘confusion’, ‘illness’, ‘storm’ and ‘rage’. Strange events such as eclipses, thunderstorms and earthquakes were all attributed to him.
Horus has seized Set, he has put him beneath you so that he can lift you up. He will groan beneath you as an earthquake…
– Pyramid Texts, Spell 356
He was also thought to have rather odd sexual habits, another reason why the Egyptian believed that abnormalities were linked to Set. In a land where fatherhood makes the man, Set’s lack of children, related to the tale where Horus tore off his testicles (while Set tore out Horus’ eye) would have been one reason why he was looked down on. His favorite – some say only – food was the lettuce (which secreted a white, milky substance that the Egyptians linked to semen and was sacred to the fertility god Min), but even with this aphrodisiac, he was still thought to have been infertile.
His bisexuality (he was married and given concubines to appease him, yet he also assaulted Horus sexually starting with the come-on line “How lovely your backside is!”) and his pursuit of Isis were reasons why Set could never have been a ruler of Egypt instead of Osiris, despite originally being a lord of Upper Egypt.
When Set saw Isis there, he transformed himself into a bull to be able to pursue her, but she made herself unrecognizable by taking the form of a bitch with a knife on her tail. Then she began to run away from him and Set was unable to catch up with her. Then he ejaculated on the ground, and she said, “It’s disgusting to have ejaculated, you bull!” But his sperm grew in the desert and became the plants called bedded-kau.
– Jumilhac Papyrus
In the Old and Middle Kingdoms there are depictions of these two gods together either leading the prisoners of the pharaoh or binding the plants of Upper and Lower Egypt together (as does the twin Hapi gods) to symbolize the union of Upper and Lower Egypt. He was regarded as an equal to the hawk god. This was Horus the Elder, a god of the day sky while Set was seen as a god of the night sky. When these two gods were linked, the two were said to be Horus-Set, a man with two heads – one of the hawk of Horus, the other of the Set animal.
“Homage to thee, O divine Ladder! Homage to thee O Ladder of Set! Stand thou upright, O divine Ladder! Stand thou upright, O Ladder of Set! Stand thou upright, O Ladder of Horus, whereby Osiris came forth into heaven.”
– Pyramid Texts, Pepi I
In the Pyramid Texts he was believed to be a friend to the dead, and he helped Osiris ascend to heaven on a ladder. On one of Seti I’s reliefs, it shows Set and Horus offering the symbol of life to the pharaoh, with Set saying “I establish the crown upon thy head, even like the Disk on the head of Amen-Ra, and I will give thee all life, strength and health.” Thothmose III had a scene showing Set teaching him the use of the bow, while Horus taught him yet another weapon.
As for his role as a friend of the dead, it was believed that “Horus purifies and Set strengthens, and Set purifies and Horus strengthens” the deceased while the backbone of the deceased becomes the backbone of Set and Set has “joined together my neck and my back strongly, and they are even as they were in the time that is past; may nothing happen to break them apart.”
Ramesses II, as did his father Seti I, both had red hair and so aligned themselves with the god of chaos. Both were famous warrior pharaohs, using Set’s violent nature to help with their war efforts. In Ramesses II’s campaign against the Hittites, he split his army into four divisions and named them after four gods. One was for Amen, one for Ra, one for Ptah and one for Set. But it was the pharaoh himself who won the battle:
Thereupon the forces of the Foe from Khatti surrounded the followers of his majesty who were by his side. When his majesty caught sight of them he rose quickly, enraged at them like his father Mont. Taking up weapons and donning his armor he was like Set in the moment of his power. He mounted ‘Victory-in-Thebes,’ his great horse, and started out quickly alone by himself. His majesty was mighty, his heart stout. one could not stand before him.
All his ground was ablaze with fire; he burned all the countries with his blast. His eyes were savage as he beheld them; his power flared like fire against them. He heeded not the foreign multitude; he regarded them as chaff. His majesty charged into the force of the Foe from Khatti and the many countries with him. His majesty was like Seth, great-of-strength, like Sekhmet in the moment of her rage. His majesty slew the entire force of the Foe from Khatti, together with his great chiefs and all his brothers, as well as all the chiefs of all the countries that had come with him, their infantry and their charioteers falling on their faces one upon the other. His majesty slaughtered them in their places; they sprawled before his horses; and his majesty was alone, none other with him.
– The Account of the Battle of Qedesh, the Ramesseum
It is likely that the cult of Horus overtook the cult of Set in ancient times, and started to remove his positive sides to give the god Horus more status. The two gods, Horus the Elder and Horus the son of Osiris and Isis were confused, so Set changed from being an equal to his brother, Horus the Elder, to the enemy of Isis’s son. It was only after the Hyksos took Set as their main god, after the Egyptians god rid of the foreigners, he stopped symbolizing Lower Egypt and his name was erased and his statues destroyed.
Set has been worshiped since predynastic times. The first representation of Set that has been found was on a carved ivory comb, an Amratian artifact. He was also shown on the Scorpion macehead. He was worshiped and placated through Egyptian history until the Third Intermediate Period where he was seen as an evil and undesirable force. From this time on, some of his statues were re-carved to become the statues of other gods, and it was said that he had actually been defeated by the god Horus.
In the original tale of the fight between Set and Horus, the Egyptians believed that the two would continue their battle until the end of time itself, when chaos overran ma’at and the waters of Nun would swallow up the world. It was only when Set was vilified that this changed, and the Egyptians began to believe that Horus won the battle, defeating Set as a version of good triumphing over evil.
In the tale of Osiris, Set was the third of the five children of Nut, thought to have been born in the Nubt (Naqada) area. Instead of being born in the normal manner, as his siblings were born, he tore himself violently from his mother’s womb.
You whom the pregnant goddess brought forth when you clove the night in twain -
You are invested with the form of Set, who broke out in violence.
– Pyramid Texts
Jealous of his older brother Osiris – either because of the birth of his sister-wife’s son, Anubis, or because of Osiris’ rulership of Egypt – Set made a plan to murder his childless brother and take the throne. He made a great feast, supposedly in honor of Osiris, and with 72 accomplices ready, he tricked Osiris into laying down in a coffer – whoever fitted into the richly ornamented chest would win it – and considering that he’d measured it to fit his brother exactly, Osiris fit perfectly… and Set’s accomplices nailed down the lid and threw it into the Nile.
When Isis found out about this, she went on a search through the world to find her husband. Bringing him back, Set happened on the coffer, and tore it open and cut up his brother’s corpse, spreading body parts through the land of Egypt. Isis and Set’s wife Nephthys (who had left him to join her sister) went on a quest to restore Osiris. They succeeded enough so that Isis conceived Osiris’ son and eventually bore the child Horus in the Delta region where he grew up.
By this time Horus had reached manhood … Horus thereupon did battle with Set, the victory falling now to one, now to the other … Horus and Set, it is said, still do battle with one another, yet victory has fallen to neither.
– Egypt – Myths and Legends, Lewis Spence
Yet Set was thought to be a follower of Ra. It was he who defended the Solar Barque each night as it traveled through the underworld, the only Egyptian deity who could kill the serpent Apep – Ra’s most dangerous enemy – each night as it threatened to swallow the Barque.
Then Set, the strong one, the son of Nut, said “As for me, I am Set, the strongest of the Divine Company. Every day I slay the enemy of Ra when I stand at the helm of the Barque of Millions of Years, which no other god dare do.”
Even here, though, Set was thought to be a braggart, taunting Ra and threatening that if he wasn’t treated well, that he would bring storms and thunder against the sun god. At this point in The Book of the Dead, Ra drives Set away from the Barque for his insolence, and proceeds on course without the god of storms.
Other than Nephthys, Set had other wives/concubines. He was believed to live in the northern sky by the constellation of the Great Bear. To the Egyptians, the north symbolized darkness, cold and death. It was there that his wife Taweret, the hippo goddess of childbirth, was believed to keep him chained. He seemed to have bad luck with women – as with Nephthys, Taweret followed Osiris.
At one part in the tale of Set’s argument with Horus over rulership, the company of the gods asked the goddess Neith, rather than Ra – who sided with Set – who should be given the throne of Osiris. Her reply was this:
“Give the office of Osiris to his son Horus! Do not go on committing these great wrongs, which are not in place, or I will get angry and the sky will topple to the ground. But also tell the Lord of All, the Bull who lives in Heliopolis, to double Set’s property. Give him Anat and Astarte, your two daughters, and put Horus in the place of his father.”
– Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt, RT Rundle Clark
So he was given the two foreign goddesses Anat and Astarte, both war goddesses from the Syria-Palestine area and daughters of Ra. The two were often interchangeable, yet they had their own distinct cults. Anat and Taweret, though they were fertility goddesses, never bore Set any children.
Despite his wicked side, Set was still a god of Egypt, and worshiped – and feared – as such. His image changed through time, due to politics, yet he was still a powerful god, the only one who could slay Ra’s worst enemy. To the Egyptians he was the god who ‘ate’ the moon each month – the black boar who swallowed its light – and the god who created earthquakes and heavy, thunderous rain storms. He was a friend of the dead, helping them to ascend to heaven on his ladder, and the crowner of pharaohs and leader of warriors.
Despite his bad reputation, he was still a divine being – an equal of Horus, no less – who could be invoked by his followers or warded off by those who were afraid of him. Yet without chaos and confusion there would be no order; without the heavy, thunderous storms there would be no good weather; without the desert and foreign lands there would be no Egypt. Set was a counterbalance to the ‘good’ side of the Egyptian universe, helping to keep everything in balance.
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