Set (mythology)

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God of storms, desert, chaos and war
Major cult center Ombos
Symbol The was-scepter
Consort Nephthys, Anat, Astarte
Parents Geb and Nut
Siblings Osiris, Isis, Nephthys, Haroeris
Offspring Anubis
sw W t
E20 A40

s t

in hieroglyphs

Set /sɛt/ or Seth (/sɛθ/; also spelled Setesh, Sutekh,[1] Setekh, or Suty) is a god of the desert, storms, disorder, violence and foreigners in ancient Egyptian religion.[2] In Ancient Greek, the god's name is given as Sēth (Σήθ). Set is not, however, a god to be ignored or avoided; he has a positive role where he is employed by Ra on his solar boat to repel the serpent of Chaos Apep.[3] Set had a vital role as a reconciled combatant.[4] He was lord of the red (desert) land where he was the balance to Horus' role as lord of the black (soil) land.[5]

In Egyptian mythology, Set is portrayed as the usurper who killed and mutilated his own brother Osiris. Osiris' wife Isis reassembled Osiris' corpse and resurrected him long enough to conceive his son and heir Horus. Horus sought revenge upon Set, and the myths describe their conflicts. The death of Osiris and the battle between Horus and Set is a popular theme in Egyptian mythology.


Set's siblings are Osiris, Isis, and Nephthys. He married Nephthys and fathered Anubis; and in some accounts he had relationships with other goddesses: Hathor, Neith and the foreign goddesses Anat, and Astarte.[6]


The meaning of the name Seth is unknown, thought to have been originally pronounced *Sūtaḫ based on the occurrence of his name in Egyptian hieroglyphs (swtḫ), and his later mention in the Coptic documents with the name Sēt.[7]

Set animal[edit]

Main article: Set animal

In art, Set is mostly depicted as a fabulous creature, referred to by Egyptologists as the Set animal. The animal has a curved snout, long, rectangular ears, a forked tail, and canine body with a thin tail, forked, with sprouted fur tufts in an inverted arrow shape; sometimes, Set is depicted as a human with only the head of the Set animal. It does not resemble any known creature, although it could be seen as a composite of an aardvark, a donkey, a jackal, or a fennec fox. Some early Egyptologists have proposed that it was a stylised representation of the giraffe, due to the large flat-topped 'horns' which correspond to a giraffe's ossicones. However, the Egyptians made a distinction between the giraffe and the Set animal. In the Late Period, Set is depicted as a donkey or with the head of a donkey.[8]

The earliest representations of what may be the Set animal comes from a tomb dating to the Naqada I phase of the Predynastic Period (3790 BC–3500 BC), though this identification is uncertain. If these are ruled out, then the earliest Set-animal appears on a mace head of the King Scorpion, a protodynastic ruler. The head and the forked tail of the Set animal are clearly present.[9]

Conflict between Horus and Set[edit]

In the mythology of Heliopolis, Set was born of the sky goddess Nut and the earth god Geb. Set's sister and wife was Nephthys. Nut and Geb also produced another two children who became husband and wife: the divine Osiris and Isis, whose son was Horus. The myth of Set's conflict with Horus, Osiris, and Isis appears in many Egyptian sources, including the Pyramid Texts, the Coffin Texts, the Shabaka Stone, inscriptions on the walls of the temple of Horus at Edfu, and various papyrus sources. The Chester Beatty Papyrus No. 1 contains the legend known as The Contendings of Horus and Set. Classical authors also recorded the story, notably Plutarch's De Iside et Osiride.[10]

These myths generally portray Osiris as a wise lord, king, and bringer of civilization, happily married to his sister, Isis. Set was envious of his brother, and he killed and dismembered Osiris. Isis reassembled Osiris' corpse and embalmed him. As the archetypal mummy, Osiris reigned over the afterworld as a king among deserving spirits of the dead. Osiris' son Horus was conceived by Isis with Osiris' corpse. Horus naturally became the enemy of Set, and had many battle against Set for the kingship of Egypt. During these battles, Set was associated with Upper Egypt while Horus became Lower Egypt's patron.

According to Papyrus Chester-Beatty I, Set is depicted as trying to prove his dominance by seducing Horus and then having intercourse with him. However, Horus places his hand between his thighs and catches Set's semen, then subsequently throws it in the river, so that he may not be said to have been inseminated by Set. Horus then deliberately spreads his own semen on some lettuce, which was Set's favorite food. After Set had eaten the lettuce, they went to the gods to try to settle the argument over the rule of Egypt. The gods first listened to Set's claim of dominance over Horus, and call his semen forth, but it answered from the river, invalidating his claim. Then, the gods listened to Horus' claim of having dominated Set, and call his semen forth, and it answered from inside Set.[11][12]However, Set still refused to relent, and the other gods were getting tired from over eighty years of fighting and challenges. Horus and Set challenged each other to a boat race, where they each raced in a boat made of stone. Horus and Set agreed, and the race started. But Horus had an edge: his boat was made of wood painted to resemble stone, rather than true stone. Set's boat, being made of heavy stone, sank, but Horus's did not. Horus then won the race, and Set stepped down and officially gave Horus the throne of Egypt.[13] But after the New Kingdom, Set still was considered Lord of the desert and its oases.[14]

It has been suggested that the myth may reflect historical events. According to the Shabaka Stone, Geb divided Egypt into two halves, giving Upper Egypt (the desert south) to Set and Lower Egypt (the region of the delta in the north) to Horus, in order to end their feud. However, according to the stone, in a later judgment Geb gave all Egypt to Horus. Interpreting this myth as a historical record would lead one to believe that Lower Egypt (Horus' land) conquered Upper Egypt (Set's land); but, in fact Upper Egypt conquered Lower Egypt. So the myth cannot be simply interpreted.

Several theories exist to explain the discrepancy. For instance, since both Horus and Set were worshipped in Upper Egypt prior to unification, perhaps the myth reflects a struggle within Upper Egypt prior to unification, in which a Horus-worshipping group subjugated a Set-worshipping group. What is known is that during the Second Dynasty, there was a period in which the King Peribsen's name or Serekh — which had been surmounted by a Horus falcon in the First Dynasty — was for a time surmounted by a Set animal, suggesting some kind of religious struggle. It was ended at the end of the dynasty by Khasekhemwy, who surmounted his Serekh with both a falcon of Horus and a Set animal, indicating some kind of compromise had been reached.

Regardless, once the two lands were united, Set and Horus were often shown together crowning the new pharaohs, as a symbol of their power over both Lower and Upper Egypt. Queens of the First Dynasty bore the title "She Who Sees Horus and Set." The Pyramid Texts present the pharaoh as a fusion of the two deities. Evidently, pharaohs believed that they balanced and reconciled competing cosmic principles. Eventually the dual-god Horus-Set appeared, combining features of both deities (as was common in Egyptian theology, the most familiar example being Amun-Ra).

Later Egyptians interpreted the myth of the conflict between Set and Osiris/Horus as an analogy for the struggle between the desert (represented by Set) and the fertilizing floods of the Nile (Osiris/Horus).

Protector of Ra[edit]

Set spearing Apep

Set was depicted standing on the prow of Ra's night barque defeating Apep, who is usually in the form of a serpent, sometimes turtle or other dangerous water animals. In some Late Period representations, such as in the Persian Period temple at Hibis in the Khargah Oasis, Set was represented in this role with a falcon's head, taking on the guise of Horus. In the Amduat Set is described as having a key role in overcoming Apep.

Set in the Second Intermediate and Ramesside Periods[edit]

Set and Horus adoring Ramesses in the small temple at Abu Simbel

During the Second Intermediate Period, a group of Asiatic foreign chiefs known as the Hyksos (literally, "rulers of foreign lands") gained the rulership of Egypt, and ruled the Nile Delta, from Avaris. They chose Set, originally Upper Egypt's chief god, the god of foreigners and the god they found most similar to their own chief god, as their patron, and then Set became worshiped as the chief god once again.

The Hyksos King Apophis is recorded as worshiping Set in a monolatric way:

[He] chose for his Lord the god Seth. He didn't worship any other deity in the whole land except Seth.

Papyrus Sallier 1 (Apophis and Sekenenre), 1.2-3, ed. Gardiner 1932

Jan Assmann argues that because the Ancient Egyptians could never conceive of a "lonely" god lacking personality, Seth the desert god, who was worshiped exclusively, represented a manifestation of evil.[15]

When Ahmose I overthrew the Hyksos and expelled them from Egypt, Egyptian attitudes towards Asiatic foreigners became xenophobic, and royal propaganda discredited the period of Hyksos rule. Nonetheless, the Set cult at Avaris flourished, and the Egyptian garrison of Ahmose stationed there became part of the priesthood of Set.

The founder of the Nineteenth Dynasty, Ramesses I came from a military family from Avaris with strong ties to the priesthood of Set. Several of the Ramesside kings were named for Set, most notably Seti I (literally, "man of Set") and Setnakht (literally, "Set is strong"). In addition, one of the garrisons of Ramesses II held Set as its patron deity, and Ramesses II erected the so-called Four Hundred Years' Stele at Pi-Ramesses, commemorating the 400 year anniversary of the Set cult in the Delta.

Set also became associated with foreign gods during the New Kingdom, particularly in the Delta. Set was also identified by the Egyptians with the Hittite deity Teshub, who was a storm god like Set.

Demonization of Set[edit]

According to Herman te Velde, the demonization of Set took place after Egypt's conquest by several foreign nations in the Third Intermediate and Late Periods. Set, who had traditionally been the god of foreigners, thus also became associated with foreign oppressors, including the Assyrian and Persian empires.[16] It was during this time that Set was particularly vilified, and his defeat by Horus widely celebrated.

Set's negative aspects were emphasized during this period. Set was the killer of Osiris, having hacked Osiris' body into pieces and dispersed it so that he could not be resurrected. The Greeks later linked Set with Typhon because both were evil forces, storm deities, and sons of the Earth that attacked the main gods.

Nevertheless, throughout this period, in some outlying regions of Egypt Set was still regarded as the heroic chief deity.

Set has also been classed as a Trickster deity who, as a god of disorder, resorts to deception to achieve bad ends.[17]


Set was worshipped at the temples of Ombos (Nubt near Naqada) and Ombos (Nubt near Kom Ombo), at Oxyrhynchus in upper Egypt, and also in part of the Fayyum area.

More specifically, Set was worshipped in the relatively large metropolitan (yet provincial) locale of Sepermeru, especially during the Rammeside Period.[18] There, Seth was honored with an important temple called the "House of Seth, Lord of Sepermeru." One of the epithets of this town was "gateway to the desert," which fits well with Set's role as a deity of the frontier regions of ancient Egypt. At Sepermeru, Set's temple enclosure included a small secondary shrine called "The House of Seth, Powerful-Is-His-Mighty-Arm," and Ramesses II himself built (or modified) a second land-owning temple for Nephthys, called "The House of Nephthys of Ramesses-Meriamun.".[19]

There is no question, however, that the two temples of Seth and Nephthys in Sepermeru were under separate administration, each with its own holdings and prophets.[20] Moreover, another moderately sized temple of Seth is noted for the nearby town of Pi-Wayna.[21] The close association of Seth temples with temples of Nephthys in key outskirt-towns of this milieu is also reflected in the likelihood that there existed another "House of Seth" and another "House of Nephthys" in the town of Su, at the entrance to the Fayyum.[22]

Perhaps most intriguing in terms of the pre-Twentieth Dynasty connections between temples of Set and nearby temples of his consort Nephthys is the evidence of Papyrus Bologna, which preserves a most irritable complaint lodged by one Pra'em-hab, Prophet of the "House of Seth" in the now-lost town of Punodjem ("The Sweet Place"). In the text of Papyrus Bologna, the harried Pra'em-hab laments undue taxation for his own temple (The House of Seth) and goes on to lament that he is also saddled with responsibility for: "the ship, and I am likewise also responsible for the House of Nephthys, along with the remaining heap of district temples".[23]

It is unfortunate, perhaps, that we have no means of knowing the particular theologies of the closely connected Set and Nephthys temples in these districts—it would be interesting to learn, for example, the religious tone of temples of Nephthys located in such proximity to those of Seth, especially given the seemingly contrary Osirian loyalties of Seth's consort-goddess. When, by the Twentieth Dynasty, the "demonization" of Seth was ostensibly inaugurated, Seth was either eradicated or increasingly pushed to the outskirts, Nephthys flourished as part of the usual Osirian pantheon throughout Egypt, even obtaining a Late Period status as tutelary goddess of her own Nome (UU Nome VII, "Hwt-Sekhem"/Diospolis Parva) and as the chief goddess of the Mansion of the Sistrum in that district.[24][25][26][27]

Yet, it is perhaps most telling that Seth's cult persisted with astonishing potency even into the latter days of ancient Egyptian religion, in outlying (but important) places like Kharga, Dakhlah, Deir el-Hagar, Mut, Kellis, etc. Indeed, in these places, Seth was considered "Lord of the Oasis/Town" and Nephthys was likewise venerated as "Mistress of the Oasis" at Seth's side, in his temples[28] (esp. the dedication of a Nephthys-cult statue). Meanwhile, Nephthys was also venerated as "Mistress" in the Osirian temples of these districts, as part of the specifically Osirian college.[29] It would appear that the ancient Egyptians in these locales had little problem with the paradoxical dualities inherent in venerating Seth and Nephthys as juxtaposed against Osiris, Isis & Nephthys. Further study of the enormously important role of Seth in ancient Egyptian religion (particularly after the Twentieth Dynasty) is imperative.

The power of Seth's cult in the mighty (yet outlying) city of Avaris from the Second Intermediate Period through the Ramesside Period cannot be denied. There he reigned supreme as a deity both at odds and in league with threatening foreign powers, and in this case, his chief consort-goddesses were the Phoenicians Anat and Astarte, with Nephthys merely one of the harem.[citation needed]

In modern religion[edit]

Main articles: Kemetism and Temple of Set

In popular culture[edit]


  1. ^ Probably this is the lection of a god adored by the Hittites, the "Kheta", afterwards assimilated to the local Afro-Asiatic Seth. Sutekh appears, in fact, as a god of Hittites in the treaty declarations between the Hittite kings and Ramses II after the battle of Qadesh (see Archibald H. Sayce, "The Hittites: The Story of a Forgotten Empire"; also E. A. Wallis Budge, "A History of Egypt from the End of the Neolithic Period to the Death of Cleopatra VII B.C. 30".)
  2. ^ Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, vol. 3, p. 269
  3. ^ Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, vol. 3, p. 269
  4. ^ Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, vol. 3, p. 269
  5. ^ Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, vol. 3, p. 269
  6. ^ Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, vol. 3, p. 270
  7. ^ .H. te Velde, Seth, God of Confusion: A Study of His Role in Egyptian Mythology and Religion, Probleme der Ägyptologie, 6 , G. E. van Baaren-Pape, transl. (W. Helck. Leiden: Brill 1967), pp.1-7.
  8. ^ H. te Velde, Seth, God of Confusion: A Study of His Role in Egyptian Mythology and Religion, Probleme der Ägyptologie, 6 , G. E. van Baaren-Pape, transl. (W. Helck. Leiden: Brill 1967), pp.13-15.
  9. ^ H. te Velde, Seth, God of Confusion: A Study of His Role in Egyptian Mythology and Religion, Probleme der Ägyptologie, 6 , G. E. van Baaren-Pape, transl. (W. Helck. Leiden: Brill 1967), pp.7-12.
  10. ^ H. te Velde, Seth, God of Confusion: A Study of His Role in Egyptian Mythology and Religion, Probleme der Ägyptologie, 6, G. E. van Baaren-Pape, transl. (W. Helck. Leiden: Brill 1967), chapter 2.
  11. ^ Theology WebSite: The 80 Years of Contention Between Horus and Set
  12. ^ Fleming, Fergus, and Alan Lothian. The Way to Eternity: Egyptian Myth. Duncan Baird Publishers, 1997. pp. 80–81
  13. ^ Mythology, published by DBP, Chapter: Egypt's divine kingship
  14. ^ Set, God of Confusion, by TeVelde
  15. ^ "Of God and Gods", Jan Assmann, p47-48, University of Wisconsin Press, 2008, ISBN 0-299-22550-X
  16. ^ .H. te Velde, Seth, God of Confusion: A Study of His Role in Egyptian Mythology and Religion, Probleme der Ägyptologie, 6 , G. E. van Baaren-Pape, transl. (W. Helck. Leiden: Brill 1967), pp. 138–140.
  17. ^ "The Trickster Revisited: Deception as a Motif in the Pentateuch", Dean Andrew Nicholas, Volume 117 of Studies in biblical literature, pp. 16-17 ISSN 1089-0645
  18. ^ cf. Sauneron, Priests of Ancient Egypt, p. 181
  19. ^ Katary, Land Tenure in the Rammesside Period, 1989 ,p. 216
  20. ^ Katary, Land Tenure, pg. 220
  21. ^ Katary, Land Tenure, p.216
  22. ^ Gardiner, Papyrus Wilbour Commentary, S28, pp. 127-128
  23. ^ P. Bologna 1094, 5,8-7, 1
  24. ^ Sauneron, Beitrage Bf. 6, 46
  25. ^ C. Traunecker, Le temple d'El-Qal'a. Relevés des scènes et des textes. I' Sanctuaire central. Sanctuaire nord. Salle des offrandes 1 à 112
  26. ^ .P. Wilson, 'A Ptolemaic Lexikon: A Lexicographical Study of the Texts in the Temple of Edfu', OLA 78, 1997
  27. ^ P. Collombert, "Les stèles tardives de Hout-sekhem (Hout-sekhem et le septième nome de Haute-Égypte II)", RdE 48 (1997), pp. 15-70, pl. I-VII
  28. ^ Essays on Ancient Egypt in Honor of Herman te Velde, pp. 234-237
  29. ^ Essays, 234-237


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External links[edit]