The Contendings of Horus and Seth
The Contendings of Horus and Seth is a mythological story from the Twentieth dynasty of Ancient Egypt found in the first sixteen pages of the Papyrus Chester Beatty I and deals with the battles between Horus and Seth to determine who will succeed Osiris as king.
Chester Beatty Papyrus I
The Papyrus Chester Beatty I dates to the twentieth dynasty during the reign of Ramesses V and likely came from a scribe’s collection that was recorded for personal entertainment (Chester Beatty Pap I, Oxford). The papyrus contains the story of The Contendings of Horus and Seth and also various other poetic love songs. The original provenance of the papyrus was Thebes and, when found, the papyrus measured 55 cm. and had been torn and crushed. The papyrus was published by the Oxford University Press in 1931 and currently is located in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin.
Arguably the most important part of the Chester Beatty Papyrus I is the mythological story of The Contendings of Horus and Seth which deals with the battles between Horus and Set to see who will be the successor to the throne of Osiris. The specific time of the Contendings is a period during which the fighting has temporarily stopped and Set and Horus have brought their case before the Ennead. Throughout the story, Horus and Set have various competitions to see who will be king. Horus beats Set each time. The beginning of the story is a sort of a trial when both Set and Horus plead their cases and the deities of the Ennead state their opinions. Later in the story, the combat starts up again between Horus and Set and finally, the situation is resolved when Horus is determined to be rightful king of Egypt.
Consequences of the story
The story of The Contendings of Horus and Seth is important to Egyptian society because of its significance to kingship. The story sets the pattern of inheritance for kingship in Ancient Egypt: father to son. The story is also significant to the idea of divine kingship because it sets up the idea of the triad of Osiris as the dead king, Horus as the living king on earth, and Isis as the king’s mother. This triad not only determines the heir to the throne, but it also suggests that the king must be male, which causes trouble for women who became kings, such as Hatshepsut of the eighteenth dynasty.
Further readings and academic analyses
Many researchers and Egyptologists have dealt with The Contendings of Horus and Seth. John Gwyn Griffiths, for example, talks about the whole conflict between Horus and Seth in his book The Conflict of Horus and Seth. In the book, Griffiths discusses the different aspects of the ongoing battle for the office of Osiris, including the mutilations, homosexual episode, and the trial. Griffiths argues that the myth is of political and historical origin and that the story of Horus and Seth has to do with tribal struggles before the unification of Egypt  Other historians have discarded this idea when it comes to The Contendings of Horus and Seth and say that this particular story was created simply as a religious myth and that it should not be considered of historical context (Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt).5
In Ancient Egyptian Literature, Antonio Loprieno (de) argues that the Contendings is one of the first instances of “mythology as a textual genre” and when mythology enters the literary field. He says that this has to do with the story as a political satire (Loprieno 50)
In the Oxford publication of the Chester Beatty Papyrus I which contains The Contendings of Horus and Seth, the discussion is conducted by Alan H. Gardiner, where he compares the story with the stories of the Greek deities and of Homer’s Odyssey.
- Beatty, Alfred Chester, and Alan H. Gardiner. The Library of A. Chester Beatty. [London]: Walker, 1936. Print
- The Library of Chester A. Beatty
- Griffiths, J. Gwyn. Allegory in Greece and Egypt. London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1967. Print.
- Loprieno, Antonio. Ancient Egyptian Literature: History and Forms. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996. 50+. Print.
- Donald B. Redford, "Contendings of Horus and Seth" The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Ed. Donald B. Redford. Copyright © 2001, 2005 by Oxford University Press, Inc.. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt: (e-reference edition). Oxford University Press. Loyola University of Chicago. 28 October 2010
- Simpson, William Kelly, and Robert Kriech Ritner. The Literature of Ancient Egypt: an Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2003. Print.