|God of storms, desert, evil, chaos and war|
|Major cult center||Ombos|
|Symbol||Was-sceptre, Set animal|
|Consort||Nephthys, Anat, Astarte, Tawaret|
|Siblings||Osiris, Isis, Nephthys, Haroeris|
Set // or Seth (//; also spelled Setesh, Sutekh, Setekh, or Suty) is a god of the desert, storms, disorder, violence, and foreigners in ancient Egyptian religion. 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 Apep, the serpent of Chaos. Set had a vital role as a reconciled combatant. He was lord of the red (desert) land where he was the balance to Horus' role as lord of the black (soil) land.
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. This Osiris myth is a prominent theme in Egyptian mythology.
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 ⲥⲏⲧ Sēt.
In art, Set is usually depicted as an enigmatic creature referred to by Egyptologists as the Set animal, a beast resembling no known creature, although it could be seen as a composite of an aardvark, a donkey, a jackal or a fennec fox. The animal has a curved snout, long rectangular ears, a thin forked tail and canine body, with sprouted fur tufts in an inverted arrow shape; sometimes, Set is depicted as a human with the distinctive head. Some early Egyptologists proposed that it was a stylised representation of the giraffe, owing to the large flat-topped "horns" which correspond to a giraffe's ossicones. The Egyptians themselves, however, made a distinction between the giraffe and the Set animal. During the Late Period, Set is depicted as a donkey or as having a donkey's head.
The earliest representations of what might 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 ruler of the Protodynastic Period. The head and the forked tail of the Set animal are clearly present.
Conflict between Horus and Set
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.
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 battles 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. 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. But after the New Kingdom, Set still was considered Lord of the desert and its oases. The same myth was also described in the prognosis texts of the Calendar of Lucky and Unlucky Days of papyrus Cairo 86637, where the actions of Set were connected to the phases of the Moon. 
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
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
During the Second Intermediate Period (1650–1550 BC), 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. Set then became worshiped as the chief god once again. The Hyksos King Apophis is recorded as worshiping Set exclusively, as described in the following passage:
[He] chose for his Lord the god Seth. He did not worship any other deity in the whole land except Seth.— Papyrus Sallier 1 (Apophis and Sekenenre)
Jan Assmann argues that because the ancient Egyptians could never conceive of a "lonely" god lacking personality, Seth the desert god, who was worshiped on his own, represented a manifestation of evil.
When, c. 1522 BC, Ahmose I overthrew the Hyksos and expelled them, Egyptians' attitudes towards Asiatic foreigners became xenophobic, and royal propaganda discredited the period of Hyksos rule. The Set cult at Avaris flourished, nevertheless, 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 after the god, 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, like Seth, was a storm god.
Demonization of Set
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. 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 would later associate Set with Typhon, a monstrous and evil force of raging nature. Both were sons of deities representing the Earth who attacked the principal deities.
Nevertheless, throughout this period, in some outlying regions of Egypt, Set was still regarded as the heroic chief deity.
More specifically, Set was worshipped in the relatively large metropolitan (yet provincial) locale of Sepermeru, especially during the Rammeside Period. 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".
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. Moreover, another moderately sized temple of Seth is noted for the nearby town of Pi-Wayna. 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.
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".
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.
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 (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. 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, and Nephthys. Further study of the enormously important role of Seth in ancient Egyptian religion (particularly after the Twentieth Dynasty) is imperative.
In modern religion
In popular culture
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Seth.|
- Le temple d'Hibis, oasis de Khargha: Hibis Temple representations of Sutekh as Horus