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Set Animal with human arms, being offered an the ankh, the symbol of life
Image © Heidi Kontkanen

Set, God of Storms, Slayer of Apep, Equal to and Rival of Horus

by Caroline Seawright

Updated: July 1, 2013

 

st stone determinative   ( swwtkhSet animal determinative, stchgod determinative, swtySet headed god determinative )

Statue of the god Set adorning Ramses III

Image © Javacurls
Set (Seth, Setekh, Sut, Sutekh, Suty) was one of ancient Egypt's earliest gods. He was 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, yet he was a companion of the sun god Ra. Originally, Set was worshipped and seen as an ambivalent being, but 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 'Set animal' (or a 'Typhonian animal' because of the Greek identification with Typhon), or as a full 'Set animal' the god is unrecognisable 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 metres long and almost 1 meter tall, and was generally a reddish colour because of the thin hair, allowing the skin to show through), part canine (perhaps the salawa (si`luwah), a mysterious 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 (dshrr dshr - adding a t makes the word for desert, dshrrtdesert determinative dshrt), 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 symbolised 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. Relief of the ancient Egyptian lettuce favoured by Min and Set

Photo taken with kind permission of the Petrie Museum, London

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. Horus has made you recognize him in his real nature, let him not escape you; he has made you hold him by your hand, let him not get away from you.

...

In Spell 356, quoted above, Set is an earthquake. He is the god of storm and thunder. The lowering clouds are his, his voice is the thunderclap and all untoward events in nature belong to him. Hence he is the desert wind, dryness and death.

-- Clark, R.T.R. 1960, Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt, p. 114

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 on reason why he was looked down on. His favourite - 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. The two headed god, Horus-Set

Image © Tangient LLC

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 (water melons?) (P. Jumilhac III, 1-6)

-- Manniche, L. 1987, Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt, p. 54

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 do the twin Hapi gods) to symbolise 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. In this form, he was known as hrwyfy hrhrfy, 'He of the Two Faces'.

"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."

-- Wallis Budge E.A. 2011, The Mummy: A Handbook of Egyptian Funerary Archaeology - Revised and Enlarged Edition, p. 325

Set and Horus crowing Ramses II
Image © Vivek Venkatesan

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." Thutmose 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."

Ramses 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 Ramses 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: Set giving the symbol of life, the ankh, to Thutmose I

Image © Andrew W. Nourse

Now while his majesty sat speaking with the chiefs, the vile Foe from Khatti came with his infantry and his chariotry and the many countries that were with him. Crossing the ford to the south of Kadesh they charged into his majesty's army as it marched unaware. Then the infantry and chariotry of his majesty weakened before them on their way northward to where his majesty was. 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 armour 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.

-- Lichtheim, M. 2006, Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book Of Readings: The New Kingdom, pp. 61-62

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 symbolising Lower Egypt and his name was erased and his statues destroyed.

Drawing detail of the Set Animal standard on the Scorpion mace-head

Photo © Bewhuebner
Set has been worshipped since predynastic times. The first representation of Set that has been found was on a carved ivory comb, an Amratian artefact. He was also shown on king Scorpion's mace-head. He was worshipped 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.

Henk te Velde, in The Egyptian God Seth as a Trickster, notes that the word khenenu khnnnwwSet Animal determinativeforce determinative (confusion, turmoil) uses the Set Animal hieroglyph. He says that this word signifies that which is the opposite of ma'at, and as such, Set is a god of confusion. In the Book of the Dead, Set himself claims to be, "the originator of confusion who thunders in the horizon of heaven". As someone outside of ma'at, he can do things that other cannot; on investigating the myths surrounding this god, Velde suggests that Set is a clear candidate for the divine trickster, as his personality adheres to five elements of the archetype: "Set is disorderly and uncivilised; he is a murderer, a homosexual and a slayer-of-the-monster." s trickster, he is a necessary evil that was related to the survival of the cosmic balance of the universe - in Set's defeat of Apep, he restores ma'at to the world. His dual nature, that of being driven to destroy and defend order, made him both a god of the warrior pharaohs of the New Kingdom as well as the devilish trickster who murdered his brother. Set and Horus symbolising the union of Upper and Lower Egypt

Image © Richard F. Liebhart

Together with this aspect Seth seems to have represented to the Egyptians a trickster, who knows his importance, plays with it (walks on the edge), threatens, and makes fun of the common law and judiciary system, both deceitful and lustful with his flawed ambition and all too human desires. On this level, one might consider regarding Seth as a symbol of the flawed human being, the feeling illogical. In fact, Lawrence E. Sullivan asserts that the trickster is a symbol of the human condition (1987: 45). The appeal of the unruly deity Seth might be in the fact that he justifies the negativity in human nature. Everybody secretly wants to be like Seth and wreak some occasional havoc. Furthermore, thinking of the opposites good and evil, which, in Egyptian mythology is personified either by Osiris and Seth, or Horus and Seth, are aspects that merge in the king ... The pharaoh is the one in whom both lords are at peace. Only the divine king is capable of using both aspects appropriately.

-- Rikala, M. 2007, Once More with Feeling: Seth the Divine Trickster, p. 235

The five elements of the trickster can be seen in the mythology surrounding Set - his general behaviour throughout, his murder of Osiris, his seduction of Horus (though he also liked women), and Ra favouring him because he had the strength to defend his barque against the demon Apep.

In the 'Contendings of Horus and Set', 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. Set, being worshipped by Aapehty

Image © April McDevitt

The Pyramid Texts credit Set with a violent nature from the moment of his birth: "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."

-- Armour, R.A. 2001, Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt, p. 34

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 honour 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. Set, defending the Solar Barque against the demon, Apep

Image © Egyptian Museum, Cairo

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. When Horus shall have vanquished his enemy, Osiris will return to earth and reign once more as king in Egypt.

-- Spence, L. 2008, Egypt - Myths and Legends, p. 70

Yet Set was thought to be a follower of Ra. It was he who defended the Solar Barque each night as it travelled through the underworld, the only Egyptian deity who could kill the water serpent Apep - Ra's most dangerous enemy - each night as it threatened to swallow the Barque.

Thereupon Set, great of strength, the Son of Nut, said, "As for me, I am Set, the greatest of strength among the Ennead, and I slay the enemy of Ra daily, bring in front of the Barque-of-Millions of Years, and no other god is able to do it."

-- Warburton, D. 2012, Architecture, Power, and Religion: Hatshepsut, Amun & Karnak in Context, p. 94

Nephthys, wearing the headdress of Hathor, and Set, wearing the Double Crown of Egypt
Image © J. Chen

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 Chapter 39 of The Book of the Dead, Ra and his retinue drive 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 symbolised 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. In some versions of the myth, she did more than leave Set to follow his brother; Joan Aruz et. al., in Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C., noted that Taweret "held the crocodile Set so that Horus could slay it".

O Set and Nephthys, go and declare to the gods of Upper Egypt and their akhu:

"Behold! This Unis comes indeed as a spirit who knows not destruction.
Should he will that you die, then die you shall;
Should he will that you live, then live you shall."

-- Simpson, W.K. 2003, The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry, p. 249

At one part in the tale of Set's argument with Horus over rulership, the company of the gods asked the goddess Nit, rather than Ra - who sided with Set - who should be given the throne of Osiris. Thoth addresses her in a very courtious manner, giving her all of her elaborate titularies, as was her due. Her reply was this, minus the titles and honours afforded the other deities: The 'Set Name' (as opposed to the more regular 'Horus Name') of Peribsen

Image © Trustees of the British Museum

"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 Iunu (On, Heliopolis), to double Set's property. Give him Anat and Astarte, your two daughters, and put Horus in the place of his father."

-- Clark, R.T.R. 1960, Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt, p. 198

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 worshipped - 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. He was even worshipped in the el-Khargah oasis, in the Western Desert, as a deity who kept the oasis fertile, despite his own infertility!

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.


Further Information about Set


Video of Set

A video filled with images of Set (and other deities), by Egyptahotep:


© Caroline 'Kunoichi' Seawright 2001 - present

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