Set

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Set represented in the tomb of Thutmose III (KV34)

In ancient Egypt, Set (also spelled Sutekh, Setesh, Seteh) was originally the god of the desert, one of the two main biomes that constitutes Egypt (the other being the small fertile area on either side of the Nile). Despite these relatively morally-neutral origins, Set's character evolved over time, such that he eventually became characterized as the villain of the mythic system. For example, these later mythic materials describe the god murdering Osiris and contending with Horus, in an attempt to usurp the celestial throne.

Contents

Set in an Egyptian Context

Set
in hieroglyphs
sw W t
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E20 A40

As an Egyptian deity, Set belonged to a complex religious, mythological and cosmological belief system developed in the Nile river basin from earliest prehistory to 525 B.C.E.[1] Indeed, it was during this relatively late period in Egyptian cultural development, a time when they first felt their beliefs threatened by foreigners, that many of their myths, legends and religious beliefs were first recorded.[2] The cults within this framework, whose beliefs comprise the myths we have before us, were generally fairly localized phenomena, with different deities having the place of honor in different communities.[3] Despite this apparently unlimited diversity, however, the gods (unlike those in many other pantheons) were relatively ill-defined. As Frankfort notes, “the Egyptian gods are imperfect as individuals. If we compare two of them … we find, not two personages, but two sets of functions and emblems. … The hymns and prayers addressed to these gods differ only in the epithets and attributes used. There is no hint that the hymns were addressed to individuals differing in character.”[4] One reason for this was the undeniable fact that the Egyptian gods were seen as utterly immanental—they represented (and were continuous with) particular, discrete elements of the natural world.[5] Thus, those who did develop characters and mythologies were generally quite portable, as they could retain their discrete forms without interfering with the various cults already in practice elsewhere. Also, this flexibility was what permitted the development of multipartite cults (i.e. the cult of Amun-Re, which unified the domains of Amun and Re), as the spheres of influence of these various deities were often complimentary.[6]

The worldview engendered by ancient Egyptian religion was uniquely appropriate to (and defined by) the geographical and calendrical realities of its believer’s lives. Unlike the beliefs of the Hebrews, Mesopotamians and others within their cultural sphere, the Egyptians viewed both history and cosmology as being well ordered, cyclical and dependable. As a result, all changes were interpreted as either inconsequential deviations from the cosmic plan or cyclical transformations required by it.[7] The major result of this perspective, in terms of the religious imagination, was to reduce the relevance of the present, as the entirety of history (when conceived of cyclically) was ultimately defined during the creation of the cosmos. The only other aporia in such an understanding is death, which seems to present a radical break with continuity. To maintain the integrity of this worldview, an intricate system of practices and beliefs (including the extensive mythic geographies of the afterlife, texts providing moral guidance (for this life and the next) and rituals designed to facilitate the transportation into the afterlife) was developed, whose primary purpose was to emphasize the unending continuation of existence.[8] Given these two cultural foci, it is understandable that the tales recorded within this mythological corpus tended to be either creation accounts or depictions of the world of the dead, with a particular focus on the relationship between the gods and their human constituents.

Origins of name

The exact translation of Set is unknown for certain, but is usually considered to be either (one who) dazzles, pillar of stability, or one who is below: etymologies that are connected to the desert, the institution of monarchy, and the god's role(s) in the mythic corpus (as opponent of Horus).[9] It is reconstructed to have been originally pronounced *Sūtaḫ based on the occurrence of his name in Egyptian hieroglyphics (swt), and his later mention in the Coptic documents with the name Sēt.[10]

Due to developments in the Egyptian language over the 3000 years that Set was worshiped, the Greek period saw the t in Set coming to be pronounced so indistinguishably from th that the Greeks Hellenized the god's name as Seth.

Mythological Accounts

Desert god

In the earliest chapters of Egyptian history, Set was associated with the hostile deserts that encroached upon the fertile Nile river plain (the home of ancient Egyptian civilization). This characterization also brought to mind various awesome and powerful elements of the desolate wastes, including ferocious desert animals, "flash floods and sandstorms."[11] Due to the extreme hostility of the desert environment, Set was viewed as immensely powerful, and was consequently regarded as one of the chief gods in the pantheon worshiped in Upper Egypt. One of the more common epithets for the god, derived during this period but common throughout the dynastic period, was great of strength, an attribute that he was understood to bestow upon the current pharaoh. This physical supremacy is attested to by an alternate form of Set's name, spelled Setesh (stš), and later Sutekh (swtḫ), where the extra sh and kh signifying majesty.[12]

Genealogically, Set was a member of the Ennead of Heliopolis, the son of the Earth (Geb) and Sky (Nut), husband to the fertile land around the Nile (Nebt-het/Nephthys), and brother to death (Ausare/Osiris), and life (Aset/Isis). At this early stage, he was understood to be the polar opposite of Horus (who would later be characterized as his mortal enemy). In this conceptualization, Horus was seen as the "god of the north" and Set was the "god of the south."[13] Their dual patronage became a de facto symbol for legitimacy in government, as attested to in texts and inscriptions from this period.[14] In these mythic sources, Set's relational connections are manifold, as he is depicted with a great many wives (including some foreign Goddesses) and several children. Some of the most notable wives (beyond Nephthys/Nebet Het) are Neith (with whom he is said to have fathered Sobek), Amtcheret (by whom he is said to have fathered Upuat),[15] Tuaweret, Hetepsabet (one of the Hours, a feminine was-beast headed goddess who is variously described as wife or daughter of Set), and the two Canaanite deities (Anat and Astarte), both of whom were equally skilled in love and war - traits that Set was himself famous for.


The word for desert, in Egyptian, was Tesherit, which is very similar to the word for red, Tesher (in fact, it has the appearance of a feminine form of the word for red). Consequently, Set became associated with things that were red, including people with red hair (a stereotypically non-Egyptian attribute). On a seemingly unrelated note, his affiliation with sandstorms, a part of his demesne as lord of the desert, meant that he would come to be identified with various Canaanite storm deities, including Baal by the Ramesside Period (ca. 1290-1080 B.C.E.). As a result, he came to be considered the god of (often unwelcome) foreigners.[16] [17]

Conflict between Horus and Set

See also: Osiris, Isis, Horus

The myth of Set's conflict with Horus, Osiris and Isis, which is one of the most ancient and best developed in Egyptian mythology, appears in many Egyptian sources, including the Pyramid Texts, the Coffin Texts, the Shabaka Stone, inscriptions on the walls of the Horus temple at Edfu, and various papyrus sources. One of the fullest versions can be found in the Chester Beatty Papyrus No. 1, which contains the legend known as the "Contention of Horus and Set." This famous tale also came to be recorded by classical authors who came into contact with it during the Hellenistic period—most notably Plutarch in his De Iside et Osiride.

The myth is first evidenced, albeit in a fragmentary fashion, in the Pyramid Texts—a collection of pyramid inscriptions whose primary purpose was to correlate the myths of the gods with the cult of the pharaohs (who had commissioned the construction of these monumental necropoli). In them, the core events of the tale are already present, including the murder of Osiris by Set (his jealous sibling);[18] the heart-broken response of his wife, Isis;[19] the vengeance exacted by Horus, his son;[20] and, the god's resurrection and return to prominence in the afterlife.[21]

In these accounts, Osiris is generally portrayed as a wise king and bringer of civilization, happily married to his sister Isis. Conversely, Set was the envious, less-powerful younger brother, whose jealousy caused him to mislead, kill and dismember his prodigious elder sibling. After various adventures (as described elsewhere), Isis reassembled Osiris' corpse and another god (in some myths Thoth and in others Anubis) embalmed him. As the archetypal mummy, Osiris reigned over the Afterworld as judge of the dead. Prior to the god's reanimation in the underworld, he was magically resurrected for just enough time to sire Horus.[22]

Horus naturally became the enemy of Set, which led to a storied rivalry between the two deities. Both deities were generally understood to have been injured in this conflict: Horus losing an eye and Set losing his testicles. The gods punished Set by forcing him to carry Osiris on his back, or by sacrificing him as a bull for their food. In some versions of the myth (likely meant to offer an etiological explanation for the god's classical associations), Set is given dominion over the surrounding deserts as compensation for his loss of Egypt.[23]

Perhaps it is also records of historical events. According to inscriptions written on 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 worshiped in Upper Egypt prior to unification, perhaps the myth reflects a struggle within Upper Egypt prior to unification, in which a Horus-worshiping group subjected a Set-worshiping group. [24]

Regardless, once the two lands were united, Seth 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 (3100-2890 B.C.E.) 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-Re).[25] 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).

Savior of Ra

As the cosmic and mythological system of the Ogdoad became more assimilated with the Ennead (due to the unification of the country), Set's position in the pantheon as a whole was reevaluated. With Horus as Ra's heir on Earth, Set, previously one of the chief gods of Lower Egypt, required an appropriate role as well. As a result, he came to be identified as the defender of Ra, fighting Apep (the serpentine demon of discord) each night during the sun god's journey through the underworld. Thus, he was often depicted standing on the prow of Ra's celestial barque spearing or stabbing Apep, who was often visualized in the form of a serpent, turtle, or other dangerous aquatic animal.[26]

This assimilation also led to the displacement of Anubis when his role as the steward and defender of the underworld came to be appropriated by both Set and Osiris. To offer an etiology for this development, the mythic sources suggest that the jackal-god was the son of Osiris—however, the god's chthonic character made it incompatible for Isis to be seen as his mother. Thus, Anubis' mother was identified instead as Nephthys, an attribution that created a case of divine infidelity that required a creative mythic explanation. Specifically, Nephthys, frustrated by Set's lack of sexual interest in her, disguised herself as the more attractive Isis. Unfortunately, this ruse still failed to gain the attention of her husband because he was infertile (as described in the myth of his conflict with Horus). Subsequently, Osiris mistook Nephthys for Isis, had intercourse with her and conceived Anubis.[27]

God of evil

When the Hyksos people gained the rulership of Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period (1800-1550 B.C.E.), they unsurprisingly chose Set, the original "chief-god" of Lower Egypt and the lord of foreigners, as their patron. Thus, Set came to be worshipped again. However, the years following this invasion saw Egyptian attitudes towards foreigners become increasingly xenophobic, culminating in the deposing of the Hyksos. During this period, Set (previously a hero) came to embody all that the Egyptians disliked about the foreign rulers, and so he gradually absorbed the identities of all the previous evil gods, particularly Apep (the demon of chaos).

By the time of the New Kingdom, he was often associated with the villainous gods of other rising empires. One such case was Baal, an identification in which Set was described as being the consort of ‘Ashtart or ‘Anat, wife of Baal. Set was also identified by the Egyptians with the Hittite deity Teshub, who was a vicious storm god, as was Set. Likewise, the Greeks later linked Set with Typhon because both were seen as evil forces, storm deities and sons of the Earth that violently contended with the central deities of their respective pantheons. Some scholars hold that after Egypt's conquest by the Persian ruler Cambyses II, Set also became associated with foreign oppressors, including the Achaemenid Persians, the Ptolemaic Hellenes, and the Romans. Indeed, it was during the time that Set was particularly vilified and his defeat by Horus widely celebrated. Nevertheless, throughout this period, in some distant locations he was still regarded as the heroic chief deity; for example, there was a temple dedicated to Set in the village of Mut al-Kharab, in the Dakhlah Oasis.[28]

Iconography

In art, Set was mostly depicted as a mysterious and unknown creature, referred to by Egyptologists as the Set animal or Typhonic beast, with a curved snout, square ears, forked tail, and canine body, or sometimes as a human with only the head of the Set animal. It has no complete resemblance to any known creature, although it does resemble a composite of an aardvark and a jackal, both of which are desert creatures, and the main species of aardvark present in ancient Egypt additionally had a reddish appearance (due to thin fur, which shows the skin beneath it). In some descriptions he has the head of a greyhound. The earliest known representation of Set comes from a tomb dating to the Naqada I phase of the Predynastic Period (ca. 4000–3500 B.C.E.), and the Set-animal is even found on a mace-head of the Scorpion King, a Protodynastic ruler.

A new theory has it that the head of the Set animal is a representation of Mormyrus kannamae (Nile Mormyrid), which resides in the waters near Kom Ombo, one of the sites of a temple of Set, with the two square fins being what are normally interpreted as ears. However, it may be that part or all of the Set animal was based on the Salawa, a similarly mysterious canine creature, with forked tail and square ears, one member of which was claimed to have been found and killed in 1996 by the local population of a region of Upper Egypt. It may even be the case that Set was originally neither of these, but later became associated with one or both of them due to their similar appearance.[29]


Notes

  1. This particular "cut-off" date has been chosen because it corresponds to the Persian conquest of the kingdom, which marks the end of its existence as a discrete and (relatively) circumscribed cultural sphere. Indeed, as this period also saw an influx of immigrants from Greece, it was also at this point that the Hellenization of Egyptian religion began. While some scholars suggest that even when "these beliefs became remodeled by contact with Greece, in essentials they remained what they had always been" Adolf Erman. A handbook of Egyptian religion, Translated by A. S. Griffith. (London: Archibald Constable, 1907), 203); it still seems reasonable to address these traditions, as far as is possible, within their own cultural milieu.
  2. The numerous inscriptions, stelae and papyri that resulted from this sudden stress on historical posterity provide much of the evidence used by modern archeologists and Egyptologists to approach the ancient Egyptian tradition. Geraldine Pinch. Handbook of Egyptian mythology. (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2002. ISBN 1576072428), 31-32.
  3. These local groupings often contained a particular number of deities and were often constructed around the incontestably primary character of a creator god. Dimitri Meeks and Christine Meeks-Favard. Daily life of the Egyptian gods, Translated from the French by G.M. Goshgarian. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996. ISBN 0801431158), 34-37.
  4. Henri Frankfort. Ancient Egyptian Religion. (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961. ISBN 0061300772), 25-26.
  5. Christiane Zivie-Coche, in Françoise Dunand and Christiane Zivie-Coche. Gods and men in Egypt: 3000 B.C.E. to 395 C.E., Translated from the French by David Lorton. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004. ISBN 080144165X), 40-41; Frankfort, 23, 28-29.
  6. Frankfort, 20-21.
  7. Jan Assmann. In search for God in ancient Egypt, Translated by David Lorton. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001. ISBN 0801487293), 73-80; Zivie-Coche, 65-67; Breasted argues that one source of this cyclical timeline was the dependable yearly fluctuations of the Nile (8, 22-24).
  8. Frankfort, 117-124; Zivie-Coche, 154-166.
  9. E. A. Wallis Budge. (1904) The gods of the Egyptians; or, Studies in Egyptian mythology. (A Study in Two Volumes.) reprint ed. (New York: Dover Publications, 1969, Vol. II), 243; behindthename.com, "Seth." Retrieved July 29, 2007.
  10. Budge (1969), Vol. II, 243. behindthename.com, "Seth." Retrieved July 29, 2007. per-set.org, "Set." Retrieved July 29, 2007. Caroline Seawright, Egyptian Ministry of Tourism (touregypt.net), "Set (Seth), God of Storms, Slayer of Apep, Equal to and Rival of Horus." Retrieved July 29, 2007. Conversely, Zivie-Coché cautions that the etymologies of many prominent gods, including Seth, are simply unconvincing and that their original meanings may be lost to history (25).
  11. Pinch, 192.
  12. Richard H. Wilkinson. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003. ISBN 0500051208), 198-199; Pinch, 193: "He was presented as massively strong and monumentally stupid, like a giant in a fairy tale."
  13. Budge (1969), Vol. II, 243-244.
  14. Budge (1969), Vol. II, 243-244.
  15. Though Upuat is also said to be a son of Aser/Osiris in some places.
  16. Pinch, 192-193.
  17. W.H.D. Rouse, "Red-Haired Men," Folklore 4 (2) (Jun., 1893). 249-250. here he argues that "the Egyptians heaped insults upon red-haired men and also sacrificed the ass to Set (Typhon), because he was supposed to be red-haired and ass-coloured in complexion".
  18. For instance, one text suggests that the deceased king had best avoid the depredations of Set, lest he face the same fate as Osiris: "Set would have cut thee to pieces, and thou wouldst not rise (again)." The Pyramid Texts (678c), 133. Accessed online at: [1] sacred-texts.com. Retrieved July 9, 2007. See also the terse comment: "Set is guilty; Osiris is justified" (1556a).
  19. The text records the ministrations of goddess Isis (and her sister Nephthys) when the two discover the corpse of the god: "Isis comes, Nephthys comes, one of them on the right, one of them on the left, // one of them as a ḥȝ.t-bird, one of them (Nephthys) as a kite. // They found Osiris, // after his brother Set had felled him to the earth in [?????], … // They prevent thee from rotting, in accordance with this thy name of "Anubis"; // they prevent thy putrefaction from flowing to the ground." The Pyramid Texts (1255c-1257b), 207. Accessed online at: [2] sacred-texts.com. Retrieved July 9, 2007. In a later passage, the posthumous conception of Horus is also indirectly described: "Isis comes to thee rejoicing for love of thee; // thy semen goes into her, while it is pointed like Sothis" (1635b-1636a).
  20. For example: "Thou who hast smitten (my) father; he who has killed (one) greater than he; // thou hast smitten (my) father, thou hast killed one greater than thou. // Father Osiris N. I have smitten for thee him who smote thee as an ox; // I have killed for thee him who killed thee as a wild-bull. … Eat, eat the red ox [a representation of Horus's victim], for the voyage by sea, // which Horus did for his father, Osiris." The Pyramid Texts (1543a-1544b, 1550a-1550b), 241-242. Accessed online at: [3]. sacred-texts.com. Retrieved July 9, 2007. Likewise, consider the following instruction for a deceased ruler: "Wake up for Horus; stand up against Set" (793a).
  21. The most specific reference to Osiris as lord of the dead occurs in a passage describing the kingly nature of the deceased pharaoh using analogies to the gods (and their various domains): "Thou appearest to them like a jackal, like Horus chief of the living, // like Geb chief of the Ennead, like Osiris chief of spirits." The Pyramid Texts (2103c-2103d), 308. Accessed online at: [4]. sacred-texts.com. Retrieved July 9, 2007.
  22. Pinch, 192; Budge (1969), Vol. II, 245-246.
  23. Budge (1969), Vol. II, 245-246. See also: Pyramid Texts 1463e: "[Ra] was born before the eye of Horus was plucked out; before the testicles of Set were torn away."
  24. See: Shabaka Stone, text online, Shabaka.maat.sophiatopia.org. Shabaka Stone. reshafim.org. Retrieved January 16, 2009, which describes the divine partition executed by Geb.
  25. Budge (1969), Vol. II, 242-243. See also: Pyramid Texts (1710a-c): "Wake up for Horus; stand up before Set; // raise thyself up, eldest son of Geb, // before whom the Two Enneads tremble."
  26. Pinch, 191; Wilkinson, 198.
  27. Wilkinson, 187; Pinch, 104.
  28. Wilkinson, 197-198; Pinch, 191-193; Erman, 168-169.
  29. Budge (1969), Vol. II, 243; Wilkinson, 198-199. See also: G. A. Wainwright, "The Origin of Storm-Gods in Egypt," The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 49 (Dec., 1963): 13-20. 13-14.

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