Horus: God of the Sky in Ancient Egypt

Horus is one of the most significant and ancient deities in Egyptian mythology. He is often depicted as a falcon-headed god and is associated with the sky, kingship, protection, and the sun. The mythology of Horus is complex and it evolved over time, with different forms and aspects of the god being worshiped in various periods of ancient Egyptian history.

Who Was Horus? The Basics of Horus’ Life

Horus was the falcon god of Egypt and is reflected in many sources that are preserved from the ancient Egyptian empires.

Most often, Horus is described as the son of Isis and Osiris. He also plays a key role in the Osiris myth. In another tradition, Hathor is regarded as either the mother or the wife of the god Horus.

The Different Roles of Horus

The ancient Egyptian deity played a key role in the mythic establishment of an ideal Pharaonic order. So basically, he can be referred to as the very god that gave life to the idea of monarchies in lower and upper Egypt. Or rather, as the protector of the royals and allowing them to be a stable monarchy.

He battled over this vacancy together with another Egyptian god by the name of Set. Together, the earliest of royal gods are referred to as ‘the two brothers’.

Seth is Osiris’ brother. However, he is often seen as the rival of Horus rather than the good company that Horus was hoping to find in his uncle or so-called brother. It wouldn’t be the last family affair that didn’t have the best of endings.

Protector Horus

Horus is believed to be raised in the Delta of Lower Egypt. It is known as a place full of all kinds of danger, something which Horus overcame by being protected by some other gods and goddesses.

But, he himself also was a protector against all kinds of evil. In some offerings it is said to Horus: ‘Take this papyrus to protect you from every evil’ and ‘The papyrus will give you strength’. The papyrus refers to the myth of the Eye of Horus, through which he was able to relay his strength from himself to others.

Other than just being a royal god, he took on many side hustles as the bodyguard of any deity. He is projected as the protector of a lion god by the name of Mahes in a tomb called the Naos of Saft el Henneh. In another tomb in the Dakhla oasis, he can be seen as the protector of his parents, Osiris and Isis.

READ MORE: Egyptian Cat Gods: Feline Deities of Ancient Egypt

The Navel-String of Horus

Besides being a protector of people who were still alive, he also gained some notoriety for protecting the deceased from falling into the net that is stretched between the earth and the sky. The net, as told in Egyptian mythology, may push a person’s soul back and impede it from reaching the sky. Actually, the net is often referred to as the navel string of Horus.

If one would get caught up in the net, the souls of the dead would be vulnerable to all kinds of danger. The deceased must know the different parts of the net as well as the different parts of the deities’ bodies to avoid falling into the net. Since it was his very own navel string, Horus would help the people with passing it.

Where Did the Name Horus Come From?

Horus’ name resides in the word her, which means ‘high’ in the ancient language. Therefore, the god was originally known as the ‘lord of the sky’ or ‘he who is above’. Since deities are generally seen as living in the sky, this would mean that Horus could precede all other Egyptian gods.

As lord of the sky, Horus was supposed to contain both the sun and the moon. His eyes are therefore often seen as the sun and the moon. Of course, any ancient Egyptian was able to identify that the moon was not as bright as the sun. But, they had an explanation for it.

The falcon god Horus was believed to be fighting quite frequently with his uncle Set. During one of the many different contests between the gods, Set lost a testicle, while Horus had an eye gouged out. One of his ‘eyes’ therefore shines brighter than the other, yet they are both of great importance. So only from Horus’ name, we already know a great deal about the falcon god.

Was Horus a Sun God?

There are definitely some reasons to believe that Horus was the sun god himself. Yet, this is not entirely true. While Ra is the only real sun god, Horus did indeed play his part when it comes to the sun. It’s not just for fun that one of his eyes represents this very celestial body.

Horus in the Horizon

The story of how Horus is related, of course, to the actual sun god. According to Egyptian mythology, there were three stages that the sun went through every day. The stage that could be interpreted as dawn on the Eastern horizon is the one that Horus represents. In this appearance, he is referred to as Hor-Akhty or Ra-Horakhty.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the two are always one and the same person. Only on occasions, the two would merge and could potentially seen as one and the same. But, they would also split up again after the dawn transformed into the full sun when Ra was able to do the job himself.

How Horus became so close to Ra that they could potentially be one and the same resides in the myth of the winged sun disk.

The Appearance of Horus

Horus is normally depicted as a falcon-headed man, confirming his presence as a falcon god. Often, one of his attributes is the sun disk with wings, as mentioned just now. Because of this very myth, the sun god Ra gave the divine son of Osiris the face of a hawk.

The falcon is an animal that has been worshiped since the earliest of times by the ancient Egyptians. The body of a falcon is seen as representing the heavens. In relation to Horus, his eyes should be interpreted as the sun and the moon.

Besides being referred to as a falcon god, he is also accompanied by a grand cobra that is attached to his crown. The hooded cobra is something that makes its appearance quite often in Egyptian mythology.

Indeed, many pharaohs wore snake ornaments on their foreheads. It symbolizes light and royalty, protecting the person who’s wearing it from any harm that is directed his way.

Appearance of Horus as Ra-Horakty

In his role as Ra-Horakty, Horus takes on a different form. In this role, he is seen as a sphinx with the head of a man. Such a form is also referred to as a hieracosphinx, which could also consist of a falcon head with a sphinx body. It is actually believed that this form was the inspiration behind the Great Sphinx of Giza.

The Double Crown and the Difference Between Upper and Lower Egypt

Because of his role as the god of royals, Horus was sometimes attributed with the double crown. The crown represents both Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, two parts that were once separate and had different rulers.

The difference between the two parts of Egypt is rooted in the geographical differences. It might seem quite contradictory, but Lower Egypt is actually located in the north and contains the Nile Delta. On the other hand, Upper Egypt covers all the areas in the south.

While it may seem counterintuitive, it actually makes sense if you look at the way that the Nile is flowing. It flows from south to north, meaning that upper Egypt is located higher up at the start of the river.

The fact that one region lived in the actual Nile Delta while the other didn’t led to different ways of life. In the Delta, Egyptians constructed their towns, tombs, and cemeteries on natural high points in the landscape.

The Nile Delta was also a lively crossroad, where many international contacts would mix. Since the other part didn’t have these conveniences, their beliefs and way of living would vastly differ at first.

Yet, at one point the two merged, around 3000 BC. Before 3000 B.C., there was the white crown of Upper Egypt and the red crown of Lower Egypt. When Egypt was united, these two crowns were amalgamated into one single crown for Upper and Lower Egypt.

Depictions and Celebrations of Horus

So while Horus had a role as some kind of double deity in reference to Ra-Horakhty, he had a more prominent role as a separate deity. His position was quite important in reliefs among other important deities, which is reflected in many scenes and texts.

Although Horus was seen in many places, two places can be regarded as the most prominent in the forming of his identity and position among the gods.

Temple of Horus in Edfou

Firstly, the Egyptian deity appears in Edfou. Here, he has his very own temple. The temple was erected in the Ptolemaic period and Horus appears frequently amongst other deities of ancient Egypt. In the temple, he is mentioned among the Ennead. The Ennead is normally referred to as the nine gods and goddesses that are the most important for ancient Egypt.

The temple of Horus in Edfou is the temple where the actual myth of Horus is depicted. Still, some other interpretations don’t see Horus as part of the Ennead. His parents Osiris and Isis are normally always considered to be part of the Ennead.

Temple of Abydos

Secondly, we can see Horus in the chapel of Soker in the temple of Abydos. He is one of the 51 gods that are depicted in the temple, alongside Ptah, Shu, Isis, Satet, and around 46 others. The text that accompanies the depictions of Horus translates to ‘He grants all happiness’.

Stories of Horus in Egyptian Mythology

Horus makes his appearance in several myths. The legend of the winged disk was already mentioned several times and might describe best what Horus was actually like. Yet, the myth of Osiris is also very prominent in relation to Horus, since it resulted in a sign that would become widely known as the Eye of Horus.

The Legend of the Winged Disk

The first relevant myth of Horus is cut in hieroglyphics on the walls of the temple of Edfou. The myth didn’t originate at the time that the temple was built, however.

It is believed that the people of Egypt tried to piece together all the occurrences of the falcon god in chronological order, which eventually resulted in the temple. The actual stories, however, took place way before that.

It starts with the reigning king Ra-Harmakhis, who was casually reigning over the empire of Egypt for the last 363 years. As one might imagine, he generated quite some enemies over that time span. He was able to hold this position for so long since he is technically a certain form of the sun god Ra. Therefore, he will be referred to as just Ra.

Whistleblower Horus

One whistleblower warned him about his enemies, and Ra demanded that the whistleblower help him find and defeat his enemies. To keep things clear, the helper will be referred to as Horus. However, in the myth, he was referred to as Heru-Behutet because of his attributes.

By transforming into a great winged disk, Horus thought to be of the best service to his new boss. He flew to the sky and took the place of Ra, not violently but with the full consent of Ra.

From the place of the sun, he was able to see where the enemies of Ra were located. With the greatest of ease, he could attack them with such violence and kill them in no time.

Ra Embraces Horus

The act of kindness and help made Ra embrace Horus, who made sure that his name would forever be known. The two would form an inseparable due, which explains why Horus is related to the rising sun.

Over time, Horus would become a sort of army general for Ra. With his metal weapons, he would be able to overcome many of the other attacks directed towards Ra. Becoming known for his metal weapons, Ra decided to give a metal statue to Horus. The statue would be erected at the temple of Edfou.

Fear for Horus

There are many battles that Horus engaged in, all described at his temple in Edfou. What it comes down to is that he would become a very frightened man or god in Egypt.

Indeed, when people rebelled against the reigning king, the son of Osiris would step up and battle them. The last battles that Horus engaged in weren’t even really battles. As soon as Horus in the form of a sun disk would show up, the rebels would be overcome with fear. Their hearts quacked, all power of resistance left them, and they died of fright straightaway.

The Eye of Horus

Maybe the best known myth related to the falcon god Horus begins when Set killed Osiris. It is most recognized in the mythology of ancient Egypt, and it illustrates the eternal fight between the virtuous, the sinful, and the punishment. Similar stories might also be identified in different mythological traditions, like the one of the ancient Greeks.

READ MORE: Greek Mythology: Stories, Characters, Gods, and Culture 

Osiris can be seen as the oldest son of Geb, who is often interpreted as the god of the Earth. His mother is known by the name Nut, who is referred to as the goddess of the sky. Osiris himself filled the space that his parents couldn’t really reach. Indeed, he was known as the god of the underworld.

Yet, maybe more importantly, Osiris was also known as the god of transition, resurrection, and regeneration. He had three siblings and had a preference for one of his sisters. That is to say, he married his sister who was called Isis. Their brother Set and sister Nepthys had the privilege of seeing the two getting married.

Osiris and Isis had a son which, as expected, was the Egyptian god Horus.

Osiris Gets Killed 

Set wasn’t happy with how things were going, so he decided to murder his brother Osiris. He was out for the throne, which was in the Egyptian myth in the hands of Osiris at that time. The murder resulted in a lot of chaos throughout ancient Egypt.

Upper and Lower Egypt resided in chaos. Set cut Osiris’ body into 14 parts and distributed the ancient Egyptian god all over the area. A severe sin, since a proper burial is needed to allow anybody to pass through the underworld gates and subsequently be judged on their good and bad deeds.

Gathering Osiris

Goddess Isis, traveled with their son to gather the different body parts. Some other gods and goddesses were also called in for help, amongst them Nephthys and Anubis.

So some of the oldest gods of Egypt came together and started searching. Eventually, they were able to find 13 parts of Osiris, but there was still one missing. Yet, the spirit of the ancient Egyptian god was allowed to pass to the underworld and be judged accordingly.

Horus and Seth

As suspected, Horus wasn’t very content with the work of his uncle Set. He went out to battle him near Edfou, which also attests to the fact that Horus’ spiritual center was located in that area. The sky god won the battle, proclaiming the kingdom of Egypt and restoring order after years of chaos.

Seth represents evil and chaos in this narrative, while the falcon god Horus represents good and order in upper and lower Egypt.

The Meaning of the Eye of Horus 

The good, quite obviously, was the one that was idolized in ancient Egypt. The idolization was represented through the ‘Eye of Horus’, a symbol of prosperity and protection. It relates back to Horus’ eye being popped out during the fight with Set.

But, Horus was lucky. The eye was magically restored by Hathor, and this restoration came to symbolize the process of making whole and healing.

It might also make evident that the ancient Egyptians actually were pioneers in art and medicine. Indeed, they put down the foundation for the contemporary fields. This is also reflected in the artistic measurements of the Eye of Horus. So, the myth of Horus tells us quite a lot about the measurement systems of the people of ancient Egypt.

The Meaning of the Fractions

The eye of our Egyptian god is divided into six different parts, which are called the Heqat fractions. Each part is considered a symbol in itself and represents some form of numerical value in the following order: 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, and 1/64.

However, there is a much deeper meaning to it. The parts and their fractions are six in total and are believed to be related to one of the six senses.

The 1/2th fraction accounts for the sense of smell. It’s the triangle on the left side of the iris of Horus. The 1/4th fraction represents sight, which is the actual iris. Nothing too unexpected there. The 1/8th fraction represents thought and the 1/16th represents hearing, which are respectively the eyebrow and the triangle right to the iris. The last two fractions are somewhat alien to a ‘normal’ eye in terms of how they look. The 1/32th fraction represents taste and is a sort of curl that sprouts from the bottom eyelid and moves to the left. The 1/64th fraction is a sort of stick that initiates at the same exact point under his eyelid. It represents touch.

So, fractions might seem something quite trivial and totally different from any of our current understandings of medicine and senses. Yet, if you superimpose the parts over the image of a brain, the components correspond with portions of the exact neural features of the senses.

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