The gods of various ancient mythologies aren’t always positive figures. The gods of Greek mythology tended to be capricious at best, frequently engaging in petty jealousies and vendettas. While some Norse gods were benefactors of mankind, others were aloof and even predatory, such as Ran, the sea goddess of death.
Such was also the case in Ancient Egyptian mythology. There were inarguably positive or “good” deities such as Thoth or Isis, but there were also those who would inarguably be seen in a more negative light.
Some of these were gods whose aspects comprised a sort of double-edged sword, like the god of wine and drunkenness Shezmu, who in different periods had either his benign or terrible aspects emphasized. Others were of an altogether darker bent, such as Ammit, who devoured unworthy souls in the afterlife.
But a more complex Egyptian god may be the god of chaos and storms. Called “Destroyer,” he nonetheless has a more nuanced legacy that might be assumed. He was the lord of the desert, the Deshret, or Red Land, as opposed to the Kemet, or Black Land of the fertile Nile valley – Set god.
Who is Set?
Set (also translated as Seth) is one of the five children of the Egyptian earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut, who were the grandchildren of the preeminent Egyptian deity Amun-Ra. These were what were considered in some accounts to be the first five gods, those who were birthed at the creation of the world.
These original gods included the famous sibling/spouse couple of Isis and Osiris, as well as Set and the goddess of mourning Nephthys, who would become Set’s wife. The fifth god among these siblings was Horus the Elder, distinct from Horus the Younger, the son of Osiris and Isis, who would largely eclipse his namesake in Egyptian religious culture.
Set’s Role in Egyptian Mythology
As mentioned, Set was the god of storms and chaos. He represented the desert and all its terrors, from its punishing hot winds to the savage beasts that dwelt beyond the comfort of the cities. By extension, he was also the god of all things foreign, even to the point of being romantically linked with foreign goddesses, notably the Canaanite goddess Astarte and the Mesopotamian goddess Anat.
But while he was associated with terrifying and destructive things, Set wasn’t necessarily himself an evil god. Views of him would shift with time, but in general, Set was seen as overseeing unpleasant but necessary elements of the overall balance, part of the equilibrium that comprised the central philosophical concept the Ancient Egyptians called ma’at.
Further, Set’s associations were not uniformly so dire. He was believed to ride upon the boat of Ra as the sun god sailed through the Underworld each night and defended the boat from the serpent god Apep. And there are strong indications that in the Old Kingdom – despite their mythic rivalry – Horus and Set acted as complementary aspects that pharaohs should embody.
Depictions of Set God
The earliest depictions of Set date from centuries before the beginning of the Dynastic Period and the Old Kingdom. Representations of Set have been found belonging to the Naqada Culture, who occupied areas of what would become Upper Egypt centuries before the unification of Egypt, and hint that Set may have originally been the chief deity in select parts of Upper Egypt, particularly the ancient city of Ombos.
READ MORE: Ancient Egyptian Timeline
These depictions are sparse, however. No temple structures or major statuary has been found related to Set, and the assumptions about his worship in predynastic culture are based largely on later references and minor depictions such as those on the artifact known as the Scorpion macehead (named for the predynastic King Scorpion).
The Set Animal
Early representations of Set tend to be in the form of what is referred to as the “Set Animal,” or sha, a creature having a lean canine body, squarish ears wider at the top, a stiff and usually forked tail, and a long-curved snout. Set was portrayed almost exclusively as the sha in these early depictions, while later incarnations are humanoid in the manner of other Egyptian gods – a man with the head of the Set Animal.
The Set Animal has never been successfully matched to any known creature – unlike the more familiar hawks, jackals, crocodiles, and other conventional animals used in depictions of other gods. There has been speculation that the sha might be a depiction of an aardvark, giraffe, or breed of dog known as the Saluki or Persian greyhound. It’s even been suggested that it represents an extinct creature unknown in modern times or perhaps a purely mythological creature similar to dragons or griffons in European folklore.
Egyptian Myths about Set
Despite the long tenure of Egyptian civilization and the voluminous record of hieroglyphs, scrolls, and inscriptions, there is surprisingly little in the way of comprehensive myths from ancient Egypt. There is no single great work of Egyptian cosmology, no index of the Egyptian pantheon – at least, none that has survived to the modern day or been uncovered via excavation.
Many of the stories and relationships we understand today concerning the Egyptian gods have been recreated and cobbled together from scattered records by Egyptologists. But among the rare exceptions, a few prominently feature Set and his relationships with other members of his family.
Set and Osiris
As the eldest sibling among the first five gods, Osiris was the rightful ruler of creation. He reigned as Pharaoh, bringing agriculture and civilization to the people of Egypt, and, in general, was seen as a wise and benevolent ruler.
Set was jealous of his brother’s station and coveted the throne for himself. In some accounts, his jealousy was compounded by the betrayal of his own wife, Nephthys, who disguised herself as Osiris’ wife, Isis, to seduce the god-king and give birth to the jackal-headed Anubis.
The Deadly Party
Set devised a plan to do away with his brother and take his throne. He made an exquisite chest (sometimes described as a casket), crafted to Osiris’ exact measurements, then threw a grand party to which he invited his elder brother.
During the party, Set offered the chest to whoever fits perfectly inside it. Each guest tried in turn, but none of them quite fit inside it.
Then came Osiris’ turn. He lay in the casket, which – being made specifically for him – was a perfect fit, at which point Set quickly slammed down the lid.
In the variations of this story, Set either acts alone or with multiple accomplices. In some versions, he murders Osiris in the casket, while in others, he simply tosses it into the Nile and Osiris suffocates as it floats away.
Whatever the case, Osiris had been disposed of, and Set took the throne in his stead. Unfortunately for Egypt, the chaotic lord of storms was not the ruler his brother was, and his rule was marked by drought, starvation, and social unrest.
The Loyal Wife
Isis did not simply accept her husband’s fate, however. She searched far and wide for her husband’s body, walking among humans in disguise as she scoured Egypt for some trace of Osiris.
The most common version – reflected in this account by the Greek historian Plutarch – is that the casket had washed up into some brush and ultimately became embedded in the trunk of a tamarisk tree. Holding within it the body of a god, the tree had grown to an unusual size and stunning beauty and ultimately had been harvested to make a great pillar in the palace of the king of Byblos.
Isis entered the palace disguised as an elderly woman, then revealed herself to the fearful king and queen, who offered her whatever she wished. She asked for the pillar and, thereby, reclaimed the body of her husband, intending to resurrect him.
Set’s Continuing Vendetta
Unfortunately, this did not go to plan. When Isis brought her husband’s body back to Egypt, she was naturally fearful that Set would discover it. As a safeguard, she hid it in a marsh but then asked her younger sister, Nephthys, to keep watch and make sure Set didn’t discover it.
Set, while searching for Osiris, happened upon Nephthys and swiftly tricked her into revealing the casket’s location. Eager to prevent his brother’s resurrection, he hurried to the casket, opened it, and hacked the body into several pieces (fourteen, by some accounts), tossing them into the Nile.
Isis’ Continuing Determination
Isis didn’t let this tragedy break her resolve, however. Rather, she – with the help of her sister Nephthys, began searching the river to retrieve the pieces. Taking the form of a falcon, Isis scouted for the pieces of Osiris’ body and collected them one by one.
She was almost successful, managing to find every piece but one – his manhood, which had been eaten by an Oxyrhynchus fish (a freshwater fish abundant in the Nile). With the pieces she had, she sewed the body back together and used magic to return Osiris to life.
Osiris’ New Role
Having endured death and dismemberment, Osiris was no longer suited to rule over the living and thus was unable to reclaim his throne. Instead, he bade his wife goodbye and journeyed to the underworld, where he would become Lord of the Dead and judge the souls of deceased humans.
This wasn’t the end of the story, however. When Isis collected the scattered pieces of her husband, she had also magically taken his seed into herself and when she bid him farewell, she was already carrying the child whose rivalry with Set would exceed that of his father – the god Horus.
Set and Horus
The struggle between Set and Horus may well be the most fully formed myth in ancient Egyptian religion. Indeed, its complexity and fully woven narrative have given it a singular place in the eyes of many experts in ancient Egyptian literature.
This myth has endured thanks to a scroll from the reign of Ramesses V during the Twentieth Dynasty. Called Chester Beatty I (after the Irish tycoon Alfred Chester Beatty, who held a vast collection of ancient manuscripts), this papyrus scroll includes a story called The Contendings of Horus and Seth.
The story, as related in Chester Beatty I is not complete – the scroll picks up after the two gods have already begun fighting over the throne. But it nonetheless gives a long and detailed account of their battle for the crown.
Backstory – the Birth of Horus
Fearful of Set, Isis fled to give birth hidden away in the marshlands of the Nile Delta. In some versions of the tale, she is initially captured by her brother but escapes with the help of the god Thoth before Set can realize she is with child.
In the wild marshlands, Isis raised her son in secret, teaching him about both his birthright and the murderous uncle who stood in his way, while also protecting the child from the beasts and hazards of the delta itself.
She is not fully successful in this – in one account, the boy is bitten by a venomous snake while Isis is away finding food. When she returns, her cries for help bring Thoth and Hathor, who immediately save the child from the venom. This would feed into the idea of Horus as protected by fate, and depictions of Horus being unfazed and unaffected by scorpions, snakes, crocodiles, and the like would later become common totems of protection in Egyptian homes as a result.
When he was grown, Horus set out to challenge Set for his father’s throne. It is here that the Chester Beatty I papyrus picks up the story when the two gods – after some earlier undescribed conflicts – take their case before the Ennead, or nine primary gods including Atum, his children Shu and Tefnut, his grandchildren Geb and Nut, and Set’s remaining siblings.
The two would stand before this tribunal for eighty years with no decision being made – Horus was the rightful heir but was seen as too young and inexperienced to rule. Set was strong and capable, but he was also a murderer who had usurped the throne.
The Hippopotamus Challenge
Ultimately, the debate dissolved into a series of contests. For the first, Set suggested they each transform into a hippopotamus and see who could hold their breath underwater longer. Horus agreed, but Set – long associated with hippos and wild beasts – clearly had the advantage, and it was quickly apparent that he would win.
Seeing that her son was in danger, Isis threw a harpoon intending to hit Set, but she struck her own son instead. Even though she quickly withdrew it and struck Set, ending the contest, Horus – enraged that she had struck him – emerged from the water and cut off her head with his cleaver, then fled to the mountains carrying his mother’s severed head with him.
The Eyes of Horus
Seeing Horus’ mutilation of his own mother, the Ennead immediately called for him to be hunted down and punished. They all scoured the mountains for him, but it was Set that found him.
He attacked his nephew, cutting out both his eyes and burying them in the earth (in some accounts, Horus cuts off Set’s testicles in the fight). Set then returned to Ra and the other gods, falsely claiming not to have found Horus.
The goddess Hathor comes across the injured Horus and – healing his eyes with milk from a gazelle – returns him to the Ennead and exposes Set’s lie. The Ennead insisted that the two suspend their battling so they could deliberate in peace, so Set invited Horus to come rest in his house.
Some versions of this story have Set only removing one of Horus’ eyes. Since filling the empty socket with the healing milk mimicked the waxing of the moon, this eye came to represent the moon, while the sky god’s other, uninjured eye represented the sun.
Legend says that Horus later offered his restored eye to Osiris in the underworld as an offering. In consequence, the Eye of Horus, also called the wedjat eye, would go on to become one of the most recognizable and enduring symbols of protection and restoration and was a common feature in Egyptian funerary rites.
The sleepover at Set’s house leads to the strangest and most lurid of the contests between the two gods. During the night, Set attempts to dominate Horus sexually, but is thwarted when the god catches Set’s seed in his hand instead and discards it in the marsh.
Horus reveals this defilement to his mother, who – through the application of a special ointment – extracts some of Horus’ own seed. Visiting Set’s garden, she spreads the seed on the lettuce (confirming with the gardener that it was Set’s favorite vegetable), ensuring that Set would consume Horus’ seed.
When the two gods next stood in front of the tribunal, Set boasted of his insemination of Horus as proof of his dominance. Horus, in response, denounced Set as a liar and demanded the Ennead summon up both gods’ seed to see from whence it answered.
Thoth called up Set’s seed, and it answered from the marsh. He called Horus’, and it answered from within Set. In the face of this irrefutable proof of Set’s lie, the tribunal found in favor of Horus.
The Final Challenge
Outraged, Set insisted on one final challenge before Horus was crowned – a boat race. The two would race in boats made of stone, and whoever won would be crowned ruler.
In this last contest, like the ones before, Horus outsmarted his uncle. He built a boat of pinewood, coating it with gypsum to resemble stone. Set, meanwhile, cut the top from a mountain to craft his stone boat.
The two began racing, and Set’s boat (unsurprisingly) sank almost immediately. He transformed once more into a hippopotamus and attempted to scuttle Horus’ boat as well. Horus tried to harpoon Set in response, but at the Ennead’s urging not to harm him, Horus simply sailed on.
He journeyed on to the ancient city of Sais in the Delta, where he confronted the ancient creation goddess Neith. “Let judgment be passed on me and Seth, seeing that it is eighty years now that we have been in the tribunal,” he told her, noting that he had bested Set in every challenge and proven himself.
With the Ennead in agreement, Horus was crowned with the White Crown and ascended to the throne of his father. Set relented, and – facing harsh judgment from the sun god Ra for his transgressions – finally accepted his defeat and acknowledged Horus won the right to rule.
In some versions, Horus and Set came to an agreement to divide Egypt, with the fertile, populated valley under Horus’ domain and the brutal desert and vicious wilds under Set’s rule. The Black Land was Horus’, the Red Land Set’s, and their long conflict was finally brokered into a stable peace.
Set Through Egypt’s History
While Set was seen as a sort of trickster god through much of Egyptian religious history, attitudes about him were not always consistent. In the early days of Predynastic Egypt and the Old Kingdom, Set was seen in a positive light in Upper Egypt, and in unified Egypt, he still maintained an overall balanced reputation.
In the Pyramid Texts, a set of funerary texts carved into the walls of pyramid tombs at Saqqara in the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, Horus and Set are in some places mentioned almost as partners. Indeed, in some references, the two work together to protect souls ascending to heaven, and Set is depicted as protecting the souls of the dead from an unnamed threat.
While his status as the “first murderer” clearly casts him in a bad light – as did his many devious schemes – he was also associated with foreigners and foreign lands. In at least the earlier epochs of Egyptian history, this afforded Set at least some redeeming qualities.
Set During the Second Intermediate Period
With the invasion of the Hyksos in the Second Intermediate Period, however, Set took on an unmistakably darker tone. As the god most associated with foreigners, the conquest of Egypt by a foreign army left an indelible stain on his reputation, and it is from this period onward that Set becomes a more unrepentantly evil figure. The fact that the Hyksos adopted Set as their patron god due to his similarity to their own Canaanite storm god Haddad only made matters worse.
He would continue to be associated with foreign gods, from another Canaanite god Baal to the Hittite Teshub to the Greek Typhon. In each of these cases, Set became increasingly associated with brutal foreign invaders. His positive traits were entirely overshadowed, and his crimes against Osiris and Horus became prominent in his mythology, reducing the more complex outsider god to a mere devil of Egyptian mythology.