Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Conflict Between Horus and Seth

The myth of the conflict between Seth and Horus appears to be rooted deep in the history of the Upper and Lower kingdoms of Egypt.  The conflict begins after Seth has dismembered Osiris, the father of Horus, and is trying to claim the throne of Egypt for himself.  According to Griffiths, the entire trial of this myth is dealing with the sovereignty of Egypt and the conflict between the Upper and Lower Kingdoms[1].  The myth in question shall be laid out followed by reasoning as to why it was important to the kings of Egypt.

At the beginning of the trail part of the myth, Horus goes before the Great Ennead to plead his case against the murder of his father by Seth, and to denounce the taking of the rule of Egypt.  The gods of the Ennead heard Horus’ speech and were both pleased and impressed with him and what he had to say.  The fact that Horus had justice and the legitimate claim to the throne on his side persuaded Shu to decree that Horus should be the inheritor of the kingdom that was Osiris, and this was seconded by Thoth, the god of wisdom’[2]. 

Isis, mother of Horus, was extremely happy with the decision that was made to let Horus have the kingdom of Osiris and sent word of the decision to the west, which was according to the Egyptians, the direction of the underworld where Osiris had become the God of the Dead.  This is in part due to the conflict between Osiris and Seth.  Through these conflicts and multiple killings of by Seth, Osiris gained in significance until he absorbed the essence of Khentiamentiu, Foremost of Westerners[3], and became Osiris, Foremost of Westerners[4].

Horus was given the White Crown[5] by Shu, which angered Seth and started declaring that he should be the rightful owner of the White Crown, as he is the only god that can slay the enemies of Re each day in the Bark of Millions of Years, which is the vessel rowed by the twelve great gods around the zodiac[6].  The Ennead at this statement began to reconsider their position in favour of Seth, but Horus countered by asking them if they would give the office to the uncle when the bodily son is present[7].  At this point, Isis was displeased with the Ennead and complained to them until they gave in to her and promised that they would honour the original verdict in the name of justice for Horus. 

Seth began to threaten the entire Ennead that if they went back on their word to give him the kingdom of Osiris, he would kill one of them each day, and that he wanted to have a trial without Isis being present[8].  Re agreed to the further trial without Isis, and moved the location to the Island in the Midst with instructions that Isis was not allowed to be taken there.  Isis however, being the goddess of magic, changed into an old crone and loaded herself with flour and honeycakes.  She went to the ferryman and paid him with a gold ring to take her to the Island in the Midst[9]. 

She found where the Ennead were holding a feast and saw that Seth was standing away from the rest of the gods.  She changed once again, this time into a beautiful young woman in a widow’s garb.  As she approached Seth, he asked her who she was and why she was there.  Crying, Isis told Seth that she was looking for someone to avenge her as her husband, a herdsman, had died suddenly, leaving just her and their son, and that a man had came and taken their cattle and their land, and threatened the son if he tried to do anything about it.  Seth told Isis not to cry and that he would be her champion to avenge her and destroy this man, as it was not right that the man should take what rightfully should go to the son[10]. 

When Seth had proclaimed this, Isis began to laugh at him and told him that he had just judged himself, and she then flew away.  The rest of the gods asked Seth why he was enraged, and he told them how Isis had tricked him.  Re told Seth that he had indeed judged himself, and the Ennead moved to the mountains and began to prepare to hand the White Crown to Horus.  Seth then challenged Horus to a contest in the river as hippopotami for the rule of the kingdom.  Horus accepted the challenge and the contest lasted for many days.  Isis fashioned a magical harpoon and threw it in the river to spear Seth, but misses and catches Horus first.  Horus complains and Isis removes the harpoon and casts it again, this time catching Seth.  Seth convinces her to remove it as they are brother and sister, so she does, and Horus becomes enraged and comes out of the river and cuts off Isis’ head[11]. 

Horus then leaves and goes into the mountains.  When Re finds Isis without a head, he orders Horus found and brought back for punishment.  Seth finds Horus in the desert and removes his eyes and buries them, returns to Re and then says that he could not find Horus.  Hathor, however, found Horus in the desert in pain and milks a gazelle to magically cure his eyes.  After this, Hathor returns to Re and informs him that Seth was lying and what really happened.  This makes Re loose his temper and orders Seth and Horus brought before him.  Re informs them both that everyone is tired of their fighting and that they need to stop.  Seth acquiesces and invites Horus to a feast.  That night, Seth attempts to rape Horus, but Horus unbeknownst to Seth blocks the semen with his hand and tells Isis what happened[12].

Isis the cut off Horus’ hand and threw it into a marsh.  In order to get revenge on Seth and humiliate him, Isis uses her magic to extract the semen of Horus into a jar and then goes and spreads it on the lettuce in Seth’s garden so that he will eat it.  Soon, Seth eats the lettuce and then goes to the court of the Ennead to humiliate Horus by proclaiming how he has homosexually dominated him.  The Ennead is disgusted with Horus and begin to spit at him, but Horus laughs it off.  Horus asks that both his and Seth’s semen be called forward so that everyone can see where they come from and that Seth is lying[13]. 
Thoth performs the summoning by placing his hand on Horus first and asking for Seth’s semen.  Seth’s semen comes forward from the marshes instead of from Horus.  Thoth then places his hand on Seth and calls for Horus’ semen, which comes out of Seth in the form of a golden disk above his head.  This humiliates Seth and vindicates Horus, but Seth still refuses to back down.  He proposes one last competition of building boats from stone and sailing them in a race.   Horus builds his boat from wood first, and covers it in a stone plaster and launches it.  Seth, not knowing that this is what Horus had done, cut the top of a mountain off and used it for his boat[14]. 

When Seth’s boat sinks and Horus’ does not, Seth becomes angry and changes once again into a hippopotamus and destroys Horus’ boat.  Horus, angered by Seth, gets his spear and tried to kill Seth, but is stopped by the gods.  In frustration, Horus sails to Sais to consult with Neith, asking why after being proved the rightful heir to the kingdom of Osiris many times is a decision not yet made.   While Horus was at Sais, Thoth convinces Re to write to Osiris and give him titles and powers in the underworld and asks him for his opinion on Horus and Seth.  Osiris explains how important he was to the gods, and that as such, Horus should be his heir.  Re is offended with Osiris’ response and tells him that he was not influential at all.  Osiris retaliates with threats of using the souls in the underworld to track down anyone who is doing wrong, as well as a reminder that everyone, including the gods, go to the underworld at some point.  This convinces the Ennead to grant everything to Horus at last, and Seth’s final humiliation is at the hands of Isis when she leads him in front of the gods as a prisoner to abdicate the throne.  Re takes pity on Seth again and declares that Seth will ride with him through the sky and be the thunder[15]. 

Geb then proclaimed that Horus was going to be the uniter of the land, and the two great magickians appeared on Horus’ head, and he arose as the king of both Upper and Lower Egypt.  From this time, Horus and Seth were united and pacified, and was signified by the papyrus and reeds placed on the door of the house of Ptah[16]. 

From this myth depicting the struggle between Seth and Horus over the rightful kingship of Egypt, it can be surmised that the myth is a depiction of the unification of the Upper and Lower kingdoms in the pre-dynastic era by the cults that worshiped Horus in the Lower kingdom gaining more power than those that worshiped Seth in the Upper, as postulated by Griffiths[17].  The entire trial depicted in the myth would be a retelling of some of the struggles between the two cults of these gods, and the first verdict of Horus being given the kingdom would be the depiction of that cult overcoming the cult of Seth at that time.  Towards the end of the myth, when the god Geb proclaims Horus the uniter of the land and that Horus and Seth were from that time unified and pacified, this would be showing the final triumph of the Horus-cult over that of Seth[18]. 

Further evidence in the Pyramid Texts suggests that Seth and Horus were incorporated in the King, and both gods have been depicted as cooperating for the good of the king.  Both of these things suggest that the legend of the conflict and reconciliation is in relation to an important fact in Egypt’s history such as the formation of a united kingdom[19].  The fact that the gods Horus and Seth are both seen as being unified and then personified in the actual king or pharaoh of Egypt would have made this a highly significant myth to the kings.  The myth shows that the king is a god, and that he is the rightful heir by divine decree of the Ennead to rule over all of Egypt.  This fact would also lend weight to why the myth was perpetuated throughout Egypt around the first dynastic period when the kingdoms were united.  By doing so, the people of Egypt would accept the pharaoh as their king more readily during the unification process. 


D'Auria, S., Lacovara, P., Roehrig, C.  (1988). "Osiris" in Mummies and Magic: The Funerary Arts of Ancient Egypt.  pg. 50-51

Griffiths, G.  (1960).  Interpretation in the Conflict of Horus and Seth From Egyptian and Classical Sources.  pg. 119-148

 Hart, G.  (1990). "Myth of kingship" in Egyptian Myths.  pg. 29-41

Massey, G.  (2001).  Ancient Egypt: The Light of the World – A Work of Reclamation and Restitution in Twelve Books.  Adamant Media Corporation

[1] Griffiths Interpretation p. 121
[3] Westerners here mean the dead; thus ‘Foremost of the Westerners’ means the leader or god of the dead.
[4] D’Auria, Osiris, p. 51
[5] Which is the upper kingdom of Egypt
[6] Massey, Ancient Egypt  p. 337
[8] Ibid
[9] Ibid
[10] Ibid
[11] Hart Myth of Kingship p. 36
[12] Ibid
[13] Ibid p. 37
[14] Ibid
[15] Ibid
[17] Griffiths Interpretation p. 140-142
[18] Ibid
[19] Ibid p. 121

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