Set (Seth)

Set (Seth, Setekh, Sut, Sutekh, Sety) was one of the most ancient of the Egyptian gods and the focus of worship since the Predynastic Period. As part of the Ennead of Heliopolis he was the son of Nut and Geb and the brother of Osiris, Horus the elder, Isis, and Nephthys.

Set was a storm god associated with strange and frightening events such as eclipses, thunderstorms, and earthquakes. He also represented the desert and, by extension, the foreign lands beyond the desert. His glyph appears in the Egyptian words for “turmoil”, “confusion”, “illness”, “storm”, and “rage”.

Set was considered to be very strong but dangerous, and strange. Even as an infant Set was unpredictable and destructive. According to the Pyramid Texts he ripped himself violently from his mother’s womb instead of being born normally like his siblings. However, he was not always considered to be an evil being. Set was a friend of the dead, helping them to ascend to heaven on his ladder, and he protected the life giving oases of the desert, and was at times a powerful ally to the pharaoh and even the sun god Ra.

Set, Mortuary Temple of Sahure
Set, Mortuary Temple of Sahure, Neithsabes, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Set, from the tomb of Thuthmosis III (KV34)
Set, from the tomb of Thuthmosis III (KV34), Hajor CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The earliest representation of Set can be found on a carved ivory comb from the Amratian period (Naqada I, 4500BC – 35BC, orthodox dates) and he also appears on the famous Scorpion mace head. His worship seems to have originated in one of the most ancient settlements in the town of Nubt (Kom Ombo), in upper (southern) Egypt.

Nubt (near modern Tukh) lies close to the entrance to the Wadi Hammammat, the doorway to the eastern desert and its gold deposits, and the city took its name from the word for gold, Nbt (which also means ruler or lord). As a result Set was sometimes called “He of gold town”. Nubt was the most important of the ancient settlements, and was located close to the site of the Naqqada settlement from which this early culture takes it name. Pre-dynastic worship of Set was also evident in the 11th and 19th Nomes of Upper Egypt. The standard for the 11th Nome is topped by a Set animal, and the name of the main town, Sha-shtp, means “The pig (Set) is pacified”, and Set was worshipped in his form as a fish in the capital of the 19th Nome.

At this point in history, Set was clearly associated with Upper Egypt and was a popular and esteemed god. However, by the Second Intermediate Period he was associated with the Hyksos (who probably saw a similarity between Set and Baal) and so he became seen as a force for evil. He was then “rehabilitated” by the Nineteenth Dynasty pharaohs (notably Seti I whose name means “man of Set”) only to be recast as an evil deity by Greek, Roman, and Christian theologians.

Set was sometimes described as the black boar who swallowed the moon each month, obscuring it’s light. He was also identified with the hippopotamus, crocodiles, scorpions, turtles, pigs, and donkeys – all animals which were considered to be unclean or dangerous. Some fish were considered to be sacred to Set (most notably the Nile carp and the Oxyrynchus) as legend held that fish ate the penis of Osiris after Set had dismembered him. However, he was most often depicted as a “Set animal” or a man with the head of a “Set animal”.

Set and Nephthys
Set and Nephthys, Rama, CC BY-SA 3.0 FR, via Wikimedia Commons
Seth Amulet New Kingdom
Seth Amulet, New Kingdom, Louvre Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0

The Set animal (sometimes known as a”Typhonian animal” because of the Greek identification with Typhon) is a dog or jackal like creature, but it is not clear whether it exactly represented an extinct species, or was a mythological beast uniquely associated with Set himself.

In the Osirian mythology he was married to Nephthys, but their marriage was not a happy one. Set also had many other wives/concubines. According to one myth he lived in the Great Bear, a constellation in the northern sky – an area which symbolized darkness and death. He was restrained with chains and guarded by his wife Taweret, the hippo goddess of childbirth. He was given the two foreign goddesses Anat and Astarte (war goddesses from the Syria-Palestine area and daughters of Ra) as wives in compensation for Ma’at’s (or Neith’s) ruling that Horus should rule Egypt. He was sometimes referred to as the consort of Neith, the goddess of hunting and weaving – despite some legends viewing her as the mother of Ra (his father).

He had no children, despite being married to a goddess of childbirth, a Cannanite fertility goddess and others. This was considered to be very unconventional by the Egyptians. Not only was he infertile, but one of his testicles had been torn off by Horus when Set tore out Horus’ eye. He only ate lettuce, which was sacred to the fertility god Min because it secreted a white, milky substance that the Egyptians linked to semen and he was considered to have odd sexual habits. He was bisexual, and tried (and failed) to rape both Horus and Isis.

Set’s battle with Horus (the elder and the child) and Osiris

During the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom, Horus the Elder and Set represented Upper and Lower Egypt. They were often depicted together symbolising the union of Upper and Lower Egypt. He was equal to the hawk god (Horus the Elder, not Horus son of Isis), if not always his ally. Horus represented the sky during the daytime, while Set represented the night time 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.

Set and Horus crown Rameses II (Abu Simbel)
Set and Horus crown Rameses II (Abu Simbel)

Although they fought, neither party could win and it was believed that they would continue to fight until the end of time when Ma’at was destroyed and the waters of Nun (chaos) engulfed the world. However, once Set had been recast as an evil entity, the story changed to record that Horus had won their battle, and thus good had triumphed over evil.

Some historians have argued that the battle between Set and Horus was a mythological representation of the struggle to unite Egypt under one ruler. According to this theory, the followers of Horus were successful and so Set was pushed into the background. It is interesting to note that the pharaoh Sekhemhib (also known as Seth Peribsen) displayed his name in a serekh topped by a Set animal, not a falcon (representing Horus), while the serekh of Khasekhemwy (his successor) included both a Set animal and a falcon. This has been taken as evidence that the battle between Upper and Lower Egypt had been won and the ruler wished to appease both factions.

Set was jealous of his brother Osiris. Two reasons are given for this jealousy. The first is that Osiris was made Pharaoh of Egypt after Geb resigned the throne. Set felt that he should have been given this accolade, and wished to usurp the throne. The second reason is that, according to one myth, his wife Nephthys tricked Osiris into having sex with her (by disguising herself as her sister Isis, the wife of Osiris), and bore him a son – Anubis. Set was understandably unhappy about the situation but seems to have held his grudge against his (more handsome) brother Osiris rather than his unfaithful wife. Whatever the reason, Set decided that his brother had to die.

He made a great feast, supposedly in honour of Osiris, and offered a beautifully carved chest to whichever guest would fit into it. Of course, the chest was built to fit Osiris, and when he lay down inside it, Set’s followers nailed the lid shut and threw the chest into the Nile. Isis managed to find the chest and bring it back to Egypt. However, Set discovered the chest and dismembered the corpse of his brother, spreading the parts all over the country.

Isis and Nepthys began their search for the pieces of Osiris, but his penis could not be found (because it was swallowed by a fish in the Nile). Undaunted, Isis reassembled the pieces and magically conceived her child, Horus. When he grew up he fought with Set, essentially adopting the position of Horus the Elder as the enemy of Set. This of course, added to the confusion between Horus the Elder and Horus the son of Isis and Set’s role changed from being an equal to his brother Horus the Elder, to the evil uncle of his nephew Horus the child.

Horus and Set unite the two lands.
Sema-tawy (uniting the two lands), Soutekh67, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

However, Set was not always cast in the role of villain, and Horus and Set could also work together. In the scene above, they unite upper and lower Egypt bringing balance to the two lands (sema-tawy “uniting the two lands”).

Despite the part he played in the death of Osiris, Set was considered to be the defender of the sun god Ra. he protected the solar barque on its journey through the underworld (or the night sky) and fought the serpent Apep. Yet, even when he was acting to protect Ra, the negative side of his personality was apparent.

He often boasted that he was the only one of the gods brave enough to stand against Apep and demanded that he be treated with great respect. He even threatened Ra that if he was not treated well enough he would bring storms against him. Ra eventually tired of his taunting and expelled Set from his barque, relying on the help of the other gods to complete his nightly journey.

Set spearing Apep
Set defending Ra from Apep

Set was thought to have white skin and red hair, and people with red hair were thought to be his followers. He was associated with the desert (which takes its name from the Egyptian word “dshrt” – the red place). He represented the fierce dry heat of the sun as it parched the land, and was infertile like the desert. Initially, he probably represented the desert near Nubt, but soon he represented all deserts and foreign lands, becoming a god of overseas trade.

Set had been associated with the desert and foreigners for some time before the Hyksos took over parts of lower Egypt. However, when they took him as their main god, this broke Set’s association with Lower Egypt. His name was erased from monuments and his statues destroyed. All of his negative attributes were emphasised and his positive side was ignored.

But Set’s fortunes soon changed. The pharaohs of the Nineteenth Dynasty were from the Delta area where worship of Set was still popular. It is also interesting that both Seti I (who even named himself after Set) and Ramesses II seem to have had red hair. Although Amun was the state god, Set was more highly venerated in the Delta. Ramesses II divided his army into four divisions, and named one after Set. When he fought the Hittities he was described as being “like Set in the moment of his power” and “like Set, great-of-strength”. He even named his daughter Bint-Anat (Daughter of Anath, Set’s wife).

The Greeks associated Set with Typhon, the largest monster ever born. Typhon was the son of the Earth and Tartarus (the place of torture in Hades), and thoroughly evil. Both were storm gods associated with the colour red and with pigs (whose meat was considered to be unclean by many cultures including the Egyptians). However, unlike Typhon Set had a protective role and even in his negative aspects the Egyptians understood his place in the world. He was dangerous and unpredictable, but could be a powerful friend.

During the Ptolemaic Period a temple to both Horus and Sobek (who was often associated with Set as both took the form of a crocodile) was built south of Nubt and named Ombos (now known as Kom Ombos) after the god of the ancient city – Set.

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Copyright J Hill 2008