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Horus: The Egyptian God of War and the Sky

Isis suckling Horus.

Horus is the ancient Egyptian god of the sky and war. In Egyptian lore, there are two divine beings sharing this name. Horus the Elder, also known as Horus the Great was the last of the first five original gods to be born, while Horus the Younger, was the son Isis and Osiris. The Horus deity is depicted in so many different forms and in surviving inscriptions that it is almost impossible to differentiate between the forms to identify the true Horus.

The name Horus originates from the Latin version of the ancient Egyptian Hor, which translates as “the Distant One.” This is points to Horus’ role as the sky god. The elder Horus was the brother of Isis, Osiris, Nephthys and Set, and is known as Horus the Great or Haroeris or Harwer in ancient Egyptian. The son of Osiris and Isis is known as Horus the Child or Hor pa khered in ancient Egyptian. Horus the Younger was a formidable sky god associated primarily with the sun but also the moon. He was the protector of Egypt’s royalty, defender of order, an avenger of wrongs, a unifying force for Egypt’s two kingdoms and, a war god after his battles with Set. He was frequently invoked by Egyptian rulers prior to going into battle and celebrated after a victory.

In time, Horus the Younger became linked with the sun god Ra forming a new deity, Ra-Harahkhte, the god of the sun who during the day sailed across the sky. Ra-Harahkhte was depicted as a falcon-headed man wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt complete with the sun disk. His symbols are the Eye of Horus and the falcon.

Facts About Horus

  • Falcon headed sky god with many attributes
  • Horus translates as “the one far above”
  • One of ancient Egypt‘s most important gods, Horus’ worship spanned over 5,000 years
  • Horus the Elder also known as Horus the Great was the youngest of the ancient Egyptian’s five original gods
  • Horus the Younger was Osiris’ & Isis’ son, he defeated Set his uncle and restored order to Egypt
  • Horus was also known as the War God, Sun God, Horus Lord of the Two Lands, God of the Dawn, Keeper of Secret Wisdom, Horus the Avenger, Son of Truth, God of Kingship and the Hunter’s God
  • Due to these different forms and names, it’s impossible to identify the one true falcon god, however, Horus is always depicted as the ruler of the gods
  • Horus was also the patron saint of the pharaoh, who was often known as the ‘Living Horus.’

Horus Worship

Horus was venerated in the same way as any other god in Egypt’s pantheon. Temples were dedicated to Horus and his statue positioned in its inner sanctum where only the chief priest could attend him. The priests of the Horus Cult were exclusively male. They associated their order with Horus and claimed protection from Isis their “mother.” Horus’ temple was designed to mirror the Egyptian afterlife in the Field of Reeds. The temple had a reflecting pool, the Lily Lake. The temple was the god’s palace in the afterlife and its courtyard was his garden.

Egyptians would visit the courtyard to deliver donations, ask for the god’s intervention, to have their dreams interpreted or to receive alms. The temple was also where they came for advice, medical help, marriage guidance, and for protection from ghosts, evil spirits or black magic.

Horus’ cult was centred on the Delta. Main sites were Khem where Horus was concealed as an infant, Behdet and Pe where Horus lost his eye during his battle with Set. Horus was worshipped with Hathor and their son Harsomptus at Edfu and Kom Ombos in Upper Egypt.

Horus And His Connection To Egypt’s Kings

Having defeated Set and restored order to the cosmos, Horus was known as Horu-Sema-Tawy, Uniter of the Two Lands, The Horus. Horus reinstated his parent’s policies, revitalized the land, and ruled shrewdly. This is why Egypt‘s kings from the First Dynastic Period onwards, linked themselves with Horus and adopted upon their coronation a “Horus Name” for their rule.

During their reign, the king was the physical manifestation of Horus on earth and enjoyed Isis’ protection. As the Pharaoh was the “Great House” protecting his subjects, all Egyptians enjoyed Horus’ protection. Horus’ importance as the maintainer of order and unifying force of Egypt’s two lands reflected of the concept of balance and harmony, which was at the very heart of the Egyptian concept of kingship.

Horus The Elder

Horus the elder is one of Egypt’s oldest gods, born of a union between Geb the earth and Nut the sky following the creation of the world. Horus was charged with overseeing the sky and, in particular, the sun. One of the earliest surviving Egyptian divine images is that of a falcon in a boat representing Horus in his sun barge voyaging across the heavens. Horus is also shown as a benevolent protector and creator god.

Horus The Elder’s name dates back to the start of Egypt’s Dynastic Period. Egyptian Predynastic ruler (c. 6000-3150 BCE) was referred to as “Followers of Horus” which indicates an even earlier start to Horus worship in Egypt.

In his role as The Distant One Horus goes forth from Ra and returns, bringing transformation. The sun and the moon were seen as Horus’ eyes helping him to watch over people day and night but also to draw near to them in times of trouble or doubt. Imagined as a falcon, Horus could fly far from Ra and return with critical information and, brought comfort to people in need in much the same way.

Horus was linked with Egypt’s king from the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150-c.2613 BCE) onwards. The Serekh, the earliest of the king’s symbols, showed a falcon on a perch. Devotion to Horus spread across Egypt in different forms, adopting different traditions, and a range of rituals to honour the god. These variations eventually led to his transition from the Horus the Elder to the child of Osiris and Isis.

The Osiris Myth And Horus The Younger

The younger Horus quickly eclipsed him and absorbed many of his attributes. By the time of Egypt’s last ruling dynasty, the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323-30 BCE), Horus the Elder had been completely assimilated into Horus the Younger. Ptolemaic period statues of Horus the Child depict him as a young boy with his finger to his lips reflecting on the time when he had to hide from Set as a child. In this younger form, Horus represented a promise by the gods to care for suffering humanity as Horus himself had suffered as a child and empathized with humanity.

Horus’ story emerges from the Osiris Myth one of the most popular of all ancient Egyptian myths. It birthed the Cult of Isis. Shortly after the world is created, Osiris and Isis ruled over their paradise. When the tears of Atum or Ra gave birth to men and women they were barbaric and uncivilized. Osiris taught them to honour their gods through religious ceremonies, gave them culture, and taught them agriculture. At this time, men and women were all equal, thanks to the gifts of Isis, which were shared with everyone. Food was abundant and there was no need left unfulfilled.

Set, Osiris’ brother grew jealous of him. Eventually, envy turned to hatred when Set discovered his wife, Nephthys, had adopted Isis’ likeness and seduced Osiris. Set’s anger was not directed to Nephthys, however, but on his brother, “The Beautiful One”, a temptation too beguiling for Nephthys to resist. Set tricked his brother into laying down in a casket he had made to Osiris’ exact measurement. Once Osiris was inside, Set slammed the lid shut and tossed the box into the Nile River.

The casket floated down the Nile and was eventually caught in a tamarisk tree by the shores of Byblos. Here the king and queen were captivated by its sweet scent and beauty. They had it cut down for a pillar for their royal court. While this was happening, Set usurped Osiris’ place and reigned over the land with Nephthys. Set neglected the gifts Osiris and Isis had bestowed and drought and famine stalked the land. Isis understood she had to return Osiris back from Set’s banishment him and searched for him. Eventually, Isis found Osiris inside the tree-pillar at Byblos, She asked the king and queen for the pillar, and returned it to Egypt.

While Osiris was dead Isis knew how to resurrect him. She asked her sister Nephthys to guard the body and protect it from Set while she gathered herbs for potions. Set, discovered his brother had returned. He found Nephthys and tricked her into disclosing where Osiris’ body was hidden. Set hacked Osiris’ body into pieces and scattered the parts far across the land and into the Nile. When Isis returned, she was horrified to discover her husband’s body was missing. Nephthys explained how she had been tricked and Set’s treatment of Osiris’ body.

Both sisters scoured the land for Osiris’ body parts and reassembled Osiris’ body. A fish had eaten Osiris’ penis leaving him incomplete but Isis was able to return him to life. Osiris was resurrected but could no longer rule the living, as he was no longer whole. He descended to the underworld and reigned there as Lord of the Dead. Prior to his departure for the underworld Isis transformed herself into a kite and flew around his body, drawing his seed into her and thus becoming pregnant with Horus. Osiris departed to the underworld while Isis hid in Egypt’s vast Delta region to protect her son and herself from Set.

Reflecting On The Past

Horus is one of the most significant of all ancient Egypt’s gods. His triumphs and travails illustrate how the ancient Egyptians perceived their gods as living in family units with all the messy complexity that often entails and the value they attached to a divinity who offered them protection, avenged wrongs and unified the country.

Header image courtesy: E. A. Wallis Budge (1857-1937) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

David Rymer BA MBT

David is a freelance writer, non-fiction and fiction author and university lecturer in journalism, marketing and law. He has been based in the Middle East for over a decade travelling extensively in the region, including Egypt indulging in his passion for archaeology. He amuses himself in his down time by writing.

David can be found at @daviddoeswords and www.zaharablu.com

Cite this article

David Rymer BA MBT, "Horus: The Egyptian God of War and the Sky," Give Me History, March 15, 2019, https://givemehistory.com/horus.

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