Seth was ancient Egypt’s god of chaos, storms and war. Also known to the ancient Egyptians as Seth and Suetekh, Seth was the brother of Horus the Elder, Osiris and Isis, Nephthys brother-husband and uncle to Horus the Younger. Tawaret, Egypt’s hippo-headed goddess of fertility and childbirth was Seth’s other wife.
One of the initial five gods from a union between Geb or earth and Nut or sky after the world was created; his name translates as “destroyer” and “instigator of confusion.” Seth was linked to the colour red, harsh desert terrain, foreign people and disorder, which provide a telling insight into the Egyptian psyche.
Occasionally Seth is shown as a shaggy red-haired beast complete with cloven hooves and forked tail or a red, very shaggy dog-like creature. His animal totems were the crocodile, hippopotamus, griffin and tortoise. However, he was primarily connected with a serpent form.
Facts About Seth
- Seth was ancient Egypt’s god of chaos, war, storms, darkness, the desert and drought
- Seth was one of the five Osiran gods, brother of Horus the Elder, Osiris and Isis, husband and brother of Nephthys and Horus the Younger’s uncle
- Seth’s other wife was Egypt’s hippo-headed goddess of childbirth and fertility, Tawaret
- Seth was one of the first five gods born of the god Geb and Nut the sky goddess following the creation of the world
- Seth’s name means “destroyer” and “instigator of confusion”
- Seth was identified with red the colour, disorder, people from foreign lands and arid desert terrain
- Seth is depicted as a shaggy, red dog-like creature or a shaggy red-haired beast with a forked tail and cloven hooves
- The serpent was his primary form
- His animal totems were the crocodile, tortoise, griffin and hippopotamus
- Seth’s primary cult centres were at Avaris and Ombos
- Seth murdered Osiris, whose son, Horus, later avenged his father by killing Seth.
Originally a god of Upper Egypt in the south and the desolate lands beyond Egypt’s borders, Seth was known as the “Ruler of the South” Seth and the “Lord of the Desert.”
Originally in Egypt’s Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150 to c. 2613 BCE) Seth was a friendly god springing from the Upper Egypt kingdom. His name was called forth in creating love spells and often engraved on love charms. Seth was the god who saved Ra, the sun god from Apophis the serpent, a creature of evil who attempted to stop the sun god’s journey across the night sky to the dawn. Seth was also depicted as a patron who assisted the people during their lives and helped them following their deaths.
By the new Kingdom (1570-1069 BCE), Seth had become best known as the first murderer, who first murdered Osiris his older brother to grab power over the world before attempting to kill Horus, Osiris’ son. Just why Seth’s image and attributes altered from a god-hero to the adversary of justice and harmony remains unknown. Once the Osiris myth gained popularity in the New Kingdom, Seth’s conversion was complete. Common people and pharaohs such as Sethi I, Sethhnakhte, and Sethi II continued to summon his name when seeking help. Seth was also linked with distant goddesses such as Ugarit’s warrior-goddess Anat and Phoenicia’s Astarte, their Queen of Heaven. Scholars believe he was a manifestation of the vast dry, barren desert landscape and foreign lands beyond Egypt.
Seth’s Mythical History
As first-born of the gods, Osiris was the ruler of the world, which, to ancient Egyptians, implied their Egyptian lands. Osiris saw his people as uncivilized, so gifted culture and agriculture to them, created laws and showed them the proper rites to worship their gods.
Seth envied Osiris’ power, resenting his successful rule. This acrimony became more intense after Nephthys his wife, captivated by Osiris’ handsome looks, disguised herself as Isis and seduced Osiris and had his child the god Anubis.
Seth had a majestic casket made, matching Osiris’ precise measurements. He hosted a sumptuous party and following their banquet he announced a special surprise. He unveiled his chest and announced whoever fitted inside exactly could take it with them. Each of his guests tried the casket. Finally, Osiris’ tried it and discovered it fitted him perfectly. Seth slammed the lid down trapping Osiris and threw the casket into the Nile.
The casket floated down the Nile and out to sea before finally reaching Phoenicia and coming ashore at Byblos. Here it became stuck in a tamarisk tree. The tree enveloped the casket. Eventually, the king of Byblos and his queen visited the shore, saw the beauty of the sweet-scented tree and had it felled and transported to the royal court to serve as a pillar. In Egypt, Seth assumed the throne, shattering Egypt’s harmony and balance. Seth proved to be a tempestuous ruler who visited drought and storms on Egypt.
Revival Of Osiris
Isis discovered her missing husband in Byblos. She freed Osiris’ body from a tamarisk pillar where it had been imprisoned and returned to Egypt. Here Isis hid Osiris’ body in the Nile Delta marshes while she gathered herbs to resuscitate him, leaving her sister Nephthys to watch over the body. Seth heard Osiris had returned and searched for him. He tricked Nephthys into divulging Osiris’ hiding spot. Seth chopped Osiris’ body into pieces and hurled the body parts to all corners of Egypt including the Nile. Isis returned and together with Nepthys they searched for Osiris’ missing body parts. Upon reassembling Osiris Isis discovered Osiris was incomplete. Oxyrhyncus fish had eaten Osiris’ penis. Isis brought Osiris back to life but, as Osiris was incomplete, he couldn’t reclaim his throne over the living and instead was forced to descend to the underworld. Here he became the Egyptian Lord of the Dead and their divine judge of souls.
Battle For Control Over The World
A 20th Dynasty (1190 to 1077 BCE) Egyptian manuscript recounts the far older tale of the fight between Osiris’ son Horus and his uncle Seth for dominion over the world. The manuscript outlines the story of the legal contest, presided over by the gods to determine which of Osiris or Seth was Egypt’s rightful king. Horus and Seth made their cases and then had to prove themselves in a series of contests. Horus won them all and was declared king.
The Contendings of Horus and Seth is one of many versions of what occurred following Horus’ birth and Osiris descent into the underworld. Other tales tell how Isis concealed her son in the swamp as Seth searched for the boy intent on murdering him. In other versions of the myth, Horus fights Seth, defeating him and driving him from Egypt. In others, Seth is killed. The Contendings of Horus and Seth recounts these battles as ritual contests sanctioned by the gods. The majority of the Ennead, the nine gods presiding over the trial determined Horus is the legitimate king. Ra, however, remained unconvinced. Ra thought Horus was too young and too inexperienced to rule effectively, while Seth was an experienced, if inconsistent ruler. Despite Horus winning every contest, Ra would not be persuaded. The trial lasted for more than 80 years as Egypt’s people endured Seth’s chaotic rule.
Isis realized she needed to intervene to save Egypt’s people. She changed herself into a young woman. Then she sat outside Seth’s palace and cried and cried until Seth, passing by, spotted her and asked her what was the cause of her unhappiness. She explained her husband’s own brother, a wicked man had murdered him, stolen his land and seized flocks. She and her son were forced to flee and even now the evil man thirsted after the life of her son. Her story deeply affected Seth. Furious, he swore he himself would punish this criminal and restore their land. Isis then showed her true form and revealed the gods had been listening. Ra was finally convinced Horus deserved to rule and Seth was exiled from the Nile Valley and forced into the wastelands of the desert.
From the time of the New Kingdom onwards, Seth was usually regarded as a villain. In the Early Dynastic Period Peribsen, the Second Dynasty’s (c. 2890 to c. 2670 BCE) sixth king, chose Seth for his patron god. Peribsen remains the sole Early Dynastic Period king to align with Seth rather than Horus.
Given Seth was originally a god-hero it is logical that a pharaoh would select him as his patron. However, by Peribsen’s time, Horus was associated with the throne, not Seth.
One probable explanation is Peribsen who hailed from Upper Egypt, selected Seth for his personal patron to in preference to Horus who was linked with Lower Egypt around this time. Peribsen remains the sole pharaoh to clearly align himself with Seth until Sethi I (1290-1279 BCE) and his son Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE) of the 19th Dynasty who anointed Seth a national god and built the Sepermeru a temple complex in Seth’s honour.
When Ramesses II opted to elevate Seth, the cult of Osiris and Isis was widespread and Seth had metamorphosed from a hero-protector and the god of love, into a malefactor who represented everything Egyptians feared: chaos, destruction, disorder, drought, hunger, famine and foreign influences.
Carvings showing Ramesses II’s coronation depict both Horus and Seth officiating over the ceremony. Eventually, however, Seth became so indelibly associated with his actions as a usurper and vile murderer that the god of writing and wisdom, Thoth replaced him in these inscriptions.
Seth’s continued popularity reflects the Egyptian’s desire for harmony and balance as symbolized by ma’at. Ma’at symbolized balance and harmony and was a core part of most Egyptian’s social values and permeated even into their vision of the afterlife. Here the deceased’s heart was weighed on golden scales against the white feather of ma’at. Egypt’s god of life and fertility Osiris needed a counterweight in Seth the god of chaos and destruction. Even in his destructive aspect, Seth was seen as beneficial as he voluntarily restrained drought and his dry desert winds from assailing Egypt’s fertile lands. Prayers to Seth seeking deliverance from his own forces replaced earlier love amulets.
Seth’s cult worship was centred from the Early Dynastic Period in Ombos. However, temples dedicated to him could be found throughout Egypt. The priests of Seth cared of his sacred statue in his temple’s inner sanctum. They performed the day-to-day rituals and maintained the sprawling temple complex. People petitioning Seth for assistance were confined to the outer courtyard where they left donations or made requests for help from the priests. These requests ranged from financial or medical help to marital advice to officiating at festivals, funerals or weddings.
Seth was absorbed into early Christian mythology as the devil. Seth’s association with wickedness and darkness, his popular image as a red-haired beast together with the colour red, were readily adaptable to the Christian Satan’s iconography.
Seth’s connection with cunning, deceit, destruction, war and a close association with the serpent contributed to casting the Christian mythology around a supernatural deceiver who swore perpetual antipathy with God.
Reflecting On The Past
The evolution of Seth provides a fascinating window onto the changes that took place in ancient Egypt’s belief system over the long course of their history.
Header image courtesy: Chipdawes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons