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In Ancient Egypt, Set, also known as Seth, was the god of war, chaos and storms. He was among the most important gods of the Egyptian Pantheon. Although he was at times an antagonist to Horus and Osiris, at other times he was instrumental in protecting the sun god and maintaining order.
Here’s a closer look at this ambiguous god.
Who Was Set?
Set was said to be the son of Geb, the god of the earth, and Nut, the goddess of the sky. The couple had several children, so Set was the brother of Osiris, Isis, and Nephthys, and also to Horus the Elder in Greco-Roman times. Set married his sister, Nephthys, but he had other consorts from foreign lands too, such as Anat and Astarte. In some accounts, he fathered Anubis in Egypt and Maga in the Near East.
Set was the lord of the desert and the god of storms, war, disorder, violence, and foreign lands and people.
The Set Animal
In contrast with other deities, Set did not have an existing animal as his symbol. The depictions of Set show him as an unidentified creature with a resemblance to a dog. However, several authors have referred to this figure as a mythological creature. They called it the Set Animal.
In his depictions, Set appears with a canine body, long ears, and a forked tail. The Set Animal might have been a compound of different creatures such as donkeys, greyhounds, foxes, and aardvarks. Other portrayals show him as a man with marked features. He is typically shown holding the was-scepter.
The Beginning of Set’s Myth
Set was a worshipped god since very early in the Thinite Period, and probably existed since the Predynastic times. He was thought to be a benevolent god whose affairs with violence and disorder were necessary within the ordered world.
Set was also a hero-god due to his protection of the solar barque of Ra. When the day ended, Ra would travel through the Underworld while getting ready to go out the following day. Set protected Ra during this nightly journey through the Underworld. According to the myths, Set would defend the barque from Apophis, the serpent monster of chaos. Set stopped Apophis and ensured that the sun (Ra) could go out the next day.
Set the Antagonist
In the New Kingdom, however, the myth of Set changed its tone, and his chaotic traits were emphasized. The reasons for this shift remain unclear. One of the reasons could be that Set represented foreign powers. People could have started associating him with invading foreign forces.
Due to his role in this era, Greek authors such as Plutarch have associated Set with the Greek monster Typhon, since Set plotted against the most important and beloved god of Ancient Egypt, Osiris. Set represented all the chaotic forces in ancient Egypt.
Set and the Death of Osiris
In the New Kingdom, Set’s role was involved with his brother Osiris. Set grew jealous of his brother, resenting the worship and success he had achieved, and coveted his throne. To worsen his jealousy, his wife Nephthys disguised herself as Isis to lay in bed with Osiris. From their union, the god Anubis would be born.
Set, seeking revenge, had a beautiful wooden casket made to the exact size of Osiris, threw a party, and made sure his brother attended. He organized a contest where he invited guests to try and fit into the wooden chest. All the guests tried, but none of them could get in. Then came Osiris, who fitted in as expected, but as soon as he was in Set closed the lid. After that, Set threw the casket into the Nile and usurped Osiris’ throne.
Set and the Rebirth of Osiris
When Isis found out what had happened, she went looking for her husband. Isis ultimately found Osiris in Byblos, Phoenicia, and brought him back to Egypt. Set discovered that Osiris had returned and went looking for him. When he found him, Set dismembered the body of his brother and scattered it throughout the land.
Isis was able to retrieve almost all of the parts and bring Osiris back to life with her magic. Yet, Osiris was incomplete and could not rule the world of the living. Osiris left for the Underworld, but before leaving, thanks to magic, he was able to impregnate Isis with their son, Horus. He would grow to defy Set for the throne of Egypt.
Set and Horus
There are several stories of the struggle between Set and Horus for the throne of Egypt. One of the most famous versions of this conflict is depicted in The Contendings of Horus and Set. In this depiction, both gods undertake several tasks, contests, and battles to determine their worth and righteousness. Horus won each of these, and the other deities proclaimed him King of Egypt.
Some sources propose that the creator god Ra deemed Horus to be too young to rule even though he had won all the contests, and originally inclined to award Set with the throne. Because of that, Set’s disastrous rule continued for at least 80 more years. Isis had to intervene in favor of her son, and Ra finally changed his decision. Then, Horus drove Set out of Egypt and into the desert wastelands.
Other accounts refer to Isis hiding Horus from Set in the Nile Delta. Isis protected her son until he came of age and was able to go and battle Set himself. Horus, with the help of Isis, was able to defeat Set and take his rightful place as the king of Egypt.
Worship of Set
People worshipped Set from the city of Ombos in Upper Egypt to the Faiyum Oasis, to the north of the country. His worship gained strength especially during the reigns of Seti I, who took Set’s name as his own, and his son, Ramesses II. They made Set a notable god of the Egyptian Pantheon and built him and Nephthys a temple at the site of Sepermeru.
Influence of Set
Set’s original influence was probably that of a hero-god, but later, Horus was associated with the ruler of Egypt and not set. Due to this, all pharaohs were said to be descendants of Horus and looked to him for protection.
However, the sixth Pharaoh of the Second Dynasty, Peribsen, chose Set instead of Horus as his patron deity. This decision was a remarkable event given the fact the all the other rulers had had Horus as their protector. It is unclear why this particular pharaoh decided to align with Set, who was, by this time, the antagonist and god of chaos.
As the main antagonist god and usurper, Set had a primary role in the events of the Egyptian throne. The prosperity of the rule of Osiris had fallen into pieces, and a chaotic era took place during his domain. Even as a chaotic figure, Set was a paramount god in Egyptian mythology because of the concept of ma’at, which refers to truth, balance, and justice in the cosmic order, which needs chaos in order to exist.
The Egyptians respected the balance of the universe. For that balance to exist, chaos and order had to be in constant struggle, but thanks to the rule of pharaohs and gods, order would always prevail.
The myth of Set had several episodes and changes, but he remained an important god throughout history. Either as a chaotic god or as a protector of pharaohs and cosmic order, Set was present in Egyptian mythology from the very beginning. His original myth associated him with love, heroic acts, and benevolence. His later stories related him to murder, evil, famine, and chaos. This multifaceted god significantly influenced Egyptian culture.