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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 became an antagonist and a figure associated with evil, his story didn’t begin this way. Here’s a closer look.
Who Was Set?
Set was 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, Horus the Elder, Isis, and Nephthys. Set married his sister, Nephthys, but he had other consorts from foreign lands too, such as Anat and Astarte. His children were Anubis and Maga.
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 a specific 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 showing holding the was-scepter.
The Beginning of Set’s Myth
At the beginning of his story in the Old Kingdom, Set was a worshipped god like his siblings. He was a deity of the sky, and he had to do with love spells and amulets. He was 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 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 protected Ra 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, the myth of Set changed its tone, and he became an evil force. It’s not clear why he stopped being a benevolent god to become the evil deity that he became. 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, authors 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 evil in Ancient Egypt, from drought and famine to chaos, violence, and disorder.
Set and the Death of Osiris
In the New Kingdom, Set’s role was involved with Osiris. When Osiris inherited the throne, humans were uncivilized beings with no education, law, or organized society. He and his wife, Isis, taught humanity how to live a good life through culture and good customs. During his reign, the world experienced its best and most prosperous times.
Set grew jealous of his brother, resenting the worship and success he had achieved. 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 had a beautiful wooden casket made, threw a party and invited Osiris. He organized a contest which consisted of getting 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, he impregnated 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 fight between Set and Horus for the throne of Egypt. One of the most famous versions of this conflict is depicted in The Contending of Horus and Set. In this depiction, both gods have 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. 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 to age and was able to go and battle Set himself. Horus, with the help of Isis, was able to kill Set and take his rightful place as the king of Egypt.
Worship of Set
People worshipped Set in the city of Ombos and the Fayyum regions in Upper Egypt. His worship gained strength during the reigns of Seti I and his son, Ramesses II. They made Set a notable god of the Egyptian Pantheon and built him the Sepermeru, a temple in the capital.
Influence of Set
Set’s original influence was as 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 Middle Kingdom, 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’s 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 an evil 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. The Egyptians respected the balance of the universe. For that balance to exist, chaos and disorder had to be there alongside good and order.
The myth of Set had several episodes and changes, but he remained an important god throughout history. Whether good or evil, 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 with murder, evil, famine, and chaos. This multifaceted god significantly influenced Egyptian culture.