Friday, January 18, 2013

the contendings of Horus and Set

The following is the ancient Egyptian tale of the eighty year war between the gods Horus and Set and my personal interpretation of it. My on-going study of the myths of the Bible influence my perception of this tale to a large degree with the understanding that this myth would precede the myths of the Bible. 

This is a tale from the Chester Beatty Papyrus No. 1 dated to the time of the 20th dynasty under the Pharaoh Rameses V, though the story is probably from earlier in New Kingdom ancient Egypt. It is a story of the fight between Horus - the son of Osiris, and Set - the brother of Osiris, over the office of the white crown of Osiris following the murder of Osiris at the hands of this Set.

The Hedjet - white crown of Upper Egypt

The story recounts their continuous battles and the attempts by the gods of Egypt to put an end to their fighting and adjudicate between the two. It casts the gods' deliberations in the context of what you would expect from mortal men's deliberations in that there are calls to adhere to tradition, sulking, trickery, and appeals to elders who may have some authority to sway the proceedings one way or the other. It is up to the cunning Isis to trick Set into incriminating himself that puts what seems to be an end to the proceedings only to see the infighting continue. Eventually the candidacy of Horus cannot be denied as he proves himself worthy of the crown.

A few things to keep in mind about the story is first of all it is a fight over the white crown that Osiris wears. Osiris presumably had to give up this crown or a better explanation would be the power inherent in it because he was no longer present in the land of Upper Egypt to effectively rule over it. After his murder he was inert in the "land of the dead" and now ruled that realm. This white crown he wears, the Hedjet - a luminous white crown - was the crown of Upper Egypt. Upper Egypt could refer to the southern half of the kingdom that was divided at the royal city of Mennefer, known to the Greeks as Memphis. As an aside I wonder why the Egyptians did not correct the Greeks in their terrible translation of this name into Greek? Perhaps the contempt they felt for them caused them to let the Greeks continue in their ignorance. In any event I think it is important to consider a different explanation of the location of Upper Egypt in this case. As the ancient Egyptians believed their land to be a personification of the heavens it is possible this is referring to the night sky. Osiris as Orion would wear the crown while ruling over the southern half of the night sky. Upon Osiris' death, Orion's disappearance and descent into matter, the fight for his crown would commence once Isis had magically revived Osiris in the 'netherworld' in order to be impregnated by his seed and give birth to his son Horus. In the meantime the crown would be vacant from the time of Osiris' murder until the birth of Horus and the time he could actually back up a claim to the throne. During this time, if Set hadn't already been locked up for murder, he would have a pretty strong claim on the crown. While in the 'netherworld' Osiris' crown was the Atef, a Hedjet crown surmounted by two ostrich feathers.

Osiris wearing the Atef crown

The court proceeding takes place before the great Ennead of Iunu (Heliopolis of the Greeks) with the great Universal Lord Re presiding over the deliberations. The word 'Universal' I understand as being manifest creation. The Ennead wants to award the crown to Horus however Re is not consulted about this preference and gets testy about the whole affair wondering how the Ennead can award the crown without his input. Apparently the Ennead used the rationale that since Thoth could present the uninjured eye, the wadjet or Eye of Horus, to the Universal Lord Re, he speaks for the Ennead and has the authority to make this decision. This sacred eye is one of the disks that encapsulates the light and is encircled by the serpent goddess Wadjet, who is an aspect of the great mother goddess Hathor. Thoth, the wisdom of the light giving moon in the dark night, is the power that heals this eye in the darkness of existence. The cycle of the moon where it waxes and wanes, injured by the black pig Set, and then healed is what this refers to.

Wadjet Eye / Eye of Horus

Set wishes to prove his physical dominance over Horus and thus establish his claim on the crown while the Ennead appeals to tradition where the son should inherit the position of his father. As a solution, Atum suggests that the "great living god" Banebdjedet be summoned to judge between the two. Banebdjedet is the primordial ram headed god of Mendes who is frequently depicted with four heads - Re, Shu, Osiris, and Geb. He is lord of the Ba, in essence the god responsible for the creation of your immortal soul. The four heads are suggesting the idea that he is the world Ba of the four gods that make material life possible. Banebdjedet arrives at the gathering with the god Ptah-Tatenen. It seems surprising that Banebdjedet does not immediately side with Horus, as Horus is the re-born Ba soul of Osiris via Isis. Maybe it is the presence of his sidekick Tatenen that convinces him this matter should be escalated to another authority. Tatenen seems to be an aspect or complement to the more spiritual Ba realm of Banebdjedet. The four heads of Banebdjedet could be an allusion to Tatenen, an expression of Ptah, who instead of being latent mummified creation like Ptah, has come forth as creation. In fact it is Khnum, the potter of the Ka life force, who is the father of Tatenen and who created Tatenen when the earth came into being. Tatenen would be the great Universal Ka which is sustained by the Universal Lord Re. A role of Tatenen, much like Set, involved keeping the serpent Apophis away from the primeval mound of the earth. Set's incredible strength thus far has enabled the created world, of which Re is Lord, to also fend of the advances of the serpent Apophis who threatens to annihilate this creation. Without the services of Set, Re fears creation will not last and it seems likely that Tatenen feels the same way though not explicitly demonstrated. Without creation, the Ba cannot incarnate and become a glorious Akh; therefore these Ka powers are of the utmost importance. Instead Banebdjedet asks Thoth to send a letter off to the primordial mother goddess Neith, the mother of the great light that rises from the Nun, "in the name of the Universal Lord, the Bull who resides in Iunu". Re is recognized as the manifest sustainer of the universal Ka provider, the Bull, who gives and provides for all of creation.

Banebdjedet receiving an offering from Prince Mentuherkhepshef
By Kairoinfo4u photographer: Manna ( [CC-BY-SA-2.0
(], via Wikimedia Commons


Thoth's letter on behalf of Re gives quite a list of epithet's of Re with the description of Re being the manifestation of the Universal Lord giving us the relationship between Re and Atum. Atum being totality, becomes Re when he has come forth in creation. Neith responds by saying the only outcome has to be Horus gets awarded the crown of his father. So that Set does not go away empty handed he should be given two daughters of Re: Anat and Astarte. These two are aspects of the mother goddess and will allow Set to continue to populate the world with his beastly offspring.

Set seems to be an aspect of Re in that they are both related to the power of the Ka and the life force. Re is the creator of the material world and supplies the necessary sustenance to feed his creation as well as animating this world with his gift of Ka power. It is Re who fights for the right of Set to assume the kingship of the united Egypt after the death of the kingly Osiris; this unity being a metaphor for the fight and unification that goes on within every human between the beast and the spirit in you. It is projected on to the Egyptian kingdom and their myths. Some historians and archaeologists look for traces of a prolonged battle or create narratives of a historical battle between the followers of the Horus religion and the followers of the Sethian religion rather in vain due to the failure of our generation and many generations before us to take myth as hidden spiritual truths. Along the same lines, the bible becomes a joke to most rational minded people due to this misunderstanding. Anyway when it appears that Set will not be granted the right to rule as Neith feels the only possible true outcome is to award Horus the crown, then Re gets all pissy, has a snit, and lies down and mopes about until Hathor comes along and flashes him. This jovial gesture by the goddess seems to reinvigorate Re to once again continue on his way and provide life. Re prefers Set over Horus because Set is the personification of this raw Ka power on earth in that he is full of strength and untamed. Because of this untamed instinct, Set is the beast that kills off the Ba soul that incarnates into the world as Osiris.


I wonder if that is the role of the beast Satan in the Christian religion. Satan tempts us in to following our carnal, selfish instincts having no regard for our spiritual side with the difference being this beast seems to be in charge here on earth until Jesus returns to give him the boot. It is where I tend to get confused on the issue. I was under the impression that Satan ruled the place where the bad people go, Hell, and not the earthly realm. But by inference it always seems that it is Satan here in this realm who is responsible for all the calamity in the world. So it is really not fair then right? If Satan is here tempting us then it isn't a fair fight and we are all going to lose. Wouldn't it be a more fair fight if Satan was just relegated to Hell and we get assigned to Hell only if we are naughty on earth due to our own evilness that is not helped along by some force that you can't resist anyway? Well sorry to confuse. It would be much clearer if we did realize that these two opposites are encapsulated within the totality we call I/me/myself. In my version of Christianity this Jesus within us descends from the heavens and has a battle with this Satan in our own personal Hell. If Jesus wins then we are born again, get off the wheel and listen to harp music for the rest of our lives. If the devil gets the upper hand then upon material death we go back to incarnate in this 'Hell' for another round, hopefully using the innate knowledge now within us to be more successful this time around.

So it is because of this that I think Satan should be properly thought of as a creation of who the Christians call Yahweh or the Lord. In the Old Testament it is Yahweh who creates the red or ruddy man. The name of the first man, Adam, comes from the Hebrew adam, meaning ruddy. Then we have the birth of Cain, a man that Eve said she got from the Lord Yahweh. Cain is a beast who kills the nice guy Abel. Esau, the older twin of Jacob is often connected to the red beast and even called Edom, the Hebrew word for red, in Genesis 25:30. It is this entity that we constantly fight with and causes our suffering. It is our desires that are constantly at war with our enlightened self. These desires do win out in the beginning because they are stronger; to a degree they are impossible to control, especially in our early lives. As we get older and these desires do start to wane and our spiritual self can experience an awakening of sorts and finally achieve some kind of balance and even get an upper hand on this relentless beast.

So back to our story after a little theological break. Upon hearing Neith's decision, Re becomes furious and claims Horus is too young to hold this office with his insult "the flavour of whose mouth is bad" an allusion to Horus still being an infant suckling at the breast of Isis. This in turn infuriated the entire Ennead with the god Bebon telling Re "your shrine is vacant", in essence saying time has passed you by, you are out of touch, and we don't need to listen to you anymore. I think everyone feels that about their parents at some point when they are coming of age. At this Re takes considerable offense and lays down on his back sulking. In damage control, the Ennead tells Bebon to get lost because of this grave injustice he has done to Re. If Re doesn't do his duty and animate creation then life will cease to exist. Presumably the earth was in darkness due to the light of Re not shining so it was up to Hathor to flash Re her vagina in order to enliven him and get him moving once again. Seems like a jovial gesture to to try to lighten the mood and get everyone civil again. I think it deserves a closer look. Hathor, in this instance is the dawn that precedes the coming forth of Re from his nightly trip through the Duat. Hathor flashing Re her vagina is showing him the path to rebirth into the akhet thus opening the way for Re to be reinvigorated and continue his cyclical journey. From this Re remembers his purpose as the Universal Lord and is enlivened to continue on his daily course.

From this cooler heads prevail and the two warring parties are given a chance to state their cases before the council. Set once again appeals to his strength in helping Re continue on his daily travels without interruption while Horus appeals to the tradition of the crown being passed down from father to son as in Re passing it to Shu to Geb to Osiris and now to Horus. It is now Isis' turn to get angry but she is calmed by the Ennead who say that what is right will be done. This in turn enrages Set who claims he will kill one of the Ennead everyday and refuses to remain in deliberations while Isis is around. The way the gods act is very immature with their histrionics and fits of rage. However, as the Ennead of Iunu are representing forces of nature, in a way it is to be expected as nature at times tends to rage and is unpredictable especially when we get lulled into expecting everything to continue as it has in a nice cyclical orderly pattern.

The Ennead ferry across to an island to reconvene with the ferryman given explicit instructions to not bring Isis across. Isis of course tricks him, gets across, and turns herself into a beautiful maiden which attracts the advances of Set. Isis concocts this story where her husband had died and her son took over tending to the cattle. A stranger eventually lodged with them and helped out eventually telling the son he will beat him and confiscate the cattle. Set said that that man should be evicted and the son put in his father's position - thus incriminating himself. After Re learns of this and Set's confession, Set takes out his rage on Nemty the ferryman who has the fore part of his feet removed as punishment. This also is a nautical term describing the part of a ship where the prow joins the keel which is very apt in the case of the ferryman.

Pre-Harakhti - another name of Re and also Atum, Lord of the Two Lands and "the Heliopolitan", write a letter to the Ennead awarding Horus the White Crown at which Set becomes enraged once again. Set wants the crown removed from Horus' head and Horus thrown in the water upon which they will both transform into Hippopotamuses and submerge. Whoever comes out of the water prior to the end of the three months will be the loser of the contest. Re agrees to this contest even after all that has happened apparently still wanting to see Set take over the crown. Isis figures her son Horus is a goner and magically fashions a harpoon and casts it into the water at Set but hits Horus instead. She then tosses it and hits Set who appeals to their relationship as brother and sister in order for Isis to release him. She does and Horus now flies into a rage, takes his axe and cuts off Isis' head with it. He takes the head in his arms and climbs the western mountain. Isis transforms into a headless statue of flint and upon seeing this Re gathers the rest of the Ennead to go find Horus in order to punish him.

This strange turn of events seems to come out of nowhere. Horus is supposed to be the good guy yet here he is cutting off the head of his mother. I'm tempted to chalk this up to the coming of age of Horus and the need to separate himself from the maternal mother figure. There comes a point in life when it is necessary to leave home and strike out on your own however it is usually done in a more civil manner. In a way it is represented as the youth still being immature and unable to quite yet handle his growing strength. As well there is some allusion here to the cycles of the sun and moon and their relationship to the increasing power of light after they come out of the waters of incarnation. The sun at the winter solstice will stand still for three days before reversing course and starting to grow in strength in its journey to its zenith at the summer solstice. The moon will disappear for three days into the water before emerging as a new moon on its way to becoming a full moon. The three months in the water as Hippopotamuses is possibly symbolizing this aspect of the two great celestial orbs. The heading up a mountain after coming out of the 'waters' is the behaviour of the earth's sun and moon after rebirth. Now as to Horus cutting off the head of Isis and carrying it up the mountain there are some echoes to Greek mythology here in this story. The thing is that this story predates those myths and has a more favourable outcome for the one who loses her head in the story. The Greek myth of Perseus is what I am referring to. Perseus is a son of the great ruler Zeus and is tasked with bringing back the head of the Gorgon Medusa, who when you look at this wild snake haired maiden she turns you to stone. Perseus, with the help of Hermes and Athena, is able to approach Medusa and cut of her head with his sword. He assumes the position of Horus the Striker as the hero in the northern night sky as this picture of his constellation is showing:

Perseus with the head of Medusa

The similarities of the story are the cutting of the head with sword, the tucking it under the left arm, and then there is Isis turning herself into a stone statue afterwards as opposed to turning all that look at her into stone. As well it is Hermes and Athena who help Perseus on this quest. Hermes is the Greek iteration of Thoth, and Athena is the Egyptian Neith and as we have seen, Thoth as the personification of earthly wisdom and Neith, as a supporter of Horus' claim to the crown, play supporting roles in this tale as well. Obviously the story changed greatly when it became the young hero Perseus' myth however it is nonetheless interesting to see some of its connections to the myths of ancient Egypt.

So back to the story, Horus climbs the mountain with the head of Isis; climbing the mountain being an allusion to the celestial orbs rising in the sky, and rests under a tree. Set finds him first and gouges both of his eyes out and buries them in the mountain. The two eyes grew into lotuses which is apt since the lotus gives birth in the morning to the great child of light. Set then runs into Re and tells him the lie that he had not seen Horus. Hathor finds Horus and heals his eyes with milk of the gazelle; the gazelle sometimes being a symbol for Set. In this aspect Set gets the epithet "robber of the eye". Since milk has healing properties Hathor uses a little reverse medicinal psychology! The Ennead once again summoned the two and told them to make peace. Set invites Horus over to make amends and at night while they lay down to sleep Set tries to penetrate Horus sexually, presumably to demonstrate that he is not a real man. Horus took Set's semen in his hands and told Isis what happened. Isis freaked out and cut off his hand and then proceeded to masturbate Horus into a pot that they then poured onto the lettuce that Set normally eats in order that it is Set who will receive Horus' seed. They then went back to the Ennead and Set boasted that he had sodomized Horus to which the Ennead spewed and spat at Horus' face as even back then homophobia was just as prevalent. Horus calls Set a liar and gets Thoth to summon the semen of each participant to see who is telling the truth. Set's semen answered from the marsh that Isis threw it in after cutting off Horus' hand while Horus' semen answered from within the pregnant Set. Being divine seed it appeared on the top of Set's head as a golden solar disk. Thoth grabbed the disk and placed it on his own head. This actually has great esoteric significance. It is signifying that when the reawakened young soul represented as Horus struggles to mature and assume his destiny, all the while fighting his nemesis Set, who is representing desire and temptation, the successful result of this is Wisdom. Wisdom will be born out of the simple beast that you have subdued.

Though you might think this would settle the question once and for all, Set is able to convince everyone that there should be one last battle, this one being a race of stone ships. Set feeling he is the stronger of the two, wishes to demonstrate this strength once and for all and be awarded the crown. However Horus is now cunning enough to treat a stone ship as a ship that hauls stone and builds his ship with pine plastered with gypsum. Come race day Set's boat immediately sinks and out of frustration he immediately scuttles Horus' boat. This infuriates Horus who is about to harpoon Set when he is told to stop.

Horus harpoons Set from the Temple of Horus at Edfu

At this point Horus has finally had enough and sails downstream to Sais to petition Neith to put an end to this fighting that has gone on for eighty years and make the case that he has been vindicated every time. The designation of eighty years is a bit of a mystery. If this myth is indeed a story of the inner struggle within you, I would have to believe this refers to the eighth stage of light's journey into and out of matter. The eight symbolism would be rebirth as Horus from the goddess Isis which would have followed the seven which is the resting in matter as symbolized by Horus' father Osiris. The rebirth of your enlightened self is only a beginning of sorts and it is still an uphill climb up the mountain to subdue this beast and ultimately reconcile the two halves of yourself. This would lead to the ninth stage of the journey at material judgment represented by the scales where your heart is weighed against a feather. Being able to balance your two warring selves, Horus and Set, is the way to pass this judgment. There is not an expectation of a sinless, completely virtuous life but rather a recognition that the journey into matter will cause strife. As was shown in the scene with Thoth taking the golden disk from the head of Set, the constant battles that you are faced with enables you to grow stronger and acquire great wisdom which you then use to end this fighting for good with the knowledge that you are now complete and fully vindicated.

Horus, Set, and the ruling Pharaoh in balance

The Ennead now has Thoth draft a letter to Osiris asking him for a final judgment, which is fitting because Osiris sits on the throne in the judgment hall awaiting the vindicated as Horus following the weighing of the heart in which Thoth is there recording the judgment in the book of life. Osiris is fully addressed with all the names of kingship showing deep reverence for him. Osiris answers immediately saying his son Horus should not be cheated and that all the gods should be grateful for Osiris' sacrifices because without him there would be no rebirth or sustenance. Re takes umbrage to this statement and immediately retorts that without Osiris there still would be grain. This seems to be a question of who is responsible for sustenance on the earth. Is it Osiris, the fertile bull who gives up his own existence so that grain can rise from the earth in its due time cyclically every year or is the light of Re that causes the grain to rise in essence suggesting that without him it does not come forth? Osiris responds that what Re does is indeed important however he has allowed injustice to get the upper hand and that himself, Osiris, lives in a dark word where injustice abounds and they don't fear the gods so it is up to the gods to administer justice whenever they can. Osiris concludes by saying there is none greater than himself as he has made the ultimate sacrifice so others can live. He is being true of speech and not boasting.

Following this they reconvened on the Island in the Middle whereby Horus is vindicated and Set brought before the court in chains. Set finally acquiesces to the decision and Horus is awarded the White Crown. His kingdom truly has come. The mature light of Horus is now finally ready to assume the kingship of Egypt and now illuminates the world, giving hope to all. Re gives Set a place in his entourage as a son who will continue to use his strength to fight off the advances of the destroyer of creation, Apophis.

Set on Re's solar boat, fighting off Apophis

Thus concludes the story.

To read the story in full go to this link: