The Contendings of Horus and Seth: Clash of the Egyptian Titans

Learn about the ancient struggle between the Egyptian Gods Horus and Seth, locked in a rivalry that led to some of the most terrifying moments in Egyptian mythology.

Jun 4, 2022By Sebastian Maydana, PhD History, MA Archaeological Studies, BA History
egyptian gods seth and horus

 

One of the longest and most convoluted mythological tales from ancient Egypt tells the story of how Horus and Seth fought for the right to inherit Osiris’ throne after the god of the dead was murdered… by his brother Seth. Learn about the ancient struggle between the Egyptian Gods Horus and Seth.

 

Horus, Seth, and the Killing of Osiris

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Osiris wearing the Atef crown, photograph by Christian Décamps, 2005, via The Louvre Museum

 

Most of what we call Egyptian mythology has been painstakingly reconstructed by Egyptologists, mainly out of partial mentions in literature, short tales, and inscriptions on monuments. There is no ancient Egyptian cosmogony detailed in mythological books. This is why Egyptian literature expert Antonio Loprieno calls The Contendings of Horus and Seth the “only Egyptian myth”. It is a complex and coherent narrative starring supernatural beings, and it seeks to explain the origin of some things from everyday life.

 

The Contendings… is written on a long roll of papyrus known as Chester Beatty I, named after its holder, Irish mining tycoon Chester Beatty. It tells the story of how, after the death of Osiris, the Ennead of Heliopolis sought a new king of all the gods. As in many other classical epic narratives, it starts in media res. That is, we do not learn the circumstances of Osiris’ demise from this papyrus, as it has already happened. What we do learn is that the main Egyptian gods have been assembled to find a suitable successor, and everything points to Horus, Osiris’ son, being the one true heir. There is only one problem: he is too young to rule. This makes the Ennead doubt, and when the chaotic god Seth makes his claim for the throne of Egypt on account of Osiris being his brother, the Ennead realizes there is no easy way to determine who should be king.

 

Who or What Is an Ennead?

amun ra
Statuette of Amun, 945-712 CE, via the MET Museum

 

Any group of nine can be defined by the Greek word “ennead”, but in the case of ancient Egypt, the term refers to the Heliopolitan Ennead, a group of nine gods and goddesses who were considered the most important within the Egyptian pantheon. Heliopolis was the city of the sun, and their cosmogony reflects how the sun-gods, Horus first and Atum-Ra later, became the most prominent figures in the pantheon.

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According to the Heliopolitan creation texts, in the beginning, there was nothing outside a huge ocean known as Nun. Suddenly, a dirt mound emerged from Nun, and the creator god Atum sat there. Atum begins his creation by separating the elements, and thus Shu (the air) and Tefnut (the moisture) were born. From this couple, a second couple of gods was created, consisting of Nut (the sky vault) and Geb (the earth). Finally, Osiris, Neftis, Isis, and Seth completed the Ennead. Many other gods and goddesses were acknowledged by the Heliopolitan priesthood, but the first nine were by far the most relevant, and the protagonists of many of the more elaborate myths.

 

The Trial Begins

trial papyrus anubis osiris isis horus
Trial of the Dead, or the Weighing of the Heart, papyrus, Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1050 BCE), via the Met Museum

 

At first, the Ennead was inclined to give the throne to Horus, while Ra wanted to benefit Seth with kingship. They decided to call another god, named Banedjem, to settle the dispute, but not wanting to anger neither Ra nor the Ennead, Banedjem pleaded incompetence. He recommended, however, that they contact the ancient goddess Neith. As she had been around since before Egyptian history began, she would surely know what to do.

 

A letter is sent to Neith, and her response comes after a few weeks: Horus should be the king. This infuriated Ra, as he began to complain that Horus could not be king just yet because he was too young and inexperienced. Seth was also angered, as he claimed that being the brother of Osiris it was only right that he received his crown. However, Isis, Horus’ mother, scolded the other gods for being undecided. It was unthinkable that Seth, who was responsible for Osiris’ death, could inherit his throne. This certainly was a compelling argument, but Ra was not prepared to concede just yet, and complained that Isis’ opinion was not impartial, and that if they were to have a fair trial, it had to be held on an island in the middle of the Nile, so that the jury could decide without outside pressure.

 

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Horus Falcon, 664-30 BCE, via the Brooklyn Museum

 

All the gods, then, went to the island. And so did Isis, as she managed to bribe the ferryman into letting her cross in disguise. She had transformed herself into a beautiful young girl and immediately made Seth fall in love with her. She told the god of chaos a story that she had been married to a wealthy man and had a son with him, only for the man to die. Their son, from that moment, took care of the cattle. Sometime later, a man came to the farm and settled there, thanks to the woman’s kindness. Taking advantage of such kindness, the man claimed ownership over the land and the cattle. At this point in the story, the disguised Isis asked Seth his opinion on the topic. He replies in indignation, that the cattle should never be given to the foreigner if the late owner’s son is alive. Isis then transforms herself into a kite and flies to where Ra was to tell him about Seth’s admission.

 

Turning Into Hippopotami

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Mosaic with scene depicting the Nile, 250-300 CE, via Google Arts and Culture

 

Ra did not want to award Horus the throne of Osiris, but he had no choice under the circumstances. As a last resort, he convinces the Ennead that the outcome of the trial should be decided by Horus and Seth themselves. They were left to compete in a series of trials, the winner of which would be proclaimed king of all the gods in Egypt. This pleased Seth, and being a god associated with hippopotami and other water-dwelling creatures, his first proposal for a test was that Horus and himself should turn into hippopotami and dive into the Nile. The one who could hold their breath longest would win.

 

This trial, which seems to be very childish, had deep mythological meaning in Egypt. Because, of course, Seth had an advantage over Horus in hippo form. This is why Isis takes action to save Horus from Seth, making a harpoon out of copper and spearing Seth while submerged, forcing him to go back to the surface. The trial gets annulled, and Horus and Seth continue engaging in different competitions in order to know who deserves the kingship of Osiris. Needless to say, Seth was not very happy with the way Isis interfered in the trial, so in a fit of anger he gouged Horus’ eyes out of his face. Isis manages to cure his eyes with milk. This conduct was considered foul play by the Ennead and by Ra, who was finally prepared to make a decision that would benefit Horus.

 

The Lettuce Incident (NSFW)

egyptian bronze seth amon statues
Seth statuette, Ramesside Period, via the British Museum and Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhague

 

The infamous lettuce scene started the very night of Horus’ victory. Happy to have found a replacement for Osiris, the gods decided to throw a party, inviting everyone in Egypt. As there were so many gods invited, some of them had to share the tents, including Horus and Seth. The latter took advantage of this arrangement by stealthily making his way towards Horus’ bunk when everyone was asleep, and ejaculate on his body. But Horus had sensed the presence of Seth (and his intentions) and caught his semen in one hand, not letting it touch his body. When he told his mother about this, Isis quickly cut off his hand and threw it in the Nile. Meanwhile, she proceeded to collect her son’s semen and went to ask the gods’ gardener which of the vegetables he was growing were Seth’s favorite. The gardener pointed to the lettuce, and that was where Isis deposited Horus’ semen.

 

Later that day, after a delicious meal of fresh lettuce, Seth stood up in the middle of the room where every god was gathered in celebration and he claimed that he had an announcement to make. He then told everyone in attendance that he had “done the male’s work” on Horus and that this fact was proof enough that Seth would make a better king than Horus. But when he “called” his own seed, it replied from the middle of the river, not from Horus’ body as he had expected. Instead, when Isis stepped in to call her son’s semen out, it replied from Seth’s forehead. Thus it was apparent to everyone there that Seth had the “male’s work” done to him. It had become clear that Horus was the victor in that contest.

 

And the Winner Is…

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Horus relief from Edfu Temple, photo by Ad Meskens, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The contendings of Horus and Seth did not end there. The trials continued for some time, until eventually the Ennead decided to ask the man himself, Osiris. The gods sent a letter to the Underworld, to which Osiris replied that it was Horus who deserved his throne. And so it was done. Horus became king and the sole God responsible for restoring cosmic order in the land of Egypt, and everyone rejoiced.

 

Horus Restores Order

osiris isis horus
Triad of Osiris, Isis, and Horus, Ptolemaic Period (664-30 BCE), via the Met Museum

 

The story contained in papyrus Chester Beatty II is the most complete ancient Egyptian mythological story, and there have been many retellings of the tale. One of the most famous of them was the one Plutarch tells in his On the worship of Isis and Osiris, published in the 1st century CE. Plutarch’s work is a much more traditional tale, explaining not only Osiris’ death, but also the main characteristics of the gods and their worship.

 

For example, Plutarch mentions not only that the hippopotamus was associated with Seth, but also the ass, the tortoise, and the crocodile. At the end of the story, Horus manages to defeat Seth in battle, and Isis brings him to his son in shackles. But showing how magnanimous he was, Horus orders that Seth should be set free. This goes to show, not only that he was a fair and benevolent king, but that cosmic order, according to Egyptians, could not survive were it not for chaos. Both principles were necessary for life to go on, and order would not be so if it were not for the constant threat of chaos. Egyptian cosmology was one of eternal recurrence, so the cosmic balance of order and chaos had to be constantly in motion. This is why, to eliminate the principle of chaos, embodied by the god Seth, would be just as bad as letting chaos win over order.



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By Sebastian MaydanaPhD History, MA Archaeological Studies, BA HistorySebastian F. Maydana holds a PhD in History from the University of Buenos Aires, and is an assistant teacher at the Institute of Ancient Near Eastern History (UBA). His main interests are early Egyptian mythology and visual culture, especially petroglyphs and other forms of art. He has participated in fieldwork in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. Sebastian is also interested in the different forms in which myths and symbols from the past are received and repurposed by our modern-age societies, for instance in film and science fiction.