The name Seth (or Satet) means strength, but in ancient Egypt, this god also stood for chaos, destruction, confusion, evil, anger, and storms. Seth was feared by men and gods alike, as he was the murderer of Osiris, but his character was complex, and at other times in Egyptian history he was revered as the savior of the Solar Barque of Re. In this article, you will learn the real story behind this chaotic Egyptian god.
1. Who was Seth?
Seth was one of the earliest Egyptian gods, and although during long periods of time he was associated with chaos and violence, at other times, he was known as an important ally to Re and other order-maintaining deities. The complex character of Seth is especially reflected in his portrayal in religious texts, which fluctuate greatly in their description of the god.
His name is first attested in the Pyramid Texts, the first large corpus of Egyptian written discourse. Kings of the Old Kingdom, such as Peribsen and Khasekhemwy, took Seth’s name as a symbol of their strength. Seth is later portrayed in a mixed light, both neutral and negative, in the Coffin Texts from the First Intermediate Period, as well as in the New Kingdom Books of the Dead. However, after the New Kingdom, his importance began to fade.
During the Late and Graeco-Roman periods, Seth was openly demonized. He appears in the writings of Plutarch (c. 46-120 CE) identified with the Greek monster called Typhon, responsible for natural calamities and destruction. He was depicted as a “Seth Animal”, a very distinctive being with four legs, a long snout, and long and pointy ears. Some scholars identify the anthropomorphic being in the Two Dog Palette as the first attested iconographic depiction of Seth. In this artifact, a two-legged man with an animal head very similar to later depictions of Seth stands next to the rest of the animals while playing a sort of flute.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Some Egyptologists think it might represent some kind of shaman wearing a mask, but whatever the explanation may be, it is clear that this figure resembles the later depictions of Seth. This example comes from a palette, which is a stone implement made to grind minerals so they could be worn as makeup. As only very prominent people in early Egyptian society possessed palettes, it is commonly suggested that there was a strong connection between Seth and early Egyptian kingship.
2. What Was Seth’s Job?
Since the earliest times, Seth occupied an important spot in Egyptian mythology and worship. Thousands of steles depicting Seth, especially from the Middle Kingdom onward, were made in the hopes that the god would grant the devotees their wishes. These included wishes for success in litigation, protection of late relatives in the Afterlife, and enhanced virility.
Seth served as protector of soldiers, hunters, merchants, and in general any person who spent a considerable amount of time away from home. According to Egyptian myth, he inherited the deserts of Egypt from Geb, the god of the earth. This is why he was regarded as the protector of trade caravans and he was named the Egyptian god of oases. He was also supposed to sow discord and confusion among the enemies of Egypt, thus ensuring the Egyptian army’s success in battle.
Seth was described as a trickster god, one who deceives people for the pleasure of doing so, and not because he had bad intentions. As Egyptians valued Ma’at, or divine order, more than anything, it may seem like an unlikely god to worship. However, in Egyptian religion, Ma’at only thrived when it was challenged — and this was Seth’s main occupation. In some late religious texts, he also protects the pharaoh and even the solar barque (the magic barge that transports the Gods) in which Re crossed the sky every day.
3. Seth and the Foreigners
The Egyptian name for Egypt, Ta-wy, literally means “the two lands”. One was the black land, the fertile patch of soil next to the Nile River, and the other was the red land, or land of the desert. Seth was associated with the latter, with the color red, and with the Underworld. The deserts were considered the location of the Underworld, for the sun always set in the Western Desert. For this same reason, he was associated with foreign lands and the people that lived there.
During the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1650–1550 BCE), groups of Near Eastern peoples, known in Egyptian texts as the Hyksos (literally, “rulers of foreign (mountainous) lands”) settled in Avaris, a region in Lower Egypt. Eventually, they developed a kingdom in the Nile Delta and chose Seth as their chief god. Even after the Hyksos were driven out of Egypt around 1522 BCE, but a strong cult of Seth remained popular in the whole Delta region.
4. Seth, Murderer of Osiris
According to Egyptian mythology, Osiris and Isis were both siblings of Seth and Nephthys. Osiris was the king of Egypt, but Seth grew jealous of his brother’s power and plotted to take the throne from him. Some mythical accounts go as far as to suggest that Nephthys, attracted by the beauty of Osiris, disguised herself as Isis and seduced the godly pharaoh, becoming pregnant with the god Anubis.
Eventually, Seth decided to stage a coup against his brother. He had a magnificent casket made from the finest woods and tailored to the exact measurements of Osiris. He then invited all the Egyptian gods to a great party, and after eating and drinking, Seth revealed that he had a special surprise. He had the casket brought to him and told the guests that whoever could best fit inside the wooden chest could take it home. The guests, one by one, climbed into the casket but did not fit. Osiris lay down inside the casket and found out, unsurprisingly, that it fit him perfectly. Seth then closed the lid and threw the casket into the river, hoping that he would never have to see Osiris again. But the casket floated, and Osiris found himself in Syria, where his wife Isis found him.
Seth would not give up and he tried again. This time, he made sure to kill Osiris, dismembering him and scattering the pieces of his body in different places across the country. Isis and Nephthys then visited every corner of Egypt to locate all of the pieces of Osiris’ body. Thanks to her great magic, and with the invaluable assistance of Anubis, the god of the dead and embalming, Isis was able to reassemble and reanimate her husband for a brief moment, during which she conceived a child with him. Osiris then continued his journey into the Underworld, becoming the king of the dead, just as he had been king on earth. Isis named her child Horus.
5. Seth and Isis
Upon learning that Osiris had been reassembled and Isis had given birth to a child, Seth sought to kill both mother and son as soon as he could. The frightened Isis took her child into hiding in the Nile Delta in order to protect him from Seth. They lived in the marshes for a while, hoping that Seth would not find them there, but nonetheless, he did. He sent a venomous snake to bite the child Horus when his mother was away, gathering food.
When Isis came back to their campsite, she discovered with horror that Horus was fatally wounded. She wept and cried loudly until Thoth, the Egyptian god of medicine, came to the rescue and cured the young god. As a result, Horus became known as the child who survived a mortal bite. Especially during the Late Period, people kept steles of Horus stepping over crocodiles and holding dangerous, venomous animals, for protection. They either placed these steles in certain sanctuaries or kept them in their homes, in order to receive the protection of Horus.
Horus grew to become one of the most important of the Egyptian gods. He appeared in many forms throughout Egyptian history, but the most common was as a falcon. He had a very complex personality, and took part in many myths, the most important of them being the one known as “the Contendings Between Horus and Seth”.
In this tale, a jury of gods is assembled to assess who would inherit the kingly status of Osiris after his death: his son, Horus, or his brother, Seth. The fact that Seth was the one who killed and dismembered Osiris in the first place wasn’t relevant during the trial, and the two gods competed in different games. One of these games consisted of the gods turning themselves into hippopotami and holding their breath under the water. The one who surfaced last would be the winner. Isis, Horus’ mother, cheated and speared Seth to make him surface early, but despite this violation, Horus won in the end and was ever after regarded as the godly form of the pharaoh.
6. The Egyptian God of Violence
It is only logical that, after killing and dismembering a fellow god and trying to kill his newborn nephew, Seth became the Egyptian god most commonly associated with violence and chaos. It is important to stress the fact that chaos does not mean evil. According to renowned Egyptologist Jan Assmann, ancient Egyptians were always known for the complex nature of their gods, and in a sense, there was no Egyptian god who was either good or bad.
Furthermore, as we have stated above, chaos is instrumental in the maintaining of order, for only the constant challenge to the system can keep it functioning. He was, however, unanimously regarded as a god capable of enormous violence and destruction. His image was usually carried into battle, in order to infuse the Egyptian armies with the god’s violence and might. Also, the very image of Seth was thought to be capable of damaging people and property, and so statues and portraits of Seth were customarily the objects of damnatio memoriae — the destruction of images.
7. Even Seth Was Good Sometimes
Egyptian gods were neither good nor bad, but complex characters that could be both at different times. Seth was no exception. In fact, in addition to Peribsen, Khasekhemwy, and the Hyksos kings, a series of pharaohs from the 19th dynasty were named after him.
Seth I was known as a great warrior who led important campaigns in Syria, including the conquest of the strategic site of Kadesh. His name was also frequently incorporated into the personal names of regular Egyptians, proving that ordinary people openly worshipped Seth.
In mythology, Seth was sometimes the defender of the solar barque. According to late texts, each night the monstrous serpent Apep (Apophis in Greek) hypnotized the solar god Re as well as his entire crew. The only Egyptian god who was capable of resisting Apep’s deadly stare was Seth, and so he was able to fight the serpent by thrusting his great copper spear into the monster’s scaly body. Thanks to Seth, then, the solar barque could complete its nightly journey, ready to re-emerge in the east just in time for dawn.