In Ancient Egyptian mythology, Set (also spelled Seth, Sutekh or Seteh) is an ancient god, who was originally the god of the desert, Storms, Darkness, and Chaos. Because of the developments in the Egyptian language over the 3,000 years that Set was worshipped, by the Greek period, the 't' in Seth was pronounced so indistinguishably from th that the Greeks spelled it as (Seth). The exact translation of Set is unknown for certain, but is usually considered to be either (one who) dazzles or pillar of stability, one connected to the desert, and the other more to the institution of monarchy.
Seth was the god of the desert, and necessary chaos. Set also was viewed as immensely powerful and carried the epithet, "His Majesty", shared only with Ra. Another common epithet was, of great of strength, and in one of the Pyramid Texts it states that the king's strength is that of Set. As chief god, he was patron of Upper Egypt (in the South- upstream), where he was worshiped, most notably at Ombos. The alternate form of his name, spelled Setesh, and later Sutekh, designates this supremacy, the extra sh and kh signifying majesty.
In art, Set was mostly depicted as a mysterious and unknown creature, referred to by Egyptologists as the Set animal or Typhonic beast, with a curved snout, square ears, forked tail, and canine body, or sometimes as a human with only the head of the Set animal. It has no complete resemblance to any known creature, although it does resemble a composite of an aardvark, a donkey, and a jackal, all of which are desert creatures.
The main species of aardvark present in ancient Egypt additionally had a reddish appearance due to thin fur, which shows the skin beneath it). In some descriptions he has the head of a greyhound. The earliest known representation of Set comes from a tomb dating to the Naqada I phase of the Predynastic Period (circa 4000 BC–3500 BC), and the Set-animal is even found on a mace-head of the Scorpion King, a Protodynastic ruler.
The Was ("power") scepters represent the Set-animal. Was scepters were carried by gods, pharaohs, and priests, as a symbol of power, and in later use, control over the force of chaos (Set). The head and forked tail of the Set-animal are clearly present. Was scepters are often depicted in paintings, drawings, and carvings of gods, and remnants of real Was scepters have been found constructed of faience or wood.
The myth of Set's conflict with Horus, Osiris, and Isis appears in many Egyptian sources, including the Pyramid Texts, the Coffin Texts, the Shabaka Stone, inscriptions on the walls of the temple of Horus at Edfu, and various papyrus sources. The Chester Beatty Papyrus No. 1 contains the legend known as The Contention of Horus and Set. Classical authors also recorded the story, notably Plutarch's De Iside et Osiride.
These myths generally portray Osiris as a wise king and bringer of civilization, happily married to his sister, Isis. Set was envious of his younger brother, and he killed and dismembered Osiris. Isis reassembled Osiris' corpse and another god (in some myths Thoth and in others Anubis) embalmed him. As the archetypal mummy, Osiris reigned over the Afterworld as judge of the dead.
Osiris' son Horus was conceived by Isis with Osiris' corpse, or in some versions, only with pieces of his corpse. Horus naturally became the enemy of Set, and many myths describe their conflicts. In some of these myths Set is portrayed as Horus' older brother rather than uncle.
The myth incorporated moral lessons for relationships between fathers and sons, older and younger brothers, and husbands and wives.
It has also been suggested that the myth may reflect historical events. According to the Shabaka Stone, Geb divided Egypt into two halves, giving Upper Egypt (the desert south) to Set and Lower Egypt (the region of the delta in the north) to Horus, in order to end their feud. However, according to the stone, in a later judgment Geb gave all Egypt to Horus.
Interpreting this myth as a historical record would lead one to believe that Lower Egypt (Horus' land) conquered Upper Egypt (Set's land); but, in fact Upper Egypt conquered Lower Egypt. So the myth cannot be simply interpreted. Several theories exist to explain the discrepancy. For instance, since both Horus and Set were worshiped in Upper Egypt prior to unification, perhaps the myth reflects a struggle within Upper Egypt prior to unification, in which a Horus-worshiping group subjected a Set-worshiping group.
What is known is that during the Second Dynasty, there was a period in which the King Peribsen's name or Serekh - which had been surmounted by a Horus falcon in the First Dynasty - was for a time surmounted by a Set animal, suggesting some kind of religious struggle. It was ended at the end of the Dynasty by Khasekhemwy, who surmounted his Serekh with both a falcon of Horus and a Set animal, indicating some kind of compromise had been reached.
Regardless, once the two lands were united, Seth and Horus were often shown together crowning the new pharaohs, as a symbol of their power over both Lower and Upper Egypt. Queens of the 1st Dynasty bore the title "She Who Sees Horus and Set." The Pyramid Texts present the pharaoh as a fusion of the two deities. Evidently, pharaohs believed that they balanced and reconciled competing cosmic principles. Eventually the dual-god Horus-Set appeared, combining features of both deities (as was common in Egyptian theology, the most familiar example being Amun-Re).
Later Egyptians interpreted the myth of the conflict between Set and Osiris/Horus as an analogy for the struggle between the desert (represented by Set) and the fertilizing floods of the Nile (Osiris/Horus).
As the Ogdoad system became more assimilated with the Ennead one, as a result of creeping increase of the identification of Atum as Ra, itself a result of the joining of Upper and Lower Egypt, Set's position in this became considered. With Horus as Ra's heir on Earth, Set, previously the chief god, for Lower Egypt, required an appropriate role as well, and so was identified as Ra's main hero, who fought Apep each night, during Ra's journey (as sun god) across the underworld.
He was thus often depicted standing on the prow of Ra's night barque spearing Apep in the form of a serpent, turtle, or other dangerous water animals. Surprisingly, in some Late Period representations, such as in the Persian Period temple at Hibis in the Khargah Oasis, Set was represented in this role with a falcon's head, taking on the guise of Horus, despite the fact that Set was usually considered in quite a different position with regard to heroism.
This assimilation also led to Anubis being displaced, in areas where he was worshiped, as ruler of the underworld, with his situation being explained by his being the son of Osiris. As Isis represented life, Anubis' mother was identified instead as Nephthys. This led to an explanation in which Nephthys, frustrated by Set's lack of sexual interest in her, disguised herself as the more attractive Isis, but failed to gain Set's attention because he was infertile. Osiris mistook Nephthys for Isis and they had conceived Anubis resulting in Anubis' birth. In some later texts, after Set lost the connection to the desert, and thus infertility, Anubis was identified as Set's son, as Set is Nephthys' husband.
In the mythology, Set has a great many wives, including some foreign Goddesses, and several children. Some of the most notable wives (beyond Nephthys/Nebet Het) are Neith (with whom he is said to have fathered Sobek), Amtcheret (by whom he is said to have fathered Upuat - though Upuat is also said to be a son of Anubis or Osiris), Tawaret, Hetepsabet (one of the Hours, a feminine was-beast headed goddess who is variously described as wife or daughter of Set), and the two Canaanite deities Anat and Astarte, both of whom are equally skilled in love and war - two things which Set himself was famous for.
During the Second Intermediate Period, a group of Asiatic foreign chiefs known as the Hyksos (literally, "rulers of foreigns lands") gained the rulership of Egypt, and ruled the Nile Delta, from Avaris. They chose Set, originally Lower Egypt's chief god, the god of foreigners and the god they found most similar to their own chief god, as their patron, and so Set became worshiped as the chief god once again. When Ahmose I overthrew the Hyksos and expelled them from Egypt, Egyptian attitudes towards Asiatic foreigners became xenophobic, and royal propaganda discredited the period of Hyksos rule. Nonetheless, the Set cult at Avaris flourished, and the Egyptian garrison of Ahmose stationed there because part of the priesthood of Set at Avaris.
The founder of the nineteenth dynasty, Ramesses I came from a military family from Avaris with strong ties to the priesthood of Set. Several of the Ramesside kings were named for Set, most notably Seti I (literally, "man of Set") and Setnakht (literally, "Set is strong"). In addition, one of the garrisons of Ramesses II held Set as its patron deity, and Ramesses II erected the so-called Four Hundred Years' Stele at Pi-Ramesses, commemorating the 400 year anniversary of the Set cult in the Delta.
Set also became associated with foreign gods during the New Kingdom, particularly in the Delta. Set was also identified by the Egyptians with the Hittite deity Teshub, who was a storm god like Set.
Set was one of the earliest deities, with a strong following in Upper Egypt. Originally highly regarded throughout Kemet as the god of the desert, a political faction inspired an initial disparaging of Set's name and reputation. Kemet was originally split into two kingdoms: Upper ruled by Horus (and later Ra), Lower by Set.
Set's followers resisted a unification of the Upper and Lower kingdoms of Egypt by the followers of Horus/Ra (with the followers of Osiris and Isis). This political split was echoed in the Osiris & Isis myth, and subsequent battle with Horus. The followers of Horus thus denigrated Set as chaotic and evil. By the 22nd Dynasty, Set was equated with his old enemy, Apep, and his images on temples were replaced with those of Sobek or Thoth. Most modern popular misconceptions of Set come from Plutarch's secondary source interpretations of Set (via the writings of Herodotus et al.), long after Set's demonization (circa 100 A.D., Roman Period in Egypt).
Set was further demonized immediately after the Hyksos Period, the evidence from the Nineteenth Dynasty proves that this is a more complex picture.
Some scholars date the demonization of Set to after Egypt's conquest by the Persian ruler Cambyses II. Set, who had traditionally been the god of foreigners, thus also became associated with foreign oppressors, including the Achaemenid Persians, Ptolemaic dynasty, and Romans. Indeed, it was during the time that Set was particularly vilified, and his defeat by Horus widely celebrated.
Set's negative aspects were emphasized during this period. Set was the killer of Osiris in the Myth of Osiris and Isis, having hacked Osiris' body into pieces and dispersed it so that he could not be resurrected. If Set' ears are fins, as some have interpreted, the head of the Set-animal resembles the Oxyrhynchus fish, and so it was said that as a final precaution, an Oxyrhynchus fish ate Osiris' penis. In addition, Set was often depicted as one of the creatures that the Egyptians most feared, crocodiles, and hippopotami.
The Greeks later linked Set with Typhon because both were evil forces, storm deities, and sons of the Earth that attacked the main gods.
Nevertheless, throughout this period, in some outlying regions of Egypt Set was still regarded as the heroic chief deity; for example, there was a temple dedicated to Set in the village of Mut al-Kharab, in the Dakhlah Oasis.
Set was worshipped at the temples of Ombos (Nubt near Naqada) and Ombos (Nubt near Kom Ombo), at Oxyrhynchus in upper Egypt, and also in part of the Fayyum area.
More specifically, Set was worshipped in the relatively large metropolitan (yet provincial) locale of Sepermeru, especially during the Rammeside Period. There, Seth was honored with an important temple called the "House of Seth, Lord of Sepermeru." One of the epithets of this town was "gateway to the desert," which fits well with Seth's role as a deity of the frontier regions of ancient Egypt. At Sepermeru, Set's temple-enclosure included a small secondary shrine called "The House of Seth, Powerful-Is-His-Mighty-Arm," and Ramesses II himself built (or modified) a second land-owning temple for Nephthys, called "The House of Nephthys of Ramesses-Meriamun.".
There is no question, however, that the two temples of Seth and Nephthys in Sepermeru were under separate administration, each with its own holdings and prophets. Moreover, another moderately sized temple of Seth is noted for the nearby town of Pi-Wayna. The close association of Seth temples with temples of Nephthys in key outskirt-towns of this milieu is also reflected in the likelihood that there existed another "House of Seth" and another "House of Nephthys" in the town of Su, at the entrance to the Fayyum.
Perhaps most intriguing in terms of the pre-Dynasty XX connections between temples of Set and nearby temples of his consort Nephthys is the evidence of Papyrus Bologna, which preserves a most irritable complaint lodged by one Pra'em-hab, Prophet of the "House of Seth" in the now-lost town of Punodjem ("The Sweet Place"). In the text of Papyrus Bolgona, the harried Pra'em-hab laments undue taxation for his own temple (The House of Seth) and goes on to lament that he is also saddled with responsibility for: "the ship, and I am likewise also responsible for the House of Nephthys, along with the remaining heap of district temples".
It is unfortunate, perhaps, that we have means of knowing the particular theologies of the closely connected Set and Nephthys temples in these districts - it would be interesting to learn, for example, the religious tone of temples of Nephthys located in such proximity to those of Seth, especially given the seemingly contrary Osirian loyalties of Seth's consort-goddess. When, by Dynasty XX, the "demonization" of Seth was ostensibly inaugurated, Seth was either eradicated or increasingly pushed to the outskirts, Nephthys flourished as part of the usual Osirian pantheon throughout Egypt, even obtaining a Late Period status as tutelary goddess of her own Nome (UU Nome VII, "Hwt-Sekhem"/Diospolis Parva) and as the chief goddess of the Mansion of the Sistrum in that district.
Yet, it is perhaps most telling that Seth's cultus persisted with astonishing potency even into the latter days of ancient Egyptian religion, in outlying (but important) places like Kharga, Dakhlah, Deir el-Hagar, Mut, Kellis, etc. Indeed, in these places, Seth was considered "Lord of the Oasis/Town" and Nephthys was likewise venerated as "Mistress of the Oasis" at Seth's side, in his temples esp. the dedication of a Nephthys-cult statue). Meanwhile, Nephthys was also venerated as "Mistress" in the Osirian temples of these districts, as part of the specifically Osirian college.
It would appear that the ancient Egyptians in these locales had little problem with the paradoxical dualities inherent in venerating Seth and Nephthys as juxtaposed against Osiris, Isis & Nephthys. Further study of the enormously important role of Seth in ancient Egyptian religion (particularly after Dynasty XX) is imperative.
The power of Seth's cult in the mighty (yet outlying) city of Avaris from the Second Intermediate Period through the Ramesside Period cannot be denied. There he reigned supreme as a deity both at odds and in league with threatening foreign powers, and in this case, his chief consort-goddesses were the Phoenicians Anat and Astarte, with Nephthys merely one of the harem.
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