Four Sons of Horus in Ancient Egypt

Four Sons of Horus | Image (from left) – Imsety, Hapi, Duamutef, and Qebehsenuef

In Egyptian mythology, the Four Sons of Horus refer to a group of four gods who were believed to be in charge of the four canopic jars used during the mummification of the dead.

Either made from limestone or pottery, the canopic jars were used as storage containers to keep key organs of the body that Egyptians believed were vital to the dead’s sustenance in the afterlife. Each canopic jar was made for a particular organ of the body.

The usage of canopic jars is said to have started way back in the Old Kingdom era (c. 2686 – c. 2134 B.C.E). The practice would continue until the Ptolemaic Period (c. 332 B.C.E. – 30 B.C.E).

In the Old Kingdom, the canopic jars were made plain and simple with just a lid. As time went by the canopic jars got more and more decorated. By the New Kingdom era (c. 1552 – c. 1070 B.C.E), the jars had become more elaborate with hieroglyphics. Each of the jars then came to depict one of the four sons of Horus, which are the funerary deities Imsety, Duamutef, Hapi, and Qebehsenuef.

Body organs that were placed in the canopic jars

As per the beliefs at the time, the Egyptians placed specific body organs into specific canopic jar. But first of, those organs had to be mummified. The stomach, liver, large intestines, and lungs were the four specific organs that made their way into the four canopic jars.

Organs like the brain and heart did not make the cut. Believing that the brain was the origin of mucus, embalmers would remove it by turning it into liquid before discarding it. As for the heart, it was left inside the mummified body as Egyptians believed that the heart was were the soul resides.

Ancient Egyptian Canopic Chest

Tutankhamun’s canopic chest. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

After the four organs have been placed in their respective canopic jars, the jars were then placed in a canopic chest. The canopic chest, often adorned with inscriptions or special spells, would then be buried along with the sarcophagus of the deceased.

It’s also been found out that ancient Egyptians did not always the organs of the dead in the canopic jars. Starting from the Third Intermediate Period of Egypt (c.1069 -c. 664 BCE), embalmers took to using dummy canopic jars. What this meant was that the canopic jars did not have to be hollowed as they weren’t supposed to contain any body organ.

Who are the Four Sons of Horus?

In ancient Egyptian religion, the four sons of Horus are the children of Horus the Elder, as their names rightly suggest. They were also the manifestations of the divine part of Horus’ soul.

What the above implies is that the four sons of Horus were the manifestations of the kings of Egypt since the kings were themselves manifestations of Horus, the falcon-god of the sky.

Imsety

Known as “the kindly one”, Imsety is an Egyptian funerary deity who serves as the patron of the direction of the south | Image: Imsety, one of the four sons of Horus, is depicted with a human.

The funerary deity Imsety, also known as Amset or Mesti, was primarily in charge of protecting the canopic jar that holds the liver of a deceased person. To the ancient Egyptians, the liver was the center of human emotions. Imsety was perhaps the most peculiar funerary deity among his brothers as he was the only depicted with a human face. Perhaps this is in reference to his association to human emotions.

Imsety was in turn protected by Isis, the Egyptian mother goddess and deity of kingship, protection and magic. The south was considered his cardinal compass point.

Hapi

Hapi is the baboon-headed god who protects the lungs of the dead.

Depicted with the head of baboon, ancient Egyptian funerary god Hapi is one of the four sons of Horus. Hapi is responsible for keeping the lungs of a deceased person safe.

Hapi’s companion goddess was believed to be the protective goddess Nephyths, who is also known as the “Helpful Goddess”.

In an early Egyptian reference, Hapi was said to be the greatest of Horus’ children. He was also considered one of the four rudders of heaven. His cardinal point on the compass was in the north.

Duamutef

Duamutef, the jackal-headed funerary god was believed to align himself to the east.

The funerary deity Duamutef is commonly depicted with the head of a jackal, and is implored by the embalmers to protect the stomach (and small intestines) of the deceased, hence his most known depiction of a jackal head sculpted as the cover of the canopic jar that stored the stomach.

Duamutef is accompanied and protected by the goddess Neith. Egyptians placed his image on the side of a coffin, aligning him with the side meant to face east.

According to the myth, Duamutef was tasked with worshiping the decease person. This explains why one of his epithets reads as “he who worships his mother”.  By mother, the epithet meant the goddess Isis.

Qebehsenuef

Qebehsenuef is a falcon-headed god who protects the intestines of the deceased. He in turn is protected by goddess Serket (Serqet).

In ancient Egyptian religion, the funerary deity Qebehsenuef protects the mummified intestines of the dead person. His protector is the scorpion goddess Serket, and he represents the West direction.

Duamutef usually was depicted on coffins and as the lid of canopic jars. Many images of the Judgement of the Dead show him along with his brothers in front of Osiris on a small lily flower.

Similar to his three other brothers, Qebehsenuef was described as one of the four rudders of heave in ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Importance of the Four Sons of Horus

In the Pyramid Texts of ancient Egypt, the four sons of Horus are called close friends of the Egyptian kings. It was believed that the four deities gave a hand to deceased Egyptian pharaoh in his journey to the underworld. They did this by offering the king a ladder on which the pharaoh could use to make his ascent to the heaven, i.e. the sky.

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What the Four Sons of Horus represent

Four Sons of Horus origin story and facts | Image (from left) – Imsety, Hapi, Duamutef, and Qebehsenuef

  • Duamutef: Ancient Egyptians associated the jackal (or a dog) with Anubis, the god of death and embalming. It therefore comes as no surprise for the jackal to be linked to the funerary deity Duamutef. In addition to it being associated with Anubis, the jackal was linked with to Wepwawet, the “opener of the ways” or “creator of paths for the dead”.
  • Hapi: When it came to wisdom and knowledge, no other Egyptian symbolized those concepts better than Thoth, the baboon-headed Egyptian god. Thoth also played a crucial role in the underworld as he was the one who recorded the judgments passed on the deceased. Therefore it stands to reason that the funerary deity Hapi is symbolized by the head of a baboon.
  • Imsety: The funerary deity Imsety and his association with a human head probably speak to his association to Osiris, the Egyptian lord of the Underworld.
  • Qebehsenuef: The hawk head of Qebehsenuef is linked to Horus, Egyptian falcon-god of the sky.
Sons of Horus

Duamutef (left) and Anubis

Other Major Facts about the Four Sons of Horus

  • The organs that were saved in the four canopic jars were usually treated with natron – a preservative often used by embalmers.
  • Found – empty – even untouched tombs – it will therefore suggest that they were part of an elaborate funerary ritual
  • In the centuries after the First Intermediate Period, the lids of the canopic jars were shaped like a human head, or sometimes the head of the Anubis, ancient Egyptian god of funeral and embalming.
  • Some examples of the materials used in making the canopic jars include alabaster, calcareous stone, aragonite, and glazed porcelain.
  • The Four Sons of Horus are described in the Book of the Dead as the Four Pillars of Shu.
  • In Spell 148 of the Book of the Dead, the Four Sons of Horus are described as the four rudders of heaven in as four. In some accounts, they are described as the sons of Osiris as well as members of the tribunal around Osiris in the underworld.

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