Horus: The Ancient Egyptian God of the Sky and the Sun
In the Egyptian pantheon, the god Horus was a very formidable and important deity. It was believed that his realm of control was the sky and the sun. As a result, Horus was commonly referred to as “The One Far Above”. The Greeks, however, called him Heru or Har – “the Distant One”.
In some cases, Horus was also venerated as the god of war, hunting, and kingship. Largely considered as the chief protector of the land of Egypt, he was depicted by ancient Egyptians as a stoic man with the head of a hawk (or sometimes a lion). He became known in some spheres as the hawk god of Egypt. It’s been known that ancient Egyptian pharaohs typically identified themselves with the god of the sky. Thus, the pharaohs were adored and even worshiped because their subjects believed that they were the manifestations of Horus in human form.
The birth of Horus
Depending on the era and place, the birth story of Horus takes different forms. All in all, there are three main forms of Horus in Egyptian mythology: Horus the Older; Horus the Child; and Horus the Younger. For example, Horus the Older (also known as “Har wer”, the god of the kingdom) was largely seen as the last born child of Geb (earth) and Nut (sky). What this means is that he was the brother of Isis, Osiris, Set (Seth), and Nephthys. However, in the birth story of Horus the Younger, the goddess Isis was the mother of Horus.
Death of Horus’ father (The Osiris Myth)
In terms of the myths, Horus the Younger is the most popular of the three. His story largely comes from the Osiris Myth. According to the myth, Horus’ parents – Osiris and Isis- were supreme rulers of a very orderly and harmonious Egypt. Osiris was responsible for inculcating ideals of harmony, order (Ma’at) and truth into the human population. As king, Osiris was wise, helping the people of Egypt to prosper and live happily together.
However, this paradise condition in the land of Egypt was interrupted by the Osiris’ brother, Set, the god of chaos and the desert regions. Set had grown envious of his brother Osiris’ reign. Filled with hate and angst, Set proceeded to unleash chaos in the kingdom of Egypt. Set was also angered because his wife, Nephthys, had had an affair with Osiris. Set then killed his brother and thereafter butchered his body into several pieces. He scattered those pieces across the earth. With Osiris out of the picture, Set took over the throne of Egypt. His rule was not as pleasant as Osiris’ rule; the land and people were often blighted by famine and civil chaos. The people of Egypt longed for the coming back of Osiris.
With the help of the jackal-headed god Anubis, Osiris’ wife Isis was able to find Osiris’ dismembered body parts and put him together. Subsequently, she used her magical powers to bring Osiris from the dead. However, Osiris did not come back to the land of the living; instead, he was reborn in the afterlife. Osiris then became the god of the underworld (i.e. the afterlife). Prior to Osiris departing to the underworld, he and Isis went on to have a child named Horus.
Owing to the absence of his penis, Osiris could not get Isis pregnant through the conventional means. It is believed that Isis transformed herself into a kite-like object and flew past Osiris’ body in order to absorb Osiris’ seamen. And so that is how Isis conceived her son, Horus.
Horus and Isis go into hiding
When word of Isis pregnancy with Horus reached Set, the usurper king was filled with absolute disgust and anger. He knew that should Horus survive he would come one day to claim his birth right, which was the throne of Egypt. Set dispatched his thugs and evil spirits to hunt down the pregnant Isis.
In the meantime, Isis went into hiding. The goddess all alone had to endure the pain of child birth in the vicinity of a swampy area, most likely the Nile Delta. Once Horus was born, Isis did everything in her power to keep the baby Horus safe and away from the evil eyes of Horus. Periodically, the mother and baby had to move from one place to another in order to stay away from Set’s henchmen.
A few of the gods and goddesses in the Egyptian pantheon took pity on the nursing mother and sent her a number of protective amulets and spirits. For example, the goddess Selket gifted the baby Horus seven scorpions to protect and guard him at all times. Horus also received training in several disciplines from the likes of Anubis, Neith, and Thoth (the god of knowledge and wisdom). Many gods and goddesses came to the aid of Horus because they backed him to one day face off with Set and reclaim the throne of Egypt.
Horus would grow into a fine young god, skilled in a host of battle and fighting techniques. He also benefited a lot from the wise teachings of the god Thoth. Gradually, Horus started venturing out of hiding. He became the atypical hero for people that were plagued by Set’s henchmen. Towing the path of honor and truth, Horus vowed to take the fight to Set and bring to an end his reign of tyranny.
Horus and Set battle for the throne of Egypt
Much of what we know about the numerous battles between Horus and his uncle Set comes from “The Contendings of Horus and Set”.
In the book, it is stated that Set and Horus appear before a panel of judges made up of nine Egyptian gods and goddesses, including the likes of Ra and Osiris. Horus makes a very sound case against the usurper king, Set. Majority of the judges on the panel are swayed in favor of Horus’ argument. However, Ra (Amun-Ra) – supreme creator god – sort of uses his veto on the panel and states that Horus is too young and untested to be crowned king of Egypt. Ra votes in favor of Set.
After the proceedings, the panel of judges put Horus and Set through a series of battles (in some cases actual physical race). The judges state that whoever wins the most battles would be crowned ruler of Egypt.
During one test that involved armed combat, Set was close to overpowering Horus. The younger of the two combatants gets injured. It is even believed that Set plucked out one of Horus’ eyes. Horus, in turn, inflicts severe damage to Set – he had the genitals of Set cut off. Although the two gods seem neck to neck even, Horus always comes out tops in every battle. It is believed that Horus received lots of training and help from his mother, as well as Thoth. The battles between Set and Horus for the throne of Egypt would last for at least 80 years, according to ancient manuscripts.
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Isis Tricks Set
Even though, Horus won every single battle he had with Set, the supreme Egyptian god, Ra, continues to cast his vote in favor of Set. In the meanwhile, the people of Egypt continue to be in severe distress due to Set’s wayward reign over Egypt.
Isis proceeded to disguise herself as an old looking widow. She then approaches the palace of Set. Isis, still in her disguise, complains about how her husband’s brother had seized all her dead husband’s properties. She goes on to say that her only child and her now live a poor and dissolate life. Set takes pity on the woman and vows to bring justice to this said brother-in-law of the woman. Upon hearing Set’s vows, Isis takes of the veil and disguise that she was wearing. Unable to go back on his words, Set is left with no other option than to comply with his very vows. After witnessing this, Ra eventually gives into the claims of Horus. Horus is crowned ruler of land while Set is banished to spend the rest of eternity in the desert regions beyond Egypt.
The people of Egypt welcome Horus’ coronation with immense joy. Horus chooses his mother, Isis, as his queen consort. Together, Horus and Isis bring about the long lasting peace and prosperity to the land of Egypt again, just like it was during the reign of Osiris. The ancient Egyptians bestowed upon Horus the title of “Horu-Sema-Tawy”, which translates into “the Unifier of Upper and Lower Egypt”.
Importance of Horus in Ancient Egypt
Horus claiming his birth right, i.e. the throne, meant that he became the first pharaoh of Egypt. And from then onwards future Pharaohs of ancient Egypt would go on to be revered as the human manifestation of the god Horus himself. This practice started during the era of the First Dynastic pharaohs of Egypt.
Pharaohs, like Horus, were worshiped as people who brought order to a world that was once turbulent. They had the power to vanquish over and over again the chaos from agents of Set. Therefore, while the pharaoh was alive, the Egyptians regarded him/her as the reincarnation of Horus, and when the pharaoh died, he/she went on to become Osiris.
The Egyptians believed that Horus and the pharaohs were the once that protected the land of Egypt from evil spirits and foreign invaders.
In simple terms, Horus was seen as a deity that enforced the principles of Ma’at – law and order. This made him and his places of worship very important facets of the Egyptian society.
As a result his association with the Four Sons of Horus – gods that protected the organs of a deceased person – Horus was also played a vital role in the afterlife. Thus his role was not only confided to the land of the living.
Where was Horus worshiped?
Horus’ worship centers and temples were one of the most frequented places in ancient Egypt. Horus’ temples and cults only had male priests and clergy.
Due to his widespread worship across the land, Horus cult and worship centers varied in terms of practice, rituals and sacrifices. The most famous Horus worship centers were at Khem, Pe, and Behdet (around the Nile Delta). For example, Pe was a very a special place to the Egyptians in the sense that it was the exact spot Horus lost his left eye as he fought with Set. Other Horus worship sites were at Edfu, Nekhen, and Kom Ombos.
Depictions and symbols of Horus
Horus is often depicted with a scepter in one hand and an ankh (the symbol of life) in the other. He usually dons white and red color crown – a symbolism of the fusion of the two lands of Egypt- Upper and Lower Egypt. The white crown is for Upper Egypt while the red is for Lower Egypt.
Some Egyptian sculptures and paintings have shown the god Horus as a hawk or a lion with the head of hawk. In some cases he is painted as a pharaoh, however, instead of a human head, he is given the head of a hawk.
Due to Horus being a national god, his depictions and the symbols for him have varied across time and place.
As a matter of fact, the god “Horus” was often used as a general term for several number of falcon deities in Egypt.
The Eye of Horus
Known as the “Wedjat”, the origin story of the Eye of Horus can be traced to a Pre-dynastic deity called Wadjet – a solar deity. Wadjet was worshiped as the protector god of the people of ancient Egypt. Hence his symbol – the Wedjat – became associated with protection of not just the people, but the pharaohs as well.
As time went on, the symbol found its way into the temples of Ra and Horus. Thus, at some point in time, the Eye of Horus was also called the “Eye of Ra”.
Basically the symbol represented the protection granted from the gods. It means that the Eye of Horus was also associated with other gods and goddess such as Isis and Hathor.
The Eye of Horus was very much loved by sailors, who put the symbol on their boats/ships in order to ward off evil spirits at sea.