The Conflict between Horus and Seth over the Throne of Ancient Egypt
The battle between ancient Egyptian gods Horus and Seth is arguably the fiercest rivalry in ancient Egyptian mythology. The story, which is primarily found in both the Osiris myth and the Contendings of Horus and Seth, occupied a very important spot in ancient Egypt as it was wrapped in themes of kingship and succession.
How did this rivalry begin? And which god came out victorious? Below World History Edu explores all the major myths surrounding the struggle between Horus and Seth.
Who is Horus?
Horus – ancient Egyptian god of kingship and the sky – was usually depicted as a falcon or a man with a flacon head. It is believed that Horus was born to Isis, the Egyptian mother goddess, and Osiris, the Lord of the Underworld. After Osiris is briefly brought back to life, Isis lay with him and conceives Horus. In the Osiris myth, Osiris, the ruler of Egypt, was cowardly murdered by his brother Seth, who then seized the throne. Upon hearing of Isis’ pregnancy, Seth sent his goons to track and kill both Isis and Horus. Isis therefore had to go into hiding in order to keep both herself and her unborn child safe. The mother and child are believed to have hid in the swampy area of the Nile Delta.
With the help of a few protective spells and the support she received from Egyptian deities like Nephthys and Thoth, Isis safely gave birth to Horus. According to the myth, Isis, who was well-versed in magic, kept the young Horus away from the evil eyes and demonic spirits sent by her brother Seth to harm Horus.
Who is Seth?
As stated in the introduction, Seth (also Set) – the ancient Egyptian god of chaos and the desert region – is the murderer and brother of Osiris in ancient Egyptian religion. After usurping the throne, Seth ruled in a very tyrannical manner, bringing a cloud of darkness over the land of Egypt. The Egyptians secretly longed for the coming of Horus, whom they believed would take back throne and end Seth’s reign. Mindful of this, Seth tried very hard to get rid of the baby Horus. His search for Horus proved futile, as Horus’ mother had placed her son under very powerful spells that kept him out of reach of Set’s evil gaze.
Horus versus Seth
Once Horus entered into adulthood, he came out of hiding and marched forth to challenge Seth. His goal was to take the throne of Egypt, which rightfully saw as his birth right. Horus, having been told by his mother about the immense suffering of Egyptians under the reign of Seth, decided to do something fast about the situation.
The falcon-headed god Horus went toe-to-toe with his uncle Seth on numerous occasions. In all those contendings, the two deities proved evenly matched.
In one very bizarre struggle, Seth even tried to sleep with Horus. To this day, archaeologists are left befuddled as to why Seth tried to inseminate his seamen into Horus. According to the myth, Horus catches the seamen and casts it in the river. Horus then responds by smearing his own seamen on some lettuces and sets them before Seth. Since the lettuce was Seth’s favorite food, the god of chaos quickly munched on it.
With no outright winner in the struggle, the two gods decided to put their case before the elder gods (i.e. the Ennead). The panel of gods, which included the likes of sun god Ra, Geb, Tefnut and Shu, listened carefully to both sides. First, they allowed Seth to make his submissions and the reasons why he claimed to be the rightful king of Egypt. Thinking that his seamen was in Horus, Seth called his seamen to bear witness for him; however, and to Seth’s surprise, the seamen responded from the river. As a result, Seth’s claim took a slight hit.
The gods then presented Horus with a chance to defend his claim to the throne. Horus called out to his seamen as witness, and they responded from inside Seth.
In spite of those testimonies, the gods struggled to pass a verdict. Therefore, they ordered Horus and Seth to settle the conflict by having a boat race. The two gods were to race each other in a boat carved out of stone.
In an effort to secure an advantage, Horus secretly carved his boat out of wood and then later painted it to have the look of stone. As expected, Seth’s boat sank right to the bottom of the river as the boat was made of real stone. Horus’ boat, on the other hand, kept rowing and crossed the finish line.
Seth conceded defeat and with immediate effect relinquished the Egyptian throne to Horus, much to the complete excitement of all Egyptians. The land of Egypt had for years been longing for the true heir of Osiris – Horus – to be crowned pharaoh.
Upon his coronation, Horus took his mother Isis as consort. Together with Isis, Horus ushered Egypt into an age of peace and prosperity.
As for Seth, the Egyptian god of chaos continued serving as the ruler of the desert regions beyond Upper Egypt. This explains why Seth was sometimes known as the god of the foreign lands and desert region.
The story of the conflict between Egyptian gods Horus and Seth held a lot of significance to the Egyptians because it symbolized not just kingship but also the customary rules that govern inheritance for kingship in the kingdom. Following Horus’ triumph over Seth, father-to-son pattern of inheritance was established for the throne of ancient Egypt. Thus Horus was declared the rightful heir to his father Osiris.
This story also reinforces the importance of the Egyptian triad of royalty, i.e. Osiris, Horus and Isis. In that triad, and with Isis serving as the king’s mother, Horus is seen as the king in life while Osiris is the dead king who rules the afterlife.
More on Horus and Seth
In some versions of the myth, Horus and Seth settled their grievances by dividing Egypt between them. Horus ruled over the rich and fertile regions around the Nile River; while Seth had dominion over the sandy and infertile desert region.
Where as Seth was the Lord of the Red Land, Horus was the Lord of the Black Land. The Egyptians often used black to symbolize fertility. This perhaps comes from the black rich silt sediments deposited by the Nile on the farm lands of the inhabitants. Set as the Lord of the Red Land is in reference to him being the ruler of the deserts.
Seth is not depicted in the myths as an all-out evil character. He did have some positive sides. Seth accompanies Ra whenever he travels (on the sun barque) through the underworld. Seth stands brave and fights of Apep (or Apophis), the monstrous serpent of Chaos. It is safe to say that without the help of Seth, the lord fo the Red land, Ra most likely does not come out of the underworld every day.
In many ways, the conflict between Horus and Set is symbolic to the division that exited in ancient Egypt at some point when Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt were not united. Horus was generally associated with Lower Egypt, while Seth was seen as the patron of Upper Egypt.
According to the myth, Horus and Seth fought each other over the throne of Egypt for more than eighty years.
The ancient Egyptians believed that the pharaoh was the manifestation of Horus in life and Osiris in the afterlife. As the sky god, Horus was considered a very powerful deity in the Egyptian pantheon. His right eye was believed to be the Sun, while his left eye the moon.
Seth was the patron god of Upper Egypt, while Horus was the patron of Lower Egypt.
After defeating Seth, Horus came to be known as “Horus the Great” or “Horus the Elder”.
In one of their battles, Horus struck at Seth’s testicle; while Seth gouged out Horus’ eye. The eye was later restored following Horus’ coronation as king of Egypt.
The left eye of Horus was known as the Wadjet, meaning the “whole”, “completed”, or “uninjured” eye. It’s also been said that the Eye of Horus symbolized protection and royalty. With regard to the former, Egyptians believed that they Eye of Horus warded of evil spirits.