Why Did Seth Worship Become Popular in Ancient Egypt?

Papyrus Depicting Seth Spearing the Demon Apophis

The ancient Egyptians followed a complex polytheistic religion where specific deities rose to prominence in particular locations and eras. The geographic focus of the religion was centered around a deity’s particular cult center, which was a city and a temple in the city where priests dedicated to that particular god lived and carried out rituals. The cult center was also where the deity’s specific cult statue was housed, usually in the deepest part of the temple, which could only be accessed by a select few. Some of the more notable cult centers in ancient Egypt were Thebes for the god Amun/Amen, Memphis for Ptah, and Heliopolis for Atum. These were three of the best known gods in ancient Egypt and their cities were among the most important, but there were a host of less popular deities that were also worshipped in a number of smaller cities. The enigmatic god Seth was one such deity.

To modern sensibilities, the Egyptians’ worship of Seth seems a bit strange since he was the god of chaos and the Egyptians valued order above everything. Seth was also the god of the desert and foreigners, while the Egyptians tended to despise the desert and most foreign peoples. According to Egyptian myths, Seth also murdered his brother Osiris, the god of the dead, and attempted to usurp his nephew, Horus’ rightful position as king. Still, Seth was viewed as physically strong, virile, and cunning, which were all admirable traits, making him worthy of worship in Egypt. Seth became a particularly popular god during two far separated periods in Egyptian history, though probably for different reasons. Seth’s popularity in the Second Dynasty was probably related to his perceived physical strength and virility, while his support in the Nineteenth and Twentieth dynasties may have stemmed from his identification with the Egyptian Delta.

Seth in Ancient Egyptian Mythology

Hieroglyphic Sign of the “Seth Animal”

Examining the appearance of Seth in ancient Egyptian religion and history, physically and metaphorically, can help elucidate important aspects of the Egyptian view of the world and god. The physical representation of Seth/Set/Sutekh is unlike any of the other Egyptian deities, whose physical representations were based on known animals, because the animal that represented him is so far unidentified. The hieroglyphic sign for Seth is an animal with a head of what may be an aardvark, the possible body of a canine, and a curiously forked tail. [1] Seth was also represented anthropomorphically, with a human body and the ardvarkesque head, in hieroglyphic signs and art. Since the precise animal, or animals, that Seth was meant to represent remains a mystery, which only serves to make the curious god that much more enigmatic. As mysterious as Seth’s connection with the physical world may be, there is no doubt that he played an important role in Egyptian mythology. According to the Egyptian Heliopolitan creation myth, Seth was one of the first gods created.

In the Heliopolitan creation myth, the self-created Atum created the first pair of gods, Shu and Tefnut, who gave birth to Geb and Nut, who in turn gave birth to the brother-sister pairs of Osiris and Isis and Seth and Nephthys. This first group of eight gods became known as the Ennead, but almost immediately there was trouble in paradise, with the brothers Seth and Osiris battling for the kingship of Egypt. This mythological battle may have been a metaphor of the very real battle that united Upper (southern) and Lower (norther) Egypt into one kingdom around 3,100 BC, with Seth representing Lower Egypt and Osiris Upper Egypt. [2]

Although Seth was a member of the Egyptian pantheon since presumably the beginning the Egyptian state, he was not mentioned extensively in religious or mythological texts until the Pyramid Texts from the Fifth Dynasty until the early First Intermediate Period (c. 2345-2125 BC). The Pyramid Texts were a collection of spells, known as “Utterances,” that were inscribed on the walls of the deceased kings burial chamber inside his pyramid. The Utterances were intended to help the king transition into the afterlife and take his seat next to the other gods. [3] Although the Utterances were not written in a mythological narrative that became more common in the later Greek tradition, they included anecdotes about many of Egyptian gods and goddesses, including Seth. There are numerous references to Seth’s strength, but also to his primordial conflict with Osiris.

“O Seth, this one here is your brother Osiris, who has been caused to be restored that he may live and punish you; if he lives, this King will live.” [4]

Seth’s place in the Egyptian pantheon was articulated more in texts and art in the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1075 BC), although it was a rather capricious role in the overall scheme of the cosmos. He is depicted in myth and art as riding at the head of the sun-god Ra’s solar barge at night, spearing the demon Apophis, demonstrating his strength and solidarity with the other gods. [5] With that said, he was also the major protagonist in one of ancient Egypt’s only true narrative style myths.

The myth cycle known as The Contendings of Horus and Seth, or simply Horus and Seth, was written in the Late Egyptian dialect of the hieroglyphic language in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth dynasties. The story delves into many of the lurid details of the relationship between the brothers Osiris and Seth and Osiris’ son, Horus, which were only eluded to in the Pyramid Texts. The myth tells how Seth murdered and dismembered Osiris’ body in order to become the king and he was then challenged by Horus. Seth used brute strength against his nephew and even sexually violated him at one point, but he was ultimately defeated due to Horus’ guile and the magical help of his mother, Isis. Despite Seth’s seemingly barbaric acts, he was not seen as “evil” in the modern sense until the Greeks later identified him with one of their own gods – Typhon. ref> Tobin, Vincent Arieh. “Myths: Osiris Cycle.” In The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion. Edited by Donald B. Redford. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 253</ref> The ending of Horus and Seth demonstrates that Seth continued to be revered; instead of being punished for his transgressions, he was adopted by the sun-god.

“Then Atum, Lord of the Two Lands, the Heliopolitan, sent to Isis, saying: ‘Bring Seth bound in fetters.’ So Isis brought Seth bound in fetters as a prisoner. Atum said to him: ‘Why have you resisted being judged and have taken for yourself the office of Horus?’ . . . They brought Horus, son of Isis. They placed the White Crown of his head. They place him on the seat of his father Osiris and said to him: ‘You are the good King of Egypt! You are the good lord of all lands for ever and ever!” . . . Then said Ptah the Great, South-of-his-Wal, Lord of Memphis: ‘What shall we do for Seth, now that Horus has been placed on the seat of his father?’ Then Pre-Harakhti said: ‘Let Seth, son Nut, be given to me to dwell with me and be my son. And he shall thunder in the sky and be feared.’” [6]

The Worship of Seth in Ancient Egypt

Granite Statue of Ramesses III (ruled 1184-1152 BC) Being Crowned King by Horus and Seth

The archaeological evidence shows that Seth was worshipped in varying degrees throughout pharaonic history, but during three dynasties in particular he was among the foremost gods: The Second Dynasty (c. 2890-2686 BC) of the Early Dynastic Period and the Nineteenth and Twentieth dynasties (c. 1295-1075 BC), often referred to as the “Ramesside Period,” of the New Kingdom. In the Second Dynasty, evidence for royal Seth worship is seen during the reigns of the last two kings, Presibesen and Khasekhemwy. The name of Seth appears on the serekh of each king, which was an early form of writing the king’s name. [7] Seth is later mentioned in the Pyramid Texts of the Fifth and Sixth dynasties, but it was in the Nineteenth Dynasty when he truly rose from obscurity to being one of the most important gods of the land.

One of the major events that shaped the nature of Egypt during the New Kingdom was the invasion of the Hyksos people from the Levant into the Delta sometime around 1,600 BC. The Hyksos took an interest in Seth, viewing him as similar to their own god Baal. [8] But once the Hyksos were vanquished by native Egyptians from Thebes, some of their ideas stayed, including Seth worship.

Seth probably continued to be obscure throughout Egypt, with the possible exception of the Delta, for most of the Eighteenth Dynasty. By the Nineteenth Dynasty, though, Seth had acquired utmost religious and political importance. [9] Seth’s rise in political importance was demonstrated in a number of different ways, perhaps the most important being the so-called “400 Year Stela.” The 400 Year Stela was a stela Ramesses II (ruled ca. 1290-1224 BC) erected in his thirty-fourth year of rule at the former Hyksos capital of Avaris in the Delta to commemorate “400 years of the reign of Seth.” [10] Presumably, the calendar was started by the Hyksos who worshipped Seth-Baal.

The place of pride Seth had among the Ramesside kings is also demonstrated by many of their names. Two Nineteenth Dynasty kings were named Seti, which means “man of Seth,” and a Twentieth Dynasty king was named Sethnakhte, or “Seth is Strong.” [11]

As mentioned earlier, Seth was physically worshipped in a number of locations throughout Egypt, although he was most popular in the Delta. One of the cities built by Ramesses II in the Delta, Pi-Ramesses, was believed to have been one of Seth’s most important cult centers in Egypt. [12]

Conclusion

Seth is one of the most enigmatic gods of the ancient Egyptian pantheon. Although he was often associated with the negative aspects of chaos, violence, the desert, and foreigners, he was never considered an “evil” god in the modern sense. Still, the often negative connotations of Seth’s attributes probably kept him from becoming a consistently popular god. With that said, Seth became popular near the end of the Second Dynasty, probably due to his characteristics associated with physical strength and virility. Seth later became even more popular in the Ramesside Period, which has just as much to do with geography as theology. Since the Ramesside kings probably came from the Delta, they viewed Seth as one of their local gods and ultimately raised him to a place of pride in the pantheon.


References

  1. Faulkner, Richard O. A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian. (Oxford: Griffith Institute, 1999), p. 254
  2. Tobin, Vincent Arieh. “Myths: An Overview.” In The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion. Edited by Donald B. Redford. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 240
  3. Shaw, Ian and Paul Nicholson. The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), p. 236
  4. Faulkner, Richard O., ed. and trans. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. (Stilwell, Kansas: Digiread.com Publishing, 2007), Utterance 219
  5. Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003), p. 198
  6. Lichtheim, Miriam, ed. Ancient Egyptian Literature. Vol. 2, the New Kingdom. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976), p. 222
  7. Wilkinson, p. 197
  8. Wilkinson, p. 197
  9. Kuhrt, Amélie. The Ancient Near East: c. 3000-330 BC. Volume 1. (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 207
  10. Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. (Princeton, New Jersey: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 117
  11. Wilkinson, p. 197
  12. Wilkinson, p. 199