- Pronunciation: set
- Other names: Seth, Setesh, Sutekh
- Powers: Power over violence and storms
- Parents: Geb and Nut
- Children: Anubis
The world is full of things that are unpleasant, painful or harmful. For the people of Egypt, there was a healthy fear of the desert and the dangerous sandstorms that could appear at any time. Egypt also experienced more than its fair share of war and invasions by foreign aggressors.
To Egyptians, these were more than just random things that happened; they were governed by a god named Set. He was without a doubt a very scary guy, but also a vital and important part of the world that each Egyptian had to make peace with at some point or another.
Who Was Set?
Set was a guy who did not get on very well with others. He was a force for chaos and violence. He ruled over the red desert sands and the great storms that threatened the peace of Egypt.
He was also the ruler of Lower Egypt, as opposed to Horus who was the protector of Upper Egypt. This meant that the inhabitants of that part of Egypt did not see Set as a negative or unpleasant god, but as their benefactor and protector.
Set was not always seen as an evil character, but at one point as the equal of Horus. Pharaohs would be shown as crowned by both Set and Horus together, so he was a god with strong associations with royalty.
Following the conquering of Lower Egypt by Upper Egypt, this history was somewhat revised to cast Set as a dark enemy of the god Horus.
Sorting out the “real” Set from the revisionist version of him is not a simple task, but whatever you believe about this god, it is clear that he’s a complicated character.
Set is shown as a human figure with an animal head, but no one knows exactly which animal it’s supposed to be. To be clear, it’s not that he has an animal head exactly, but that his head is a fully inhuman creature known as the “Set animal”. Sometimes it’s known as the Typhonic Beast, because Set is also associated with the Greek god Typhon.
This beast looks a bit like a Jackal, but it has a stiff, forked tail. Its ears are very long and stand upright. The beast’s nose is long and tapers almost like that of an anteater. The head sometimes looks somewhat like that of a giraffe. Surely no actual animal such as this has ever existed on Earth, so the animal is likely to be an invention by the ancient Egyptians.
Set was the son of Geb and Nut, the gods of the earth and sky respectively. He had a number of prominent siblings, namely Osiris, Isis, Nephthys and Haroeris.
He also consorted with Nephthys as a lover, along with Anat, Astarte and Taweret.
His sole child was Anubis, the dog-headed god, whose mother was Nephthys. However, some versions of the myth credit Osiris as Anubis’ father, while older stories say that it is Ra who is Anubis’ true father.
It’s interesting to note that, as god of foreigners, he had relationships with two foreign goddesses in the form of Anat and Astarte.
Origin and History
The name Set or “Seth” is shrouded in mystery and the meaning of the name is not known. The Set animal is often claimed to have been first documented as far back as 3790 BCE, but that’s disputed and the next undisputed date of documentation that details the Set animal is 3200 BCE.
One of the most famous myths from Egypt details the conflict between Set and Horus, specifically the mythology of Heliopolis. It’s important to remember that Egyptian mythology has many conflicting details, because there are multiple mythologies local to specific cities or regions. This is why the parentage, lovers and children of the various gods vary depending on who tells the story.
This story is detailed in lots of different written records such as the Pyramid Texts.
The details in various versions differ, but it’s almost always the case that Set’s brother Osiris is the good guy. Osiris had it all: he ruled as king, was happily married to the beloved Isis and was revered as a bringer of peace and civilization to Egypt.
Set was not the kind of deity who could let that sort of thing slide and so he became terribly envious of his brother. In fact, his envy culminated in a brutal murder. Set cut Osiris’ body into 14 pieces and scattered them across the world. He then took over all the things that he coveted from his brother.
Oddly enough, he was not a bad king at all. He protected Egypt from many enemies, and not everyone looked on him as a malicious ruler.
Still, Isis secretly gathered together Osiris’ parts and resurrected him. Together, they gave birth to Horus who became an antagonist to Set and constantly challenged him for rulership.
The final challenge between the two was a boat race. The boats were meant to be made of heavy stone, but Horus cheated and simply painted a wooden boat to resemble stone. Set conceded to him and officially abdicated the throne to Horus.
Cast as a Demon
Apart from the murder of Osiris, these stories don’t paint him as particularly evil and, unlike Apep the serpent, Set is not rejected by Egyptian people, but accepted as a part of the pantheon.
In fact, he has been depicted as a defender of Ra and his solar barge against Apep, putting him squarely on the side of good.
What seems to have happened is that Set became demonized in the later ages of Egyptian history, following invasion and conquest by several foreign powers. Since he was the god of foreigners, and Egyptians were being oppressed by foreigners during that time, it seems reasonable to assume that they began to view this complex and misunderstood god in a more negative way.