The Great Set-Up

I’ve been reading Rick Riordan’s newest book, The Red Pyramid, which does for Egyptian mythology what his Percy Jackson series did for the Greek. The main villain (at least so far; I haven’t finished the book, and I know Riordan isn’t above a twist ending) is Set, who was basically the evil god of the Egyptian pantheon. His being evil seems to have been a later development, however. He was always associated with chaos and the desert, but he was also the main god worshipped in Lower Egypt. (Lower Egypt, by the way, was actually north of Upper Egypt, due to the fact that the Nile flows northward.) When the cult of Osiris and Horus became more prominent, Set was demonized, and presented as the murderer of Osiris. On the other hand, even later Egyptian mythology had him protecting Ra on his nightly journey through the underworld, so he wasn’t viewed as all bad.

Set was regarded as a son of Geb and Nut, who were respectively the earth god and sky goddess.

Back in the early days, Ra was the undisputed king, but he had learned that a child of Geb and Nut could end up being greater than him. He therefore forbade Nut from giving birth on any day of the year, but she got around this by gambling with the Moon and ending up with enough extra light to create five new days. This myth reflects the expansion of the Egyptian year from 360 to 365 days. She had one child on each of these five days, and those offspring were Osiris, Iris, Set, Nephthys, and Horus. Yes, Horus was also the son of Isis and Osiris, and I believe the myths are divided as to whether these two gods with the same name were the same individual. It was the younger Horus who eventually took Ra’s place as king, but he had to battle with Set for the position.

In the battle between them, Set gouged out Horus’ left eye, and Horus castrated Set. Those gods sure do fight dirty!

The chaotic god came to be associated with infertility, although some myths give him children. I guess he must have fathered them before the fight with Horus, but you can never be quite sure with gods. Nephthys was regarded as his consort, but he was said to have taken other wives, and possibly male lovers as well. Set’s bisexuality is represented in a story that involved his actually seducing Horus.

Set is associated with a creature known simply as the Set animal, which was portrayed as looking much like a jackal, but with a stiff forked tail and square or triangular ears.

The god himself was often depicted with the head of a donkey. His sacred color was red, which was connected with chaos and the desert.

Set’s name is also sometimes rendered as “Seth,” which is what the Greeks called him. That makes me wonder if there’s any connection to the Biblical Seth, third son of Adam and Eve.

101 Myths of the Bible (which I’ve returned to the library, so I can’t look up the specific reference) noted the connection between the mythologies, with the first couple having a son who kills his brother. The murderer, however, isn’t Seth but Cain, so the names must have been mixed up if this was actually adapted from Egyptian lore. Then again, the lists in Genesis of the descendants of Cain and those of Seth have a lot of overlap, making it conceivable that they were originally regarded as the same person. Until we find some more concrete evidence, I suppose it’s all a matter of speculation.

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13 Responses to The Great Set-Up

  1. vilajunkie says:

    Don’t forget the Greeks associated Set with Typhon, another donkey-headed….god? And, no actually, we didn’t get “typhoon” from Typhon’s name, despite him being a god/spirit of destruction and natural disasters. It comes from a Polynesian word, I think, or somewhere in Southeast Asia.

    • Nathan says:

      That’s true, although I don’t know of any indication that anyone worshipped Typhon. I think it’s interesting that “Typhon” and “Python” are anagrams in English, even though they wouldn’t have been in Greek.

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  6. whollybooks says:

    Good posting, Nathan – you’ve clearly done your homework and gone well beyond the usual superficial characterization of Set…
    On some level it can be argued archaeologically that Set was the original god of Upper Egypt, and Horus a key deity of Lower Egypt – when the two kingdoms were first united as one in the making of what we now call ‘Egypt’ there was balance, hence images such as Set-and-Horus working together to balance the djed-pillar (the 3rd picture in your article) – but later the worship of Osiris got the upper hand, you could say, and they needed a ‘bad guy’ to blame for everything, so… although some later pharaohs actually brought back the worship of Set for a while – such as the famous XIXth-XXth: Ramses, Seti – which means ‘Set’s Man’ – Setnakt – which means ‘Set is Mighty’ – probably because they were descended from Upper Egyptian ancestors, so were restoring “their” traditional god?
    There is no connection whatsoever between the Egyptian Set and the Hebrew Seth: purely an accident of language, the Greeks wrote ‘Set’ with the letters sigma-epsilon-theta, the last of which always gets given in English as a “th” (even though it can just as well mean a “t” sound).
    There IS a connection between Set and Typhon, however… and although you are right to say that there wasn’t really anybody actually ‘worshiping’ Typhon, the Papyri Graecae Magicae (a body of texts which are about as important to our understanding of Egyptian, Greek & Roman magical & religious practices as the Dead Sea Scrolls are to our knowledge of Jewish & early Christian beliefs) are absolutely FULL of references to and spells invoking the composite deity ‘Set-Typhon’, usually depicted as a powerful man with the head of a donkey.
    Rick Riordan’s novel sounds like fun, by the way – I must check it out some time!
    With Best Wishes: Matthew Levi Stevens

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