Religious Deities in Ancient Egyptian Society:

From the first Dynasty through Ancient Egyptian culture people have attempted to uncover the events that occurred preceding the civilised world. They were curious about the origin of existence and proceeded to attach their religious beliefs to these notions. This is how Ancient Egyptian creation myths and stories culminated. Though many of the stories slightly differ they all possess basic notions regarding the Ennead, which contained the most important deities in Egyptian cultural history. The Egyptians answered their creation question with the tales of the Gods. Horus in particular has always been worshiped and categorised in the most important of Gods of Egyptian times. Horus is the God of the sky and is therefore closely associated with Ra, the Sun God, whom pharaohs also profoundly worshipped. He is frequently depicted as a falcon due to his role of a sky God, and is therefore often portrayed as a man with a falcon head and a crown with a sun disk, displaying his link to the sun, or the two crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt intertwined atop his head; which demonstrates his rule over unified Egypt. These images are displayed below sourced from Wikipedia in order to demonstrate the different ways in which Horus could be depicted.

Horus 2 crowns

Horus with a Sun Disk     Horus with the combination crown of Upper and Lower Egypt

The pharaohs of Egypt were considered the living earthly embodiments of Horus; consequentially, they would receive a Horus name upon coronation. This name would express the King’s role as the divine ruler of the throne. The king would also receive four other names during his reign. The Nebty name, a Golden Horus name, the name of King of Upper and Lower Egypt entitled the Nesu-bit name, and the throne name, or Pre Nomen. Though the King worships many deities in order to maintain balance, this blog post will explore why Horus is such a crucial God which Pharaohs seek to embody.

 

Heliopolitan Mythology:

In Ancient Egyptian society Horus was identified as the son of Osiris and many creation myths and stories retrieved from the Ancient Egyptian period depict this relation. Egyptians speculated about the origins of the universe from very early times in their civilisation resulting in various theologies outlining their thoughts concerning creation. Heliopolitan theology was largely prevalent and contained in depth creation stories. These speculations centred on the Ennead, which was a group of nine deities: Atum; Shu and Tefnut; Geb and Nut; Osiris; Isis; Seth; and Nephthys. These Gods were said to have stemmed from the great primeval creator God, Atum, who floated in the primeval waters, often referred to as Nun, at the point of creation. In mythological terms his sneezing represents the first stage of Atum’s self-impregnation as he produced a void, the air all life depends upon, and Shu and Tefnut, the first set of twin Gods. Atum continued to create the universe separating the sky from the earth and the next generation of Gods which consisted of Shu and Tefnut’s children, the earth God Geb and the sky Goddess Nut. Geb and Nut continue to give birth to Osiris, Seth, Isis and Nephthys. Their four children are organised into two pairs. Osiris and Isis are the harmonious couple representing fertility; and Seth and Nephthys represent confusion and disorder in everyday life. The Myth and Mythmaking in Ancient Egypt text by Jacobus Van Dijk states that Seth is the God of chaos, “he conceptualizes the unpredictable, destructive forces of nature, such as thunder, storm, and rain. Seth also brings death into the world by murdering Osiris.

 

The Myth of Osiris:

The Myth of Osiris further elaborates on his death at the hands of his brother Seth. The Myth of Osiris is located in the text The Myth and Mythmaking in Ancient Egypt referred to above and centres around three main events: Osiris’s murder at the hands of his brother, the subsequent conception and birth of his son Horus with his wife and sister Isis, and the consequential conflict between Horus and Seth regarding control of Egypt. The slaying of Osiris at the hands of Seth is often described with the utmost discretion when written about; therefore, different versions utilise different means of description. The Myth of Osiris in Van Dijk’s version is explained as follows; “Osiris ruled Egypt as a beneficent king, establishing their laws, and teaching them how to worship the gods. Meanwhile his brother Typhon (Seth) and his gang conspired against him, and when Osiris returned, Seth secretly measured the body of Osiris and had a beautifully decorated chest made to fit his body exactly“. The myth begins with Osiris displaying his successful reign over the people of Egypt. He is perceived as a benign King; this can be determined due to the statement above with regard to his kindness in establishing laws to keep his people safe and maintain order and justice as well as teaching his people how to worship Gods correctly to ensure their entrance into the afterlife. Seth is introduced as a jealous antagonistic character, resentful of his brother’s gracious worship. He therefore conspires against his brother devising a plan to attempt to take the throne. This aspect of the story can be further explored in The Old Kingdom text sourced from The Literature of Ancient Egypt by William Simpson entitled The Contendings of Horus and Seth which recounts the mythological story that details the battle between Horus and Seth in order to determine who will succeed Osiris’s reign following his demise. This text recounts that “Seth the son of Nut said, ‘As for me, I am Seth, greatest in virility among the Ennead, for I slay the opponent of Pre (refering to Seth’s beneficial role as the daily vanquisher of Apopis, the snake monster that embodies chaos) daily, whereas not any other God is able to do this. I should receive the office of Osiris’.” It is clear Seth believes he is the rightful heir to the throne. His duties which he uses as part of his reasoning in his fight for the throne are displayed in the image below sourced from Wikipedia; it demonstrates Seth warding off the Apopis snake. The story of Osiris continues, “Seth brought the beautifully decorated chest with him to a banquet, and when the gods expressed their admiration, he promised them that whoever would lie down in it and show that he fitted it would be given the chest as a present. Of course only Osiris fitted it, and once he was inside Seth slammed the lid on and locked it, took it to the Nile, and let it drift away to the sea.” This was Seth’s first attempt at getting rid of Osiris in order to succeed him. However, the attempt fails when Isis (Osiris’s wife) hears of her husbands disappearance and seeks to find him. Her search is outlined by the following passage, “When Isis heard of this she mourned Osiris and went looking for the chest, which she finally found at Byblos in Phoenicia. But after she had brought it back to Egypt, Seth managed to get hold of Osiris’s body again and cut it up into fourteen parts, which he scattered all over Egypt.This was Seth’s second attempt at getting rid of his brother, however, Isis again successfully recovers most of the parts of her husband and buries him. The only piece of her husband she failed to retrieve was his penis as displayed by the remainder of the myth, “ Isis went out to search for Osiris a second time and buried each part where she found it. The only part she did not find was the God’s penis, for Seth had thrown it into the river, where it had been eaten by a fish; Isis therefore fashioned a substitute penis to put in place. She had also had sexual intercourse with Osiris after his death which resulted in the conception and birth of his son, Harpocrates, Horus-the-child. Osiris became king of the netherworld, and Horus proceeded to fight with Seth over the inheritance of his father, both on the battlefield and in court, and he finally triumphed over Seth.Part of the Myth which is left unspecified is the form which Isis took when she was involved with Osiris. She actually had sexual intercourse with him whilst she was in the form of a bird, providing further understanding as to why Horus is associated with a Falcon. He is also God of the sky, connecting him to the ideology that he flies across the sky with the sun and associating him with Ra (the sun God). Horus was also said to be the God of war and hunting, therefore, the Falcon would be the perfect animal to associate him with as the Falcon is the bird of prey and is therefore a notorious hunter. The fight that the conclusion of the myth of Osiris alludes to is explored in the following section of this blog and details the battle for kingship between Seth and Horus. This battle is immensely significant with regard to kingship and the control of Egypt.

Set_speared_Apep

Seth Warding off the Apopis Snake

The Contendings of Horus and Seth:

As Horus was the son of Osiris who was king of the Egyptians until his brother killed him, Horus seeks to avenge his father and ensue the role of King of Egypt; however, Seth believed he was the rightful heir to this title, which caused further fighting between the Gods. The story of The Contendings of Horus and Seth retrieved from The Literature of Ancient Egypt by William Simpson takes place in the presence of the Ennead under the rule of Re-Atum (a combination of the creator God Atum and the Sun God Re/Ra). The Gods are essentially divided when it comes to make the decision of rightful ruler of Egypt; this causes a long battle for the throne between the Horus and Seth.  The Ennead saw fit that Horus should receive the White Crown and become ruler of Upper Egypt. Seth thought it fit that he becomes ruler of the entirety of Egypt as he is the brother of the deceased king stating, “I should receive the office of Osiris.” Gods Onuris and Thoth rebutted this statement saying “Is the office to be awarded to a maternal uncle even when a bodily son is still about? Banebdjede, the great living God followed saying “Is the office to be awarded to the lad even while Seth, his elder brother, is still about?”  The text outlines several conflicts between Horus and Seth and in the end Osiris was summoned to make the final decision. Atum delivered the decision to the Gods “Let Horus, Son of Isis, be summoned and awarded the office of his father Osiris.” This decisive act finally causes Seth to give in and the arguments cease with Seth’s acceptance that his nephew is the rightful heir to the throne. It is this fight for power that the Ancient Egyptians allude to in the dynasties to come. The story of Horus and Seth is a historical reference point that provided the foundation for the Kings of Egypt to pass their kingship on to their sons. Essentially the story aids in the development of Ancient Egyptian government and politics as the royal lines later established by the dynasties followed the law set by Osiris. The story is paramount to Ancient Egyptian society because of the significance it  places on kingship and the outline it provides for rightful inheritance of kingship, father to son. Furthermore, the story allows Horus to unite Upper and Lower Egypt after it had been split by Geb when he awarded Upper Egypt to Horus and Lower Egypt to Seth in an attempt to reconcile fighting between the two. Therefore Horus wears a combination crown, which possesses both elements of the Red crown of Lower Egypt and the White crown of Upper Egypt. This is imperative in establishing divine kingship as the Pharaoh is considered the living embodiment of the God Horus; the divine ruler of Upper and Lower Egypt. It is his responsibility to maintain rule of the unified lands. Consequently Horus became a symbol of majesty and power as well as the model of the pharaohs; explaining why Pharaohs primarily personified him.

It is clear that the Ancient Egyptians had a rich and diverse religious belief system. Their myths attempted to explain to them the how the world in which they live came into existence. Egyptians referred to these stories and myths as references for decisions made in their everyday lives. They came to understand that their human existence was a small portion of the eternal journey they would embark on which would be presided over by the deities they worshiped. They believed they would be with these Gods in the afterlife which was said to be a better version of the world in which they lived. This was the ultimate goal for all Egyptian people, to be granted entrance to the afterlife, a better world.