Seth of Nubt, Relief on the Funerary Temple of Sahure. 5th Dynasty Egypt – Egyptian Museum of Berlin
Seth, a Dynamic and Enigmatic God
By Will Byun
Introduction and Early Iconography
Multiple debates concern the true nature of Seth, Son of Nut. Since he is described as the god of confusion and disorder (te Velde, “Seth”), one may be tempted to compare him to Loki of Norse mythology, or even perhaps to Hermes of the Greeks, both notorious for being mischievous tricksters. However, Seth’s character is more complicated than this. Although both Loki and Hermes share some characteristics with Seth, this mysterious Egyptian god is riddled with interpretations and representations, the confusion exacerbated by the relative dearth of available texts. One thing remains certain: the god Seth is not a simple character. His stories and worship — or lack thereof — evolve over time to reflect his constantly shifting image. Many aspects of his nature remain shrouded in mystery, further complicating his character. This makes him a dynamic and enigmatic god.
Figure 1: Mace-head of King Scorpion
The image of Seth first appears on the mace head of King Scorpion, one of the most prominent kings of predynastic Egypt (Figure 1). The relic was retrieved from the main deposit of Hierakonpolis, a southern Egyptian site that is a notably significant and prolific source of archeological evidence. This particular ceremonial weapon dates to the first Naqada period (4th millennium BC), which would make him one of the oldest Egyptian gods. However, according to Wainwright, the most definitive evidence of Seth’s presence in the region appears in the form of a figure that dates to Naqada II culture (13). Wainwright believes that the image on the mace head of King Scorpion was actually that of Min — a male fertility god similar to but distinct from Seth (14). Evidently, the image of Seth was not an easy one to capture. Some Egyptologists have even suggested that Seth was “the primary god in the Naqada I culture” (Rikala 220). The cemetery at Naqada was located in the ancient locale of Nubt (or Ombos in Greek) which later became the cult center for his worship (Schorsch & Wypyski 184). This is the probable reason for his title Nbwty or ‘the one of Nubt’ (Castillos 4). Though Naqada was located in the 5th nome of Upper Egypt, Seth was also venerated in the 10th, 11th, and the 19th nomes, as well as the royal city of Pi-Ramesses in the delta; the prolific worship of the god evinced his significance across all of Egypt (Wilkinson 199). As the patron god of Upper Egypt, he was thought to have been born at the entrance to the Wadi Hammamat and to function as the counterpart to Horus of Lower Egypt.
Figure 2: A Relief of Seth Animal from Temple of Edfu
Scholars fail to even agree on what zoomorphic form Seth embodies — a trait so fundamental to many other Egyptian deities: Horus the falcon god; Anubis the jackal; Thoth the Ibis. Yet, Seth’s form, appearing in both semi-anthropomorphic and animal form, has a curved head, tall square-topped ears, and erect arrow-like tails. Though consistent, it remains enigmatic to modern scholars. For example, Newberry, though admitting that the images found on monuments resemble greyhounds, argues that they are actually “semi-feral and feral swine” (217), supporting his claim with numerous examples of ancient murals of pigs.
Unfortunately, no one claim has been convincing enough. Due to this lack of consensus, the animal is now simply referred to as the ‘Seth-animal’ (Figure 2). Te Velde details several debates about this mysterious creature involving various Egyptologists and their arguments for aardvarks, oryxes, donkeys, okapi, and even camels (“Seth, God of Confusion” 13). Such lack of understanding in his iconography further heightens his role as the god of confusion to the modern audience.
Seth in His Myths
Seth was originally a god of desert — the “Red Land” — and, as the god of the Red Land, he opposed and threatened the civilized and sedentary lives of the floodplains, or the “Black Land,” thus earning him the title: god of violence, chaos, and confusion (Wilkinson 197). In later Egypt, however, he evolved to become a symbol of foreign power, expressed in the form of “crimes, in sickness and disease, as well as civil unrest and foreign invasion” (Wilkinson 198). In a world where the preservation of ma’at (order) was considered to be one of the most significant roles of the king and where foreigners were thought to be physical manifestations and harbingers of isfet (chaos), Seth would have been a source of fear and a force of destabilization. As such, he was a foil to Horus, the god of unity and traditional patron god of pharaohs. The other gods of his family, or the Great Ennead of Heliopolis, treated him as such.
Seth is not forever branded a deceitful usurper, however, for Seth is not only the murderer of Osiris, but also the vanquisher of Apep and protector of the Sun god Re (Figure 3). The Egyptians believed that the sun was Re traveling on his solar boat across the sky, a journey that was perilous. Apep the Chaos Serpent was one of the most dangerous foes who threatened to swallow the barque whole. Against him Seth fought, standing at the prow of the solar boat in order to protect Re from harm. Rikala explains that “only Seth is mighty enough to strike down Apep” because his realm, the desert, “is the first, or the final outpost defending the borders of Re’s cosmic order” (223). In addition, “the battle between Seth and Apep manifests Seth’s role as the lord of thunderstorm,” further expanding his roles from the god of desert and storms to god of thunderstorms. Ironically and perhaps even contradictorily, Seth, the god of chaos, was the primary defender against the total annihilation of order in the face of the mythic beast, each myth adding another layer of characterization to the god.
Fig. 3: Seth on the Solar Boat of Re, Fending Off the Attack of Apep
Seth was, without a doubt, one of the most powerful gods. Wilkinson adds that he, also a god of strength, wielded a scepter known to weigh more than 4,500 pounds (198). And since the Coffin Texts from before the New Kingdom already depict Seth’s battle against Apep (te Velde, “Seth, God of Confusion” 99), its influence on the story of The Contendings, especially the way it ends with the ‘adoption’ of Seth by Re, can be placed with reason. It is for the same reason that Seth is frequently equipped with the epithet of ‘The Chosen One of Re’ or ‘The Son of Re’ (Rikala 233). Seth is multifaceted: he is the killer of one god and a protector of another; he is the harbinger of chaos and the guardian of order; he is the Son of Nut and the Son of Re. The myths reflect the character’s ambiguity and his repeated failure to adhere to singular, non-contradictory accounts of his roles.
The Worship of Seth
Much like the mythological contradiction of Seth as a character, his worship in Ancient Egypt underwent several stages of change as well. First consider the 2nd Dynasty, 1700 years before the writing of The Contendings and only a few centuries after the spread of the Naqada culture. One of its later pharaohs, Seth-Peribsen, defied an already-centuries-old tradition of adopting a Horus name serekh, instead opting for a Seth name serekh (Figure 5). In what was perhaps a revolutionary move, Peribsen chose the desert god as his patron god. Earlier Egyptologists speculated that his Seth serekh attested to an existence of two separate rival kingdoms in predynastic Egypt, one headed by Horus and another by Seth, and that Seth-Peribsen’s ascension was evidence of the brief victory of the Seth kingdom (Castillos 85). Dunn adds to the debate, detailing that Seth-Peribsen’s successor Khasekhem changed his Horus name to Khasekhemwy, meaning ‘The Two Powerful Ones appear’ once he “squashed a rebellion, thus reuniting Upper and Lower Egypt.”
Figure 4: The Seth-Serekh of Peribsen
Figure 5: The Seth-Horus Serekh of Khasekhemwy
Figure 6: Example of ‘Golden Horus’ from the Cartouche of Thutmosis III; the hanging bead under the falcon reads ‘gold’
The serekh for Khasekhemwy, once again diverging from tradition, uses both Horus and Seth iconography (Figure 5), embedding the notion of newfound harmony. Seth’s reign as the patron god was short, as Djoser, the first king of the 3rd Dynasty, promptly returned to the traditional Horus name. This earlier “rivalry of Horus and [Seth] must have been the cause of the later introduction of [Seth] into the myth of Osiris and Horus as their enemy and rival (Černý 32). Though this conjecture of competing kingdoms has fallen out of favor by scholars over time, the unconventional serekhs remain powerful evidence that Seth was a venerable god pharaohs chose to adopt and worship along with — or even over — Horus.
In fact, Seth’s presence in the royal serekh was not fully eliminated. Leprohon draws on an example of the ‘Golden Horus name’ (Figure 6) in which the traditional Horus falcon appears together with the hieroglyph ‘gold,’ spelling out ‘the golden falcon.’ First donned by King Khaba of the 3rd Dynasty, the Golden Horus name is a more subtle invocation of the god, according to Leprohon. Seth was expressed in ‘gold’ because of his association with the cult center Nubt, the City of Gold. Considering “Ancient Egyptians’ dualistic view of the world, the presence of Horus in the early titulary of the king may have been balanced with that of Seth under the guise of the Golden Horus name” (15-6). A direct expression of Seth may have been avoided, given his status as a god of chaos and his history of fratricide; nevertheless, his power and presence over the royal authority persisted.
Royal worship of Seth appeared once again during the Second Intermediate Period. In the papyrus record of a story called The Quarrel of Apophis and Seqenenre, it is noted that King Apophis of the 15th Dynasty “adopted for himself Seth as lord, and he refused to serve any god that was in the entire land except Seth” (Goldwasser 129). Apophis was a member of the Hyksos Dynasty — the first non-Egyptian family of kings to rule Egypt. As a foreigner himself, it makes sense that he would worship a god of foreigners. The Hyksos also identified Seth as being similar to a god of their own, Baal, who was also a god of storms and aggression (Allon 20). Eventually, the Hyksos were expelled from Egypt by the Thebans of the 17th Dynasty, but their cultural and religious influence, namely Seth worship, persisted.
More specifically, Seth reappeared as the patron deity of the Ramesside Kings of the 19th and the 20th Dynasties of the New Kingdom (Wilkinson 197). Some Ramesside Kings adopted names that invoked him, such as Seti I and Seti II — whose names literally meant “man of Seth” — and the first Pharaoh of the 20th Dynasty Setnakhte, whose name meant ‘victorious is Seth.’ Additionally, Ramesses III was honored with a granite statue that depicts both Horus and Seth crowning him king (Figure 7), which hints at Seth’s political significance. The names and the statue clearly point to the kings’ devout worship of this god.
Figure 7: Statue of Ramesses III, Crowned by Horus and Seth
The most notable example of Seth worship occurred during the reign of Ramesses II (19th Dynasty): the construction of the Year 400 Stela (Figure 8). This granite stela, first discovered in the ruins of a temple in the city of Tanis by Auguste Mariette, marks the arrival of the Hyksos in Egypt, thus commemorating Seth’s 400 years of rule over Egypt (Gardiner 165). The stela portrays Ramesses II making an offering of two vases of wine to Seth, whom the inscription describes as ‘Son of Nut.’ The fact that Ramesses II gave orders to set up the stela in the city of Avaris, the former political capital of the Hyksos (Wallis Budge 160), shows that the religious practices of the Hyksos were carried on by native-born kings.
Figure 8: Drawing of Year 400 Stela
Figure 9: Statue Originally Depicting Seth, Modified to Represent Khnum or Amun
Seth worship disappeared after the 20th Dynasty: no new temples were built in his honor, and no new royal names invoked him. Te Velde speculates that the Egypt of the Third Intermediate Period had experienced the increased rate of aggression and conflicts with the Asiatic, including the Assyrians and the Persians, and had developed a more negative perception of foreigners. The reputation of the ‘Divine Foreigner’ was tarnished in the process, becoming increasingly associated with foreign oppressors in a process of ‘demonization’ (“Seth, God of Confusion” 138-40). Up until this point, Seth was an ambiguous figure. By the 26th dynasty, this was no longer the case. According to Turner, “the Assyrian invasion of Egypt had scarred the inhabitants greatly, especially due to the sacking of Thebes …. He [Seth] now appears as a foreign ruler who has been defeated and driven out, but unlike his association with the Hyksos there is now no attempt at reconciliation” (120). Seth had become a symbol to be removed, castigated, abhorred. As a result, his images and statues were destroyed, and sometimes even repurposed to honor other gods, such as Khnum or Amun — a process described in detail in the work of Schorsch and Wypyski (Figure 9; Turner 123-5). Seth was no more.
From the King Scorpion’s mace head in the Predynastic Period to the recycled statue of the Greco-Roman Period, the iconography and the character of Seth had been represented in many different forms and ideas. The Seth animal remains cryptic. The Usurper-Protector god was worshiped by pharaohs for thousands of years before he was demonized. But he was religiously and politically significant, and the change in his worship has reflected this over time as well. Overall, Seth is a complex god with complicated and evolving characteristics that render him difficult to capture and understand.
Will (Jin) Byun (College ’23) is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania who majored in Sociology and minored Journalistic Writing.
Allon, Niv. “SETH IS BAAL — EVIDENCE FROM THE EGYPTIAN SCRIPT.” Ägypten Und Levante / Egypt and the Levant, vol. 17, 2007, pp. 15–22. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23788156. Accessed 23 Nov. 2022.
Castillos, Juan José. “In Search of the True Nature of the God Seth” Göttinger Miszellen: Beiträge zur ägyptologischen Diskussion 250 (2016): 81-92.
Černý Jaroslav. Ancient Egyptian Religion. Greenwood Press, 1979.
Cruz-Uribe, Eugene. “Stḫ Ꜥꜣ Pḥty ‘Seth, God of Power and Might.’” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, vol. 45, 2009, pp. 201–26. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25735454. Accessed 1 Dec. 2022.
Dunn, Jimmy. “Khasekhem/Khasekhemwy of Egypt’s 2nd Dynasty.” Tour Egypt, http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/khasekhem.htm.
Gardiner, Alan Henderson. Egypt of the Pharaohs An Introduction. Oxford University Press, 1961.
Goldwasser, Orly. “King Apophis of Avaris and the emergence of monotheism.” Timelines. Studies in Honour of Manfred Bietak 2 (2006): 129-133.
Griffiths, J. Gwyn. “Osiris.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, Edited by Donald B. Redford, Oxford Reference, 2005, https://www-oxfordreference-com.proxy.library.upenn.edu/view/10.1093/acref/9780195102345.001.0001/acref-9780195102345-e-0536. Accessed 4 Nov. 2022.
Leprohon, R. J. (2013). The Great Name: Ancient Egyptian Royal Titulary (Writings from the Ancient World) (Illustrated). Society of Biblical Literature.
Locke, Norman. “A Myth of Ancient Egypt.” American Imago, vol. 18, no. 2, 1961, pp. 105–28. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26301747. Accessed 4 Nov. 2022.
Meltzer, Edmund S. “Horus.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, Edited by Donald B. Redford, Oxford Reference, 2005, https://www-oxfordreference-com.proxy.library.upenn.edu/view/10.1093/acref/9780195102345.001.0001/acref-9780195102345-e-0323?rskey=cBRpNI&result=321
Newberry, P. E. “The Pig and the Cult-Animal of Set.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, vol. 14, no. 3/4, Nov. 1928, pp. 211–225., https://doi.org/10.2307/3854298.
Oden Jr, R. A. (1979). “The Contendings of Horus and Seth” (Chester Beatty Papyrus No. 1): A Structural Interpretation. History of Religions, 18(4), 352-369.
Parkinson, Richard B. “‘Homosexual’ desire and Middle Kingdom literature.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 81.1 (1995): 57-76.
Rikala, Mia. “Once More with Feeling: Seth the divine trickster.” Studia Orientalia Electronica 101 (2007): 219-240.
Schorsch, Deborah, and Mark T. Wypyski. “Seth, ‘Figure of Mystery.’” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, vol. 45, 2009, pp. 177–200. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25735453. Accessed 1 Dec. 2022.
Te Velde, H. Seth, God of Confusion: A Study of His Role in Egyptian Mythology and Religion. E. J. Brill, 1967.
—, “The Egyptian God Seth as a Trickster.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, vol. 7, 1968, pp. 37–40., https://doi.org/10.2307/40000633.
—. “Seth.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, Edited by Donald B. Redford, Oxford Reference, 2005, https://www-oxfordreference-com.proxy.library.upenn.edu/view/10.1093/acref/9780195102345.001.0001/acref-9780195102345-e-0655?rskey=W3Oj2V&result=3. Accessed 3 Nov. 2022.
Turner, Philip John. Seth: A Misrepresented God in the Ancient Egyptian Pantheon?. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2013.
Wainwright, Gerald Avery. “The Origin of Storm-Gods in Egypt.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 49.1 (1963): 13-20.
Wallis Budge, Ernest A. A History of Egypt: From the End of the Neolithic Period to the Death of Cleopatra VII. B.C. 30. Anthropological Publ., 1968.
Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson, 2017.