Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 9

How to Usurp a God

With so many different Egyptian myths, it’s difficult to know where to start after the creation, however, Isis and Osiris, Set and Horus play an integral role in the way that things would play out shortly after the world was born. Horus, specifically, would become an extremely important figure within the Egyptian pantheon; although Osiris and his wife—and sister (this happens a lot in mythology)—were also of the utmost importance. The myth of Osiris is quite probably the most intricate of all of the Egyptian myths, as it would set the stage for the way the world would work from his rule onward. As usual, there are different versions of the myth, but we’ll focus on the most commonly known one, with occasional interjections with some of the differences.

When the world was formed, Osiris (god of life, rebirth, and [spoiler alert] the afterlife) was king of the Earth. Isis was his queen. Though not much is known (or possibly, was formulated) about the time in which Osiris ruled, other than that he was a just ruler and followed the order of Ma’at, the consequences of his brother Set’s anger toward him, is where the importance of the story really came to the forefront.

According to the myths, things were going fine, right up until Set (god of disorder, the desert, storms and often thought of as the Egyptian equivalent of the devil, or the Hebrew Shaitan—meaning adversary—later translated into Satan) murdered Osiris. Exactly why he did this, as I’m sure you’ve already become accustomed, changes depending on where the story was told, but the predominant myths have Set as being jealous of his brothers rule, and his murder was intended to usurp him; Set killing Osiris due to a kick or other blow that Osiris had given him; or Osiris copulating with Set’s wife (or consort as historians generally put it,) Nephthys. Regardless the reason, Set killed Osiris.

In Egypt, it was believed that what was written had power to affect reality. Due to that, there is not too much extant regarding the murder itself, although some versions of the murder do exist, one of which has Osiris drowned in the Nile. This version, however, does not coincide in most ways with the general myth of Osiris and was written by a Greek, for Greeks after the ancient Egyptian civilization as an independent, autonomous state had come to an end. Its inclusion here is simply for lack of a more accurate myth of the actual death of Osiris.

In this version of the myth, written by Plutarch (46-120 AD; Greek historian,) Set tricks Osiris into his death. This process started by gathering seventy-three conspirators, one of whom was no lesser person than the Queen of Ethiopia. Set then fashioned an incredibly ornate, man-shaped box which would fit Osiris exactly. Then what does every good murder plot need? A dinner party.

At the party, the ornamental box was greatly admired, and Set announced that he who would fit perfectly inside the box would be named its owner. Many tried to make themselves fit within, but it was clearly not a fit. When Osiris stepped forward and into the box and (surprise, surprise) he fits perfectly. It’s right about this time that the lid to what would be, according to Plutarch, the first sarcophagus would be slammed shut with Osiris inside and is sealed. Set and his conspirators dumps it into the river, thereby drowning him.

According to Plutarch, and possibly due to the already high level of reverence for the Nile itself because of its importance to the ancient Egyptians, people who died by means of drowning in the waters of the Nile were held in particular esteem, even sacred.

Although the story of Osiris doesn’t end here in Plutarch’s myth, there is enough from original Egyptian sources to pick up from this point and, as this isn’t a book on the Greek interpretation of Egyptian mythology, therefore we’ll go back to the more accurate-to-the-Egyptian telling.

Upon his death, the body of Osiris is dismembered, scattered and hidden (some earlier myths had Osiris simply killed and hidden away.) The number of pieces (or whether there was dismemberment or not) varies, but one of the most functional is that of forty-two, the number of nomes (Egyptian cities) in Egypt.

Isis (wife of Osiris and benefactress of fertility, motherhood and magical power,) upon hearing of her husband’s death sets out to find his body. In some versions of the myth, she travels with Nephthys (goddess of the night, of death, lament and, interestingly enough, service,) Tahuti (god of wisdom, magic, writing {specifically hieroglyphic writing} and knowledge,) and Anubis (often wrongly attributed as the Egyptian god of death, Anubis is actually the god of embalming and other funeral rituals) during this search. It is from the joining of Anubis in the search and eventual finding of Osiris that the ritual preservation of bodies through embalming, mummification and the necessary processes contained therein were said to have originated.

Later myths equate the yearly flooding of the Nile with the tears of Isis for her slain husband, or other causes relating to the death and rebirth of Osiris.

Meanwhile, Set is sitting pretty on his throne of the Earth (or in some myths, there is simply a gap in kingship.) Before Osiris is made whole, Set and those who follow him attempt to further destroy the body of Osiris so that he cannot be made whole again. They are fended off by those who seek to restore Osiris to life.

When the body of Osiris is found, or collected (in some versions, all but the phallus are recovered, as it was cast into the Nile and eaten by a fish… lovely,) he is again made whole. He is resurrected and impregnates Isis with Horus. Their copulation is usually referenced either through a union while she is in the form of a bird {kite or hawk} and restoring him to life, or by a bolt of lightning. In another, Isis fashions a phallus for her dismembered (if you don’t get the pun, I’m not going to explain it) husband, and it was through use of this that she became pregnant with Horus.

Not too much is known about the period of Osiris’s revival before his descent into the Duat, or Egyptian underworld (over which he would become the ruler,) but this act of resurrection would set the tone for the entire realm of Egyptian mythology. Through the death of the god and his subsequent resurrection, it would become possible for all people to enjoy an afterlife through him, though they would have to pass the test of Ma’at (will be discussed in more detail in the following chapter) or righteous living in order to gain entrance to the afterlife. This ideal was not the first of its kind and far from the last.

The Osiris myth can technically be said to end with the conception of Horus, at least as an active process of Osiris outside of Duat, however, the storyline is just beginning.

Being all-too-aware of Set’s murderous victory over Osiris, and knowing that Set probably wouldn’t let a child of Osiris live too long, as he may pose a threat to the throne, she hid herself away in Akh-bity, a papyrus thicket in the Nile Delta of Lower Egypt. It would be here that she would give birth to Horus (Greek version of the name. The Egyptian name would be Hoor, Hor or Har, meaning, “The Distant One.”) This part of the myth is quite similar to Greek mythology, when Rhea, the mother of Zeus would hide him away to protect him from his father Cronus.

During Horus’s youth, he wasn’t yet the powerful god of war that he would become. In fact, he was quite vulnerable. Different accounts say different things about whether the malady which befalls Horus simply happened or was orchestrated by Set, but the important takeaway is a look at how the Egyptians used the idea of the young god falling prey to illness or attack.

Many texts were written, considered to be magical in nature, which would heal a person of a particular malady by claiming that malady is what befell Horus. As an example, if a person came in with a stomachache, the text for healing would have Horus being affected in the same manner. Quite possibly the most common ailment is that of a snakebite. It is through Isis’s own magical powers (alternately through the powers of Ra or Geb,) that Horus is healed, and thus that the person seeking the magical help which the texts would provide would be healed through the same process.

Horus would be healed, and grow to adulthood.

With Osiris resurrected and now god of the dead, Horus might have let bygones be bygones, but the fact remained that Set had killed his father. To put it colloquially, Horus was pissed.

In some traditions, Set and Horus were actually brothers who vied for the right to be named king of all. This version will be referenced, but not the main focus in this continuing section.

When he came of age, Horus would challenge Set. To the victor would go the spoils; in this case, the throne. The conflicts of Horus and Set for rule would come in many varieties, and would last for a space of eighty years.

Quite possibly the most extensive source for these battles is referred to as “The Contendings,” wherein Horus and Set compete in a number of different ways. The first was that they brought the argument over who should be king of Egypt before the Ennead after Horus challenges Set.

Although most of the gods of the Ennead believed Horus to be the rightful ruler, the judge presiding over the Ennead and their decision (Atem, Ra, or Geb, depending on the source,) thought Set should rule. Therefore, the two would compete with one another through various trials, competitions and even full-on battles with one another. They held a boat race which Horus won and many other such events in which Horus would always prevail, however, the judge was not yet convinced and the contest would go on for eighty years.

One of their battles involved the two of them transforming themselves into various creatures to do battle. During this battle, both would lose an important piece of themselves at the hands of the other. Set’s testicles were lost (or in some cases, damaged.) This would signify a loss of creative energy and strength which would (arguably) prove to be Set’s eventual downfall. Horus, on the other hand, lost one of his eyes.

The loss of one of Horus’s eyes is of a particular kind of importance as, Horus being a solar god, it was believed that the sun was the right eye of Horus; the moon: his left. Thus it was his left eye which was plucked out, signifying the moon. It would eventually be returned to him, however, the loss of Horus’s eye would explain the waxing and waning of the moon and the phenomenon of lunar eclipses.

In a particularly strange and somewhat disturbing episode, Set, known for his ravenous sexual appetite, made a deal with Horus. In this deal, Horus would allow Set to have sex with him, but in return, Set would give Horus a measure of his strength.

In one particularly important (and graphic) version, Set’s intention was to show his dominance by implanting his seed within his long-time foe. Horus, through a manner which is best left to the imagination, caught the seed before it could enter his body.

The concept of “the male seed” (semen) was one of great power and purpose in the minds of the ancient Egyptians; and this can be referenced both by another version of this same story where Set’s seed does enter Horus and makes him sick, and also by the continuation of the above version.

Sticking to the version where Horus catches the haughty god’s… projectile… Isis and Horus decide to repay the intended offense by placing a measure of Horus’s… dressing… onto a piece of lettuce which Set then consumed, not knowing what trick had actually been played.

The reason why this myth is so important in the story is that the two gods would then go before the Ennead again to be judged to find which of the two of them was dominant. It is around this time that the seed of Horus within Set becomes apparent through the “birth” of a disk upon his forehead. With this, Horus is finally named champion.

The championship of Horus over Set would play a particular importance to the Egyptians as their pharaohs believed themselves to be descendants of Horus, the rightful ruler of Egypt.

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