Set stands as the Egyptian god of war, chaos and storms. Seth and Suetekh are the other names of god Set. He is the brother of Osiris, Isis and Horus the Elder. He is also the uncle of Horus the Younger and the brother-husband to Nephthys. Goddess Tawaret, a hippo-headed deity presided over fertility and childbirth, was a consort of Set.
When Geb (earth) and Nut (sky) united, they produced five gods. According to the family tree, Set is one of them. His name actually translates to “instigator of confusion” and “destroyer.” Set is often associated with the disorder, foreign lands and people, and the colour red.
Depiction of Set
Set is often depicted as a red-haired beast. The beast has a forked tail and cloven hooves or a messy red dog-like beast known as a ‘Sha.’ Modern-day scholars call him the Set Animal. However, some scholars claim that the depiction models after the Saluki breed. Others maintain that the depiction is a mythological creature imagines representing explicitly set.
Other symbols that represent Set are the hippopotamus, crocodile and tortoise. His primary association was with a serpent. Additionally, Set’s epithets include “Lord of the Desert” and “Ruler of the South.” Set was originally a god of Upper Egypt (the south) and the barren lands beyond Egypt’s borders.
The Good Side of this God
In the Early Dynastic Period of Egypt (3150-2613 BCE), Set was an important and benevolent god of Upper Egypt. People invoked his name for love spells and inscribed them on amulets that served as love charms. Moreover, Set also saved the sun god Ra from the serpent Apophis. The snake was an evil creature who tried to stop the sun god Ras’s journey through the night sky towards morning.
Egyptologists described that the god Seth was the one who resisted the serpent’s deadly stare. He repulsed the evil creature with the thrust of a great spear. Hence, through this act, Set assured that Ra would rise the following day. Set was also the benefactor who helped the people in life and provided for them after death.
The Greeks associated Set with Typhon, the god-monster that challenged the power of Zeus and threw into Tartarus. Set was often linked with foreign goddesses like the warrior-goddess Anat from Ugarit in Syria. Additionally, Set links with the Queen of Heavens from Phoenicia. People thought that Set represented the dry and barren desert lands and far away territories. Usually, the places that were outside Egypt. This was in contrast with what god Osiris and Horus represented, the fertility of the Nile river valley.
The Evil Side of the God Set
By the time of the New Kingdom (1570-1069 BCE), Set best became known as the first murderer. Having killed his older and much-loved brother Osiris. The stories claimed that Set wanted to reign over the world and hence tried to murder Osiris’s son Horus. The exact reason why Set’s image changed from a hero-god to an evil enemy of order and justice remains unknown.
However, Set’s transformation was complete by the time the most popular tale of Ancient Egypt, The Osiris Myth, took place. Later, ordinary people and kings still invoked Set for help. His name is evident of that of rulers like Seti I, Sekhnakhte and Seti II.
The Mythology Surrounding the God Set and the Murder of Osiris
Atum created the world, and Geb and Nut united to produce the first five gods of Egypt. Set was the third born god. Being the eldest, Osiris became the ruler of the world. Osiris brought peace and harmony to the civilization of Egypt. He taught the people agriculture and gave them art, compassion and equality. Egypt was considered as a haven under a royal couple of Osiris and Isis. Food was abundant, and no one suffered from any want.
However, god Set grew jealous of the power and success of his brother Osiris. His resentment grew tenfolds due to particular incidents. His wife, Nephthys, attracted to the Osiris, disguised herself as Isis and seduced the great king. Later, she became pregnant and bore the child of Osiris and birthed the god Anubis.
Set hatched an evil plan to remove his elder brother. He crafted a beautiful casket to the measurements of Osiris. Later, he threw a grand party and said that the casket would belong to whosoever fits in the chest. Osiris remained unknown to this plot and sat in the casket. Set then slammed the lid shut and threw the trunk into the Nile River.
In some stories, Set murders Osiris with his 72 friends. However, some accounts claim that Set alone was responsible for the murder of Osiris. A variation says that Osiris was murdered in the casket by Set. Others argue that Osiris died out of suffocation in the river or the tree at Byblos.
Moreover, Set took the throne of Egypt. He lost the harmonious balance created by Isis and Osiris. Set was an unpredictable and chaotic pharaoh. He brought storms and droughts. People turned onto each other to survive. Subsequently, Isis went in search of her missing husband and brought him back to Egypt. However, Set tricked Nypthys into revealing the location of the body. He chopped the body of Osiris into several parts and threw them all across the land.
The Battle of Horus and Set
Subsequent manuscripts tell the story of the battle for control of the world between Horus, son of Osiris and his uncle Set. The tale is an account of the legal battle before the gods to become the king of Egypt. Horus and Set compete in a series of contests and battles. They have to prove themselves worthy. Horus won all these battles and was declared the rightful King.
God Set became a villain according to the myth from the New Kingdom onward. However, in the Early Dynastic Period, the sixth king of the Second Dynasty chose Set as his patron instead of Horus. It is pretty interesting how the image of Set transformed from a god of love to a god of war and hatred with time.