The god named Set had already been worshiped in North Africa long before the Pharaohs came to power, during what is called the predynastic era. The first recorded appearance of His cult was in a southern Egyptian town called Nubt (“Gold Town”), which was named after its close proximity to a number of gold mines in the Eastern Desert. It later became known as Ombos to the Greeks and as Naqada to modern archaeologists. So great was this town’s accomplishments—which included metalworking, pottery, the emergence of writing, and one of the oldest pyramids in existence (Kjeilen, 2013)—that scholars refer to the final phase of predynastic Egyptian culture as “the Naqada Civilization” (Bierbrier, 2008). Since Nubt’s surviving artifacts have been dated from the Neolithic era (Kipfer, 2000), the predynastic worship of Set is known to have been one of the oldest religious practices in history, reaching back to the 4th millennium BCE at least (Rice, 2003).
The name Set itself was written in hieroglyphics as a mysterious animal with rectangular ears and a curved snout. It has multiple variants that are most basically rendered into English as sts, sth, s(w)th, s(w)t(y), st(y), and st (te Velde, 1977). Since the Egyptians wrote their words without vowels, it is impossible to be certain of how they originally pronounced this name. It was probably pronounced differently in different regions, with Sutekh being popular in the north and Set being popular in the south (te Velde, 1977). The Greeks and Copts pronounced it as Seth, which is the most easily recognized rendering today.
Plutarch (1970) thought that “the name ‘Set’ by which [the Egyptians] call Typhon denotes this: it means ‘the overmastering’ and ‘overpowering’ and it means in very many instances ‘turning back’ and again ‘overpassing.’” Variants of the name are clearly determinative to various Egyptian words for storms, violence, and upheaval (Betro, 1996). The animal in the hieroglyphic symbol has not yet been identified, but the Egyptians referred to it as the sha (Budge, 1934). Numerous authors have suggested that it might be a donkey, a giraffe, an aardvark, a wild canid of some variety, or even a fish (with the “ears” actually being fins), but there are reasonable objections to each of these theories (te Velde, 1977). Some scholars think the creature is either chimerical or extinct. In many cases, however, Set was also depicted in carvings and hieroglyphs as the other animals I have mentioned (Green, 2005). By the time of the Ptolemies and the Roman Emperors, He was most popularly drawn as a red-haired donkey or donkey-headed man (Plutarch, 1970; Webb, 1996).
Set is the soul of the force in nature that creates all storms. He rules the nighttime sky, the circumpolar constellations, and the desert wastelands that border Egypt (Webb, 1996). He was also regarded by His ancient worshipers as a heroic monster-slayer (Frankfurter, 1998), but not everyone shared this sentiment. This is because storms do not normally occur in Egypt, being more frequent in the desert regions. Even today, Egyptian crops are more than sufficiently fertilized by irrigation and the annual flooding of the Nile. Whenever storms do hit the Nile Valley, they are normally sandstorms that cause more harm to the crops than good (Zahran & Willis, 2009). So while the thunder gods of other cultures (e.g., Marduk, Thor, Yahweh, etc.) were usually associated with fertility, heroism and kingship, Set was more often viewed as a sterile alien interloper (te Velde, 1977). It is due to the red sands of the North African deserts that He is called “the Red Lord,” and all red-haired animals and people are considered to be His children (Remler, 2010).
It was not until after they became a truly agricultural society that most Egyptians began to view Set as a “problem.” This occurred after their country was united by its first Pharaoh, Menes, who was also given credit for constructing Egypt’s very first irrigation project (Woods & Woods, 2000). The ideas of kingship and agriculture were firmly correlated for this reason, and a god who opposed one was believed to oppose the other. Small wonder, then, that Set only remained popular among those who continued to live in the hostile desert regions. Such people required great fortitude to survive and were often gold miners, traders, outlaws, or political enemies who were sent to live in the wastelands as a punishment. Others, like the Tjemehu and Tjehenu tribes, continued to lead nomadic lives just as the predynastic Egyptians had done (Mertz, 2008).1
While those who followed the other Egyptian gods became members of an agricultural church-state (i.e., Egypt itself), Set’s followers were outsiders who remained apart from that order and who belonged to the world outside. This dichotomy is further explored in the story of Set’s rivalry with Horus. In this tale, the two gods once battled for control over human civilization. Set blinded Horus, and Horus amputated Set’s leg (or castrated Him in some versions). They were evenly matched blow-for-blow, however, and neither god could defeat the other. A peaceful resolution was later made by the god Thoth, who gave control over the Egyptian civilization to Horus. The hawk god then became incarnate in the messianic Pharaohs while Set was given power over “the wilderness,” which included everything outside the Pharaohs’ control (including the civilizations of other cultures). To sweeten Set’s end of the bargain—and to keep Him from challenging Horus again—He was also made the personal bodyguard of the sun god Ra, and He was given two concubines: the foreign goddesses Astarte (i.e., Ishtar) and Anath. Presumably, Set agreed to this arrangement and has been defending Ra and making merry with His exotic lady friends ever since (Lothian, 1997).
Unlike most other dualist myths in which a “civilized” god of light and a “barbarian” god of darkness come to blows, the story of Horus and Set ends with a divine peace treaty. Neither side is defeated or cast out, and their conflict is not resolved by war; both gods win and are appeased through divine legal counsel (Assman, 2003). One might expect the Pharaohs to have demonized Set as their Adversary, but the Red Lord never completely fell into disrepute until after the native government fell to foreign rule during the 4th century BCE. This means that despite His disturbing and frightening nature, Set continued to be a valid member of the Egyptian pantheon for roughly 2800 years after Menes united the country. During that time, each Pharaoh was thought to be personally coronated not only by Horus (who became incarnate within the priest-king during the process), but by Set as well. His place outside the Egyptian order made Him the perfect defender of “the temple of the whole world” against external threats. This was perhaps suggested by the formidable desert barriers that protected Egypt from invaders (Smith, 1998).
The reconciliation of Horus and Set is further illustrated by hieroglyphic drawings in which the two Divinities are conjoined to a single body (Budge, 1904). This image is essentially the ancient Egyptian equivalent to the Tao, for it represents the union of polar cosmic opposites into a synchronic unity. In this form, Horus and Set are both called “He with the Two Faces,” which indicates a belief that they are (and have always really been) two different sides of the same god (te Velde, 1977). In other texts, this mystical perspective is otherwise described as “the Secret of the Two Partners” (Mercatante, 1978). Horus and Set were even united in the office of the Pharaoh, who was considered to “be” Horus in his capacity as a ruler and to “be” Set in his capacity as a warrior (te Velde, 1977).
Most polytheistic traditions include a cosmogony or “divine family tree” that explains the ways in which their various gods are related to each other. The Egyptians, however, never had just one cosmogony; they had several. The question of which cosmogony a person accepted depended on her city of origin. The priests of her city were free to develop their own belief system based on the deity to whom they were assigned, which is how the Egyptians came to have several different Creation myths (Almond & Seddon, 2004). The three most well-known systems are those of Iunu (i.e., Heliopolis, the city of Ra), Khmun (i.e., Hermopolis, the city of Thoth) and Mennefer (i.e., Memphis, the city of Ptah). Since they existed in a polytheistic context, neither of these ideologies was thought to be exclusively “correct” (with the others being “incorrect”); they were merely different interpretations of the same cosmic phenomena and were thought to be simultaneously true (Naydler, 1996). It is possible that the priests of Nubt developed their own unique cosmogony, but there is no evidence to inform of us of what it might have been like. For this reason, most sources usually explain Set in terms of the Heliopolitan cosmogony.
This cosmogony begins with Ra’s emergence from the primeval waters of Nun, the primeval ocean. Ra then “ejaculates” Shu and Tefnut, the first male and female couple, into existence. Shu and Tefnut form an empty space in Nun and thereby define the limits of our cosmos. This leads to the births of Geb and Nut, who are the microcosm and the macrocosm. The physical structure they generate together creates a place in which life can exist (Allen, 2010). Geb and Nut then produce Osiris (i.e., fertility and regeneration), Isis (i.e., sexuality and birth), Set (i.e., aridity and storms), and Nephthys (i.e., barrenness and death). In what is perhaps the most difficult Egyptian concept to understand, the members of this divine family are simultaneously one with Ra and distinct from him. On the one hand, they are merely “limbs” that he uses to create and sustain the world; on the other, they each have their own personalities and can act independently of him (Naydler, 1996). This is why each Deity in the cosmogony was worshiped as “the Supreme Being” by his or her own followers (Almond & Seddon, 2004). At the same time, the entire world is Ra’s body, which is depicted as being a bubble of light on the surface of an infinite sea of darkness (Allen, 2010).
In this story, each generation of the gods is harmonious and dyadic—containing only one male and one female—until Set is born. His birth disturbs the normal process by causing the final phase of the sequence to contain two males and two females, as well as by introducing the aspects of nature that are hostile to life. This is further highlighted in the story of His traumatic birth, in which He literally explodes from the side of His mother, Nut. He was not born in the “natural” way or at the “natural” time; He impatiently tore Himself from Nut’s womb at a time of His own choosing (te Velde, 1977). It is perhaps no accident that Set is given as the seventh Deity to have emanated from Ra, with seven being the only single digit number that does not divide equally into 360 degrees (i.e., the total number of degrees in a circle). Furthermore, Set and Nephthys are the only couple in this scheme that cannot produce children and that eventually divorced. Nephthys produced the god Anubis through an illicit affair with Osiris (Najovits, 2003), and Osiris later produced Horus with Isis. Since he eventually became incarnate within the Pharaohs, Horus represents the point where the power of Ra is transferred from the gods to human beings (Baines, 1991).
According to Plutarch (1970), Nephthys was unhappy in her marriage with Set because of their inability to conceive. She so desperately wanted a child that she seduced Osiris, who is so fertile that he can even impregnate a barren goddess. Such is how Anubis came into being. When Set discovered what Nephthys had done, He drowned Osiris and dismembered him into fourteen pieces, burying thirteen of them throughout the world. He then fed the final piece of the body—Osiris’ phallus—to a fish. This event threw the rest of the pantheon into a panic, for Set had done something that had never been imagined before: He had actually killed another god. In time, Isis collected the remaining thirteen pieces of Osiris, reassembled them (with an artificial phallus), and restored the god to life. Then the two of them conceived Horus by magic and Osiris traveled to the Otherworld, where he now judges the dead and rules over the Field of Reeds. Meanwhile, Set terrorized Isis and her child until Horus came of age and sought to avenge his father’s murder. The war between Set and Horus raged on and on until they were peacefully reconciled by Thoth.
Aside from His sterility and His ability to kill other deities, Set is also separated from the other gods by His inability to die. Most of the gods are immortal in a cyclical sense, meaning that they ritually die and live again. Even Ra must continually regenerate himself, which he is said to do each day. This process is echoed in every cycle of nature, including the solar and lunar cycles and the turning of the seasons (Taylor, 2001). It is also why most of the gods were identified with phenomena that were perceived to “go” and “come back again,” including the Sun, the Moon, and the annual flooding of the Nile (Budge, 1934). Set, however, was linked to the Big Dipper in the constellation Ursa Major (Webb, 1996), which is circumpolar. It never “goes” or “comes back” from anywhere, but is always located in the same part of the northern sky (Schaaf, 1998). Likewise, there are no stories of Set ever dying or regenerating Himself; He is immortal in a much more linear sense of the term.
Set’s childlessness, deicidal power, and linear immortality all seem to be rooted in His “aberrant” sexuality, which first forced its way into the world through the so-called “reverse rape” of His mother. After all, it is only after His castration that Set finally assumes a more cooperative role in the pantheon as Ra’s bodyguard. Furthermore, the concepts of fertility and death have always been firmly linked. Why should a being reproduce if it will never pass away? Perhaps it is the ability to die that gives the other gods their power to procreate in the first place. In either case, Set’s castrated genitals are variously described as His “Thigh,” His “Bone,” His “Scimitar,” His “Iron-Tipped Spear” and “the Iron that Comes Forth from Set” (Budge, 1904; Budge, 1934; te Velde, 1977). This “Iron” is also the spirit double of the Big Dipper, and it is what Set uses to destroy chaos monsters and other enemies of Ra (just as Thor uses the hammer Mjollnir to slay giants in Norse mythology).
Set’s “Iron” was also represented as the was scepter, which is a staff with a forked base and the head of the sha beast at the top (Roth, 2011; Pinch, 2002). The Egyptian word was (pronounced “wahz”) means “dominion,” and the scepter was also called the “giver of winds” (te Velde, 1977). It is very clearly a phallic symbol, and it probably originated as a dried bull’s penis that was used to make a cane or walking stick. Since such objects are still made today in cultures that are totally remote from ancient Egypt—including the modern American hunter culture (Gordon & Schwabe, 2004)—this seems very likely. Set is also said to have taken the form of a bull when He was castrated (Simon, 2006). Clearly, His Iron is not a literal metal, but a kind of spiritual machismo. While Set still possesses this machismo, it is so powerfully destructive that it can only be allowed to exist as a thing apart from the god Himself.
Contrasted against the gods is
The reason for reconciling Set with the rest of the gods now becomes abundantly clear. Since He is immortal in a continuous sense and has the power to kill other gods, Set is the perfect warrior to protect the world from
The battle between Set and
There are many other combat myths, including the tales of Ba’al and Lotan (Green, 2003), Thor and Jormungand (Boult, 1940), Yahweh and Leviathan (Psalm 74, NIV), and Saint George and his dragon (Fontenrose, 1959). Yet the story of Set and
Set is usually derided in most literature and media today as “the murderer of Osiris,” but His “crime” was really a blessing in disguise. It was Osiris’ raison d'être that he should be martyred and that new life should spring from his death. His sacrifice catalyzed his physical resurrection, the conception and birth of his son Horus, and the administration of justice in the great hereafter (with the just receiving eternal bliss and the wicked being damned). It is also by encountering the risen Osiris each night that Ra reboots his own regenerative cycle (Mojsov, 2005). None of these things would have been possible had Set never slain Osiris in the first place (Dumars, 2003). Perhaps this is why Set was also called “the Friend of the Dead” and was paradoxically said to have helped Osiris climb the Ladder of Heaven (Budge, 1971). There are many belief systems in which shamanic spirit journeys or initiatory magical workings are engaged by symbolic “dismemberments” and “deaths” (Pratt, 2007), and the “murder” of Osiris is best understood in this context (Webb, 1996).
One might describe Set and Osiris as resembling a cosmic gardener and a cosmic rosebush, respectively. If a gardener does not want his rosebush to go to seed, he must trim the bush of its aging flowers; this causes the plant to bloom again and again. In the same way, Set does not actually “kill” His brother, but merely prods him to exhibit his restorative powers. This is reflected in the Ceremony of the Opening of the Mouth, which involved pressing an iron adze upon the mouths of cult images that were to become vessels for gods or ghosts (Almond & Seddon, 2004; Glazov, 2001). This adze was shaped like the Big Dipper and was made of iron to serve as a magical “stand-in” for the Iron of Set (Simon, 2006). Essentially, Egyptian priests channeled Set’s destructive sexual power to transform lifeless images into living magical conduits. In this way, the same power that killed Osiris and that wards off
Despite His unsavory reputation as a “murderer,” Set is said to eat only lettuce (te Velde, 1977), which is a strangely vegan choice for such a “barbarian” and “malevolent” god. If He were truly as “evil” as some people think, one would expect Him to eat far too much red meat. To further highlight this discrepancy, most of Set’s sacred animals—including the donkey, the okapi, the giraffe, the gazelle, and the oryx—are herbivores.3 Even hippos, as dangerous as they are, prefer the taste of grass to that of other animals.4 This suggests that vegetable matter was more often shared with the Red Lord as a religious offering, rather than flesh or blood. The only animals and people that were killed in relation to Set were killed to demonstrate hatred for Him, not worship. Red-haired donkeys, for example, were commonly pushed over cliffs to magically keep Set “away” during the Classical period (Plutarch, 1970). Red-haired people were also persecuted and sometimes killed for the same reason, which later informed the European superstition that redheads are somehow “aligned with the devil” (Spence, 1990).
In truth, Set’s demonization had little to do with Osiris, but was a response to several foreign occupations of Egypt. First came the Hyksos, a Semitic people who took control of the country in the 17th century BCE, and who worshiped Set as another form of their own god, Ba’al (Booth, 2005). Indigenous Egyptians thought that Set—who was supposed to protect Egypt from foreign threats—had allowed (or even helped) the Hyksos invade the country. These interlopers were eventually dethroned and were followed by the native Ramesside Pharaohs, who worked hard to restore Set’s reputation. Their efforts ultimately failed, however, when Egypt became occupied by the Persians circa 525 BCE, by the Greeks circa 332 BCE, and by the Romans circa 30 BCE. Foreigners (i.e., the Muslim Arabs, the Ottoman Turks, the French and the British) continued to dominate the country until 1953, when the Republic of Egypt was finally proclaimed (Humphrey, 2009). While Set was still worshiped by nomadic tribes well into the Roman period (Frankfurter, 1998), urban Egyptians used Him as a scapegoat for the end of their civilization (Assman, 2003).
At this time, Set was ironically (and perhaps deliberately) confused with
Ironically, the oldest image of Jesus Christ is an inscription on a wall in Rome called the Alexamenos graffito, which depicts Jesus as a crucified donkey-headed man (Viladesau, 2006). The donkey, of course, is a so-called “Typhonian” animal that is sacred to Set, and drawing someone with a donkey’s head was essentially the Roman way of depicting that person with “devil horns.” The author of the Alexamenos graffito was thereby intimating that Christians were really following Seth-Typhon (in the same way that Christians have always accused polytheists of worshiping Satan). This is because the early Christians were perceived by their contemporaries as a bizarre alien cult. They worshiped an executed criminal, they refused to acknowledge other divinities, and they perceived the world and the flesh to be fundamentally evil. As far as most people were concerned, Christians were mentally disturbed atheists whose very existence might incur the wrath of the gods. Who else but Set could be blamed for bringing such “undesirable” people into the world?
Further confusion resulted from the so-called “Sethian” Gnostics, who were a group of Jewish heretics that revered the biblical Seth (i.e., the third son of Adam and Eve) as their messiah (Pearson, 2007). Many authors have conflated this Seth with the Egyptian god (Carus, 1901), but there is no evidence that the two figures are related in any way (Fossum & Glazer, 1994). Their names, while superficially similar, are homonyms with completely different etymological origins (Klijn, 1977; Betro, 1999). Nevertheless, the superficial resemblance fueled a Greek and Roman belief that Seth-Typhon was the patriarch of the Jewish people (Budge, 1904). Such beliefs are reflected in several of the Greco-Egyptian magical papyri, wherein various names for the Jewish god (e.g., Iao, Sabaoth, etc.) are specifically used in invocations to Seth-Typhon (Webb, 1996). This was similar to how medieval Christian demonologists later used the names of Canaanite Deities (e.g., Ba’al) as names for demons, or even for Satan himself (Cavendish, 1967).
This is especially ironic since Coptic Christians—or the native Egyptians who were allegedly converted to Christianity by Saint Mark (Meinardus, 1999)—identified Set with Satan (Budge, 1934; Mercatante, 1978). In fact, it is from this identification that the Abrahamic devil acquired his red hair and forked tail (Gray, 2009). Even today, Set is more often compared to Lucifer than to any other mythological figure; some authors even claim that the Hebrew word Satan is etymologically derived from Set’s name (Ocansey, 2002; Flowers, 2012).5 For this reason, modern Set worshipers are easily confused with Satanists, and in more ways than one. The Red Lord’s more heroic role as the Savior of Ra—not to mention the theological necessity of His actions against Osiris—is often known only to studious Egyptologists and to modern practitioners of Egyptian polytheism.