Saturday, November 10, 2012

Seth, God of Conflict

(Set, Suty, Sutekh) Son of Geb and Nut, Seth is a God of physical vigor and voracious sexual appetite in open conflict with social order and emotional bonds. While there are important contexts in which Seth’s activity is positive, most notably in his defense of the boat of Re against the attacks of Apophis, the great symbol of entropy, he is most well known as the murderer of his brother Osiris and for unsuccessfully vying for worldly sovereignty against Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris and the embodiment of legitimacy and civilization. In the conflict with Horus, Seth represents the principle that might makes right, as well as all the wild elements of human nature that resist civilization. Especially in his animal guises, or as the God of storms, Seth embodies the points at which nature itself comes into conflict with the human world, resisting domestication, or the points at which humans seek justification for their exploitation of nature, as in myths which sanctify the use of animal flesh in sacred contexts by identifying the animals in question with Seth or his followers. Seth’s positive aspects come to be expressed less and less over the course of Egyptian history, especially after the 20th dynasty, when a reaction against the foreign Hyksos dynasty who had taken Seth as their patron seems to have caused a precipitous decline in Seth’s cult. Whatever role contingent historical factors may have played in this fall from favor, it is also clearly to be attributed to the increasing centrality of the Osirian mythos in Egyptian culture, and perhaps as well as to the smaller accomodation afforded the wild, undisciplined aspects of life in an increasingly orderly and legalistic society. 

At his most positive, Seth represents vigor and strength, but in a form which would ruthlessly displace the weaker were it not kept in check. This force is constructive when channeled against either entropy itself (Apophis) or some other brute elemental force like the sea, subdued by Seth in a fragmentary myth. A candid recognition of Seth’s change in status can be seen in the so-called ‘Memphite Theology’, in which it is recounted that Geb, judging between Horus and Seth, initially resolves their conflict by dividing the nation, making Seth king of Upper (Southern) Egypt, “the place in which he was born,” and Horus king of Lower (Northern) Egypt, “the place in which his father was drowned,” but, as the text goes on to explain, “then it seemed wrong to Geb that the portion of Horus was like the portion of Seth. So Geb gave to Horus his [Horus'] inheritance, for he [Horus] is the son of the firstborn son,” (Lichtheim vol. 1, 52) thus awarding Horus sovereignty over the totality of a unified Egypt. Seth is a God to whom Egyptians, whether kings or commoners, had recourse, however, in war or in illness, life-or-death struggles where physical strength and combat prowess would be decisive. He occurs as well in certain images of balance and totality, such as in images of coronation or of the sma tawy, the ‘uniting of the (two) lands’, in which Seth represents Upper Egypt and Horus represents Lower Egypt, although there is a tendency later to replace Seth with Thoth in these contexts as Seth falls into disfavor.

Seth is especially associated with a type of animal known in Egyptian as a sha, the identification of which remains controversial, and was probably unknown even in Egypt in the late period. If the sha was not a creature of fantasy, the most convincing identification of it is as a type of extinct wild pig, the so-called ‘Irish greyhound pig’, as argued by Newberry 1928. The sha-animal, which was also associated with the God Ash, has a body resembling a greyhound, with rectangular ears that stand up, a slightly drooping snout, and an upturned tail with a fork at the end (perhaps a stylized tuft). Detailed images show that the animal has lighter stripes on its back, the body being predominantly dark in color. Seth is depicted either as a sha or as a man with a sha‘s head. In addition, the was-scepter carried by so many Egyptian Gods appears to be a stylized sha; appropriately, the scepter’s name means ‘strength’. In later texts Seth is commonly characterized as a red ass or red dog, being associated with the color red from an early period. Red symbolizes in Egyptian thought the red land of the desert, as opposed to the black land rendered fertile by the Nile’s annual inundation, which gave its name to the Egyptian term for their own nation, Kemit, ‘the black land’. Seth and the sha-animal are strongly associated with the desert. Seth is also depicted frequently as a hippopotamus; he transforms into a hippopotamus at 13, 2-11 of the Conflict of Horus and Seth, although Horus is prevented by Isis from harpooning him. He is also associated with, although not necessarily depicted as, the crocodile, the oryx and the ostrich.

Seth has Nephthys as his consort in addition to the foreign Goddesses Anat and Astarte, but has no divine offspring. Maga, a malevolent crocodile deity, is an exception, referred to often as ‘son of Seth’, but is not an object of cult. Seth has no posterity perhaps because he embodies a principle already taken to its extreme; because of his association with the unfertile ‘red land’ and with acts of violence; and also because he is associated with sexual activity expressing a purely physical urge, rather than as a bond which would be symbolically represented as fruitful. One might assume Seth’s lack of divine offspring to be attributable to the injury Horus inflicts upon Seth’s testicles complementary to that inflicted by Seth upon the eye of Horus; but Seth’s injury is healed just like that of Horus. In PT utterance 215, the king is urged to “spit on the face of Horus for him, that you may remove the injury which is on him”—saliva being thought of as a healing substance—”and pick up the testicles of Seth, that you may remove his [Seth's] mutilation.” Injuries suffered by the Gods seem generally in Egyptian theology to afford an opportunity for mortals to be inserted into the mythic organization; accordingly we find the testicles of Seth represented in ritual by two sceptres, that is, as a form of divine power which can be symbolically appropriated by humans (Ramesseum Dramatic Papyrus 83-86 and scene 17, pl. 18; Griffiths 35).

Seth is punished in a variety of ways for his act of violence against Osiris. He is forced to carry Osiris on his back, exalting the value of the mortal being, represented by Osiris, within the natural order which sweeps it remorselessly away: “Horus has laid hold of Seth and has set him under you [Osiris/the deceased] on your behalf so that he may lift you up and quake beneath you as the earth quakes, you being holier than he in your name of ‘Sacred Land’,” (PTutterance 356). Seth is sometimes represented as a ship when this is ritually enacted (Griffiths 11 n. 1, 48), which is significant since the cult statues of Egyptian Gods are always carried in boats when taken on procession. The forces embodied by Seth thus become the vehicle of divinities upholding a providential ordering of the cosmos. The punishments inflicted upon Seth in the Jumilhac Papyrus, by comparison, seem to legitimize the use by humans of various animal products such as leather. The violence inherent to these products, or to the consumption of meat, or to the obtaining of luxury products such as ostrich plumes, is theologically justified by symbolically identifying these animals with Seth. In this fashion, anything that mortals require (or are perceived to require) which incorporates an element of injustice or disorder in its production is referred back to the founding injustice of the mortal condition of which each individual, as mortal, is always already the victim.

An important incident in the Conflict of Horus and Seth is Seth’s sexual molestation of Horus. Seth attempts to argue on the basis of this incident that Horus is unsuited for the sovereignty, probably because it is supposed to imply that Horus is young and naïve, or not strong enough to have fought off Seth’s advances. Isis, however, by getting Horus to deposit some semen on lettuce in Seth’s garden (Seth, like Min, has an appetite for lettuce, an aphrodisiac in Egyptian lore) is able to summon the seed of Horus from within Seth’s body, making of him the passive partner as well. It comes forth from Seth’s forehead in the form of a golden solar disc (12, 12) which is appropriated by Thoth. Since the disc Thoth bears over his head is a lunar, rather than a solar disc, the incident perhaps accounts for the origin of the moon. Sometimes Thoth is himself said to have been conceived through this encounter (Griffiths 43). Another etiological divine injury occurs in the course of this myth, when the hands of Horus, in which he caught Seth’s semen, are cut off by Isis and thrown into the water, whereupon they transform into fish (CT spell 158/BD spell 113). The hands of Horus are replaced by Isis, the point being not the mutilation of the divine but the insertion of the human exploitation of a natural resource into a circuit of symbolic meaning.

In some contexts a reciprocity or rapprochement between Horus and Seth is particularly emphasized. For instance, in a spell (no. 25 in Borghouts) to conjure a particular type of demon, the magical potency invoked is characterized as “the protection [sau] of Horus that protects Seth and vice versa.” A spell against headache (no. 42 in Borghouts), which involves attaching a strip of fabric with seven knots in it to the patient’s big toe, says “The boy Horus spends the day lying on a cushion of nedj-fabric [the fabric which is knotted and attached to the patient's toe]. His brother Seth kept watch over him, because he lay stretched out, his task being to keep the lower parts healthy.” References to Seth as the ‘brother’ of Horus do not contradict his status as his uncle, since ‘brother’ is simply sen, ‘two’, in Egyptian, and can refer to anyone who is in some sense the ‘double’ or complement of another, such as opponents in a lawsuit. In another spell (no. 115 in Borghouts) which is labelled a “protection of Horus,” (i.e. a protection furnished by Horus) the operator affirms that “Seth is on my right, Horus on my left,” while a “conjuration against a scorpion” (no. 117) says “Horus is behind me, Seth is next to my shoulder … Do not attack me! See, a great God [Seth] is the one who is at my side.” An exorcism (no. 119) includes the charm, “When Horus had looked behind him he found Seth following him and vice versa.” Sometimes Horus and Seth even appear fused, their two heads on one body, bearing the name Antywy (Antaios in Greek sources).

An interesting spell (no. 102 in Borghouts) treats of an episode in which Seth has apparently been bitten or stung by something and requires the assistance of Horus, who is travelling with him. Echoing the famous myth involving Isis and Re (no. 84 in Borghouts), Horus states that Seth must tell him his (true) name in order to be healed. Seth offers a series of names to Horus, each of which Horus rejects as being not his true name. The names Seth offers for himself and which are rejected by Horus are: ‘yesterday, today, and tomorrow which has not yet come’; ‘a quiver full of arrows, a pot full of unrest’; ‘a man of an infinite number of cubits whose appearance is not known’; ‘a threshing floor as strong as bronze, which no cow has ever trodden’; ‘a jug of milk milked from the udder of Bastet’. The final name Seth offers, which is accepted and brings about his healing, is “a man of an infinite number of cubits, whose name is ‘Evil Day’. As for the day of giving birth and becoming pregnant—there is no giving of birth and sycamores will not bear figs.” This latter remark sounds very much like the entry for an unlucky day from a typical Egyptian calendar. According to this spell, therefore, while each of the other names Seth volunteers undoubtedly reflect valid aspects of his nature, the most adequate description of Seth is as an unlimited being who is a source of bad luck, specifically lack of fruitfulness.

A distinctive characteristic of Seth in addition to his strength and sexual appetite is his loud voice, which contrasts sharply with the Egyptian ideal of the person who is at once soft-spoken and laconic, exhibiting self-control and forethought. It is significant therefore that it is specifically Seth’s voice—perhaps a metaphor for thunder—that subdues the sea (spell no. 77 in Borghouts). The power of Seth’s voice is appropriated by the magician in a “conjuration against scorpions” (no. 120 in Borghouts) which states “The voice of the conjurer is loud while calling for the poison,” i.e., calling for the poison to exit the patient’s body, “like the voice of Seth while wrestling with the poison,” which, since the word for ‘poison’ and for ‘semen’ is the same in Egyptian, may be a reference to the Conflict myth, in which Seth is tricked into ingesting the semen of Horus. Another association of Seth’s which may relate to storms is iron, which was for the Egyptians paradigmatically meteoritic in origin. Hence in PT utterance 21, the iron of which the instrument used in the Opening of the Mouth ritual is said to be “the iron which issued from Seth,” and millennia later Plutarch reports the Egyptian tradition that the lodestone (magnetic oxide of iron) is “the bone of Horus” and iron is “the bone of Typhon,” i.e. Seth, in the Hellenistic syncretism (On Isis and Osiris 62, 376b).

In PT utterance 570 and 571, the deceased king affirms his immortality by stating “I escape my day of death just as Seth escaped his day of death,” repeating the formula with the units of “half-months of death,” “months of death,” and “year of death.” It seems in this fashion that Seth was susceptible to mortality like Osiris. Seth’s mortality is also enacted in the Pyramid Texts, however, in his identification with the sacrificial ox of PT utterance 580. The constellation Ursa Major was identified as the foreleg of Seth in the form of the sacrificial ox, and the adze used in the Opening of the Mouth ritual, the key moment in the ceremonies of resurrection, is also identified with this foreleg (te Velde 1967, 86-89).

The name of Seth (whose oldest form in Egyptian seems to have been closer to Sutekh or Setekh) may be related to words in Egyptian such as tekhi, ‘to be drunk’, tekhtekh, ‘disorder’,tesh, ‘to smash/crush’, while the Seth-animal is used as determiner for a variety of words having to do with misfortune, violence, confusion and storms (complete list in te Velde 1967, 22-23).

Allen, T. G. 1974. The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [BD]

Borghouts, J. F. 1978. Ancient Egyptian Magical Texts. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
Faulkner, R. O. 1969. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [PT]
Faulkner, R. O. 1973-8. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. 3 vols. Warminster: Aris & Phillips Ltd. [CT]
Gwyn Griffiths, J. 1960. The Conflict of Horus and Seth. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
Lichtheim, Miriam. 1975-80. Ancient Egyptian Literature. 3 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Newberry, P. E. 1928. “The Pig and the Cult-Animal of Set.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology14: 211-225
Velde, H. te. 1967. Seth, God of Confusion. Trans. G. E. van Baaren-Pape. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
Vandier, Jacques. 1961. Le Papyrus Jumilhac. Paris: Musée du Louvre.


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