Ancient Egyptian writings and mythology
Son of Osiris and Isis
Horus was one of the earliest and most important Egyptian gods. He was originally portrayed as a hawk or falcon and worshipped as a sun god and creator of the sky. His right eye represented the sun, and his left eye represented the moon.
The early rulers of southern Egypt were followers of Horus. When they conquered northern Egypt and reunited the two lands (around 2200 bce), Horus became the symbol of the newly unified country, and the pharaoh, or leader of Egypt, was considered the earthly form of Horus. In time, the worship of Horus—under his various names— spread to many places.
Horus became a major figure in Egyptian mythology. Before he was born, his father Osiris (pronounced oh-SYE-ris) died at the hand of his own brother Set. When Horus grew up, he swore to avenge his father's death and fought Set many times.
In one version of this story, Set blinded Horus in his left eye, but the god Thoth (pronounced TOHT) healed it. Horus ended up killing Set, and the gods named Horus ruler of Egypt. The restored eye, called the udjat or wedjat, became a powerful magical symbol of protection in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians used the story of Horus's wounded eye to explain the changing phases of the moon.
In another account of the conflict between Horus and Set, the two came before a council of the gods to decide who would inherit Osiris's throne. Most of the council accepted Horus's claim, but the sun god Ra favored Set because he was older and more capable. As a result, Horus and Set undertook a series of contests to determine who would become the ruler.
On one occasion, both gods turned themselves into hippopotamuses to see who could stay underwater longer. During the contest, Horus's mother Isis (pronounced EYE-sis) had the chance to kill Set but chose not to do so. Horus was angry at his mother and fled into the desert. Set found him and put out his eyes, but the goddess Hathor (pronounced HATH-or) repaired them with the milk of a small antelope. In the end, the gods agreed that Horus should be the ruler. Horus then invited Set to join him and live in the sky as the god of storms.
Horus in Context
In ancient Egypt, more than most other cultures, the deities being worshipped—and the qualities represented by those deities—changed frequently with the changing rulers of the land. Because of this, many gods became absorbed or merged into other gods. Horus, for example, was originally worshipped as a sky god and later assumed the roles of sun and moon god as well. For some time his identity was combined with the sun god Ra. As another example, Horus was associated with leaders of Lower Egypt, while Set was associated with leaders of Upper Egypt. When Egypt became united after violent conflicts between the two sides, Horus—the god worshipped by the victors, the Lower Egyptians— became the mythical ruler of Egypt over Set.
Key Themes and Symbols
Horus represents the power and importance of the sun and sky in all aspects of ancient Egyptian life. He serves as provider and protector of the Egyptian people, especially the pharaohs. One of the most important symbols associated with Horus is the Eye of Horus, a symbol meant to offer the protection of the gods. The falcon's head that he is often depicted with is a symbol of both the sky and an all-seeing presence.
Horus in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Horus was a popular figure in ancient Egyptian art, and many examples remain to this day. He was often depicted with the head of a falcon. In modern times, the Eye of Horus symbol has been identified with bands such as Sisters of Mercy and Siouxsie and the Banshees, and is a common decorative symbol for members of the gothic subculture. Horus has also appeared as a character in the Warhammer gaming universe, though the character does not bear much resemblance to the god of Egyptian mythology.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
The markings of the Eye of Horus are said to be modeled after similar markings found on the peregrine falcon, a bird of prey that resides along the Nile River. Using your library, the Internet, or other available resources, research the current status of the peregrine falcon. Is the bird endangered? Can it still be found in Egypt? What efforts, if any, are being made to preserve the falcon's habitat?
HORUS . In ancient Egypt there were originally several gods known by the name Horus, but the best known and most important from the beginning of the historic period was the son of Osiris and Isis who was identified with the king of Egypt. According to myth, Osiris, who assumed the rulership of the earth shortly after its creation, was slain by his jealous brother, Seth. The sister-wife of Osiris, Isis, who collected the pieces of her dismembered husband and revived him, also conceived his son and avenger, Horus. Horus fought with Seth, and, despite the loss of one eye in the contest, was successful in avenging the death of his father and in becoming his legitimate successor. Osiris then became king of the dead and Horus king of the living, this transfer being renewed at every change of earthly rule. The myth of divine kingship probably elevated the position of the god as much as it did that of the king. In the fourth dynasty, the king, the living god, may have been one of the greatest gods as well, but by the fifth dynasty the supremacy of the cult of Re, the sun god, was accepted even by the kings. The Horus-king was now also "son of Re." This was made possible mythologically by personifying the entire older genealogy of Horus (the Heliopolitan ennead) as the goddess Hathor, "house of Horus," who was also the spouse of Re and mother of Horus.
Horus was usually represented as a falcon, and one view of him was as a great sky god whose outstretched wings filled the heavens; his sound eye was the sun and his injured eye the moon. Another portrayal of him particularly popular in the Late Period, was as a human child suckling at the breast of his mother, Isis. The two principal cult centers for the worship of Horus were at Bekhdet in the north, where very little survives, and at Idfu in the south, which has a very large and well-preserved temple dating from the Ptolemaic period. The earlier myths involving Horus, as well as the ritual performed there, are recorded at Idfu.
Alliot, Maurice. Le culte d'Horus à Edfou au temps des Ptolémées. Institut Français d'Archeologie Orientale, Cairo, Bibliothèque d'Étude, vol. 20, pt. 1. Cairo, 1949.
Griffiths, J. Gwyn. The Conflict of Horus and Seth from Egyptian and Classical Sources. Liverpool, 1960.
Leonard H. Lesko (1987)
Sky God . Horus, in the form of a falcon, or falcon-headed human, is one of the oldest gods of the Egyptian pantheon. He was the god of the sky, whose right eye was associated with the sun, and whose left eye was the moon. A Dynasty 1 (circa 3000-2800 b.c.e.) comb shows the sky as the two wings of a bird, probably Horus. He was also associated with the king, and from Dynasty 1 onward one of the king’s names was preceded by the Horus falcon, making the king the earthly embodiment of the cosmic Horus.
Battle with Seth . In the earliest version of the myths surrounding Horus, he was involved in a struggle with his brother, Seth, for the rulership of Egypt. This conflict is apparently a reflection of the political situation in which the city of Hierakonpolis (a major cult center for Horus) gradually
expanded and engulfed Nagada (Ombos), a center of Seth-worship. This version of the myth must be reconstructed from allusions in the Pyramid Texts. For unstated reasons, Seth attacks Horus, and a violent struggle ensues. Horus loses an eye, and Seth loses his testicles. Eventually, the missing pieces are restored to their rightful owners, and the two gods go before a tribunal of the gods of the Heliopolitan ennead, with either Geb or Atum presiding. The verdict of this tribunal is that Horus is the rightful ruler of Egypt because he is the older of the two.
Son of Osiris . With the entrance of the god Osiris into the Egyptian pantheon, the protagonists in the myth shift roles. When Osiris becomes equated with the dead king, the living king, Horus, comes to be thought of as the son of Osiris, since the dead king was usually the father of the living ruler. The conflict between Horus and Seth then shifts to become a conflict between Osiris and Seth and serves to explain why Osiris is dead (he was killed by his brother Seth). Horus then assumes the role of a son avenging the wrong done to his father and fighting for his rightful inheritance, which in this instance is the throne of Egypt. Horus also takes on two aspects, Horus the Elder, ruler of Egypt, and Horus the Child (Greek Harpokrates), the son of Osiris and Isis. The trial before the gods becomes one of punishing Seth for the murder of Osiris and awarding Horus his inheritance.
Seth’s Banishment. The New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 b.c.e.) story of The Contendings of Horus and Seth is a narrative detailing the events that take place during the trial of Horus and Seth before Atum and the gods of the ennead. Each god has his supporters, and the tribunal sways first one way and then the other. The gods are depicted as petty, petulant bickerers who cannot make up their minds. Finally, Seth suggests a contest between the two. They are to transform themselves into hippopotamuses to see who can stay submerged longer. Because of Isis’s interference, first on one side and then the other, the contest is indecisive. Seth then commits a sexual assault against Horus, intending to call forth his semen from Horus’s body in the presence of the judges, thereby demonstrating his superiority over Horus. Again, Seth’s efforts are thwarted by Isis, who rids Horus of Seth’s semen, and tricks Seth into unwittingly ingesting Horus’s semen. In desperation, Seth suggests the two gods build and race boats of stone, with the winner being declared the rightful heir. Seth proceeds to build a boat of stone, while Horus builds his boat of pine wood plastered over with gypsum, to give it the appearance of stone. When the race begins, Seth’s boat sinks while Horus’s continues on the course. Seth transforms himself into a hippopotamus and scuttles Horus’s boat. Again, there is no clear winner. Finally, the judges decide to write a letter to Osiris and ask him who he would have as his heir. Osiris chooses Horus, who becomes the ruler of all Egypt. As a consolation prize, Seth is sent to live in the sky with Re, where he becomes the god of storms and thunder.
Poisoned Child. Another series of stories relate the events of Horus’s childhood. After Isis finds herself pregnant by Osiris, Re-Atum suggests she hide this fact from Seth, lest he try to destroy the infant Horus. When Horus is born, Isis hides him in the marsh at Khemmis. Isis leaves the infant alone while she goes in search of food. When she returns, she finds the baby weak and unable to suckle. A local wise woman diagnoses the child as suffering from a poisonous sting, either of a scorpion or snake. Isis cries out for help, and the sound of her anguish brings even Re in his solar bark to a stop. The god Thoth arrives to aid Isis and recites spells that remove the poison from the child. Texts describing such events in the life of the infant Horus were carved on stone stelae known as cippi. These stelae depicted the infant Horus standing on the backs of crocodiles, grasping snakes, scorpions, and other dangerous animals by the tails. Water poured over the stelae was thought to absorb the power of the spells and was drunk by those seeking a cure for snake bite or scorpion sting.
J. F. Borghouts, Ancient Egyptian Magical Texts (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1978).
John Gwyn Griffiths, The Conflict of Horus and Seth from Egyptian and Classical Sources: A Study in Ancient Mythology (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1960).
Geraldine Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994).
Horus was one of the earliest and most important Egyptian gods. He was originally portrayed as a hawk or falcon and worshiped as a sun god and creator of the sky. His right eye represented the sun, and his left eye represented the moon. Later images show him as a man with the head of a bird.
pharaoh ruler of ancient Egypt
incarnation appearance of a god, spirit, or soul in earthly form
The early rulers of southern Egypt were followers of Horus. When they conquered northern Egypt and reunited the two lands (around 2200 b.c.), Horus became the symbol of the newly unified country, and the pharaoh was considered the incarnation of Horus. In time, the worship of Horus—under his various names—spread to many places.
* See Nantes and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
Horus became a major figure in Egyptian mythology. Before he was born, his father Osiris died at the hand of his own brother Set*. When Horus grew up, he swore to avenge his father's death and fought Set many times.
In one version of this story, Set blinded Horus in his left eye, but the god Thoth healed it. Horus ended up killing Set, however, and the gods named Horus ruler of Egypt. The restored eye, called the udjat or wedjat, became a powerful magical symbol of protection in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians used the story of Horus's wounded eye to explain the changing phases of the moon.
In another account of the conflict between Horus and Set, the two came before a council of the gods to decide who would inherit Osiris 's throne. Most of the council accepted Horus's claim, but the sun god Ra favored Set because he was older and more capable. As a result, Horus and Set undertook a series of contests to determine who would become the ruler.
On one occasion, both gods turned themselves into hippopotamuses to see who could stay under water longer. During the contest, Horus's mother Isis* had the chance to kill Set but chose not to do so. Horus was angry at his mother and fled into the desert. Set found him and put out his eyes, but the goddess Hathor repaired them with the milk of a small antelope. In the end, the gods agreed that Horus should be the ruler. Horus then invited Set to join him and live in the sky as the god of storms.
See also Birds in Mythology; Egyptian Mythology; Hathor; Isis; Osiris; RΑ(Re); Set; Thoth.