The ancient Egyptian pharaohs’ divine model for ruling their kingdom came from the myth of the death of Osiris at the hands of his brother, Seth. The subsequent contest between Osiris’s son Horus and Seth is a battle for kingship over the earth.
The story begins with Osiris. Osiris is the firstborn son of Geb, the god of the earth, and Nut, the goddess of the sky. During the time that Osiris ruled over the two kingdoms, his consort was his sister Isis and together, the two of them reigned over a golden age of peace and prosperity, and enjoyed the acclaim of all the gods.
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Osiris’s younger brother, Seth, grew jealous of Osiris and murdered him. After killing Osiris, Seth dismembered Osiris’s body, and he scattered the pieces over the face of the earth.
With Osiris dead, Seth assumed the rule of the two kingdoms with his consort and sister Nephthys. At the same time that Seth began his rule, his sister Isis went into deep mourning over her lost husband. She wept day and night in her grief and, finally, Nephthys, her sister and the wife of Seth, agreed to help find Osiris.
The sister goddesses searched throughout the two kingdoms of Egypt for the pieces of Osiris’s body. Eventually, they were able to find almost all of the pieces of the body of Osiris, and they reassembled it at Abydos, the site of the gods’ primary shrine.
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Once Osiris’s body had been reassembled—through her power of magic and the power of her erotic love—Isis was able to revive Osiris, although not entirely. Isis was able to revive Osiris sufficiently to conceive a son, the god Horus. After engendering the son who would eventually avenge his death, Osiris departed his earthly domain and entered the underworld—where thereafter, he ruled as king of the dead.
Isis initially hides the child, Horus, from Seth, and she does this by hiding him in the papyrus marshes. She serves as Horus’s protector and advocate throughout his childhood—complementing her earlier role as the loving wife and erotic lover of Osiris by playing the role of the loving mother and protector of the child, Horus. In this part of the story, Horus is called “Har-pi-kruti,” or “Horus the child.” He is entirely dependent on his mother, Isis—for her powerful magic as well as her powerful wits. He is often depicted in this part of the story as a child sitting on the lap of Isis.
Once Horus is grown up, he is Haroeris, or “Horus the Elder.” Now grown, he is ready to approach the assembly of gods under the authority of Rē and to ask for his legitimate right of succession. He wants to assume the throne of his father, Osiris, as king and have Seth deposed as a usurper.
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The Contest for the Kingship of Earth
The contest between Horus and his uncle Seth takes on different forms, and these different forms appear in the various sources of the story that come down to us. As the stories evolve and develop over time, we find the later versions of the stories of combat between Horus and Seth are increasingly detailed and complex.
The central contest is a legal contest concerned about the right of succession to the throne. Horus appears before the council of the gods, who operate under the authority of the sun god, Rē. Horus makes a plea to the council to recognize his legal rights as the heir and son of Osiris. The council appears to favor and support Horus’s claim, but Horus is opposed by Rē. It appears that Rē believes Horus is too young and inexperienced to rule as king.
There follows a contest between Horus and Seth, taking on different aspects, including a contest by combat. Horus had been prepared by his father, Osiris, for this martial combat before Osiris departed into the underworld, but the combat also has overtones of a contest of skill, magic, and endurance—a contest of wits. Seth and Horus look for ways to outmaneuver each other, ways to outsmart each other, and, sometimes, they devise strategies to bring disrepute to the other god in the eyes of Rē and the assembly of the gods.
A Clear Victory is Won for Horus
The upshot of all these contests is a series of clear victories for Horus and a series of clear losses and humiliations for Seth. Finally, the divine assembly agrees that Horus should have the authority to rule because Seth has shown himself incapable of ruling.
However, Rē offers Seth something of a consolation prize. First of all, he gives Seth his two daughters, and, then, he gives him a job. The job that Seth is given is to protect Rē’s barge daily from the threats of the chaos monster Apophis, who resides in the sea of the sky that Rē’s barge must travel.
The story of the death of Osiris and the contest between Horus and Seth for kingship has a complicated web of connections and meaning relevant to royal rule in Egypt. At death, a pharaoh assumes the role of Osiris, the dead king, king of the underworld. He retains his royal identity as he departs into the underworld and, just as Osiris did, he leaves behind his heir—the new pharaoh who assumes the throne and the royal identity as Horus did. In this way, the continuity of the rule of the eternal divine pharaoh is maintained, because as soon as an individual pharaoh dies, he is no longer the divine pharaoh but is now identified with Osiris instead of Horus, and the new pharaoh assumes the role of Horus as the divine pharaoh.
The story also validates the legitimacy of the reigning pharaoh’s authority. The contest between Horus and Seth for supremacy is sometimes understood as a contest between Lower Egypt, which was associated with Horus, and Upper Egypt, which was associated with Seth—but on a more primary level, the contest is between order and disorder, between the virtues of autocratic kingly authority and the threat of social chaos.
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Horus—The Master of All Creation
Although in some later versions of the story, Seth is ultimately destroyed, in most versions, he retains a distinctive role in the order overseen by Horus, and it is a role that is uniquely suited to his talents as a mighty warrior and trickster. At the same time, it’s notable that Horus himself is able to outwit and to outmaneuver Seth. Horus is something of a trickster himself; that is, he incorporates principles of disorder into the order that his rule has established. Horus becomes the master of all creation, even the power of disorder.
In its many variations, then, the story of Osiris, Seth, and Horus is not only a myth about kingship, but also an explanation and a justification for “the way things are now.” In this sense, the story is also a creation myth: They explain how the world of gods and human beings has assumed its present shape and how the cosmos has come to be ordered as it is.