Go to content

Horus and Seth


Contendings of Horus and Seth

a male coming-of-age ritual may be Akhenaten’s
coded story of his contendings with the priests of Amun-Ra

The New Kingdom story of Horus and Seth tells the story of the ideal male coming-of-age ritual. I am using Miriam Lichtheim’s translations. Horus appears before the court of the gods with his mother, Isis as his chief advocate “claiming the office of his father, Osiris.”[1] Seth, his uncle, plays the role of the challenger when he declares, “Let him be sent outside with me and I shall let you see my hand prevailing over his hand….” Banebdjede, the Ram-headed deity of Mendes complains through the pen of Thoth, scribe of the Ennead, “What shall we do about these two people, who for eighty years now have been before the tribunal?” Thereby we know the contest takes a long time, so it is not a single, symbolic ceremony.

The story treats Seth as if he were the father of a bride about to ‘lose’ a daughter when the Goddess Neith writes, “Double Seth’s possessions. Give him Anat and Astarte, your two daughters. And place Horus on the seat of his father!” That message means the challenger is expected, at least by some, to lose the challenge and receive compensation.

We know Horus is a youth because Pre-Harakhti, supposedly the boy’s great-grandfather, tells Horus “You are feeble in body and this office is too big for you, you youngster whose breath smells bad.” The word Lichtheim translates as ‘youngster’ is aDd (adjed) meaning ‘offender, wrongdoer’, where the determinative is a child with one hand to his mouth, and a uraeus on his forehead, a motif that reappears in the Doomed Prince (4,7-9).

The remainder of the Horus and Seth story tells the various contendings these two youths devised for each other. We have to assume that Seth, also, is a ‘youth’, because Atum refers to the two contenders as ‘these two youths,’ where the word for ‘youth is again aDd.

Many of these contests, if done by human beings, would be a matter of life and death. In one contest the two youths try to outwit one another. This contest includes a homosexual attempt by Seth and a revenge by Horus. In the course of this contest both youngsters prove that they are indeed post-pubescent by producing semen.

Isis seems to be aware of the importance not just of semen production, but its placement or role in the coming-of-age ceremony. She goes through the ritual masturbation of her son to produce that semen. He has Horus place his own semen on the lettuce patch so that Seth ingests it.

Back in court, Seth declares that “I have done a man’s deed to him.” Literally, “I did work and fight to him,” where kAt, ‘work’ is written as its homonym, kAt, ‘vagina’, so it ends up reading, literally, I did a vagina fight to him. However we translate aHA, ‘to fight’, it implies the use of force in this male contest. This contest ends with a ritual calling forth of these young men’s semen with all the deities present. Seth’s semen ends up discarded in the marshes. Horus’s semen, in Seth’s belly, transforms into a golden sun disk that Thoth appropriates for himself.

Just as an aside, I see this second reference to the sun’s disk, this time a golden Aten Thoth takes, as an allusion to Akhenaten establishing his capital, Akhetaten, within the precinct, and, therefore, under the protection, of the temple of Thoth, across the Nile river at Hermopolis. That would make Seth a symbol of Amun-Ra, and the entire story a satire on the power struggle between Amun-Ra and Aten.

The Horus and Seth story ends with the father, Osiris, declaring his son, Horus, his legitimate heir. Seth is brought as a bound prisoner, a game that was played by post-pubescent boys, and Isis closes the ceremony with a declaration of Horus’s new identity.

Hathor’s role in the Horus and Seth story may be that of the female entertainer, because, at a time when Pre Harakhty was sulking “she uncovered her nakedness before him, thereupon the great god laughed at her.” Literally, she ‘uncovered her vagina’, and judging from the lion’s flank determinative, she exposed her vagina by bending forward, a popular pose among the relatively few pornographic pictures we have from ancient Egypt. The way the words are written, the sexual act is implied, but not expressly stated. The sun-god nevertheless emerges from his depression with satisfaction. Perhaps someone can come up with another example where laughter is a euphemism for orgasm.

The point here is that Hathor used her sexuality here not for reproduction, but for entertainment, or, perhaps healing, in the sense of curing a depression.

[1] Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. II, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1976, p. 214-223

Back to content | Back to main menu