Weep Not for Horus!

Come! Listen! I shall tell you a tale of days when the gods still walked the lands, a story of the contest between uncle and nephew for the inheritance of Osiris and the rage of a son betrayed by his mother!

For it was that in those days Seth of the desert, the impetuous, had lost the kingship of the Two Lands condemned by his own words to give up his rule in favour of his brother’s son, the rightful heir, Horus. Yet even with the face of Ma’at herself set against him, even so Seth the powerful, Seth the strong refused to accept the judgement of the gods against him and in his anger he challenged his young nephew to a contest of strength to determine who was fit to rule.

“Come my nephew, let us become hippopotamuses!”
“Come my nephew, let us retreat to the depths of the waters, to the depths of the Great Green itself!””
“Come my nephew let us remain there until only the strongest of us survives to rule the Two Lands!”

And Horus, youthful and full of courage, at once joined Seth as a hippopotamus in the depths. Three long months they were to remain there, three long months without rising to greet Shu of the air above, three long months to prove their strength!

A Pair of Hippos

But Isis the mother, Isis the sister, Isis the widow, Isis was full of trepidation for Seth had tricked their brother, her husband, Osiris to his death. She feared her son, Horus the rightful heir, would meet the same fate at the hands of his uncle, her jealous brother Seth! And in her fearfulness she resolved to avenge herself for the death of her husband at the hands of his brother, and protect her son from his uncle’s wrath.

Taking up a harpoon, a barbed harpoon suitable for hunting the dangerous hippopotamus, Isis the mother of Horus went down to the water’s edge and cast forth her weapon. Strong was Isis and clear sighted, and so her harpoon flew straight and true and struck where she aimed! But one hippopotamus looks much like another hippopotamus, and it was Horus, her son, who cried out in a loud voice:

“Isis my mother! Why do you pierce the flesh of your son? Remove your barb from my flesh that I may not die!”

And Isis weeping tears of sorrow for her mistake used her great magic to return her harpoon to her hand. She used that magic to heal Horus, her son, the rightful heir, so that he was as if she’d never pierced his flesh. And then she cast again, strong, clear-sighted and confident in her target! Seth, her brother, cried out in a loud voice:

“Isis my sister! Am I not your brother? Your only living brother! Why do you pierce my flesh so that I shall surely die?”

And Isis wept once more, for the bond of blood between them meant she could not bring herself to kill Seth, her brother, regardless of his crimes or her fears. So once again she used her great magic to return the harpoon to her hand and make all as if the strike had never been.

But Horus, young Horus, her son and the rightful heir, was enraged by this betrayal from his father’s wife, his mother Isis! He burst forth from the waters wearing the face of the leopard in his righteous fury! Carrying a mighty axe he came forth from the waters to confront his mother, his uncle’s sister, Isis! And with the strength of that fury, with one single stroke of that axe, he cleft the head of his mother from her body!

The gods cried out with grief!
The gods cried out with shock!
The gods cried out with horror!

And Horus the murderer of his mother, Horus still grasping the head of Isis his mother, Horus turned and fled for the desert and the mountains beyond. All the gods, even Seth the brother of Isis, set out after him to find Horus the mother-killer and to bring him for the punishment he deserved for his crime against the true order of the world!

Seth of the desert, Seth fleet of foot, Seth who knew the ways of the wild places, it was he who found Horus first as he hid in the mountains. Seth was the only one of the gods who was not filled with rage at the death of Isis his sister, Isis the meddler, Isis the one who had tricked him into giving up the lordship of the Two Lands. But this did not make him merciful to his brother’s son Horus, Horus who had the rightful claim to his father’s estate. For here was his chance to destroy his brother’s line both root and branch, his chance to eradicate all competition for the lordship of the Two Lands! And Seth, mighty Seth, over-powered young Horus the rightful heir, plucked out the eyes of Horus the killer of Isis and left him to wait for his death!

Weep not for Horus!
Weep not for Osiris’s rightful heir!
Weep not!

For Horus was always and forever within the protective embrace of Hathor, the Great Cow, she of the Western Mountain. And Hathor was the next of the gods to find lost Horus, the killer of his mother, weeping bloody tears in the mountains where Seth had left him. With her magic she brought a gazelle to them, and brought forth its milk. With this milk she anointed the sockets where his eyes had been. With her magic she healed the young Horus, son of Isis, heir to the Two Lands, and made him whole again!

And together, Horus under the protection of Hathor, they returned to the Black Land to stand before the council of the gods once more. But that, my friends, is a story for another day.

Resources used:

Hart, George. 1990. Egyptian Myths. British Museum Press.
Shaw, Garry J. 2014. The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends. Thames & Hudson.
Tyldesley, Joyce. 2010. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt.Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books.

This is a second episode from “The Contendings of Horus and Seth,” which narrates the struggle between Horus & Seth for the kingship of Egypt – it follows on immediately after From His Own Mouth Condemned. I have taken the basic plot from the resources above, and then retold the story in my own words. Don’t worry about Isis, she doesn’t seem to’ve been harmed by the events of the story, but the surviving version of the story doesn’t give any details as to how she got her head back.

He Knew All That She Had Done

Come! Listen! I shall tell you a tale from days gone by, of Bata’s revenge on his unfaithful wife and the return of ma’at to the land!

And in those days Bata lay senseless on the ground, felled like the tree by which he lay, his heart cast to the ground and Bata to his death. Far far away his brother Anubis awoke in the night and knew that all was not well with his brother! At once he set forth and hastened to the side of Bata his brother, long he searched for the heart of his brother till at last it was found. And when he returned it to its rightful place Bata rose like Osiris to life once more.

Bata, Bata the wronged, Bata the betrayed, spoke then to his brother and told him all that the faithless woman had done. He spoke of her desertion of the man she was made for, he spoke of her incitement of Pharaoh to the killing of her rightful husband, he spoke of her wedding to Pharaoh dishonouring the promises she had made!

And he vowed before the gods, he with his brother Anubis beside him, to take revenge on this faithless woman.

So saying he transformed himself into a bull, the most magnificent bull that was seen in the land. He was fat and strong, and comely to look upon, a bull fit for the very gods themselves. And he bade his brother take him to the city of Pharaoh and thus to his wife, the most unfaithful of women.

A Magnificent Bull

Anubis did as his brother asked, and led Bata, Bata the bull, Bata the magnificent, to the city and house where Pharaoh was dwelling. And there he prostrated himself before the throne, at the feet of the ruler of the Two Lands:

Divine Pharaoh, pray accept this gift of mine!
Incarnation of Horus, take this bull as your tribute!
Son of Re, look upon my gift with your favour!

And Bata, Bata the bull, Bata the magnificent was taken into the house of Pharaoh where he was treated like a king himself, with the respect due such a fine specimen of a bull. But the wife of Pharaoh, she of deceit and isfet, was uneasy, fearing some ill-fortune was to come. Down to the stable she went to inspect the bull on her own to see what the source of this uneasiness could be, and then it was that Bata, Bata her husband, Bata the man she was made for, spoke to his unfaithful wife and told her he knew all that she had done.

His wife grew even more fearful and resolved to rid herself of this threat to the life she wished to continue to lead. And that very evening she adorned herself in her finest linen, drenched in the scents of love and seduction, and took wine to the Pharaoh to delight and befuddle his senses. Intoxicated by her beauty and charms he promised her anything she wished, and she took the advantage her deceitful ways had granted her and begged prettily for the liver of the magnificent bull to eat, for surely then she would bear Pharaoh many many fine sons. Dismayed, Pharaoh sought to no avail to change the mind of the beauty, she of deceit and isfet, but she was set in her desires and he honoured the promise he made.

As the bull, the bull that was Bata, was taken to the butchers for the feast the Pharaoh’s wife desired, two drops of blood sprung from his neck and landed by the very gates themselves. And there, by the gate, grew two magnificent trees, grew from nothing to tall trees in less than the span of time it takes the Great God Re to pass through the underworld in the night. Stretching themselves from the earth of Geb to the sky of Nut, and casting cool shade over those who passed by. And when Pharaoh heard of this miracle he set forth at once with all his court, his wife and all of her people to see the marvel of the trees at the gates.

But the heart of Pharaoh’s wife was still heavy with unease and filled with foreboding. And she returned to the trees when the crowds were gone to see what the source of this uneasiness could be. And Bata, Bata the trees, who was Bata the bull, was Bata the man she was made for, Bata spoke to her and told her he knew all that she had done.

And once again the fearfulness of this woman, she of deceit and isfet, grew stronger and she resolved once more to rid herself of this threat. Again she arrayed herself in all her best clothing, her finest jewellery, and the scents of all that was as good and pure as she herself was not. And she took with her the very best of the wine and danced for Pharaoh until he was dazzled and dazed by her intoxicating beauty. And when he offered her that which she wished she begged for the wood of the miraculous trees for her bed, for surely then she would bear Pharaoh many many sons.

When morning came, full of regret but honouring his word, Pharaoh and his court, his wife and all of her people, went to the gate to see the trees felled. And it came to pass that as the trees were brought down a seed fell from the trees and into the mouth of the unfaithful wife of Bata. Down into her belly it went, and quickened into new life in her womb.

The months passed, and then in the palace of Pharaoh there was much rejoicing for the birth of a son and heir to the Lord of the Two Lands. And the boy, the boy that was Bata, grew healthy and strong, the most perfect child that a woman ever bore! And the heart of his mother was full with unease, but this third time Bata kept his own counsel and she could find no source for her distress, no cure for her disquiet.

In the fullness of time Pharaoh journeyed to take his place among the imperishable stars, and Bata took the throne in his turn. And then the Son of Re Bata, the Horus, the one of the Sedge and Bee protected by the Two Ladies, then he summoned his wife-mother, she of deceit and isfet, to stand before the people. And before them all he spoke of all that she had done. Her wickedness and lies, her betrayal to death thrice over of the man she was made for, her sins against all that was right and proper. And to the acclamation of the people he condemned her to death for her offences against ma’at!

Resources Used:

Hart, George. 1990. Egyptian Myths. The Legendary Past. British Museum Press.
Mertz, Barbara. 2008. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. William Morrow.
Tyldesley, Joyce. 2010. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt.Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books.

This is the third part of a story called The Tale of the Two Brothers, which is known from a 19th Dynasty papyrus written by a scribe called Inena (or Ennana) – the first part is here: Weaving With Her Words a Cloth of Deceit, and the second part is here: The Man She was Made For. I have taken the plot from the sources above, and retold it in my own words.

The Man She Was Made For

Come! Listen! I shall tell you a tale from days gone by, of Bata the strong and his unfaithful wife, made for him by the gods but torn from him by her own wicked heart!

And in those days Bata lived alone in the Valley of the Cedars, having fled from the household of his brother, from the treachery of his brother’s wife. His heart he had placed for safe keeping in the top of the tallest tree of the forest, and he built his house at its roots. By day he was successful at his hunting in the desert, by night he slept deeply in the comfort of his bed. And in all things ma’at was upheld.

For all his good fortune Bata grew lonely, and the Great God, Re-Horakhty himself, took pity upon him. He called Khnum to him and commanded him to fashion a wife for Bata, a beautiful wife, a fragrant wife, a wife suitable for Bata the best amongst men! And this Khnum did, and Re-Horakhty brought her to Bata and they lived in Bata’s house as husband and wife in all ways but one. For the loss of his member to the catfish of the Nile meant that Bata the strong was no longer Bata the virile, he could not lie with her as a man does with a woman. And this left his wife, the beautiful one, the fragrant one, unsatisfied with the life for which she was made, and her heart grew heavy with the weight of isfet.

Husband and Wife

Of this Bata knew nothing, and his heart filled with love & joy at his life and fear & anxiety that it might chance to change. From love he told her of the secret place of his heart, that she might revive him should anything go amiss. From fear he forbade his wife to walk by the shores of the Great Green Sea, for if it were to carry her away he should not be able to rescue her. But his wife, his fragrant wife, his treacherous wife, went out to walk on the shore, for she could not bear to be shut up in the house under the cedar tree all her days.

And the sea saw her and her beauty and surged forth to claim her!
She turned and she fled and she returned to the house,
leaving only a lock of her hair caught in the trees for the sea to seize.

Far far away the sea carried this fragrant, beautiful lock of hair until at last the waters deposited it in the Nile where the clothes of the king were washed. The scent of her hair was so strong and so beautiful that anything that touched the waters was drenched with perfume! And Pharaoh was vexed for his clothes returned without the clean scent of freshly washed linen ready for his own perfume. He commanded the chief of the washermen to search for the source of the perfume and bring it to him so that he could destroy it. But when it was brought before him the lustrous and fragrant lock of hair was so enticing and seductive that Pharaoh instead resolved to make this woman his own!

He sent forth his troops to search for the girl whose hair shone forth the scent of her beauty! But Bata, Bata the strong, Bata her husband, slaughtered those who would take his wife from him. Saving only one to carry the tale back to Pharaoh of the woman’s protector. And so Pharaoh resorted to guile and to trickery, and sent forth a woman from his household laden with gifts fit for a princess or a queen. The heart of Bata’s wife grew covetous at the sight, and filled with desire for trinkets and baubles she stepped away from the path of ma’at.

Out of her house, away from her husband.
Out of the Valley of Cedars, away to the Two Lands of the Nile.
Out and away, and she was gone from Bata and the life she was made for!

Entranced by the girl, her beauty and her scent, Pharaoh made her his Great Royal Wife and first amongst all of the women of his household. And so completely did she forget her duty to the man she was made for that she told Pharaoh of the secret of Bata’s heart. For she feared that Bata, Bata the strong, Bata her husband, would come and take back that which was his. So Pharaoh sent forth his troops to the great cedar tree and they made haste to cut it down. And when the heart of Bata reached the floor, he fell like the tree and lay like Osiris in death.

And Pharaoh and his queen, the false wife of Bata, rejoiced for they believed she was safe from the man she was made for. They did not know that this was not to be, for they had not reckoned with the loyalty between brothers, the elder went to the younger’s aid and Bata would rise again like Osiris himself!

But that, my friends, is a story for another day!

Resources used:

“Egyptian Myths” George Hart
“Red Land, Black Land” Barbara Mertz
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley

This is the second part of a story called The Tale of the Two Brothers, which is known from a 19th Dynasty papyrus written by a scribe called Inena (or Ennana) – the first part is here: Weaving with Her Words a Cloth of Deceit, and the third part will be coming later! I have taken the plot from the sources above, and retold it in my own words.

Weaving with Her Words a Cloth of Deceit

Come! Listen! I shall tell you a tale from days gone by, of the brothers Anubis and Bata and of the woman who came between them.

And in those days the brothers lived well upon the bounty of the Nile. Anubis the elder was prosperous, with herds of fine cattle and wide lands to grow his grain. He had a beautiful wife, and a large house in which to live. Bata the younger was gifted by the gods: he was strong, he was handsome, he was a delight to the eye. He was blessed with understanding of the speech of cattle, and led them to good pasture so that they grew fat and multiplied. He tended his brother’s fields and brought Anubis the fruit of his labours as would a dutiful son. All was good, all was peaceful, all was in accordance with ma’at.

One day whilst sowing the grain upon the black earth the brothers realised they had insufficient seed for the fields, and so Bata returned to the house to fetch more. There he found that despite the lateness of the hour his brother’s wife had not yet finished getting ready for the day, and thus when he asked for more grain she instructed him to fetch it himself as she was occupied with her hair. Bata the strong, stronger than other men, carried out enough grain for the rest of the fields in a single load. His brother’s wife, hair only half tamed, cast her eyes upon him and marvelled at his strength. And at his fine physical form, as if she had never seen him before. And she forgot the duties of a wife to her husband, and loosened her hair to fall about her body as if she were still an unmarried girl.

“Bata! Bata the handsome! Bata the strong! Bata the virile! Come dally here a while with me!”

But Bata, strong Bata, handsome Bata, followed the path of ma’at in all things and was not tempted by this woman, the wife of his brother. And he became like a leopard in the fullness of his rage.

“Take your hands from me vile woman! You offend against ma’at, you who have been as a mother to me should not thus seek to lie with me. You who are the wife of my brother, who is as a father to me, should not thus loosen your hair. This is an abomination in the eyes of the gods!”

She retreated before his rage and as he did not wish to cause pain to the heart of Anubis his brother he bade her return to her household work. They would speak nothing of this to anyone. It would be as if it never had been.

And so he returned and tended the fields with his brother, speaking not of his brother’s wife and her lapse from righteous behaviour. Yet the wife of his brother could not, would not, did not believe that he would keep silent forever. Surely she needed always to be wary in case he exposed her infamy. Her shame and guilt fed upon each other and grew strong within her, and she resolved to ensure that she could not be so exposed.

Tending the Beasts in the Fields

At the end of the day Anubis to his house and his wife returned, while Bata went to gather the cattle and bring them to the stables, each in accordance with his usual custom. But what was this that Anubis found? The house in darkness, no fire for heat or light! No wife at the door to greet him with pure water to wash his hands! What had befallen his house whilst he was in the fields?

On her bed he found her, weeping piteously.
On her bed he found her, sick to the very stomach.
On her bed he found her, deep in distress.

And she poured forth a sorry tale, weaving with her words a cloth of deceit. An image of her own purity, innocence, adherence to the very essence of ma’at. An image of brother Bata as debaucher and abuser. Weeping she poured out her words with forked tongue, weeping she lied to save herself from the shame of that which she had done. Anubis heard her words with heavy heart, heart full of love for her, his wife. And he believed those wicked words of deceit, and he grew fierce and strong in his anger.

Snatching up his spear he left like the leopard seeking prey, and went to wait for his brother Bata.

When Bata, Bata the pure, Bata the upholder of ma’at, brought the cattle to the stable door the first cow to enter turned and said to him “Flee young Bata, flee! For your brother hides here with his spear!”. And the second likewise turned “Flee young Bata, flee! For your brother wishes you harm!”. And so the third also turned “Flee young Bata, flee! For your brother means to kill you this night!”.

And he turned. And he fled. Swift as the river he ran, swift as the falcon in the sky, swift as a desert lion. And after him ran Anubis, fierce in in rage, given speed by his anger. Bata cried out as he fled “Have I not always done that which is right in the sight of the gods? Grant me justice, Great God, I beg you!”.

And the Great God Re-Horakhty listened, and his heart was moved with pity for Bata, Bata the blessed, Bata the one of ma’at. Between the brothers opened up a vast expanse of water, to the left it stretched, to the right it stretched, and all along its length it rippled with the motion of crocodiles. Across the waters the brothers faced each other, one innocent and maligned, one full of rage inspired by deceit.

Night fell, the sun rose, and it was a new day.

And still the brothers faced each other across the waters. Bata began to speak, in anguish he told his brother the truth of that day, with his righteous speech he swept away the cloth of her deceit. “Why did you believe her, my brother? Have I not always been as a son to you? Have I not always upheld ma’at in your presence and in your absence? I call upon the gods to witness my truthfulness and my innocence!”. So saying he pulled out his knife and slicing off his member he flung it out into the waters, where from among the crocodiles rose a catfish to swallow it whole.

The veil fell from his eyes, the rage retreated from his heart, and Anubis saw the truth of his brother’s words. Deceived he had been, and now his brother was suffering. He resolved that she would die at his hand for this deceit and be flung amongst the dogs so that she would never come to the Field of Reeds, and he told his brother so and begged him to return. But Bata could no longer live where he had been so mistrusted and so abused. He too resolved to begin anew, to the Valley of Cedars he would go and would hide his heart at the top of the tallest of the pines there to keep it from the harms of the world, and he told his brother so. He bound Anubis with oaths, for if the tree were to fall Bata would die, and Anubis vowed to come to his aid to make restitution for his mistrust. And then the brothers parted, and each went to do as he said that he would.

But that, my friends, is a story for another day.

Resources used:

“Egyptian Myths” George Hart
“Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz
“Ancient Egyptian thought in the Old Testament” Lorna Oakes (Talk given to the Essex Egyptology Group on 4 August 2019, see my write up on my other blog.)
“Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley

This is the first part of a story called The Tale of the Two Brothers, which is known from a 19th Dynasty papyrus written by a scribe called Inena (or Ennana). I have taken the plot from the sources above, and retold it in my own words.

From His Own Mouth Condemned

Come! Listen! I shall tell you a tale of uncle contending with son over the estate of Osiris and the guile of a mother battling for her son!

And in those days after the great god Osiris had travelled to the Duat there was a need for a successor to his estate, a new ruler for the Two Lands. Horus, son of Osiris and his sister-wife Isis, was conceived after his father’s murder and was not yet of an age to lead men and administer justice in accordance with the precepts of ma’at. So Seth, brother and murderer of the great god Osiris, came to rule while Isis hid Horus in the marshes of Lower Egypt for fear of his uncle.

When the boy became a man, the thoughts of Horus and his mother Isis turned to claiming for him what was rightfully his. They travelled together to the great court of the gods, presided over by the great Re-Horakhty himself, and laid their case before the assembled gods for Seth to answer to. And great was the confusion and debate. Great were the arguments, proposals and counter proposals. For Seth was not willing to give up what he’d taken, and there were those amongst the council who preferred the known strength of the usurper to the untested wisdom of the rightful heir. To tell all the tales of this time would need a multitude of years, and we would all have joined with Osiris in our turn before I finished my story! Suffice it to say that Seth grew increasingly angry with the sympathy aroused by the wise & eloquent Isis, until his rage gushed forth like the floodwaters of the Nile.

“So long as that woman is present I, Seth, shall not be!”
“So long as that woman is present this case cannot end!”
“For each day that woman is present my wrath will only be sated by the death of one of you!”

And the great gods of the court bent like reeds in the wind before his mighty bellowing.

The great Re-Horakhty himself commanded that the court reconvene on an island in the midst of the river. The great Re-Horakhty himself commanded that Nemty the ferryman should convey no woman to this island.

But Isis the wise & eloquent was also Isis the powerful & cunning, and she was not to be denied so easily. She transformed herself into the form of an old woman, stooped under the weight of her years, carrying a bowl of gruel and wearing a single golden ring. And in this guise she came to the river, and to the boat of Nemty: “Come my child, carry me across the river! I go to bring my grandson his meal while he tends the family’s herds out on that island in the midst of the river.” But with the commands of the great Re-Horakhty himself and the bellowings of Seth ringing still in his ears the ferryman refused: “No, good mother, this cannot be. I am forbidden to carry any woman to that island, lest she be Isis whom Seth hates.” Undaunted Isis spoke persuasively of how unlikely it would be for a goddess to let herself been seen as an aged woman, and of how hungry the poor young herdsman would be if she couldn’t reach him. And as she spoke she let the golden ring on her wrinkled hand glisten and glimmer in the light of the sun, and the greed of Nemty reared its head. With his heart clouded by lust for the gold he permitted himself to be persuaded by the silken words of the wise & eloquent Isis and in payment for her crossing and his risk he took that glistening, glimmering ring.

On the island in the midst of the river sat the great gods of the court of Re-Horakhty at their meal, and with them sat Seth and Horus. And past them as they sat came a young peasant woman. Dressed simply in rough linen her beauty shone forth as radiant as the sun, but her face was clouded with care and with sorrow. Seth, heart full of desire, arose from his place and stopped the beautiful, sorrowful woman: “Why do you weep, oh beautiful one?”

She answered him thus: “Oh will you hear my tale and pass judgement, oh god great in knowledge of ma’at? I married a young herdsman and bore him a son. Our child grew strong, our herds increased and all was well in our lives. But now my husband is dead and all is full of despair! Though of an age to inherit my son is still young, and a man of the village has seen an opportunity. He threatens my son with violence, he wishes to take our cattle and our house, saying my son is not strong enough to stop him! How do you judge this case, oh god great in knowledge of ma’at?”

On hearing this story Seth, impetuous Seth, heart clouded with desire cried forth indignantly: “Can it ever be right to give a dead man’s cattle to a stranger when that man’s son yet lives?”

And Isis, for it was she, gave a great shriek of triumph and flung herself into the air as a falcon! “Condemned by your own words, brother Seth, you pass judgement on yourself! Horus son of Osiris yet lives, he must have his inheritance!” And Seth fled in tears at his own foolishness.

From his own mouth condemned Seth went once more before the great god Re-Horakhty himself and all the assembled court of the great gods, and now he found no supporters. From his own mouth condemned Seth was judged and bound to give up his throne to Horus, son of Osiris and rightful heir. From his own mouth condemned, yet not willing to submit, Seth cursed at the treachery of his sister Isis – but that, my friends, is a story for another day.

The next part of the story is here: Weep Not for Horus!

Resources used:

“Egyptian Myths” George Hart
“The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends” Garry J. Shaw
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley

This is one episode from “The Contendings of Seth & Horus”, a long narrative about the legal (and sometimes physical) battle between Seth and Horus for the kingship of Egypt. I’ve taken the basic story from the sources above, then retold the story in my own words.

How Everything Became

Come! Listen! I will tell you a tale of before. Before now and before the time of our fathers. Before Pharaoh and before the Two Lands. Before the inundation and before the Nile. Before the gods and before time itself.


Had there been eye to see there would have been nothing to see. All that was were the still, dark waters stretching far, far around. The waters were Nun and Naunet. And in their infinity the waters were Huh and Hauhet. In their darkness the waters were Kuk and Kauket. And in their hiddenness the waters were Amun and Amaunet. There was no time and no change, no life and no motion, that which was was that which had been, and that to come was that which was.

Listen now to how everything became!

The hidden one, Amun, stirred within the vast limitless waters pregnant with possibility. He spoke words into the silence. He cried out while all around was in stillness! And the seed of order concealed with the vast and limitless chaos was hidden no more. The egg inside which was the spark of life was revealed to him. He looked upon it and with the creative energy of Ptah he caused the egg to crack open and life to burst forth.

Now there was change where once there was stillness!

The first land rose in a great mound, separating itself from the vast deep waters. Land rose up out of Nun like the land after the inundation. Rich, black, fertile land and on that land a lotus bud solitary in its perfection. As it emerged from the waters the bud opened, and on that perfect flower sat Atum who shone upon the land as the sun shines upon us.

Solitary Atum was, upon the new land that Amun had caused to be. Although there was change there was not yet time, yet nonetheless Atum grew lonely and desired companionship. And so he took himself in hand and spilled his seed upon the land. From that divine first seed were born the twins Shu and Tefnut. Tefnut of moisture, of order, of eternity. Shu of the air and of the cycles of time. And so the one of Atum became three, and time began.

With the passage of time Shu and Tefnut grew and became close, and they knew each other as husband and wife. From their union was born Geb, he of the fertile earth, and Nut, she of the sky. And in the manner of their parents brother loved sister and sister loved brother. Their children were manifold and clustered around Nut shining as the stars in the sky. Yet this joyous state was not to last, for Nut turned upon her children as a sow will sometimes turn upon her piglets, and she swallowed them down. The fury of Geb, her brother, their father, was like the rumbling of an earthquake and Nut fled before it stretching herself across the upper limits of the world to escape. Their father Shu saw what had happened and put himself between them, he of the air kept them apart from one another. And thus was born the world as we live in it with the sky above, the air between and the land beneath it all. Each night Nut swallows the sun and gives birth to her children, and each morning she turns on her children and gives birth once more to the sun. Thus is the cycle of our days.

And the days rolled on, one after another, every one new and yet every one the same. As time passed Geb and Nut became reconciled, and they conceived more children. These were not stars for Nut to swallow, they were gods who would walk amongst men and rule over them. But their story, my friends, is a tale for another day.

Resources used:

“The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends” Garry J. Shaw
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley

The creation myth of the Ancient Egyptians comes in many variants around some common themes, and isn’t written down as a coherent story in the sources. I’ve taken bits and pieces of the imagery that Shaw & Tyldesley discuss and stitched them into a narrative that follows the basic scheme, telling the story in my own words.

The Draught of Her Wings was the Breath of Life in His Nose

Come! Listen! Let me tell you a tale of days gone by, of brother murdering brother and of the grief of a sister weeping for her husband.

And in those days Osiris son of Geb ruled over mankind as their king with his consort, his sister-wife Isis, by his side. Their rule was just and upheld the proper order of things. Their rule was wise and men learnt to plant wheat and barley as the flood waters dwindled and to reap grain for food. Their rule was good and brought peace, prosperity and plenty to the lives of men. And when all was in order in his lands Osiris went forth from the banks of the Nile to spread his wisdom and peace amongst those who dwell far from the bounty of the river, leaving his sister-wife the beautiful Isis to rule as if she were himself.

There was but one scorpion in this house of peace & prosperity, and that was Seth. Seth the brother of Osiris, Seth the second son of Geb, Seth the angry who punched his way out of the side of his mother Nut. Where others saw virtue, Seth saw dullness and compared it unfavourably to his own brilliance. Where others saw justness, Seth saw weakness and compared it unfavourably to his own strength. And he brooded on this both alone and with his companions, until his twisted heart came up with a way to shine in the eyes of others as he shone in his own.

When Osiris returned to the banks of the Nile there was much rejoicing amongst the people of the land. He travelled the length of the Nile and all houses were open to him and much cattle was slaughtered for feasting and celebration. And when he came to the place of Seth, his brother, even there was provided a large and joyful meal. And Seth and Osiris and 72 of Seth’s closest companions sat long at the table, drinking and making merry. At the climax of the day as the sun retreated behind the hills of the west Seth commanded a chest to be brought to the banquet. Such a chest as you never have seen, made of the finest cedar wood new from the city of Byblos, coated in gold and studded with jewels. And all the assembled were amazed and awed by this, the most beautiful of chests.

“Let he who fits the chest have it to keep!” pronounced Seth, and one by one his companions tried it. One was too short, and the next too tall. Another too great in girth, and the next too small. And so it went through each and every one of the 72 companions of Seth, until only Osiris was left to try. Osiris now befuddled with strong wine, Osiris forgetting the enmity his brother Seth bore him, Osiris full of desire for this most magnificent chest. He climbed in and lay down and it fit like it had been made to his measure, for that was indeed what his brother Seth had done. And Seth’s twisted heart grew full and heavy with triumph.

Quickly, quickly, before the great Osiris arose the chest lid was slammed shut. Quickly, quickly, before the great Osiris arose the chest lid was bolted. Quickly, quickly, before the great Osiris arose the chest was sealed up with molten metal.

Osiris, son of Geb, the ruler of the Two Lands was dead, and the chest his coffin.

And the coffin was cast upon the Nile to float downstream, far from the land and far from those who would mourn him.

Seth now was in no-one’s shadow, his light not diminished by the brighter one beside him. But he had reckoned without Isis, his sister, the wife of his brother. Isis the beautiful, Isis the wise, whose grief when she heard was inconsolable. She cut her hair in mourning and went through the land from the source of the waters to the Great Green itself searching for the lost body of her lord. Even beyond the lands of the Nile did she go, finally finding the chest in the city of Byblos. Heart full with grief she returned with her dead husband, her dead brother, the great Osiris, to give him a burial as befitted the king and god that he was.

A wooden statue of the goddess Isis with her hands in front of her face in an attitude of mourning.

But Seth heard of this and angry that even in death Osiris would out shine him he was determined to prevent it. He found where Isis had hidden his brother’s remains and tore open the chest, and in his fury tore up the body of the great Osiris. Then he went through the whole of the land scattering the pieces of his brother as he went. When Isis saw what he had done her fury blazed with the heat of the desert. Even Nephthys, her sister, the wife of Seth was shocked by this outrage against all proper order. As falcons the sisters flew throughout the land seeking the remains of their dead brother. Each piece as they found it they mourned, and built for it a tomb.

Then once they had collected all that they could the pieces were placed back together to give form to the dead king once more. Only one part was missing, and for all that they searched the phallus of Osiris was lost, swallowed up by the greedy Nile perch and never to be found. In order that Osiris, her brother, her husband, should be complete for eternity Isis the wise fashioned for him a new phallus.

Then in her falcon form Isis called upon all of the gods to aid her and the draught of her wings was the breath of life in his nose.

She copulated then with her resurrected brother and she conceived of a son. But Osiris now burgeoning with new life was nonetheless no longer to live in the realm of mortal men, his time as their ruler was over, the light of his sun had set behind the hills of the west. He was buried with all the rites that should be performed for a king and came to the Duat, there to rule over the reborn dead as their king for eternity.

And Isis was left to guard their son Horus, as Seth’s heart grew ever more twisted. But that, my friends, is a story for a different day.

Resources used:

“The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends” Garry J. Shaw
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley

For the plot of the legend I mostly followed Plutarch’s version as described in both Shaw & Tydesley’s books, and then retold it in my own style combining Egyptian imagery with my own cultural references. Plutarch may have the most complete form of the myth that we have from ancient sources, but he does include several parts that are not corroborated by older more purely Egyptian sources – including the chest, however I liked that imagery so have kept it in the story. I did skip the dead baby prince of Byblos subplot, though, as that seemed to’ve wandered in from a completely different mythos!

And She Blew Through the Towns Like the Hot Desert Wind

Come! Listen! I shall tell you a tale from days long ago, so long ago that not only was it before your mother was born, but also before the birth of her mother and her mother’s mother too.

And in those days the gods lived amongst men, and there was not the separation that there is now. Re ruled over the towns of mankind and the greatest of men was to Re as the meanest peasant is to our own Pharaoh. For many long years there was peace & plenty: the flood waters rose, the harvests ripened and the people grew fat off the land. But even Re himself is not immune to the passage of time and the god became old, his bones turned to silver, his flesh to gold and his hair to the bluest of lapis lazuli. The ageing of a god is not like that of mortal man, yet still the people murmured amongst themselves. “He is too old to rule!” “He is surely weak and cannot protect us!” and other such lies & calumnies.

So it came to pass that mortal men plotted and schemed amongst themselves and rose up against Re, pursuing rebellion even at the the gates of his palace walls. And fearsome was his wrath and the people fled before him, fleeing into the desert. Yet Re was not satisfied with this terror and fearing that the people would rise up again he took secret council amongst the oldest of gods. Nun, the chief amongst them, advised his king that there would be no peace until the rebellious ones were destroyed. So Re called his daughter, his Eye, to attend him: “Hathor, come! I have a task for you”. On hearing the insult done to her father, Hathor too became full of rage and gladly accepted his commandment. In her rage she took on her most terrible aspect, Sekhmet, She Who Is Powerful, the lioness of the desert. And she armed herself with plague and with pestilence and took up her bow. First to the desert she went, and there she slew those who had fled. But her wrath was not yet sated; she turned towards the river.

And she blew through the towns like the hot desert wind.

Statue of the goddess Sekhmet

Where she looked, men sickened. Where she walked, men were injured. The arrows she shot met their marks, and the people died of wounds, and of sickness. Death stalked through the land in her wake and the bodies lay thick on the ground. The river ran red with blood, and as the day drew to a close Sekhmet returned to Re. Her muzzle red with the blood of mortal men she proclaimed to Re “I have begun my task, and I find it pleases me! The mortals shall trouble you no further for tomorrow I shall bring all to an end”.

As Sekhmet rested to gather her strength, Re found that he was troubled. Not all men had rebelled, and those wrongdoers were long since dead. His anger had faded, his thirst for vengeance satisfied, and he was moved to protect what remained of his creation for those men still alive had done him no wrong. But he knew Sekhmet would not be so easily turned aside now that she had tasted blood. So Re ordered his servants to fetch him many barrels of beer, and he ordered his servants to bring vast quantities of red ochre. And they mixed the ochre into the beer until it was the colour of blood, and poured it out on the fields by the river where Sekhmet would pass by in the morning.

And when she went forth she saw this pool, this glistening pool, this deep red blood-coloured pool, and she could not resist drinking for she had a taste for the blood of men. The goddess drank, she drank deep, and she drank until the fields were dry.

And when she had finished, the beer had done its work and cat-like she curled up where she was and she slept the sleep of the drunk. In her sleep a change took place and she rose as Hathor once more, her thirst quenched and the fire of her fury diminished. And she returned to the side of her father.

But Re was no longer content to remain amongst men, for he feared that this cycle would return again and again as he grew older and men grew more restless. And so he resolved to leave this world behind him. He designated a Pharaoh, a Son of Re to rule in his place and he ascended to the heavens on the back of Nut, she of the sky.

And that, my friends, is why the gods no longer walk among us as they once did.

Resources used:

“The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods & Legends” Garry Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson
“Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley

I took the plot of the legend from “The Destruction of Mankind” which is part of the New Kingdom royal funerary text “The Book of the Cow of Heaven”, as described in both Tyldesley & Shaw’s books. I have then retold it in my own style combining Egyptian imagery (in particular that associated with Sekhmet) with my own cultural references.