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.

Two Legs Good, Four Legs Bad

Hippopotami lived in the Nile at least until the time of the New Kingdom. At some point after that they vanish, but by then they are an integral part of Egyptian culture. They are integrated into the writing system – hieroglyph E25 in Gardiner’s list looks like a hippo, and has the sound “deb”. They feature in the tales of later Egyptians about their predecessors too – the Egyptian historian Manetho (who lived around the 3rd Century BCE) wrote that Narmer (the first king of a unified Egypt) was “carried off by a hippo and perished”! Of course this is almost certainly fiction – Joann Fletcher, in whose book I found this quote, says it might be true but I’m reminded far too much of the purported death of Romulus the founder of Rome. He’s supposed to’ve been swept up by a whirlwind and perished, body never to be found. So this feels like a death story that gets attached to semi-mythical kings to make them seem more mysterious.

The reality of the hippopotamus is that it was dangerous and destructive – in particular male hippos were regarded this way and thus associated with the god Seth. In fact the two most dangerous animals that the Egyptians faced in their environment were the crocodile and the hippopotamus, due to their size and strength. Both these animals could move (and attack) both in water and on land, so nowhere was safe from them. In the case of the hippopotamus they also trampled and ate the Egyptian’s crops (and some authors like Richard Wilkinson think that they were feared more for this than any aggression towards humans).

The Egyptians didn’t just let this dangerous beast roam about and destroy their food – there’s evidence for the hunting of hippos dating back to Prehistoric times. Early farmers who lived by the banks of the Faiyum around 5000-4000 BCE butchered hippos for food – a single hippo has as much meat as 5 cows or 50 sheep, so there’s quite a lot of good eating there, you could have a spectacular feast or feed a community for a while after a single hunt. Hippo bones also show up as a structural material in the north of the country at Merimda in the Delta, where hippo shin bones were used as door sills around 4800 BCE, as well as other bones being used as pillars to hold up house roofs. Hippo teeth were also used to make ivory objects from at least Predynastic times. (Technically the word “ivory” only refers to the material of elephant tusks, but in practice its use is broader and includes dentine from other large mammals such as the hippo.) It’s hard to tell which ivory objects were made from elephant tusks and which from hippo teeth, but the shape of the finished object can give some indications. For instance the shape of wands and clappers reflects the shape of the lower canines of hippopotami, whereas circular boxes are the shape of the hollow ends of elephant tusks.

As you’d expect for a creature that was so visible in the Ancient Egyptian landscape hippopotami are a common feature in art. Hippos feature on pots from at least the Predynastic Period onward often as herds or being hunted. Even in the earliest examples known of hippo hunting scenes one of the hippos will usually be shown being harpooned – Diana Craig Patch suggests that this may be intended as protective: invoking success in decorative art in order to ensure success in life. This art is not confined to pottery, even in the Predynastic Period – there is a painted cloth which was found in a grave at Gebelein that has a fragmentary hippo hunting scene on it. And there are figurines found from the Predynastic Period as well as later in the Early Dynastic Period where figurines are found in temple deposits including the well known Main Deposit at Hierakonpolis. There are also two known examples of larger limestone statues of hippos dating to the Early Dynastic Period, which may’ve been cult statues placed in shrines to be propitiated with offerings to ward off danger from hippopotami in daily life.

So far I’ve mostly talked about practical attitudes towards hippos until that last paragraph, but much of this art and much of Ancient Egyptian thinking about hippopotami would’ve had religious significance. Even tho in the modern world we think of religion as a separate domain to the rest of life we shouldn’t forget that in other cultures religion and the everyday are deeply intertwined. But I do want to first say that we need to be rather cautious about back-porting any meanings from a period where we have written texts to earlier art. Cultures in the past are no more a monolith than our own, and over time the meanings and symbolism of art motifs will inevitably change. Nonetheless even with that caveat we can see that there might be themes that begin during Predynastic times and last into later Egyptian times.

One of the themes that runs through Egyptian art involving hippos is that of control – for instance a bowl with a motif of hippos swimming in a circle can be seen as keeping the hippos under control and not allowing them to escape the bowl (or by extension their own natural place in the world). And the common scene in Old Kingdom nobles tombs of a hippo hunt is not just (or perhaps not at all) showing what might’ve happened in life, instead it’s about keeping control in the afterlife. Even the rather jolly-looking (to our eyes) blue faience figures of hippos from the Middle Kingdom like the one in my photo might be a manifestation of this theme. Richard Wilkinson suggests that the floral decorative motifs on these pieces are a magical method of keeping the hippo in its proper environment (other authors disagree, which I’ll come back to later).

Standing Faience Hippopotamus

And in Pharaonic Egypt hippo hunting scenes in a royal context had another extra layer of symbolism – not just general themes of imposing order on the chaos of a hippo but also the defeat of Seth by Horus and thus an important part of the religious iconography of kingship. There are hints that this may have its roots in a much earlier time – like a piece of Naqada I-II period art where the hippo hunter wears a bull’s tail. Now in Pharaonic Egypt a bull’s tail was only worn by the king, so one could interpret this as a king killing a hippo and thus an early precursor of the Horus defeating Seth symbolism … but there’s not enough evidence to be at all sure of that, we don’t even know the bull’s tail is an indication that this man is a king let alone the religious underpinnings of the image.

Indeed there’s still no evidence of a link between Seth and the hippo in the 1st Dynasty, even though there are pieces of evidence of royal hippo hunts having some greater significance than the purely practical. But later, the god and the animal are definitely linked. In the Contendings of Horus and Seth, which as a full story survives in a single copy from the 20th Dynasty (although the motifs and episodes from the story show up much earlier as well as later albeit not in a single coherent story), there are two episodes where Seth becomes a hippo – in both he is harpooned, once by Isis who lets him free when he pleads for his life (much to Horus’s disgust) and once by Horus, in an act which brings the contendings to their final conclusion with Horus gaining (at last!) his rightful throne & inheritance. This second episode is also illustrated on the walls of Edfu temple – a Ptolemaic structure – and there was a festival celebrated at this temple that re-enacted the killing (not, I think, with a real hippo – it’s a donkey that’s sacrificed).

So hippos in ancient Egypt were mad, bad and dangerous to know? Not exactly – as so often in Egyptian culture there were two sides to the idea of the hippo. Male hippos might be associated with Seth, but female hippos had a more benign symbolism and were associated with the goddess Taweret (amongst others). Taweret was a household deity who was a protector of women in childbirth. She was a composite creature – she has the body of a female hippo, with the breasts and full belly of a pregnant human, the legs & arms of a lion and the tail of a crocodile (or sometimes a whole crocodile sitting on her back). She stands on her hind legs, and often has one of her forepaws resting on a sa sign (which means protection) or an ankh (for life). She may also carry a knife, or fire, to fight off evil and those who mean the mother-to-be harm. Female hippos had this association with motherhood as they were thought of as being especially protective of their young. Just to be clear – this beneficial and more benign aspect to female hippos wasn’t because they were thought of as any less destructive than male hippos, it’s just that the destructive power was seen as being turned on those who meant one harm. Which is an interesting contrast to modern Western notions of motherhood which emphasise the nurturing rather more than the protective aspects … and the contrast between our culture’s patron saint of childbirth Saint Margaret (who escapes the belly of a dragon because of a miracle she doesn’t really play a part in) and the rather more proactive Taweret is quite striking!

The hippo may also be a more general fertility and regenerative symbol. This is the more common interpretation of the blue faience hippos like the one in my illustration – rather than a control motif. In this interpretation the vegetative decoration is about verdant new life and so in a funerary context (which it’s assumed these are from) it would be a symbol of rebirth into the afterlife. There’s also a hippo-headed bed, which was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, which may fall into this category of symbolising rebirth. Much earlier from the Predynastic Period there are some small hippo figurines which may be amulets – they have a small knob where they might be strung on a thong to wear on one’s person. If they are amulets then that implies a positive interpretation. And these figurines all have distended pregnant looking bellies (unlike other hippo representations of the time), which implies an association with fertility (perhaps even a proto-Taweret, but that’s a stretch).

Hippos therefore played a variety of roles in the symbolism and thinking of ancient Egyptians and you might think this would get confusing when interpreting any given instance. However in “Reading Egyptian Art” Richard Wilkinson suggests an easy way to tell them apart: in the majority of cases a hippo standing like a human is positive, one standing on all fours like a hippo is malevolent (most of the exceptions to this are in my last paragraph). Or, to re-work Orwell’s phrase: Two legs good, four legs bad!


Resources used:

Fletcher, Joann. The Story of Egypt. Hodder, 2016.
Patch, Diana Craig. ‘Early Dynastic Art’. In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. New York : New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press, 2011.
———. ‘From Land to Landscape’. In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. New York : New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press, 2011.
Romer, John. From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid. A History of Ancient Egypt 1. London: Penguin, 2013.
———. From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom. A History of Ancient Egypt 2. Penguin, 2016.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. Rev. and Expanded ed. London: British Museum, 2008.
The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 2007.
Tyldesley, Joyce. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt. London, England: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2010.
Wilkinson, Richard H. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. 1. paperback ed. 1994. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994.
———. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003.
Wilkinson, Toby A. H. Early Dynastic Egypt. London: Routledge, 2001.

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.

The Two Lords are at Peace in Him

History gets divided up into epochs with hindsight, which makes it easier to understand and remember but doesn’t always reflect how it would’ve seemed to the people who lived through it. The high level narrative we have for early Egyptian history is pretty straightforward – Narmer unifies the two kingdoms under one ruler, there are then the rulers of the Early Dynastic Period. This is followed by a transition to the Old Kingdom, which ends with a collapse into the disunity and chaos of the First Intermediate Period after nearly a thousand years of unified stability. Of course once you begin to look more closely at the evidence there are signs that it wasn’t as straightforward nor as peaceful as that narrative would suggest. For instance there’s a period where it looks like Egypt began to fragment, long before the First Intermediate Period, but the process is halted by a re-assertion of royal control across the whole country.

This hiccup doesn’t happen quite where you might think, either. Just looking at the narrative I’d expect any discontinuity to happen just before the Old Kingdom – in the same way that the Middle Kingdom or New Kingdom start with a reunification of Egypt. Instead it is the last ruler of the Second Dynasty who re-asserts royal power across the whole of Egypt. So this reunifying ruler is either a person before or whole dynasty (plus a person) before the start of the Old Kingdom, depending on whether one puts the Third Dynasty into the Early Dynastic Period or the Old Kingdom.

The whole period is rather murky and it’s hard to figure out what actually happened. Not only is it a very long time ago (around 4.5 thousand years ago) so most surviving inscriptions are short cryptic fragments, but the Egyptians also had a habit of not writing down bad things. If writing fixes something for eternity, then it makes sense to only record favourable events but that really doesn’t help later historians! So the evidence is also tangential, and not all scholars agree – for instance in his book “A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid” John Romer pours a certain amount of scorn on the idea of civil war during the Second Dynasty (although he doesn’t propose an alternative explanation as far as I could see).

Later king lists are fairly consistent in their lists of First Dynasty & Third Dynasty rulers, but the middle of the Second Dynasty has a lot of variation. This might suggest that there were differing viewpoints on which rulers were legitimate and which were rebels. There’s also a sudden oddity in the royal iconography. During this period rulers are generally referred to in inscriptions by their “Horus name“, which is written inside a schematic drawing of a palace facade (called a serekh) with a falcon (Horus) sitting on top of it. But there is one king whose name, Peribsen, is written inside a serekh with the Seth animal sitting on top of it. His successor, Khasekhem, writes his name in the traditional Horus topped serekh. Later in his reign he changes his name to Khasekhemwy and writes it in a serekh topped with both Horus and Seth together. Some scholars see this as evidence of a split in the country with a Seth faction and a Horus faction, and suggest this might be a historical seed from which the later myths of Horus and Seth fighting over the throne grew. Others (including Romer) think that’s a rather literal interpretation, and that perhaps it was just an attempted rebranding of the monarchy (I paraphrase). Personally I’m inclined to think that changes in iconography (or indeed branding) tend to mean something and combining the two symbols sends a message of unification. And you only need to make a propaganda point about that if it wasn’t unified before. Much like Henry VII’s use of the Tudor rose to combine emblems of the warring York & Lancaster factions in late 15th Century CE England.

Statue base, with feet of statue and Khasekhemwy's name in a serekh in front of the feet and dead enemies below.
Base of a statue of Khasekhemwy from the Main Deposit at Hierakonpolis showing his name in a serekh at his feet and his dead enemies beneath

The name change of Khasekhemwy is also indicative of some sort of conflict. He starts off as Khasekhem which means “the power has appeared”, and inscriptions with this name are primarily found in Hierakonpolis. After he changes his name inscriptions are found more widely across the country and the new name, Khasekhemwy, means “the two powers have appeared”. He also added an epithet to his name of “the Two Lords are at peace in him”. All of which suggests that he started off a more regional power in Upper Egypt and then unified the two lands again.

Further supporting evidence comes from inscriptions on two statues of Khasekhemwy, and on some stone vessels found in his tomb. The statues show the king seated wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt, and round the base are carved contorted bodies of slain enemies. The inscription on the statues gives the number of “northern enemies” who were killed. The stone vessels show the Upper Egyptian vulture goddess Nekhbet standing on a ring containing the word “rebel” with an inscription that reads “the year of fighting the northern enemy”. Again it’s tangential evidence – the northern enemies needn’t be in Egypt, after all – but it’s another piece of the jigsaw.

To counterbalance all of this there is the fact that Khasekhemwy wasn’t remembered by later Egyptians as one of the great unifiers of the Two Lands. When Montuhotep II does it some 600 years later to found the Middle Kingdom he’s remembered as a second Narmer, and Ahmose I is also venerated for reunifying the country to begin the New Kingdom. So this perhaps suggests that there was no civil war, and Khasekhemwy did nothing as impressive as the other unifiers. Or maybe Khasekhemwy was just overshadowed by his son Djoser whose tangible and visible construction of the first monumental stone building outweighs the political reunification of Egypt in the memory of the people.


Resources used:

“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid” John Romer
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw
“Early Dynastic Egypt” Toby A. H. Wilkinson
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

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.
Isis

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!