The Betrayer god: Set
Set was the Egyptian god of war, chaos, and storms, brother of Osiris, Isis, and Horus the Elder, uncle to Horus the Younger, and brother-husband to Nephthys. He is one of the first five gods created by the union of the goddess of the earth Geb and god of the sky Nut after the creation of the world.
He is sometimes depicted as a red-haired beast with a forked tail and cloven hooves or a shaggy red dog-like beast known as a sha or set animal, his other symbols were the griffin, hippopotamus, crocodile, serpent, and tortoise. His titles include “Lord of the Desert” and “Ruler of the South” as he was originally a god of barren lands beyond Egypt’s borders.
By the time of the New Kingdom, he came to be best known as the first murderer, who killed his older brother Osiris to reign over the world and then tried to murder Osiris’ son Horus.
Mythical Origins & the Murder of Osiris
As the first child of Geb and Nut Osiris was elevated as ruler of the world which, to the Egyptians, meant the land of Egypt. Osiris found the newly-created people to be barbarous and uncivilized and so gave them culture, taught them agriculture, provided them with laws, and instructed them in the proper ways to worship the gods. Osiris took his sister Isis as his wife, and she bestowed on humans her gifts of compassion and equality for all. The world was a paradise where everyone, man and woman, was equal under the reign of the royal couple, food was abundant, and no one suffered any want. Set grew jealous of Osiris’ power and resented his success. His resentment grew more bitter after his wife Nephthys, attracted by Osiris’ beauty, disguised herself as Isis and seduced the great king, and conceived the god Anubis.
Set decided to kill his brother and had a magnificent casket created, tailored to Osiris’ exact measurements. He threw a grand party, to which Osiris was invited, and after the banquet told the guests he had a special surprise. He revealed the chest and said that whoever could fit almost perfectly inside could take it home. One by one the guests climbed into the casket but could not fit until Osiris’ turn came. He lay down in the casket and found, of course, that it fit him perfectly. Set then slammed the lid on and threw the casket into the Nile River thereby drowning Osiris.
The casket with Osiris’ body inside floated down the Nile and out to sea, finally coming to the shores of Byblos in Phoenicia, where it lodged in a tamarisk tree. The tree grew quickly around it, encasing it, and Osiris was lost to the people of Egypt. In time, the king and queen of Byblos came to the shore and noticed the beauty of the tree and its sweet scent and had it cut down and brought to their court as a central pillar. Back in Egypt, Set took the throne, and the harmonious balance was lost. Set was a chaotic and unpredictable monarch who brought storms and drought and the people turned on each other in their efforts to survive.
Isis went in search of her missing husband and finally came to Byblos where she endeared herself to the king and queen and became nursemaid to their young sons. As usual, when Isis walked among human beings, she was disguised as an elder woman. She retrieved the tree and freed Osiris from the tree and brought him back to Egypt, where she hid his body in the swampy marshes of the Nile Delta while she went off to gather herbs to revive him. Worried that Set might discover the body, she asked her sister Nephthys to keep watch. Set, in the meantime, heard that Osiris had returned to Egypt and went searching for him. He found Nephthys and tricked her into revealing where the body was hidden. Set then chopped the body into pieces and flung the parts all across the land and into the river. When Isis returned, a tearful Nephthys told her what had happened, and together they went looking for the body parts to reassemble them. Once Isis had put Osiris back together, she found he was incomplete. His penis had been eaten by a fish and could not be retrieved. Isis was still able to return her husband to life but, since Osiris was incomplete, he could no longer rule over the living and would have to descend to the underworld. Isis transformed herself into a falcon and flew around his body, drawing his seed into her body and becoming pregnant with the god Horus the younger. Osiris then went to the underworld where he became Lord of the Dead and the judge of souls.
The battle of Horus & Set
Horus and Set both presented their cases and had to prove themselves in a series of contests and battles which were all won by Horus who, in the end, was proclaimed king. There are other stories and legends concerning Horus’ youth and Isis’ care for him, and when he had matured he challenged his uncle for the throne. In some versions of the story, Horus battles Set, defeats him, and drives him from the land, while in others Set is killed. The battle of Horus and Set depicts these battles as contests ordered by the gods. The majority of the nine gods presiding decided that Horus was the rightful king but Ra, the sun god was not convinced, and the decision had to be unanimous. Ra believed that Horus was too young and had led too sheltered a life to effectively rule while Set had proven himself a capable if uneven, monarch. Even though Horus won every contest against his uncle, Ra would not be moved. This trial went on for over 80 years while the people of Egypt suffered under Set’s chaotic reign.
Isis understood that she would have to intervene for the good of the people and so transformed herself into a young woman and sat down outside of Set’s palace where he would have to pass by her. She cried and cried until her cheeks were red and streaked with tears when Set, walking by, saw her and asked what the matter was, she told him how a wicked man, her husband’s own brother, had murdered him and taken his land and flocks, and how she and her son had been driven from their inheritance, and further how the evil man now even sought her son’s life.
Set was deeply moved by her story and became enraged. He swore that he himself would destroy the criminal and restore the land to the poor woman and her son. Isis then revealed herself and the presence of the listening gods. Ra was convinced at last that Horus should rule, and Set was driven from the Nile Valley to the desert wastelands. Horus then became king of the world with Isis as his consort and ruled wisely as his father had before him. The order was restored to the land, and the equality of the people was renewed.