The Egyptian myth The Contendings of Horus
and Seth recounts the conﬂict between two Egyptian gods, Horus and Seth. In ancient Egypt, Horus was a solar deity, and Seth, his uncle, was the god of the desert wastes.
Evidence dating to the late Old Kingdom (c. 2404–2191 B.C.E.) suggests that the two gods were originally peers and brothers. In the earliest tellings, two key mutilations took place: Horus lost an eye and Seth lost his testicles. The former was of primary importance, as it symbolized kingly power. The Egyptians saw the conﬂict between these two gods as a deﬁning moment for humankind, in which conﬂict itself entered the universe — before Horus and Seth injured each other, there was no anger, shouting, conﬂict, or confusion.
The single most elaborate and cohesive narrative of the events that make up The Contendings of Horus and Seth can be found in Papyrus Chester Beatty I, which is the collection of antiquities that were the property of the Irish mining magnate Sir Alfred Chester Beatty. The details of the text demonstrate one form that the story had taken by the reign of Ramses V (1160–1156 B.C.E.). The details of this account follow.
Horus went before the sun god Re-Horakhty to claim the ofﬁce of his late father, Osiris, king of Egypt. Most members of the ennead, which was a group of nine gods, and Thoth, god of wisdom, supported Horus’s claim, but Re-Horakhty was angry with them. The sun god preferred to give the kingship to Seth, Osiris’s brother, who was a grown man and stronger than young Horus. The Re-Horakhty summoned two gods, Ptah and the ram god Banebdjet. Banebdjet suggested that a letter be written asking the goddess Neith what to do about the matter.
Neith replied that if Horus was not made king, she would crash the sky to the ground. She explained that Seth should be given double his current possessions as well as the goddesses Anat and Astarte (daughters of Re-Horakhty) as his wives. This reply enraged Re-Horakhty, who called Horus weak and too small for the kingship.
When one of the other gods insulted ReHorakhty, he retired to his tent and lay alone for a day. The goddess Hathor, in an attempt tocheer him up, approached her father and stripped off her clothes. Amused by his daughter, Re-Horakhty recovered his mood and summoned the gods once again. He called upon Horus and Seth to speak for themselves.
Seth’s Claim to the Throne
Seth claimed to be strongest of the gods. He asserted that only he could slay the enemies of the sun as the solar barque, the sun’s boat, traveled through the netherworld each night, and so he deserved to be king. This convinced the ennead and Banebdjet, but Thoth and another god protested that the ofﬁce held by the father must be given to the son. Isis also protested. The ennead promised that justice would be done.Angered, Seth threatened to slay them all with a 4,500-pound scepter. Re-Horakhty decided to withdraw the court to the Island-in-theMidst and barred Isis from the proceedings. In the guise of an old woman, Isis bribed a ferryman to take her across to the island. Once there,she turned herself into a beautiful young woman who caught Seth’s eye. She explained to the god that she was a widow whose son tended the cattle of his late father. She told Seththat a stranger had entered their stall and wasthreatening to beat her son and claim the cattle. Seth was outraged and undoubtedly wished to win the favor of this beautiful young woman. He proclaimed, “Should the cattle be given to astranger when a man’s son is present?” The Egyptian words for cattle and ofﬁce are homonyms, so Isis had tricked Seth into proclaiming that Horus deserved the kingship.
Isis took the form of a kite and proclaimed victory, while Seth lamented that Isis had tricked him into saying such a thing. By now, even Re-Horakhty had lost sympathy for Seth and proclaimed that the crown should be awarded to Horus. But again, Seth protested. Re-Horakhty capitulated, agreeing to Seth’s suggestion of a series of contests between the candidates.
In the ﬁrst contest, Seth and Horus transformed into hippopotamuses. They were to remain submerged for as long as possible, and the ﬁrst to surface would lose the trial. Afraid for Horus, Isis made a harpoon and tried to catch Seth but stabbed (and released) Horus on her ﬁrst attempt. When she did catch Seth, he called out that he was Horus. Overcome with pity, Isis released him. Horus, outraged by his mother’s action, cut off her head and carried it into the mountains, where Isis transformed herself into a headless statue. News of all this enraged Re-Horakhty, and he ordered the ennead to punish Horus severely.
Later, Seth found Horus at an oasis. The stronger god tore out Horus’s eyes and buried them in the mountain, where they grew into lotuses. Seth then returned to Re-Horakhty, claiming not to have found the young god. In the meantime, Hathor had come across the injured youth and healed his eyes. The rivals
returned to Re-Horakhty, who had tired of the bickering. He demanded that everyone dine together and make peace.
But the battle did not cease there. Seth invited Horus for a feast. That night, as Horus slept at Seth’s house, his uncle attempted to impregnate him. Horus caught the semen in his hand and took it home to show Isis. Frightened, Isis severed Horus’s hand, threw it into the water, and fashioned a replacement for his lost hand. She then manually aroused Horus, put the resulting semen in a pot, and took it to Seth’s garden to pour onto the lettuce growing there, knowing that Seth would eat it for his breakfast.
Seth and Horus appeared in court once again. Seth proclaimed that he should be given Osiris’s ofﬁce because he had “done a man’s deed” to Horus. When the appalled ennead spit at Horus, the youth laughed. They should, he said, ﬁnd the semen of Seth. Thoth called upon the semen of Seth, and it answered from the marsh. Thoth called upon the semen of Horus. The semen of Horus emerged as a solar disk from the head of Seth. Thoth claimed the disk for himself, and the ennead awarded the kingship to Horus.
Seth proposed one last contest: They would build and race boats of stone, and the winner would rule Egypt. Horus built a boat of wood plastered to look like stone. Seeing Horus’s vessel aﬂoat, Seth built a ship of stone, which sank. Seth turned into a hippopotamus and wrecked the boat of Horus, who speared him. The ennead ﬁnally put an end to this contest.
Horus sailed his boat to the goddess Neith to complain to her about the contest, which had lasted eighty years. Thoth told ReHorakhty to write to Osiris, who would judge between them. Osiris expressed outrage at the current state of affairs. Why had the gods denied Horus his rights when Osiris was the only one who could nourish the gods by providing grain and cattle? Re-Horakhty replied that these things would exist even if Osiris had never been born. Osiris then threatened the gods when they entered his realm in the west (the netherworld).
The matter between Seth and Horus was settled at last. Seth challenged Horus to one more contest, but the throne was awarded to Horus, and Seth was brought to the court and shackled. Re-Horakhty took pity on Seth and granted him a reward, making him the thunder in the sky.