The author introduces us to Set from his earliest to latest depictions in Egyptian art, with each chapter exploring different periods of Egyptian history in chronological order. While, for the most part, this was useful in showing the evolution of Set over the years, it also led to a slightly disjointed narrative when exploring the themes associated with the God.
Chapter one explores the earliest images of Set, and it makes clear that even in the Naqada I era he was known as “the lord of the sedges”, establishing his importance as representative of Upper Egypt, alongside Horus as “lord of the papyrus country” (Lower Egypt). Set’s association was with the city of Naqada, his cult centre, where he became known as nbwty – “the golden one.” He is thus often referred to as “Lord of Nubt.”
Interestingly, in the Labels from King Scorpion’s tomb Set, though shown in his animal form, is not shown with the typical erect tail, yet on a detail from the same king’s mace head, he is. The author then goes on to comment on the canine-like appearance of Set in Djoser’s temples, and quotes Ken Moss’ theory that the Set animal may in fact be based on a breed of hunting dog called the Saluki. Their ears were often cropped, producing a squared tip, and when running these square-tipped ears and the tail stick up.
The close resemblance of the Was sceptre to Set’s head is also interesting, although there is another theory that it could represent a wild bull’s penis. Either way the association with Set is quite convincing, with one of Set’s titles being the “Bull of Ombos.”
Chapter two concentrates on the Middle Kingdom, where Set was often depicted on ivory wands used to protect from danger. They were usually carved from hippopotamus tusks, the hippo being one of Set’s forms, and the animals themselves being known for their fierce nature. Another common theme is the joint presentation, along with Horus, of palm branches to the king during his Heb Sed celebrations. In giving the branches Set and Horus are blessing the king with many years of kingship, extending into the afterlife.
The third chapter spans the 12th to the 18th Dynasties, when the Hyksos ruled over Egypt. During this time Set was known as “Lord of Avaris,” the Hyksos capital. The 18th Dynasty saw the rebellion against the invaders, the ascension of Ahmose to the throne, and Egypt back in control of her own affairs. On a stela from the reign of Amenhotep II Set is shown receiving offerings, yet the hieroglyphs name him as Seth-Antewy. This was a combined form of Set and Horus – “This dual identity is a reflection of the belief that a god could have more than one nature – and that he or she could have the attributes of several deities in order to express the extended power of the god.”¹ This represents the dual aspect of kingship also, as when he is ruling the King is Horus, but when he must use force he is Set.
Set appears regularly in Hatshepsut’s temples, and on monuments during Thutmose III’s reign. His image was again used during the king’s Heb Sed festival depictions, holding the palms representing many years, ankhs, the symbol of life, and teaching the king archery. Sometimes he was shown in conjunction with his wife, Nephthys, but on a stela possibly from the 18th Dynasty he is shown with Hathor. Apparently as well as being a god of ‘the intoxicating power of beer’, he and Hathor were also ‘tutelary god and goddess of wine.’
During the reign of Amenhotep IV, also known as Akhenaten, the temples fell into disrepair and the Gods and Goddesses were replaced by the Aten. Under Ay, Tutankhamun restored the old deities. When Horemheb came to the throne he had to legitimise his position as he was not of royal blood. To do this he employed traditional imagery, depicting himself with Horus and Set, establishing himself as king of all Egypt.
Chapter four informs us of the Ramesside period. The family of Ramesses I were from Avaris, the former Hyksos capital, so had a natural affinity with Set and considered him a divine ancestor. Despite this, Set’s animal image is often not used or is defaced when used as a hieroglyph, even in the cartouches of Seti I, whose name means “he of the god Seth.” In an attempt to ‘placate the Osirian clergy’ Seti changed and disguised the use of Set’s animal form in hieroglyphs. However, as a God he still appeared, and in Seti I’s tomb we see a more donkey-like depiction of him. As time went on it became increasingly common to depict Set with the head of an ass instead of the Set-animal.
Ramesses II even had Set depicted as Baal, a Canaanite deity, with a human head. He here represents the ‘foreigner,’ and it became a tradition at court to worship him as such. When a peace treaty was signed between Ramesses II and Hattusili III of the Hittites, the Egyptians did not want the name of a foreign god carved on their temple walls, so they substituted the Hittite storm god with Set.
As Egypt expanded her kingdom more foreign deities were adopted into the Egyptian pantheon, and two Goddesses even became the consorts/ wives of Set. Astarte and Anat were fierce, strong women and were perhaps deemed more suitable to Set’s nature than Nephthys. This also reflected the tradition continued from the 18th Dynasty of the kings taking foreign wives for diplomatic purposes. During the New Kingdom Set became known as the God of foreigners and foreign lands.
After the warring with outside forces heightened, Merenaptah brought Set back to his traditional, purely Egyptian, self. There is a stunning bronze statue in the Ny Carlsbery Glyptotek in Copenhagen (which I am lucky enough to have seen) depicting Set in the ‘smiting’ position. Unfortunately it was later altered to represent Khnum, with his ears being replaced by ram’s horns; yet his unique curving snout reveals which God lies beneath. In a stela also from the NCG Set is shown in the form of a winged bull-headed man with curving horns and thrusting a long spear. He is named as Set in the inscription, and is shown in his capacity as conqueror of the serpent Apep/ Apophis. “The god who could defeat such a creature is treated as a savior, pure and simple.”²
As well as having rather fierce connotations, Set is also a renewer of life. In a statue from Medinet Habu Ramesses III is shown between Horus and Set receiving their blessings. They each hold ankhs. In another depiction from Medinet Habu the two Gods are shown pouring libations, not of water, but of ankhs, over the king.
Chapter five starts from the 21st Dynasty and finishes with the Greco-Roman period. During the Ptolemaic period Set was often depicted at the front of Ra’s sacred barge, as slayer of Apep. Every night this struggle is played out as Ra traverses the night sky, the underworld, and every night Apep is defeated only to be reborn again. Thus Set must always be, he must always survive to defeat the serpent.
Set was also invoked in spells against demons and disease. Oddly, he is also depicted in one spell as curing Horus of a headache – perhaps one useful for us migraine sufferers!
During later times Set became inextricably linked with the Greek Titan Typhon. ‘Seth-Typhon was the god of foreigners, and the demonizing of the Seth cult occurred parallel with an increasing Egyptian hatred of foreigners.’ Set is even shown bound and pierced by a spear, with Ptolemy V using him to represent his defeated enemies. In one scene from Dendera Set is bound and Horus sticks knives in him while Osiris looks on. Although in earlier times Set’s role as killer of Osiris was seen as essential to the order of Ma’at – you can’t have a God of the dead who hasn’t died – his role became demonised. As Set-Typhon: ‘He, who for the Egyptians was the necessary chaos within Ma’at ( balance, order, justice ), became for the Greeks he who acted WITHOUT Ma’at.’ Despite this, Set did still have supporters, and temple sites as far out as the Dakleh Oasis have been found.
A strange depiction of Set from Edfu during Ptolemy XI’s reign is shown in several illustrations by the author at this point. It is a rather abstract blob, akin to a child’s depiction of a whale if the tail were curled into its back. This echoes an image found on the Narmer Palette, one of the earliest pieces of Egyptian art. Some scholars have said it could represent a placenta, but others have identified it as a meteorite. Set has a strong connection to meteoric iron, and the adze used in the Opening of the Mouth was supposed to be made of this. The adze itself was modelled on the stars of the Big Dipper constellation, which was also associated with Set.
Continuing the astronomical theme, Set is often associated with the planet Mercury. Its orbit and erratic movements, including appearing to go backwards (when in retrograde), and its appearance only at certain times of the year made it a perfect fit for the unpredictable Set. “The conclusion must be drawn that Mercury, indeed, was considered a mysterious thing, and Seth a mysterious god – but obviously a god who was necessary to the scheme of things and would always reappear. Seth is never to be vanquished.”³
The final chapter, ‘Twenty First Century and Beyond’, looks at the revivalist approach and the evolution of Set’s character through Wicca and modern Pagan traditions.
Overall I found this a very interesting and informative book. The line drawings help to illustrate the text well, though the placement could be better. The author uses a lot of quotes from other authors rather than relying purely on her own wording, but the quotes are very useful and relevant. One thing I found with the chronological order of the chapters meant some themes were a little disjointed and appeared in a number of places. In this respect they could have been better explored by theme and not by their date in time. However, this is a personal preference and should not impact on enjoyment of the book. I found the chapter endnotes very useful, and through them I have found some more books for further research. Though sometimes she can seem to wander from the point a little and explore offshoots, Joan Ann Lansberry has an informative and engaging writing style, and I would recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand more of the complex character and development of Set.
My rating: 8/10
**Sticky-tab rating: 87 tabs for 170 pages**
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¹ Quote by author from Treasures from the Collection of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago by Emily Teeter.
² Quote by author from Gods, Goddesses, and Imagesof God in Ancient Israel by Othmar Keel and Christopher Uehlinger.
³ Quote by author from The Egyptian Coffin Texts IV via Sellers; pages 222-223.