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Seth: Deity of Good or Evil
Commonly considered the god of chaos, and thus an evil god, Seth may be more diverse than that simple definition illustrates. To understand the character of the god, his mythical character must be examined from many perspectives, including the time p
By: Page M. Strong
Seth was the third son of the sky goddess, Nut, and the earth god, Geb. Among Seth’s four brothers and sisters was his archenemy, Osiris, and Osiris’ wife, Isis. Osiris was lord of all Egypt and it was because of this that Seth saw Osiris as his enemy. Seth wanted to claim lordship of Egypt for himself and so he devised a trap for Osiris. Using his cunning, Seth created a sarcophagus that would be the perfect size for Osiris and Osiris only. On the occasion of a party, Seth presented the splendid sarcophagus to the onlookers. He challenged them all saying whoever fit into the sarcophagus perfectly would become its owner. Everyone tried save for Osiris. Finally, Seth convinced his brother to try the sarcophagus. As soon as Osiris lay in the sarcophagus, Seth slammed the lid shut and threw it into the Nile. Distraught, Isis searched for the sarcophagus downstream and upon finding it, began to give her husband a proper burial. Angered, Seth set upon Osiris and cut his body into fourteen pieces, which he scattered throughout the land of Egypt. Again, Isis searched for her husband. She found all her husband’s pieces save for one, which was eaten by fish that were thereafter cursed and neither touched nor eaten by any Egyptian. Upon rejoining the pieces of Osiris, making a magical likeness of Osiris’ missing piece and through her own magic, Isis was able to beget a child from Osiris. Horus was born in the rushes of the Nile where Isis hid from Seth, who still hunted them, despite his claiming lordship over the land of Egypt. When Horus grew into manhood, he declared war on Seth to avenge the wrongs he committed against Osiris. After many battles, Horus triumphed over Seth and became lord of the land of Egypt in his father’s stead and Seth the god of chaos.
From this popular myth, Seth appears to be a character driven out of greed for what his brother possesses that he cannot have. The atrocities he preformed against Osiris, Isis and later Horus, show a truly evil character. However, he was respected by the ancient Egyptians and worshipped, as was his due. The question becomes whether he was worshipped out of fear or out of simple respect for his being a deity.
As a deity in general, Seth shows more than just the greedy tendencies put forth in the classic Isis and Osiris myth. He is a strong god, and a cunning one. These aspects of his character are truly traits that would be admired by any. In his own right, Seth was worshipped, not as a god of chaos, in as much, but as a god of cunning, strength, and, through strength, as a protective deity. Regarding the times he has been worshipped by pharaohs, it is obvious that he is seen as far more than an evil, chaotic figure. In the pyramid texts, the pharaoh claims to possess Seth’s strength. Ramses II, at the battle of Kadesh, also claims Seth’s strength.
While not often worshipped in the Nile Valley for his chaotic qualities, Seth could be called upon to combat chaotic occurrences. As seen with Ramses II, he prays to Seth to battle the massive storms that were preventing a Hittite princess from coming to Egypt to marry the pharaoh. In this sense, Seth is worshipped as a god of chaos and a god of protection. To the ancient Egyptians, there was no better way to combat chaos than to appeal to the one deity that understood chaos better than any other.
Through the strength of Seth, another myth comes to light. As Ra, the sun deity, sails across the sky in his bark, he is set upon by many evils intent on doing him harm. Spells are said by the deity to protect him from some of these evils, an ensemble of deities combats other evils. In the Book of the Dead, Seth is called upon to slay the serpent, Apophis, whose intent is to swallow the sun bark whole, throwing the world into darkness and chaos. It is Seth who slays Apophis every day, combating the serpent’s chaos with his own and protecting Ra with his strength.
While Seth was feared and respected by the inhabitants of the Nile Valley, he was a patron to those who lived in the uncertain climate of the Oases of the Western Desert. As Seth was the god of chaos, he was the god of the uncontrollable deserts of the Sahara. The Oases were small pockets of order in the chaotic deserts, and were thus allowed to survive by the good graces of Seth. The oases' inhabitants consequently worshipped Seth, not as the feared deity of chaos, nor the strong protector, per se, but as a respected and loved deity of chaos to combat the feared chaos of the shifting desert sands. This loved deity of chaos is seen in a rare form in Hibis Temple in the Kharga Oasis. Here he is depicted as a blue-skinned, falcon headed god, his wings spread wide behind him as he slays Apophis beneath his feet. Here he is not just the protector of Ra, but of the inhabitants of the oases.
While questioning the goodness or evilness of Seth’s character, the conclusion does not appear to be a simple one. On the one hand, his volatile character drives him to slay his brother in greed, yet he is the protector of Ra and slayer of the evil Apophis. He possesses qualities both of good and evil, depending upon his mood. His mood is as shifting as the desert sands of his domain. He is truly a god of chaos, being either good or evil when the whim takes him.