Battles Between Heru and Set

Heru Falcon Wallers Art MuseumLeft: Figure of a Horus Falcon, between circa 300 and circa 250 BC (Greco-Roman). The Walters Art Museum.

Chester Beatty Papyrus

The Contendings of Horus and Seth is a mythological story from the Twentieth dynasty of Ancient Egypt found in the first sixteen pages of the Papyrus Chester Beatty I  and deals with the battles between Horus (Heru) and Seth (Set) to determine who will succeed Osiris (Ausar) as king.

The Papyrus Chester Beatty I dates to the twentieth dynasty during the reign of Ramesses V and likely came from a scribe’s collection that was recorded for personal entertainment. The papyrus contains the story of The Contendings of Horus and Seth and also various other poetic love songs. The original provenance of the papyrus was Thebes and, when found, the papyrus measured 55 cm. and had been torn and crushed. The papyrus was published by the Oxford University Press in 1931 and currently is located in the Chester Library in Dublin.

The specific time of the Contendings is a period during which the fighting has temporarily stopped and Seth and Horus have brought their case before the Ennead. Throughout the story, Horus and Seth have various competitions to see who will be king. Horus beats Seth each time. The beginning of the story is a sort of a trial when both Seth and Horus plead their cases and the deities of the Ennead state their opinions. Later in the story, the combat starts up again between Horus and Seth and finally, the situation is resolved when Horus is determined to be rightful king of Egypt.

According to Papyrus Chester-Beatty I, Seth is depicted as trying to prove his dominance by seducing Horus and then having intercourse with him. However, Horus places his hand between his thighs and catches Set’s semen, then subsequently throws it in the river, so that he may not be said to have been inseminated by Set. Horus then deliberately spreads his own semen on some lettuce, which was Set’s favorite food. After Set had eaten the lettuce, they went to the gods to try to settle the argument over the rule of Egypt. The gods first listened to Set’s claim of dominance over Horus, and call his semen forth, but it answered from the river, invalidating his claim. Then, the gods listened to Horus’ claim of having dominated Set, and call his semen forth, and it answered from inside Set.

However, Set still refused to relent, and the other gods were getting tired from over eighty years of fighting and challenges. Horus and Set challenged each other to a boat race, where they each raced in a boat made of stone. Horus and Set agreed, and the race started. But Horus had an edge: his boat was made of wood painted to resemble stone, rather than true stone. Set’s boat, being made of heavy stone, sank, but Horus’s did not. Horus then won the race, and Set stepped down and officially gave Horus the throne of Egypt.

John Gwyn Griffiths, for example, talks about the whole conflict between Horus and Seth in his book The Conflict of Horus and Seth. In the book, Griffiths discusses the different aspects of the ongoing battle for the office of Osiris, including the mutilations, homosexual episode, and the trial. Griffiths argues that the myth is of political and historical origin and that the story of Horus and Seth has to do with tribal struggles before the unification of Egypt. Other historians have discarded this idea when it comes to The Contendings of Horus and Seth and say that this particular story was created simply as a religious myth and that it should not be considered of historical context.

In Ancient Egyptian Literature, Antonio Loprieno argues that the Contendings is one of the first instances of “mythology as a textual genre” and when mythology enters the literary field. Alan H. Gardiner compared the story with the stories of the Greek deities and of Homer’s Odyssey.

1. Beatty, Alfred Chester, and Alan H. Gardiner. The Library of A. Chester Beatty. [London]: Walker, 1936.
2. The Library of Chester A. Beatty.
3. Griffiths, J. Gwyn. Allegory in Greece and Egypt. London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1967.
4. Loprieno, Antonio. Ancient Egyptian Literature: History and Forms. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996.

Donald B. Redford, “Contendings of Horus and Seth” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Ed. Donald B. Redford.  28 October 2010



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One thought on “Battles Between Heru and Set

  1. Egypttourism April 2, 2013 at 8:49 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Egypt Tourism Board.

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