Who was the Egyptian god Seth?

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Who was the god Seth?

Seth (Oriental Institute Museum)
New Kingdom, ca. 1500 BC)

The Egyptian god Seth was the brother of Isis and Osiris, and like them he was the son of the sky goddess Nut and the earth god Geb. Seth is the dark side of his brother and sister - Isis makes the crops grow, and Osiris is the god of the Pharaohs who maintain order, but Seth is the god of chaos. In some stories, Seth showed his bad side by ripping his way out of his mother's side to be born instead of being born the normal way.

In paintings, Seth sometimes has red hair and red eyes, to show that he is weird and different. He also has an animal head, and sometimes takes the form of a crocodile, a hippopotamus, or a black pig - all dangerous animals.

In one story, Seth drowned his brother Osiris in the Nile River and cut his body into pieces. Osiris' son Horus found his uncle Seth and fought him to avenge his father. In the battle, Horus lost his left eye, and Seth lost the ability to have children. (Does this story remind you of the Disney movie "Lion King", which was also set in Africa? Also compare it to the West African story of Sundiata.)

stars in a black sky
The constellation of Orion

In ancient Egypt, Osiris was identified with the constellation of stars we know as Orion, and the story may be a way of explaining why Orion appears in the sky and then seems to be pushed aside by other constellations as the earth goes around the sun.

In other Egyptian stories, however, Seth and Horus are sometimes different sides of the same god, and people prayed to them together.

Learn by doing: find the constellation of Orion on a clear night
More about ancient Egyptian gods

Bibliography and further reading about the Egyptian god Seth:

Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, by Leonard Fisher (1999). For younger kids.

Isis and Osiris, by Geraldine Harris (1997). A retelling of the story for kids.

The Egypt Game (Yearling Newbery), by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (reprinted 1985). A great kids' story about kids who pretend to be Egyptian gods and goddesses.

Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice, by John Baines, David Silverman, and Leonard Lesko (1991). Pretty hard going, but it will tell you everything you need to know about Egyptian religion.

Isis in the Ancient World, by R.E. Witt (1997). Mostly about the spread of Isis worship to Greece and the Roman Empire.

More about Egyptian mummies
More about ancient Egypt
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Copyright 2012-2015 Karen Carr, Portland State University. This page last updated September 2015.

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