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The god Horus represented by a falcon at the Temple of Edfu. Source: Edyta / Adobe Stock

The Cult of Horus: Myths That Stretch From Egypt To Rome

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Horus (also known as Heru) was one of the most important deities in the ancient Egyptian pantheon . The ancient Egyptians worshipped Horus mainly as the sky god and the god of kingship. In the cult of Horus, the pharaohs, for instance, were believed to be the earthly embodiment of the god. Horus is easily recognized thanks to the fact that he is depicted as a man with the head of a falcon, although the  god is also commonly depicted as a falcon. The cult of Horus continued even during the Graeco-Roman period in Egypt. By this time, however, the depiction of the god was altered, so as to fit the changing times. As a major god there are numerous myths about the cult of Horus that form a key part of Ancient Egyptian religion.

Origins of Horus

It is believed that Horus was worshipped as early as the late Predynastic Period . At that time, there were many falcon cults in Egypt, and Horus was worshipped in these places as a local god. One of these falcon cult centers was Nekhen, known also in Greek as Hierakonpolis, which means ‘Hawk City.’ The inhabitants of Nekhen believed that the reigning king was the manifestation of Horus. When Narmer, a ruler from Nekhen considered to be the unifier of Egypt, succeeded in controlling both Upper and Lower Egypt , this concept of the pharaoh as an earthly manifestation of Horus achieved national importance.

Statue of a pharaoh as an earthlymanifestation of Horus (GreenLaurel / Adobe Stock)

Statue of a pharaoh as an earthlymanifestation of Horus ( GreenLaurel / Adobe Stock)

The Osiris Myth: Legendary Rivalry Between Horus and Set

The portrayal of Horus and Set as eternal rivals first emerged during the Early Dynastic Period . According to one interpretation, this is meant to symbolize the rivalry of Upper and Lower Egypt, represented by Set and Horus respectively. Nevertheless, considering that both gods had cult centers in both parts of Egypt, this interpretation may be a bit more problematic. During the Old Kingdom, the antagonism between Horus and Set developed further resulting in the Osiris myth .

The Osiris myth is one of the most significant stories in Egyptian mythology that has survived till this day and this myth provides us with considerable insight into the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians. The earliest example of this myth dates to around the 24 th century BC, and is part of the Pyramid Texts , a collection of religious texts carved on the walls and sarcophagi of the royal pyramids at Saqqara. The myth is retold throughout ancient Egyptian history, as evidenced by its appearance in the Middle Kingdom Coffin Texts and the New Kingdom Book of the Dead. A version of the myth is also found in Plutarch’s Moralia.

The family of Osiris: Osiris on a lapis lazuli pillar in the middle, flanked by Horus on the left and Isis on the right (Louvre Museum / CC BY-SA 2.0 FR )

The family of Osiris: Osiris on a lapis lazuli pillar in the middle, flanked by Horus on the left and Isis on the right (Louvre Museum / CC BY-SA 2.0 FR )

According to the myth, Osiris was the first ruler to unify Egypt. Osiris had a brother, Set, who coveted the throne of Egypt for himself. Therefore, Set killed Osiris, dismembered him, and scattered his brother’s remains across Egypt. Isis, the sister and wife of Osiris, travels across Egypt to retrieve the scattered remains. Once all of Osiris’ remains were collected, they were reassembled, and the dead king was resurrected with magic. Interestingly, according to Plutarch’s version of the myth, the only part of Osiris’ body that was not found was his penis, as it had been eaten by three types of fish – the lepidotus, the sea-bream, and the pike. Plutarch claims that this is the reason why the Egyptians abstain from eating these fish. In order to complete her husband’s body, Isis created a replica penis for Osiris with magic.

Once Osiris was brought back to life, he had intercourse with Isis, and Horus was conceived. After that, Osiris returned to the realm of the dead, and became its ruler. Incidentally, Plutarch’s version has Horus conceived and born before his father’s murder. In any case, when Horus grew up, he challenged his uncle, so as to claim the throne of Egypt. In the ensuing battle, Set was defeated, and Horus became the new king of Egypt. Therefore, the pharaohs of ancient Egypt viewed themselves as the embodiment of Horus in their lives, and Osiris in their deaths. During the battle Horus’s left eye was damaged by Set, and subsequently restored by Thoth, the god of wisdom and magic. As Horus’s left eye was believed to be the moon, the ancient Egyptians regarded this as the explanation for the moon’s phases. The restored eye, known as the Eye of Horus, or the Wedjat, became a popular cult of Horus amulet, as a powerful protection symbol.

The famous eye of Horus as painted on a piece of papyrus (Jose Ignacio Soto / Adobe Stock)

The famous eye of Horus as painted on a piece of papyrus (Jose Ignacio Soto / Adobe Stock )

Another myth related to the rivalry between Horus and Set is the ‘Contendings of Horus and Set’, found in the Chester Beatty Papyri . The story dates to the Twentieth Dynasty, and concerns the battles fought between Horus and Set to determine who would be the rightful ruler of Egypt. Unlike the Osiris myth, where the battle between Horus and Set is a physical one, the conflicts in this myth also involved battles of wits. In one of these “competitions” Set attempts to establish his dominance over Horus by inseminating him, though it turns out to be the opposite of what he had expected.

The tale begins with Set seducing Horus and having intercourse with him. As Set ejaculates, Horus places his hands between his thighs and catches his semen, which is then thrown into the Nile. The next day, Horus (or his mother Isis) plots to inseminate Set. This was achieved by having Horus’s semen spread over some lettuce, which was supposed to be Set’s favorite vegetable. Therefore, when Set ate the lettuce, he unknowingly ingested Horus’s semen as well.

Horus, on the right, and Set, on the left, crowning Ramses II, from a relief in the minor temple of Abu Simbel. (Chipdawes / Public domain)

Horus, on the right, and Set, on the left, crowning Ramses II, from a relief in the minor temple of Abu Simbel. (Chipdawes / Public domain )

Subsequently, Horus and Set meet the gods in order to settle the question of who should rule Egypt. Set is first to present his claim, and after telling the gods his story, summons his semen. To his great surprise, his semen answers him from the Nile, thus invalidating his claim. Next, Horus tells his side of the story, and summons his semen, who answers him from inside Set. Therefore, Horus was declared the winner. Nevertheless, the story does not end there, as the judgment of the gods continued for another 80 years. In the end, however, Set is unable to overcome Horus, who is declared ruler of Egypt.

A wooden representation of Horus. (Andrea Izzotti / Adobe Stock)

A wooden representation of Horus. ( Andrea Izzotti / Adobe Stock)

Horus as God of the Sky

In addition to being a god associated with kingship, Horus was also regarded as the god of the sky. As mentioned earlier, Horus’s left eye was thought to be the Moon. His right eye, on the other hand, was believed to be the Sun. In addition, his wings were considered to be the sky, and the winds were the results of their movement. Moreover, the speckled feathers on Horus’s breast were thought to be the stars. As the sky and the heavenly bodies, Horus was thought to be a celestial falcon, rather than a falcon-headed man. And as you might expect, the hieroglyphic symbol for the god is a falcon.

Horus’s role as the sky god is also reflected in a number of his titles. One of them, for instance, is Heru-merty meaning ‘Horus of Two Eyes’, the ‘two eyes’ referring to the Sun and Moon. Another is Herakhty meaning ‘Horus of the Two Horizons’, an allusion to the rising and setting of the sun. In this form, Horus is often combined with Ra, another important ancient Egyptian god. Like Horus, Ra is also depicted as a falcon-headed man. As a solar deity, however he is depicted with a solar disc on his head. Incidentally, there were also other local gods who were depicted as falcons / falcon-headed men including Sokar and Montu , whose cult centers were at Memphis and Thebes respectively.

Horus inscribed on the wall at Edfu Temple. (Dezalb / Public Domain)

Horus inscribed on the wall at Edfu Temple. (Dezalb / Public Domain )

Horus’s Popularity Continued with the Greeks and Romans

The popularity of Horus as a deity continued even after Egypt became part of the Hellenistic, and later, Roman worlds. This is evident in the fact that the Greeks who settled in Egypt gave Greek names to several of Horus’s forms. One of these, for example, is Harendotes, derived from the Egyptian ‘Har-nedj--itef’, meaning ‘Horus the Savior of his Father.’ This is a reference to the Osiris myth, where Horus avenges Osiris’s murder by defeating his uncle Set.

Harpocrates or "Horus the Child" was the son of Isis and Osiris. (Walters Art Museum / Public domain)

Harpocrates or "Horus the Child" was the son of Isis and Osiris. (Walters Art Museum / Public domain )

Another popular form of Horus amongst the Greeks was Harpocrates. This name is derived from the Egyptian ‘Heru-pa-khered’, meaning ‘Horus the Child.’ This form of Horus existed prior to the arrival of the Greeks, abut was later Hellenized. The god is normally shown as a young boy holding a finger to his lips, an ancient Egyptian gesture symbolizing childhood. The Greeks who saw this thought that the gesture indicated silence. Thus, the Greeks mistook Harpocrates as the god of silence. Since the worship of Harpocrates continued even during the Roman period, it is clear that he was an immensely popular deity.

In some instances, Harpocrates underwent a process of syncretism, by which elements of foreign gods were added to him. A good example of this is a bronze figurine of the god currently housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. This artefact dates to the Roman period and is called ‘Harpokrates in an Egyptianizing Crown and holding the club of Herakles.’ The artefact clearly shows the combination of the Egyptian Harpocrates with the Roman Heracles.

The Romans seemed to have been particularly keen on syncretism. There are various artefacts showing how Horus was made to look more Roman. One of these, for instance, is a figure of Horus that resides today in the British Museum in London. This figure, which is made of limestone, depicts a falcon-headed Horus in a seated position. Although the ancient Egyptians also portrayed the god in this position, this statue bears closer resemblance in its attitude to images of senior Graeco-Roman deities. More striking is the fact that this Horus is dressed in Roman military attire, a description of which is as follows:

“The feathers of the falcon god double as the scales of a mail shirt (described by the modern term lorica plumata), the sleeves of which end below the shoulders. A knotted cingulum encircles the waist, dropping to the hips in contrast to the more typically depicted position at a soldier's natural waist. A cloak fastened at the right shoulder by a round plate fibula is pushed back over the shoulders. A separate garment covers the legs.”

An unusual 4th-century-AD Roman sandstone carving of Horus seated on a horse. (Rama / CC BY-SA 3.0 FR )

An unusual 4th-century-AD Roman sandstone carving of Horus seated on a horse. (Rama / CC BY-SA 3.0 FR )

Another Roman artefact, also from the British Museum, is a bronze figurine of Horus. The god is standing and dressed in Roman military costume. Whilst this may not show any connection between Horus and the Roman gods (except, perhaps, for Mars, the Roman god of war, who is also depicted in military costume), it does reflect the Roman understanding that Horus was a warrior god.

One of the most unusual Roman depictions of Horus, however, is found in the Louvre Museum in Paris. This sandstone artefact was once part of a window, and has been dated to the 4 th century AD. Like the other Roman statues of Horus mentioned earlier, this one is also shown wearing military costume. Unlike those other figures, however, this one has Horus seated on a horse. The ancient Egyptians are not known to have ever depicted their gods in this manner. At the same time, Egyptian elements can be detected in this artefact. For instance, Horus is portrayed in profile, which is quite common in ancient Egyptian paintings. Another is the subject matter. Apart from Horus and his horse, there is also a crocodile, who is being speared by the falcon-headed god. The crocodile has been identified as Set. Therefore, the spearing of the crocodile is a reference to Horus’s triumph over Set. For some, this representation is regarded as the precursor to the depiction of Saint George slaying the dragon.

The Cult of Horus As a Triumph Over Good and Evil

Throughout the history of ancient Egypt, the cult of Horus was extremely important. In the myths he is featured in, Horus represents the triumph of Good over Evil, which may explain his popularity over the ages. Horus’s significance as a god continued even after Egypt was conquered, first by the Greeks, and then by the Romans. An example of the emphasis placed by the Greeks on this god is the Temple of Edfu , a major center of the cult of Horus, bult by the Ptolemies, the Greek rulers of Egypt. Moreover, the syncretism of Horus and the Graeco-Roman deities is further evidence of Horus’s continued importance during these later periods.

Top image: The god Horus represented by a falcon at the Temple of Edfu. Source: Edyta / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren

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