Horus is one of the oldest Egyptian gods, possibly reaching back to predynastic times. His conflict with Set, the desert-god, was one of the basic myths of Egyptian religion, long before Horus joined to the Isis-Osiris family.
His Egyptian name, Heru, means “the distant one”, or the “one up above”. There were many hawk and falcon gods in ancient Egypt1, including several with names like Har, Hor or Her (hr in ancient Egyptian means “above”. or “upon”.) Horus’ first home was Hierakonopolis (Nekhen), where he was honoured as god of the kingdom, making him a national god.
His consort there was the goddess Hathor, whose name “House of Horus”, shows that she was a sky-goddess. In this role Horus protected the pharaohs, and acted as a defender of Ma’at, or Harmony. This was an essential part of Horus’ role as upholder of order, since Ma’at symbolized the ordered, predictable universe, as well as righteousness.
Early Egyptian myth saw Horus and Set as brothers, with Horus as god of the Black Lands, the area around the Nile where the soil was fertile, while Set governed the Red Lands or desert. While Horus defended the sun-god Ra from hostile forces, including Set at times, the two essentially worked together for the god and the people.
It may seem strange to us, but Set had temples, cult centres and worshippers. At the same time, people seem to have always been ambivalent about him, and felt the need for a god like Horus to keep him in line. Perhaps because of their desire for harmony and balance, Horus never totally destroys Set, but by overcoming him he asserts the primacy of order and proper kingship. (Pinch: 84)
Horus Behdety was represented as a winged sun disk on temples all over Egypt, just as Ra had apparently decreed. However, he was also depicted as a lion, a lion with the head of a hawk and as a hawk hovering over the pharaoh during battle carrying a flail (representing royal power) and the shen (representing eternity) grasped in his claws. As a hawk he was given the epithet “Great God, Lord of Heaven, Dappled of Plumage”. In addition, he was frequently depicted as a man with the head of a falcon wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. In this form he often carries a falcon-headed staff, representing the form he took when he killed Set.
The winged sun disk, which sounds fairly unthreatening, actually fought Set and his army in one myth:
And when he saw the enemies in the heights of heaven he set out to follow after them in the form of the great Winged Disk, and he attacked with such terrific force those who opposed him, that they could neither see with their eyes nor hear with their ears, and each of them slew his fellow. In a moment of time there was not a single creature left alive. Then Heru Behutet, shining with very many colours, came in the form of the great Winged Disk to the Boat of Ra-Harmachis, and Thoth said unto Ra, “O Lord of the gods, Behutet hath returned in the form of the great Winged Disk, shining [with many colours] ….. children;”
Other forms of Horus include:
Haroeris: the Greek form of Her-ur, Horus the Elder or Great. His cult centre was at Nekhen (Hieraconopolis), and there his wife was the sky and cow goddess Hathor. He was called “the Elder” because as a grown man he could seek the throne, and fight the desert-god Set for it.
It was this Horus whose eyes were said to be the sun and moon, and whose eye was a powerful symbol of protection. As that all-seeing god he appeared in falcon form, with wings spread, and was called Kemwer, The Great Black One. The moon was the eye that Set had gouged out during their battle for the throne, and so was weaker than the sun eye.
Harakhte: of the two horizons. This form of Horus was merged with the sun-god Re over time. In the Pyramid Texts we have offerings to both gods, but later he is called Re-Harakhte, and seems to be a form of the sun-god alone. As a separate deity he was a protector of the sun and the pharaoh, and wore the two crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Horus the elder had four sons, whose mother was sometimes said to be Isis. (This form of Horus was seen as the brother of Osiris, with Isis, Nepthys and Set as his siblings.) These four sons were born from a lotus flower, and collected up by Sobek. He was a crocodile god, and it’s tempting to imagine the four safely stowed inside his mouth, like baby crocs.
They were protectors of the four directions, and they presided over mummification. (The four jars that held the mummy’s internal organs were often shaped like them.) They were also related to a constellation, the Great Bear, or Ursa Major.
In this new cult, Horus had two forms, the virile young warrior and Harpocrates, Horus the child. The first was not so different from his old form, while the second showed him as a naked child, with the sidelock of youth, and the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt. (A local variant on the divine child image, at Luxor, made Montu and the sun-goddess Rattawy his parents.)
Now the myth of Horus and Set began with Set murdering Horus’ father, Osiris. The goddess Isis then magically conceived Horus from her dead husband’s body, and went into hiding until Horus was born. Images of Isis and her son were popular, and may well have influenced early Christian depictions of Mary and Jesus.
Horus grew to manhood, and fought Set for the throne of Egypt. The story is complicated, but eventually Horus won, and banished Set. However, Egyptian ideology consistently saw them as two halves of a whole: order and chaos, fertile land and desert, Upper and Lower Egypt, which meant that Set was not totally cast out.
So Horus was a pretty fierce god, although unlike the superhero he inspired, he never needed a mace or morningstar:
PS – One of the frustrating things about writing this post was trying to determine if Horus was a falcon or hawk god. Some writers use both terms interchangeably, which makes it more difficult. Horus’ bird was either a lannier (falcon) or sparrowhawk (guess) depending on which Wikipedia article you consult, for example. Follow this link to see the difference between hawks and falcons.
1. Ra, Montu and Sokar also had falcon forms.↩
Barrett, Clive 1992: The Egyptian Gods and Goddesses: the Mythology and Belief of Ancient Egypt, Aquarian.
Hart, George 1996: A Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, Routledge (reprint).
Lesko, Leonard H. 1991: “Ancient Egyptian Cosmogonies and Cosmology” in Religion in Ancient Egypt, ed. Byron E. Shafer, Cornell UP: 88-122.
Pinch, Geraldine 2004: Egyptian Myth: A Very Short Introduction, OUP.
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