Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1314, (6 - 12 October 2016)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1314, (6 - 12 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Who is Seth?

The ancient Egyptian god Seth has been enjoying an impressive afterlife in modern Egypt, writes Zahi Hawass

Al-Ahram Weekly

The god Seth was the god of devils and hatred in ancient Egypt. His hatred even compelled him to kill his own brother. I see today that this god still exists as whenever someone tries to do something good for his country, Seth appears and tries to destroy it.


I always refer to evil people among us by the name of Seth. There was one such who took a position after the 25 January Revolution, though he had never imagined in his life before that he would be able to obtain the position of minister. This person came to see me and asked me if I could appoint him director of the Cairo Museum. I told him he was not qualified for the position, but he began to introduce himself to people in the government, saying he was capable of being a senior figure in the world of antiquities.

I had dinner a few weeks ago with some of my foreign ambassador friends, and one of them, a dear friend of mine, said he had gone to see the god Seth. He added that Seth had been angry with the ambassador because the ambassador had come to see me in my office. Another ambassador sitting beside us said that he had stopped visiting Seth because of the reek of cigarette smoke in his office. The only thing that this god had accomplished was to smoke a lot of cigarettes.

When the Muslim Brotherhood began to rule Egypt after the 2012 elections, the person wanted to stay in his position. During a visit to Zagazig, he signed a certificate saying he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and was happy to announce that he was a member of the Brotherhood’s political party. The party then assigned one of their members to assist him, but he saw what a jealous person Seth was and that he did not accomplish anything. He was fired as a result, the joke being that it was said that he was fired because he was not a member of the party.

If you look around, you may see the god Seth everywhere. He does not want to see success, and he wants to destroy everything around him. Let me introduce you to this ancient Egyptian god whom we associate with the evil side of human nature.

Seth was the ancient Egyptian god of confusion and the spirit of disorder. He was best known as the god who was so jealous of the popularity of his brother Osiris, who represented goodness, that he murdered him. The myth of this first murder is very interesting. Seth hosted a party at which he produced a beautiful sarcophagus and announced that anyone who could fit into it could keep it. Osiris tried the coffin, and his body fitted in it perfectly. His brother quickly closed the coffin and threw it into the Nile.

The faithful goddess Isis, Osiris’s sister, then searched heaven and earth for her brother until she learned that the coffin had been turned into a pillar in the palace of the king of Byblos in modern-day Lebanon. She hid in the palace and worked as a servant until she had an opportunity to take the pillar and swim with it to the shores of Egypt. Isis was the goddess of magic, so she was able to temporarily restore Osiris to his physical being and together they created the child Horus.

Seth then chanced upon the mummified body of Osiris and cut it into 14 pieces that he dispersed all over Egypt. Isis wept at what he had done, and from her tears flowed the Nile, bringing Osiris floating back to her. She collected the pieces of his mutilated body, finding only the phallus to be missing. Isis took the child Horus to some marshes by the Nile, where she hid him and asked him to avenge his father’s death. Seth and Horus later battled to win control of Egypt, believed to be the centre of the earth, in a ferocious battle. Horus lost one eye and Seth lost his testicles and consequently his reproductive semen.

Eventually, the two made peace and decided that Horus would be the ruler of Lower Egypt while Seth would rule Upper Egypt. Thus, Horus would be the “Lord of the Black Land,” the fertile flood plain, and Seth would be the “Lord of the Red Land,” or the desert, including various foreign countries. After some time, the good god conquered the evil one, and Horus became king of the two lands, in other words of both Upper and Lower Egypt.

The jealousy of Seth is not simply part of ancient myth. I don’t fully understand why, but the world of Egyptology is plagued with this feeling among foreign and Egyptian scholars alike. Should you ever attend an Egyptology congress, you may hear stories you will find hard to believe. When Zaki Ghoneim discovered the Unfinished Pyramid at Saqqara in 1954, for example, the news spread quickly across the globe. But one year later, some of Ghoneim’s colleagues accused him of stealing an ancient object, and, unable to bear being accused of such a crime, he threw himself into the Nile, where he drowned.

Who is Seth, you may ask. Seth represents those people who, while unadvisedly criticising others, finally harm themselves. Modern Seths include those who ruin the reputation of others through gossip.

Some years ago, I gave a party in honour of the distinguished scholar Ali Radwan to celebrate the publication of a festschrift that had been published for him. Many people attended, including Radwan’s students. One person did not attend the party, and his identity is known to those who did attend this beautiful event at which Radwan was honoured.

No one cared that Seth was absent.

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