gigatos | December 8, 2021


Horus (from the Egyptian Hor Horou) is one of the oldest Egyptian deities. The most common representations depict him as a falcon crowned with the pschent or as a hierocephalic man. His name means “the Far” in reference to the majestic flight of the bird of prey. His cult goes back to the Egyptian prehistory. The oldest city to have placed itself under his patronage seems to be Nekhen, the “City of the Falcon” (Hierakonpolis). From the beginning, Horus was closely associated with the pharaonic monarchy as a protective and dynastic god. The Followers of Horus are thus the first sovereigns to have placed themselves under his obedience. In the early historical period, the sacred falcon appears on the palette of king Narmer and, from then on, will be constantly associated with the royal power.

In the most archaic myth, Horus forms with Set a divine binomial characterized by rivalry, each one hurting the other. From this confrontation came Thoth, the lunar god, considered as their common son. Towards the end of the Old Kingdom, this myth was reinterpreted by the priests of Heliopolis by integrating the character of Osiris, the archetype of the deified dead pharaoh. This new theology marks the appearance of the Osirian myth where Horus is presented as the posthumous son of Osiris born of the magical works of Isis, his mother. In this framework, Horus plays a major role. As a caring son, he fights his uncle Set, his father”s murderer, defeats him and captures him. Seth humiliated, Horus is crowned pharaoh of Egypt and his father enthroned king of the afterlife. However, before being able to vigorously fight his uncle, Horus is only a puny being. As a child-god (Harpocrates), Horus is the archetype of the toddler subjected to all the dangers of life. He comes close to death on several occasions, but he is also the child who always overcomes the difficulties of life. As such, he is a very effective healer and savior god against hostile forces.

In addition to his dynastic and royal features, Horus is a cosmic deity, a fabulous being whose two eyes are the Sun and the Moon. The left eye of Horus, or the Eye of Udjat, is a powerful symbol associated with funerary offerings, with Thoth, with the Moon and its phases. This eye, wounded by Set and healed by Thoth, is the night star that constantly disappears and reappears in the sky. Constantly regenerated, the moon is the mise en abîme of a rebirth for all the Egyptian deceased.

Under his multiple aspects, Horus is venerated in all Egyptian regions. At Edfu, one of the most beautiful Ptolemaic temples, the god receives the annual visit of the statue of the goddess Hathor of Denderah and forms, with Harsomtus, a divine triad. At Kom Ombo, Horus the Elder is associated with Sobek, the crocodile god. With this reputation, the cult of Horus was exported outside Egypt, more particularly to Nubia. From the Late Period onwards, thanks to the isiac cults, the figure of Harpocrates became widely popular throughout the Mediterranean basin under Hellenistic and then Roman influence.

Falcon God

Horus is one of the most ancient Egyptian deities. His origins are lost in the mists of African prehistory. Like the other main deities of the Egyptian pantheon, he is present in iconography from the fourth millennium BC. The contemporary name of Horus is derived from the Greek theonym Ὧρος (Hōros) developed during the first millennium BCE at the time of the meeting of the Egyptian and Greek cultures. This theonym is itself derived from the ancient Egyptian Hor, which etymologically means “the distant”, “the superior”. As the hieroglyphic writing does not reproduce the vowels, the exact Egyptian pronunciation is no longer known, probably Horou or Hârou. In the proto-Egyptian language, Horus must have meant the falcon, hence its ideogram. From the protodynastic period (around 3300 B.C.), the hieroglyph of the falcon Hor also designates the ruler, whether he is in office or deceased, and may even be equivalent to the word netjer, “god”, with however a connotation of sovereignty. In the Pyramid Texts, the expression Hor em iakhou, “Horus in the radiance”, thus designates the deceased king, who became a god among the gods when he entered the afterlife.

In ancient Egypt, several species of falcons coexisted. The representations of the bird of Horus being most often very stylized, it is quite difficult to identify it formally with a particular species. However, it seems that we can see an image of the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus). This medium-sized bird of prey with a piercing call is known for its swiftness when swooping down from the sky on its small terrestrial prey. This hawk also has the particularity of having dark feathers under its eyes (the “moustache” according to ornithologists) which draw a kind of crescent. This distinctive mark is reminiscent of the design of the oudjat eye associated with Horus and the other Hierocephalous gods.


The divinity of Horus is manifested in iconography in many ways. In most cases, he is represented as a falcon, as a man with the head of a falcon or, to evoke his youth, as a young naked and bald child. The animal form is the oldest. Until the end of the protodynastic period, animals, including the falcon, appear to be much more efficient and superior to men. Therefore, the divine powers are exclusively represented in animal form. The falcon and its majestic flight soaring in the sky were obviously interpreted as the mark or symbol of the Sun, its name “the Far” referring to the daytime star. Towards the end of the First Dynasty, around 2800 BC, in parallel with the development of Egyptian civilization (diffusion of agriculture, irrigation and urbanism), the religious mentality is inflected and the divine forces begin to be humanized. At this time the first entirely anthropomorphic and mummiform gods (Min and Ptah) appear. Concerning Horus, during the first two dynasties, the animal form remains the rule. The first composite forms (men with animal heads) appeared at the end of the 2nd Dynasty and, as far as we know, the oldest known representation of Horus as a hierocephalic man dates from the 3rd Dynasty. It appears on a stele now preserved in the Louvre Museum where the god is shown in the company of King Houni-Qahedjet.)

Among the most famous representations is a fragment of a statue in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo showing Khephren seated on his throne (4th Dynasty). The falcon stands on the back of the seat and its two open wings wrap around the royal neck to signify its protection. In the same museum is kept the golden statue of Horus of Nekhen. Its dating is disputed: 6th or 12th Dynasty. Only the head of the falconid remains, topped with a crown made of two high stylized feathers. Its obsidian stone eyes imitate the piercing gaze of the living bird. The Louvre Museum displays at the entrance to its Egyptian collections a statue of Horus about one meter high, dated to the Third Intermediate Period. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a statuette in which King Nectanebo II of the XXXth Dynasty, the last pharaoh of independent Egypt, is shown small and standing between the legs of a majestic falcon crowned with the pschent.

A complex god

The Egyptian pantheon counts a great number of falcon gods; Sokar, Sopdou, Hemen, Houroun, Dédoun, Hormerty. Horus and his multiple forms occupy however the first place. As a multi-faceted god, the myths concerning him are intertwined. It is however possible to distinguish two main aspects: a juvenile form and an adult form. In his full warlike power and sexual maturity, Horus is Horakhty, the sun at its zenith. In Heliopolis, as such, he is worshipped concurrently with Ra. In the pyramid texts, the deceased pharaoh is resurrected under the guise of a solar falcon. By a frequent syncretism in the Egyptian religion, Horakhty merges with the Heliopolitan demiurge, under the form of Ra-Horakhty. In Edfu, he is Horbehedety, the winged sun of the primordial times. At Kom Ombo, he is Horus the Elder (Haroëris), a celestial god imagined as an immense falcon whose eyes are the Sun and the Moon. When these stars are absent from the sky, this Horus is said to be blind. At Nekhen (Hierakonpolis), the capital of the very first pharaohs, this celestial falcon is Hor-Nekheny, whose warlike and royal aspects are very pronounced.

The young Horus also appears under multiple forms. In the Osirian myth, Horus (or Arueris) is the son of Osiris and Isis. Osiris, murdered by his brother Set, is brought back to life, the time of a carnal union, thanks to the combined efforts of Isis and Nephthys. It is from this miraculous union that Horus the Child (Harpocrates) is born, also called Harsiesis (Horus son of Isis) and Hornedjitef (Horus who takes care of his father). Under this last aspect, to avenge the death of his father, Horus confronts his uncle Set. After many adventures, he wins the fight and receives the throne of Egypt as an inheritance. The valour and family loyalty of Horus make this god the archetype of the pharaoh. However, his legitimacy is constantly challenged by Set. During a fight between him and his rival, Horus loses his left eye, which is reconstituted by Thoth. Called Udjat or eye of Horus, this eye, which the Egyptians carried on them in the form of amulet, has magic and prophylactic virtues. This left eye reconstituted piece by piece by Thoth represents the moon which increases day after day. In contrast to Set, who represents violence and chaos, Horus embodies order and, like Pharaoh, is one of the guarantors of universal harmony; however, the complex theology of the Egyptians should not be reduced to a Manichean conception of Good and Evil, because, in another myth, Set is the indispensable auxiliary of Ra in his nocturnal fight against the serpent Apophis. Good and evil are complementary aspects of creation, both present in every deity.

From the origins of the pharaonic state, Horus is the protective deity of the monarchy. The falcon god, more particularly the one worshipped at Nekhen, is the power with which Pharaoh identifies himself by seeing himself as his successor and his heir. Even before the creation of the Osirian myth, the fight of Horus and Set is at the basis of the royal ideology. The reconciliation of the two rival deities in the person of the king in office is heavy with significance and is particularly apparent during the investiture ceremonies.

Origins of the Pharaonic State

The pharaonic power appears around 3300 B.C., which makes ancient Egypt the first known state in the world. Its duration covers more than thirty-five centuries and, during all this period, the falcon Horus is the protective god of the pharaohs. Since the historian Manetho, a Hellenized Egyptian in the service of Ptolemy II, the chronology of the reigns is divided into thirty dynasties, from the origins until the conquest of the country by Alexander the Great in 322 BC. The first name on this royal list is that of the pharaoh Menes, “He who founded” or “He who established the state”. The identity of this character remains problematic; it is either a mythical character or a real sovereign, Narmer or Aha according to the proposals commonly put forward. The emergence of a unique authority on the Egyptian territory results from multiple factors (geography, economy, politics, etc.). The details of this unification process are still unclear. It may first have been an aggregation of the populations in the south of the Nile valley, in Upper Egypt, around two or more chiefs, then around one (victory of the city of Nekhen over Noubt). Then, submission of Lower Egypt by Menes and his successors. From the beginning, the myth of the victory of Horus the falcon over Set, the creature of the desert, serves to symbolize the power of the pharaoh. Royal actions, whether warlike or peaceful, are part of politico-religious rituals in which the king, considered as the successor of Horus, is able to influence natural cycles (flooding of the Nile, sun and moon races) in order to satisfy the material needs of his subjects. The Palette of Narmer inaugurates a ritual scene that continues until the end of Egyptian civilization: the massacre of enemies, whose heads are smashed by a club vigorously brandished by Pharaoh. On the palette, Narmer, standing and wearing a white crown, stuns a kneeling enemy whom he holds motionless by the hair. Above the victim, the presence and approval of Horus is shown in the form of a falcon holding in chains a papyrus bundle with a head, probably symbolizing the victory of the South over the North.

According to the archaeological excavations carried out in the upper Nile valley, it seems that around 3500 BC, the two dominant cities were Nekhen and Noubt, respectively patronized by Horus and Set. After the victory of the first over the second, the kings of Nekhen achieved the political unification of Egypt. Before the reign of the pharaoh Narmer-Menes (around 3100 BC), the first representative of the First Dynasty, a dozen kinglets succeeded each other at Nekhen (Dynasty 0). These dynasts all placed themselves under the protection of the falcon god by adopting a “Name of Horus” (Hor, Ny-Hor, Hat-Hor, Pe-Hor, etc.). In various degrees, all of them played an eminent role in the formation of the country. In Egyptian religious thought, the memory of these kinglets has endured under the expression of the “Followers of Horus”. In the Turin Papyrus, these Followers are magnified and idealized by seeing their lineage placed between the dynasty of gods of the Ennead and those of the historical human pharaohs. The Pyramid Texts, the oldest Egyptian religious texts, naturally give an important place to the falcon god of Nekhen adored by the Followers of Horus. We find him designated under different expressions ” Horus of Nekhen “, ” Bull of Nekhen “, ” Horus of the South “, ” Horus, lord of the elite “, ” Horus who resides in the Great Court “, ” Horus who is in the Great Court “, etc.

Known to the Greeks under the toponym of Hierakonpolis, the “City of the Falcons”, Nekhen is a very ancient city today identified with the ruins of Kom el-Ahmar, the “Red Mound”. Founded in prehistory, towards the end of the fourth millennium, Nekhen is during the predynastic period the capital of Upper Egypt. Thereafter, during the pharaonic period, Nekhen on the left bank of the Nile and Nekheb on the right bank form the capital of the IIIrd nome of Upper Egypt. As soon as it was founded, Nekhen had a strong enclosure made of mud bricks, ten meters wide, which enclosed an area of seven hectares. According to the excavated sectors, the city is organized in quasi-rectilinear streets intersecting at right angles. The center is occupied by an official building, probably a residential palace with its own enclosure to isolate it from the rest of the city. The temple of Horus, often reworked, occupied the south-western corner but its remains are now only visible as a vaguely circular artificial mound.

In 1897, two English excavators, James Edward Quibell and Frederick William Green, explored the site of the temple of Nekhen and discovered a “treasure trove” of archaeological finds (a golden falcon head, ivory objects, vases, palettes, commemorative labels, human and animal statuettes). These relics from the Predynastic period, kept by the early Memphite pharaohs, were probably entrusted for preservation to the priests of Horus of Nekhen. It is tempting to imagine that this pious gift was the work of Pepy I (Dynasty VI), a life-size copper statue representing him with his son Merenre having been discovered near the main depository.

Dynastic God

In Egyptian mythology, Horus is best known for being the son of Osiris and the nephew of Set as well as the latter”s assassin. If the deities Horus and Set are very ancient – as early as the predynastic period -, the figure of Osiris appeared much later, at the turn of the IVth and Vth dynasties. The integration of Osiris, during the XXVth century, into the myth of Horus and Set is consequently the result of a theological reformulation (qualified by the French Egyptologist Bernard Mathieu as “Osirian Reform”). The Pyramid Texts are the oldest religious writings available. These magical and religious formulas appear engraved on the walls of burial chambers at the end of the Old Kingdom. However, their elaboration is much more primitive and certain redactional strata seem to go back to the Thinite period (first and second dynasties). There, certain passages mention a conflict between Horus and Set without the person of Osiris being involved. These data can be interpreted as the tenuous traces of a pre-Osiris archaic myth. Several expressions link Horus and Set in a binomial by calling them the “Two Gods”, the “Two Lords”, the “Two Men”, the “Two Rivals” or the “Two Fighters”. Their myth is not set out in a continuous narrative but only alluded to, here and there, by means of scattered allusions which mention that Horus and Set bicker and injure each other; the first losing his eye, the second his testicles:

“Horus fell because of his eye, Set suffered because of his testicles. (§ 594a) “”Horus fell because of his eye, the Bull went away because of his testicles. (§ 418a) “” so that Horus may purify himself from what his brother Set did to him, so that Set may purify himself from what his brother Horus did to him (§ *1944d-*1945a) “”

– Texts from the pyramids (extracts). Translation by Bernard Mathieu.

In his time, the German Egyptologist Kurt Sethe postulated that the myth of the conflict of Horus and Set finds its elaboration in the rivalry between the two primitive rival kingdoms of Lower and Upper Egypt. This hypothesis is now rejected and the consensus is on the archaic rivalry between the cities of Nekhen and Noubt. This idea was put forward in 1960 by John Gwyn Griffiths in his book The Conlict of Horus and Seth. From the earliest written records, the falcon Horus is linked to the city of Nekhen (Hierakonpolis) and his rival Set to the city of Noubt (Ombos). At the end of the protohistoric period, these two cities of Upper Egypt play an essential politico-economic role and tribal tensions exist then between the two competing cities. The struggle of the “Two Fighters” could symbolize the wars waged by the followers of Horus against those of Set. Under king Narmer, probably the legendary Menes, this conflict ended in the victory of Nekhen. Other scholars such as Henri Frankfort and Adriaan de Buck have undermined this theory by considering that the Egyptians, like other ancient or primitive peoples, apprehend the universe in dualistic terms based on opposite but complementary pairs: man woman; red white; sky earth; order disorder; South North, etc. In this framework, Horus and Set are the perfect antagonists. Their struggle symbolizes all the conflicts and disputes where finally the order incarnated by Horus must submit the disorder personified by Set. In 1967, Herman te Velde agrees in Seth, God of Confusion, a monograph devoted to the turbulent Set. He believes that the archaic myth of the confrontation between Horus and Set cannot have been entirely inspired by warlike events that occurred at the dawn of the Pharaonic civilization. The origins of the myth are lost in the mists of prehistoric religious traditions. Myths are never invented from scratch but result from successive reformulations professed by inspired believers. The meager archaeological data that have come down to us from this distant period are of delicate interpretation and can hardly help in reconstructing the genesis of this myth. Contrary to Horus who embodies the pharaonic order, Set is a god without limits, irregular and confused who wants to have sometimes heterosexual, sometimes homosexual relations. Set”s testicles symbolize both the unleashed aspects of the cosmos (storm, gusts, thunder) and those of social life (cruelty, anger, crisis, violence). From a ritual point of view, the Eye of Horus symbolizes the offerings to the gods and has as its counterpart the testicles of Set. For harmony to occur, Horus and Set must be at peace and at odds. Once defeated, Set forms with Horus a peaceful couple, symbol of the good functioning of the world. When the pharaoh is identified with these two deities, he embodies them as a couple of opposites in balance.

The coronation of a pharaoh is a complex sequence of varied rituals whose exact ordering is not yet well reconstructed. The dramatic papyrus from the Ramesseum, which is very fragmentary, appears to be a guide to or an illustrated commentary on the ritual set up for the coronation of Sesostris I (Dynasty 12). The interpretation of this difficult-to-understand document is still debated. According to the German Kurt Sethe and the Frenchman Etienne Drioton, the pharaonic investiture is a kind of sacred spectacle with the new sovereign as the main actor. The action is centered on the gods Osiris and Horus, and its course is inspired by the archaic myth of the confrontation between Horus and Set, augmented by the more recent episode of Horus condemning Set to carry the mummy of Osiris. Ancient Egypt based its civilization on the concept of duality. The country is thus perceived as the union of the “Two Lands”. Main symbol of royalty, the Pschent crown, “the Two Powers”, is the fusion of the red crown of Lower Egypt with the white crown of Upper Egypt. The pharaoh embodies in his person the “Two Fighters”, namely Horus of Nekhen and Set of Noubt. The latter is however subordinate to the former and, in the texts, precedence is always given to Horus. Emblem of the ritual unification of the country, Horus and Set designate the monarchical authority. As early as the First Dynasty, the king in office is a “Horus-Seth” as indicated by a stele dated to King Djer where the queen is “She who sees Horus, sceptre of Horus, she who shoulders Set”. Later, under Cheops, this title is simplified and the queen is “She who sees Horus-Seth”. During the Second Dynasty, the falcon of Horus and the canid of Set jointly surmount the Serekh of king Khasekhemoui. As early as the Old Kingdom, royal iconography shows the binomial Horus and Set crowning the pharaoh or, in the Middle Kingdom, uniting the papyrus and the lotus, the heraldic plants of the two kingdoms, in the scenes of the Sema-taouy or rite of the “Reunion of the Two Lands”.

The title of the pharaoh was of great importance and was charged with considerable magical power. It was enriched and developed from the First Dynasty onwards and reached its culmination – five different names put together – in the Fifth Dynasty. The assembly of the five components constitutes the ren-maâ or “authentic name” by which Pharaoh defines his divine nature. The title is established at the time of the coronation but is likely to evolve during the reign according to the political circumstances and religious developments of the moment. Any modification thus signals inflections in the royal intentions or new divine desires imposed on the sovereign. Whatever his aspect and his role – celestial falcon, creator god or son of Osiris – Horus is the dynastic god par excellence. Also the first component of the royal title is the Name of Horus, already borne by the rulers of Dynasty 0, namely the predecessors of Narmer, considered in the historiography as the first of the pharaohs.

From the beginning, the name of Horus was inscribed in the Serekh, a rectangle always surmounted by the sacred falcon. The lower register represents the stylized façade of the royal palace seen from the front, while the space where the name is inscribed is the palace seen in plan. The significance of the Serekh is obvious: the king in his palace is the earthly Horus, both the incarnation of the falcon god and his rightful successor on the throne of Egypt. During the First Dynasty, the Name of Nesout-bity, symbol of the union of the Two Lands, and the Name of Nebty, patronized by the goddesses Ouadjet and Nekhbet, were established. Later, under the Fourth Dynasty, the Hor Noubt or “Name of the Golden Horus” was added, the interpretation of which is uncertain; under the Old Kingdom, it seems to have been perceived as the union of the gods Horus and Set reconciled in the royal person. Finally, under the reign of Jedefe, the fifth name appears, the Name of Sa-Ra or “Son of Ra” which places the pharaoh under the spiritual filiation of Ra, another falcon god with celestial and solar aspects.

As the son of Osiris, Horus occupies a great place in the Osirian myth. As an adult, the falcon god is the staunch defender of the regal rights of his deceased father. Still a child, his youthful years are troubled by many hazards. Constantly close to death because of attacks by scorpions and snakes, the young Horus, always saved by Isis, became in popular belief a saving and healing god.

Horus, protector of Osiris

According to the French Egyptologist Bernard Mathieu, the appearance of Osiris at the turn of the fourth and fifth dynasties is the result of a large-scale religious reform led by the theologians of Heliopolis. The Osirian myth comes from a process of reformulation in which the very archaic Horus, archetype of the sovereign-god, was first assimilated to the gods Atum-Ra and Geb and then given a purely funerary aspect in the guise of Osiris, chief of the deceased spirits. The reform leads to the creation of a lineage of nine deities, the Ennead of Heliopolis composed of Atum, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Set and Nephthys. In this renewed myth, Horus becomes the son of the couple Osiris-Isis and the nephew of Set. The latter kills Osiris who resurrects thanks to the intervention of Isis. The texts of the pyramids attest to the new family links attributed to Horus. The expression Hor sa Ousir “Horus son of Osiris” appears in many passages. To a lesser extent, one encounters the appellations Hor renpi “Horus the young” and Hor khered nechen “Horus the infant”, prefigurations of the late theonym of Hor pa khered “Horus the child” (Harpocrates) only coined after the end of the New Kingdom. The expression Hor sa Aset “Horus son of Isis” (Horsaised) does not appear until after the First Intermediate Period. However, the pyramid texts do not ignore the filiation through the mother, as shown by the expressions “his Horus to her”, “his Horus” when speaking about Isis.

Osiris is the most famous of the Egyptian funerary gods. With Isis, his wife, his popularity will increase during the whole Egyptian religious history. In the Lower Period and then during the Greco-Roman period, the god had one or more chapels in the main temples of the country. There, during the month of Khoiak, the ceremonial of the Mysteries of Osiris are carried out, which are the updating of the myth by the grace of the rite. The story of his assassination and his access to eternal life made his glory, each individual in Egypt identifying with his fate. The Egyptian sources are rather elliptical about the murder of Osiris. The main lines of the myth were first exposed by the Greek Plutarch in the second century. Set, jealous of his brother, murders King Osiris by locking him in a chest and throwing it into the river. After a long search, Isis finds the body in Byblos, brings it back to the country and hides it in the Delta marshes. During a hunting party, Seth discovers the body and, furious, dismembers Osiris in fourteen pieces which he throws far away. After a long quest, Isis finds the scattered members and reconstitutes the body by mummifying it. Transformed into a bird, Isis mated with her dead husband and conceived Horus, a premature and sickly son. When he became an adult, Horus entered into a fight with Set. After several battles, Horus defeats his rival and is proclaimed king of Egypt (On Isis and Osiris, § 13-19).

Known in Egyptian as Hor-nedj-itef “Horus the defender of his father” or “Horus who cares for his father”, Harendotes is the form of Horus in the guise of the caring son. In ancient Egypt, the love of the son for the father is one of the highest moral values. This filial love is just as important as the love that must reign within the male-female couple embodied by the Osiris-Isis relationship. Although a posthumous son, Horus is the pugnacious defender of his father”s rights usurped by Set. After his assassination, Osiris finds himself cut off from the community of gods and deprived of his royal status. As an adult, Horus has only one goal: to restore Osiris” dignity and honor as king. As early as the Pyramid Texts, many texts state that Horus gave his father back his crowns and made him the king of the gods and the ruler of the empire of the dead. The social restoration of Osiris is embodied in two images constantly recalled in the funeral liturgies: that of the straightening of the mummy (Osiris is no longer lying down, but is standing upright) and that of the humiliation of Set, the assassin being condemned by Horus to carry the heavy mummy of Osiris to his tomb:

“O Osiris (king)! Horus has put you at the head of the gods, he has made sure that you take possession of the white crown, of the lady (or whatever is yours). Horus has found you, and it is happy for him. Come out against your enemy! You are greater than him in your name of “great sanctuary”. Horus made you rise in your name of “great rising”, he tore you away from your enemy, he protected you in his time. Geb saw your form and put you on your throne. Horus stretched out for you your enemy under you, you are more ancient than he. You are the father of Horus, his progenitor in your name of “progenitor”. The heart of Horus occupies a pre-eminent place with you in your name of Khentimenty.”

– Texts of the pyramids, chap. 371. Translation by Jan Assmann.

Much more than the Pyramid Texts and the Sarcophagus Texts, which are relatively unknown to contemporaries, the Book of the Dead, because of its rich illustrations, enjoys great notoriety among the general public. Among the most famous illustrations is the scene of the judgment of the soul (chapters 33B and 125). The heart of the dead man is placed on one of the two plates of a large scale, while the goddess Maat (Harmony), on the other plate, serves as a reference weight. The image of this weighing does not go back beyond the reign of Amenhotep II (beginning of the XVIIIth dynasty) but will be tirelessly reproduced during sixteen centuries until the Roman period. According to the copies of the Book of the Dead, Horus under his aspect of hierocephalic man is brought to play two different roles. He can appear near the scales as the “master of the weighing”. He keeps the flail horizontal so that the heart and the Ma”at are in balance. The deceased is considered to be free of faults and is proclaimed “Righteous of Voice”, that is, admitted into the retinue of Osiris. At the end of the eighteenth dynasty this role of controller is most often entrusted to Anubis. Horus then appears in the role of “attendant of the dead”. After the weighing, the dead man is led before Osiris seated on his throne and accompanied by Isis and Nephthys, the two sisters standing behind him. In some examples, the role of attendant is given to Thoth, but more often it is Horus who is given this responsibility. With one hand, Horus greets his father and with the other, he holds the hand of the deceased, who, as a sign of respect, bows to the king of the afterlife. Received in audience, the deceased sits before Osiris. Chapter 173 of the Book of the Dead indicates the words pronounced during this interview. The deceased assumes the identity of Horus and, in a long recitation, enumerates forty good deeds that a caring son must perform for his dead father as part of an effective funeral cult:

Horus the Child

According to the Osirian myth reported by Plutarch in the 2nd century BC, the young Horus is the posthumous son of Osiris, conceived by Isis during her union with the mummy of her husband. This child would have been born premature and imperfect because his lower limbs were weak (On Isis and Osiris, § 19 and 65). In Pharaonic thought, the beneficial years of Osiris” reign are only a kind of prelude intended to justify the proclamation of Horus as the rightful possessor of the throne. The transmission of the kingship from Osiris the murdered father, via Set the usurping brother, to Horus the attentive son, is only possible thanks to the efficient action of the cunning Isis, an extraordinary magician. After the assassination and the dismemberment of her husband, Isis finds the scattered members and reconstitutes the dismembered body by mummifying it. Thanks to her magic power, the goddess manages to revive the remains of the deceased god, just long enough to have a sexual relationship with him, in order to conceive Horus. According to Plutarch, the only part of the body of Osiris that Isis did not manage to find is the virile member because thrown in the river and devoured by the fish pagres, lepidotes and oxyrhynques. To replace it, she made an imitation (On Isis and Osiris, § 18). This assertion is not, however, confirmed by the Egyptian writings for which the limb was found in Mendes.

The mystical coupling of Osiris and Isis is already known from the Pyramid Texts where it is integrated into an astral dimension. Osiris is identified with the constellation Sah (Orion), Isis with the constellation Sopedet (Great Dog) and Horus with the star Soped (Sirius). In the iconography, the moment of the posthumous mating appears only in the New Kingdom. The scene is engraved on the walls of the chapel of Sokar in the funerary temple of Sety I in Abydos. In one of the bas-reliefs, Osiris is shown awake and lying on a burial bed. Like Atum when he emerged from the primordial waters to conceive the universe, Osiris manually stimulates his erect penis to induce ejaculation. On the opposite wall, a second bas-relief shows Osiris, erect, mating with Isis, transformed into a bird of prey and fluttering above the phallus. The goddess is shown a second time, at the head of the funeral bed, while Horus is also already present, at his father”s feet, in the guise of a hierocephalic man. Both deities extend their arms above Osiris in protection. In these two mythological frescoes, which take place inside the tomb of Osiris, the present and the future merge, showing the coupling and anticipating the realization of the future divine triad through the joint presence of Osiris, Isis and Horus.

In his juvenile form, the god Horus is known as Harpocrates (from the Greek Ἁρποκράτης Harpokratês) derived from the Egyptian phrase Hor-pa-khered, which means “Horus the child.” In iconography, Harpocrates appears as a young child who is entirely naked and bald except for the lock of childhood, a braided curl of hair that from the temple wraps around his ear. The young god usually brings one of his hands to his mouth to suck a finger. During the Greco-Roman period, this gesture was reinterpreted as a gesture inciting to silence and discretion and was perceived as the symbol of the secret teachings professed by the Egyptian priests to the young initiates. His cult developed from the end of the New Kingdom to reach its peak around the second century AD. The young god, very popular within families, was then present in homes in the form of terracotta or bronze statuettes. These figurines, mixing Egyptian and Greek styles, show Harpocrates standing, sitting, lying down or riding an animal (dog, donkey, horse, goose, frog, etc.). His cult is attested in the main Egyptian cities; in Upper Egypt in Thebes, Coptos, Hermonthis, Heracleopolis and Philæ; in Lower Egypt, in Bubastis, Isiospolis, Mendes, Alexandria and in the Fayum.

As early as the third millennium, the pyramid texts evoke the birth, youth and adulthood of the god Horus. However, his image as a child-god only became fixed much later, in the first millennium B.C., when Egyptian theologians took the habit of adding specifically childish figures to the adult gods. From the historical point of view, Harpocrates is an artificial creation due to the priests of Thebes and which, afterwards, developed in the popular strata outside the official religion. The first written mention of Harpocrates goes back to the XXIst dynasty in the title of the priestesses assigned to the Theban triad constituted by the god Amun, the goddess Mut and the son-god Khonsu. As for her first known representation, she appears on a stele erected at Mendes during the reign of Sheshonq III (XXIIth Libyan dynasty) to commemorate a donation from the flute player Ânkhhorpakhered. Originally, Harpocrates is elaborated as a duplicate of Khonsu-child (Khonsu-pa-khered). It was then a question of giving a son-god with strictly childlike aspects to the couple formed by the funerary gods Osiris and Isis. Unlike Horus, who until then was essentially perceived as an adult god, the nature of Khonsu, a lunar god, was characterized by youth. Initially, the cults of Harpocrates and Khonsu are combined in a sanctuary located in the enclosure of Mut at Karnak. This sanctuary, transformed into Mammisi under the XXIst dynasty, celebrates the divine birth of the pharaoh in scenes where the maternity of the queen mother is assimilated to those of Mut and Isis. The conjunction of Amonian and Osirian beliefs has the effect that the god Harpocrates is first gratified with a double ancestry as in the graffiti of the quarries of Ouadi Hammamat “Horus the child, son of Osiris and Isis, the Great, the Ancient, the first born of Amun”. However, the vitality of the Osirian religion made Harpocrates the paragon of the child-gods within the sole framework of the Osirian family (Osiris, Isis, Horus) erected as the perfect and ideal model of family solidarity.

The “Steles of Horus”, also called “Cippes of Horus”, are archaeological pieces of varying sizes (from 80 cm to less than 5 cm) made of dark hard stone (basalt or schist). Their main function is to magically protect or heal a person who has been affected by a venomous animal, Egypt being a land infested by many species of scorpions and snakes. The stelae are characterized by a central representation of the god Harpocrates, naked, seen from the front and surmounted by the hideous mask of the dwarf Bes. Harpocrates is shown standing on one or more crocodiles. In his hands he holds snakes, lions, gazelles and scorpions. Depending on the size and quality of the stelae, they were either kept in sanctuaries or homes, or carried as talismans by individuals during their travels. From the origins of Egyptian civilization, the priests were concerned about possible attacks by reptiles and insects. In the pyramids with texts, numerous formulas thus come to the aid of the deceased sovereigns busy traveling in the afterlife. As for the Horus stelae, they are attested between the New Kingdom and the Roman period and have been found in a vast area that goes far beyond the borders of their country of origin (Italy, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Ethiopia). The oldest examples date back to the nineteenth dynasty and are inspired by stelae dedicated to the god Shed, “The Savior”, which the inhabitants of Amarna kept in their homes. Some four hundred stelae of Horus are known and preserved throughout the world. The Louvre Museum owns about forty of them, including the Healing Statue of Padimahes (67 cm high), which shows a standing priest with a small Horian stele in his hands and a garment covered with inscriptions.

Among the most important pieces, the Metternich Stele is the most famous with its two hundred and forty representations and two hundred and fifty lines of hieroglyphic text. This artifact is now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and was made for the priest-doctor Nestum during the reign of Nectanebo I (Dynasty 30). The process of using these magical objects is simple. The healer poured water on the stele; as it flowed, the liquid became charged with the magical power of the engraved texts and drawings and the practitioner collected the magical liquid to give it to the patient to drink while reciting the most appropriate incantations. On most copies, the face of young Horus is heavily eroded. Thus, it is likely that patients were also required to touch or caress the divine face as a sign of piety, submission and adoration.

The magical efficacy of the “Horus Steles” is based on the mention of mythological episodes that portray the young Horus as the victim of his uncle Set”s evil spells and then as the beneficiary of his mother Isis” beneficial powers. In the magical formulas engraved on the stelae (or inscribed on the pages of late grimoires), Horus is the divine model of the saved and saving child, because ultimately invincible. The healer, by making his patient relive the illness and then the healing of Horus, places him in an archetypal situation where the gods are called upon to come to the aid of one of their own in distress. Among all the stelae discovered to date, the magical inscriptions engraved on the Metternich Stele are the most remarkable. The text was first published in 1877 by the Russian Vladimir Golenichev in a German translation. Since then, the document has been transposed several times into French, notably by the Egyptologists Alexandre Moret (in 1915).

The stele thus relates an episode of the tumultuous childhood of Horus. After the murder of Osiris, his wife Isis hides his son Horus in the marshes of Chemnis located around the city of Bouto. The young god is indeed constantly under the threat of his uncle Set who seeks to eliminate him physically in order to better establish his despotic power over the Egyptian country. Abandoned by his mother, who is busy finding a means of subsistence, Horus is the victim of a scorpion”s sting. In the evening, Isis finds her son inanimate and close to death. Desperate, she seeks help from the Egyptians. Nobody succeeds in curing the young victim but the continuous complaints of Isis make Nephthys and Selkis run to her. The latter immediately advises the distressed mother to call upon Ra. Moved by the despair of Isis, the solar god stops his celestial race, stops in the sky and sends Thoth near the young agonizing. After many incantatory words, Thot succeeds in evacuating the poison of the body of Horus who at once returns to the life. That made, Thot orders the inhabitants of Bouto to take care constantly on the young god in the absence of Isis. He then returns to Ra in the sky and announces to his master that the solar race can now continue normally.

Two major episodes punctuate the myth of the struggle of Horus and Set. The first is the birth of Thoth, the lunar god, born from the seed of Horus and from the forehead of Set. The second is the momentary loss of the left eye of Horus, damaged by Set. This eye is the symbol of the lunar cycle and of the rituals intended to revive the dead.

Adventures of Horus and Set

The myth of the confrontation between Horus and Set is attested in the oldest Egyptian writings which are the Pyramid Texts. This set of magical formulas and religious hymns is found engraved in the burial chambers of the last pharaohs of the Old Kingdom. However, these are only scattered allusions, these writings being liturgies intended for post-mortem survival and not mythological accounts. Subsequently, this conflict is evoked just as allusively in the Texts of the sarcophagi and the Book of the Dead. In the present state of Egyptological knowledge, it is necessary to wait until the end of the New Kingdom and the Ramesside Period (twelfth century) to see a true account of the adventures of the two rival deities. The myth is recorded on a papyrus in hieratic writing found at Deir el-Medinah (Thebes) in the remains of a family library. After its discovery, the papyrus became part of the collection of the millionaire industrialist Alfred Chester Beatty and has since been kept in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin. Its first translator was the British Egyptologist Alan Henderson Gardiner, published in 1931 by Oxford University Press. Since then this story is known under the title The Contendings of Horus and Seth. This scholar was rather condescending about this story, which he considered to belong to popular and ribald literature, his puritanical morality disapproving of certain episodes such as the mutilations of Isis and Horus (decapitation, amputation, enucleation) or the homosexual inclinations of Set. Since then, the Adventures have been translated into French many times, the first being by Gustave Lefebvre in 1949. In recent Egyptological works, one can only cite the translation delivered in 1996 by Michèle Broze. This thorough analysis has demonstrated the literary richness and subtle coherence of a work elaborated by a scholarly scribe, very skilful in a narrative not devoid of humor.

After the disappearance of Osiris, the crown of Egypt rightfully belongs to the young Horus, his son and heir. But his uncle Set, judging him too inexperienced, ardently desires to be proclaimed king by the assembly of the gods. Horus, supported by his mother Isis, summons the court of the gods to settle this dispute. Ra presides, while Thoth holds the role of the clerk. Eighty years pass without the debate progressing. The court is divided between the supporters of the legitimate kingship (belonging to Horus), and Ra who sees in Set his perpetual defender against Apophis (the monstrous serpent of the origins). The debates go round in circles and require an external opinion. It is thus to Neith, goddess of Sais, reputed for her infinite wisdom, that Thoth addresses a missive. The answer of the goddess is without ambiguity: the crown must return to Horus. However, in order not to penalize Set, Neith proposes to offer him the goddesses Anat and Astarte as wives.

The court is delighted with this solution, but Ra remains skeptical. Wouldn”t Horus be a bit young to take over the leadership of the kingdom? After some clashes between the two parts and exceeded by so much procrastination, Ra orders the transfer of the debates towards the Middle Island. Furious against Isis, Set asks that the debates continue in his absence. The request is accepted by Ra who orders Anti to prohibit the access to any woman.

But it was to count without the tenacity of the goddess. She bribes Anti and reintroduces herself in the court under the features of a beautiful young woman. Quickly, she does not fail to attract the attention of Set. Both end up conversing and, disturbed by so much beauty, Set gets lost in compromising remarks by recognizing under cover the filial legitimacy of Horus ! The cunning Isis then reveals herself. The coup de théâtre leaves Set speechless. As for Ra, he can only judge the imprudence of Set who has confided, without taking care, to an unknown woman. Dejected, he orders the crowning of Horus and punishes Anti for having let himself be corrupted by Isis.

But the angry Set is not decided to stay there. He proposes to Horus an aquatic test where the two gods are transformed into hippopotamuses. The one who stays underwater the longest can become king. But Isis, who follows closely the misadventures of her son, disturbs the game. She finally attracts the displeasure of Horus who, mad with rage, decapitates her and transforms her into a stone statue. But Thoth gives her back her life by attaching a cow”s head to her neck. After his misdeed, Horus flees to the desert. But, pursued by Set, he is quickly caught up. Quickly, Set throws Horus to the ground and tears out his two eyes which he buries. The goddess Hathor, moved by Horus” sad fate, cures him with a remedy of antelope milk.

Learning this story and tired of these endless bickerings, Ra orders the reconciliation of the two belligerents around a banquet. But once again, Set decides to disturb the situation. He invites his nephew to spend the evening at his place, which the latter accepts. During the night, Set tries to feminize Horus during a homosexual relation in order to make him unworthy of the royal power. However, Horus manages to avoid the assault and collects the seed of his uncle between his hands. The young god runs towards his mother. Horrified, she cuts the hands of her son and throws them in the river to purify them. Afterwards, she masturbates her son, collects his seed and puts it on a lettuce in Seth”s garden. Careless, Seth eats the lettuce and is knocked up. In front of all the gods, he gives birth to the lunar disk which springs out of his forehead. Set wants to smash it on the ground but Thoth seizes it and appropriates it.

After a final aquatic test, proposed by Set and won by Horus, Osiris, who had remained silent until then, intervenes from the afterlife and directly questions the court, which he considers too lax. As god of vegetation, he threatens to cut off Egypt”s food supplies and to decimate the population by disease. The gods, upset by so much authority, do not delay in giving a verdict favorable to Horus. But Set is not forgotten. Placed at the side of Ra, he becomes “the one who howls in the sky”, the very respected god of the storm.

Myth of the Eye of Horus

In the papyrus of the Adventures of Horus, Set, in order to separate himself from Horus, proposes that they both transform themselves into hippopotamuses and that they dive into the waters of the river. The one who comes up before three months have passed, will not be crowned. The two rivals throw themselves into the Nile. But Isis, fearing for the life of her son, decides to intervene. She makes a magic spear to harpoon Set to force him to emerge from the waters. She throws her harpoon but it unfortunately touches Horus. Without interrupting, the goddess throws a second time her harpoon and touches Set. The latter piteously implores her to remove the weapon from his body; which she does. By noticing this clemency, Horus gets angry and decapitates his mother. Immediately, Isis is transformed into an acephalous stone statue:

“Ra-Harakhty uttered a great cry and said to the Ennead: “Let us hasten and inflict a great punishment upon him. The Ennead climbed the mountains to seek Horus, the son of Isis. Now Horus was lying under a tree in the land of the oasis. Set discovered him and seized him, threw him on his back on the mountain, tore out his two Udjat eyes from their place, buried them in the mountain so that they would light up the earth (…) Hathor, Lady of the southern sycamore tree, went away and found Horus, while he was collapsed in tears in the desert. She took a gazelle, took some milk from it and said to Horus: “Open your eyes, that I may put some milk in them”. He opened his eyes, and she put the milk in them (she put some in the right one, she put some in the left one, and (…) she found him restored.”

– Adventures of Horus and Set (excerpts). Translation by Michèle Broze

During the Greco-Roman period, more than a millennium after the writing of the Adventures of Horus and Set, the Papyrus Jumilhac, a monograph devoted to the Anubian legends of the Cynopolitan, does not fail to evoke the myth of the loss of Horus” eyes. Set having learned that the eyes were locked in two heavy stone boxes orders accomplices to steal them. Once in his hands, he loads the boxes on his back, deposits them at the top of a mountain and transforms himself into a gigantic crocodile to watch over them. But Anubis, transformed into a snake, slips by the boxes, takes possession of the eyes and deposits them in two new papyrus boxes. After burying them further north, Anubis returns to Set to consume him. At the place where Anubis buried the eyes, a sacred vineyard emerged where Isis established a chapel to stay close to them.

In Egyptian religious thought, the birth of the Moon is equated with the appearance of the Eye of Horus and the coming into the world of the god Thoth. According to the Adventures of Horus and Set, the lunar disk came out of Set”s forehead after he had swallowed a lettuce impregnated with Horus” semen. The seed of Horus” sprang up in the form of a golden disk on the head of Set. Set went into a rage and reached out to grab the golden disk. Thoth took it from him and placed it as a crown on his head. This mythological episode was obviously already known at the time of the Pyramid Texts, for one allusion indicates that Thoth came from Set. Another reports that the Eye of Horus, i.e. the Moon, was removed from Set”s forehead. In the sarcophagus texts, Thoth informs Osiris that he is “the son of his son, the seed of his seed,” in other words, the grandson of Osiris through Horus. Elsewhere, Thoth is called “the son of the Two Rivals” or “the son of the Two Lords” or “the son of the Two Lords who came out of the forehead. The strange birth of Thoth symbolizes the end of the conflict. As “Master of the Maat” (cosmic harmony) and common son of Horus and Set, he is “the one who separates the Two Companions”. So he plays the mediator to put an end to this incessant struggle.

Lunar symbolism of the Eye

If, in the papyrus of the Adventures of Horus and Set, Horus is gouged out of both eyes, in a more general way, the Egyptian texts mention mainly the enucleation of the left eye only. Represented as a farded human eye, the Udjat, “the untouched”, represents the eye torn out of Horus by Set during their fight. Thrown to the ground and torn into six pieces, the eye is reconstituted by Thoth, who completes it and returns it healed and healthy to its owner. The sarcophagus texts mention this myth several times. One passage indicates that Thoth searched for the pieces and put them together:

“I am Thoth (…). I have returned from the quest for the eye of Horus: I have brought it back and counted it, I have found it complete, counted and intact; its blaze goes up to the sky, and its breath up and down “.

– Texts of the sarcophagi, chap. 249 (extracts). Translation by Paul Barguet.

Another evokes the fight of Horus and Set and the happy intervention of Thoth:

“I have reconstructed the eye after it was mutilated on that day of the struggle of the Two Companions; – What is the struggle of the Two Companions? It is the day when Horus wrestled with Set, when Set sent miasma in the face of Horus and when Horus tore off the testicles of Set. But it was Thoth who treated this with his fingers.

– Texts of the sarcophagi, chap. 334 (extract). Translation by Paul Barguet.

The removal of the eye is an allegory of the waning phase of the Moon; its reconstruction is that of the waxing phase. According to Plutarch, the mutilation can also signify lunar eclipses (On Isis and Osiris, § 55). In the temples, the priests ensured the proper functioning of the cosmos by performing the ritual of “Completing the Eye of Horus” which consisted of a series of offerings delivered daily to the Eye in order to help its reconstitution.

In the pyramid texts, the Eye of Horus holds a considerable place. In many instances, this eye symbolizes the funeral offerings (bread, water, wine, beer, incense, cloths, ointments) brought to the deceased pharaoh by the officiating priests. According to this liturgy, the pharaoh is assimilated to Osiris. Horus, as a loving son, wants to revive him. To do this, Horus offers him his own Eye so that he can see again and stand on his legs. In this context, the possession of vision means the return of all the sensory, psychic and physical abilities that the royal character lost at the time of his death. Many statements show that the context is lunar. The archaic myth of the battle of Horus and Set, the “Two Fighters”, is tirelessly evoked. When a priest, while depositing an offering, says that the Eye of Horus is wounded, that it suffers, that it is blinded, that it bounces back or that Set eats it, he is referring to the celestial tribulations of the Moon, an unstable star that has been disappearing and reappearing tirelessly since the original wound inflicted on it by Set:

The heap of offerings offered to the pharaoh is not to be seen as a gift to the gods. The offering is a sacred ritual gesture that aims at restoring the Maat, the cosmic order upset by the “Two Fighters”. This harmony is only achieved when Horus has his eye wounded by Set again and Set has his testicles sore from Horus. However, the offerings are only called in the name of Horus” eye and never in the name of Set”s testicles, at least explicitly. Set being the god of confusion, his symbol is too dangerous to be invoked independently of that of Horus. Some passages nevertheless presuppose a necessary union of the two opposing forces during the ritual, their appeasement being symbolized by the presence of Thoth, the “Son of Two Rivals”, god of the scribes and ritualists:

The magnificent temple of Edfu dedicated to Horus is one of the best preserved Egyptian sanctuaries. Its walls display the ancient rites and annual festivities that were practiced there. Highlights include the enthronement of the sacred falcon, the visit to the statue of Hathor of Denderah, and the birth of the god Harsomtus. The main enemies of Horbehedety (the local form of Horus) are the primordial serpent and Set the hippopotamus.

Local God

Horbehedety or “Horus of Behedet” is the form of Horus worshipped at Edfu, the Egyptian word behedou meaning the “Place of the Throne” and the name Behedet being one of the Egyptian place names of the city. This god can be represented as a crouching hawk crowned or not with the Pschent, but as the moving Sun, he is represented as a winged solar disk accompanied by two snakes-uraei.

Capital of the Second Nome of Upper Egypt, Edfu was a powerful regional city from the Old Kingdom on. In the 6th Dynasty, it was an advanced post to monitor the activities of Nubia and acted as a granary for the less generously endowed neighboring nomes. Edfu is also turned towards the caravan routes leading to the Libyan desert. During the Ptolemaic period, Edfu acquired a new cult building, currently one of the best preserved; the temple of Horus. Construction began on August 23, 237 BC and was completed in 57 BC. The temple is about one hundred and forty meters long and follows a south-north axis parallel to the Nile. The building is made up of three main architectural ensembles: the sanctuary (or main part) made up of several chapels destined for divine worship, the pronaos, i.e. a forecourt that opens onto an inner courtyard, and the forecourt dominated by its entrance pylon. Excavations have uncovered some remains of an earlier building, fragments dating to Dynasty 17, as well as elements of a portal from Dynasty 25. The naos that contained the statue of Horus also dates to the earlier building. It is a gray granite monolith, four meters high, and dates to the reign of Nectanebo II (Dynasty 30). The walls are covered with inscriptions. Some illustrate the gestures of daily worship, others are learned theological syntheses from ancient traditions copied from papyri kept in the sacred archives.

In Edfu, but also in Philæ and Athribis, the soul-Ba of the god Horus manifests itself in a living representative considered as sacred. According to the Greek geographer Strabo, the raptor of Philæ is venerated for life. At its death, a successor is then sought in the south, in Nubia (at least for the Ptolemaic period). The sacred bird is replaced each year by another and then enthroned as a new living Horus. To proceed to the choice of the new bird of prey, the statue of Horus is taken out of its sanctuary. It is then led in procession, carried by officiants wearing jackal and falcon masks to the Temple of the Living Falcon. This building, which no longer exists today, was probably located near the entrance to the sacred precinct. The statue then proceeds to review several birds of prey that were considered, by their visual appearance, to be similar to the beauty of Ra. These birds were probably raised in a sacred aviary and fed by officiants specially charged with their care. To signify its choice, the statue of Horus stands still and then bows to the representative of the coming year. During several days a long coronation ceremony takes place during which the living falcon and the cult statue of Horus are associated. In the temple, the bird is given the attributes of royalty by the gods, in particular by Hathor. After the enthronement, the bird leaves to reside in the enclosure of the Temple of the Falcon. It is not known, however, whether at the end of the year the bird was sacrificed for burial or whether it joined its fellow birds in the collective aviary.

Mythology of Edfu

The current name of Edfu comes from the Coptic Atbo which is a deformation of the Egyptian name Djebaou, “The City of the Floater”. At various points of the surrounding wall of the temple of Horus of Edfu, textual allusions relate the mythical origins and explain the name given to the city by the creative god. Before the world came into existence, there existed only the chaotic waters of the Noun. In this muddy mire, a mass of reeds and rushes formed a drifting island. At the same time, a divine power, the Falcon, was hovering in the sky, looking for a place to land. He noticed the cluster of reeds and landed there. The Creator approved of this halt and made himself visible by transforming into a gigantic bird with gemstone plumage and a human face. He descended from the heavens to the island of vegetation, made it solid and firm ground, and gave it to the Falcon as a gift. The Creator then returned to the sky and disappeared, but not without proclaiming that the universe had the Falcon as its master:

“As soon as the reeds came as the shore of the beginning, the Two Lords made the float-djeba immobile on the waters; when the territory was seen by him hovering in a circle, the Falcon came and the reeds carried him. Thus came into existence the Float-djeba, thus came into existence the Support of the Falcon-Outjesek-Bik.”

– Cosmogony of Edfu (extract). Translation by J.-Cl. Goyon.

As soon as the land was formed, the forces of evil manifested themselves in the form of the serpent Apophis. The Falcon repelled the attack and destroyed the water monster. To defeat the reptile, the Creator invented a magical weapon, the sword-segmeh, and gave it to the Falcon as a gift. Since that time, Edfu has been protected by four genies, emanations of the Falcon: in the west by the bull “Mighty of the Roar”, in the east by the lion “Lord of the Knife”, in the south by the falcon “Lord of the Harpoon” and in the north by the serpent “Great of Terror”. These four defenders in turn created four battalions made up of sixty guardian gods in their image. Since then, this defensive army has manifested itself in the form of the temple wall:

“But then the great god created his appearance of a Falcon; he rose up to the top of the sky above his enemy; great was his size, powerful were his wings, and he drove the serpent-sebty out of his territory. Thus came into existence “Horus of Edfu great god, lord of the sky” as the great name of this god.

– Cosmogony of Edfu (extract). Translation by J.-Cl. Goyon.

In addition to the primordial battle against the serpent Apophis, the walls of the temple at Edfu tell of the battle Horus waged against his uncle Set, who was transformed into a hippopotamus. This mythical episode is recorded on the inner façade of the western wall and is presented as a series of eleven bas-reliefs separated by columns of hieroglyphs. In an idealized form, these inscriptions present the different phases of a ritual celebrated each year in the temple on 21 Mechir (the sixth month of the Nilotic calendar). In the course of the ceremony, a priest placed before the statue of Horus the Harbinger pierces a hippopotamus figure with ten stabs and then cuts it up to offer the pieces to the gods. The purpose of the ritual is to keep the enemies of Horus and Pharaoh away from the temple. During the execution, an officiant chanted the psalms reproduced on the walls. The action of the myth is double; it is situated partly in Bousiris and partly in Bouto, two cities of the Nile delta in Lower Egypt. Set and his accomplices are the personification of the enemies of the Egyptian kingdom. They threaten Ra and invade the country in the form of crocodiles and hippos. These animals are however killed by Horus under the encouragement of his mother Isis:

“Strengthen your legs against this hippopotamus, seize him with your hand. Become subject, you will remedy the evil, you will mistreat who mistreated you, my son Horus! How good it will be to walk on the bank without obstacle, to pass the water without the sand giving way under your feet, without a thorn pricking them, without the Aquatic showing himself, until one sees your strength, until your spear is planted in him, my son Horus! Here you are on a bank without brushwood, a shore without bushes. Your spears will jump in the middle of the river like a wild goose to its young. Shoot, I beg you, on the surface of the Nile, plunge your stroke in it, my son Horus! Tomorrow your exploits will be seen like those of Haroeris on the banks. Do not fear his power, do not shrink from the Aquatic! May you take your javelin and finish with him. My son Horus, O sweet one of love!”

– Ritual of the massacre, words of Isis to Horus. Translation by Etienne Drioton.

Triad of Edfu

In each temple, the cultic year is punctuated by festivals. Each sanctuary has its own calendar cycle but the most common festivities are the rituals of the New Year and the Mysteries of Osiris. For the Temple of Hathor at Denderah and the Temple of Horus at Edfu, the most typical celebration is the “Good Meeting” when the statue of Hathor at Denderah travels up the river in a boat to join Horus her husband at Edfu. During the month of Epiphi, when the Nile is at its lowest ebb, Hathor leaves her sanctuary and heads south. All the details of the river procession are not known. On its journey, Hathor”s sacred bark stops at the major temples along the way. The statue of Hathor thus visits the deities of Coptos, Thebes and Hierakonpolis before reaching the city of Edfu and its god Horus. The union of the statues of Horus and Hathor takes place during the ascending phase of the Moon in the month of Epiphi. After this period, Hathor returns home. According to the myth, after ten months of gestation, a divine child is born during the month of Pharmouti, a son who takes the name of Ihy in Denderah and Harsomtous in Edfu.

According to the theological system of Edfu, the god Horus, his companion Hathor and their son Harsomtous form a triad, i.e. a divine family. The child-god Harsomtous derives his Greek name from the Egyptian expression Hor-sema-taouy which means “Horus who unites the Two Lands”. His most common iconography is very close to that of Harpocrates, naked with a finger held to his mouth. Very close to Somtous of Heracleopolis, without however being confused with him, Harsomtous represents the divine and royal heir in whom the country places its hopes for continuation and renewal, for peace and stability. His assimilation to the primordial sun means that he is also shown as a young child born sitting outside a lotus flower, wearing the Hemhem and triumphing over the chaotic waters of the Noun.

The divine Horus was, among other things, perceived as an immense celestial falcon of which the Sun and the Moon are the two eyes. This primordial god was venerated in Kom Ombo under the name of Horus the Elder, in Heliopolis under the name of Horakhty (several variants: Harakhti, Harakati…) and in Letopolis under the name of Khenty-irty.

Horus the Elder

Hor-Our (known to the Greeks as Haroeris) is a god whose name literally means “Horus the Great”, an expression that should be understood in the sense of “Horus the Elder” or “Horus the Elder”. This god is very early represented as a hawk standing on its legs or crouching. He can also appear as a fully anthropomorphic or, more commonly, as a man with the head of a falcon wearing the Pschent or the solar disk. He can also be represented as a lion or a lion with a falcon head. The Greek Plutarch reports that his parents Osiris and Isis, very much in love, were already mating, before being born, in the darkness of their own mother Nut”s womb. Hor-Our would have been born from this early union on the second of the five epagomenal days (On Isis and Osiris, § 12). Horus the Elder was venerated in several cities. In Qus he is known from the Old Kingdom. His presence is also attested at Letopolis in the Delta where he protects the scapula of Osiris, a relic from the Osirian body dismembered by Set. At Edfu, Horus the Elder is one with Horbehedety. In his temple of Kom Ombo, he is assimilated to Shu, the god of the vital breath, to the god Heh, the personification of eternity, and to the giant primordial falcon Mekhenty-Irty whose two eyes are the Sun and the Moon. In this role, he is more or less blind according to the lunar cycle. He gradually recovers his sight between the days that separate the neomenia (new moon) from the full moon. According to the belief that religious rituals help the cosmos to perpetuate itself, he recovers his lunar eye through the sacred offering of the Udjat (also called Eye of Horus). When his eye is finally healthy and restored, Pharaoh offers him the sword-iyt, “The Coming One”. By this gesture of offering, he becomes “Horus with the armed arm” who, at night, effectively chases away the evil enemies of Ra and promptly cuts off their heads.

At Kom Umbo (the ancient Umbos), in the First Nome of Upper Egypt, the falcon Horus the Elder is jointly venerated with the crocodile Sobek. Excavations have shown the existence of a sanctuary built by Thutmosis III during the New Kingdom, but the ruined building that has come down to us is more recent. According to the inscribed royal names, the temple was rebuilt between the reigns of Ptolemy VI and Ptolemy VIII (Ptolemaic period). The plan of the building, a sanctuary preceded by two hypostyle halls, is classical but has the peculiarity of being a double temple dedicated to two triads assimilated to each other. To the south, the first divine family is composed of Sobek, Hathor and the son-god Khonsu. To the north, the second family consists of Horus the Elder and two artificial deities, the goddess Tasenetnofret, “The Perfect Sister,” and the child-god Panebtaouy, “The Lord of the Two Lands. The goddess is a local form of Hathor while her son represents the god Horus in his youth. In the scenes carved on the walls, many theological combinations are employed, especially with the deities of the Heliopolis Ennead; Horus the Elder appears as Shu and Sobek as Geb. Also Sobek is perceived as the continuator of Horus the Elder, the god Shu being the father of Geb. The mother-goddesses Tasenetnofret and Hathor are naturally confused with each other and brought closer to Tefnut and Nut. It is the same with Khonsu and Panebtaouy considered as a single son-god. Finally, the main idea of the temple is the perpetuation of life through the model of the divine triads that the gods gave to humans. Sacred animals were present in the sacred precinct because crocodile mummies dedicated to Sobek were found in the nearby necropolises.

The children of Horus, (from the Egyptian Mesou Hor), are a group of four protective gods composed of Amset with the head of a man, Hâpi with the head of a baboon, Douamoutef with the head of a jackal and Qébehsénouf with the head of a falcon. These are not the children of Horus the Younger, the posthumous son of Osiris, but those of Horus the Elder, a funerary form of the creator god and thus also a form of Osiris. A passage from the sarcophagus texts indicates their true relationship:

“Amset, Hâpi, Douamoutef and Qébehsénouf, their father is Horus the Ancient, their mother is Isis.”

– Texts of the sarcophagi, CT II, 345c – 346a.

In the Pyramid Texts, these quadruplets are, among other things, also known as the “Children of Tem” and the “Four Emanations”. These designations show that they were perceived as extensions of the creator god Atum who is both their father and mother. The celestial ascent of the deceased pharaoh is placed under the sign of life: “O (king), you did not leave dead, you left alive”. His destination is the throne of Osiris. During this mystical journey, the pharaoh is endowed with an eternal form, the body-jet. As protective gods, Hâpi and Douamoutef are assimilated to the arms of the pharaoh while Amset and Qébehsénouf are assimilated to the legs, the four in association with the twins Shou and Tefnout, son and daughter of Atoum. The head of the pharaoh is brought closer to Hor-Douaty ” Horus of the Douat ” which is the symbol of the sun during its nightly journey in the dark underground lands:


Horakhty or “Horus of the Horizon” is the personification of the Sun at its zenith, when it is at its maximum power. This god often appears in association with Ra, so he is mostly known under the name of Ra-Horakhty. In the iconography, this god is represented as a hierocephalic man. The head is surmounted by a solar disk which is surrounded by a snake-uraeus in order to symbolize the destructive fire of the deity. Horakhty can also appear under the appearance of a falcon topped by the solar disk. This ancient celestial god was venerated very early in Heliopolis. From the 5th dynasty onwards, his cult merged with those of Atum the demiurge and Ra the sun. Under the reign of Akhenaten, the divine power was embodied in the Aten, the solar disk. In the Egyptian religious thought, the Akhet or “the Horizon” is the place where the sun appears and disappears. This word is written with an ideogram that represents two hills from which the sun emerges or descends at its rising and setting. The Horizon is a liminal world located at the border of the human world with the Douat which is the underground and nocturnal world.

Horus of Letopolis

As early as the 3rd dynasty (≈ XXVII century), a falcon god was worshipped in the city of Khem (the Letopolis of the Greeks), provincial capital of the 2nd nome of Lower Egypt. The vestiges of this city are on the site of the current Aousim near Cairo. The Horus of Letopolis, “He who presides over Khem”, is an astral god assimilated to Horus the Ancient. His right eye is the Sun and his left eye is the Moon. His name changes according to whether these two luminaries are visible or not. At the time of the full moon, when the two luminaries are bright, this Horus is Khenty-irty, “He who has eyes”. On the contrary, at the time of the new moon, when this star is invisible, the god is Khenty-en-irty, “He who has no eyes”. In these aspects, the god is also known as Mekhenty-irty and Mekhenty-en-irty. His sacred animals are the ichneumon (seeing god) and the shrew (blind god). This cosmic myth made the god considered the patron of oculists and harpists, a profession practiced by blind people. The sarcophagus texts make him the son of Osiris or the deity who gives back his eyes to the deceased during mummification:

“And my bones were brought back, the parts of my body were gathered, that which was taken from me was brought back to me, that which was scattered to me was gathered to me, as when I ate in person, for my flesh was gathered to me. My eyes have been reopened to me, so that by them I may see, by Khenty-en-irty, the great Star-shed which is associated with Letopolis; my ears have been opened to me, so that by them I may hear, by that hawk to whom no one speaks (…).”

– Texts of the sarcophagi, chap. 106 (extract). Translation by Paul Barguet.

During the Greco-Roman period, the temples of Denderah and Edfu mention the four “Children of Khenty-Irty”, always in association with the four children of Horus. They are protective gods in charge of watching over Osiris and thus over all the Egyptian dead. Their names are always cited in the same order: Heqa, Iremâouay, Maaitef and Irrenefdjesef. These gods already appear in the Texts of the sarcophagi and the Book of the Dead but without the mention of their father Khenty-irty.

The god Horus is omnipresent in Egypt. His presence is attested in all the cities and towns of importance. His roles are multiple, defender of the country: protector of the border garrisons, protector of the deceased and of the mummies, harpooner of demons and wild beasts, etc.

Local cults

The god Horus was venerated in all the regions of pharaonic Egypt, and practically each place of worship had its own Horian form. In Lower Egypt, at Athribis (10th nome), the crocodile god Khentykhety is assimilated to Horus under the name of Hor-khentykhety (Hor-Khentekhai). He also appears under the appearance of a man with the head of a bull. When he is compared to Osiris, his epithet is Hor-Ousir-kem-our ” Horus-Osiris, great black bull “.

At Chedenu (Horbeit) in the XIXth nome, from the XXVIth dynasty, a celestial god is venerated under the name of Hormerty “Horus of the two eyes”. This combative god defeated Set and Apophis by massacring them.

In the Memphis region, at Giza, the statue of the Great Sphinx was the object of a cult as a god in its own right under the name of Hor-em-Akhet (Harmakhis), i.e. “Horus in the Horizon”. This cult originated in the early part of Dynasty 18, probably after a desilting operation undertaken under Thutmes IV. This pious action was undertaken after a dream in which the sphinx appeared to the pharaoh under the name of Harmakhis-Khepri-Ra-Atum. The statue has also been referred to as Houroun and Harmakhis-Houroun.

In Upper Egypt, at Aphroditopolis (Atfieh) in the XXIInd nome, the falcon Hor-Medenou (Harmotes) appears in association with the cow Hesat, the ram Khnum and Hathor, the principal goddess of the locality. Some inscriptions attest to its existence in the Saite period. From the XXXth dynasty until the IIIrd century CE, her cult is very popular in Fayum and Alexandria.

During the Ptolemaic period, Hor-Nebsekhem or Nebesekem, the warrior falcon of Letopolis (capital of the IInd nome of Lower Egypt), is also attested in the South, at Kom Ombo and Panopolis (Akhmim). His cult lasted until the 5th century. Still in Panopolis (IXth nome), the young Horus raised in the marshes is known under the name of Hor-Khebty (Harkhebis) where he is brought closer to Horus the Elder.

At Medamud, near Thebes in the 4th nome, the divine couple Montou and Râttaouy had for child the young Harparê, ” Horus the Sun “. Its oldest attestations go back to the reign of Taharqa and the most recent to the Roman occupation.

In the city of Hebenu, capital of the sixteenth nome, Hor neb Hebenu, “Horus lord of Hebenu,” is represented as a hierocephalic man sitting on an oryx. This white gazelle is the emblem of the nome and was considered as an evil and Sethian animal that it is necessary to ritually slaughter to protect oneself from dangers. According to the myth, this city was the scene of a great battle between Horus and Set, of which the falcon god emerged victorious.

Boundary defender

In Lower Egypt, at the edge of the Libyan desert, in the 3rd nome and more particularly at Kom el-Hisn, Hor-Thehenou “Horus of Libya” was venerated. This god is attested from the Thinite period (the first two dynasties) where he is known under the epithet of “Lord of the sanctuary of Lower Egypt”. This warrior god is the defender of the western borders of Egypt. His counterpart is the falcon god Hor Chesemty, “Horus of the East”. In the XIIIth nome, the latter is assimilated to Horakhty and the goddess Chesmet (a local form of the lioness Sekhmet) is attributed to him as divine wife. Hor Chesemty was also brought closer to the falcon god Sopdou venerated in the twentieth nome located at the eastern border of the Delta.

As a defender, Horus appears in Letopolis as Hor Manou “Horus of Manou”. Originally, Manou and Bakhou were place names for the mountains of the western desert. During the New Kingdom, these places became mythical lands. As a synonym for Libya, Manou remained a western land, but the term Bakhou moved to the east. These two mountains were then used to designate the two ends of the east-west path of the sun. In a cult scene engraved at Edfu, the pharaoh offers Horbehedety the hieroglyphic sigil of the Horizon constituted by these two mountains. In exchange for this offering, the god grants the sovereign the throne, the royal palace and a long reign.

In the swamps of the Delta is also attested the presence of Hor-Meseny, “Horus of Mesen”, or Hor-Mesenou, “Horus the Harpooner”. The term Mesen is a toponym used to name a place where Horus harpooned a hippopotamus, incarnation of Set. At least three cities were named Mesen: one in the west, near Bouto, a second in the east near El Qantara and a third, in the center but of unknown location. The second Mesen had a great strategic role in defending the country from Asian aggressions (fortress of Tjarou). In this locality, this Horus appears under the features of a ferocious lion. In Edfu, he is assimilated to Horbehedety.

God the healer and exorcist

From the origins of Egyptian civilization, the god Horus is perceived as a deity capable of curing humans of their diseases. From the Late Period onwards, this function manifests itself above all in the person of the young Harpocrates and through the Steles of Horus (see above). Throughout Egyptian history, the divine form of Hor-imy-chenout is attested. The translation of this epithet poses a problem and several solutions have been proposed: “Horus of the ropes”, “Horus of the city of the ropes”, “Horus bound by the ropes”. The term cheni means “to exorcise” and the chenou is a kind of doctor-healer, an exorcist in charge of driving away evil spirits and the dangerous dead. In the House of Life, Horus is the “Prince of Books,” the assistant of Thoth. According to a magical papyrus from the Ramesside period, this Horus gets rid of his enemies by roasting them in a fire. He can appear under various guises, for example as a crocodile with the head of a falcon.

During the mummification of the bodies, the divine power of Horus is invoked by the embalming priests in order to guarantee the durability of the flesh. In the ritual, Horus neb Hebenou offers to the deceased fabrics and funeral cloths which, like an armor, will protect him from the warlike tumult fomented by his Sethian enemies. Horbehedety also brings cloths but in order to guarantee the funeral offerings. As for Hormerty, he drags a fishing net in order to gather and capture the evil cohort of the enemies. Horhekenou, “Horus of ointment”, adored in Bubastis, symbolizes the burning heat of the sun. He too hunts down the demons likely to attack the mummies.

Horit, the female counterpart

Some late texts report the existence of the goddess Horit, whose name is written with the ideogram of the falcon followed by the designation of the female. This “feminine Horus” was at first only a title attributed to queens from the Middle Kingdom onwards. In the mammisi of Hermonthis, it is thus applied to the famous Cleopatra. Egyptian theologians then personified this royal title in the form of a goddess in her own right. Because of its late creation, Horit appears rather little in iconography. At Denderah, in the temple of Hathor, she is represented as a woman with a lion”s head and at Atfieh as a mummified falcon. The Brooklyn Papyrus, written in the Saite period, provides valuable information about her myth. According to a notice in this religious treatise, Horit is the daughter of Osiris. Father and daughter had an intimate relationship and five falcon gods were born from this incestuous union:

“Now then, this goddess gave birth to five sons: ”Houmehen”, ”The son of the Two Lords”, ”The Child who is in Medenu”, this ”Horus who is in the Upper Cherub” and ”The Child of Isis”.”

– Brooklyn Papyrus 47.218.84 (extract). Translation by Dimitri Meeks.

This group of five gods is mentioned only in this document. It is obviously a question of artificially gathering and unifying several distinct mythological traditions. The god Houméhen is not known elsewhere. His name may mean “He who strikes the placenta”. The ancient Egyptians explained the pains of the mother during childbirth by saying that the child before being born struck the placental mass. The second child Sanebouy, “The son of the Two Lords”, is the god Horus worshipped in Mendes and whom Isis conceived posthumously by joining with the mummy of Osiris. The third Hor-Medenou is the Horus worshipped in Medenou (a town in the Fayum) and known under the Greek name of Harmotes. The fourth, Hor-hekenu, “Horus who is in the Upper Cherub,” is the divine form of Horus worshipped at Bubastis. The fifth and last, “the Child of Isis”, is the Horus who defends his father Osiris against his Sethian enemies.

Horus did not let himself be locked up inside the Egyptian borders. In Nubia, his presence was imposed by the will of the warrior pharaohs. In the Mediterranean area, the belief was widely spread among the Greco-Roman populations, followers of the isiac cults. During the last centuries of Egyptian paganism, the first Christians seized upon the Horian imagery and myth in the guise of the Christ Child and the harpooner Saint George in order to better establish the new religion among a population that was reluctant to accept religious innovation.


Located between the first cataract of the Nile and the confluence of the White Nile with the Blue Nile, Nubia played an essential role as a commercial and cultural crossroads between ancient Egypt and the rest of Africa. As early as the Thinite period, the wealth of Lower Nubia aroused pharaonic covetousness. Then, during the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom, the region was colonized militarily and economically. The pharaohs marked their hegemonic will by building several dozen citadels and temples. Four localities were placed under the protection of the god Horus: the fortress of Bouhen, the hill of Méha (temples of Abu Simbel), the fortress of Miam and the fortress of Baki. This area is now submerged under the waters of Lake Nasser.

At Buhen, the temple of Horus was located inside the fortress on a small eminence. A Middle Kingdom building gave way to a small rectangular temple built under Queen Hatshepsut. The central part consists of a sanctuary surrounded by columns. A vestibule gives access to three long chapels, one of which communicates with a fourth rear room. The decoration was completed under Thutmes III. The scenes show the gods Amen-Ra, Anuket, Thoth, Isis, Neith, Sechat, and Montu alongside the Horus of Buhen. In the twentieth century, the temple of Bouhen was dismantled during the great campaign of rescue of the temples of Nubia led by UNESCO. It was reassembled in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, in the garden of the National Museum.

Between the 4th century BC and the 4th century AD, the cult of Isis and the gods associated with her (Osiris, Anubis, Horus) spread throughout the Mediterranean Sea. The belief even reached the banks of the Rhine, Pannonia and England, then possessions of the Roman Empire. However, the worship of Egyptian gods remained the work of a small minority of believers and never became a majority religion. Numerous statuettes, amulets, jewels and oil lamps have been discovered showing Horus as a child (Harpocrates), either alone or on the lap of his mother Isis breastfeeding him (typology of “Isis lactans”). Harpocrates played only a secondary role in the religion of the Isiac temples built throughout the Roman world. Very often, he even gave way to Anubis, the “divine barker”. The little Harpocrates was, however, very popular in domestic households, as shown by the countless statuettes discovered throughout Europe and the North African coast. Greco-Roman iconography was inspired by the Egyptian style while adapting it to Hellenistic taste. Horus is invariably represented as a young naked child. Sometimes his skull is bald as in Egyptian figurations, sometimes he has an abundance of curly Greek hair. One of his shoulders is sometimes dressed with the nebride, which is a deer skin, symbol of the Greek god Dionysus, to whom Osiris is generally likened. Sometimes he holds a cornucopia in his left hand, a symbol of fertility and a sign of his affiliation with Osiris, who is known as the god of vegetation and fertility. When he is close to the young Eros, Horus wears wings on his back and a quiver filled with arrows. He can be represented standing or lying down and sometimes accompanied by an animal (goose, dog, goat, horse) or riding them. Despite all the variations, his most characteristic gesture is that of bringing the index finger of his right hand to his mouth.

Christian posterity

In Egypt, during the first centuries of Christianity, the followers of the new religion fought long and hard to impose their belief. Attached to the old gods, the population most often opposed the first evangelizing bishops with extreme resistance. In this fierce struggle, the Christians gradually gained the upper hand and became the majority. In order to put down the old belief, many pagan sanctuaries were destroyed, especially those of Alexandria and its region. Others were recovered and transformed into Coptic churches. Such is the case of the temple of Isis in Philæ. In the field of art, the Christians did not hesitate to degrade the pagan representations by hammering them. However, it was impossible to eradicate all the architectural testimonies built and decorated during the three and a half millennia of Pharaonic civilization. Since Judaism, from which Jesus Christ came, forbade divine representations, and since no belief lived in a closed world, primitive Christian art necessarily had to draw its inspiration from the polytheistic religions of its time. In Egypt, Coptic artists and clerics were naturally influenced by the Pharaonic spiritual message and by its iconography, which was very rich in religious symbols. The myth of Horus the Child, born miraculously and then suckled and protected by his mother Isis, rubbed off on the representations of the Virgin Mary, mother of the Child Jesus. The cult of Isis and Harpocrates was widely spread around the Mediterranean Sea between the 4th century BC and the 4th century AD. In iconography, representations of Isis preparing to nurse her son Horus sitting on her lap are widespread in the form of statuettes ten to twenty centimeters high. It is therefore possible that Coptic art of the fifth to seventh centuries was inspired, consciously or not, by this motif in order to apply it to Mary and the Child Jesus.

In Christianity, George of Lydda or Saint George is one of the most popular saints. His legend first developed in the East and then spread widely in the West. Many countries, regions, cities and villages are placed under his benevolent protection: Georgia, Ethiopia, England, Burgundy, Catalonia, etc. According to the legend, in the 3rd century, in Libya, near the city of Silene, a monster terrorized the population. Every day, young men had to sacrifice themselves and surrender to it in order to be devoured. Saint George, a soldier from a Christian family, met one day a victim who was about to die. Mounted on his white horse, the Saint went to the monster and pierced it with his lance. This high fact is the origin of his most common iconography, a legionary in armor, brandishing a spear or a sword, sitting on a rearing horse above a monstrous dragon.

In Egyptian imagery, the struggle between good and evil is symbolized in ancient times by the character of the Harpooner. Standing in a boat, a man vigorously pierces the body of a hippopotamus with his spear. In tombs, the Harpooner character appears during the Old Kingdom in the mastabas of the pharaoh”s relatives. The owner of the tomb is shown sailing through the lushness of the marshes, spear in hand. Later, during the New Kingdom, in the funerary treasure of Tutankhamun, there is a statuette of the king in the guise of the Harpooner. In the divine world, two deities are shown in this role: Set at the front of the Boat of Ra fighting against the snake Apophis and Horus harpooning the Sethian hippopotamus; at Edfu for example (see above). During the Greco-Roman period, in the temples of the oases of the Libyan desert, Set appears under the features of the Horian falcon, accompanied by a lion – almost riding him – and harpooning a snake. The Louvre Museum preserves a witness to the mixture of Egyptian and Roman traditions. On the remains of a window carved in the fourth century, Horus is shown in the guise of a falcon-headed legionary, riding a horse and harpooning a crocodile. It is tempting to imagine that in Coptic times, when Christianity and paganism were still competing, the ancient myth of the Egyptian Harpooner influenced the legend and iconography of the new Christian saint.

Popular culture

Since the end of the nineteenth century and the emergence of the phenomenon of mass culture, the image of Horus has been conveyed through numerous media such as books of Egyptological popularization, reproductions of ancient artifacts (statuettes, illustrated papyri, amulets of the Udjat eye), novels, comic books, cinema, and Internet sites. Thanks to these means of information and entertainment, the representation of Horus as a man dressed in a loincloth with a hawk”s head has become immensely popular. Alongside Anubis the jackal god, Horus became the paragon of the hybrid gods of ancient Egypt. Thanks to this popularity, Horus is integrated into the plot of many fictions.

In the United States, Horus is a relatively unknown superhero of the Marvel Comics franchise, especially famous for the characters of Spider-Man, X-Men, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, Daredevil, Ghost Rider, etc. His first appearance dates back to September 1975 when, in a comic book, he is presented as the son of Osiris and Isis and all evolve in a fantastic world where Scandinavian, Egyptian and extraterrestrial mythologies are intertwined. After being locked up by Set in a pyramid for some three hundred years, Horus and his parents manage to escape by making the monument appear out of California soil.

In the American-Canadian television series Stargate SG-1 (ten seasons aired between 1997 and 2007 in the United States), Horus appears under the name of Heru”ur, i.e. Hor-Our (Horus the Ancient). Heru”ur, son of Ra and Hathor, is presented as a tyrannical and conquering alien from the parasitic Goa”uld race – he is one of the most powerful representatives of this race, having acquired the title of Goa”uld Grandmaster – and who has taken over several habitable planets including Tagrea and Juna.

In 2009, the Quebec publishing house Les 400 coups published the French version of Horus (tome 1 – l”enfant à tête de faucon) by author Johane Matte (drawing and script). Under the joint reigns of Thutmes III and Hatshepsut, the god Horus returns to Egypt under the guise of a little boy with a falcon”s head. Threatened but in the company of the young peasant girl Nofret, the little god must protect himself from the murderous intentions of a strange oryx capable of commanding the furious hippos of the swamps.

In 2016, Horus was played by actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in the film Gods of Egypt.



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