This week’s post is inspired by a friend of this blog who was inquiring about how to distinguish the various Horus Gods. (Hint: It ain’t easy.) He was asking about two of Them specifically, as he wished to develop a devotion to Them.
Horus is one of ancient Egypt’s oldest and most important Gods. In fact, many places had their own local form of Horus and there were also other Falcon Gods throughout Egypt Who eventually came to be subsumed in, or at least called by the name of, Horus.
In the earliest texts that have come down to us, there doesn’t seem to have been much of an attempt (or perhaps need?) to separate the Horus Gods. But by the time of the Coffin Texts (beginning around 2100 BCE or so), we have separate funerary formulae for “Becoming Horus the Elder” and for “Becoming Horus.”
Scholars don’t know in what part of Egypt Horus’ worship originated. Behdet, a town in the western delta of Lower Egypt, and Nekhen (Hierakonpolis), in Upper Egypt near Luxor, both claimed to be His first cult centers. Interestingly, when His great temple at Edfu in Upper Egypt was built, it was often called by the sacred name of Behdet, though that was not its secular name. The site at Edfu was associated with Horus by the 5th dynasty.
Behdet was so important that Horus is sometimes known as Horus the Behdetite (Hor Behdety). In this aspect, He is usually a protective and powerful warrior—battling the enemies of Re and, of course, the king. Horus the Behdetite may be yet another Horus God that got mixed in with the general Horus blend.
(Another note of interest: the name of the nomarch, that is, the governor of the nome, when Horus is first found at Edfu is Isi; and he served under king Isesi. I wonder if this name connection with Horus’ mother could have led to the king’s and the nomarch’s honoring of Her son at Edfu?)
Whatever the case, let’s focus on this Horus Who is so intimate with Isis. The Greek rendition is Harsiese (HAR-see-AY-say), which is how you will often see it in scholarly works. In Egyptian it is Hor-sa-Iset, “Horus, son of Isis.”
Horus was not originally a part of the same pantheon or ennead (nine Deities) as were Isis and Osiris. The creation story that was told in Heliopolis (near what is now Cairo and called Iunu in Egyptian) consists of Atum—and later, Atum-Re—Who begets Shu and Tefnut, Who beget Nuet and Geb, Who beget Isis and Osiris, Set and Nephthys.
But Horus was too important and too ancient to be left out of the Isis-Osiris myth cycle, which by that time was becoming central to much of Egyptian religion as well as to the kingship. So they found a place for Horus in the Heliopolitan cycle; in fact, they found two places.
Horus, perhaps as Hor Wer, “Horus the Elder” or “Horus the Great,” became the second-born of the Isis-Osiris generation, while Hor-sa-Iset became the Holy Child of Isis and Osiris. I’ve seen this described as a “secondary ennead” at Heliopolis, and the combination may have happened as early as the 4th dynasty (2613-2494 BCE).
The pharaoh continued to be the living embodiment of Horus and to be especially protected by the God, but now he was Horus, Son of Isis, while the deceased pharaoh was Osiris, Beloved of Isis.
And while it may have originally been Hor Wer Who battled with Set, now the son of Isis and Osiris opposes Him because of Set’s murder of Horus’ father Osiris and because of Set’s attempt to usurp the throne that rightly belongs to Horus.
It seems that Horus is called Hor-sa-Iset much more often than He is called Hor-sa-Usir (Osiris). Why? It may be because He so strongly takes after His Divine mother.
Like Her, He is a protective and fierce warrior (see more on Fierce Isis here). He fights for His fathers, both Osiris and Re, and He fights for the king. He is a ruler Himself, as is Isis when She rules during Osiris’ civilizing mission throughout the world. As Hor-pa-khred, “Horus the Child,” He is not only protective, but He is also a magical healer—just like His mother Isis.
Hor-pa-khred (Harpokrates in Greek) is particularly connected with a protective amulet known as the Cippus or Stele of Horus. These amulets appear to have been most used during the late dynastic period through the Roman. They were intended to protect the home and depicted Horus the Child subduing dangerous creatures such as crocodiles, snakes, lions, and scorpions with His bare hands.
They were also intended to be used for healing from the bites of poisonous creatures. The most famous example is the Metternich Stele, on which we find the tale of Isis and the Seven Scorpions, as well as numerous formulae for the cure of poisoning. This stele also seems to have been one of the magical images over which the sufferer would pour water to absorb the power of the magic words, then drink as a medicine.
One of the formulae on the Metternich Stele has Horus the Child commanding the poison:
Flow out, poison, approach, come forth on earth. It is Horus Who exorcises you, He cuts you to pieces, He spits you out so that you cannot mount up on high but fall to earth. You are weak, you have no strength, you are miserable and cannot fight, you are blind and cannot see, your head is turned upside down and you cannot raise your face. You wander without being able to find your way, you grieve and cannot rejoice, you wander and cannot open your eyes—in accordance with the speech of Horus, Potent of Magic.
Again, like Isis Herself, Horus the Child is Potent of Magic and a magical healer.
With His connection to His widely worshipped mother, as well as His own magic, Harpokrates became one of the most popular Deities of the common people during the Græco-Roman period.
Images showing the Child God with His finger to His lips (which is merely a representation of the Egyptian hieroglyph for “child”) led Græco-Roman worshippers to interpret Horus as a God of the Mysteries—surely those of His Divine Mother—and urging the initiate to Holy Silence.