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Definition: Horus from The Columbia Encyclopedia

(hôr'əs), in Egyptian religion, sky god, god of light and goodness. One of the most important of the Egyptian deities, Horus was the son of Osiris and Isis. In a famous myth he avenged the murder of his father by defeating Set, the god of evil and darkness. As Horus the Elder he was represented as a falcon-headed solar deity, who was perhaps originally a king or high priest of predynastic Egypt. As Horus the Child, called Harpocrates by the Greeks and Romans, he was represented as a small boy with a finger held to his lips.

Summary Article: Horus
from The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

Horus was a solar and sky god and one of the most important Egyptian gods associated with kingship. His name derives from the word Har, meaning the Distant One (Meltzer 2001: 119), an appropriate name for a deity usually depicted in the form of a falcon (actually an amalgam of raptors that combined to make a "super"-raptor; Houlihan and Goodman 1986: 46–8) or a man with the head of a falcon. Horus was the child of Osiris and the goddess Isis.

The myth of Osiris, Isis, and Horus relates how Osiris' rule over Egypt was coveted by his brother Seth (although an alternative independent tradition advises that it was Horus and Seth who were brothers). Seth killed Osiris and usurped the throne of Egypt (Quirke 2001: 38). After his death, Isis magically revived Osiris so that he could impregnate her with their son Horus prior to departing the realm of the living. Isis then hid in the papyrus marshes of the Delta, assisted by the goddess Hathor, and gave birth to Horus in Akhbit (Greek Khemmis, an island in the northeastern Delta). Horus was kept hidden there, suckled by Hathor (who later is Horus' wife and together with their son Harsomtus forms the triad at Edfu), to emerge finally as Horus the Elder (Haroeris or Harwer), who battled his uncle for eighty years in order to avenge and succeed his father (Wilkinson 2005: 201).

It was during one of these fights that Horus lost his eyes, which were magically restored by Hathor, who bathed them with gazelle's milk (Papyrus Chester Beatty I) or royal saliva (Pyramid Texts). The restored eyes of Horus are symbolized by the "udjat eye," a human eye surrounded by the markings of Horus' eye, a symbol that became an amulet bestowing the highest level of protection (Hart 2006: 73).

Ultimately, after a series of battles (many depicted on the walls of Edfu temple) the Council of Gods decided that Osiris was to rule the Afterworld; Horus, in the form of Har-mau (Greek Harsomtus) or Horus the Uniter of the Two Lands, was granted kingship of a united Egypt; and Seth was to command the deserts and frontiers of the country. Thus, the living king was regarded as the embodiment of Horus, while the dead king became Osiris, a construct that persisted even into the Roman era in Egypt. Indeed, the earliest rulers of Egypt (late Predynastic/Protodynastic) were called "the followers of Horus" (Wilkinson 2005: 200). Horus' association with the ruler is manifested from early in Egyptian history; the title for the ruler, from the Protodynastic (Dynasty 0) period onward, was Horus, followed by the personal name. The Horus name, written in a symbol for palace and surmounted by the hawk, remained one of the king's major names of power. The king was also known as the Golden Horus, and the crown prince was referred to as Horus in the Nest. Images of the king identifying him with Horus abound; one of the best known is the enthroned statue of Khafre (Chephren) with Horus in his avian form enfolding the king's head in his wings, indicating both that he and the king are one, and that the king is under divine protection.

It has been suggested that the conflict between Horus and Seth has its basis in history and is a retelling of the power struggles either between Naqada (a cult center for Seth; see Naqada (Nagada)) and Hierakonpolis, or El-Kab, home to a hawk-headed deity (Quirke 2001: 83), or between a southern polity and a Delta province. Although evidence for Seth's association with the eastern Delta, an area bordering the deserts, very early in Egypt's history is lacking, this link was firmly established later.

There are many manifestations of Horus from quite early in Egyptian history. The earliest depictions of Horus from the Predynastic Period show him as a falcon. Horus the falcon was a sky and a solar god, the specks on his breast representing the stars, and the down stroke of his wings creating the winds (Wilkinson 2005: 200). Variations include Horus the uniter (Har-mau in Egyptian, Harsomtus in Greek), Horus the Elder, Horus the son of Isis (Harsiese), Horus the pillar of his mother (Horus Iun Mutef), and several versions of Horus located at specific towns throughout Egypt and Nubia. One variant that became particularly popular from the Late Period onward was Horus the Child (Har-pa-Khered in Egyptian Harpokrates in Greek), when he was depicted as a child with the sidelock of youth and a finger to his mouth. Stelae (or cippi) heavily inscribed with magical texts adorned with an engaged statue of Har-pa-Khered, frequently surmounted by a Bes head, dominating animals such as snakes and crocodiles, were used as protection and healing. Sometimes liquid was poured over them, obtaining the power of the images and texts, collected, and drunk or applied as medicine against the bites and stings of noxious creatures as well as to engender health. Horus, like other gods, was also syncretized; the most favored fusing was with Re, to form Re Horakhty (see Re and Re Horakhty).

Horus remained prominent throughout the Greco-Roman period and appears in Old Coptic magical texts (Meltzer 2001: 119). The image of the baby Horus seated on his mother's lap is considered a precursor for Christian images of Mary and the infant Jesus, and it is suggested that imagery of Christ Pantokrator dominating beasts may originate in the images of Harpokrates (Meltzer 2001: 121).


Buto/Tell el-Farain; Kingship, Pharaonic Egypt.

References and Suggested Readings
  • Hart, G. (2006) The Routledge dictionary of Egyptian gods and goddesses. London.
  • Houlihan, P.; Goodman, S. (1986) The birds of ancient Egypt. Warminster.
  • Kurth, D. (2004) The temple of Edfu: a guide by an ancient Egyptian priest. Cairo.
  • Meltzer, E. S. (2001) Horus. In Redford, D. , ed., The Oxford encyclopedia of ancient Egypt, vol. 2: 119-22. Oxford.
  • Quirke, S. (2001) The cult of Ra: sun-worship in ancient Egypt. London.
  • Wilkinson, R. H. (2005) The complete gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt. London.
  • Salima Ikram
    Ros Eavis
    Wiley ©2012

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