Horus, the God of Kings in Ancient Egypt

Horus, the God of Kings

by Jimmy Dunn

Horus falcon mask of Gold for a mummified Falcon, discovered at Nekhen

From the very earliest of times, the falcon seems to have been worshipped in Egypt as representative of the greatest cosmic powers. Many falcon gods existed throughout Egypt, though over time, a good number of these assimilated to Horus, the most important of the avian deities. Yet, from all his of many forms, it is nearly impossible to distinguish the "true" Horus. Horus is mostly a general term for a great number of falcon deities.

Horus is one of ancient Egypt's best known gods, as well as one of its oldest. His name is attested to from at least the beginning of the Dynastic Period, and depictions of falcon deities on earlier artifacts, such as the Narmer Palette, probably represent this same god. The Turin Canon, which provides some of our most important information on Egypt's early history, specifically describes the Predynastic rulers of Egypt as "Followers of Horus".

The use of his name was also widespread in personal names throughout Egyptian history, and Hor, as a personal name, survives into our modern era in a number of different forms.

Forms of Horus

A bronze group with, on the left, the Child Horus wearing the Atef Crown, while on the right, Horus as king, wearing the Double Crown

Horus is a complicated deity, appearing in many different forms and his mythology is one of the most extensive of all Egyptian deities. Indeed, he has so many different aspects that we must limit our discussion to those that are significant. At the same time, a judicious examination of the various Horuses and the sources relating to them supports the possibility that the roles in question are closely interrelated, and so they may be understood as different aspects of the same divine persona.

The original form of Horus was probably that of a sky god, known as "lord of the sky". The Egyptian word " her" (hor, har), from which the god's name is derived means "the one on high", or "the distant one", probably in reference to the soaring flight of the hunting falcon, if not a reference to the solar aspect of the god. Mythologically, the god was imagined as a celestial falcon, whose right eye was the sun and left eye the moon. The speckled feathers of his breast were probably considered to be the stars, while his wings were the sky that created the wind. In this form, Horus was apparently worshipped at some of Egypt's earliest shrines such as at Nekhen (Heirakonpolis), where he was assimilated with a number of other local falcon gods. In this capacity, Horus was the patron of the Nekhen monarchy that grew into the historical pharaonic state and hence, the first known national god.

A natural outgrowth of his role as "lord of the sky" was his aspect as a sun god. An ivory comb of the 1st Dynasty king Den depicts a falcon in a boat riding on outstretched wings, suggesting the falcon traversing the sky as the sun god. The early Pyramid Texts specifically refer to him in solar terms as "god of the east", and he appears in at least three forms in this guise.

Re-Horakhty (right) and Osiris (left)

As Horakhty (Harakhty), or "Horus of the two horizons", Horus was the god of the rising and setting sun, but more particularly the god of the east and the sunrise. In the Pyramid Texts, the deceased king is said to be reborn in the eastern sky as Horakhty. Eventually, Horakhty became a part of the Heliopolis sun cult and was fused with its solar god as Re-Horakhty. As Behdety, or "he of [the] behdet", Horus was the hawk-winged sun disk which seems to incorporate the idea of the passage of the sun through the sky. As Hor-em-akhet (Harmachis) or "Horus in the horizon", Horus was visualized as a sun god in falcon or leonine form.

Horus was also seen and worshipped as the male child of Osiris and Isis (Har-pa-khered, literally "Horus the Child", from which the Greeks created the name of Harpokrates), though either this god was originally a separate deity with whom the ancient falcon god was fused, or the falcon deity was incorporated into the Osirian family in very different form, because here he is depicted as a divine human infant. Another reference to him as a child of Isis is as Harsiese who, in the Pyramid Texts, performs the vital "Opening of the Mouth" ceremony on the dead king.

The Horus name of a king, with the falcon of Horus surmounting a serekh

Horus was also directly linked with the kingship of Egypt in both his falcon aspect and as son of Isis. Both his sponsorship of the monarchy and, probably, his identification with the king were shown on early decorated monuments from Nekhen.

From the earliest Dynastic Period, the king's name was written in the rectangular device known as the serekh, which depicted a falcon perched on a stylized palace facade and which seems to indicate the king as mediator between the heavenly and earthly realms, if not the god manifest within the palace as the king himself. This was the "Horus name" of the king, who took other names in time, including a "Golden Horus" name in which a divine falcon is depicted upon the hieroglyphic sign for gold.

Many other forms of Horus also appear in one way or another. Horus the successor was also referred to as Iunmutef (Pillar of His Mother), which was used as a funerary priestly title. By the New Kingdom, the Great Sphinx of Giza, originally a representation of the 4th Dynasty King Khafre (or possibly Khufu), was interpreted by the Egyptians as an image of Hor-em-akhet (Harmakhis), or "Horus in the Horizon". In the person of the Sphinx and elsewhere, Horus was also identified in the New Kingdom with the Syrian Canaanite deity, Hauron, which some regard as contributing to the choice of the Arabic name for the Sphinx, "Father of Terror".

A Horus Eye pendant

Another of Horus is the Egyptian "Har-nedj-itef, or "Horus the savior of his father" (Greek Harendotes), which refers to the vindication of Horus' claim to succeed Osiris, rescuing his father's former earthly domain from the usurper Seth.

The Eye of Horus must also be mentioned. The injury inflicted by Seth on the eye of Horus is alluded to in the Pyramid Texts, where royal saliva is prescribed for its cure. The restored eye of Horus became the symbol for the state of soundness or perfection, known as the Udjat Eye. Used as an amulet, it became the symbol for protection and painted on the sides of rectangular coffins.

Furthermore, Horus was combined, synchronized and closely associated with deities other than the sun god Re, such as Min, Sopdu, Khonsu and Montu.


The textual and mythological material related to Horus are very rich, comprising hymns, mortuary tests, ritual texts, dramatic/theological texts, stories and even the Old Coptic and Greek magical papyri.

Interestingly, the most complete ancient exposition of the Osiris narrative is Plutarch's De Iside et Osiride, in a Latin translation from the original Greek. Other accounts include the Memphite Theology or Shabaka Stone, the Mystery Play of the Succession, Coffin Texts Spell 148, the Great Osiris Hymn in the Louvre, the Late Egyptian Contendings of Horus and Seth, the Metternich Stela and other cippus texts, and the Ptolemaic Myth of Horus at Edfu, also known as the Triumph of Horus.

These texts take the reader, with variations and a number of contrasting perspectives, from the god's conception and birth, through his childhood hidden in the marshes (as Har-hery-wadj, or "Horus who is upon his papyrus plants"), his protection by Isis, his conflict with Seth and his followers, and his succession as legitimate king.

With the rise of the complete Horus-Osiris-Isis mythological complex, visible in the Pyramid Texts during the late Old Kingdom, the living king was identified as an earthly Horus and the dead king (his father or predecessor) as Osiris. As the son of Isis and Osiris, Horus was also the mythical heir to the kingship of Egypt, and many stories surrounding this struggle to gain and hold the kingship from the usurper Seth detail this aspect of the god's role. Harwer (Haroeris), or "Horus the Elder" was the mature god represented in these stories who battles Seth for 80 years until the tribunal of gods finally awards him his rightful place on the throne of all Egypt. Finally, as Har-Mau or Harsomptus (Horus the Uniter), Horus fulfills this role of uniting and ruling over Egypt, though he is sometimes identified as the son of Horus the Elder and Hathor in this role, for example, at Edfu and Kom Ombo, and called by the name Panebtawy "Lord of the Two Lands".

Scene from the side of a throne on the statue of Senusret I, uniting the two lands with Horus on the left and Seth of Ombo on the right

However, there was a vital relationship between Seth and Horus. Seth was the embodiment of disorder, and was predominantly seen as a rival of Horus. However, Seth was also portrayed in a balanced, complementary role to Horus, so that the pair represented a bipolar, balanced embodiment of kingship. Therefore, on the side of the throne, Horus and Seth, symmetrical and equal, tie the papyrus and lotus around the sema-sign.

Since about the turn of the twentieth century, Egyptologists have debated the issue of whether the struggle between Horus and Seth was primarily a historical event, or purely symbolic. This issue is complicated by the geographical polarities of the two gods' cult centers. While Horus was venerated throughout Egypt, his primary cult centers were in the south, while Seth's cult centers tended to be in the north, and perhaps particularly in the Delta. According to the Turin Canon, the late predynastic rulers of Egypt were "followers of Horus". By the time of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, the ruler was Horus. On the palette in the Cairo museum that shows King Narmer, considered a candidate for the first ruler of a unified Egypt, Horus is shown holding a rope that passes through the nose of the defeated northern rival. Hence, some Egyptologists believe that the source of the mythological conflict between Horus and Seth may have been the predynastic struggle to unite Upper and Lower Egypt.

Horus and Seth Crowning Ramesses III

In fact, during the 2nd Dynasty, there seems to have once again been a Horus and Seth conflict, which was eventually resolved under King Khasekhemwy. While the nature of this conflict is not clear, it is reflected in the use of a Seth-name instead of the usual Horus-name by King Peribsen (Seth-Peribsen). There are indications of warfare during this period, culminating perhaps by Khasekhemwy, who combined Horus and Seth above the serekh containing his name.


The most common genealogy of Horus is as the son of Osiris and Isis, as the tenth member of the family tree of the Heliopolitan Ennead. However, one must remember that this god's worship spanned some three thousand years, during which time he was venerated throughout Egypt, as well as outside of Egypt. Therefore, the full picture of his genealogy is more complex. Hathor, herself sometimes identified with Isis, also appears as the mother of Horus.

Haroeris, or Horus the Elder, can appear in the Heliopolitan family tree as the brother of Osiris and the son of Geb and Nut. Osiris can also be equated with Haroeris, who in that scenario is the murdered victim of Seth. At Edfu, Horus appears as the consort of Hathor and the father of another form of himself, Harsomtus, or "Horus Uniter of the Two Lands". Horus and Seth are sometimes described as nephew and uncle, but at other times as brothers.

At Nag'el Madamud, just north of Luxor, a temple was built in honor of the god Montu, his consort Raettawy, and their son Harpokrates, the child deity more often associated with Isis.

Horus protecting Khafre, one of the grandist artistic works of ancient Egypt


The roles, local cult foundations and titles or epithets of Horus are sometimes correlated with distinct or preferred forms in iconography.

The form of Horus that we are perhaps most familiar with is as a full falcon, probably the lanner (Falco biarmicus) or peregrine (Falco peregrinus). This is the original avian form of Horus, typically shown in two dimensions as a profile except for the tail feathers which were turned towards the viewer according to the canons of Egyptian composite perspective. Early examples sometimes show the falcon leaning forward in a later position but the upright stance became standard in later times. Sometimes the falcon is shown in direct association with the Seth animal or one of his symbols, particularly in the Late period, as in the nome sign of the 16th Upper Egyptian nome where the falcon is depicted with its talons sunk into the back of an Oryx. Though Seth may have typically taken the form of a canine, the Oryx was an ancient symbol of that god.

As the hawk-winged Behdety, Horus became one of the most widespread images in Egyptian art, an image perhaps foreshadowed in the time of Den, and which became virtually ubiquitous as a motif used in the decoration of temple walls and stelae throughout Egypt. In this guise, he had the epithets "Great God, Lord of heaven, Dappled of Plumage".

Horus with the body of a crocodile

As Horakhty, he may appear as a falcon or sometimes even as a falcon-headed crocodile. Most often, Re-Horakhty has a sun disk on his head.

In the fully anthropomorphic form Horus appears as an adult god or more usually as a child, wearing the sidelock of youth, who is the son of Isis. Horus as a boy also appears dominating crocodiles, serpents and other noxious animals on cippi. Sometimes on cippi, the head of the child was often surmounted by a Bes-head, or perhaps a Bes mask.

A cippi with a Bes head above the Horus Child

Yet, it is in the combined zoo-anthropomorphic form of a falcon-headed man that the god most frequently appears, often wearing the Double Crown signifying his kingship over all Egypt.

In various forms, Horus often wore the Double Crown, as befitting his status as king of Egypt, the Atef, the triple atef and a disk with two plumes was also used.

One of the most famous kingship imagery related to Horus is found in the statue of Khafre, seated with the Horus falcon at the back of his head with the wings of the bird protectively wrapped around the king's neck.

Cult Worship

Frequently, we can identify a specific, strong cult center for an ancient Egyptian god, but because Horus was worshipped in many forms, and because he assimilated many other gods, it is difficult to summarize the sites associated with his worship. Clearly, he was associated with the area of Nekhen in southern Egypt (Greek Hierakonpolis or "City of the Hawk") from very early times. he was probably the falcon deity worshipped there since pre-dynastic times.

However, Horus was worshipped along with other deities at countless Egyptian temples and the important sites of his worship are known from one end of Egypt to the other, dating to the earliest of times to the latest periods of pre-Christian Egypt. In fact, he continued to be venerated in some Old Coptic (Christian), ritual-power or magical texts. In northern Egypt, the Horus god was particularly venerated in the Delta at the ancient site of Khem (Greek Letopolis, modern Ausim) since at least the beginning of the Old Kingdom. There, he was known as Horus Khenty-irty, or Khenty-khem, "Foremost One of Khem". Chapter 112 of the Book of the Dead tells how the Delta city of Pe (historical Buto) was given to Horus as compensation for his eye which was injured by Seth, which explains why this was such an important cult center for the god. Behdet also became a center of Horus worship in the Delta.

The famous Horus of Edfu at the Temple of Horus

In the south, Horus enjoyed the attention, together with his consort Hathor, and their son Harsomptus, in the important Ptolemaic temples at Edfu and also at Kom Ombo. At Edfu, the god's many ceremonies included the annual Coronation of the Sacred Falcon at the beginning of the 5th month of the Egyptian year in which an actual falcon was selected to represent the god as king of all Egypt, thus uniting the ancient falcon god with his form as Horus son of Osiris and with the king.

Even outside of ancient Egypt proper, south in Nubia, we find temples dedicated to various forms of Horus at Quban (Horus of Baki), Buhen and Aniba (Horus of Miam), as well as the inclusion of the god in many other monuments such as Abu Simbel and elsewhere.

As the object of popular veneration throughout Egypt, Horus was often represented by amulets depicting him either in the form of a falcon or as a falcon-headed man, in both cases often wearing the Double Crown of Egypt. His widespread worship is also seen in the many healing plaques, or cippi, which aimed to utilize his power. The cippi of Horus were a common manifestation of the importance of Horus in healing rituals and popular ritual practice.

The Survival of Horus

It should be mentioned that some Egyptologists see, in the iconography of Christian art, a precursor in Horus. For example, Isis and the baby Horus are sometimes seen as the model for Mary and the infant Jesus, while Horus dominating the beats may have a counterpart in Christ Pantokrator doing the same. Horus spearing a serpent may survive in the iconography of Saint George defeating the dragon.






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