Would you like to know more about the Was sceptre and the legendary myths surrounding it? Would you like to discover the different functions of this mythological sceptre in ancient Egyptian society?
As enthusiasts of Egyptian mythology, we are here to answer these questions.
The Was sceptre is one of the most important symbols of ancient Egypt. Because of its true usefulness as a snake hunter's staff or because of its link with Set, the god of chaos, the Was sceptre is an unavoidable element of Egyptian mythology.
In this article you will discover:
- What is the true meaning of the Was sceptre
- What is its purpose
- Why it is attached to the god of chaos, Set
The myths and legends surrounding this sceptre will soon hold no more secrets for you.
Now, let's discover all that together!
1) The Was sceptre
In this part, we will first look at the meaning of the Was sceptre, then we will explain its role in ancient Egypt, and finally we will see how it has its origins in Egyptian mythology.
A) The "scepter of Set"
The Was sceptre has its origins in the traditional sticks used to capture poisonous snakes. These long-stemmed sticks had one end equipped with a fork with two spikes to capture them safely.
Later, in the history of ancient Egypt, it is assumed that the Was sceptre became famous due to its direct link to the myth of the "solar boat of Ra".
Indeed, in this chapter of Egyptian mythology, Ra (the Egyptian god of the Sun) and his great-grandson Set (the Egyptian god of chaos and storms) repel the divine serpent Apep with an enchanted spear, which may be quite similar to this famous sceptre.
You can well imagine that an association was very quickly made between these two sticks, each one having the purpose of preventing dangerous reptiles from harming (although to a lesser extent than the Was sceptre, ancient Egyptians not having the pretension of catching snakes as giant as Apep).
Thus, the high point of the was sceptre has progressively begun to be decorated with the head of the animal lending its face to the god Set, the Cape aardvark.
The Was sceptre was thus popularised by its association with Set, the famous god of chaos. It has made such a mark on history that it can be found in our modern culture in numerous films, books, comic strips and video games.
B) The Was sceptre in ancient Egypt
For the pharaohs, the Was sceptre served as a symbolic shepherd's staff: it represented the pharaonic mission of guiding with straightness the people of Upper and Lower Egypt. It is one of the many attributes of the pharaoh granting him his presumed divine power.
The Was sceptre is an essential part of pharaohs' panoply. It can also be noted that it is almost always associated with other pharaonic attributes:
- The false beard (which by its rigidity remains straight even when the pharaoh is lying down or raising his head, which contributes to the attachment of divine characteristics to the monarchs of Egypt).
- The red crown and the white crown (respectively called the Hedjet and Deshret crowns, together forming the Pschent, a replica of the crown of the god Osiris, the Atef).
On this papyrus, we see a pharaoh with the Was sceptre in his hand, on his head the two crowns forming the Pschent and on his chin the false beard.
The Was sceptre also appears among the objects held in hand by the gods that we can see represented can be seen on hieroglyphs or statues. Thus, it is not uncommon to find this sceptre on the walls of Egyptian temples and tombs.
Moreover, it should be noted that in this case the Was sceptre is not represented with the attributes of the pharaoh but with the Egyptian symbols of the gods such as:
- The Djed pillar (the symbol representing the pillars supporting the world placed at the four corners of the world according to Egyptian mythology).
- The Sekhem sceptre (the sceptre derived from the name of the goddess Sekhmet whose name means "power").
- The knot of Isis (the symbol named in reference to the goddess of fertility and magic, it is the symbol representing the fertility of the Nile).
- The ankh cross (the Egyptian cross of hopeful life also called the ânkh cross).
- The divine solar disc (the small Suns that can be seen above certain gods and goddesses such as Ra, Horus, Sekhmet and sometimes Hathor).
- The Usekh collar (the wide necklaces that can be seen around the neck of the gods and that were worn by rich Egyptians).
Later, the Was sceptre will figure among the attributes of the god Ptah. Indeed, the craftsmen's god Ptah is known for his three symbols: the Was sceptre, the Djed pillar and the ankh cross. Through these three objects, Ptah represents power, stability and life. In Egyptian myths, he is the god of creation and one of the founding gods of the Universe (with the falcon-headed Sun god Ra).
2) The Egyptian god of chaos
Over the course of history, by its origin, this sceptre gradually became associated only with Set and much less with the other Egyptian gods. Attached to the god of chaos, this sceptre gradually became the emblem par excellence of Set.
Set, as a god of Egypt, is also associated with the ankh cross.
So, in order for you to fully understand what is behind this famous instrument of power of the pharaohs, it is important that you understand the story of the god who lent him his head.
A) The sceptre of a repentant god of chaos
In Egyptian mythology, the first Egyptian god to appear is Ra, the falcon-headed Sun god. indeed, after feeling the call of life, Ra created himself and then created the Universe.
Ra's role was then to illuminate his creation by sailing calmly in the heavens on his celestial boat to illuminate the whole Egypt. Every night, when humanity thinks the Sun sets, Ra crosses the world of the dead below the Earth on his solar boat. Sunrise is thus a true victory of Ra over the "underworld".
The main problem that Ra has to face in the limbo of the night is Apep, a giant snake, god of the dark forces of darkness. In Egyptian mythology, he is the personification of evil and try every night to prevent Ra from fulfilling his duty.
In this relentless fight, Ra can count on the help of various deities including Set (who is also god of lightning and storms).
Set, equipped with the Was sceptre, is in charge of defending the boat so that the expedition is a success every night. Ra can also rely on the powers of the goddesses Isis and Bastet (the cat-headed goddess).
B) Set and Osiris
We have seen that Set plays an essential role in the process of sunrise and sunset and is therefore capable of the best. However, in Egyptian mythology, it is rare for Set to incarnate the Good and it must be understood that if he is present on the solar boat, it is because he repents of some of his actions.
I) The myth of Osiris
To begin with, it seems that a brief contextualization is in order.
As we have seen, Ra is the first God to appear. It is he who is at the origin of all the gods, including Geb (the god of the Earth) and Nut (the goddess of Heaven). By their union, Geb and Nut gave birth to two boys (Osiris and Set) and two girls (Isis and Nephthys). Osiris took his sister Isis as his wife and Set married Nephthys.
Osiris succeeded Ra's reign over Egypt, which aroused great jealousy on the part of his brother Set.
According to the Egyptian ancient texts, Osiris is a just and wise man and it is precisely for these reasons that his great-grandfather placed him at the head of the Egyptian kingdom. However, this arouses in his brother a deep sentiment of envy that leads him to assassinate him.
This famous deliberate killing has been majestically orchestrated. at a banquet, Set committed to offer a luxurious sarcophagus to the one who would feel the most at ease in it.
Built to Osiris' size, only he could obviously enter the sarcophagus. Yet, once Osiris was within, Set closed the coffin's lid and launched it into the Nile River (causing his brother to succumb to drowning). After Isis failed to revive Osiris, Set chopped his brother's corpse into sixteen pieces and spread them across the whole country. Set then took over the kingdom and became the new pharaoh of all Egypt.
However, before Osiris was cut into pieces, Isis had the time to spend some time with him, which will give birth to Horus, a key figure in the rest of our story ...
Horus, falcon-headed god, son of Osiris and Isis
II) Set against Horus
Being the son of Osiris, Horus sees himself as the rightful successor of his father to the kingdom of Egypt. Yet, Set disagrees with him. So, Set and Horus requested the advice of a council made up of three old and sage gods: Ra, Thoth, and Shu.
However, this divine judgement is undecided and a fight between the two pretendants turns out to be unavoidable. Thus, the two gods fought against each other in various competitions to determine the legitimate successor of Osiris.
It was Horus who ultimately gained the support of the three gods of the jury through the assistance of Osiris. The latter, from the world of the Dead, swung the decision of the jurors in the favour of Horus.
Indeed, for the father of Horus, Set did not have the legitimacy to govern Egypt because he came to power by committing a murder. For this purpose, Osiris threaten the jury of the gods to call the Sun and the Moon, former good friends of his, to join him in the world of the Dead if the three gods did not follow his recommendation.
Horus became the new ruler of the Egyptian kingdom and married the deity of beauty and love, the goddess Hathor. Set, for his part (not having anymore the legal protection conferred by his position as pharaoh) was exiled to the Egyptian desert, his native domain.
Set then repented in his duty of guarding of the Sun god Ra and of the night (as we have seen earlier in this article).
An Egyptian sceptre
As you have seen, the Was sceptre is an object full of history and legend.
Thanks to this article, you are now able to explain to those around you the meaning of this particular stick, its use in the time of the pharaohs and its link with Set, the controversial god of chaos.
If you would like to keep this myth alive with a remarkable symbol that is more than 4000 years old, we invite you to take a look at our extensive collection of Egyptian necklaces, bracelets and rings.
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