The head of the jackal god


Are you intrigued by the face of Set, the Egyptian god of evil? Do you want to know what animal is hiding behind the great villain of the Egyptian pantheon? Or, would you like to discover the Egyptian mythological story attached to Set?

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We are here to answer all these questions as experts on ancient Egypt.

The animal of Set remains one of the greatest mysteries of the Egyptian gods. The animal from which the head of Set is inspired, the Cape aardvark, is said to possess several characteristics of other desert animals. Living in the shadows and taking advantage of the darkness to hunt, this animal is the personification of the god of evil that it represents: Set.

In this article, you will discover:

  • Who is the mysterious animal lending its head to Set
  • What place does Set occupy in Egyptian mythology

The animal of Set and his story will soon no longer have any mystery for you. The doors of Egyptian mythology are just waiting for you to open!

Let's discover it all together now!

1) The animal of Set

Set is the Egyptian God of evil, storms and chaos. Reputed to be especially evil, Set is in particular present in the "myth of Osiris", in which he is as much opposed to Osiris as to Horus, the latter's son.

Set is a deity surrounded by mystery: first by his position as god of evil, then by his head inspired by an animal that was no longer identified for a long time after the fall of the Egyptian empire.

First of all we will discover the animal that hides behind the god of chaos of ancient Egypt.


Set and Horus with a pharaoh

Set (left) and his nephew, Horus (right), granting their blessings to an Egyptian pharaoh.

A) A head inspired by many desert animals

The unusual head of Set has led many archaeologists and Egyptologists to believe that it was inspired by a fictitious animal. In fact, the search for the identity of this enigmatic animal is not easy since the representations of Set possess both:

  • A curved and very long muzzle
  • Thin, taut ears almost square in shape
  • Tail always upright even when pointing upwards.
  • A canine body (or a muscular human body in its more recent representations in ancient Egypt)

Thus, throughout the ages, many animals have been identified as "the animal of Set":

  • Cousins of the rabbit (the fennec, the gerboise, the greyhound, the Egyptian hare)
  • Cousins of the antelope (the Nubian giraffe, the donkey, the oryx)
  • Cousins of the pig (the aardvark and the tapir)
  • The okapi (a close cousin of the zebra)

However, none of these animals has been able to prove that it was the real "animal of Set".

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B) The Cape aardvark

The aardvark is a cousin of the pig, of course, but it has much in common with the dark side of Set.

In fact, the Cape aardvark is an animal still living in modern Egypt that only lives at night and adopts certain uncommon behaviours that make it the perfect representation of the "god of evil":

- As a nocturnal animal, it can be seen as a "soul devourer" by its ability to devour entire homes of ants in a matter of moments (the aardvark can devour up to 50,000 ants by night thanks to its tongue measuring up to 30 centimetres in length).

- It is an animal that always establishes its burrow in the vicinity of village borders. Thus, the Cape aardvark is on the border between the known and the unknown.

- It is capable of frightening even the bravest Egyptians leaving their villages by the way it reacts when it encounters a human being. Indeed, his natural reaction in this situation is to run frantically in a zigzag, shouting shrill cries while making great leaps and bounds.

It is highly probable that the aardvark has been grafted with characteristics that were not originally its own to make it the fabulous animal of Set. Thus we can conclude that Set's animal is a fantasised version of the Cape aardvark which received small elements from other animal contemporaries!

Darkness is the realm of the Cape aardvark, here coming out of its lair to hunt.

2) Set in Egyptian mythology

You now know the secret of the legendary "animal of Set". But this animal is mythical only because Set is mythical: he stands out from the rest of Egyptian gods in three great myths of Egypt:

- In the myth of Osiris, Set plays a fundamental role because he is the great villain of the story.

- In the struggle against Horus, Set seeks to usurp the throne of Egypt.

- In the myth of the solar boat of Ra, however, Set appears in a form that restores his image of a strictly evil god.

A) Who is Set?

The Osirian myth tells us the story of Osiris and his three brothers and sisters Set, Isis (being also, as we shall see, the wife of Orisis) and Nephthys (being also the wife of Set) .

Osiris stands out as the legendary ruler of Egypt, designer of agriculture and builder of the Egyptian religion. It was he who launched the construction of the mythical Nile civilization and enabled its rapid development with disconcerting ease. He is considered the perfect pharaoh and is adored by his people for his many virtues: wisdom, intelligence and benevolence.

Mad with jealousy in front of what Osiris accomplishes, Set then decides to plot to get rid of his brother. Thus, he will be able to become the uncontested sovereign of all Egypt adored and acclaimed by his people.

To achieve his goal, Set had a magnificent chest built on the perfect dimensions of Osiris, decorated with precious jewels. Set invites Osiris to a great banquet organised in his honour and promises to offer this fabulous chest to anyone who manages to enter it. Since the chest is designed solely to contain Osiris, no one succeeds except, of course, Osiris.

Once inside, Set immediately closes the lid and throws his brother into the Nile. Osiris drowns, Set becomes king of Egypt and at the same time invents the first sarcophagus.

The chest drifts as far as Byblos in Phoenicia, where it gets stuck in the roots of a tree. Immediately, the tree begins to grow at an incredible speed. The king of the province is impressed by the tree, which has become immense. Without knowing that the body of Osiris is in its trunk, the king of Phoenicia decides to cut the tree down to use it as a column of his future palace.

When Isis learns of the death of her beloved, she goes in search of Osiris. She enters the king's palace transformed into an old woman and saves the sick king's son with a simple touch. Eternally indebted, the king asks her to choose any of his possessions as a reward. She chooses the column, retrieves her husband's body and returns to Egypt to hide it.

As Isis cannot bring herself to live without her brother and husband, she implores the help of other gods to bring her back to life. Ra and Anubis hear her call and Isis manages to resurrect him long enough to conceive with Osiris a child, Horus, the falcon-headed god.

Yet, while he takes part in a hunting party organised in honour of his future coronation, Set finds his brother. Caught up in an insatiable thirst for revenge, he cuts Osiris into pieces and scatters them all over Egypt. In ancient Egypt, many ancient theories existed on the number of pieces of Osiris' body. According to some texts it is 14 (corresponding to half a lunar cycle in number of days), 16 (the depth of the sea in Egyptian cubits allowing optimal navigation) or 42 (the number of provinces of ancient Egypt).


Les ailes d'Isis

The powers of Isis are expressed through her magical wings. Her son, Horus, born as a result of this particular magic, draws his head as a falcon god from this fact.

Isis tried to gather the pieces of her husband to allow him a true burial. Unfortunately, in the myth of Osiris, she did not manage to find the penis of Osiris, the only missing part which was eaten and digested by a fish before Isis could recover all the pieces. Thus, Osiris, incompletely embalmed, could no longer take his place as ruler of the living and became the ruler of the kingdom of the dead.

B) Set and Horus

As you might have understood, Set was deeply blackened by his jealousy for Osiris' functions. He therefore tirelessly defended the place he considered his own in order to remain the undisputed master of Egypt.

Set will therefore find on his way the son of Osiris, Horus, who will claim the throne of Egypt by his natural right of succession to his father. Horus and Set will thus confront each other during various trials which will lead to the banishment of Set in the desert and the pharaonic ascension of Horus.


Seth, le fratricide

The opposing trials in Set and Horus are numerous and become more and more violent as time goes by.

C) The Egyptian god of chaos

Nevertheless, Set is not only the often talked about god of evil. He is also a fervent defender of the human world.

According to the myth of the god Ra (the god of the Sun with an head of falcon), every day Ra illuminates the world thanks to his celestial ship "the ship of millions of nights".

However, the task is not easy because Apep, the evil Egyptian serpent, tries to eat him at each crossing. Ra must therefore take measures to prevent himself and his boat from being eaten by Apep because this would plunge the world back into the original Darkness.

Thus, to succeed in his dangerous journey, many Egyptian deities take turns to protect the Sun god! Among these deities, Set as the god of storms unleashes wind and lightning to repel Apep and the cloud of demons and evil souls accompanying him. Thanks to Set, Ra has always been able to finish his crossing to illuminate the mortal world.


Barge de Râ

At each crossing, Ra is attacked by the demons under the orders of Apep and especially by the gigantic snake himself.

The Egyptian god Set

As you will have understood, Set is certainly one of the most ambivalent gods in Egyptian mythology. Victim or executioner, Set remains one of the pillars of the polytheistic Egyptian religion, whether by his function as protector of the Sun or by his function as the great god of evil. 

This knowledge now in your possession, you are able to share it around you and to better understand this mythological labyrinth that are the gods of ancient Egypt.


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