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Writing about the ancient Egyptian gods of the underworld brings a dilemma: unlike the Greeks or the Chinese, the Egyptians loved the gods of the dead. They believed the afterlife would be a delightful paradise where virtuous souls would be free to pursue their favorite pastimes with friends and family for eternity [coincidentally, does this sound familiar to anyone?]. The ruler of the underworld, Osiris, was one of the most cherished Egyptian gods and he has some claims to primacy within their pantheon. As god of agriculture, Osiris made grain grow after it was planted and he annually brought life to the Nile (upon his death, he gave his fertility to the river—see the story below). After being killed, he came back to uncanny magical life with even greater power and he offers a doorway to the glories of the next realm.
To the Egyptians, the god of evil and chaos was the slayer of Osiris—his brother Set, the Lord of the Red Desert. Set was god of the lands beyond the fertile Nile river bed. He ruled the scorpion-haunted wastes where no crops would grow, where sand storms and flash floods materialized swiftly out of the baking land. Like many Egyptian gods, Set has the head of an animal, yet scholars are unsure what that animal is: Egyptologists simply refer to it as the Set animal.
He sometimes also appears as a black pig, a crocodile, or a hippopotamus.
Set slew his brother Osiris in order to gain sovereignty over Egypt. He then cut the body into pieces which he cast far and wide. Osiris’ dutiful wife, Isis, gathered the pieces (except for one critical piece which had been thrown into the Nile and eaten by a catfish) and magically reassembled them. Thoth and Anubis then embalmed Osiris who became the deathless ruler of the next realm. Osiris’ son, the falcon-headed Horus, took vengeance for his father by reclaiming his throne and castrating Set. Set was exiled into the desert to become the evil god of drought, dryness, and sandstorm.
Of course all of this is stereotyping—the civilization of ancient Egypt has a long history. Osiris and Set were venerated by dynasties and political factions which were very different from each other during their 3,600 year run. All sorts of changes, hybridization, and confusing paradox crept into their tale. Archeology seems to indicate that Set was the principal deity of the desert people of Upper Egypt (the dry southern uplands). When these desert warriors conquered all of Egypt, they adapted the gods of fertile Lower Egypt and made their own deity an outcast. Nevertheless, worship of Set endured throughout dynastic history. Set was feared by all and held in particular esteem by the desert folk living at the boundaries of agricultural society.