Set animal

Depictions of the Set animal
(Gardiner E20, E21, C7)
in hieroglyphs

In ancient Egyptian art, the Set animal, or sha, is the totemic animal of the god Set. Because Set was identified with the Greek Typhon, the animal is also commonly known as the Typhonian animal or Typhonic beast.

Unlike other animals, Set is not easily identifiable in the modern animal world. Today, there is a general agreement among Egyptologists that it was never a real creature and existed only in ancient Egyptian imagination. In recent years, there have been many attempts by zoologists to find the Set animal in nature. While whether or not the animal existed is currently unknown, it had much significance for the Egyptians. The Set animal is one of the most frequently demonstrated animal determinatives [1]

Hieroglyphic representation

The Set-animal, Gardiner E20, E21, is one of the portrayals of the god Set. The other common hieroglyph used to represent Set is a seated god with the head of the Set animal, Gardiner C7.

The linguistic use of these hieroglyphs in the Egyptian language is as the determinative for words portraying "items with chaos", example words related to "suffering, violence, perturbation", and also for "violent storms" of the atmosphere, a "tempest".[2]

According to Egyptologist Richard H. Wilkinson, the first known use of the Set animal was upon the Scorpion Macehead of Scorpion II of Naqada III. It was soon thereafter portrayed mounted upon the serekhs of Seth-Peribsen and Khasekhemwy.[3]

According to some scientists, the Seth animal hieroglyph does not actually represent a living animal. It’s currently not possible to determine from what living creature the hieroglyph derived. Some Egyptian texts suggest that Seth took the form of dangerous animal, such as a bull or crocodile.[4]

Physical characteristics

The sha is usually depicted as a slender dog, resembling a greyhound or a jackal, with three distinguishing features: a stiff tail, often forked at the end, which stands straight up or at an angle, whether the animal is sitting, standing, or walking; its ears, also held erect, are usually depicted as squarish or triangular, narrowest at the base and widest at the squarish tops; and a long nose, often with a slight downward curve. It is normally depicted as black, but may also have been reddish.[5][6]

The Seth animal is usually depicted at rest, either lying down or seated. The shape of the head often resembles a giraffe, causing confusion between the two signs. The general body shape is that of a canine.[7]

Many agreed that the creature had an aardvark's head, a jackal's front parts, and the backside of a donkey.

Ancient Egypt

Drawings of the sha appear in Egyptian artwork from Naqada III until at least the period of the New Kingdom, a period of some two thousand years. Although sometimes described as a fantastic or composite animal, it was depicted in a realistic manner more typical of actual creatures. The sha is found on the ceremonial Scorpion Macehead dating to Naqada III; on the serekhs of the Second Dynasty kings Seth-Peribsen and Khasekhemwy; in Twelfth Dynasty tombs at Beni Hasan; and, in the form of Set, in the royal cartouches of the Nineteenth Dynasty pharaohs Seti I and Seti II and the Twentieth Dynasty king Setnakhte and his descendants.[8][5][6][9]

Association with Set

Main article: Set (deity)

The god Set was usually depicted as a man with a head resembling that of the sha, usually with a long, slightly curved nose, and erect ears, squared at the tops. Occasionally he was represented in animal form as the sha itself, although he was also depicted in the form of an onager or as a black pig. Other animals sacred to Set included the antelope, hippopotamus, wild boar, crocodile, and scorpion, all of which represented strength, power, protection, or wildness. The sha was also used as a determinative in the names of Set and the goddess Nut, who may be identified with Nephthys, the wife of Set.[6][5]

In art, Set was mostly depicted as a mysterious and unknown creature, referred to by Egyptologists as the Set animal or Typhonic beast, with a curved snout, square ears, forked tail, and canine body, or sometimes as a human with only the head of the Set animal.

Was-sceptres scepters represent the Set-animal. Was-sceptres were carried by gods, pharaohs, and priests, as a symbol of power, and in later use, control over the force of chaos (Set). The head and forked tail of the Set-animal are clearly present. Was scepters are often depicted in paintings, drawings, and carvings of gods, and remnants of real was-sceptres have been found constructed of Egyptian faience or wood.

Both the Second Dynasty pharaohs Peribsen and Khasekhemwy, whose serekhs depict the sha, identified themselves as divine manifestations of Set on earth, as previous kings had identified themselves with Horus. During the Old Kingdom of Egypt, Horus and Set were generally viewed as twin supporters and defenders of the god Ra, head of the Egyptian pantheon; and they were often depicted anointing the king, as the divine source of his authority. The association of Horus and Set probably reflected the reconciliation of a struggle between two royal cults. Following the unification of Egypt, Narmer and the kings of the First Dynasty embraced the worship of Horus, by adopting the Horus name as part of their official nomenclature. This name identified the king as the god's representative on earth. Seth-Peribsen, however, chose a Set name in place of a Horus name, while Khasekhemwy's royal title invoked both of the great gods, presumably in an attempt to reconcile the followers of each cult.[6]

Disappearance of the Sha

Although Set was originally viewed as the son and defender of Ra, and the Egyptian kings, his reputation amongst the people declined along with the rise of the cult of Osiris. Originally a vegetation god, Osiris became one of the pre-eminent gods of the Egyptian pantheon. His worship stressed the role of Set as violence personified; the murderer of his brother, and usurper of his throne, who instead of standing alongside Horus, became his eternal enemy. This view of Set was encouraged during the Second Intermediate Period, when Egypt was invaded by the Hyksos, people from Western Asia, whose god Sutekh became identified with Set.[6]

Set continued to be revered during the New Kingdom. Several kings of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties had royal names indicating their devotion to Set, and these names were written with a hieroglyphic representation of the god (Gardiner no. C7) as a determinative. Here Set is depicted as a seated deity with a Set animal's head. However, during the Third Intermediate Period, Set was deeply unpopular, his worship abandoned, and many depictions of him were destroyed or defaced. References to and depictions of the Set animal must have suffered a similar fate.[6][9]


Depictions of the Set animal as an animal appear distinctly canine, but the precise identity of the animal has never been firmly established. It is sometimes described as a jackal or some other wild dog, although the jackal is usually identified with the god Anubis. In connection with Anubis, the jackal is never depicted with the distinguishing features of the Set animal: the stiff, often forked tail; the squared ears; and the long, slightly curved nose. It is conceivable that these features were added to representations of the jackal solely in order to distinguish Set from Anubis. Early representations of the Set animal frequently omit the fork at the end of the tail, or show it with something resembling a tuft instead, so the idea of the forked tail may have been symbolic.[6]

However, some scholars believe the Set animal to be a stylized representation of some other animal, such as an African wild dog, a pig, an antelope, an okapi, a giraffe, or even an aardvark; or that it might represent a species that was rare and has since become extinct. Since Set was later represented as a donkey or with the head of a donkey,[10] it is possible the donkey was the inspiration for the Set animal. Others have speculated that it is a purely fantastic or composite animal, which never existed in nature; this was the opinion of Egyptologist E. A. Wallis Budge. Because the name sha is not as familiar as that of Set, and has no independent mythology associated with it, the animal is commonly referred to as "Set" or "Set animal" or the "Typhonian animal", so-called because the Greeks equated Set or Sutekh with the monster Typhon.[5][6]

See also


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  1. McDonald, Angela (2000). Current Research in Egyptology 2000. England: Archaeopress. pp. 75, 76, 77. ISBN 1841712078.
  2. Betrò, 1995. Hieroglyphics: The Writings of Ancient Egypt, Section: "Set", variant "The mythic animal Set", p. 75.
  3. Wilkinson, 1992. Reading Egyptian Art, Set Animal, E20, E21, p. 66-67.
  4. McDonald, Angela (2000). Current Research in Egyptology. England: Archeaopress. pp. 75, 76, 77. ISBN 1841712078.
  5. 1 2 3 4 E. A. Wallis Budge, The Gods of the Egyptians: Studies in Egyptian Mythology (1904)
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (1974)
  7. McDonald, Angela (2000). Current Research in Egyptology. Archaeopress. ISBN 1841712078.
  8. Richard H. Wilkinson, Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture (1992)
  9. 1 2 Stephen Quirke, Who Were the Pharaohs? A history of their names with a list of cartouches (1990)
  10. H. te Velde, Seth, God of Confusion: A Study of His Role in Egyptian Mythology and Religion, Probleme der Ägyptologie, 6 , G. E. van Baaren-Pape, transl. (W. Helck. Leiden: Brill 1967), pp.13-15.


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