the name of the deity generally written with the falcon hieroglyph and transliterated fully Ḥrw, commonly Ḥr. The generally accepted etymology is “the distant one,” which seems to be supported by Pyramid Text orthographies, as well as an implied pun in the Coffin Texts, Section 148. The ancient Egyptians also seem to have connected it to ḥry (“one who is above/over”). The name occurs in many compounds, notably Ḥr-smʒ-tʒwy (Gk., Harsomtus, “Horus Uniter of the Two Lands”). The name of Horus has been widespread in theophorous personal names throughout Egyptian history. As a personal name, Hor has outlived the native Egyptian religious tradition, often the case with theophores (e.g., Thor, Isadora, Onnofrio, Diana, etc.).

The roles, local cult foundations, and titles or epithets of Horus are sometimes correlated with distinct or preferred forms in iconography; for example, the falcon, the falcon-headed man, the winged disk, and the child with a sidelock (sometimes in his mother's arms). Egyptologists therefore often speak of distinct, sometimes originally distinct, Horuses or Horus-gods. Combinations, identifications, and differentiations were, however, possible for Horus, and they are complementary rather than antithetical. 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, or facets, of the same divine persona.

Horus is one of the earliest attested of the major ancient Egyptian deities, becoming known to us at least as early as the late Predynastic period (Naqada III/Dynasty 0); he was still prominent in the latest temples of the Greco-Roman period, especially at Philae and Edfu, as well as in the Old Coptic and Greco-Egyptian ritual-power, or magical, texts. The earliest documented chapter in the career of Horus was as Horus the falcon, god of Nekhen (Hierakonpolis) in southern Upper Egypt. In this capacity, Horus was the patron deity of the Hierakonpolis monarchy that grew into the historical pharaonic state, hence the first known national god, the god of kingship. Both his sponsorship of the monarchy and, probably, his identification with the king were shown on early decorated monuments from Hierakonpolis and by his appearance in the king's Horus-name, which came from the same period. Horus became the patron of several Egyptian military colonies in Nubia, Buhen, Miam (Aniba), and Baki (Kuban).

With the rise of the full-blown 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/predecessor) as Osiris. When the king died, he became Osiris (or, as I have suggested, joined the sphere of identity of Osiris, in NAOS, Notes and Materials for the Linguistic Study of the Sacred 12.1–3 [1996], pp. 2–5). Horus is the royal heir/successor par excellence, the epitome of legitimate succession. In the expanded Osiris mythological complex. Horus vindicates and avenges his father Osiris, thus bringing us to a consideration of the vital relationship between Horus and the god Seth.

Seth, the embodiment of disorder, was predominantly seen as a rival of Horus, a would-be usurper who assassinated Osiris and was defeated; Seth was also portrayed in a balanced complementarity with Horus, so that the pair of them represented a bipolar, balanced embodiment of kingship. Thus, on the side of the throne, Horus and Seth—symmetrical and equal—tie the papyrus and lotus around the sema-sign (smʒ; “unity”): see also, the end of the Thutmose III Poetical Stela. When the full Osiris complex became visible, Seth appeared as the murderer of Osiris and the would-be killer of the child Horus. Since about the turn of the twentieth century in Egyptological research, much debate has ensued about whether the struggle of Horus and Seth was primarily historical/geopolitical or cosmic/symbolic; the answer depends partially on the researcher's choice of myth interpretation theories. In addition, this question has been complicated by the ambivalent geographical polarities of the two gods' cult centers. For Horus, Hierakonpolis (Nekhen) and Edfu (Djeba, Mesen) in Upper Egypt are complemented by Hermopolis Parva I, Letopolis (Khem, Ausim) and Behdet (Tell el-Balamun?) in the Nile Delta (Behdet is also identified with Edfu). Another Delta site important in connection with Horus is Khemmis (Akhbit), regarded as his birthplace. For Seth, Ombos (Nubt, near Naqada), in Upper Egypt, was balanced by his center in the Sethroite nome of the Delta, ostensibly established by the Hyksos at Avaris. Other relevant deities also show both Southern and Northern centers, for example, Osiris at Abydos and at Busiris/Djedu. A crucial observation is that Ombos, although in Upper Egypt, is north of Hierakonpolis and that the so-called Lower Egyptian Red Crown was first attested on a sherd from Naqada. This suggests the possibility that one source at least of the conflict is in the early expansion of the proto-kingdom of Hierakonpolis and its absorption of the proto-kingdom of Naqada.

A Horus–Seth conflict occurred in the second dynasty and was resolved under Khasekhemwy, presumably setting the stage for the subsequent equilibrium. The nature of this conflict is not entirely clear, but it was reflected in the following: the use of a Seth-name instead of the usual Horus-name by King Peribsen; the combining of Horus and Seth above the serekh (srḫj; palace-façade design) of Khasekhemwy; and the indications of warfare, as well as some limited geographical ranges, for some rulers. During the Old Kingdom, the Horus-name was joined in the royal titulary by the so-called name of “Golden Horus” or “Horus of Gold” (the interpretation of which is highly debated). Some regard it as signifying “Horus and the Ombite (Seth)” or “Horus over the Ombite,” the latter allegedly supported by both the Demotic and Greek translations: “He who is over his enemy/superior to his foes.”

The most common genealogy of Horus is as the son of Osiris and Isis, making a tenth on the family tree of the Heliopolitan Ennead. The full picture is more complex: Hathor (herself identified with Isis) also appears as the mother of Horus; Horus the Elder (Haroeris) can appear in the Heliopolitan family tree as a brother of Osiris and son of Geb and Nut, thus an uncle of Horus in his more usual manifestations; Osiris can also be equated with Haroeris, who in that scenario is the murdered victim of Seth. Analogously, at Edfu, Horus appears as the consort of Hathor and the father of another form of himself, Harsomtus (“Horus Uniter of the Two Lands”). Horus and Seth are sometimes described as nephew and uncle, sometimes as brothers.

Horus the falcon was predominantly a sky god and a sun god; as the former, his eyes are the sun and moon; as the latter, he has a sun disk on his head and is syncretized with the deity Re, most often as Re-Harakhty. He also appeared frequently as a hawk-headed man. Horus of Behdet/the Behdetite was normally shown as a winged disk with pendant uraei (snakes) and, as such, often appeared on the upper border or lunette of stelae. Horus the falcon/disk had the epithets nṯr ʿʒ nb pt sʒb šwt, “Great God, Lord of Heaven, Dappled of Plumage.” Horus the child/Horus son of Isis and Osiris was often portrayed as a boy wearing the sidelock and frequently appeared in the arms of his mother Isis. Bronzes representing him, with or without Isis, were ubiquitous in Late and Greco-Roman times. Horus as a boy with the sidelock also appears dominating crocodiles, serpents, and other noxious animals on cippi of Horus or apotropaic stelae of “Horus-on-the-Crocodiles,” which were the common manifestation of the importance of Horus in healing ritual and popular ritual practice. Horus the successor was also referred to as Iunmutef (“Pillar of His Mother”), which was used as a funerary priestly title (often the deceased's eldest son). The Great Sphinx at Giza was identified during the New Kingdom as Harmakhis (Ḥr-m-ʒḫt; “Horus in the Horizon”). In the person of the Sphinx and elsewhere, Horus was identified in the New Kingdom with the Syrian-Canaanite deity Hauron (an identification regarded by some as contributing to the choice of the Arabic name of the Sphinx, Abu-ʿl-Hul, “Father of Terror”). Aside from the sun disk already mentioned, Horus in various forms often wore the Double Crown, as befitted his status as king of Egypt; the atef (ʒtf; a type of crown), triple atef, and disk with two plumes were also used. On cippi, the head of the child Horus was often surmounted by a full-faced Bes-head (or mask?).

The iconography of Horus either influenced or was appropriated in early Christian art. Isis and the baby Horus may often be seen as the precursor for Mary and the infant Jesus; Horus dominating the beasts may have a counterpart in Christ Pantokrator doing the same; and Horus spearing a serpent may survive in the iconography of Saint George defeating the dragon.

The textual and mythological materials relating to Horus are extremely rich, comprising hymns, mortuary texts, ritual texts, dramatic/theological texts, stories, the Old Coptic and Greek so-called magical papyri, and the most complete ancient exposition of the Osiris narrative, Plutarch's De Iside et Osiride (in Latin translation). In characteristic Egyptian fashion, many of the hymns and the mortuary and ritual texts incorporated substantial narrative material or were taken from narrative, though they are not comprehensive, consecutive myths per se. In addition to Plutarch's account in Greek, the most substantive sources for the Osiris-Isis-Horus cycle include the following: the Memphite Theology or Shabaqo Stone (now generally placed at least as late as the New Kingdom); 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 (and perhaps, in allegorical form, Truth and Falsehood); 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 or audience, with a number of variations and contrasting perspectives, from the conception and birth of Horus, through his childhood hidden in the marshes, his protection by Isis, his conflict with Seth and his followers, and his succession as legitimate king. The healing of Horus from scorpion stings by Isis provided the reason for the production of the cippi of Horus and his role in healing. The blinding of one of Horus' eyes by Seth and its restoration by Thoth was the mythological basis for the popularity of the Eye of Horus (the wḏʒt or “whole or sound [eye]”) amulet and its significance in offerings and sacrifice (as found in Pyramid Texts offering liturgies). The roles of Horus and Seth are interesting for folkloric analysis. Seth is often considered the “trickster” figure of ancient Egyptian religion, but it has been noted that in the Contendings of Horus and Seth, Horus had elements of the “trickster” and Seth acted the fool.

Horus was combined, syncretized, and closely associated with deities other than the sun god Re, notably (but not exclusively) Min, Sopdu, Khonsu, and Montu. The Greeks' association of Horus with Apollo gave rise to the name of the author of the Hieroglyphica, Horapollo. The deities of the canopic jars, protectors of the four internal organs removed during mummification, were known as the “Four Sons of Horus.” Throughout the Roman Empire, Horus became popular, along with his fellow deities of the Osirian family and others, such as Anubis. That and his prominence in the Isis temple of Philae, the last functioning center of the traditional Egyptian religion, made Horus one of the ancient Egyptian deities who survived longest, as Christianity slowly gained its ascendancy over the Roman world.

See also CONTENDINGS OF HORUS AND SETH; CULTS, articles on Royal Cults and Divine Cults; DIETIES; MYTHS, articles on OSIRIS CYCLE and SOLAR CYCLE; and SETH.


  • Allen, Thomas George. Horus in the Pyramid Texts. Chicago, 1915.
  • Blackman, Aylward M., and H. W. Fairman. “The Myth of Horus at Edfu (II).” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 28 (1942), 32–38; 29 (1943), 2–36; 30 (1944), 5–22.
  • Bonnet, Hans. “Horus.” In Reallexikon der Ägyptischen Religions-geschichte, pp. 307–314. Berlin, 1952; reprint Berlin and New York, 1971. Though old, still one of the most useful reference works on Egyptian religion.
  • Fairman, H. W. “The Myth of Horus at Edfu (I).” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 21 (1935), 26–36.
  • Fairman, H. W. The Triumph of Horus: The Oldest Play in the World. London, 1974. A dramatic account from the Ptolemaic temple of Edfu, and how the play was staged under the author's direction.
  • Gardiner, Alan H. “Horus the Behdetite.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 30 (1944), 23–60.
  • Griffiths, J. Gwyn. The Conflict of Horus and Seth. From Egyptian and Classical Sources: A Study in Ancient Mythology. Liverpool, 1960. A comprehensive but somewhat outdated discussion of the rivalry of these deities and its possible historical background.
  • Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated from German by John Baines. Ithaca, 1982. First published as Der Eine und die Vielen, Darmstadt, 1971. A sensitive and profound exploration, showing the necessity of both “one” and “many” in Egyptian ontology and proposing “many-valued logic” as an approach to that worldview.
  • Kemp, Barry J. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. London and New York, 1989. A masterful study of the workings and development of Egyptian society, with detailed and insightful discussion of the rise of the state and the monarchy.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings. 3 vols. Berkeley, 1973–1980. The most chronologically and generically inclusive anthology of ancient Egyptian texts in English, including a number of important selections that pertain to Horus.
  • Meeks, Dimitri, and Christine Favard-Meeks. Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods. Translated from French by G. M. Goshgarian. Ithaca, 1996. First published as La vie quotidienne des dieux égyptiens, Paris, 1993. An excellent complement to Hornung (1982), expanding on the deities, their histories, and the cults from which they interface with the human world.
  • Mercer, Samuel A. B. Horus: Royal God of Egypt. Grafton, 1942. Not only outdated but full of errors and idiosyncratic ideas, some of which are listed in J. Janssen's review in Bibliotheca Orientalis 3. 4 (1946), 82–85.
  • Schenkel, W. “Horus.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 3: 14–25. Wiesbaden, 1980. An encyclopedic treatment for Egyptologists.
  • te Velde, Herman. Seth, God of Confusion. 2d ed. Probleme der Ägyptologie, 6. Leiden, 1977. While focusing on Seth and his role, this work also sheds much light on Horus.

Edmund S. Meltzer