Contrary to the general rule—that our knowledge increases as we move forward in time—we know less about the Second Dynasty than we do about the First. We lack a basic source, the tombs of the kings. There are only two Second Dynasty tombs at Abydos, and they date from the very end of the period. Excavations at Sakkara have produced two large underground galleries that may belong to the Second Dynasty—but not to the two kings who have tombs at Abydos. If these Sakkara tombs had superstructures, they have vanished, but in the galleries were found seals bearing the names of the first three kings of the Second Dynasty—Hetepsekhemwi, Raneb, and Nynetjer. It’s not necessary to remember these names; they will not turn up again in these pages. I just put them in to show how thorough I am.

We don’t know why Manetho started a new dynasty with the Second. There are definite signs of dissension, and they take an unexpected form. The country had only been unified for a few generations, and we might expect that the conquered had not completely given up their dreams of independent power. But the rebellion against the central authority was not solely a matter of political conflict. It was tied in with religion.

Of all the gods and goddesses of Egypt, the best known are probably Isis and Osiris. Osiris was regarded as the earliest king of Egypt, who brought the Egyptians out of savagery, giving them laws and teaching them how to cultivate the land. He married his sister Isis, and their wise and benevolent rule was praised by gods and men alike. But Osiris’s jealous brother Set murdered the king and usurped his throne. The body of Osiris was recovered by his devoted wife, whose laments so moved the gods that they restored Osiris and gave him kingship over the land of the dead. The posthumous son of the royal pair, Horus, finally defeated his wicked uncle Set in a bloody hand-to-hand combat and regained the throne. Hence the king of Egypt was called “the Horus.” When he died he became Osiris and was buried by his son, the new Horus, with the same pious devotion that the god Horus had shown his father.

This myth has been interpreted in a number of ways. The followers of the “Dynastic Race” idea regard Horus as the patron deity of the conquerors and Set as the god of the indigenous population. The events were narrated by the winners, so their god became the avenging son and Set became the manifestation of evil; as someone has pointed out, the devil has never had the story told from his point of view either.

Another theory views Set as the god of the south (he was originally the local god of a town called Ombos in Upper Egypt) and Horus (Set’s opposite number) as the god of the north. If we are determined to make political hay out of the story, this identification leaves us stuck with an unrecorded conquest of the south by the north, the exact opposite of Menes’s conquest. This overly simplistic notion disregards the fact that Egyptian gods cannot be tidily restricted to a single place. Horus was also top god at Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt. To confuse the picture still further, he was a sun god as well as the son of Osiris.

There is a third interpretation, which is that the story is theological in import, representing a rather naive version of the conflict between good and evil, light and darkness. The protagonists in the battle are not Osiris and his brother, but Horus and Set. The “Contendings” of this belligerent pair were a favorite motif in folklore and literature. Horus’s symbol is the hawk; the little picture of the bird is the hieroglyph used to write the god’s name. The symbolic animal of the Antagonist, Set, is a more mysterious beast. The squatting or standing quadruped with the long, drooping snout and upstanding ears has to be a composite or a complete fiction, so we just call it the “Set-animal.”

The Egyptian duality of good and evil is not so clear-cut as are other versions. Unlike Lucifer and Ahriman, Set did not become a devil after he fell. He was a good god and a bad god, and he could turn from one to the other with a speed that makes Dr. Jekyll look like a tyro. When Set was defeated by Horus he was not cast into outer darkness. Even Isis pleaded for him, and he was given the desert and foreign lands as his domain. As the murderer of Osiris, Set was evil, and the pilgrims to Abydos used to watch his defeat, which was reenacted in a great annual mystery play, with happy cries of “Go to it, Horus!”—or something like that. But in his other manifestation, Set was a perfectly good god and was worshiped like any other. Other cosmologies knew a similar dichotomy; the Aztec Tezcatlipoca was both a sun god and the sun god’s diabolic opponent; the slim huntress Diana could also be the frightful triform Hecate, goddess of witches and black magic.

Horus the falcon is so thoroughly identified with the king that it comes as something of a shock to see a heretical monarch rejecting Horus in favor of his bête noire, Set. This Second Dynasty iconoclast was named, originally, the Horus Sekhemib. We mentioned, while discussing the kings of the First Dynasty, that the Horus name was written in a serekh with a falcon on top. When King Sekhemib changed his Horus name he changed the whole structure. His name became Peribsen, and his serekh was topped by the Set-animal instead of the Horus falcon.

Serekhs of Sekhemib (left) and Peribsen (right)

This change of ritual, which looks so small on a stone seal or stela, must have signified far-reaching and dramatic events. Many of the First Dynasty royal monuments, both at Sakkara and at Abydos, were set afire in ancient times, perhaps during this very period. The next king, Khasekhem, is known for his military exploits, and several campaigns were fought in the north. There is certainly a suggestion of a battle for the crown, if not outright civil war. The last king of the dynasty, Khasekhemui, has a name that means “Appearance of the Two Powers.” The two powers, in this case, may well have been the old enemies Horus and Set; the king’s name is, uniquely, surmounted by both gods standing in amity upon the serekh. Possibly Khasekhem and Khasekhemui are the same king, with the change of name signalizing a reconciliation—forcible or diplomatic—between the two factions that had been in opposition. The fact that no tomb has been found for Khasekhem at Abydos, although the tombs of Peribsen and Khasekhemui are there, supports this theory.

Serekh of Khasekhemui

The wars of religion in our own era are adequate proof that men may take up weapons over an idea, but it is rather startling to find the easygoing, tolerant Egyptians fighting about their gods when they could, and did, accept new additions to the pantheon without a murmur of complaint or confusion. Was the Set rebellion, like Akhenaton’s later heresy, an attempt at exclusiveness—an attempt, in short, at mono the ism? Well—no. There is no evidence for such a conclusion. We may never know the details of, or the reasons for, the religious upheaval of the Second Dynasty, and one must always bear in mind that religion can be, and often is, a cloak for more cynical power struggles. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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