For anyone familiar with ancient Egypt, the pantheon of animal headed gods can easily be brought to mind. From Horus with the head of a falcon, Sobek with a crocodile or Thoth with an ibis, it seems that the ancient Egyptians found inspiration in the animals of the Nile for their portrayals of their gods.
But one creature stands apart. Set, also known as Sha, has its origin in Egyptian mythology. It is believed to have existed in ancient Egyptian times and is considered to be sacred to the god Set. But what the animal itself was is a complete mystery.
According to the ancient Egyptian religion, Set is known as the god of storms, disorder, deserts, violence, destruction, and chaos. Set’s realm was the red land of death – the desert, as opposed the black, life-giving land of the Nile. As Set was known as the Greek Typhon, the Set animal was also called as the Typhonic beast or Typhonian animal.
Many Egyptologists believe that the animal was just an imaginary one in ancient Egyptian times, and never existed in reality. However, a number of zoologists have made several attempts to locate the mysterious animal in recent times.
Some authors have even theorized that the animal could be a stylized jackal, hyena, fox, or aardvark. While it is still uncertain that whether the animal existed or not, it is true that the Set animal had much significance for the people living during the ancient Egyptian times.
So What Do We Know?
The Sha is known to resemble a jackal or greyhound. One of the most distinguishing features of the animal is its stiff tail, almost always portrayed as standing upright, and either forked at the end or tipped like that of a lion.
Sometimes, the tail appears to be held at a specific angle, but the importance of this is lost. The Set animal is depicted as having squared ears that are held erect, and a long nose with a little downward curve. The color of the animal is depicted to be black or reddish.
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While its head resembles that of a giraffe, the general body is like a canine. In most of the depictions of ancient Egyptian times, the Set animal is seen at rest, either seated or lying down.
The Set animal was associated with behaviors similar to that of the cruel Egyptian god Set, to whom it is sacred. The animal was characterized as sadistic, insidious, doubtless, vindictive, and malevolent. The animals were also considered very cunning and intelligent.
While the abilities possessed by Sha are not very clear, a number of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs combine the Set symbol with those representing violent storms, violence, suffering, tempests, and perturbation. The set animal and its god were considered agents of misfortune, embodying the callous disregard of the desert and able to initiate storms at any place they want.
The God Set
Ancient depictions of the god Set from both the Egyptians and later Greeks depict him as a man with the head of this mysterious Sha animal. The head almost always recreates some specific details which might otherwise be considered to be coincidental, such as the slight downward curve on the long nose, which is squared and held erect like depictions of the animal.
On various occasions, the Set god was even represented in a fully animal form with a long, curved nose, erect forked tail, squared ears, and a body like that of a canine. Other animals that were known to be sacred to the Set god included hippopotamus, crocodile, wild boar, antelope, and scorpion. All of these animals were seen as representative of wildness, power, strength, and protection.
The Set animal was ceremonially represented by “Was-scepters,” usually carried by pharaohs, priests, and gods as being symbolic of power. Was-scepters are depicted in a number of drawings, paintings, and carvings of this god. The remnants of the was-scepters have also been found, made out of wood or the semi-precious Egyptian faience.
The Second Dynasty pharaohs Khasekhemwy and Peribsen had serekhs (the royal crest and honorific included in hieroglyphs to denote a pharaoh) depicting the Set animal. In doing so, they identified themselves as the manifestations of the divine god Set on the planet earth.
This was in stark contrast to previous kings, who had identified themselves as manifestations of Horus. In the times of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, Set and Horus were considered twin defenders and supporters of the god Ra. The association of Set and Horus represented the reconciliation of a potential struggle among the two royal cults.
Finding The Typhonic Hound
The changes and evolution of the various artworks and hieroglyphs of ancient Egyptians through their long history has made it difficult to identify the Set animal. Many early depictions of the mysterious animal omit the presence of a fork at the end of the animal’s tail. This has sparked a continuing popular debate as to which hieroglyphs exactly represent or depict the Set god and all its associated animals.
According to Ken Moss, an Egyptologist, the Set animal could be the Saluki, as it is the oldest domesticated dog breed with an identical body and curved nose. Moreover, the tail and ears of Saluki become vertical when it runs. The Saluki has been depicted in a number of hieroglyphs.
However, no additional connections of the Saluki with the Set god were found, and the resemblance may be by chance. Aside from anything else, it does not seem a fitting animal to associate with the god of the deserts and of death.
Many other theories have been put forward. It has been suggested that it is a wild dog, which it does not really resemble, or a jackal, which is elsewhere portrayed very differently as an animal sacred to Anubis.
Some scholars suggest that the Set animal could represent a very rare species, one which has since gone extinct. There are certainly large animals in North Africa which no longer survive, such as the Barbary lion.
On the other hand, some other scholars believe that it is just a representation of other existing animals such as the pig, antelope, African wild dog, giraffe, or okapi. Late depictions of the Set god give him what appears to be unambiguously a donkey’s head, and it is plausible that the donkey was the main inspiration behind the imagination of the Set animal.
Others consider the Sha to be a composite or entirely fantastic animal that never existed. However, none of these answers are fully satisfactory. To be a fictitious animal would be almost unique in the Egyptian pantheon. And to portray a recognizable animal in such a stylized fashion is also highly unusual next to the life-like depictions of other sacred animals.
A Secret Lost To The Desert?
It is highly unlikely that an answer to these riddles will be satisfactorily found. Maybe the Set animal never existed. Maybe it is an oddly incongruous depiction of a common animal.
Or, just maybe, there could be a large canine hiding in the Egyptian desert, sacred to the ancients but lost to time.
Top Image: What was the mysterious Set animal? Source: tutincommon / CC BY-NC 2.0.
By Bipin Dimri