The four ‘Sons of Horus’—Imsety, Hapy, Duamutef and Kebehsenuf—are best known for their appearance on the jars in which the internal organs of the deceased were symbolically preserved. On these, Imsety is human-headed, Hapy is baboon-headed, Duamutef is jackal-headed, and Kebehsenuf is hawk-headed. It is often stated that each of these Gods protects a specific organ, is linked to one of the cardinal directions, and is related to a tutelary Goddess; in reality these relationships were hardly systematic, but certain broadly consistent patterns can be discerned. In CT spell 157 these four Gods are specified to be the sons of Isis and Haroeris, the ‘elder Horus’, while in PT utterance 688 they are said to be the children of Horus of Khem (Letopolis), who is usually identified with Khenty-irty.

The relationship of the children of Horus to specific organs has been established in part through archaeological investigation of the contents of canopic jars, and in part through Ramesside era papyri with instructions for embalmers. Neither of these sources of information is ideal, however, because archaeology shows variation in embalming practices, and the papyri are only informative to the degree that we can disambiguate the anatomical terms involved (Raven 2005, p. 46 & n. 62). What can, it seems, be said definitively is that the system seems to have been based upon a disposition of Gods around the body, rather than a fixed relationship to particular directions or to particular bodily organs. Thus Isis and Nephthys are positioned at the feet and at the head of the body respectively, while Imsety and Hapy tend to be positioned at the head end on either side, and Duamutef and Kebehsenuf at the foot end on either side. Accordingly, Imsety and Hapy are associated with organs in the upper part of the torso (the liver and lungs, respectively), Duamutef and Kebehsenuef with organs in the lower part (the stomach and intestines, respectively). In CT spells 157 and 158 (BD spells 112 and 113), the cities of Pe (Buto) in Lower (Northern) Egypt and Nekhen (Hierakonpolis) in Upper (Southern) Egypt are linked, respectively, to Imsety and Hapy and to Duamutef and Kebehsenuf; these Gods are, respectively, together with Horus, among the “Souls [bau] of Pe” and the “Souls of Nekhen” in these spells, although in PT utterance 580 the Souls of Pe and of Nekhen are clearly distinct from the children of Horus, inasmuch as they receive different portions of the sacrificial ox. In any event, the association of the Sons of Horus with these cities provides support for a canonical disposition of the head in the north, and the feet in the south. At least one text (Willems 1988, p. 140 n. 67) states that Imsety corresponds to the left hand, Hapy to the right, Duamutef to the left foot and Kebehsenuf to the right. In BD spell 17, the four sons of Horus are identified with stars in the northern sky somewhere in the vicinity of Ursa Major, but their individual disposition is not specified.

Sometimes a protective relationship is posited between Isis, Nephthys, Neith and Serket and the children of Horus, in which case Isis is associated with Imsety, Nephthys with Hapy, Neith with Duamutef and Serket with Kebehsenuf, generally speaking, but the first two pairings are more consistent than the latter two (Raven 2005, pp. 44-46).

The association of the Sons of Horus with specific bodily organs is the final stage in a process of development in the earlier stages of which these Gods assisted the deceased in ways less rigidly determined. PT utterance 33 says that “Horus has caused the children of Horus to muster for you [the king] at the place where you drowned,” drowning being a general symbol for death in the manner of Osiris. Elsewhere the children of Horus are said to carry or raise up the deceased: “Horus has given you his children that they may go beneath you and none of them will turn back when they carry you” (utterance 368); in utterance 688, the children of Horus prepare a ladder upon which the king is to climb to the sky. It is said that “Horus has attached himself to his children,” and the deceased is urged to “join yourself with those of his [Horus’] body, for they have loved you” (utterance 370). In PT utterance 506, the deceased identifies himself with each of the four children of Horus successively. The children of Horus share with Shu and Tefnut the function for the deceased of preventing hunger and thirst in PT utterance 338 (the four Gods “reap” on behalf of the deceased, who speaks of them as his/her “surviving children” in CT spell 751). They could also be identified with different parts of the body or spatial dispositions than they later were. Hence in PT utterance 215, the king’s hands are identified with Hapy and Duamutef and his feet with Imsety and Kebehsenuf, while in utterance 359 the children of Horus, along with Horus himself, are at the right side of the deceased, while Nephthys, Seth and Khenty-irty are at his left side. In PT utterance 505, when the deceased is being ferried to the Field of Reeds, the children of Horus are with him, two on one side, two on the other, with no further specification of their distribution. In another ‘ferryman’ text (PT utterance 522), the children of Horus are asked to “bring me [the deceased king] this boat which Khnum built,” which serves to indicate that the netherworld ferry-boat is a vehicle corresponding to one’s own body, since Khnum is famously depicted moulding the infant’s form on his potter’s wheel. In CT spell 397, the children of Horus are said to steer the ferry-boat, while in spell 466 they are said to row the boat of Hetep, Lord of the Field of Offerings.

The relation of Horus himself to his children is highlighted in PT utterance 690, which says that Horus has come to the deceased king “provided with his [Horus’] souls, namely Hapy, Duamutef, Imsety, and Kebehsenuf.” The ‘children’ of Horus thus seem thus more like emanations of Horus himself. In PT utterance 670, the king is said to have been raised up by the four Gods, who are characterized as the king’s “children’s children,” apparently on account of the king being identified with Osiris and the four Gods as children of his child Horus. Interestingly, utterance 670 also refers to Hapy, Imsety, Duamutef and Kebehsenuf as those “whose names you [the deceased king] have made,” indicating some process of appropriating them to himself. CT spells 157 and 158 can be interpreted as stating that the four were originally independent from Horus. Referring to the cities of Pe and Nekhen, which are linked, respectively, to Imsety and Hapy and to Duamutef and Kebehsenuf, in spell 157, Horus the son of Isis asks of Re, “Give me two in Pe and two in Nekhen from this company,” referring to these four Gods. In CT spell 158 (BD spell 113), Horus says “I have placed Duamutef and Kebehsenuf with me so that I may watch over them, for they are a contentious company,” and implies that their presence in Nekhen, which has been granted to Horus, is of the nature of an imprisonment. This may indicate that when Horus is given charge of these four Gods their allegiance is being transferred to him from Seth, these spells having the overall form of settlements granted to Horus in his dispute with Seth over the cosmic sovereignty. Indeed, it is indicated in spell 158 that Seth will “complain” over the fact that Duamutef and Kebehsenuf are “with” Horus (and, presumably, the deceased or the operator of the spell). In BD spell 18, the deceased is vindicated before “the great council that is in Pe and Dep,” the two parts of the city of Buto. This council is explained as consisting of Horus, Isis, Imsety and Hapy, while the “great council that is in Washerman’s Shores” in the same spell consists of “Isis, Horus, and Imsety.” It is unclear why Imsety is singled out in the latter. The setting of the latter council, as befits its watery name, is “this night when Isis lay awake, mourning for her brother Osiris”—to which one should compare the early spells from the Pyramid Texts linking the children of Horus to the scene of the ‘drowning’ of Osiris. The setting for the “great council in Pe and Dep” is “this night of erecting the sanctuary of Horus when was confirmed to him his inheritance, namely the possessions of his father Osiris,” a sanctuary which the commentary explains Seth directed his followers to erect. This would seem to allude once again to the ‘children’ of Horus having been acquired by him as a result of his dispute with Seth.

CT spells 520-523 take the form of four speeches, each by one of the children of Horus. Although these spells accompany the canopic jars, the identification of the four Gods with particular internal organs is not stressed, except possibly in the case of Hapy, who is asked by Horus to split open the mouth of his father Osiris, that is, to perform the ritual of Opening the Mouth, a ritual more typically associated with Anubis, which permits the deceased to breathe—this being appropriate for Hapy, who secures the jar holding the lungs. In general, the four Gods are addressed in these spells through word play with their names: Imsety as “he who smoothes/pleases”; Hapy as “runner”; Duamutef as “he who honors his mother”; Kebehsenuf as “he who refreshes his brothers/associates.” The four Gods can also still be identified with different parts of the body than those corresponding to the jars, but consistent with the typical orientation around the body: hence in a spell for “assembling a spirit’s members,” we read that “your arms are the two sons of Horus, Hapy and Imsety, your fingers and your finger-nails are the Children of Horus … your feet are Duamutef and Kebehsenuf.”

BD spell 168 B involves the performance of certain ritual actions by the four children of Horus, who are represented by their images placed around the deceased. Kebehsenuf (whose image is to be placed on the right) presents himself first as the son, and then as the father, of the deceased. The relationship between Osiris N., that is, the particular individual for whom the spell is being activated, and Osiris himself, is emphasized here: “He whose magic is hidden, Osiris, may he open the mouth of Osiris N.,” before Kebehsenuf says to Osiris N. “I am your son”; then Kebehsenuf says, “I am thy father, O Osiris N., because of what thou hast done for Osiris.” The spell making constant reference to offerings made “on earth,” that is, by living operators or by the deceased when alive, it seems that the spell intends here to speak of the relationship of the living to the deceased ancestors. Duamutef (whose image is placed on the left) identifies himself throughout as the son of Horus. The speech of Hapy (whose image is placed on the right) is fragmentary. Imsety (whose image is placed on the left) says “I have grown blessed and mighty in thy womb, O mother of Osiris N.,” seeming to gesture toward a reconstitution of the body of the deceased through the womb from which it was born in the first place.

An elaborate ritual in the Book of the Dead (BD spell 137 A) is to be said over four flames held by four men with the names of the children of Horus written on their upper arms, the flames then being extinguished each in its own bowl of milk (note that in PT utterance 580, milk is apparently the offering made to the children of Horus). The spell exhorts the children of Horus to protect the deceased as Osiris against Seth and to rescue him/her from decay. “Smite Seth for him [Osiris],” it urges them, “and save N. from him [Seth] from dawn on, even though Horus is able to save his father Osiris himself. Him who did this against your father, dispossess ye him.” Interestingly, the spell urges its user to “Be very careful not to use it for anyone except thy own self—even thy father or thy son—inasmuch as it is a great secret of the west [i.e., the land of the setting sun and of death], a mystery of the netherworld.”

Allen, T. G. 1974. The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [BD]
Faulkner, R. O. 1969. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [PT]
Faulkner, R. O. 1973-8. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. 3 vols. Warminster: Aris & Phillips Ltd. [CT]
Raven, M. J. 2005. Egyptian Concepts on the Orientation of the Human Body. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 91: 37-53.
Taylor, J. H. 2001. Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Willems, H. 1988. Chests of Life: A Study of the Typology and Conceptual Development of Middle Kingdom Standard Class Coffins. Leiden: Ex Oriente Lux.

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3 Responses to “Horus, Sons of”

  1. Nanci M said

    Hello,
    Do you have any information showing the reasons why each son is affiliated with a cardinal direction? I have been unable to find any specific references in my research. Thanks for any help you may send my way.

    • henadology said

      Nothing specific, although I would infer that in general it arises from a distribution of the sons around the Osirian body, the body having an ideal spatial orientation, together with the tendency to pair certain of the sons with one another—hence, Imsety and Hapy face one another in the “canonical” arrangement, as do Duamutef and Kebehsenuf.

  2. Theoferrum said

    That is probably the secondary interpretation – it originally comes from the stretching of the cord ceremony (at the establishment of Horus’ Sanctuary) in which they would establish the north and south poles via sighting on the Pole Star (Sesheta etc) then they would stretch the cord to establish true east and west – Horus (Osiris) would be represented by the center of the circle.

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