The Rise And Fall Of Seth, Egyptian God Of Volcanism

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Seth God Statue (Catmando / Adobe Stock)

The Rise And Fall Of Seth, Egyptian God Of Volcanism

Numerous papers have been written about the Egyptian god Seth in recent years, but his essential identity seems to have evaded modern commentators. Seth's role is pivotal in determining the historical sequence of catastrophic events in the eastern Mediterranean region during the second millennium BC. Modern interpretations of Seth variously describe him as a trickster, a sky god, a lord of the desert, the master of storms, disorder, or warfare, but nowhere is he described as the god of volcanoes, although Siegfried Morenz in The Egyptian Religion comes perilously close in his analysis of the Egyptian word sedjet (which means fire or flame): “The ancient Egyptian word for volcano, sedjet is a complex and evocative word. It can refer to both the volcano itself and the eruption. Sedjet is often associated with the god Seth, who was the god of chaos and destruction. This is because volcanoes were seen as a force of nature that could bring both destruction and renewal.”

Hephaestus bounds Prometheus for gifting fire to humans, by Dirck van Baburen (1623) (CC0)

Hephaestus bounds Prometheus for gifting fire to humans, by Dirck van Baburen (1623) (CC0)

Gods of Volcanoes

Both the Greeks and Romans had a deity whose identity was evidently a metaphor for a volcano in the form of Hephaestus or Vulcan.  According to Herodotus in his Histories the Egyptians equated their god Ptah with Hephaestus. Both Ptah and Hephaestus were gods of craftsmen and metalworkers and both were depicted as lame. This would seem to answer the question, but Ptah is essentially a passive figure, depicted in Egyptian mythology as a self-generated sky god with no parents, whilst Hephaestus in Greek mythology did have parents - he was depicted as the son of Hera and Zeus. However, it should be noted that in one version of mythology, Hephaestus’ lameness was caused by his mother throwing him down from Olympus. Whatever his origins there is little to commend Ptah as the prime volcanic deity during the period in question, since he plays a relatively insignificant part in surviving narratives.

Head of Ptah (late 8th–mid 7th century BC) Metropolitan Museum of Art (CC0)

According to modern interpretations, other than Ptah the Egyptians apparently had no volcanic deity in their pantheon in spite of the fact that Egypt is geographically bracketed by volcanoes both active and inactive. As a consequence it would certainly have felt the effects of any volcanic explosion such as the type envisaged during the destruction of Thera (Santorini). However, there is one prime candidate in the Egyptian pantheon who so far seems to have evaded detection.  This deity is the god Seth. In a role reversal of the myth of Hephaestus’ parents, Seth’s parents were depicted as the female Nut (the sky) and the male Geb (the earth). Seth’s true identity has for some strange reason been consistently misinterpreted. 

Nut, goddess of sky supported by Shu the god of air, and the ram-headed Heh deities, while the earth god Geb reclines beneath, from Book of the Dead of Nesitanebtashru (Public Domain)

Active and Passive Vulcano Gods

Unlike the modern world, the ancient world was familiar with Seth’s true identity. Plutarch informs that the Egyptians equated Seth with the Greek monster Typhon, a monstrous snake-like dragon and evil force of raging nature.  Seth and Typhon also had in common that both were sons of deities representing the Earth (Gaia and Geb) who attacked the principal deities; Osiris by Seth and Zeus by Typhon.

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