Last update: 10/24/2023
The Children of Horus are divinities to whom the postion of protector of the organs gives a priviliged status. As from the New Kingdom they are shown nearest the deceased on the funeral furnishings and monuments. Their figuration is closely linked to that of the deceased. As divinities, they wear the chendjit kilt or the corselet and carry the royal attributes. Like the deceased they are mummified and carry the same accessories as the deceased, such as the beads netting, which can be seen in numerous examples as from the third intermediate period.
The thus indicated funerary divinities (or genii, because they never had a cult nor a temple anywhere) correspond to Amseti, Hapy, Duamutef and Qebehsenuef (see ). They are found in the pyramid texts dating to the Old Kingdom.
Their very name of the
"Sons of Horus" is confusing: they are clearly quoted in several texts as being the descendants of Horus, but as we will see below, this filiation is not univocal. They are, however, exclusively found in a funerary context.
It should here be stated the name
"Four Children of Horus" is synonymous of the more familiar one of
"Four Sons of Horus". There exists a query about the original sex of Amseti, whose name is sometimes represented ending in just the feminine terminal "T".
Two different spellings of each name are given above
Audrey Saulières, whom we thank, sent us two photos from the canopic vases of a certain Anpuhotep, discovered to the north of the pyramid of Téti, at Saqqara. Three of the the human head stoppers are painted with a red beard (see ), the fourth is painted in yellow, a first, without a beard (see ). According to the Egyptian conventions, this therefor represents a woman.
However, be that as it may, this genie is considered as masculine, justifying the term "Son". The children of Horus are also known by about fifteen other names that B. Mathieu collected (to see bibliography).
"Amsit, Hapy, Duamutef and Qebehsenuef, Horus the Elder is their father and Isis is their mother". As such, they are descendants of the creator, they represent a quadripartite emanation.
We are accustomed to seeing the four sons of Horus in two main forms: firstly associated with the blue lotus on which they emerges from the primordial water; or in the form of stoppers for closing the canopic jars, which contain the deceased's viscera.
Nevertheless, one also finds them with a great regularity either drawn or sculpted on the caskets as well as stone sarcophaguses from the Middle Kingdom.
The amulets representing them were readily introduced between the wrappings during mummification, especially from the Third Intermediate Period onwards. Nets with their images have been found on mummies.
One also finds, from the time of Ramesses III, wax images of the genii introduced in the abdominal cavity at the time of mummification, equating by this to the reintroduction of the viscera in the mummy.
Assimilated to the arms and legs of the deceased or the four pillars of the sky The genii are thus able to carry the deceased, to bring him the ferryman's boat, or to manufacture for him the ladder by which he can ascend to the sky.
This representation appears at the end of the 18th Dynasty, without them being in any real order to begin with. Then the motif of the four characters appears, fixed according to a precise order, on the corolla of the open blue lotus. This will become the canonic standard of the 20th Dynasty until the Roman period: Amseti (human headed), Hapy (head of a baboon), Duamutef (head of a dog) and Qebehsenuef (head of a falcon).
The choice of the lotus is clearly connected to the rise at this time of the Hermopolitan creation story. Which here provides the scene, at the dawn of time, in which four male characters impregnate the primordial lotus floating on the abyssal waters of the Nun (or even Nun himself, of where will take the plant) ; the lotus from which will emerge the solar child, and thus Creation.
But in Hermopolis, it is an Ogdoade of four male creatures and four female creatures who created the world.
We will see below how the Egyptian thinkers transformed the male entities into Sons of Horus, and the females into the four goddess: Isis, Nephthys, Neith and Selket, and how they established the relation between the goddesses, the birth of the sun and the one of the Children of Horus.
This association, the Children of Horus and the goddesses, has been preserved on some canopic chests, such as those of , for example. This image is followed in every level of the overlapping chapels down to the final calcite box.
The "Four Children" were born of Isis according to the formula 112 of the Book of the Dead :
"As for Amseti, Hapy, Duamutef and Qebehsenuef, Horus is their father and Isis their mother. Then Horus said : Put two brothers to Buto and two brothers in Hierakonopolis, of this my company; they will be with me, assigned for eternity, so that the country will be prosperous, and so that the turmoil be quenched".
Straightaway, they have a geographical connotation with regard to the whole area where the dismembered body of Osiris had been scattered, and are therefore connected to the reunification, the reconstitution of Osiris.
This is the reason that they are also connected with the Oudjat eye, the symbol of the complete and final reconstitution of the god Osiris, and who regained his life; but also also with the god Horus, whose physical integrity had been achieved by the loss of his eye.
The god, standing or seated on a throne, is always on a platform or dais.
This is sometimes bevelled, forming the hieroglyph
"m3a" . It is of special significance, since its shape evokes the bank of a river in this case the Nile (Servajean and Wörterbuch, II, 25,2-4). And more precisely, the bank at the time of the inundation, when - mythologically - the lymphs of Osiris flood the land near of the river, from which spring the plant stems.
Issuing from between his legs (
rd.wy), the flooding returns the waters of the primordial ocean, the Nun, to fertillise again the lands of Egypt. Note from this sequence that here is one of the reasons which made necessary the myth of the death and the reconstitution of Osiris: Egypt could not survive without the death and the rebirth of the Great God.
The plant can push between the legs of Osiris, or directly from his feet, but also even from the platform, in which is sometimes drawn wavy lines representing water. It can be represented solely by its stem, but more often it is its rhizome that is given importance, what gave birth to the Gardiner hieroglyph M31 :
Here are some representations from the Theban tombs:
The four genii participate in the reconstitution of the deceased's "ib" (first mythological explanation).
These ideas have been examined in detail by Thierry Bardinet :
"The "ib" consists of the total body cavity situated behind the heart Haty (= the internal organ of the heart) in the hollow of the body that forms that which the Egyptians called the Shet, and which would correspond, in the modern terminology, to the stomach and to the thorax. The ib nearly fills it completely. This position of the ib in the Shet, affirmed by the texts, don't indicate an anatomical relation with the intestines, or with different organs. It indicates that there is no element of the ib which is not an integral part of the Shet, the heart - Haty put aside. […] The ib is therefore of a great anatomical complexity… the viscera being merely special anatomical places of the ib
The role of the four Children of Horus is understood thus in the reconstitution of the interior ib, as well as their relationship with the canopic jars.
The correspondence between the content of the jars is not however always perfectly in agreement with the textual data.
These last put in theoretical relation, since the end of the Old Kingdom :
During the mummification, the first three quoted viscera quoted above are extracted, and then the rest.
In these remaining tissues predominated the small intestine and the colon, recognisable histologically (especially to an anatomical pathologist, like Thierry). Which for a long time one that that these were the only viscera present, whereas they were merely the majority.
Qebehsenuef in fact retained everything which remained in the
Shet after extraction the lungs, the liver and the spleen. He also collected the fluids (blood, lymph, …) which flowed out at the time of the evisceration. This gave to him special links with the liquid elements relating essentially to the primordial waters (Nun) - the "humours" of Osiris - mud of the Nile (of which it is said explicitly, which comes from the out-flow of the humours of Osiris, in particular from between his legs). Qebehsenuef can also be represented in the form of a fish.
The cardiac related internal organs remained in the mummy as well as the kidneys. Regarding the heart, the symbolic meaning which the Egyptians granted to it explains easily its presence (here resided thought, emotions, personality, direction, memory…). That of the kidneys is less clear.
From professional experience, I
(TB) think that at least part of the explanation results from merely convenient reasons. Indeed, the kidneys are retro-peritoneum organs, situated deeply and difficult reach for someone whose only access is by a small lateral incision. Besides, their ablation created a real "breach" in the peritoneal cavity, which would have been judged inappropriate. Another hypothesis is that these organs, situated outside of the
Shet, were not considered any more important than soft tissues.
The formula 151A of the Book of the Dead gives account (amongst other things) of the specific roles of each of them :
"• Words spoken by Amseti: I am your Son, N.; I have come to be your protection; I may make your residence to flourish and endure, in accordance with the command of Ptah, in accordance with the command of Ra"..
• "Words spoken by Hapy: I have come to be your protection, Osiris N.; I connected your head and your members, and I have smited for you your enemies beneath you; I have returned to your head, forever".
• "Words spoken by Duamutef: I am your Son, beloved Horus, N.; I have come to protect my father Osiris from the one who acts (against) you: I lead him under your sandals".
• "Words spoken by Qebehsenuef: I am Qebehsenuef; I have come to be your protection, N.; I gathered for you your bones, I united for you your members, I brought for you your heart and I have returned it at its place in your body; I have caused your residence to flourish for you"
Directly inspired by this chapter 151, the north wall of tomb TT96 of Sennefer can summarise the disposition of the protective and regenerating elements of the chamber. One first notices the carving into areas, close but overlapping. The mummified body in his black coffin occupies the centre of it. Anubis performs on him the ritual of the warming of the heart, and he is supported by Isis and Nephthys. In the middle of the four walls, the four "magic bricks" which were buried in each wall (a flaming wick, a Djed pillar, a miniature coffin and a representation of Anubis).
Found at the four corners of the interior rectangle, the four Children of Horus (whose names do not correspond with the head…) participate actively in the deceased's reconstitution.
According to chapter 17 of the Book of the Dead, the four sons are placed in protection of the sarcophagus of the Osiris by Anubis:
"As for the seven spirits, that is Amseti, Hapy, Duamutef, Qebehsenuef, Maanitef (= the-one-who-sees-his-father), Kheibaqef (= the-one-who-is-under-his-olive-tree) and Menkhetyenirty; they have been placed by Anubis in protection of the sarcophagus of the Osiris". Nevertheless note, some lines farther on, when this time ("another version") the seven spirits, there is no mention of two of them…
As shown by Frédéric Servajean, there are not four canopic jars because there are four viscera, but because it is the number four that is required.
The reasons for it are complex, and bound rather to physiological reasons than mythological. It is necessary to look for the side of the idea that the Egyptians affiliated themselves, and notably of what was relevant to each generation.
The mother (here Isis) transmits to her child (here Horus) half of her being -
ib, and of course likewise for Osiris. Horus cannot reconstitute his father since he carries within him only half of his fathers nature. His own "children" don't possess no more than a quarter of the being -
ib of their "grandfather" Osiris. It is necessary therefore that they are four to reconstitute him fully. This reconstruction cannot take place before the second generation.
However we know well that, according to the myth, the rebirth of Osiris to completeness (Oun-nefer) was due to Isis, who can therefore only be the mother of the quadruplets.
This is based directly on that of Heliopolis : the four Children of Horus would be descended from the sperm of… Seth.
After Horus collected in his hands the sperm of the god Seth, his uncle, who had tried to rape him and returned him to his mother Isis who, horrified, cut off his hands and threw them into the marsh. The semen impregnated the primordial lotus which then sprung out of water and opened up, giving birth to the sun, or to the four Children of Horus.
The rapport between the Children of Horus and hands cut from Horus is given by the formula 113 of the Book of the Dead :
"Then Ra said : 'I give Hierakonpolis to Horus to be the site of his hands'. […] Then Horus said : 'Give to me therefore also Duamutef and Qebehsenuef, so that I may look after them, because they are a contenious group! They will be installed over there, under the dependence of the god of Hierakonpolis".
However be that as it may, the rapport which has already been seen between the four Children (in particular Qebehsenuef) with the liquids also explains to us why it is they who will retrieve from the bottom of the water the fragments of the body of the mutilated gods, such as the head of Osiris or the hands of Horus. So it is said (Papyrus Jumilhac) :
"It is this god's head which is recovered in the net of the Children of Horus". Recalling that in this topic that the fishing with the net is a simple metaphor for the reconstitution of the inside -
ib (Th. Bardinet).
The four Children of Horus also intervene in the nocturnal course of the sun. Thus they are connected with some dangerous snakes, allied of Apophis who tries to reverse, night after night, the solar barque. They are represented to the western part of the astronomical ceilings of the Ramesside tombs.
Some texts, confusingly, mention an astronomical interrelationship of the Children with Seth. Chapter 17 of the Book of the Dead tells us :
"Who are they? They are the Lords of Justice, they are Seth and Isdes, Lords of the West. As for the divine group behind Osiris, they are Amseti, Hapy, Duamutef and Qebehsenuef; it is they who are behind the Thigh in the northern sky". The Thigh designates the Great Bear or Big Dipper, whose stars are drawn as a thigh, which would be the thigh of Seth who guarded the goddess Thueris. They would thus prevent Seth joining Orion, a constellation linked with Osiris, in the southern sky.
One also finds them in a very original form, in : Amseti and Hapy wear the red crown of Lower Egypt, while Duamutef and Qebehsenuef wear the white crown of Upper Egypt. It is necessary to return to the decoration of the coffins to understand: the inscriptions concerning two of the Children, in general Amsit and Hapy, are placed close to the head, therefore to the north. The two others are placed at the feet, therefore to the south. Here is found this geographical distribution in the crowns.
In the Old Kingdom, the canopic containers were not always vases, but could be even be excavations located in the tomb and which collected the mummified viscera of the deceased. The first manifested royal example is next to the sarcophagus of Khephren.
Wooden and stone vases were also used. They were sealed with either rounded or flat stoppers, without any special shape.
From the First Intermediate Period, the stoppers begin to represent human heads, while the content of the vases themselves were sometimes decorated. At this time, it seems that these anthropomorphous heads were even conceived as representing the deceased himself and not a god or a genie.
The inscriptions on the boxes containing the vases, initially reduced to just the name and the deceased's title, were extended to look more and more like the texts of the coffins themselves.
Toward the end of the Middle Kingdom, a "canonic" style was fixed, although often taken as a default : a stone box (= sarcophagus) surrounds a wooden box (= coffin) compartmentalised into 4. Each slot containing a vase with a stopper in the shape of a human head, to which was associated one of the Children of Horus. The protective goddesses surrounding the boxes, extended their arms to embrace the deceased's totality.
At the beginning of the 18th Dynasty, the oblong coffins finally disappeared in preference to the anthropoid form. Simultaneously, the canopic chests came closer in shape to that of a temple shrine, often placed on a sledge (see that of Tutankhamun, above).
The shape of the stoppers evolves also, with appearance of stoppers of animal heads out of three the vases. This evolution results from an important conceptual shift : the vases no longer contain the deceased, but the very genii who constitute aspects of the deceased's total person.
So in the tomb of the later period of Petosiris (dating from the second Persia domination, end of the 4th century B.C.), a new direction can be clearly seen that had been assigned to them. Each of the divinities carried a part of the deceased being, which disintegrated at the time of death. It is not a matter therefore only of a reconstruction of the body -
Shet, but a of the entire individual. Which is how the four sons are seen as bringing to Petosiris, in procession : his
Ka, his heart -
Ba and the mummy -
Sah (see ).
So, for the royal personages, the "vases" could be cavities dug in a block of hard stone, sealed with a stopper, and containing the viscera in miniature coffins. The best example is that of .
Also found from a few years earlier, the magnificent vases of Tuya, father of queen Tiy who was Great Royal Wife of Amenhotep III, displayed in the Egyptian Museum of Cairo.
From the 21st Dynasty, everything changed. The mummified viscera were most often put back in the mummy, notably in private individuals (for religious reasons, and possibly economic), making theoretically the use of the vases redundant.
However, the use of the canopic vases doesn't disappear completely, because the tradition was firmly established.
This is how some empty vases can come with a mummy, or of wooden caskets in the shape of shrine, on which is painted the genii. Sometimes the same vases are replaced by artificial jars, in non hollowed stone.
In spite of everything, this tradition will finally disappear, and is not found in Ptolemaic times.
On the other hand the representations of the four Children of Horus remained until the Roman period and can still be found in the 4th century A.D.