Four sons of Horus

Four sons of Horus

:"One of the four sons of Horus was Hapi, which is also an alternate spelling for the name of the Nile god Hapy, but not to be confused with him".

The four sons of Horus were a group of four gods in Egyptian religion, who were essentially the personifications of the four canopic jars, which accompanied mummified bodies. [Aufderheide, "op.cit.", p.258] Since the heart was thought to embody the soul, it was left inside the body. The brain was thought only to be the origin of mucus, so it was reduced to liquid, syphoned off, and discarded. This left the stomach (and small intestines), liver, large intestines, and lungs, which were removed, embalmed and stored, each organ in its own jar. There were times when embalmers deviated from this scheme: during the 21st Dynasty they embalmed and wrapped the viscera and returned them to the body, while the Canopic jars remained empty symbols. [Aufderheide, "op.cit.", p.258]

The earliest reference to the sons of Horus is found in the Pyramid Texts [Assmann, "op.cit.", p.357] where they are described as friends of the king, as they assist the king in his ascension to heaven in the eastern sky by means of ladders. [Eyma, "op.cit.", p.218] Their association with Horus specifically goes back to the Old Kingdom when they were said not only to be his children but also his souls. As the king, or Pharaoh was seen as a manifestation of, or especially protected by, Horus, these "parts" of the deceased pharaoh, referred to as the Osiris, were seen as "parts" of Horus, or rather, his "children", [Assmann, "op.cit." p.467] an association which did not diminish with each successive pharaoh. Since Horus was their father, so Isis, Horus' original wife (i.e. his wife in early mythologies), was usually seen as their mother, [Griffiths, "op.cit.", p.49] though in the details of the funerary ritual each son, and therefore each canopic jar, was protected by a particular goddess. Just as the sons of Horus protected the contents of a canopic jar, the king's organs, so they in turn were protected. As they were male in accordance with the principles of male/female duality their protectors were female.

Imsety in human form, protected the liver and was protected by Isis.
Hapi in baboon form, protected the lungs and was protected by Nephthys.
Duamutef in jackal form, protected the stomach and was protected by Neith.
Qebehsenuef in hawk form, protected the large intestines and was protected by Serket. [Aufderheide, "op.cit.", p.237] [Descriptions of–as they called them then–"sepulchral vases" in "Synopsis of the Contents of the British Museum", "op.cit.", pp.201ff.]

The classic depiction of the four sons of Horus on Middle Kingdom coffins show Imsety and Duamutef on the eastern side of the coffin and Hapi and Qebehsenuef on the western side. Because the eastern side is decorated with a pair of eyes and the mummy was turned on its side to face the east and the rising sun, this side is sometimes referred to as the front. The sons of Horus also became associated with the cardinal compass points, so that Hapi was the North, Imsety the south, Duamutef the east and Qebehsenuef the west. [Lurker, "op.cit.", p.104]

Up until the end of the 18th Dynasty the canopic jars had the head of the king but later they were shown with animal heads. Inscriptions on coffins and sarcophagi from earliest times showed them usually in animal form.


Hapi (xapi) the baboon headed son of Horus, protected the lungs of the deceased and was in turn protected by the goddess Nephthys. The spelling of his name includes a hieroglyph which is thought to be connected with steering a boat, although its exact nature is not known. For this reason he was sometimes connected with navigation, although early references call him the great runner.

In Spell 151 of the Book of the Dead he is given the following words to say:

As one of the four pillars of Shu and one of the four rudders of heaven he was associated with the North, and is specifically referenced as such in Spell 148 in the Book of the Dead.


Imsety the human headed son of Horus, protected the liver of the deceased and was in turn protected by the goddess Isis. It seems that his role was to help revivify the corpse of the dead person, as he is asked to 'lift them up' by Horus.

To stand up meant to be active and thus alive while to be prone signified death.

In Spell 151 of the Book of the Dead he is given the following words to say:

Again the theme of making alive and revivifying is alluded to through the metaphor of making his house flourish. He does this with the authority of two creator gods Ptah and Re.

Spell 148 in the Book of the Dead directly associates all four of Horus' sons to the four cardinal points. Imsety was associated with the South.


Duamutef, the jackal headed son of Horus, protected the stomach of the deceased and was in turn protected by the goddess Neith. It seems that his role was to worship the dead person, and his name means literally 'he who worships his mother'. In the Coffin Texts Horus calls upon him to:

Rather confusingly, as is borne out here, Isis had a dual role. Not only was she the wife of Osiris and the mother of Horus, but she was also the consort of Horus the Elder and thus the mother of the sons of Horus. This ambiguity is added to when Duamutef calls Osiris his father, rather than Horus.

In Spell 151 of the Book of the Dead he is given the following words to say:

The text does not make it clear who is going to harm Osiris, although there are two major candidates. The obvious one is Set, the murderer of Osiris. Somehow the son who worships his mother Isis is able to assist in overcoming Set. the other possibility is Apophis, the serpent demon who prevents the Sun's passage and thus the resurrection of Osiris. Either way, Duamutef through his worship of Isis has the power to protect the deceased from harm.

He was also considered one of the four pillars of Shu, a rudder of heaven, and was associated with the East.


Qebehsenuef was the hawk-headed son of Horus, and protected the intestines of the deceased. He was in turn protected by the goddess Serket. It appears that his role was to refresh the dead person, and his name means literally 'he who libates his siblings'. Horus tells him to:

Libation or showering with cool water was a traditional form of worship in Ancient Egypt. There are many images of the pharaoh presenting libation to the gods. There is a sense of a dual function of cleansing and refreshing them.

In Spell 151 of the Book of the Dead Qebehsenuef was given the following words to say:

After Set murdered the king Osiris in order to hide his body he cut it into pieces and scattered them around the Delta. This was an anathema to the Egyptians and the service that Qebehsenuef gives to the dead is to reassemble their parts so they can be properly preserved.

He was the god associated with the West.

Jackal, baboon, falcon and human

The reasons for attributing these four animals to the sons of Horus is not known, although we may point to other associations which these animals have in Egyptian mythology. The baboon with the moon and Thoth, the god of wisdom and knowledge, and also the baboons which chatter when the sun rises raising their hands as if in worship. The jackal (or possibly dog) linked to Anubis and the act of embalming and also Wepwawet the 'opener of the ways' who seeks out the paths of the dead. The hawk with Horus himself and also Seker the mummified necropolis god. And the man who may be linked to Osiris himself or Onuris the hunter.

However what is known is that the Egyptian's themselves linked them with the ancient kings of Lower and Upper Egypt, the Souls of Pe and Nekhen. In Spells 112 and 113 of the Book of the Dead which have their origins in the earlier Coffin Texts Spells 157 and 158, it is described how Horus has his eye injured, and because of this is given the sons of Horus:

"Imsety, Hapi, Duamutef, Qebehsenuef whose father was the elder Horus and whose mother is Isis. - and he [Horus] said to Re: 'Give me two in Pe and two in Nekhen from this second company. May I be in my own right an alloter of eternity, an opener of everlasting, a queller of strife in this my name of Horus-who-is-on-his-pillar'. (Coffin Texts 157 , R.O. Faulkner).

The injury of Horus' eye is part of the myth cycle known as the Contending of Horus and Set recounting how they fought over the crown of Egypt. [Sellers, "op.cit.", p.63] [Simpson, "op.cit."]

In a unique illustration in the tomb of Ay the sons of Horus are shown wearing the red and white crowns as the Souls of Pe and Nekhen, the souls of the royal ancestors.

The attributes of the sons of Horus are not limited to their role as the protectors of canopic jars. they appear as the four rudders of heaven in Spell 148 of the Book of the Dead, as four of the seven celestial spirits summoned by Anubis in Spell 17 of the Book of the Dead and through this are linked to the circumpolar stars of the Great Bear.

Sons of Horus in modern culture

The four sons of Horus are mentioned and featured as part of the four-part quest puzzle in the Raven Software computer game "Hexen II". The player must locate the four Canopic jars and place them all at a resting place to unlock a passage and proceed with the gameplay.

They also had some significance in the movie "The Mummy". The insides of Anck-Su-Namun were placed inside the jars.


* Arthur C. Aufderheide, "The Scientific Study of Mummies", Cambridge University Press 2003
* Aayko Eyma ed., "A Delta-Man in Yebu: Occasional Volume of the Egyptologists' Electronic Forum No. 1", Universal-Publishers 2003
* Jan Assmann, "Death And Salvation In Ancient Egypt", Cornell University Press 2005
* John Gwyn Griffiths, "The Conflict of Horus and Seth from Egyptian and Classical Sources: A Study in Ancient Mythology", Liverpool University Press 1961
* British Museum, "Synopsis of the Contents of the British Museum", R. & A. Taylor 1855
* Manfred Lurker, "Lexikon der Götter und Symbole der alten Ägypter", Scherz 1974
* Raymond Oliver Faulkner, "The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts", David Brown Book Company 2004
* Raymond Oliver Faulkner, "The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day", Chronicle Books 2000
* William Kelly Simpson (ed.), "The Literature of Ancient Egypt", 1972
* Jane B. Sellers, "The Death of Gods in Ancient Egypt", 2003


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