War of the Magicians: Si-Osiris and the Nubian Sorcerer, part I

Little is known of Euhemerus, the late 4th BCE mythographer who worked in the court of the Macedonian king Cassander (himself a student of Aristotle), except that he believed that most myths could be traced to real people and real events.

Ironic, given how little we know about him.

As a result, any attempt to cast a myth as an historical occurrence was often termed Euhermerism, though the term has fallen into relative disuse. Still, the concept is still used in explaining many mythologies, especially those featuring clearly human heroes.


Some cultures abound with the tales of superhuman mortals – beings like Gilgamesh, Arjuna, and Heracles come to mind.

However, when I think of Egypt, I think of bigger, more cosmic myth arcs: Ra’s nightly journey through the Underworld; Isis resurrecting her beloved Osiris, as She nurtures the child Horus; the mysteries of Thoth and the judgement of Anubis, the heart measured against the feather of Ma’at.

Big Stuff; not Beowulf slaying a dragon, or even Parzival recovering the Grail. Not my Egypt.

Yes, I knew of a few tales of Apotheosis, a mortal becoming more than human. This was the case with Min, whose enormous genitalia proved enough to make him worthy of worship.

The same is true of Imhotep, the polymath genius who designed the first step pyramid.

But until recently, I hadn’t heard of Se-Osiris, who was arguably a real person.

He was also arguably Egypt’s greatest magician…

And, on some level, Egypt’s Greatest Action Hero.

These tales come from the Setne I and II cycle, spanning three major periods of Egyptian history: the Late Period of Ancient Egypt (525-332 BCE), the Ptolemaic Period (323 -30 BCE), and Roman Egypt (30 BCE-646 CE).

Now, hold on a minute.

I was talking about Se-Osiris.

So, who was Setne?


Gold mask with the likeness of Khaemweset from the Apis bull burial. Louvre.

Setne, aka Prince Khaemweset (also translated as Khamwese, Khaemwese or Khaemwaset or Setne Khamwas) was the fourth son of Ramesses II, and the second son by his queen Isetnofret.

He is considered the best-known child of Ramesses II, and his contributions to Egyptian society were remembered long after his death. Khaemweset has been described as “the first Egyptologist” due to his efforts in finding and restoring buildings, tombs and temples.

According to historian Miriam Lichtheim:

“Here I should like to stress that Prince Setne Khamwas, the hero of the two tales named for him, was a passionate antiquarian. The historical prince Khamwas, was the fourth son of King Ramses II, had been high priest of Ptah at Memphis and administrator of all the Memphite sanctuaries. In that capacity he had examined decayed tombs, restored the names of their owners, and renewed their funerary cults. Posterity had transmitted his renown, and the Demotic tales that were spun around his memory depicted him and his fictional adversary Prince Naneferkaptah as very learned scribes and magicians devoted to the study of ancient monuments and writings.”

In Setne I or Setne Khamwas and Naneferkaptah, Khaemwaset seeks and finds a book of powerful magical spells, the Book of Thoth, in the tomb of Prince Naneferkaptah.

Despite the wishes of Naneferkaptah’s ghost, Khaemwaset takes the book, along with a curse.

Setne meets a beautiful woman who seduces him into killing his children and humiliating himself in front of the pharaoh. When he discovers that this episode was a fantasy created by Neferkaptah, Setne returned the book to Neferkaptah’s tomb. To further appease the dead Prince, Setne also finds the bodies of Neferkaptah’s wife and son and has them interred, and the tomb resealed.

The second tale is known as Setne II or the Tale of Setne Khamwas and Si-Osire.

In this story, there are two parts: in the first, Setne follows his son, Se-Osiris, into the Duat, the Egyptian Underworld.

In part two, Se-Osiris battles a five-hundred-year-old Nubian sorcerer for the honor of his grandfather, the Pharaoh Ramesses II.

And that’s what we’ll explore in War of the Magicians: Si-Osiris and the Nubian Sorcerer, part II.

Pectoral from Khaemweset’s Serapeum tomb burial bearing Ramesses II’s cartouche. Louvre.

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