Assmann on the battle between Horus and Seth

Jan Assmann, retired from Heidelberg University and now at Konstanz, is widely considered to be the dean of contemporary Egyptology. His translation of coffin text #7 includes a note-worthy question mark:

Beendet ist der Kampf, zuende der Streit,
gelöscht die Flamme, die herausgekommen war.
Beweihräuchert (=besänftigt?) ist die Rötung (=Zorn) vor dem Tribunal des Gottes

The battle is over; strife is finished,
the flame that emerged is put out.
Censed (=calmed?) is the reddening (= wrath) before the tribunal of the god

Assmann suggests (but wonders about his own suggestion) that the use of incense as a way of marking holy power is intended here in reference to the ending of the conflict between Horus and Seth. His interpolation of “(=besänftigt?)” or “(=calmed?)” would seem to indicate that the conflict itself could not be regarded as holy.  The conflict in this view is only negative and something positive, something holy, something like “justice”, is to be achieved only as a result with its resolution or calming.

Assmann’s suggestion depends upon a take on time as singular and linear. First there was the struggle, then its resolution. Time’s arrow is thought in some way to explain and to cure.  He does not consider that time might be multiple and that explanation might therefore lie, not in the result of some supposedly calming resolution as brought about in linear time, singular, but in the overlap of times, plural.

Chemistry explains by seeing through any sample of material stuff to the rule governed interaction of the elements composing it.  The life of the material stuff and the life of elements must be understood as decisively different from one another, each with their own time, but as mutually pointing to the other. Material stuff is the expression of elementary interaction. Elementary interaction is the explanation of material stuff. Everything depends on a layered difference between the two which is yet transparent or, as McLuhan usually puts it, “metaphorical”.

Where ontology has its own time, where as Plato says, “an interminable battle is always going on between the two camps”, the power of resolution is envisioned and emphasized in a new way. Here resolution holds in the conflict, not beyond it.

This reading throws new light on the first lines of the text:

Aufgehackt ist die Erde, nachdem die beiden Gefährten gekämpft haben,
nachdem ihre Füße den Gottes-Teich in Heliopolis aufgegraben haben.

The earth is hacked up after the two companions [ie, Horus and Seth] have battled
after their feet have dug up the divine pond in Heliopolis.

When is “nachdem” (“after”) here? Have the feet of Horus and Seth in their battle disturbed the earth and “the divine pond in Heliopolis” so that they require restitution? Require some kind of calming back to a prior state of rest? Or have their feet created the condition for the fertility of the earth, a disturbance which needs to be repeated endlessly in seasonal ploughing? Is “the divine pond in Heliopolis” their creation in the same way? Have their feet first (and always) created its basin? Is that pond therefore a reflection1 of a divine struggle which “is always going on between the two camps” and whose “justice” is both dynamic and wondrous exactly because it is in that struggle and not beyond it?

McLuhan’s emphasis on the plurality of time as times and on the power of “simultaneity” must be understood in this truly ancient context.


  1. The divine pond in Heliopolis is of the earth, but reflects the sky. It does not merge the two, but is a representation of their peace in difference. Hence:
    The battle is over; strife is finished,
    the flame that emerged is put out.
    Censed is the reddening (= wrath) before the tribunal of the god

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