Not all gods in Ancient Egypt had great big fancy temples dedicated by Pharaohs, a state run cult and stories of how they created the universe or such like. Some were much more domestic in scale – Bes and Taweret, for instance, who were invoked in ordinary people’s homes for protection. And some fell in between these poles – the goddess Meretseger is one of those. Worshipped by ordinary people, but not really part of the domestic sphere.
The cult of Meretseger was mostly geographically constrained to the Theban necropolis and centred on Deir el Medina, although her worship does show up in Elephantine – probably taken there by craftsmen from Deir el Medina sent to work on construction projects. She is also known as Dehenet-Imentet which means “The Peak of the West”. This name refers to the pyramidal shaped mountain that looms protectively over the tombs of Pharaohs, queens & other nobility in the Valley of the Kings and the rest of the Theban necropolis. The goddess was believed to dwell in this mountain & in some sense was this mountain. Meretseger means “She Who Loves Silence” which is an appropriate name for a goddess whose domain was mostly inhabited by the dead and a small village of craftsmen and their families. I once walked from the Valley of the Kings to Deir el Medina and once you’re up & out of the Valley there’s a sense of being the only people in a vast empty landscape. I imagine this would’ve been enhanced for the original occupants of Deir el Medina as they walked from the hustle & bustle of a living village to a valley where the quiet was only broken by themselves working on another royal tomb. Although having said that, they presumably made quite a bit of noise themselves so probably most of them didn’t really think about it!
Despite the strong association with the mountain peak Meretseger wasn’t represented as a mountain. She was mostly shown as a snake or a woman with snake’s head (or vice versa), or sometimes as a scorpion. There are quite a few snake deities in the Ancient Egyptian pantheon – male snake deities can be either good or bad but generally dwell in the Duat (the afterlife or underworld). Female snakes, in particular cobras, were regarded as good protective mothers and female snake deities show up more often in the living world. For instance the uraeus worn by a Pharaoh is the symbol of the goddess Wadjet protecting the king. Meretseger takes on this protective role for the whole Theban necropolis. And on a more prosaic level – the only things that seem to live natively in her desert home are snakes and scorpions so they are the most appropriate symbols for her.
During the peak of her cult many stelae (both formal and in the form of ostraca) were dedicated to her at Deir el Medina. I tend to think of Ancient Egyptian religion as emphasising knowledge over actions – if you know the right things to say then that will override the things you may’ve done. For instance if you have the spell to tell your heart not to testify against you then you will make it through the weighing of the heart regardless of your deeds in life. But some of the stelae dedicated to Meretseger show a different side to the religious life of more normal people. They show more of a sense of humility before the divine and implore the goddess for her forgiveness. From these stelae we learn that she was believed to punish people for their wrongdoing by blinding them or subjecting them to venomous bites, and that she could show mercy and cure the punished wrongdoer as well. The most famous of these stelae is now in the Egyptian Museum in Turin and was dedicated by a wealthy craftsman called Neferabu. It talks about how he was ignorant & foolish and knew not good from evil. He was punished by the goddess being “in her hand by day as by night”. But he propitiated her and “She was merciful to me, having made me see her hand. She returned to me appeased, she made my malady forgotten”.
Her cult was restricted in time as well as geography, and the period in question correlates well with the period when the Valley of the Kings was an active cemetery. She’s not attested as a goddess before the New Kingdom. Then once no more tombs are being built and the craftsmen leave Deir el Medina worship of Meretseger fades away leaving her in the silence that she loved (until the treasure hunters, tourists and archaeologists descended on the Valley of the Kings!).
“Interfaith Dialogue in Ancient Egypt. The anthropology of intercultural discourse in New Kingdom Elephantine and Deir el-Medineh” Martin Bommas (in “The Gods of the others, the gods and the others, Studi e Materiali di Storia delle religioni” ed P. Buzi & A. Colonna)
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“Ancient Egyptian Literature II: The New Kingdom” Miriam Lichtheim
“Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz
“Ancient Lives: The Story of the Pharaohs’ Tombmakers” John Romer
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson
“Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley
“The Complete Gods & Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
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