One doesn’t normally think of beetles and gods in the same thought, or at least I don’t at any rate. Well I suppose, there is that famous (and perhaps apocryphal) quip of Haldane’s about God’s inordinate fondness for beetles. But a beetle as a manifestation of a god, or an integral part of the correct functioning of the cosmos, or a symbol of the beginning of the universe, no that doesn’t spring easily to my mind. But if I was an Ancient Egyptian that would make perfect sense to me. The Egyptians had observed young scarab beetles emerging from balls of dung, and as far as they could tell this was spontaneous generation of beetles (obviously we now know that a female scarab had laid an egg in there first, but that bit the Egyptians didn’t see). So as a result they thought of the scarab as being associated with creation, and specifically with self-creation. And this then generated a comparison with their god Atum – Atum who emerged from the primordial mound at the beginning of creation, like a scarab beetle emerges from its dung. And yes, that does mean that there is a direct comparison between a ball of dung and the land we live on but it doesn’t seem that that was an important part of the analogy (or then again maybe it was, dung is a good fertiliser after all and the fertility of the land they lived on was essential to them).
And that’s not all that was compared to a ball of dung. Another thing that scarab beetles do, as well as emerge from dung, is push dung balls across the ground (in search of a safe place to eat it). And that made the Ancient Egyptians think of the sun – how does it move across the sky? One of their answers was that it was in a boat, that floated on the waters of Nun that were held back by the sky goddess Nut. But another of their answers was that it was pushed across the sky by the god Khepri in the form of a scarab beetle. So Khepri is another god who is associated with this beetle – he’s a solar god, and more specifically the god of the sun rising on the eastern horizon. There is one pretty big difference between reality and iconography in this case – real scarab beetles stand up on their forelegs and push their dung ball along backwards using their back legs. However Khepri pushes the sun moving forwards and using his forelegs. I find this quite intriguing and wonder if it’s related to how one of the bad things that one didn’t want to happen in the afterlife was to walk upside down on one’s hands – perhaps it was considered an ill-advised way to portray a sun god? Or maybe it was just considered more aesthetically pleasing? I find it a bit unlikely it was just random chance, the Egyptians seem to’ve been keen observers of nature so I’m sure they wouldn’t’ve just got it wrong!
Khepri’s iconography is all about the beetle as well. As with many Egyptian gods he had three main forms – a person, a person with animal attributes, and an animal. Khepri is therefore sometimes shown as a man with a beetle headdress, as a man with a whole beetle as his head, and as a scarab beetle. The beetle is often blue, like in the necklace I’m using to illustrate this article. The real beetle, unsurprisingly, is not blue – it’s black – so this colour was chosen for its symbolism, and was intended to emphasise the link between the beetle and the heavens. Some exceptions to this colour choice are in funerary texts, where the beetle is its natural black – perhaps because black signifies fertility and rebirth?
The link between Khepri and the scarab beetle goes much deeper than his iconographic representation. The original name of Khepri was kheprer, which is quite literally the word for the scarab beetle in Ancient Egyptian – so he’s not just represented by a beetle, he is a beetle. It is also linked to the verb kheper, which means “to develop” or “to come into being,” and you can see how this links the concepts of creation (and the rising sun) even more deeply into the nature of the beetle and the god Khepri as well as linking them both again to that initial moment of creation and the emergence of Atum from the primeval waters. It’s also another illustration of something I mentioned when I was talking about Khonsu – the names of the cosmological gods in Egyptian generally aren’t the names of the cosmological entities that they represent. Nothing of the sun about the name Khepri, instead it’s all about the beetle and the metaphysical ideas.
There are also tweaks to the representation of the scarab and Khepri that link them with other gods and other ideas within Egyptian cosmology. For instance Khepri could be shown as a scarab beetle in a boat being held up by the god Nun which is then a recapitulation of creation with the solar creator god rising up from the primeval waters. And also one of the other ways that the sun is supposed to travel across the sky – in a boat, floating on the waters of Nun which are held back above us by the goddess Nut as the sky. There are also scarab beetles with wings and the feet and tail of a bird – normally a falcon or a vulture, the former linking perhaps to Re-Horakhty (another solar god). And there are also ram-headed scarab beetles which represent Atum-Khepri – the solar creator god in multiple aspects, and also a symbol of the rising and setting sun together. And of course as a solar god Khepri was also considered a manifestation of Re, and sometimes he’s associated so closely with Re that it’s Re who’s said to be a scarab beetle pushing the sun in the morning with no explicit mention of Khepri.
And in something that starts to feel a little like a pattern – the solar associated scarab beetle can also be associated with the moon (c.f. Shu and Tefnut), and be depicted pushing the moon in front of it in a visually and conceptually analogous fashion to pushing the sun. There’s also a pectoral from the tomb of Tutankhamun (not the one I’ve got as my illustration) which has a winged scarab beetle holding up the boat of the lunar eye, above which is the usual moon symbol of the full moon sitting in a crescent moon. And this imagery may be associated with one of the moon gods – Iah.
As I’ve alluded to a couple of times already, scarabs beetles show up in funerary contexts. Sometimes this may be linked to something about the person – for instance because one of Tutankhamun’s names is Nebkheperure (with the “kheper” in the middle written with a beetle) the scarab beetle is used as a visual pun on his jewellery and other funerary goods. But more generally there were strong links in Ancient Egyptian thought between their creation stories and their ideas about the afterlife – linking the moment of first creation with the rebirth and renewal to come after death. Thus imagery associated with creation often shows up in funerary contexts. Rather more specifically for the scarab beetle, in his role as the pusher of the sun across the sky Khepri was thought to be swallowed by Nut each night along with the sun and reborn again in the morning. This idea that he was constantly reborn mean that he was also directly associated with resurrection. And in this sort of context he might be explicitly linked with Osiris, symbolically linking the solar realm with the netherworld. For instance in the Late Period tomb of Petosiris there is a depiction of Khepri wearing Osiris’s atef crown, and there are other depictions elsewhere of Osiris with a scarab beetle for a head with the atef crown on top.
Much later authors like Plutarch (2nd Century CE) and Horapollo (5th Century CE if he existed) take the association of scarab beetle imagery and the funerary context much much further. They say that the tunnels of Old Kingdom mastabas were built to resemble the tunnels of the scarab beetle, and that mummified bodies are wrapped to mimic scarab beetle pupae. This is dubious at best – there’s no evidence at all that this was a part of Pharaonic Egyptian thought so it’s almost certainly a flight of fancy on the part of some Roman or Greek. But it entertained me enough to tell you about it, despite its lack of foundation in fact!
So in summary, if you were an Ancient Egyptian when you saw a scarab beetle you wouldn’t just think “oh look, a beetle pushing some dung around” – you’d think of the sun, of the beginnings of the world and of life after death. A pretty weighty load for a beetle to push around.
Boonstra, Stephanie. 2019. “Reconstructing the Mid-Second Millennium BCE Using Scarab Amulets.” Spring Lodge Centre, Witham, Essex, November 3. Write up on Other People’s Tales. David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books. Hornung, Erik. 1982. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Cornell University Press. Kemp, Barry J. 2006. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. Routledge. Mertz, Barbara. 2008. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. William Morrow. Robins, Gay. 2010. “Art.” In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson. Routledge. Shaw, Garry J. 2014. The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends. Thames & Hudson. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum. Taylor, John H. 2010a. “Life and Afterlife in the Ancient Egyptian Cosmos.” In Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead., edited by John H. Taylor. British Museum Press. ———. 2010b. “The Perfect Afterlife.” In Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead., edited by John H. Taylor. British Museum Press. Tyldesley, Joyce. 2010. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt. Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books. Wilkinson, Richard H. 1994. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. Thames and Hudson. ———. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
Sobek, or Sebek (or even Suchos if you insist on being Greek about it), is closely associated with the crocodile. Of the books I read only two gave me a meaning for the name, but they did provide me with three different possibilities between them! One possibility is that the name just means crocodile – despite there also being another completely different word for crocodile (meseh). Another possibility ties Sobek into the Osiris story – his name may derive from a word meaning “he who unites” which would be referring to the limbs of Osiris. And the third possibility is that it derives from s-bꜣk, which means “he who impregnates”. This last meaning ties in quite well with various of the epithets of Sobek (from the Pyramid Texts and other sources) which portray a violent and sexual deity – things like “pointed of teeth,” “who lives on robbery,” “who impregnates females,” “who takes women from their husbands whenever he wishes according to his desires”.
Depictions of him in animal form are of a crocodile who is often seated on a shrine, and in his animal-headed form he’s a man with a crocodile head who may wear a tripartite wig, as in my photo of a statue now in the Ashmolean Museum (and one of my favourite objects in their collection). His headdress, when he wears one, is a horned sun-disc with two upright feathers – these might be green in colour, as he’s referred to in the Pyramid Texts as “green of plume/plumage/feathers”.
The Egyptians liked to group their deities into groups of three that we call triads, which are normally a god, his female consort and their male offspring. Sobek is no exception to this, and he’s a member of several triads in different parts of Egypt. His membership of these doesn’t seem to have much basis in mythology (in fact there are no surviving stories about him from Pharaonic Egypt) but is rather an organisational feature of how the Egyptians thought of their gods. At Kom Ombo his consort is Hathor, and their son is Khonsu, whereas at Medinet Maadi he is linked with Renenutet and Horus is their son. And he’s also known as the son of Neith, but her consort isn’t clear (sometimes he’s Seth but not always).
As I’ve already mentioned above one of Sobek’s cult centres was at Kom Ombo, which was called Pa-Sebek in Ancient Egypt – the Domain of Sobek. The surviving temple at the site is Ptolemaic, as is so often the case, but there are indications that there were earlier temples – New Kingdom period and possibly before. Sobek shared the surviving temple with Horus the Elder. I don’t mean this in the normal sense where a large Egyptian temple has shrines to several different gods, instead it has two parallel main axes running from east to west – the doors are set next to each other in the temple walls, the shrines that are the focal point of the temple sit side-by-side at the end of these axes. The southern of these is dedicated to Sobek and the northern one is dedicated to Horus the Elder.
Another very important cult centre for Sobek was at Medinet el-Faiyum, at the ancient town of Shedyet (later called Crocodilopolis by the Greeks). The earliest temple remains surviving here date to the reign of Amenemhat III back in the Middle Kingdom, and this temple was later rebuilt by Ramesses II. It was a cult centre for him long before this, however – the Pyramid Texts refer to Sobek as “of Shedyet” so by the Fifth Dynasty he’s associated with the town. And even earlier – perhaps even as far back as the time of Narmer, though the evidence is fairly circumstantial hinging around a seal impression from the time of Narmer and some correlations with later texts and structures. There’s also a truly fantastical story told by Diodorus Siculus (in the 1st Century BCE) which tells how the cult of Sobek was started in Shedyet by Menes out of gratitude to a crocodile which had saved him from a pack of wild dogs. Prior to this altruistic crocodile stepping in to save a king crocodiles were only thought of as disgusting and man-eaters. Clearly fiction, but perhaps a tiny kernel of truth – the cult maybe did start around the time of the unification of Egypt, and during prehistoric times there don’t seem to’ve been any positive associations with the crocodile.
As well as these two major cult centres Sobek had several other temples throughout Egypt, including at Gebelein and Gebel el-Silsila, Medinet Maadi (in conjunction with Renenutet) and Sumenu. Each of these temples probably would’ve had a pool (or perhaps the sacred lake itself) where the crocodiles sacred to Sobek were kept and these were subsequently mummified after their deaths. There are two sorts of sacred animal in Ancient Egypt, and these mummified crocodiles cover both options. Many are votive offerings, bred specifically for the purpose and killed before they got very big. Others were avatars of the god who lived out a long life before finally being given a ceremonial burial.
The seal impression from the time of Narmer I mentioned above suggests that Sobek may’ve been worshipped at least as early as that, however that is not definitive (there is a crocodile and a shrine, but nothing explicitly labelling it as Sobek). By the time of Khasekhemwy at the end of the Second Dynasty there is stronger evidence that a cult of Sobek was in operation – two stone vessels have been found (one in Khasekhemwy’s tomb and one in the Step Pyramid complex built by his successor) that have the title ḥm sbk on them. This title is a priestly one that translates as Servant of Sobek. And the cult continues into the Old Kingdom as indicated by his presence in the Pyramid Texts. It rose to particular prominence in the later Middle Kingdom – which can be seen from the number of rulers with his name as part of their own, mostly Sobekhoteps in the 13th Dynasty. And as with many deities he gradually became assimilated with Amun – helped by the solar associations of crocodiles whose emergence from the waters each morning to bask in the sun was seen as a sign of veneration of the sun. This partly manifests in the formation of the merged deity Sobek-Re (as Re is also assimilating with Amun). By the Ptolemaic Period this solar association is so strong that Sobek is thought of as an equivalent to the Greek sun god Helios. He’s also associated with the horizon – as Lord of Bakhu, which was a mythological mountain at the horizon where Sobek was believed to have a temple made out of carnelian.
As well as his solar associations Sobek is also (and perhaps more logically!) a god of the river environment. He was a water deity, and the Nile was supposed to come from his sweat. And as a crocodile might lurk in the marshes and riverbanks to ambush the unwary, these regions too were under the authority of Sobek. In this context it’s not surprising to find that he was also a fertility deity – one of the things the Pyramid Texts says about him is that he makes green the fields and riverbanks. He’s also, as I discussed at the beginning, involved with fertility in a different way – the epithets of Sobek in the Pyramid Texts are a very crocodilian aspect of fertility, I think: ambush and rape, rather than love or even lust.
Sobek is also seen as upholding law and order – a text on the walls of Kom Ombo refers to Sobek as a sa-per who smites rebels. Sa-per was a title given to officials who had some aspect of what we’d now think of as the functions of a police force – during the Old Kingdom they were responsible for arresting and punishing tax evaders but again the imagery of Sobek suggests a much less bureaucratic sort of involvement with law & order.
Taken together these aspects of fertility, power and order make him a good symbol of the king’s might and potency. But there is a crocodilian flavour to these concepts – this is a forceful fertility of impregnation (not of the motherhood of Hathor), this is the king who smites his enemies with the mace on every temple gateway, and executioner who deals out punishment for crimes. The king to be feared, and to be wary of offending.
Bresciani, Edda. 2005. “Sobek, Lord of the Land of the Lake.” In Divine Creatures: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt, edited by Salima Ikram, translated by C. Rossi. American University in Cairo Press. David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books. Fletcher, Joann. 2016. The Story of Egypt. Hodder. Oppenheim, Adela, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto, eds. 2015. Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Patch, Diana Craig. 2011. “From Land to Landscape.” In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press. Romer, John. 2016. From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom. A History of Ancient Egypt 2. Penguin. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum. Teeter, Emily. 2011. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt.Cambridge University Press. Wilkinson, Richard H. 1994. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. Thames and Hudson. ———. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson. ———. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson. Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2001. Early Dynastic Egypt. Routledge.
Our knowledge of anything at all from the earliest periods of Egyptian history is pretty fragmentary and pieced together like a jigsaw (with most of the pieces missing). But by the chance vagaries of what has survived and been rediscovered the kings of the 1st Dynasty are actually pretty securely ordered and named. The consensus is that the eight kings were: Narmer, Aha (also known as Hor-Aha), Djer, Djet, Den, Anedjib, Semerkhet and Qaa. In addition in the version of this list found as a seal impression in Den’s tomb was the King’s Mother Merneith – so who was she, and how come she’s ended up in such a high status position?
The name Merneith means “beloved of Neith” – that’s generally how it’s spelt in English but there are another couple of forms you might see: Mer(t)neith (because the word mer should have a feminine -t ending even though it’s not written with one) and Meryetneith A (the A reflects the fact that there’s another later Meryetneith). The name of the goddess Neith was a frequent component of the names of elite women of the 1st Dynasty royal court – other examples are Neithhotep (probable wife of Narmer and mother of Aha) and Herneith (probable wife of Djet), as well as many women in subsidiary burials around the tombs of the 1st Dynasty kings. Merneith’s known titles were King’s Mother (which is self-explanatory, and in Egyptian is mwt-nsw) and Foremost of Women (which is a standard queen’s title in the 1st Dynasty, ḫnty).
As with all people from the deep past our knowledge of her relationships is pretty slim – to continue my metaphor it’s pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle with almost all of the pieces missing. It’s pretty certain that the King she was Mother of was Den, number five in our list of eight 1st Dynasty kings. Some of the evidence includes large numbers of seal impressions naming Den which were found in her tomb and a partial name of Den’s mother on the Palermo Stone (a fragment of the annals of the Egyptian kings dating to the 5th Dynasty and recording years back to the 1st Dynasty) is consistent with how her name is written.
As well as objects and seal impressions naming Den two other kings are named in Merneith’s tomb – Djer and Djet – implying some kind of relationship to them. Given she’s the mother of Den, it seems plausible that she was therefore the wife of Djet, Den’s immediate predecessor as inheritance of the throne in Ancient Egypt is ideologically focused on a father to son transition (recapitulating the (eventual) succession of Horus to Osiris’s throne with each generation of kings). There is no direct evidence of her relationship with the other king, Djer – it could be something as general as being a high status member of the court, or it could be that she has objects with his name on because she was his (presumed) son’s wife. Or possibly she was his daughter – as I said, there’s no direct evidence for this, but it certainly wouldn’t be unusual for a royal woman to be daughter, wife and mother of three generations of kings in Ancient Egypt.
Outside of Abydos Merneith is pretty ephemeral, if that evidence was all we had to go on then she’d be a small footnote. But she’s pretty solidly established as a real historical person from evidence at Abydos, which includes her own tomb. She was buried in the Early Dynastic Period cemetery at Abydos called Umm el-Qa’ab and her tomb is designated Tomb Y by the archaeologists who’ve excavated it. Initially it was thought to be the tomb of a king. It has features like those of the 1st Dynasty kings – including the size and layout as well as the position in this cemetery. There are two large stelae outside bearing her name, as there are for the kings. Merneith, as with most of the 1st Dynasty kings, also had a large funerary enclosure situated nearer to the cultivated zone – the purpose of these is unclear. There is also possibly a second tomb for her at Saqqara – but the identification of Mastaba S3503 as her tomb is not secure and may be the tomb of a high official associated with her time period (in fact there’s significant disagreement as to whether 1st Dynasty kings did have secondary tombs at Saqqara or not).
And this/these tomb(s) and the funerary enclosure also have a surrounding ring of subsidiary burials – a common feature of the kingly tombs of this dynasty. These were probably sacrificed retainers, forming the entourage of the main tomb owner in the afterlife – some examples have the same roof covering the main grave and the subsidiary ones, which makes it clear that everyone was buried in one go. What’s not entirely clear is whether these people were executed or committed suicide (although this may be a moot point, as the individuals concerned probably didn’t have much choice in their selection even if they handled their deaths themselves). This idea of taking your court or servants with you when you die is pretty shocking to modern eyes, but it’s not actually that unusual – examples come from widely separated places and times, for instance a burial of a nomad leader and 5 of his women from the 1st Century CE at Tillya Tepe (in modern Afghanistan) or of a king and four Furen (meaning “wife” or “lady”) and seven servants from the 2nd Century BCE in the kingdom of Nanyue (in the south of modern China).
But “not unusual” doesn’t mean anyone was likely to be totally blasé about it, and that (as well as taking it with them when they went) is probably part of the point. That amount of death, of willing (as far as one can tell) sacrifice, of expenditure of resources (they had their own coffins, that’s a lot of wood in a country where wood is scarce) – that would make a statement about the power of the king, both the deceased one and his successor, that you would not forget in a hurry. The individuals who died were quite high status, and so those of the elite who watched at the funerary rituals would know their survival rested in the hands of the king. Those who buried the bodies and dug the graves would carry back to their communities along the Nile an over-awed impression of a king who ruled over life and death. It’s also a very useful way to “clean house” at a difficult time for any hereditary power structure. Which is a particularly gruesome example of the Ancient Egyptians combining practicality with display and concern for their afterlife. The transition from old king to new king must’ve been particularly fraught at a time when the idea of a king of united Egypt was still pretty new. And as I said when I was talking about Shu – the mythology of Ancient Egypt is anxious about these transition points. Having the threats amongst the elite – the other sons, the uncles, and so on – accompany the deceased king on his journey to the afterlife would help ensure a smooth transition.
The evidence from the tomb at Abydos makes it clear that this woman Merneith was almost, but not quite a king. For instance whilst there are those two impressive stelae with her name on outside her tomb, the name itself is not written within a serekh as that of a king would be. Her tomb(s) and funerary enclosure are surrounded by secondary burials, which is again a sign of high almost kingly status – but not as many and not as high status individuals, so she’s not as high status as her near contemporaries the other kings buried in this cemetery. And she gets missed out of later king lists, like that from the tomb of Qaa.
Almost, but not quite a king – so what was she? Her probable husband Djet, Den’s predecessor as king, doesn’t seem to’ve reigned all that long. Although I’ll caveat this immediately by noting that Toby Wilkinson glosses this “short” reign as being “probably less than 20 years” and Kara Cooney suggests a reign of 10 years, so clearly we mustn’t over-interpret short! One piece of evidence for this is the career of a high official called Amka (traced through seal impressions with his name and titles on) which begins in the reign of Djer (Djet’s predecessor), and ends early in the reign of Den. So Djet’s reign was short enough to fit into the latter part of the working life of Amka, after he reached a fairly senior status. This short reign, and Merneith being almost a king, means that it seems most plausible that Merneith ruled as regent for her son Den who was presumably too young to rule himself when Djet died.
You’d think this would be a dangerously unstable situation, just ripe for an internal or external strongman to take advantage of and put himself on the throne – but this doesn’t seem to’ve been the case. If there were wobbles, they’ve left no trace. The geography of the Nile Valley made external threats to stability like a foreign warlord sweeping in to kill a mother & child and seize the throne much less likely – Egypt was relatively isolated at this time and had defined natural boundaries that would provide an obstacle. Not like the situation in Mesopotamia, for instance. So external threats were less of a problem than one might think – and internal ones could be partially neutralised by choosing those to accompany the deceased king to the afterlife with care. Whilst Djet, Den’s predecessor, had fewer retainers buried with him than his own predecessor did it was still over 300 people and those that were chosen included more men, and men with higher status titles too.
There were, as well, ideological and mythological justifications for women protecting the rights of their sons from the dangers of their uncles – that’s the fundamental basis of the Osiris mythology after all. Of course saying this could be putting the cart before the horse, as the Early Dynastic Egyptians haven’t left us any mythological texts so it could be that the mythology grows up after and around this regency – certainly Osiris doesn’t appear in Egyptian culture till much later. But nonetheless if you don’t have to worry about external threats, it is a politically stable solution – unlike one of the boy’s uncles Merneith only had power in the child’s name and so had nothing to gain by murdering him and taking the throne herself. So she was a safe focal point for anyone who wanted to maintain the established order of things. Which is a very Egyptian thing to want to do – change for the sake of change was not part of their attitude to the world, maintenance of ma’at would mean ensuring there was a smooth transition to the new king. And if his mother as a regent was the price of that then so be it.
And it worked, as far as we can tell. Even the relatively small number of retainers buried with Merneith tends to suggest stability – no need for a big display of power when dear old Mum died, it was clear who was in charge and that he was staying there.
This makes Merneith the first woman who we are fairly certain held the reins of power in Ancient Egypt. Reigning in her son’s name, true, but reigning nonetheless – and recognised as holding this status by her contemporaries, as seen in her kingly tomb and Den’s seal that lists her with the kings. She might not quite be the actual first woman – there is a tantalising hint Neithhotep before her may’ve held power in some sense, as there are clay seals with her name written within a serekh (with Neith on top instead of Horus, tho). But there’s no evidence what this actually meant in practice at the time, so Merneith is our known first. And sadly, written back out of history by her descendants fairly quickly as is often the way with women in history – by only a very few generations later in the reign of Qaa she’s not mentioned in the list of kings, demoted back to the status of any other mother of a king.
Bard, Kathryn A. 2003. “The Emergence of the Egyptian State.” In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by Ian Shaw. Oxford University Press. Cooney, Kara. 2018. When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt. National Geographic. Criscenzo-Laycock, Gina. 2019. “Before Egypt.” Exhibition, Victoria Gallery and Museum, Liverpool. Dodson, Aidan. 2016. The Royal Tombs of Ancient Egypt. Pen & Sword Archaeology. Dodson, Aidan, and Dyan Hilton. 2004. The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson. Fletcher, Joann. 2016. The Story of Egypt. Hodder. Li, Linna. 2012. “Archaeological Discoveries of the Nanyue Kingdom.” In The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China, edited by James C. S. Lin.Yale University Press. Lin, James C. S., ed. 2012. “Tomb of the King of Nanyue.” In The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China. Yale University Press. O’Connor, David B. 2009. Abydos: Egypt’s First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris. New Aspects of Antiquity. Thames & Hudson. Romer, John. 2013. From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid. A History of Ancient Egypt 1. Penguin. Schiltz, Véronique. 2011. “Tillya Tepe, the Hill of Gold: A Nomad Necropolis.” In Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, edited by Fredrik Hiebert and Pierre Cambon. British Museum Press. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum. Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2001. Early Dynastic Egypt. Routledge. Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2007. Lives of the Ancient Egyptians. Thames & Hudson.
One of the sites on the standard tourist itinerary is the temple at Dendera – it’s near modern Qena, a bit under 100km north of Luxor on a large bend on the river Nile. When I’ve visited we’ve done it on the way back to our Luxor hotel from Abydos. Dendera isn’t the original Egyptian name of the site, it’s derived from later Greek names (Tantere and Tentyris) – the Egyptians called the town Iunet. It’s positioned near the entrance to the Wadi Hammamat, which was an important route to the Red Sea as well as providing resources itself (including all the siltstone that Predynastic palettes were made from). As a result it was a strategically important place, and was the capital of the sixth Upper Egyptian Nome (nomes were administrative districts). Unsurprisingly, therefore, there are indications that the site was occupied from early on – the necropolis has graves at least as far back as the Early Dynastic Period.
It’s not clear when the temple complex at Dendera was first built, but there is evidence that there was a temple there during the time of Pepi I and that this may’ve been an older temple which was rebuilt during the reign of Khufu. After this there is definitely a chapel dating to the Middle Kingdom (dedicated to Montuhotep II, now in the Cairo Museum). And there is quite a bit of evidence to show that New Kingdom kings built and extended the temples at the site. The surviving temple, the one you’ve been to see if you’ve been to the site, primarily dates to the Ptolemaic Period. One reason archaeological evidence preceding this is slim is that it appears when the current structure was built the site was flattened and it’s built directly on top of the remains from the Old Kingdom. The first surviving structure at the site dates to the reign of Nectanebo I (the founder of the 30th Dynasty in the Late Period, the last native dynasty of Egyptian kings). But most of what you see is Ptolemaic or Roman. The earliest Ptolemaic cartouche in the main temple is that of Ptolemy XII Auletes (Cleopatra VII’s father, really very late, tho see below when I come back to empty cartouches at the site), and Kent Weeks suggests that most of the building work for the Ptolemaic parts of the temples took place in the reign of Cleopatra VII.
The temple was first visited by Europeans quite early in the Western “rediscovery” of Egypt. The first European to write about it was Peter Lucas who visited in 1716 CE. And the site was also one of the places that Napoleon’s great expedition in 1798 visited – they removed the Dendera Zodiac from a roof chapel and sent it to the Louvre (replacing it with a copy that has been painted black to resemble the surroundings).
Like any large Egyptian temple there are several structures on the site which are part of the temple complex as a whole, and the surviving ones are only some of those that once stood there. The primary dedication of the complex is the triad of Horus, Hathor and Ihy. The surviving main temple at the site is the one dedicated to Hathor, but there would once have been two more – the others dedicated to Horus and to Ihy (and this was Ihy’s main cult centre). Dendera is the principle cult centre of Hathor, and has been since at least the Old Kingdom. As well as the temple here there is also a burial ground for cows, the sacred animal of Hathor. The local form of Hathor is closely associated with Nut – emphasising her roles as a sky goddess and a daughter of Re. She is also a goddess with strong links to the west and the dead.
As I said, there are many structures on the site not just the main temple. These include a couple of mammisis, a sanatorium, a temple of Isis and even a Coptic church! The main temple lies on a north-south orientation and most of the other structures are at right angles to this with their entrances to the east. This is actually quite an unusual orientation, and has to do with the direction the Nile is flowing in this part of Egypt. Despite our labelling the axes according to the cardinal directions, from an Ancient Egyptian perspective it was often the case that these were relative to the flow of the Nile rather than the true cardinal directions. So temples were often situated with their main axis at right angles to the Nile, which is notionally an east/west axis (as the Nile flows from south to north). But at Dendera there is a great bend in the Nile, and it’s actually flowing to the east at this point – hence a temple pointing towards the Nile is oriented from north to south in terms of cardinal directions but is still symbolically facing east towards the Nile.
The whole thing is surrounded by a mudbrick enclosure wall, built with a technique called “pan bedding” – this produces a wavy profile to the wall, as there are alternating areas of convex and concave courses of bricks. This does have practical implications (it may improve stability on ground that expanded and contracted as the waters of the Nile rose & fell with the inundation), but in typical Egyptian fashion they may also have had a symbolic meaning. The wavy profile may symbolise the waters of Nun – the boundary wall is thus holding chaos back from the sacred ground of the temple (which is thus the domain of order or ma’at). There are a couple of gateways in the wall, one in the north (the primary gate) and one at the southern end of the east wall. The main gateway is actually rather smaller and less imposing than is the case for other temples. It’s not the typical huge pylon, but instead a structure called a “propylon gateway” and it was built during the reigns of the Roman Emperors Domitian and Trajan. Outside this gate are some other Roman structures – chapels of a type we call kiosks. And within the mudbrick enclosure wall there is also an inner wall – this was built in stone but was never finished.
As well as buildings within the walls there are also a couple of water-related features. Unlike the one at the Precinct of Mut at Karnak this is a typical example – it is rectangular in shape. At the corners were flights of stairs descending into the water, down which the priests would walk to purify themselves. There are also wells on the site, one of which may be a nilometer used to measure the annual inundation.
To the west of the main temple between the gateway and the outer hypostyle hall of the main temple are four buildings. Two of these are mammisis – mammisi is a word that was coined by Jean-François Champollion (as a new word in the Coptic language). It means “birth-place” or “birth-house” and it used for a particular type of building found associated with several Egyptian temples dating from the Late Period through to the Roman Period. The two at Dendera pretty much cover the date range. The older one was built during the reign of Nectanebo I and the other was built by the Emperor Augustus and decorated by Trajan. As is typical they are both small temples placed at right angles to the main temple. The decorations within focus on the marriage (in this case of Hathor) and the birth of Ihy (the child of the triad) and the Pharaoh. The decoration in the Roman mammisi is particularly fine. One of the most famous scenes is of Ihy being formed on the potter’s wheel, and there are also scenes of other deities praising Ihy. The texts include hymns to all three members of the triad. And in keeping with the theme of birth the god Bes (a patron of childbirth) is depicted around the tops of the columns.
The temples were the site of “mystery plays” (so-called by analogy to medieval European mystery plays, I think, rather than being an Egyptian term). The play had 13 acts, with 2 intervals, and re-enacted the birth of Ihy and of the Pharaoh – symbolically linking them together and ensuring the continued existence of the royal line. Although not quite the same idea there are resonances between these plays and the reliefs from the New Kingdom that depict the parentage of the king as being the god Amun impregnating his human mother. Both link the king’s birth explicitly with the gods, even though the link is different in each case.
The other ancient Egyptian building in this group i that’s still on the site is a sanatorium – the chapel dedicated to Montuhotep II that I mentioned above isn’t on the site any more. The sanatorium is where pilgrims to the site would’ve stayed and was also for their healing. It is possible it was a place where they slept in order to receive healing dreams (an “incubation chamber”), but it’s more likely that the primary function was as a centre for cippus healing (where water would be poured over a stela called a cippus depicting Horus and covered in spells, and the now magical water was ingested by the ill person). The presence of a sanatorium at this temple may be because Hathor has healing associations (in one myth she restores the sight of Horus after Seth put his eye out), but they were also more generally attached to temples regardless of dedication from the Late Period onward. Although, having said that – this one is the only one that is known to’ve been built for this purpose, at other sites the evidence is less clear cut.
And finally, nestled between the mammisis, is a Coptic church which was built in the 5th Century CE. This seems a little incongruous but it’s something that often happens – a lot of Ancient Egyptian temples have Coptic churches or monasteries built in or next to the ancient structure. This isn’t restricted to Christian buildings, for instance there’s a mosque inside Luxor Temple. Sacred sites seem to hang on to their sacredness even as the religion around them changes.
Unlike Christian churches, temples in Ancient Egypt were not places where the general public could go inside and worship. And so there had to be more accessible structures for personal petitions to the gods. On the outside of the southern wall of the main temple there is a false door which is shaped like a Hathor sistrum which once had a wooden canopy. This is a place where those who could not enter the temple itself could leave their offerings and make their prayers. Inside the temple, in a chapel that backs onto this false door there is a niche that matches up with the outer structure, which once contained a statue of the goddess.
As a tourist visitor to the temple one is also taken to this wall, but not to leave one’s prayers for Hathor. Instead what we look at is the large relief on the western end of the wall that shows Cleopatra VII (“the” Cleopatra) and her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion, standing and making offerings to the gods. A part of Cleopatra’s campaign to promote Caesarion as the heir to her throne. Whilst with hindsight we know it was doomed, she must’ve been hoping that with Rome as her ally (and her Roman son lined up to take the throne) there might be a new period of stability for Egypt. The Ptolemaic Period in general, and particularly towards the end of it, was a time of great political instability with multiple civil wars and a high turnover of rulers. You can maybe see signs of that elsewhere in the decoration of Dendera Temple as well – there are reliefs where the cartouches are empty and the name of the king hasn’t been filled in, and some just contain the word per-aa (Pharaoh). One possible explanation is that as the king kept changing the people carving the reliefs didn’t have time (or want to commit) to carve a name in them. But I’ve also heard an alternative explanation that it’s more about symbolising eternal kingship rather than one particular king, and I’m not sure if there’s convincing evidence to determine which is the case.
The rest of the decorative scheme of the outer side of the walls of the main temple focuses on scenes of the king laying out the temple, placing the first stones (symbolically one assumes!) and dedicating the temple to Hathor. There are similar scenes in other more public spaces of the temple, including the outer and inner hypostyle halls (see below) – this tells us something about how the kings (mostly Roman Emperors) who commissioned this decoration wanted to be seen. Not as much emphasis on warmongering as earlier kings (perhaps a little close to the bone in a country they conquered?), and more on building houses for the gods.
Immediately behind the main temple is a structure called the Iseum – it’s a temple dedicated to Isis and build by the Emperor Augustus re-using stones from earlier structures on the site. The axis of this temple is unusual – it’s split with the main part of the temple facing towards the east like all the other subsidiary temples on the site, but then the sanctuary faces north towards the sanctuary of Hathor in the main temple. Once there was a statue of Osiris supported by Isis & Nephthys in the sanctuary.
Entering the temple proper (finally!) the facade that greets you consists of six columns joined by a half-height wall between them and a central doorway that leads into the temple. This part of the temple, and the outer hypostyle hall behind it, was built after Cleopatra’s time – in the 1st Century CE, at the orders of the Emperor Tiberius. There’s a Greek inscription above the door that tells us this, saying that the temple is “for the Emperor Tiberius Caesar, the new Augustus, son of the divine Augustus […]”. The columns in this area are all topped with four heads of Hathor arranged to make a cube. These heads are themselves topped with a naos-shaped sistrum. The heads were pretty much all deliberately damaged in antiquity. Hathoric columns are not unique to this Roman structure at Dendera – there are examples seen from the Middle Kingdom onward at a variety of different sites. This is just the most well known example.
Inside the outer hypostyle hall is a spectacular ceiling – it still retains a lot of its colour, and has recently been cleaned, so it looks pretty impressive. It’s decorated with a chart of the sky, mixing newer ideas about the stars brought in by the Greeks and Romans with traditional Egyptian ideas about the sun’s journey. For instance there are signs of the zodiac that came, ultimately, from the Babylonians mixed in with images of Nut swallowing the sun so that she can give birth to it again which is a very old Egyptian belief. The walls include the decorative motifs I talked about above – the king (or rather, Emperor in this case) laying out, building and dedicating the temple. There are also scenes of the purification of the king.
Moving further into the temple you come to the inner hypostyle hall. This room is called the Hall of Appearances, and is where the statue of the goddess was brought to appear at the beginning of rituals and processions. The hall has 6 columns, and the walls are decorated once again with depictions of the king participating in the building of the temple. There are six small rooms opening off the hall, 3 on the east side and 3 on the west. One of the eastern ones we call a “perfume laboratory” as the reliefs have to do with the making of perfume and show the king offering incense – this also has representations of the god Shezmu, originally the god of wine & oil presses but by the Ptolemaic Period known as the Provider of Perfumes for the gods. In another room on the east the king offers food to the goddess. And on the western side there is a room where the king offers silver, and another where he pours libations of water. The rearmost room on each side is a treasury. An opening to the east allows offerings to be brought in, and to the west another opening leads to a well. The area as a whole appears to be for the preparation of offerings and the storage of items needed for the daily ritual at the temple.
Continuing deeper into the temple you come to a room called the Hall of Offerings, to the sides of this room are the stairs to the roof. This hall was the area where sacrifices were dedicated to the deities of the temple, and the scenes on the walls show the king making these offerings . From each side of this room are stairs leading to the roof. The room after this is called the Hall of the Ennead (the name for “group of nine gods”) which is immediately outside the inner sanctuary – here the statues of other deities assembled before joining processions. Amongst the various deities represented in the temple at Dendera were Shezmu (who I just mentioned), Shepet (a form of Taweret, in the Roman mammisi), the Heliopolitan Bull Mnevis and the lion god Mahes. To the left and right are chambers that sorted the clothing and other accessories of these gods – the western room is a linen chamber, and the eastern room is a treasury. If you go through this treasury you come to a courtyard with a set of stairs at the end leading up to a room called the wabet or “Pure Chapel”. In this room ceremonies of offering to Hathor are performed, and these are shown on the walls of the courtyard (along with scenes of processions of deities from Upper & Lower Egypt).
The sanctuary itself is now empty, but it would once have held a shrine containing the statue of the goddess Hathor and her ceremonial barque in which she would travel during processions. These items are depicted on the decoration of the sanctuary. Surrounding this room were 11 chapels dedicated to the other deities who were associated with Hathor at this site. These included deified forms of two of Hathor’s chief attributes – her sistrum and the menat necklace.
Underneath the main temple and within its walls there are crypts, which were used to store cult objects used in the temple. I remember when I visited the temple I’d assumed that this usually invisible and functional space would also be plain – but that is not the Egyptian way, the walls of the underground one I went into are decorated with reliefs that depict the items that were once stored there. This includes a ba statue of Hathor which was once used in processions, such as one at New Year. In this procession the statue was taken out to visit various parts of the temple, including a chapel for Nut and a chapel on the roof where the ba statue was placed overnight. In the morning with the first sunrise of the New Year the statue was bathed in sunlight, which was seen to infuse it with new life for the new year. The staircases on which the procession travelled were decorated with representations of the procession itself – participated in by gods & kings for eternity. On the western staircase the procession carved into the walls leads up to the roof, and in the eastern one the procession goes down into the temple once more.
This was not the only chapel on the roof of the temple at Dendera – there were also others, including two symbolic mortuary chapels for Osiris. These were mirrored with one suite on the east and one on the west of the roof. The roof of one of these was the famous Zodiac ceiling which is now in the Louvre as I mentioned above. The zodiac design itself is primarily a Babylonian zodiac, and is not the same as earlier Egyptian depictions of the heavens (such as those in tombs in the Valley of the Kings). Having said that, it’s not purely a foreign import, elements of Egyptian ideas are incorporated – just like the outer hypostyle hall ceiling combines both ideas of the heavens. Nonetheless even the idea that the stars can influence human destiny wasn’t part of the Ancient Egyptian mindset until the Ptolemaic Period – presumably imported from the Greek culture of the new rulers – previously unlucky and lucky days were based on mythology and the timing of festivals. The date that this zodiac depicts isn’t clear, as it’s difficult to be sure how to match the Egyptian constellations and planet names to our own. However one suggestion is that it may’ve originally represented the conception date for Caesarion, but was later altered to a significant date in the Emperor Augustus’s life. I don’t think that’s widely accepted, however.
There are other more typically Ancient Egyptian elements to the decorative scheme of these chapels. These include figures of Nut (so a more typically Egyptian sky than the Babylonian zodiac) and scenes depicting elements from the mythology of Osiris. This includes the conception of Horus, with Isis as a falcon hovering over the phallus of the mummified body of her dead brother-husband Osiris in order to receive his seed. An inscription also details the annual ceremonial burial of a corn mummy made of soil and grains of barley mixed together. This would then sprout, symbolising the rebirth of Osiris.
Another chapel is one of the earlier structures of the temple – at the southwestern corner of the roof is a kiosk with 12 Hathor-headed columns surrounding it which once supported a wooden roof. This has cartouches of Ptolemy XII on it. And demonstrating that the roof continued to be important ceremonial space the roof of the outer hypostyle hall (the newest part of the temple proper) was used by pilgrims in antiquity who waited there for signs & miracles from Hathor herself.
And also on the roof are waterspouts. Even though it doesn’t rain often in Ancient Egypt, when it does it can be as substantial rainstorms – so the flat roofs of temples need some sort of drainage. The spouts at Dendera (as at some other temples) have lion heads decorating them. These are thus symbolically protective as well as functional pieces of architecture. And as well as these protective associations they are also harnessed to generate water imbued with magic powers – in a vertical line on the wall directly below the waterspout are written magical texts. In the Egyptian belief system the written word itself had power, and pouring water over words (like with the cippi I mentioned above) would transfer this power into the water.
So here ends our tour of the temple complex at Dendera – it’s a delight to see, as it’s so well preserved. But equally it’s so well preserved because it’s so new, relatively speaking – although a lot is Ptolemaic, it’s late Ptolemaic and a lot is also Roman.
There was an exhibition at the British Museum a few years ago, called Living with Gods, which had as its premise that religion is one of the fundamental parts of what it means to be human. While I had my quibbles with the exhibition that’s an idea that’s always fascinated me – if it’s that fundamental, what does it do for us? I think one of the “whys” of religion is explaining the world around us – making sense of the complicated environment we live in and providing the narratives that help us know how to deal with what life flings at us. Of course this is less important in the modern world, where our knowledge of how the world works is based on science and there is less space for the gods and stories to exist in. But for the Egyptians it was a part of their worldview, and many of their gods are fundamental forces of nature personified in order to make sense of them.
The god Shu is one of these: he is a god of air and of sunlight. He’s specifically the dry air, with his sister Tefnut representing moisture – understandable in Egypt with their arid climate to have your air deity separate from your moisture deity, it would be a bit different here in Britain! As befits the god of air, his ba (the way he is manifest in the world) is the wind. It’s important to note that he is the atmosphere – this is not like the Greek gods who control a specific force of nature, the Egyptian gods are those forces in nature. In part of the Coffin Texts Shu says “I am Shu … my clothing is the air … my skin is the pressure of the wind,” and an Egyptian would’ve felt the wind on their face as being Shu brushing against them.
He’s usually represented as a man wearing a plumed headdress – a single ostrich feather (which is actually the same as Maat’s headdress). This headdress is also a hieroglyph which has the phonetic value shut and is used to write the name of Shu. His name probably means “he who rises up” or “emptiness” (or “void”), and may derive from the verb šwj which means “to be empty”. He may also be depicted as a lion – there’s a shrine from the 30th Dynasty which would once have held a cult statue of Shu as a lion. On the back of the inside of the shrine is an image of this statue, a seated lion, and a description of it – it would’ve been rather splendid, made of silver covered with gold and about a foot high!
Shu is also associated with one of the Egyptian ideas of eternal time – the endlessly repeating cycles of time, which they called neheh. The other sort of eternal time is djet – time at a standstill, the sorts of things that remain perpetually the same like mummies or stone buildings. That sort of time was represented by Tefnut. Shu was particularly associated with the cycle of birth, death and rebirth of successive kings. This is linked to the idea that as the air he fills the cosmos with breath and life, which I discuss more below.
There doesn’t seem to’ve been a cult for Shu before the New Kingdom. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t a god before then, far from it – he’s mentioned in both the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts so he was a feature in Egyptian religious thought back to at least the Old Kingdom. In the Pyramid Texts the deceased king is to be purified in the lakes of Shu (probably mists) and will climb up to heaven on the bones of Shu (presumably the clouds). There are also spells that detail the creation of Shu (which I’ll come back to shortly). And in the Coffin Texts there is a suite of 6 spells (no.s 75-80) that are sometimes called the Litany of Shu (by us, not the Ancient Egyptians I think). These spells associate Shu with life and express the hope that he will be able to breathe that life into the dead, as well as detailing Shu’s creation.
His rise to greater prominence in the New Kingdom is probably due to his association with sunlight – the sun became an increasingly important part of Egyptian religion during that period, culminating in Akhenaten’s sweeping changes. And in fact the cult of Shu was one of those which wasn’t suppressed during that period – his solar associations were enough to let him be assimilated into the ideology of Atenism, and he was believed to live in the sun-disc itself. Early on in Akhenaten’s reign Shu was even a part of the names & titles of the Aten – the second cartouche of the Aten in this early titulary included “in his name of light [shu] which is in the Aten”, this was later replaced with a word for light which had no associations with non-Aten gods.
Shu was also seen as having powers that renewed the cosmos – linked to his role as the god of air, in which he was seen as filling the universe with the breath of life, and hopefully the dead too as mentioned in the Coffin Texts. Egyptian gods were, as I said, manifestations of cosmic phenomena but that didn’t mean they were remote from individual people – they also were seen as touching individual lives (in at least some periods of Egyptian history). So Shu was not just bringing life to the whole cosmos, he was also present at every birth and in every human breath. He was also credited with healing powers, that gave him a place in everyday religion in later periods of Pharaonic Egypt as the subject of prayers and spells for protection and he was also conjured to defeat demons. Shu and the stories of his creation also show up in texts dating to the Late Period and Ptolemaic Period, and there are also some amulets of Shu from later periods (tho 3D representations of him are rare).
Shu was one of the deities in the Heliopolitan Ennead – “ennead” is just fancy word for “group of 9” (and is a direct translation of the Egyptian term into Greek). This group is the nine gods or goddesses involved in the Heliopolitan creation myth which stresses the central importance of the sun. I’ve retold the story previously on this blog, it’s the creation myth that begins with the formless waters of chaos out of which the first land rises, on which is sat the first god: Atum. Atum then creates his children, either by masturbating or by sneezing, and these two children are Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture). In later texts the two methods of procreation are linked – Atum is said to’ve ejaculated into his own mouth and the twins are born from there. The creation by spitting or sneezing involves some Ancient Egyptian wordplay – Shu’s name sounds a lot like the word for sneeze, and “Tef” translates as “spit”.
One god, giving birth to two child-gods – sounds quite straightforward really. But it’s actually not quite that linear or simple. In Spell 80 of the Coffin Texts (part of the Litany of Shu) Atum has a conversation with Nun (the waters of chaos) before creation begins and in that conversation we learn that his children are the attributes that give him life. They already exist before they are born and the birth is better seen as a separation from Atum rather than an act of creation. Shu is the life that makes Atum’s heart beat and his mind function – taking him from a state like death to a state like a coma. Tefnut (here referred to as Maat) is the breath that Atum inhales to wake to full consciousness. It is only after this awakening that creation begins – and it begins with Shu expanding within his father Atum to create a void filled with air and now, finally Atum can self-create the cosmos from and within his body. So you can see that Shu is pretty integral to the whole process – he and his sister aren’t “just” the first created beings, but an important part of the process of creation itself.
Once separate from Atum, Shu and Tefnut are not yet properly alive as independent beings. At this point they lack one of the crucial parts of a person – they have no ka. So Atum must pass on his ka to them, and now they are complete. And at this moment time begins – as I said above that Shu and Tefnut are two forms of eternal time, which now exist in the cosmos.
Shu & Tefnut then become a couple, and have children of their own – Geb (earth) and Nut (sky). And in their turn Geb and Nut grow up and have their own children – these are the stars in the sky and Nut swallows them, much to Geb’s fury. Nut then stretches herself as far from Geb as she can get, trying to escape his wrath. Shu sees this, and steps between his children to prevent Geb from hurting Nut. Not all versions of the story have the same explanation for the separation, that’s the more common explanation but another version is that Shu disapproved of Geb & Nut’s love for each other so forced them apart. And a third one is that initially Geb and Nut lay so close together that Nut could not give birth and so Shu had to force them apart before her children could be born. This scene of Shu separating Nut from Geb is one of the key parts of Shu’s iconography. Quite often when you see it there are other little gods depicted helping Shu – these are the Heh gods, there are eight of them (two for each of Nut’s limbs). It seems that Shu got weary of holding up the sky on his own, and created these gods to help him.
And so here we have a narrative that explains the basic layout of the world: the earth is at the bottom and the sky at the top, separated by the air. Every morning the stars vanish (are swallowed) and the sun rises (is given birth to) and then at night the stars are given birth to and the sun is swallowed. The world we live in and the days of our lives, in one story.
This is not the only explanatory mythology involving Shu (and Tefnut). There’s a winter solstice myth (I think primarily known from the Graeco-Roman period) which has several incarnations with different participants but the same overall narrative arc. In the myth a solar associated goddess goes to the south, to Nubia, normally in a rage or out of annoyance at something. A male deity (sometimes her partner) then follows her and persuades her to return. So this is a narrative about the sun getting lower and lower in the southern sky before the solstice and then beginning to return afterwards. Generally the goddess is one of those associated with the Eye of Re, one of whom is Tefnut. And when the story is about Tefnut, it is often Shu who follows her and gets her to return to Egypt.
Shu has other associations outside his explanatory mythology. He’s not actually one of the solar deities, but as he’s the god of sunlight as well as air he has a strong association with solar deities such as Re (and the Aten, as mentioned above). As part of this he is one of the protectors of Re during his journey through the underworld overnight, helping to fight off the snake Apophis, after which he seals the entrance to the underworld after Re has emerged as the young sun at the end of the night. And later on he becomes even more intimately connected with Re. Over time Atum and Re began to merge and their mythologies and attributes overlapped more and more, so in later mythology the children Atum became known as the Eyes of Re (throughout Egyptian mythology the goddess called the Eye of Re was regarded as the daughter of Re). So Shu as one of the eyes is an exception to the general femininity of the Eye of Re but he’s still a child of Re (Atum). In this role Shu and Tefnut took on the form of lions, and were worshipped in these forms at sites in the Delta. Somewhat oddly to our modern Western need to put things in neat little boxes another part of the merging between Re and Atum is a story about the Eye of Atum, in which she rescues the children of Atum who have become separated from him. So clearly in this case the Eye of Re/Atum is not either of Shu or Tefnut.
The mythology of Shu is also part of the narrative of kingship in Ancient Egypt. Part of the Heliopolitan Creation myth is the setting up of the social order of Ancient Egypt – so once you have the ground and air and whatnot it moves on to kings who rule over the whole of the population. This initial line of kings are the male gods of the Ennead, starting with Atum (or Re, depending how linked they are at the time of telling the myth) and moving on down in the line of succession to Horus (via that unpleasantness with Seth). And after Horus the kings are human, but nonetheless still divine by their association with this unbroken line and by each king being an incarnation of Horus. One result of this is a high degree of incestuous royal marriages at various points in Egyptian history – like Ahmose I and his sister-wife Ahmose-Nefertari – this set the royal family apart from the rest of the population (who didn’t tend to practice incestuous marriages) and linked them to the gods.
So after Re (Atum) retires to the heavens his son Shu takes over as king. He’s positioned in the mythology as ruling well, and doing the things a good king should (building monuments and cities, maintaining maat etc.) The fly in the ointment is his son Geb who repeatedly rebels – in some variants this is due to his rage at Shu separating him from his sister-wife Nut. Eventually Shu, like his father, retires to the heavens leaving Geb to become ruler. There are a couple of different explanations given for this abdication – one is that he has become weak and tired, and so stepped aside to let his fitter son rule, perhaps after being overwhelmed by the forces of Apophis. Another story is that Geb overthrew him in one of his rebellions and forced him to retire (and one variant of that story has Geb seizing and by implication raping his mother Tefnut as part of his revenge).
An interesting aspect of this part of the mythology is what it tells us about Egyptian kingship. The official story of kingship in Egypt is a seamless transition from father to son, each following in their turn for an unbroken line from Horus himself down to whoever the current Pharaoh is. Obviously we know this isn’t true – we can point to specific examples where this doesn’t happen – but the narrative that’s presented is of smooth and orderly transitions of power. And yet the myths tell us a different story – a story of anxiety about the fitness of the king to rule, and a sense of the fragility of the state at the moment when power is transferred from one ruler to the next.
So far we’ve been building up a pretty coherent picture of Shu as a deity. He’s a god of air, and helps explain things about the air. He’s a god of sunlight (which given the Egyptian climate feels like an obvious association with air) and he helps explain things about sunlight (like the solstice). His sister Tefnut is his counterpart – goddess of moisture, and also associated with the sun as an Eye of Re. He’s a part of establishing the pattern of kingship for eternity. Ok there’s that oddity where Shu & Tefnut both are and are not the Eye of Atum or Re depending on the precise myth, but in general it’s a pretty cohesive story. But Egyptian culture did not share our obsession with neat Linnaean boxes filled with segregated categories of things. So because of Shu’s solar associations, Tefnut was linked to the moon (despite being a part of the sun). And Shu himself was often associated with lunar deities like Thoth or Khonsu – perhaps because his air carries moonlight much as it carries sunlight, or perhaps because Tefnut is often associated with the moon (yes, rather circular!). As so often, we need to embrace the power of “and” when thinking about Egyptian religion.
And that theme continues when we look at some of the other associations that Shu has. Egyptian gods themselves did not remain in neat little boxes – I’ve talked about that before, one example is Taweret who has multiple names or is it that she’s multiple goddesses? Another example is the merging of Sekhmet and Mut in some times and places, or the fact that the deity called the Eye of Re might be any one of a number of goddesses depending on context. And Shu has his own mergings. One of these is late on in the Ancient Egyptian period: he merges with Arensnuphis who is a Meroitic deity first attested in the late 3rd Century BCE (Meroë was the culture which lived in Nubia during this period). The cult of Shu-Arensnuphis is not only found in northern Nubia but also in southern Egypt. A little earlier (in the Late Period) and much further north (in the Delta) Shu merged with Onuris, god of war and hunting. This was because Onuris and his consort Mehit were one of the other possible pairs of protagonists in the winter solstice myth I talked about earlier in this article.
Shu is also an example of the ambiguity that often shows up in Egyptian gods – they’re not neatly divided into the “good gods” and the “bad gods.” Shu is associated with Bes in some instances – a protective role – along with his other benign associations, but he’s also described as an executioner at the head of a group of torturers in the underworld (Wilkinson 2003). In this he shows similarities with other lunar associated deities – Khonsu is a bloodthirsty god in the Pyramid Texts, as is Thoth (Tyldesley 2010).
But really a lot of this stuff is details – most importantly, Shu was the atmosphere, the air that they breathed and their understanding of a fundamental part of the cosmos.
Allen, James P. 2014. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. 3rd ed. Cambridge Univ. Press. David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books. Goddio, Franck, and Aurélia Masson-Berghoff, eds. 2016. Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds. Thames & Hudson. Hornung, Erik. 1982. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Cornell University Press. Shaw, Garry J. 2014. The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends. Thames & Hudson. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum. Tyldesley, Joyce. 2010. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt. Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books. Wilkinson, Richard H. 1994. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. Thames and Hudson. ———. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
Egyptian history is traditionally divided up following the scheme of dynasties that a 3rd Century BCE historian called Manetho used, and over the top of that modern Egyptologists have grouped those dynasties into Kingdoms and intermediate periods. This is a pretty useful thing to do – it makes it easier to talk and think about the 3,000 and more years of history. But it’s also a little dangerous – it leads one to ignore other ways to divide up the history of Egypt. I’ve talked about Khasekhemwy before – we put him as the last king of the Second Dynasty and yet there are indications that he may’ve been a re-unifier of Egypt, which to my mind might make him better thought of as the beginning of the Old Kingdom rather than the end of the Early Dynastic Period. And today I thought I’d talk about another of these inflection points in Egyptian history that aren’t reflected in the traditional divisions: the reign of Senwosret III.
Senwosret III was the fifth ruler of the 12th Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom – essentially slap bang in the middle of this period, neither at the beginning nor the end his dynasty let alone his Kingdom. He ruled for around four decades in the 19th Century BCE and he was the successor to Senwosret II, and was succeeded in his turn by Amenemhat III. You might see his birth name spelt in several different ways in books: Senwosret (which I’m using as it’s the one I’m most familiar with), Senusret or Sesostris (this last is considered rather old-fashioned now). His throne name, which the Egyptians would’ve used to refer to him was Khakaura. The remaining names of his five-fold titulary are his Horus name nṯr-ḫprw “Horus, divine of form”, his nebty name nṯri-mswt, “The Two Ladies, divine of birth” and his Golden Horus name ḫpr, “The Golden Horus has been created”.
We know the names of several members of Senwosret III’s family, mostly the women and mostly from their burials. Well, I say “know” but of course this is really one of those logic puzzles – there’s a list of women who have particular titles relating them to “the King” and a list of burial places, and we use those to make educated guesses about which king they were daughter of etc. And the men are pretty much entirely missing – not necessarily because they didn’t exist, but more because in this period royal sons were not often represented in art or in texts unless they had some other reason (like being a priest of a relevant temple) to be mentioned.
Senwosret III’s parents can be reasonably confidently assigned as Senwosret II and his wife (Khnemetneferhedjet) Weret I (the I is used to distinguish her from her daughter-in-law of the same name). You’ll notice I put the first bit of her name in brackets – it’s an interesting name and a rather confusing one. Khnemetneferhedjet literally translates as “united with the white crown”, it was a personal name in the 12th Dynasty and was also a title that was held by queens from the 12th Dynasty to the early 18th Dynasty. It’s not clear how one can tell if it’s a name or a title – not just to me as a reader of the secondary literature, but also to Egyptologists reading the inscriptions and texts themselves. In fact the books I read disagreed as to whether this particular woman was called Khnemetneferhedjet Weret or just Weret, so I’ve put it in brackets!
There are several known wives of Senwosret III – again mostly known from their place of burial (his pyramid complex, with a couple of exceptions), and their titles. When I was writing about Amenemhat III I said Senwosret III had three wives – but actually there are 5 (one of whom we have no name for). Two were his sisters: daughters of Senwosret II who had both the title King’s Daughter and King’s Wife – these were Sithathoriunet and the unnamed woman. There is also (Khnemetneferhedjet) Weret II (not to be confused with her mother-in-law), whose titles are King’s Wife and Great of Sceptre (which is another queenly title of the period). Another had the United with the White Crown title that I discussed above (she was called Neferhenut). And last, and very very definitely not least, was Mertseger. She is the first recorded queen to hold the title King’s Great Wife, and the first to have her name written in a cartouche – whilst these honorifics would become commonplace in the New Kingdom their use here is a departure from the previous norm and an indication of her status.
We can also list the names (or partial names) of several daughters (or potential daughters) of Senwosret III (tho not, I think, assign mothers to them) all of whom were buried in his pyramid complex: Khnmet[…], Menet, Mereret B, Senebsenbetes, Sit[…] A, and Sithathor A. Sons are elusive – none are directly attested (as I discussed above this was not unusual). And as I mentioned when writing about his probable son Amenemhat III even this relationship is only assumed due to the succession and the long co-regency which carries with it an assumption of a completely normal (i.e. father to son) succession.
As I said at the outset of this article, change is my theme for this look at the reign of Senwosret III – I’ve already mentioned the new title and cartouche for one of his queens, which surely indicates some shift in the status or ideas about royal women during this period. This is only one of a wide range of changes – during his reign and those to either side of him the material culture of Egypt undergoes notable changes in many ways. There are no texts that explain these changes (the Egyptians didn’t generally write down such meta-information) but it seems reasonable to assume that the change of material culture reflects an underlying alteration in the beliefs and practices of the Egyptian people.
A striking example of these changes is in the art style. I had already talked about this a bit in the Amenemhat III post, where I put the fuzzy line of this change in Senwosret II’s reign, but I think on further reading it should be seen as part of Senwosret III’s reign. In statuary from earlier in the Middle Kingdom it’s a very idealised (and youthful) face that we’re shown, but Senwosret III’s statuary has more naturalistic and more mature facial features (whilst still having a very idealised and youthful body) and this style continues into his son’s reign and beyond. There have been a few suggestions for what this change means or represents. Some authors suggest that this is a new “realistic” style and that the statues represent the actual true-to-life features of the king. Other authors interpret it as bearing a message – that the features do not represent the real face of the king but are chosen to convey specific concepts e.g. the prominent eyes of Senwosret III signify vigilance. Overlapping with this is the idea that the faces are carved to represent the “inner man” – the king’s character not the king’s appearance. Yet other authors, like Dorothea Arnold, mix these ideas together – she sees the statues of this period as being recognisable images of the king in question which were also constructed to fit the ideology of the time. I’m inclined to follow this last idea. Just having it be straight realism feels too much like back-porting our own ideas about what art “should be” onto the Egyptians. And having it be solely conceptual messaging feels too abstract (but having said that, I also don’t believe Akhenaten looked like his statuary, so I’m clearly open to that idea in other cases!). But whatever the specific messaging or interpretation we see in these statues, it’s clear that ideas about how to represent a king change in middle of the Middle Kingdom and thus presumably their underlying idea of kingship itself.
This is not the only change that happens in the art and artifacts produced in the mid-12th Dynasty, tho it’s the only one I intend to go into in depth. I’ve previously discussed how tomb models fall out of use during Senwosret III’s reign, and along with this the jewellery buried with royal women changes in style and type. There also seems to be an interesting conceptual change in the way that the burial chambers under a pyramid were thought of – in the earlier Middle Kingdom they seem to’ve been thought of as pockets in solid bedrock (with the filling up of the passageways after burial returning them to solidity). But from Senwosret II onward there’s a change and the chambers are organised as spaces that one can move through and between. Also in the funerary context there’s an increase in the number of stelae and statues placed near sacred sites and processional ways such as those at Abydos and Elephantine.
Along with these changes in funerary goods and ideas the tombs of the provincial governors, the Nomarchs, start to disappear from the provinces and the elite are more often buried in close proximity to the king. This is one indication of a great change in the bureaucratic organisation of the Egyptian state during the reign of Senwosret III. Prior to Senwosret III the regions of Egypt were governed by powerful Nomarchs each of whom ruled over a Nome or district. During the late Old Kingdom more and more power had devolved to these regional governors, and this destabilised the central authority of the kings of Egypt. This wasn’t the entire reason that the Old Kingdom collapsed, but it was one of the factors – and you see it reflected in the tombs of First Intermediate Period rulers like Ankhtifi. But during the reign of Senwosret III this changes – the power of the provincial elite is reduced. Instead power was concentrated in a small handful of officials – headed by three viziers who reported directly to the king. These viziers each had a large region under their supervision – one administered Lower Egypt, one Upper Egypt and the last looked after Elephantine and Lower Nubia. Some authors see this as a conscious decision by Senwosret III to break the power of the Nomarchs, but most interpretations are that it was a side-effect of a process of centralisation that had been begun earlier in the 12th Dynasty during the reign of Senwosret I. Instead of a removal of power from any individual it’s more that by the reign of Senwosret III the titles are vanishing as Nomarchs died and their sons did not inherit.
Changes in bureaucracy inevitably lead to other changes in society as the centres of power shift. One such change may’ve lead to the flowering of craftsmanship that is seen in this period – the centralisation of power meant that the elite were then all in one place, and so the craftsmen who made elite items and the traders who brought them from outside Egypt also moved to this centre of power. And once all in one place the opportunities for collaboration and competition would be much greater. Also probably connected with the power shift from the provinces to the court was an organisational shift in the military of Egypt. In the First Intermediate Period and the early Middle Kingdom the army was primarily built up from the militia of each Nome, but as bureaucratic authority became centralised so did military authority. In the later Middle Kingdom from the reign of Senwosret III onward the army developed into a larger and national standing army.
And Senwosret III put this army to use serving his new expansionist policy – he undertook campaigns in Nubia in Year 8, Year 10 and Year 16 and reversed the northward movement of the southern border of Egypt that had taken place in the previous two reigns. He established his border at Semna (south of the Second Cataract), established and/or renovated a series of forts between Buhen and Semna in order to control this territory. He also enlarged a canal built by Pepi I which ran from Elephantine to the south, bypassing the first cataract) and improving communication and movement between core Egyptian territory and the newly conquered regions of Lower Nubia.
His boundary stela at Semna makes it clear that he regarded this land as completely under his authority. It states that no Nubians must cross this boundary by water or by land, whether in a ship or with their herds unless they are coming to one of his fortresses to trade. Of course the lands to the south of Egypt had been exploited by Egyptian rulers for a long time, but the Middle Kingdom was the first time they had been incorporated properly into the lands over which the king ruled. The fortresses that lined the river projected this power to the inhabitants, much like Norman castles in newly conquered Anglo-Saxon England. They did serve a practical purpose as well as this symbolic one – and not just the obvious military one of providing barracks for troops to control the river. They also provided storage space for trade goods, and places for the authorised trade between Nubians and Egypt to take place. So perhaps rather than an analogy to Norman castles we’d do better to think of Hadrian’s Wall – not a barrier but a place where trade and movement was controlled.
It wasn’t just Nubia that Senwosret III projected his power towards – he also flexed his muscles at the lands to the north east. Execration texts found in the fortress of Mirgissa in Nubia (and other places) dating to Senwosret III’s reign make it clear that Egyptian xenophobia was alive and well in this period – and directed at all outsiders. Among the cities and peoples named as abomination are several of the Nubian peoples, and also cities in the Levant such as Sekmem, Ashkelon, Byblos and Jerusalem. But there’s less evidence for campaigns into that part of the world, and no evidence of any long term control. Really we just have evidence of one campaign into Palestine in Senwosret III’s whole reign – personally led by the king himself it succeeded in capturing the town of Sekmem (identified with Shechem in the Mount Ephraim region).
Unsurprisingly, given the campaigns I’ve just discussed, one of the buildings we know that Senwosret III built was a temple to the Theban war god Montu at Medamud. This is also an example of continuity between Senwosret III and the earlier kings of the Middle Kingdom, which is a counterpoint to the picture we’ve been building up of his reign being a time of change.
After his death Senwosret III was one of those kings whose cult lasted for centuries, like Menkaure, Montuhotep II or Ahmose I. His pyramid complex at Dahshur shows signs of having been maintained through the Second Intermediate Period and we can tell from graffiti at the complex that some parts were still visited until at least the reign of Ramesses II. His funerary monument at Abydos also shows signs of his cult persisting for a couple of hundred years. He also gradually became regarded as the archetypal Egyptian king and was referred to as “High Sesostris”, with many stories about him by the time of Herodotus. But this was not entirely on his own merits – instead it was down to increasing conflation of his reign and deeds with those of other kings. Fairly early on he got confused with Senwosret I and Senwosret II, and by the Classical Period he was possibly also confused with Ramesses II to some degree.
Whilst his later reputation wasn’t entirely his own his reign was still a pivotal moment in the Middle Kingdom, and I’ve discussed some examples of the things that changed during his time on the throne. But change for change’s sake isn’t really an Egyptian thing to do – they were more apt to stress continuity and maintenance of the established order of the universe. And Senwosret III seems to’ve been a typical Egyptian monarch in this regard. There are several architectural and design choices in his pyramid complex at Dahshur that look back to older kings – not his immediate Middle Kingdom predecessors but the architecture of the Step Pyramid or other Old Kingdom pyramids. And his other funerary monument is at Abydos, near the Early Dynastic cemeteries there and the first royal monument since those days. So he seems to’ve been positioning himself as the heir to these illustrious ancestors. And some of the other aspects of his reign fit into that narrative too – he’s centralising administrative power in the king as it was in the old days, he’s projecting the power of Egypt out into the world and returning her neighbours to their proper subservient role. Perhaps this is an indication that the power of the king had been faltering, and Senwosret III was re-asserting his power and constructing an image of a resurgent & rejuvenated kingship. And under the cover of restoration, changes are made.
Arnold, Dieter. 2002. The Pyramid Complex of Senwosret III at Dahshur: Architectural Studies. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Arnold, Dorothea. 2015. “Pharaoh: Power and Performance.” In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dodson, Aidan. 2020. “Sethy I – King of Egypt.” Talk given to the EEG on June 7 2020, see my write-up. Dodson, Aidan, and Dyan Hilton. 2004. The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson. Fletcher, Joann. 2016. The Story of Egypt. Hodder. Grajetzki, Wolfram. 2003. Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt: Life in Death for Rich and Poor. Duckworth Egyptology. ———. 2015. “Middle Kingdom History: An Overview.” In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Kamrin, Janice. 2015. “The Decoration of Elite Tombs: Connecting the Living and the Dead.” In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Lehner, Mark. 2008. The Complete Pyramids. Thames and Hudson. Lundström, Peter. “Names of the Pharaohs.” Accessed November 25, 2020. https://pharaoh.se/. Oppenheim, Adela. 2015. “Introduction: What Was the Middle Kingdom?” In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Oppenheim, Adela, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto, eds. 2015. Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Quirke, Stephen. 2015. “Understanding Death: A Journey Between Worlds.” In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum. Verner, Miroslav. 2003. The Pyramids: Their Archaeology and History. Translated by Steven Rendall. Atlantic Books. Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2010. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra. Bloomsbury.
Significant numbers of people in the modern world never seriously worry about where their next meal is coming from. I myself am one of those people – even when getting grocery shopping delivered was difficult at the peak of lockdown in the UK earlier this year I was mostly concerned about whether I would get the food I wanted or not, I was confident I would be able to get something to cook & eat. And that position of privilege can make it hard to get oneself into the mindset of a pre-modern population (or that of the many people less fortunate than me even in my own country) – where if the harvest failed too often (perhaps even just once) then people were going to struggle to find enough to eat. Where the poorer portions of society might well routinely restrict what they ate, not out of fear of “getting fat” but because there was only so much food to last until the crops ripened. But it’s something that’s worth keeping in mind when thinking about the Ancient Egyptians – it helps make sense of some of the differences between their worldview and ours. Like the way that among the various metaphysical elements of their thoughts about life after death there are also solidly pragmatic concerns about ensuring that the deceased has food security in the afterlife (with a definite sub-text that this was one of the ways that the afterlife was going to be better than this life). I’ve talked about some examples of this before in the blog – like shabtis as servants to do the necessary agricultural work, or the Offering Formula to guarantee food offerings would continue to be received for eternity. And the objects I’m talking about today are a part of this mindset.
The early Middle Kingdom sees a flowering of three dimensional representations of activities involved in food production, like the one pictured where cattle are being tended to in a stable. Previously these daily life scenes had been carved or painted on the walls of the tomb, but during the First Intermediate Period there was a shift in focus from decorating the tomb to decorating the coffin. This left less space for showing food production and so models are provided for the deceased instead. These changes accompanied a change in the the overall idea of the afterlife – the rise in prominence of Osiris, and the idea that even commoners would go to some other place after death like the Field of Reeds. And they may also be a reaction to changes in the environment around them, both natural and political – the Old Kingdom had fizzled out amongst many problems, one of which appears to’ve been a series of famines that the central authority didn’t deal with terribly effectively. And then the First Intermediate Period was a time of conflict – taken together food security and a sense of certainty in the afterlife must’ve seemed even more important than it previously had been.
These tomb models don’t just appear suddenly from out of nowhere, of course, they evolve from earlier use of models in tombs. This appears to begin around the same time as the unification of Egypt, so some 1000 years before the Middle Kingdom. During the late Predynastic Period and the Early Dynastic Period there are some cases of replacement of large scale or expensive tomb goods with models. For instance some burials had full scale boats, but others had model ones. And one burial even had a full scale granary but several had model ones. During the Old Kingdom this practice was extended to smaller objects – for instance they might have model storage vessels or model tools. And in the later Old Kingdom limestone statues of servants also begin to show up – at first solely concerned with food production but then later expanding their repertoire of occupations to include other necessities of life.
It’s during the First Intermediate Period and early Middle Kingdom that the tomb models really come into their own. In contrast to the Old Kingdom servant statues these models are made of painted wood – which makes them much more perishable, even in the typically dry climate of Upper Egypt, so we’re lucky as many have survived as have! A typical elite burial of the period includes a set of these models, but the number and choice of scenes varies between tombs – presumably determined by the status of the deceased, the region and the exact time period. The most common are boats and models to do with food production – but other craft activities are depicted as well. The general idea is to provide all the industry required for a comfortable (food secure!) afterlife.
Boats are a little bit of a different category so I’m only going to touch on them briefly here. They have a more explicitly religious character: as the Osiris cult rose in prominence his primary cult centre at Abydos became a place of pilgrimage, and model boats in tombs from the First Intermediate Period onward generally symbolise eternal participation in pilgrimage to Abydos.
Other than boats the most common models are scenes of butchery, granaries, scenes of baking, scenes of brewing, and pairs of female servants carrying food offerings. As you can see this covers the first 3 or 4 of the standard offerings mentioned in the Offering Formula – bread, beer, ox and fowl (only present if that’s what the servants are carrying). So by including these models you are going to be well supplied in the afterlife.
Tomb models of this type (other than boats) have this period where they flourish, but then they rather abruptly die out in the reign of Senwosret III. His reign, as part of the 12th Dynasty, marks an inflection point in the history of Egyptian culture. Although we tend to think (primarily because of the influence of the 3rd Century BCE historian Manetho) of the Middle Kingdom as a single unit, subdivided into 3 dynasties, there’s also an argument to be made that it should be divided into two at the reign of Senwosret III. The early Middle Kingdom is closer to the First Intermediate Period in culture than to the later Middle Kingdom (and things like burial customs don’t seem to change when Montuhotep II reunites the country). Then Senwosret III oversees significant changes to the art style, religious ideas and political organisation of the country and the later Middle Kingdom begins – and the necessity for (or desire for) dioramic models in tombs is one of the things that changes.
But why use models? It seems perhaps a little childish to the modern eye – there’s something of the doll’s house to them, a toy for a child to play with. And it’s true that it can be hard to identify which objects from Ancient Egypt are toys and which are models with religious or magical significance (and sometimes the answer may be “both”!). The context of the find can give clues (if it’s known), for instance models such as these ones I’m talking about are found in the graves of adults so we probably need to put aside assumptions about childishness and look for other explanations. The key to understanding this are the Ancient Egyptian beliefs about the reality of symbols in a magical sense – the written or spoken name of thing, a painting or carving of a thing, or a model of a thing are magically the same as the thing itself. So if you have written on your tomb walls your request for bread and beer, then in the afterlife you will magically have bread and beer. If you have carved scenes with loaves of bread and jars of beer, then you will magically have bread and beer in your afterlife. And if you have a model granary, a model bakery and a model brewery, then in the afterlife they will magically exist and produce an endless supply of bread and beer.
So these models are in a magical sense the real things they represent. And this then answers the question of “why models?” – models are more practical than the object they represent. In much earlier times kings were buried with the actual objects – including servants in some cases – but this is expensive in terms of resources (even leaving aside the ethics of killing your bread bakers!!), and in terms of the space required inside the tomb complex. Models are a cheaper and more efficient way of taking it with you when you went. They’re also much less attractive to tomb robbers – yes, magically this stable in the photo is real and has real cows in it, but in this world you can’t eat the beef they magically produce!
The models are, of course, fascinating to anyone who’s interested in learning about Ancient Egyptian culture. They give us the obvious information about how bread was made, beer was brewed and so on. And also things like how Egyptian buildings were laid out, even the very fact they kept their cattle in stables! As well as these insights into material culture they also reinforce other evidence about what the Egyptians saw as the key necessities of life (like their emphasis on food security in the afterlife), and even give us information as to how their art style worked by letting us compare two dimensional and three dimensional representations of the same activities. A proper treasure trove despite not having the glitter of gold!
Ardagh, Philip. 1999. The Hieroglyphs Handbook: Teach Yourself Ancient Egyptian. Faber and Faber. Assmann, Jan. 2003. The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs. Translated by Andrew Jenkins. Harvard Univ. Press. David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books. Grajetzki, Wolfram. 2003. Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt: Life in Death for Rich and Poor. Duckworth Egyptology. Mertz, Barbara. 2008. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. William Morrow. Oppenheim, Adela, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto, eds. 2015. Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Quirke, Stephen. 2015. “Understantding Death: A Journey Between Worlds.” In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum. Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2010. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra. Bloomsbury. Yamamoto, Kei. 2015. “Comprehending Life: Community, Environment, and the Supernatural.” In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The temple at Karnak is a vast site – the biggest temple complex built, ever, anywhere. And when you visit it, it feels like that – overwhelmingly huge, and you only seem to have time to see a fraction of it no matter how many hours you are there. But even that isn’t the whole of the religious structures in the area: there’s more there than most tourist trips even tell you about. The bit that you get taken to is the main precinct, which is dedicated to Amun (and has all sorts of other temples inside it too, e.g. one to Khonsu, one to Ptah). But there are two more precincts – one to the north which is dedicated to Montu, and one to the south which is dedicated to Mut. The Mut precinct has only relatively recently been opened to tourists and I was lucky enough to visit in 2014 just a few months after its opening. There’s not much still standing at the site, it’s one of those places where you have to use your imagination to see what it once was. But once you do, it’s not just “another bit of Karnak” – it’s a fascinating site in its own right.
All three precincts at Karnak are dedicated to key gods in the Theban region. Montu was once the primary god at Thebes, and in the early Middle Kingdom he was the primary god for the state religion (in the era of the Montuhoteps). Amun, as I’m sure everyone knows, was the primary state god from the later Middle Kingdom onward (and even the Amarna Period is in a sense centred on Amun as it’s a reaction against him). Mut is Amun’s wife – Egyptian gods were often grouped into groups of three to form families: father, mother and child (normally a son). And when Amun was the primary god his triad or family were the most important triad – so Mut and Khonsu were also prominent gods in the pantheon. But Mut wasn’t only important because she was Amun’s wife – as a uraeus goddess and a Daughter of Re she was important in her own right. The separateness of her complex from that of her consort reflects this, and it’s not until the late 18th Dynasty that her relationship becomes the most important aspect of her. Before the time of Amenhotep III there were no images of Amun in her temple, just mentions of him by name. When the damage done by Akhenaten’s iconoclastic removal of the images of the Theban Triad was repaired (by later kings) Amun’s image was added to many scenes in the temple (including replacing Mut herself in some cases!).
As with Amun’s complex the temple of Mut does not stand in splendid isolation. Within the precinct walls there are several shrines, of which the primary one is her own temple. The complex faces north, towards the precinct of Amun along an avenue which is lined with sphinxes dating to the reign of Tutankhamun. Or at least, that’s the way they are now: ram-headed sphinxes with a statue of Tutankhamun cradled protectively between their front paws. But these statues started out life as human-headed sphinxes depicting Akhenaten and Nefertiti, and they once lined an eastern avenue towards Akhenaten’s temple of the Aten at Karnak. Tutankhamun had them re-carved as rams and his own image added, then re-dedicated them to Amun – Horemheb later usurped them and carved his own cartouches on to the pedestals.
The temple of Mut itself is also aligned in a north-south direction, with its entrance facing the compound entrance and the avenue of sphinxes. A large first pylon led to a narrow court, at the end of which was the second pylon. Behind this were the inner areas of the temple. The temple was surrounded on three sides (east, south and west) by an unusual curved sacred lake (normally they are rectangular). Its name is isheru, and Mut is referred to in this temple as “Mut of isheru” – the word derives from the name of a lion’s watering hole, which links it to the lioness form of Mut (and Sekhmet). There were two quays on the lake – one on the east and one on the west – which if you look at it now seems a bit silly as it’s quite some way from the Nile, but the course of the river once ran much much closer to the temples. And even once it had shifted away there were canals connecting these quays so that the sacred barque of Mut had direct access to the Nile allowing her to travel for festivals. These quays also have stairs leading into the water so that the priests could enter the water in order to purify themselves.
There are two other shrines still visible within the complex walls that are of a reasonable size. To the west of the sacred lake is a small temple built by Ramesses III – it’s a single room structure, again with its entrance facing north. The outer walls, as with many temples, are decorated with military scenes, some of which survive. And at the front of the temple stood two colossal statues of Ramesses III, which are now missing their heads. The other of these shrines is dedicated to a form of Khonsu called Khonsu the child, which is the form most associated with the Theban triad. This structure was mostly built from reused blocks from New Kingdom structures. Here the decoration that survives is appropriate to the nature of this god as a divine child of Amun – there are a number of birth and circumcision scenes, calling to mind the mythology of the Pharaoh also being divine child of Amun. At the back of the complex was a contra-temple that dates to much later in Egyptian history – it was built or extensively re-worked by Ptolemy II. Geophysical surveying of the precinct has also shown traces of other structures that no longer exist (and haven’t been excavated yet). There is a chapel positioned to the south of the shrine of Khonsu the Child on the same axis, as well as some sort of structural elements to the north of the Ramesses III temple.
Outside the entrance to the complex are two more structures – to the east is a temple of Amun-Kamutef (“Amun, Bull of His Mother”, the ithyphallic form of Amun), and to the west is a small barque shrine dating to the reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III . The barques containing the gods “rested” at this barque shrine and others whilst the procession of the Festival of Opet was moving between Karnak and Luxor – and decoration on the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut shows her burning incense in front of these shrines.
The temple of Mut as I’ve described it and as we see now (albeit in ruins) was primarily constructed by Amenhotep III, and provided with a plethora of statues of Sekhmet! As I discussed when talking about Sekhmet there are two main reasons put forward for why there were so many of these statues. One is that Sekhmet was increasingly merged with Mut, and so the temple of Mut was an appropriate place to worship Sekhmet in addition to her primary cult centre at Memphis. The other possibility is that there was an outbreak of plague during the reign of Amenhotep III so he was dedicating many statues to Sekhmet to seek her help against the sickness. There were later additions by kings such as Taharqo of the 25th Dynasty (who built a colonnade in front of the temple and renewed the sacred lake) and Nectanebo I of the 30th Dynasty.
But this was not the first structure on the site. The earliest known structure dates to the Middle Kingdom and is a mudbrick platform that once supported a Middle Kingdom temple. Although not much of this structure has been excavated it’s known that it was oriented on the same axis as the currently standing temple. In the mudbrick platform the excavators found a fragment of relief that has a partial text on it – with part of the name of one of the Senwosrets (all three of whom were kings of the 12th Dynasty), and also part of the word isheru. So this means that a temple dedicated to Mut of isheru was on the site from at least the 12th Dynasty onward.
At that point the landscape surrounding the Precinct of Mut and the Amun Precinct was very different to what we see today. As I alluded to above, the course of the Nile has significantly altered over the millennia. It’s not just that it shifts from side to side exposing or covering different parts of the land, it also creates land. Islands get formed due to build up of silt during the inundation, and the main complex at Karnak and the Precinct of Mut were once on separate islands. This state of affairs lasted until the early New Kingdom – it was only in the reign of Hatshepsut that the land between the two structures (and the mainland) became dry for most of the year. So this explains the unusual shape of the isheru lake – this is remnant of the water that once flowed around the back of the island. It also explains why the processional ways aren’t developed until the New Kingdom – there wasn’t land there before to put sphinx lined avenues on! And may well be why the relationship between Amun and Mut gets less distant during the New Kingdom – theology influenced by the fact that they were no longer on physically separate pieces of land.
At the back of the precinct, to the south of the isheru there is quite a large area that is now open space. In the Second Intermediate Period this was a domestic space across the river from the temple, with lots of houses. And rather unusually also a large number of burials in amongst the houses – generally burials aren’t in the same place as settlements, except sometimes those of infants. There are a lot of unanswered questions about these burials, but one suggestion is that some sort of illness that swept through the town and for some reason people were buried in situ rather than being taken to the usual burial ground. One burial from the late Second Intermediate Period has a more obvious interpretation – a rather gruesome one. The position he was found in suggests that his feet were tied to his elbows behind his back, and then he was tied to a stake in the ground. He was then executed by having his neck broken, and covered over where he lay without being properly interred in any fashion. He might have been of Near Eastern origin, so was possibly a Hyksos prisoner from the conflict at the beginning of the New Kingdom. A physical reminder that the bound prisoners in Egyptian iconography aren’t just art, they’re a representation of something that was done. Ancient Egypt was not the New Age paradise of social harmony that some people would have you believe, it was also a place where brutal punishments like this took place.
In the early New Kingdom the rear wall of the complex enclosed much less space than the current precinct, just outside the lake boundaries on the east, west and south. So the settlement I discussed above was outside these boundaries, but the parts near the south wall become re-purposed as an industrial area for the temple in the 18th Dynasty. These facilities include granaries, grain processing areas, bakeries and breweries to serve the temple. All watched over by an overseer sitting in a raised kiosk – built directly on top of the executed prisoner!
This industrial area serviced the new stone-built temple constructed during the reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. A lot of the stone of this temple has been found under the Amenhotep III temple acting as foundations. Some of the blocks that have been found were decorated, and because temple decoration tends to follow a formula more can be figured out about the structure than you’d expect for “just” a collection of blocks. One part of this iteration of the temple was large room on the western side called the “Hall of Drunkenness”, which was probably built on the site of an earlier hall as the inscriptions talk about Hatshepsut building it “anew”. It was the site of a form of worship that was unique to the goddesses who were referred to as the Daughter of Re. These were mass participation festivals, where the worshippers drank until they were drunk and fell asleep, before being woken up by the arrival of the statue of the goddess to communicate with them accompanied by drums to communicate with them. To help with the sleep and the communication the drink was laced with soporific and hallucinogenic herbs. It might also be coloured red in a reference to the myth where Sekhmet’s destructive fury is brought to an end by tricking her into drinking beer by making it look like blood. Given that Egyptian society generally frowned on public over-indulgence (judging by the wisdom literature) these festivals remind me a bit of the Lord of Misrule appointed at Christmas time in Tudor England to rule over a festival where the strict hierarchy of society was turned upside down. A release valve that kept society ticking along properly the rest of the time, as well as a means of communicating with the goddess in this case.
So I hope I’ve been convincing – not just “another bit of Karnak”, not just “where they found the Sekhmet statues” but a genuinely interesting site in its own right. I wish I’d known all this before I visited it myself!
Blyth, Elizabeth. 2006. Karnak: Evolution of a Temple. New York, NY: Routledge. Bryan, Betsy M. 2020a. “Introduction & Excavation.” presented at the Investigating the Temple of Mut Mini Course, April 29. ———. 2020b. “Interpreting the Ancient New Kingdom Temple and the Rituals of the Goddess Mut.” presented at the Investigating the Temple of Mut Mini Course, May 20. Bryan, Betsy M., and Salima Ikram. 2020. “Bioarchaeology & Conservation.” presented at the Investigating the Temple of Mut Mini Course, May 13. Bryan, Betsy M., Kristian Strutt, and David Anderson. 2020. “Unexpected Discovery & Geophysical Survey.” presented at the Investigating the Temple of Mut Mini Course, May 6. Dodson, Aidan. 2020. “Sethy I – King of Egypt.” presented to the Essex Egyptology Group, June 7, see my writeup on my other blog. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. Rev. and expanded ed. British Museum. Teeter, Emily. 2011. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge University Press. Weeks, Kent R. 2005. The Illustrated Guide to Luxor Tombs, Temples, and Museums. American Univ. in Cairo Press. Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson. ———. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
Before I start to talk about Egyptian scripts I want to share one of my pet peeves – “language” and “script” are not synonyms! As an illustration look at these three sentences:
I write J’écris Ich schreibe
They are in three different languages (and all translate to the same meaning), but are all written in the same script – the Latin alphabet. But look at these three:
我寫 我写 Wǒ xiě
These three are in the same language – if you were to read them out loud you’d make the same vocalisations (and they all have the same meaning as the first three). But they are in three different scripts, two variants of Chinese characters (Traditional and Simplified) and the Latin alphabet.
Confusion of the two concepts is guaranteed to make me grind my teeth, hence explaining the distinction at length here!1
Having got that off my chest, let’s begin to look at how to write like an Egyptian. The Egyptian language was written in several different scripts over the course of time from the first writing in the Predynastic Period through to the modern day. The language itself changed over that period, of course – the modern version survives as the liturgical language of the Coptic Church (as a dead language, not anyone’s native tongue). And presumably it would be as incomprehensible to a Predynastic Egyptian as a Proto-Indo-European speaker would be to a modern speaker of English (or any of the other Indo-European languages).
The various scripts do not simply change as the language changes, nor are they divided into entirely mutually exclusive time periods or entirely mutually exclusive functions – their use overlaps and changes with time. There are four main scripts: hieroglyphs, hieratic, demotic and Coptic; plus a couple of variants: cursive hieroglyphs and abnormal hieratic. The names of these that we use today are not the Egyptian names – they instead derive from the Greek names for them which were in general not used until after Alexander’s conquest of Egypt in 332 BCE.2 Hieroglyphs are “sacred carved [letters]” (derived from the original Egyptian name which translates as “the god’s speech”), whereas hieratic means “sacred” or “priestly”. Demotic means “popular [script]” or “[script] in common use” and the Egyptian name was sekh shat, which means “writing for documents”. Coptic refers to the Christian period Egyptians – the Egyptian church is still called the Coptic Church today – and this script is used to write the Coptic phase of the language.
The only one of these scripts to write down the vowels of the words is the Coptic script, so we actually don’t know how the Egyptians pronounced their language for sure. Some clues can be found by extrapolating back from the Coptic script, but as I said the language has changed over the millennia and so the vowels used in the 3rd Century CE may not bear any resemblance to those used in the 3rd Century BCE let alone the 30th Century BCE! Other clues can be found in Egyptian names or other words that have been written in cuneiform or the Greek alphabet. It can be difficult to read unpronounceable groups of consonants so Egyptologists have conventions that are used to let us vocalise the words – useful, but not to be confused with an accurate rendition of the language. These conventions replace the letters ʿ and ꜣ with “a” and inserting the vowel “e” where necessary to make the consonants pronounceable.
The hieroglyphic script was the first to be developed and hieroglyphs were in use from before 3200 BCE, perhaps as early as 3500 BCE, and were used until the late 4th Century CE. At first the texts weren’t very long – some of the earliest writing is found at Abydos, in the Predynastic Period cemetery there, and consists of small ivory labels with numbers, commodities and possibly place names on them. They and other early writings are recognisable hieroglyphs and coherent words & phrases, but no truly continuous texts survive from periods before the Old Kingdom. Even though the hieroglyphic script was used until the Roman Period it was only ever used to write Old Egyptian and Middle Egyptian. Once the spoken language developed into Late Egyptian (around the time of the Second Intermediate Period) the hieroglyphic texts no longer represented the language as it was spoken, and this only became more true with time. In addition spellings of words hadn’t always been updated from Old Egyptian to Middle Egyptian, so the texts had always lagged behind the spoken language.
The hieroglyphic script may be written horizontally in either direction, or vertically from top to bottom (and either right to left or left to right within the column). Most texts are written to be read from right to left, but the aesthetic aspects of the text were also important – a symmetrical pair of inscriptions would often be written facing each other in opposite orientations, and a text will have its signs facing in the same direction as the faces in an accompanying image. If you are faced with some horizontal hieroglyphic text the way to tell which way it’s to be read is to look for the hieroglyphs that have heads – they always look towards the front of the line. So as you read along you meet each sign’s eyes on the way past (a little fanciful I know, but I find that visual image a helpful mnemonic). Every once in a while a text is an exception to this rule – this is called “retrograde” writing, and is both rare and almost exclusively in religious texts.
Aesthetic considerations also came into play when organising the signs into groups to make up individual words. Although there was no punctuation nor space between the words in the script the signs of a word were generally organised into squares or rectangles. Within each block they were intended to read from beginning to end and from top to bottom. There are three basic shapes of sign – tall, flat and small. Generally tall signs stood alone and the other two types were stacked into groups, but if a tall sign needed to be written within a block its size would be reduced to fit it above or below a flat sign. Flat and small signs on their own would be centred on the line.
The hieroglyphic script and its direct derivatives fall into the category of scripts that Andrew Robinson calls “logoconsonantal” – there are three broad categories of signs: phonograms (representing a sound, always a consonant), logograms or ideograms (representing a word or concept, and often followed by a single stroke to indicate they’re an ideogram) and determinatives. These last are like tags on a the end of a word that give you context for the word itself – is it a name? a place? a material? etc. They are not pronounced, and are part of the script not part of the language. They also clue you in that the signs in the word itself are to be read as phonograms not logograms (and indicate the end of a word). The phonograms come in a variety of sorts – they might be a single consonant like w, or a pair of consonants like pr or a triplet like nfr. Altogether there are about 6000 known signs, but a lot of these were introduced during the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods. Earlier, in the Pharaonic Period, there are fewer than 1000 signs known and only a core group of these were in routine use. In theory all signs could be used as any of the three types, but in practice most were not. One example of a sign that was used in all three ways is the sign for house, 𓉐, which could be the ideogram/logogram for “house”, the phonogram for pr or the determinative for words to do with buildings.
As well as the aesthetic considerations there were other quirks to spelling in hieroglyphs that need to be borne in mind if you’re trying to read this script. One of these quirks is the idea of honorific transposition – if the name (or sometimes phrase) you’re writing contains the name of a god or a king then you need to write that first regardless of where it’s pronounced. For instance Tutankhamun is generally written imn-twt-ʾnḫ (amun-tut-ankh). Another quirk is the use of phonetic complements – if the spelling of a word uses a sign for a pair or a triplet of consonants as described above, then this sign is often followed by a single consonant sign repeating the last one or two of the consonants. These phonetic complements are optional and they shouldn’t be pronounced. Like determinatives they provide a useful gloss for how you’re supposed to read the signs.
The individual signs of the hieroglyphic script are essentially pictures that follow Egyptian artistic conventions. In the case of logograms and determinatives the picture may illustrate the meaning of the sign. For phonograms there is often some link, but it’s not as direct – generally they employ the rebus principle. This is where you use a picture of a concrete object to represent the sound of the word for that object – an English example is to use a drawing of a bee 🐝 to represent the syllable “be”. Because the signs are pictorial they can be used in art, and as art. This means that you can often read Egyptian art as well as aesthetically appreciate it. And as I discussed above, the reverse is also true: a hieroglyphic text will be laid out in a way that is aesthetically pleasing as well as conveys the right meaning.
Cursive hieroglyphs are a style of handwritten hieroglyphs, and shouldn’t be confused with the hieratic script. They are hieroglyphs pared down to the essentials but still recognisably hieroglyphs and were used to write religious texts such as the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead. As a result they are sometimes referred to as “Book of the Dead hieroglyphs”. As they’re really just a sort of hieroglyphic script the orientation of the text varies just like that of the monumental hieroglyphs, but they are mostly likely to be written in columns facing to the right.
Hieratic was developed from the hieroglyphic script in the Early Dynastic Period, and was written in ink and primarily on papyri and ostraca (fragments of pottery or stone). The relationship between hieratic and hieroglyphs is thus the same as the relationship between our own printed texts and handwritten texts. Each hieratic sign has a hieroglyphic equivalent, even if that’s not always entirely obvious when you look at the texts. It wasn’t for monumental inscriptions, instead it was used for other more everyday texts – business documents and literary texts. There were different styles to the script when used in different contexts. As with hieroglyphs it was still in use into the Roman period, and it had a slightly larger scope when it came to writing the different forms of the language. As well as Old and Middle Egyptian it was also used to write Late Egyptian, and is pretty much the only script that was used to write that phase of the language.
The preferred orientation of hieratic texts changed over time. Until the 11th Dynasty they were usually written in columns read from top to bottom and right to left. After that hieratic was written horizontally (except for some religious documents). Unlike hieroglyphs hieratic is always written right to left – aesthetics is less of a concern here, this is a practical script. Having said that the amount of weight given to aesthetics did vary – one style of hieratic is referred to as a “literary” hand and it was quite carefully written with an intent to look good. But at the other end of the spectrum was a rapidly written “business” hand.
Hieratic also had a variant script – which we call abnormal hieratic, which seems an overly judgemental name to me! It was even more cursive than hieratic and was used to write business texts in the Third Intermediate Period, mostly in Upper Egypt as it was the direct descendent of the script used at Deir el Medina. In a sense abnormal hieratic was a competitor for another script that developed during the Third Intermediate Period: demotic. The lack of unity in the country during this period let these two scripts both develop from hieratic and diverge, along with the legal systems they were being used to write – and then when the 26th Dynasty properly re-unified the country from their base in the northern Delta region it was the demotic script that the bureaucracy standardised. This is probably why we’ve given abnormal hieratic such a dismissive name, it wasn’t the script that “won” and survived to get a proper name of its own.
Even though the ultimate ancestor of demotic script is the hieroglyphic script the signs are so far from their original forms that it’s not generally possible to recognise them. The underlying language had also developed into a new phase during this period which we also called demotic, and so demotic the script is the only script used to write demotic the language phase.
As I said demotic was used to write business documents initially. Over time its scope expanded and it came to be used for religious, scientific and literary texts as well – and even monumental inscriptions like the one on the Rosetta Stone. Even though hieratic was still used for some documents, it became less common and was gradually replaced by demotic. During the Ptolemaic Period the bureaucracy of the country was bilingual and demotic was the script used for official documents alongside the Greek alphabet for the Greek language texts. After the Romans took over and integrated Egypt into their empire this bilingual bureaucracy began to vanish and over time demotic stopped being used in the administration of the country. It did still survive longer than the other Pharaonic Egyptian scripts as it was being used into the 5th Century CE.
The last of the main scripts developed in the 3rd Century CE from the Greek alphabet, with 6 added demotic signs for sounds the Greek alphabet couldn’t represent. This is the Coptic script, and it’s still used by the Coptic Church today (to write the Coptic language, which is the descendent of Egyptian albeit a dead language these days). Its adoption wasn’t an organic & natural one – in fact it’s not even that good a way to write Egyptian (or Coptic). Instead it was driven by religious feeling – the older scripts were inextricably linked to the older religion and the older customs, so the newly Christian Egypt wanted to dissociate itself from those ideas. The first known texts date to the 3rd Century CE, and by the 5th Century CE it was the only way to write Egyptian.
So that’s how the Egyptians wrote. Even though the hieroglyphs get almost all the attention now – being big, bold, and beautiful – the more practical scripts were used much more often. And they bring us much closer to the reality of Egyptians, as they were used to write the language they actually spoke, and did business in.
1It’s more complicated than that, of course, isn’t it always? Technically the scripts used to write English, French and German aren’t entirely identical albeit all being variants of the Latin script. And it’s also possible to read the Chinese characters in the different Chinese languages in which case the vocalisation of the characters changes (and no longer matches the romanisation). So scripts are not entirely divorced from the language that they are used to write, however that doesn’t mean you get to use the terms interchangeably!!↩︎
2Even the name we use for the Christian era Egyptians (and their church and language) “Coptic” is also derived from the Greek Αίγυπτος (Aigyptos), via the Arabic قبطيّ (qubti). Which means that if you say “Coptic Egyptians” you’re actually saying “Egyptian Egyptians”.↩︎
Allen, James P. 2014. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. 3rd ed. Cambridge Univ. Press. Ardagh, Philip. 1999. The Hieroglyphs Handbook: Teach Yourself Ancient Egyptian. Faber and Faber. Collier, Mark, and Bill Manley. 1998. How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Step-by-Step Guide to Teach Yourself. British Museum Press. Donker van Heel, Koen. 2019. “Papyrus BM EA 87512: Always Look on the Bright Side of Wife?” presented at the Glanville Lecture 2019, Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, February 8. Robinson, Andrew. 2009. Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts. Thames & Hudson. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum. Spencer, Neal. 2003. Book of Egyptian Hieroglphs. British Museum Press. Strudwick, Helen. 2020. “The Book of the Dead of Ramose: A Hidden Gem in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.” presented at the EES Virtual Study Day “Collections from Home: Museum Favourites”, June 13. Strudwick, Nigel. 2010. The Hieroglyph Detective: Adventures in Decrypting the Sacred Language of the Ancient Egyptians. Duncan Baird.
Sekhmet is a goddess we’ve all seen, I’m sure. As with shabtis pretty much every museum that has an Egyptian collection has a statue of Sekhmet, often more than one. The British Museum even has a dozen or so lined up in the basement as they don’t have space in their galleries to display them all! All these statues have come from either Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple or the Temple of Mut at Karnak, and I’ll touch on why there were so many of them later in the article.
Sekhmet was generally represented as a woman with the head of a lioness. She normally wears a long wig and a sun disk with a uraeus as her headdress. In profile (in 2D art) this is the same as the headdress of Re-Horakhty – although clearly they’re otherwise pretty easy to tell apart! Her long dress is often red in colour – perhaps symbolising Lower Egypt or perhaps her warlike nature (red being the colour of blood after all). The dress may have a rosette over each nipple, which may be a way of representing a lion’s fur patterns or perhaps a star in the Leo constellation (associated with her). She often carries a long papyrus sceptre symbolising Lower Egypt.
Sekhmet’s name means “she who is powerful” and she is the personification of the aggressive side of many feminine deities. This doesn’t just mean that she is referenced when talking about their aggression, in the mythology these goddesses will become Sekhmet when they become enraged and then return to their normal form once they have been appeased. She also had various epithets reflecting her different roles, which were not limited to feminine aggression. Some examples are “Smiter of the Nubians” as a military patroness, “Mistress of Life” as a healing deity and “Mistress of Red Linen” which references her red dress.
Egyptian gods are often arranged into triads or families, worshipped together in a temple complex in a particular town. Sekhmet was part of one of the more important triads – the Memphite Triad, which consisted of Ptah, herself and Nefertem. Originally Sekhmet and Ptah were a pair, with their child Nefertem being added later. She was also regarded as the consort of Sokar, because Sokar and Ptah were to some extent merged together before even the Old Kingdom period.
She is one of a cluster of goddesses who are all identified as the Daughter of Re or the Eye of Re. The boundaries between the edges of what counts as one deity or another seem pretty fluid in Egyptian thought – they are in general a culture more comfortable with fuzzy boundaries and overlapping categories than we are. Amongst the deities she’s linked with are Mut, Hathor, Isis, Mehit, Pakhet and Bastet. Her connection with Mut was particularly strong during the New Kingdom when the Theban Triad of Amun, Mut and Khonsu had become the most prominent gods. This is one explanation for why Amenhotep III commissioned so many Sekhmet statues for the Temple of Mut – the two goddess were regarded almost as a single deity in some times and places. If the image of Sekhmet you are looking at is wearing the Double Crown then this is generally sign that she is Mut & Sekhmet fused.
Sekhmet was also linked to Wadjet, and to the uraeus that the protects the king. This link with kingship also shows up in the Pyramid Texts where she is twice said to have conceived the king, spells PT262 and PT2206. This lends her protection of the king a motherly aspect, which seems particularly relevant to her later link with Mut in the New Kingdom (as Mut was a mother goddess). Her link to the king was not solely motherly and protective, however. She was also invoked as a military patroness, as I mentioned above. Sekhmet was believed to breath fire against her enemies, and the desert winds (which were hot rather than cooling) were thought of as her breath. Pulling together these concepts of motherly protection of the king with aggressive deity waging war with or on behalf of the king is a story about Isis – when she was bringing up the infant Horus and needing to protect him and herself against Seth she became Sekhmet and breathed fire on the attackers that Seth had sent.
And in her role as a plague goddess, which I’ll come to in a moment, she was invoked to describe the king’s power in battle – in the story of Sinuhe it says that the fear of the king overran foreign lands like Sekhmet in a time of pestilence – which conjures up a very powerful image of confusion, suffering and death. Powerful indeed is the king who can cause that level of fear!
Aggression can be protective, but aggression can also be turned against humanity. A whole class of demons in Egyptian thought were referred to as “Messengers of Sekhmet” or “Slaughterers of Sekhmet”, and one role of these demons was to bring plague & pestilence for Sekhmet’s role as a plague goddess. A sick person might also be referred to as having been shot by the “Seven Arrows of Sekhmet”. This is another possible reason for the over 700 statues of Sekhmet that Amenhotep III commissioned – if there was an outbreak of plague during his reign then Sekhmet was the goddess to propitiate. She was regarded as the patron deity of doctors, and her priests were involved in medicine too – perhaps with more of an emphasis on what we would call the magical side of medicine, although that’s not clear. It is suggestive, however, that another possible offspring for Sekhmet was Heka who was the personification of magic. There was even a formal rite of “appeasing Sekhmet” that should be performed in a time of an epidemic – maybe we should consider resurrecting that now!
Sekhmet also shows up in some conceptions of the netherworld – in the Amduat (a royal book of the afterlife) she appears in Hour 10 of the sun god Re’s journey through the night. I read two different descriptions of this hour when I was writing this article – both agreed that Sekhmet and Thoth together heal the Eye of Horus during this hour, showing Sekhmet in her benign aspect. Joyce Tyldesley also described part of this hour as involving eight aspects of Sekhmet punishing the damned before their bodies were destroyed by Horus – showing the goddess’s aggressive side as well.
And of course the most well-known story involving Sekhmet is the tale of her involvement in the destruction of mankind – an Egyptian equivalent of the flood myth, only in this case the destruction is via an angry goddess rather than via floods (which were benevolent in the Egyptian mind). I’ve re-told that story earlier on this blog: And She Blew Through the Towns Like the Hot Desert Wind.
Unsurprisingly for such a powerful goddess, with such a potentially devastating effect on people’s every day lives she had several cult centres across Egypt . But her primary one was in Memphis, where as I said she was part of the local (and nationally important) triad. She’s attested from at least the 5th Dynasty in reliefs at Abusir and more generally known to’ve been worshipped in the Old Kingdom. Her cult continues throughout the rest of the Pharaonic period, well into Graeco-Roman times.
She was also invoked in the popular religion of the people (which was not always the case for the grand state deities). There were many spells and charms to help avoid attracting the wrath of Sekhmet. The end of the year was a particularly dangerous time, and so there was a spell (“The Book of the Last Day of the Year”) to be recited over a piece of cloth you then wore protectively around the neck. And gifts of amulets of Sekhmet were exchanged on New Year’s Day itself to propitiate her.
So despite the fact that the only story we tell about her is focused on destruction and drunkenness, Sekhmet was a complex and all pervading goddess. She was involved in the esoteric mysteries of kingship, she was the personification of rage and of destructive forces, and was the goddess to whom one turned when one was sick. Truly she was the powerful one.
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