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.
Allen, James P. 2014. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. 3rd ed., rev. and reorg., with a new analysis of the verbal system. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. London ; New York: Penguin Books. Hornung, Erik. 1982. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press. ———. 1999. The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife. Translated by David Lorton. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press. Shaw, Garry J. 2014. The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends. New York, New York: Thames & Hudson. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. Rev. and expanded ed. London: British Museum. Teeter, Emily. 2011. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press. Tyldesley, Joyce. 2010. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt. London, England: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books. Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson. ———. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson.
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With the centenary coming up in a couple of years, and the exhibition of his burial goods touring (for the last time! or so they tell us), Tutankhamun’s tomb is a rather topical subject. It’s easy when you think about it, and when you visit the exhibition, to concentrate on the bling – everywhere the glint of gold, after all. But these objects aren’t just pieces of treasure, they also tell us about the rich symbolic culture of Ancient Egypt and how the people of that place lived out their lives. So today I’m going to talk about one of my favourite items from his tomb – the fan handle decorated with scenes of Tutankhamun out hunting ostriches – and talk not just about the beauty of the object, but how it fits into the culture it came from.
Tutankhamun was buried within several coffins and shrines that practically filled the room they were in – a veritable Russian doll of an assemblage. There were three nested coffins around the body, which sat within a granite sarcophagus. Surrounding that were four gilded wooden shrines – giant bottomless boxes. Objects had been laid between the layers of this assemblage, and between the third and fourth shrines (counting from the outermost in) there were ceremonial bows and arrows as well as two spectacular fans. The one I’m talking about today (Carter Object 242, Cairo Museum JE62001, or GEM 284) is made of gilded wood, and was found with a mass of insect eaten ostrich feathers which had clearly once been attached to the business end of the fan. Enough remained to see that they had been alternating white & brown feathers, which must’ve been quite a striking look. It was found at the western end of the shrine – the same end as Tutankhamun’s head beneath its many layers. It was in pretty good nick when it was found, other than the feathers – Carter talks on the object card for it about having to clean it with warm water and ammonia, and re-attach some of the sheet gold which was loose but it doesn’t sound like there was any full-on restoration work going on.
This fan has some rather fine decoration on it. At the head end of it, where the feathers were attached are two scenes that, as I mentioned, show Tutankhamun going ostrich hunting. On the front side you see the king in his chariot aiming an arrow at two ostriches running in front of the chariot, with a hunting dog running alongside him and all of them surrounded by desert plants. Behind the king is an ankh carrying a fan just like this one that we are looking at. The inscription over the top of the scene says “the good god, Nebkheperure, given life like Re forever” (Nebkheperure is one of Tutankhamun’s names) and in front of the king’s face is “Lord of Might”.
On the reverse side (pictured) is my favourite of the two scenes, and why I picked out this object to talk about – it’s the aftermath of the hunt. Tutankhamun is returning triumphant, with servants preceding him carrying his defeated quarry and the fantastic detail of the ostrich wing feathers which will be used to make this very fan carried under the king’s arms. I can’t quite articulate why I like it so much – I think it’s the proud teenager returning home to say “Look, I did this!” aspect of it. It has a much longer inscription which tells us all about how wonderful a hunter the king is.
Down the staff there is an inscription as well – it tells us that this is a real event that is being pictured. This commemorates a hunt that Tutankhamun went on in the Eastern Desert at Heliopolis, where he killed the ostriches that provided the feathers that were an integral part of this fan.
Ostriches provided resources for the Ancient Egyptians, so there were eminently practical reasons to hunt them – not just feathers for fans (or other purposes) as seen on this fan handle either. Ostriches are, of course, made of meat and also a single ostrich egg could apparently feed eight people! And after eating the egg the shell could be used to make beads or other decorative pieces. For most of Egyptian history they are probably all wild, as they only appear in art in hunting scenes or as tribute. But they had been domesticated by the Ptolemaic Period.
As well as being useful for practical purposes, ostrich feathers had symbolic resonance. The symbol of maat was a single ostrich feather and this was also the headdress that the god Shu wore (the hieroglyph shaped like a feather was part of spelling his name). And the atef crown that Osiris wears is the white crown of Upper Egypt flanked by ostrich plumes. A very kingly collection of associations for these feathers that Tutankhamun was so proudly bringing home for his fan.
The activity of hunting has two very distinct connotations in modern Western culture – on the one hand there is hunting for food, this is the image conjured up by the term “hunter-gatherers”. By the Pharaonic period this wasn’t a particularly important aspect of Egyptian life and it doesn’t seem to me that this is what Tutankhamun was engaged in! And on the other hand it is “the sport of kings” (one of the uses of that term anyway), this is perhaps the first interpretation to spring to the mind of a modern Brit like me – an image of posh people wearing fancy clothes riding to hunt an animal for fun (probably a fox, with dogs). And this seems much more the sort of activity we are thinking about here – particularly once you add hunting lodges into your mental picture (like a building on the Giza plateau which may be where Tutankhamun stayed when he was hunting near Memphis). Now it’s very much an image of the young aristocrat at play.
Yet as is my theme today – there’s more to this and the other depictions of hunting on Tutankhamun’s burial goods than that. It may be practical (to at least some extent) and a literal depiction of the king at his leisure, but it’s also symbolic – Egyptian art is very rarely, if at all, a straightforward depiction of something from the real world. The first of these symbolic layers is that showing the king engaging in a pursuit like hunting shows him to be a physically strong and capable man – important attributes for a king. And there is a second more fundamental layer of symbolism. These hunting scenes are often mirrored with scenes of warfare – not in the case of this ostrich hunt fan, but for instance on the hunting box (Carter Object 21) one side of the box has the king on his horse trampling wild beasts and on the opposite side the king is on his horse trampling Nubians. And in both warfare and hunting scenes the quarry or enemies are there as avatars of chaos – this is not just a physically strong king being shown at war and at play, this is the king upholding maat and playing his essential part in keeping the universe the way it ought to be.
Moving on now to think about the object itself, the word “fan” has quite probably got all the wrong connotations for you – certainly it does for me. It conjures up simpering 18th Century CE ladies fluttering little hand held fans and hiding behind them or sending messages with how they held them. Whereas this fan is of a quite different type and when Carter found it he had a quite different image conjured up by the object. In the Catholic Church (until Vatican II) and the Orthodox Church even now there are large fans called “flabella” (singular “flabellum”) which are carried in procession behind the Pope or other senior priest of the church in question, or held beside the altar during the Eucharist. These are of a similar type to this fan I’m talking about in this article, and seem to’ve been used in a similar way.
This is not just extrapolation from a similar style – the fans are seen in Egyptian art throughout Ancient Egyptian history (from at least the time of the Scorpion Macehead in the Predynastic Period) being used in just this fashion. Given the climate of Egypt they had a practical use – for shading the king and for generating a cooling breeze, so that he was never troubled by the heat of the sun. and carrying a fan for the king wasn’t necessarily a low status job – the title “Fan Bearer on the Right Side of the King” (tjay-khu her imenty-nisut) was a high status one held by important members of the Egyptian court. Perhaps a bit like “Groom of the Stool” in medieval and early modern England – a rather menial job, but one that gives you unparalleled access to the king, so a prestigious title.
Of course as with hunting scenes the fan seen depicted on the front side of this fan handle is not just literal but is also there for more than one symbolic reason. It is being carried by an ankh hieroglyph and so it symbolises the breath of life being wafted over the king as he hunts the ostriches. Fans were also linked to the idea of “blowing forth” the waters of the Nile in the inundation, so are linked to fertility and fecundity. The fan’s role in providing shade was also symbolic – a fan might represent one of the parts of a person, the shadow, which I find suggestive given where this fan was found, within the shrines surrounding Tutankhamun’s body. And also the concepts of shade and of protection are linked in the Egyptian mind (and both are connotations of the Egyptian word for shadow, shwt) so depicting the king in the shade of a fan means that the king is under protection. So in that one symbol (and indeed in this one object) are bound up notions of protecting the king and giving him life and fertility, as well as symbolising an integral part of his person.
Hopefully this has been a convincing demonstration that the items in Tutankhamun’s tomb are not just pretty faces – bling and toys for the wealthiest man of his time. They were also deeply symbolic for the people of the time, and help us to understand the culture he lived in. And I’m pretty sure I’ve only scratched the surface! This object is also a demonstration of how one should, I think, always approach Egyptian culture looking for the “and” – what else could this mean or be?
Carter, Howard. 1972. The Tomb of Tutankamen. Book Club Associates. Dodson, Aidan. 2010. “The Monarchy.” In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson. Routledge. Friedman, Renée. 2011. “Hierakonpolis.” In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press. Hawass, Zahi. 2018. Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh, the Centennial Celebration. IMG Exhibitions. Hawass, Zahi A. 2005. Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs. National Geographic Books. Hawass, Zahi A. 2007. King Tutankhamun: The Treasures of the Tomb. Thames & Hudson. Hoffman, Michael A. 1991. Egypt Before the Pharaohs: The Prehistoric Foundations of Egyptian Civilization. O’Mara. Mertz, Barbara. 2008. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. William Morrow. 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. Reeves, Nicholas. 1995. The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, the Tomb, the Royal Treasure. Thames and Hudson. Romer, John. 2013. From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid. A History of Ancient Egypt 1. Penguin. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum. The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. 2007. British Museum. “Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation.” Wilkinson, Richard H. 1994. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. Thames and Hudson. Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2001. Early Dynastic Egypt. Routledge.
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Hippopotami lived in the Nile at least until the time of the New Kingdom. At some point after that they vanish, but by then they are an integral part of Egyptian culture. They are integrated into the writing system – hieroglyph E25 in Gardiner’s list looks like a hippo, and has the sound “deb”. They feature in the tales of later Egyptians about their predecessors too – the Egyptian historian Manetho (who lived around the 3rd Century BCE) wrote that Narmer (the first king of a unified Egypt) was “carried off by a hippo and perished”! Of course this is almost certainly fiction – Joann Fletcher, in whose book I found this quote, says it might be true but I’m reminded far too much of the purported death of Romulus the founder of Rome. He’s supposed to’ve been swept up by a whirlwind and perished, body never to be found. So this feels like a death story that gets attached to semi-mythical kings to make them seem more mysterious.
The reality of the hippopotamus is that it was dangerous and destructive – in particular male hippos were regarded this way and thus associated with the god Seth. In fact the two most dangerous animals that the Egyptians faced in their environment were the crocodile and the hippopotamus, due to their size and strength. Both these animals could move (and attack) both in water and on land, so nowhere was safe from them. In the case of the hippopotamus they also trampled and ate the Egyptian’s crops (and some authors like Richard Wilkinson think that they were feared more for this than any aggression towards humans).
The Egyptians didn’t just let this dangerous beast roam about and destroy their food – there’s evidence for the hunting of hippos dating back to Prehistoric times. Early farmers who lived by the banks of the Faiyum around 5000-4000 BCE butchered hippos for food – a single hippo has as much meat as 5 cows or 50 sheep, so there’s quite a lot of good eating there, you could have a spectacular feast or feed a community for a while after a single hunt. Hippo bones also show up as a structural material in the north of the country at Merimda in the Delta, where hippo shin bones were used as door sills around 4800 BCE, as well as other bones being used as pillars to hold up house roofs. Hippo teeth were also used to make ivory objects from at least Predynastic times. (Technically the word “ivory” only refers to the material of elephant tusks, but in practice its use is broader and includes dentine from other large mammals such as the hippo.) It’s hard to tell which ivory objects were made from elephant tusks and which from hippo teeth, but the shape of the finished object can give some indications. For instance the shape of wands and clappers reflects the shape of the lower canines of hippopotami, whereas circular boxes are the shape of the hollow ends of elephant tusks.
As you’d expect for a creature that was so visible in the Ancient Egyptian landscape hippopotami are a common feature in art. Hippos feature on pots from at least the Predynastic Period onward often as herds or being hunted. Even in the earliest examples known of hippo hunting scenes one of the hippos will usually be shown being harpooned – Diana Craig Patch suggests that this may be intended as protective: invoking success in decorative art in order to ensure success in life. This art is not confined to pottery, even in the Predynastic Period – there is a painted cloth which was found in a grave at Gebelein that has a fragmentary hippo hunting scene on it. And there are figurines found from the Predynastic Period as well as later in the Early Dynastic Period where figurines are found in temple deposits including the well known Main Deposit at Hierakonpolis. There are also two known examples of larger limestone statues of hippos dating to the Early Dynastic Period, which may’ve been cult statues placed in shrines to be propitiated with offerings to ward off danger from hippopotami in daily life.
So far I’ve mostly talked about practical attitudes towards hippos until that last paragraph, but much of this art and much of Ancient Egyptian thinking about hippopotami would’ve had religious significance. Even tho in the modern world we think of religion as a separate domain to the rest of life we shouldn’t forget that in other cultures religion and the everyday are deeply intertwined. But I do want to first say that we need to be rather cautious about back-porting any meanings from a period where we have written texts to earlier art. Cultures in the past are no more a monolith than our own, and over time the meanings and symbolism of art motifs will inevitably change. Nonetheless even with that caveat we can see that there might be themes that begin during Predynastic times and last into later Egyptian times.
One of the themes that runs through Egyptian art involving hippos is that of control – for instance a bowl with a motif of hippos swimming in a circle can be seen as keeping the hippos under control and not allowing them to escape the bowl (or by extension their own natural place in the world). And the common scene in Old Kingdom nobles tombs of a hippo hunt is not just (or perhaps not at all) showing what might’ve happened in life, instead it’s about keeping control in the afterlife. Even the rather jolly-looking (to our eyes) blue faience figures of hippos from the Middle Kingdom like the one in my photo might be a manifestation of this theme. Richard Wilkinson suggests that the floral decorative motifs on these pieces are a magical method of keeping the hippo in its proper environment (other authors disagree, which I’ll come back to later).
And in Pharaonic Egypt hippo hunting scenes in a royal context had another extra layer of symbolism – not just general themes of imposing order on the chaos of a hippo but also the defeat of Seth by Horus and thus an important part of the religious iconography of kingship. There are hints that this may have its roots in a much earlier time – like a piece of Naqada I-II period art where the hippo hunter wears a bull’s tail. Now in Pharaonic Egypt a bull’s tail was only worn by the king, so one could interpret this as a king killing a hippo and thus an early precursor of the Horus defeating Seth symbolism … but there’s not enough evidence to be at all sure of that, we don’t even know the bull’s tail is an indication that this man is a king let alone the religious underpinnings of the image.
Indeed there’s still no evidence of a link between Seth and the hippo in the 1st Dynasty, even though there are pieces of evidence of royal hippo hunts having some greater significance than the purely practical. But later, the god and the animal are definitely linked. In the Contendings of Horus and Seth, which as a full story survives in a single copy from the 20th Dynasty (although the motifs and episodes from the story show up much earlier as well as later albeit not in a single coherent story), there are two episodes where Seth becomes a hippo – in both he is harpooned, once by Isis who lets him free when he pleads for his life (much to Horus’s disgust) and once by Horus, in an act which brings the contendings to their final conclusion with Horus gaining (at last!) his rightful throne & inheritance. This second episode is also illustrated on the walls of Edfu temple – a Ptolemaic structure – and there was a festival celebrated at this temple that re-enacted the killing (not, I think, with a real hippo – it’s a donkey that’s sacrificed).
So hippos in ancient Egypt were mad, bad and dangerous to know? Not exactly – as so often in Egyptian culture there were two sides to the idea of the hippo. Male hippos might be associated with Seth, but female hippos had a more benign symbolism and were associated with the goddess Taweret (amongst others). Taweret was a household deity who was a protector of women in childbirth. She was a composite creature – she has the body of a female hippo, with the breasts and full belly of a pregnant human, the legs & arms of a lion and the tail of a crocodile (or sometimes a whole crocodile sitting on her back). She stands on her hind legs, and often has one of her forepaws resting on a sa sign (which means protection) or an ankh (for life). She may also carry a knife, or fire, to fight off evil and those who mean the mother-to-be harm. Female hippos had this association with motherhood as they were thought of as being especially protective of their young. Just to be clear – this beneficial and more benign aspect to female hippos wasn’t because they were thought of as any less destructive than male hippos, it’s just that the destructive power was seen as being turned on those who meant one harm. Which is an interesting contrast to modern Western notions of motherhood which emphasise the nurturing rather more than the protective aspects … and the contrast between our culture’s patron saint of childbirth Saint Margaret (who escapes the belly of a dragon because of a miracle she doesn’t really play a part in) and the rather more proactive Taweret is quite striking!
The hippo may also be a more general fertility and regenerative symbol. This is the more common interpretation of the blue faience hippos like the one in my illustration – rather than a control motif. In this interpretation the vegetative decoration is about verdant new life and so in a funerary context (which it’s assumed these are from) it would be a symbol of rebirth into the afterlife. There’s also a hippo-headed bed, which was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, which may fall into this category of symbolising rebirth. Much earlier from the Predynastic Period there are some small hippo figurines which may be amulets – they have a small knob where they might be strung on a thong to wear on one’s person. If they are amulets then that implies a positive interpretation. And these figurines all have distended pregnant looking bellies (unlike other hippo representations of the time), which implies an association with fertility (perhaps even a proto-Taweret, but that’s a stretch).
Hippos therefore played a variety of roles in the symbolism and thinking of ancient Egyptians and you might think this would get confusing when interpreting any given instance. However in “Reading Egyptian Art” Richard Wilkinson suggests an easy way to tell them apart: in the majority of cases a hippo standing like a human is positive, one standing on all fours like a hippo is malevolent (most of the exceptions to this are in my last paragraph). Or, to re-work Orwell’s phrase: Two legs good, four legs bad!
Fletcher, Joann. The Story of Egypt. Hodder, 2016. Patch, Diana Craig. ‘Early Dynastic Art’. In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. New York : New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press, 2011. ———. ‘From Land to Landscape’. In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. New York : New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press, 2011. Romer, John. From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid. A History of Ancient Egypt 1. London: Penguin, 2013. ———. From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom. A History of Ancient Egypt 2. Penguin, 2016. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. Rev. and Expanded ed. London: British Museum, 2008. The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 2007. Tyldesley, Joyce. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt. London, England: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2010. Wilkinson, Richard H. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. 1. paperback ed. 1994. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994. ———. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003. Wilkinson, Toby A. H. Early Dynastic Egypt. London: Routledge, 2001.
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Menkaure is an odd combination of obscure and well known. He’s the builder of the third of the pyramids on the Giza plateau so we have a big monument to him and I’d imagine most people who know a little about Ancient Egypt know his name because of this. He was the penultimate king of the Fourth Dynasty in the Old Kingdom so he’s successor to Khafre (probably) and predecessor to Shepseskaf, reigning for two or three decades around about 2500 BCE – but really most “facts” about him turn out to be pretty nebulous once you start reading up on him.
Menkaure was perhaps the son of Khafre, and thus the grandson of Khufu – hence related to the builders of the other two pyramids at Giza. I say “perhaps” because nowhere is the relationship actually written down, the assumption hinges on his inheriting the throne when there were definitely sons of Khafre around who were in positions of power. And would be in a position to object if he was not a legitimate heir. We also assume it because the Egyptians went out of their way to present their kings as an unbroken line of father to son inheritance (despite all the evidence to the contrary in their long history) – so it’s a good default if you don’t have direct evidence otherwise, but it is an assumption. In fact some of the evidence to the contrary comes within the 4th Dynasty itself right around the time of Menkaure’s accession. There is an ephemeral king called Baka who was the son of Djedefre (who was a brother of Khafre who ruled before him) – he definitely seems to’ve ruled for a short time, but it’s not clear if he inherits from his father and thus precedes his uncle Khafre or if he rules briefly between Khafre and Menkaure.
Menkaure’s mother was probably a woman called Khamerernebty who is thought to be one of Khafre’s wives, backing up our assumptions about Menkaure being the son of Khafre. The evidence is fairly slim here, but she has an appropriate collection of titles: King’s Daughter of His Body, Great of Sceptre*, King’s Wife, King’s Mother. A flint knife was found in Menkaure’s mortuary temple which has the partial inscription on it of “King’s Mother K[…]” – which does rather suggest that she was his mother, and thus probably Khafre’s wife as I said and Khufu’s daughter.
*Great of Sceptre is a queenly title used in the Old Kingdom.
As you can see we have more genealogical data available for the 4th Dynasty that preceding ones (look at the paucity of information I could find for Hetepheres, for instance) but still not enough to bring clarity to the situation. It continues into Menkaure’s own family – he had two or three wives, none of whom are known for absolutely certain. But there can be some degree of confidence that one of his wives was a woman with the same name as his mother: Khamerernebty (she’s given the numeral II by Egyptologists whereas his mother is number I). The evidence here is not just a rather fine dyad statue of the two of them together but the rather more certain evidence of a son of Khamerernebty II called Khuenre who is titled Eldest King’s Son of His Body, and is buried in a cemetery associated with Menkaure’s pyramid – so this seems as close to certain as we’re going to get without a time machine or the sudden discovery of a cache of documents (i.e. not very certain).
Khuenre is interesting in another way – that title Eldest King’s Son of His Body is suggestive. And his mother seems a good candidate for a senior wife – her titles are like Khamerernebty I’s (only without King’s Mother) and the only colossal statue of a queen found from Old Kingdom Egypt is of her, as well as the dyad statue with Menkaure. So was Khuenre actually Menkaure’s heir? Certainly Miroslav Verner makes that speculation in his book “The Pyramids”, and goes on to suggest that Khuenre pre-deceasing Menkaure may’ve led to a succession crisis. And what we now call the 4th Dynasty doesn’t seem to last another decade after Menkaure’s death (although as always, it’s a bad idea to assume that the change of dynasty was at all noticeable to the people living through it). But Menkaure does seem to’ve been succeeded by a son – a man called Shepseskaf, whose mother we don’t know (only it doesn’t seem to’ve been Kharmerenebty II).
The transition from Shepseskaf to the beginning of the 5th Dynasty (Userkaf) is rather murky but may’ve involved more of Menkaure’s offspring – perhaps, it’s always perhaps in this story. Userkaf himself may be another son of Menkaure, although he may also be a descendent of another branch of the family. And a woman called Khentkawes is important in the transition as the mother of king(s) and perhaps a king herself and she may have been a daughter of Menkaure. The books I read were really split on this – one theory is that she’s Menkaure’s daughter & Shepseskaf’s sister/wife, another is that she was a wife of Menkaure, and Aidan Dodson and Dyan Hilton make no mention of any relationship between Khentkawes & Menkaure. Given how thoroughly their book “The Complete Royal Families” goes into every tiny piece of evidence in the jigsaw puzzle that is the Egyptian royal family this silence makes me inclined to doubt her relationship to Menkaure. But given her importance she must surely be a part of the extended royal clan at the least – this is a royal culture where power was kept in the family, after all!
Summing up – the family of Menkaure looks a bit like this: He is probably the son of Khafre and Khamerernebty I, and has several brothers who hold positions of power. He has two or three wives, one of whom was probably Khamerernebty II. The number of his children isn’t clear but it seems there were at least two sons, and perhaps a daughter or two. One of his son’s pre-deceases him but nonetheless he is succeeded by a son, and even though we change the dynasty number after that it seems plausible that the “new” dynasty were the same family as Menkaure.
So that’s his family … perhaps! Do we actually know anything at all about the man himself? Well, not really – there don’t seem to be any significant events from his reign for which records have survived through the millennia. We do have his pyramid complex, as a monumental record that once he was the most powerful man in Egypt. And we have an idea of how he wanted to be portrayed – the photo I’ve used to illustrate this article is one of the four surviving triad statues that were found in his Valley Temple (the fragments also found indicate there were more but how many more is unclear). Each of the statues shows Menkaure flanked by two deities – on his right standing shoulder to shoulder with him is Hathor and on his left is the somewhat smaller figure of a Nome* deity. Menkaure is confident and at ease with his divine company, with his muscular idealised body demonstrating his perfection as a man and a ruler.
*Ancient Egypt was divided into administrative regions called Nomes.
There are a couple of stories in Herodotus, but I don’t think we can even begin to think of these as actual events. Not only is it the case that Herodotus was more interested in telling a good story than recounting history, but he was also writing some 2000 years after Menkaure died so no-one he spoke to was doing more than telling fanciful tales. However they might give a bit of a flavour of how the man had been mythologised over the millennia (providing his Egyptian informants weren’t just telling the nosey foreigner random nonsense). Herodotus refers to him twice as a good king – pious and just. But the first time he goes on to tell a story about Menkaure’s only child, a daughter, dying perhaps by suicide after her father raped her – which doesn’t sound terribly good to me! The second time is as an explanation of why he died young – apparently an Oracle told Menkaure the Egyptians were fated to have 150 years of hardship which Khufu and Khafre had been providing but Menkaure was being too nice to his subjects so would die in 6 years time as punishment. But Menkaure figured out how to cheat the Oracle – he ordered torches burnt all night every night so that he could stay up (partying) and effectively double his life span! As I said, these are obvious fiction – and quite vivid in Herodotus’s text with elaborate details about the golden cow the daughter is buried in etc. However, they do give a flavour of a memory of Menkaure as a good king, not like the mythologising around Khufu the tyrant. Whether that’s true or not, we’ll likely never know.
This is part of the fascination of ancient history for me. That we can get so close to knowing about a real individual person who lived so very long ago – we can piece together these little pieces of information like a logic puzzle or a jigsaw puzzle. But we don’t have all the pieces and so we can only catch a glimpse of the outline – so near and yet so far from knowing this man from the deep past.
David, Rosalie. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books, 2002. Dodson, Aidan, and Dyan Hilton. The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson, 2004. Fletcher, Joann. The Story of Egypt. Hodder, 2016. Herodotus. The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories. Edited by Robert B Strassler. Translated by Andrea L. Purvis. Quercus, 2008. Lehner, Mark. The Complete Pyramids. Thames and Hudson, 2008. Malek, Jaromir. ‘The Old Kingdom’. In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by Ian Shaw, New ed. Oxford University Press, 2003. Romer, John. From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom. A History of Ancient Egypt 2. Penguin, 2016. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. Rev. and Expanded ed. British Museum, 2008. Verner, Miroslav. The Pyramids: Their Archaeology and History. Translated by Steven Rendall, Atlantic Books, 2003.
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We talk an awful lot about Egyptian sun deities, but not so often about moon ones. Well, one of them does come up quite often but not in the context of his association with the moon – and anyway, he’s not the deity I was planning to talk about today. But it is the case that at first Thoth was the primary deity associated with the moon, but he became a more general god of knowledge and time, and so Khonsu took over his role as the god of the moon. Much later, in the Late Period, Iah takes on this role – as the concept of Khonsu too has shifted away from association with the moon.
Before I move on to talk more about Khonsu, let’s just back up a moment and I’ll point out something I learnt while reading for this article that I had never really considered before. The names of the “cosmological” gods of Ancient Egypt generally bear little to no relationship to the name of the element of the cosmos that they are associated with. For instance the word for moon is jʿḥ – yes, the Late Period moon god called Iah is the same (accounting for anglicisation of the transliteration), but neither Thoth nor Khonsu are very similar at all. And Erik Hornung cautions that one should therefore avoid a simplistic assignment of a deity as “the moon god” or whatever it might be – the relationship between deity and element of the cosmos is clearly more complex than a straightforward personification.
One of the two proposed etymologies for Khonsu’s name does fit in well with his being a moon god, however – which is that it derives from the verb khenes which means “to cross over or traverse”. Khonsu therefore means “the wanderer” or “he who traverses [the sky]”. The other possible etymology is dismissed by Richard Wilkinson as outdated, although at least one author I read prefers it – this explanation splits the name into kh (meaning placenta) and nesu (meaning king), and sees Khonsu as also being a personification of the king’s placenta. In his book “Early Dynastic Egypt” Toby Wilkinson prefers this explanation as it makes sense of a piece of kingly regalia – early depictions of the king show him accompanied by standards topped by various objects which are perhaps each an aspect of kingship. One of these is a bag-like object later associated with Khonsu. There are a few suggestions for what this might be but Toby Wilkinson’s preferred explanation is that it represents a placenta. He also says that the royal placenta may’ve been associated with the royal ka – the spirit that conveys divine kingship on the mortal king – and cites parallels for the deification of the placenta in other related African cultures. However he also says that the royal placenta may’ve been thought to be the king’s stillborn twin, which I’m afraid I completely boggle at – the Egyptians must surely’ve been able to tell the difference between the afterbirth and a dead baby!
Khonsu, as well as Thoth, was involved in the reckoning of time – an appropriate activity for a god associated with the moon. He’s the god associated with Hour 8 of the day, but I didn’t find any discussion of why particular gods had particular hours in my books. His more general involvement in the reckoning of time included influencing the gestation of humans and animals (which again fits well with an association with the placenta). And both he & Thoth were believed to assign a fixed lifespan not only to people but to the gods as well.
Khonsu’s roles change over the length of the Egyptian civilisation. In the Pyramid Texts he is a bloodthirsty deity who helps the king catch and slay the gods, so that the king can eat them and absorb their powers (as described in the Cannibal Hymn with hotly debated levels of symbolism vs. realism). Later he is associated with childbirth, which again ties into the association with the placenta and with an influence on the time of gestation. From the New Kingdom and afterwards he’s most often thought of as part of the Theban Triad, the child of Amun & Mut and worshipped with them in the vast temple complex at Karnak. And as so often the Egyptians didn’t feel the need for strict consistency in their religious thought: he’s also the child in another more minor triad – Sobek, Hathor and Khonsu, who were worshipped at Kom Ombo.
By Ptolemaic times he’s part of a complicated rebirth story for Amun as well – during this time period the Egyptians believed that when Amun died he took the form of Osiris and entered the body of Osiris’s mother Opet-Nut, he was then reborn as Khonsu – and there was a temple for Opet-Nut next to the temple of Khonsu in the Karnak complex where this rebirth was supposed to’ve taken place. Khonsu was also linked to Osiris at Edfu temple (a Ptolemaic structure) and called the “son of the leg” (which was the body part of Osiris that was believed to’ve been found there when Osiris’s body was scattered by Seth). And also by this period of Egyptian history Khonsu’s role had morphed once more and he (or at least one form of him, see below) was seen as a healing god. Ptolemy IV believed that Khonsu had personally healed him, and used the epithet “beloved of Khonsu who protects the king and drives away evil spirits”.
Khonsu is generally depicted as a mummiform human figure or wearing a tight-fitting garment. He might have a hawk head, and is sometimes represented by the same sort of baboon as Thoth (the cynocephalus baboon portrayed in a squatting position). If he has a human head he generally wears the sidelock of youth, and may wear the curved beard of the gods. His arms may be partially or completely unrestricted by his tight clothing or mummy wrappings. And if that sounds a lot like Ptah then Richard Wilkinson provides a handy diagnostic – generally Khonsu wears a necklace with a crescent shaped pectoral and a keyhole shaped counterpoise, Ptah’s necklace will not have that shape of counterpoise. In his hawk headed form to distinguish him from other such gods you need to look for his headdress – he wears a full moon sitting inside a horizontal crescent moon on his head. In his hands he may carry a crook & flail – the sceptres associated with Osiris or Horus, and with the king – and he may carry a was and/or djed sceptre as well or instead of those.
The main temple for Khonsu was inside the Amun precinct at the Karnak temple complex, as I mentioned above. It’s well worth a visit if you’re at Karnak as it still has a roof so a lot of colour has survived and it has recently been cleaned (within the last decade) – I remember the decoration as very striking with a white background and lots of reds & golds. This particular temple building was started in the 20th Dynasty by Ramesses III, and finished by later kings. It’s not unusual for multiple gods to have temple buildings or shrines within one larger complex, but I did find it noticeable that (with one exception) all of Khonsu’s shrines are within other larger complexes. The exception is at Tanis where there is a temple to a form of Khonsu called Khonsu-Neferhotep. At Tanis there is also a temple to the Theban Triad as well as a temple that has shrines for Mut, Khonsu and Astarte. These are all Late Period (and later temples), mostly built when the 21st Dynasty moved the capital north to Tanis.
As part of the Theban Triad Khonsu took part in two major annual festivals in the Theban region. These were the Beautiful Festival of the Valley and the Opet Festival. Both were processional festivals where the cult images of the triad were taken in their sacred barques to visit other parts of the area – Khonsu’s barque had falcon heads at stern & prow. The Beautiful Festival of the Valley had begun in the Middle Kingdom, when it was just Amun who was taken from Karnak to Deir el Bahri. It became more elaborate during the New Kingdom – cult images of Amun, Mut and Khonsu plus statues of dead kings and queens were carried first to Deir el Bahri and then along the West Bank to visit each king’s mortuary temple (such as Medinet Habu) as it was built and added to the route. The Opet Festival was a similar occasion, the three cult statues of the Theban Triad were taken in procession from Karnak to Luxor temple. It’s not documented before the 18th Dynasty and when it began the gods travelled by land on the way to Luxor and by river on the way back, but later in the New Kingdom they travelled by river in both directions (being towed along in their sacred barques). It too became more elaborate over time, and by the time of Ramesses III it lasted for month. The central moment of this festival didn’t directly involve the Theban Triad at all – while they rested in their shrines at Luxor the king entered the most sacred part of the temple where he performed a ritual that merged his mortal self with the royal ka, thus renewing his divinity. None of the books I read that talked about Opet Festival mentioned the possibly outdated link between Khonsu and the royal ka that Toby Wilkinson discusses in the context of Early Dynastic Egypt, but it seems suggestive to me for Khonsu (and family) to be involved in this ritual.
As well as temples, festivals and the trappings of state religion there are also amulets of Khonsu dating to later Egyptian history. And small plaques depicting Khonsu are also found. There are two types of these – the first depicts Khonsu with his Theban parents. The second ties into the healing aspects of Khonsu’s later role – they are cippi, which normally depict Horus the Child standing on a crocodile and are intended to have healing properties. These cippi, however, replace Horus with Khonsu but presumably have a similar function.
Khonsu comes in at least three forms (which don’t seem to correlate with the various roles I talk about above), and one of the only stories about him that we have involves one of them sending another to perform a miracle (essentially). This is a lovely piece of propaganda we call the Bentresh Stela which is now in the Louvre – the story purports to be set in the time of Ramesses II but was almost certainly written in Ptolemaic times. In the story Ramesses II is married to a foreign woman, whose sister (called Bentresh) back home in her native land (somewhere in modern day Syria) falls ill. Pharaoh is asked for help, and after consulting with Khonsu of Thebes (the most important form of Khonsu) agrees to send a statue of Khonsu the Provider (a junior form of Khonsu particularly adept at driving out evil spirits) to take the god to this princess to heal her. On arrival of the statue the evil spirits leave the princess and admit the superiority of even this junior form of Khonsu. Bentresh’s father was supposed to send the statue back, but he was so impressed by its ability to heal that he neglects to do so – until Khonsu the Provider appears to him in a dream where the god flies back to Egypt as a golden falcon. Realising he cannot force a god to stay, the statue is returned.
This story is clearly based in some sense on history in that Ramesses II did exist, as did a foreign queen with almost the same name as on the stela (Nefru-Re on the stela, Maat-nefru-Re in history). But its primary purpose is to assert the hierarchy of the different forms of Khonsu – it was found in Karnak, so unsurprisingly the senior form is Khonsu of Thebes who is worshipped there. And of course it makes a point about the innate superiority of even junior Egyptian gods over these foreign spirits and peoples – asserting a sense of national pride during a time when Egypt was ruled by Greek outsiders. Yet another role, for a god who turns out to be a rather more complex concept than just a “moon god”.
Hart, George. Egyptian Myths. The Legendary Past. London: British Museum Press, 1990. Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1982. Robins, Gay. The Art of Ancient Egypt. London: The British Museum Press, 2008. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 2008. Teeter, Emily. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 2007. Weeks, Kent R. The Illustrated Guide to Luxor Tombs, Temples, and Museums. Cairo: American Univ. in Cairo Press, 2005. Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003. ———. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000. Wilkinson, Toby A. H. Early Dynastic Egypt. London: Routledge, 2001.
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The Egyptian worldview is full of dualities – Upper & Lower Egypt, the living world and the world of the dead, the cultivated land and the desert, Horus and Seth, and so on and so forth. Probably the most fundamental of these is the duality of maat (order) and isfet (chaos), it’s set up at the moment of creation and underpins everything about the world of the Egyptians.
Translation between languages which are as different as Ancient Egyptian & English is rarely a straightforward matter of replacing one word with another. So although I glossed maat above as “order” we don’t actually have a single word in English that covers the concept in all its nuances (as far as we understand it). In the books I read for this article it was variously translated as: balance, control, connective justice, correctness, decorum, harmony, justice, the norms of society, order, original state of tranquillity at the moment of creation, proper behaviour, righteousness, rightness, the status quo, truth, the way things ought to be. Listing them all out like that (rather than just picking one of them) gives us a flavour of the concept – although I’m pretty sure there’ll be nuances that’ve been missed – but it’s rather unwieldy for referring to the concept, so as everyone else does I’m mostly going to stick to using the Egyptian word rather than a potentially misleading translation.
The concept of maat is, as you would expect, personified by a goddess and referred to in mythic terms – this is how the Egyptians conceptualised their world. The goddess Maat is normally represented by a human woman, with no associated animal, wearing a feather as her headdress. She may be standing, but she’s more often seated, and she’s sometimes just represented by her feather. You most often see her being offered to the gods by the king, and sometimes greeting the deceased in the Weighing of the Heart scene. She’s often referred to as the daughter of Re, which gives her a close connection with the Egyptian king who is called Son of Re as one of his titles.
Maat (goddess and concept) comes into being at the very moment of creation – before there was nothing but chaos, and the act of creation brings order (etc.). It is maat that regulates the seasons, the movements of the stars, the inundation of the Nile, the cycle of days and nights. One of the Egyptian conceptions of time (djet) is that the pattern of the universe is fixed and unchanging for eternity – and maat is that pattern. So maat permeates the whole universe, but it’s not something that just “is” it’s something that needs to be maintained and it’s in that context that it affects the lives of humanity.
The primary role of the king – the point of a king, if you like – is to maintain maat and present it to the gods, and if he does that then all will be as it should be in the universe. One of the ways in which he does this is to defeat and control the world outside Egypt and some of the familiar parts of Egyptian iconography represent this. The Egyptian way of life is seen as conforming to maat and all foreign ways of doing things are therefore not in accordance with maat – and so when you see the king smiting foreign enemies on the walls of a temple, that is the king maintaining maat and defeating chaos. When you see the king portrayed with bound captives beneath his feet (or the bows that represent the nine traditional enemies) then once again he’s imposing order and defeating chaos.
Maat also needs to be maintained within Egypt, and this is done via the legal system and administration – maat is the concept that underpins all the bureaucracy. The king is pivotal here as well – with his connection to the gods as the Son of Re he has the duty and necessary knowledge to create laws that uphold maat. But these laws were not handed down as divine in origin – they were essentially practical: behaviour which promoted harmonious and balanced relations between people was maat and should be promoted, behaviour which didn’t was isfet (and thus should be forbidden). It was also not egalitarian in any fashion – all men were not supposed to be equal, but instead were to behave appropriately for their place in society. Jan Assmann quotes Rousseau as saying “Between the weak and the strong freedom is the oppressive and law the liberating principle”* – i.e. the law is what stops the strong from trampling the weak, and this is what maat was in this aspect of Egyptian society.
*that is presumably an English translation of a German translation of the original French
The king also needs to present the maat he has upheld within and without Egypt to the gods. This is frequently depicted on temple walls, with the king shown kneeling and offering up a small figure of the goddess Maat to another god. There is a sense in which this is equated with all the other offerings that are given to the gods in their temples. The food that is offered is maat, the clothing that is offered is maat, the incense that is burnt is maat – all that a god eats, wears, breathes etc is maat. So the king’s upholding of, and offering of, maat maintains the existence of the gods (and their associated concepts and roles) and thus the universe remains as it should be.
And maat is also something that an individual should adhere to in his or her life. There’s a whole genre of Egyptian literature (the wisdom texts) which discusses how to live one’s life in accordance with maat – once again in terms of practical measures rather than as a theoretical concept. Over the course of Egyptian history ideas about how transgressing maat would affect you changed. In the Old Kingdom it was assumed that a failure to act in accordance with maat would lead to failure in this life. From the Middle Kingdom onward the Egyptians expected to be judged in the afterlife, and only those who had done maat in this life would be permitted to become an akh and to reach the Field of Reeds. And later, from the Ramesside Period on, people had more direct relationships with any given god – offending a deity would lead to divine punishment in this world – but that doesn’t mean maat was no longer important, it did still affect one’s afterlife.
There are at least a couple of different antonyms for maat. One of these is fairly narrow – the word gereg means falsehood and is the opposite of maat in its sense of speaking truth. The more commonly found one is isfet and its meaning is much broader in scope. As with maat it’s translated in a variety of ways by the different authors I read, but they generally seem to regard the concept as more straightforward – isfet is chaos, disorder, wrongness. It can also be translated as “sin”, which Boyo G. Ockinga does (writing in “The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson), but he cautions that one needs to be wary when reading that translation. The concept of isfet is of actions that are chaotic or wrong, there is not the concept of humanity as being essentially sinful in the way that there is in Christian thought. Theoretically one can maintain maat in all one does, failure is not inevitable.
This is not the only way that the Egyptian duality of maat vs isfet is different to our own cultural duality of right vs wrong or good vs sinful. Another fundamental difference is that “good” is not the same as “ordered”, and this has ramifications that shape the rest of society (and that we should carefully keep in mind when thinking about Ancient Egypt). In our culture it is easy to see that “doing the right thing” can in some cases mean going against the law or transgressing the norms of society – it’s possible for the individual to be good whilst not conforming, and it is possible to see society as needing to be changed in order to become a better society. But in the Ancient Egyptian culture maat has much heavier overtones of keeping in one’s place and this leads to a much more conservative outlook on life. Obviously Egyptian culture did change over time, but it had to be carefully justified as “returning to what had been done before”. Change itself was seen as undermining maat and the proper order of things. Things should be done the way they have always been done, and then the pattern of the universe is maintained in the way that it should be and all will be well in the world.
“Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs” James P. Allen “Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt” Jan Assmann (trans. David Lorton) “The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs” Jan Assmann (trans. Andrew Jenkins) “Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt” Erik Hornung (trans. John Baines) “Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation” Barry J. Kemp “Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz “The Pharaoh: Life at Court and On Campaign” Garry J. Shaw “The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson “Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley “The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson “The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson
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The Dual King Neferkare, the Son of Re Pepi (aka Pepi II) was the fifth king of the 6th Dynasty in the Old Kingdom, and he reigned for a very long time around about the 23rd Century BCE. Manetho (a 3rd Century BCE historian in Egypt) credits him with 94 years on the throne, a king list dating to around the 13th Century BCE (or perhaps later) now in the Turin Egyptian Museum agrees with more than 90 years. I think modern scholars are fairly sure that he reigned for over 62 years but after that there are no attested dates (so far?). Unsurprisingly he took the throne as a young boy, somewhere between ages 6 & 10 (with most books I read following Manetho and making him 6 years old on accession). His immediate predecessor was Merenre Nemtyemsaf, and before that there was Meryre Pepi (aka Pepi I).
Who his father was is not entirely clear, so let’s start with his mother. She was a woman called Ankhenespepi or sometimes Ankhenesmeryre, one of three or four of that name living around that time. The name means “Pepi/Meryre lives for her”, and was taken by her on her marriage to Pepi I – in modern literature she is known as Ankhenespepi II to distinguish her from Ankhenespepi I (also married to Pepi I) and Ankhenespepi III & IV who were both married to Pepi II. As well as the identical names for multiple people this family is also one of those terribly convoluted Egyptian royal families where everyone seems to have at least two different relationships with every other person. Ankhenespepi I and Ankhenespepi II were sisters, and were both married to Pepi I. Both were the mothers of kings: Ankhenespepi I was the mother of Merenre Nemtyemsaf, and Ankhenespepi II was the mother of Pepi II. A relatively recently discovered inscription (within the last 25 years) tells us that Ankhenespepi II was also the wife of Merenre Nemtyemsaf (her step-son/nephew) after Pepi I’s death. And so you see where the uncertainty about Pepi II’s father comes in – it’s definitely one of his two immediate predecessors, but which one it is depends on how long you think Merenre Nemtyemsaf reigned for. More than a decade, and Pepi II must be his son, significantly less and he can’t be. I think the current consensus is that Pepi II is the son of Merenre Nemtyemsaf and the grandson of Pepi I, and the son & great-nephew of Ankhenespepi II and the grandson & nephew of Ankhenespepi I.
As he was so young when he took the throne Pepi II had regents who acted on his behalf – these were his mother, Ankhenespepi II, and her brother, Djau, who had held high office in the reign of Pepi I. It’s from this early part of his reign that we have one of the few glimpses into an Egyptian king’s personality as recorded by the Egyptians of the time. It’s rather a charming anecdote, a combination of childish joy and absolute power. We know the story from a letter written by Pepi II to a courtier called Harkhuf – who was so proud of the fact that he had personal correspondence from the king that he had the letter copied out onto the walls of his tomb to be remembered for eternity. Over his life Harkhuf had been sent on four expeditions to lands south of Egypt – the last of which was in Year 2 of Pepi II’s reign. As he returned he wrote to his king to tell him about the riches he was bringing back – including a dancing pygmy from the land called Yam. And Pepi II was so taken with the idea of this pygmy that he wrote quite a long letter back to Harkhuf, most of which is enthusing about this pygmy. It’s too long to quote the whole thing, so I shall excerpt a few bits of it (following Miriam Lichtheim’s translation):
“[…] You have said in this dispatch of yours that you have brought a pygmy of the god’s dances from the lands of the horizon-dwellers […] Truly you know how to do what your lord loves and praises. Truly you spend day and night planning to do what your lord loves, praises, and commands […] Come north to the residence at once! Hurry and bring with you this pygmy whom you brought from the land of the horizon-dwellers live, hale and healthy, for the dances of the god, to gladden the heart, to delight the heart of King Neferkare who lives forever! When he goes down with you into the ship, get worthy men to be around him on deck, lest he fall into the water! When he lies down at night, get worthy men to lie around him in his tent. Inspect ten times at night! My majesty desires to see this pygmy more than the gifts of the mine-land [Sinai] and of Punt! When you arrive at the residence with and this pygmy is with you live, hale, and healthy, my majesty will do great things for you […]”
It’s formal, and full of repetition (as I think is standard for Ancient Egyptian letters) – but even with the stylised prose we clearly hear the voice of a gleeful little boy who’s just been promised the Best. Present. Ever!
This little humanising anecdote, charming as it is, does cause a few problems for my mental image of the king – it’s easy to remember the excited little boy, but obviously that’s one brief part of a long life and probably something he rarely thought about once the novelty wore off. Information about Pepi II as an adult seems rather scarcer. He had at least five wives, some of whom were his sisters or aunts – Neith, Iput, Ankhenespepi III and Ankhenespepi IV were all King’s Daughters. Another wife was Wedjebten, whose relationship is less clear. And of course he had children, though I’m not sure if it’s known how many or who predeceased him and who survived.
His long reign was relatively peaceful, in fact none of the books had very much to say about it. Outside Egypt the political landscape was changing – the lands to the south were coming together in a coalition of states and Egypt’s influence wasn’t as strong as it had been. But that doesn’t seem to’ve led to any particular problems during his reign. However there are other indications that Egypt was no longer in as healthy a state as it had been. Pepi II built a pyramid complex for his tomb, as his predecessors had done – but despite having at least 62 years to do this in it’s just a standard 6th Dynasty pyramid. No signs of embellishment or additions or new ideas. Perhaps just that there was now “a standard” so he didn’t deviate from the proper way to do things. But he also copied the decoration scheme for the pyramid temple pretty much entirely from the 5th Dynasty king Sahure’s pyramid temple. Again, there could be positive reasons that he did this that we just don’t know – but it’s not really an indication of a vibrant and creative culture. And there are signs of an economic downturn as well. There may’ve been a period of prolonged low floods, leading to reduced tax revenue and the population not thriving – and no sign of a robust response from the king. Perhaps there was no way Pepi II’s administration could’ve responded effectively, perhaps the devolution of power to local governors had left the central authority too weak, perhaps we just don’t have the evidence.
Whether or not Egyptian culture had become stagnant and the government ineffective during Pepi II’s reign, it is clear that things don’t go terribly well immediately afterwards. Just like for planets there is a Goldilocks zone for the length of reign of a monarch. Too few years, and the changes at the top lead to instability. Too many, and chances are the king outlived his heirs. But a small handful of decades – that’s just right, neither too long nor too short. Sadly for Old Kingdom Egypt the reign of the Dual King Neferkare, the Son of Re Pepi fell outside this zone and into the range where your average Egyptian might believe that his divine ruler was in fact immortal. Ten viziers had come and gone while he ruled, countless courtiers must’ve lived their entire lives while he ruled. He did still have a living son to inherit, but Nemtyemsaf II didn’t long outlive his father – and his successor was also fairly ephemeral (so much so that for millennia he was thought to be a woman, but is now thought to’ve been a man, a fairly basic detail to be unclear on). And after that we’re into the revolving door of the next dynasty none of whom lasted long on the throne.
The Egyptians themselves did not remember Pepi II fondly – the other anecdote from his life is posthumous, much less charming and much less likely to be true. In it Pepi II is portrayed as a man distracted from the business of kingship by a torrid affair with one of his generals. He’s described as sneaking out of the palace at night to climb up a ladder into this general’s bedroom, then once he had “done what he desired” with him he sneaks back to the palace in the hopes that no-one would notice. This is unlikely to mean that Pepi II is history’s first recorded gay ruler – it has the flavour of a story to explain “what went wrong” at the end of the dynasty. It reminds me of the way that all Chinese imperial dynasties are traditionally said to start with a wise, brave, honourable ruler and end with a cruel, out-of-touch, perverted tyrant. Not necessarily true but it’s the narrative they use to explain historical events.
As always with figures from the deep past like this we have tantalisingly few facts to build our own narrative on top of. And so Pepi II is probably always going to be that over-excited boy anticipating the arrival of his pygmy in my head, despite how unrepresentative that must’ve been.
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton “The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher “The Complete Pyramids” Mark Lehner “Ancient Egyptian Literature: Vol I The Old and Middle Kingdoms” Miriam Lichtheim “A History of Ancient Egypt: Vol 2 From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom” John Romer “The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson “The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw “Texts from the Pyramid Age” Nigel C. Strudwick “Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson
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