Ptah: Relationships to People and Deities

As with almost everything about the way Ancient Egyptians saw the world their deities were not one note entities, even though we try and put them in little boxes when we talk about them today. So Ptah is not just the “creator as craftsman” that I discussed in my last article on him. That was his primary role, but he also had other roles and associations with other deities.

One of the epithets of Ptah is mesedjer-sedjem which means “the ear that hears” – this refers to Ptah’s role as a hearer of prayers from the ordinary person. Many votive stelae dedicated to Ptah in this role have been found, in his temple at Memphis or Deir el Medina as well as other places. They generally depict ears to show that he is listening. One example includes a text from a man called Neferabu who has sworn a false oath in the name of Ptah and is now blind, and the text begs Ptah in his role as “the ear that hears” to forgive him. Also in this role Ptah is found depicted inside chapels that we call hearing ear chapels. Egyptian temples were not open to the public in the way that a church or mosque are and the further into an Egyptian temple you go the more restricted access is, until the inner sanctuary where only the Pharaoh or High Priest can go. So these hearing ear chapels were built on the periphery of the temple where more people had access, and they could go there to leave their prayers for the god inside. Quite often Ptah was depicted in these chapels even if he didn’t have a sanctuary inside the temple proper – he was the hearer of prayers and would help sort things out for you!

Stela of Ptah with Ears

As an important deity connected with the state religion Ptah might also be seen as one of the rulers of said state. After the gods made the world (however it was whomever it was did it) the Egyptians thought that various of the gods ruled as kings. Some have stories (like Shu or Osiris), others are just referenced. Ptah is one of the latter – in the Memphite Theology he is referred to as the ruler of a unified Egypt, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, and his name appears first at the head of the Turin King List. But there are no stories. This might just be because none survive – there are surprisingly few mythological narratives that survive from Pharaonic Egypt, most are bits and pieces and fragments that we can see match with a later source (like Plutarch retelling the myth of the death of Osiris). Or maybe he was conceptually king, because he’s a universal creator and an important god in the pantheon, but no-one really thought he was an actual king like the current ruler was king.

And of course as with many Egyptian deities Ptah was worshipped as part of a “family” grouping. The primary triad he is part of is referred to as the Memphite Triad and it was one of the most important ones in Egyptian religion. It consisted of Ptah and his consort Sekhmet, and had Nefertem as their child. The development of the triad didn’t happen all at once – Ptah and Sekhmet were associated and worshipped as a duo before Nefertem was added to make a full triad in the New Kingdom. I put “family” in scare quotes, because the family relationships between Egyptian deities in a triad shouldn’t be treated like a genealogical puzzle – the relationships aren’t necessarily exclusive nor commutative, a god doesn’t necessarily have a consistent pair of parents across all places and all times and nor a consistent consort etc. So Ptah’s “son” Nefertem in the Memphite triad is actually not referred to as his son (tho he is Sekhmet’s son), but in other times and places Imhotep may be referred to as the son of Ptah (with no link to Sekhmet). And the Syrian goddess Astarte is sometimes assimilated into the Egyptian pantheon as Ptah’s daughter (or as Re’s daughter in other contexts).

And not all triads are families anyway. Ptah is also grouped together with Amun and Re, and it seems clear this isn’t intended as a family. This grouping is partly a way of representing “all the important gods”. It’s also part of a strand of Egyptian thought that arises in the New Kingdom that seeks to bring together the various gods and mythologies into a unified scheme which centres the god Amun. So this triad can be seen as three different facets of Amun – Re is his face, Ptah is his body and Amun is his own hidden nature.

There are also other ways that Ptah is associated with other deities. A general rule within the Egyptian thinking about divine beings is that they can overlap, merge or separate at various different points in time (or even different places). Ptah is no exception – whilst he’s venerated as himself on his own from the Early Dynastic Period through to the Roman Period he’s also merged with other deities to form composite deities who can also be quite prominent.

One of these composites is Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, whose statues turn up in non-royal funerary contexts (particularly in the Late Period and afterwards). He represents the whole cycle of life – creation (Ptah), death (Sokar) and rebirth (Osiris). The composite deity is attested from at least the Middle Kingdom, even though the statues aren’t common until the Late Period. He did not spring into existence in a single step – the two Memphite gods Ptah and Sokar merged quite a lot earlier, based on similarities in location, role and associations with minerals. At a later date (but still before the time of the Pyramid Texts) the god Sokar merged with Osiris. By the Middle Kingdom these two composites, Ptah-Sokar and Sokar-Osiris, had merged with each other leading to the worship of the composite called Ptah-Sokar-Osiris.

Ptah and Tatenen became associated as the composite deity Ptah-Tatenen from the reign of Ramesses II. They are linked together in three different ways – firstly both are Memphite deities (and Ptah did subsume several other Memphite deities, like the Apis Bull, over time). The pair can also be seen as the creator and the substance that he creates with – either Ptah as sculptor and Tatenen as the earth he uses, or Ptah as creator and Tatenen as the primeval mound which is the first created land. And lastly Ptah himself is associated with the mineral components of the earth, whilst Tatenen is also an earth god.

The deity Ptah, the deity Pataikos and dwarves are all associated with each other in Ancient Egyptian iconography and thought – the composite deity Ptah-Pataikos is represented as a dwarf in Egyptian art and dwarves are often shown working as craftsmen in Old Kingdom tomb reliefs. Although I can’t disentangle which came first (the association with each other, or with craftsmen) it seems clear that the association of all three with craftsmen is the link that holds them together.

And last, but not least, in his role as a universal creator god Ptah is associated with the waters which existed before creation – personified by the pair of deities Nun and Naunet. As Ptah-Nun he is called the “Father who begot Atum”, and as Ptah-Naunet he is called the “Mother who begot Atum” – inserting him at the very beginning of the Heliopolitan creation myth.

I feel a bit like with this article I’ve come full circle to the beginning of the first in this series on Ptah – he’s everywhere and everywhen, with seemingly a finger in every important pie of Ancient Egyptian religious thought.

Resources used:

Allen, James P. 2014. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge Univ. Press.
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.
Fisher, Marjorie M. 2012. ‘Abu Simbel’. In Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, edited by Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria. American Univ. in Cairo Press.
Fletcher, Joann. 2016. The Story of Egypt. Hodder.
Gahlin, Lucia. 2010. ‘Creation Myths’. In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson. Routledge.
Griffin, Kenneth. 2021. ‘Introduction and the Great Triads’. Presented at the Egypt Centre Swansea Short Course on ‘Gods, Goddesses, and Demons of Ancient Egypt’, July 18.
Hart, George. 1990. Egyptian Myths. British Museum Press.
———. 2005. The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. Routledge.
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. 2nd ed. London ; New York: Routledge.Malek, Jaromir. 2003. ‘The Old Kingdom’. In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by Ian Shaw Oxford University Press.
Mertz, Barbara. 2008. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. William Morrow.
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.
The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. 2007. 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.
———. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
———. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.

Ptah, Maker of Things

Last time I talked about the deity Ptah I talked about the way he looks, and where and when we find him. The sort of things you’d find in a “Spotter’s Guide to Egyptian Deities”. But today I’m going to talk about what the point of Ptah was, his main role in the ancient Egyptian system of thought. Ptah was a maker of things – both in terms of crafts and in terms of the whole world.

Throughout most of Pharaonic Egyptian history, from at least the Old Kingdom, Ptah was seen as both the patron deity of craftsmen and as a universal creator deity. Ptah’s original role was as the patron deity of crafts and craftsmen. He was associated with the mineral aspects of the world – the stone, the metal ores – and was seen as a metalworker. He was thus the patron of those who created metal objects, as well as those who created using metal objects. And this role became expanded to covering all the crafts, which he was said to have created. The places associated with Ptah (in particular Memphis from very early on and Deir el-Medina in the New Kingdom) were centres of crafts and production for the royal court and funerary complexes. The titles of his High Priest reflect this – one of these titles was wer kherep hemw which means “Supreme Leader of Craftsmen” (or “Greatest of Those who Supervise the Craftsmen”).

This initial association with crafts then expanded into a more general role in creation. The imagery used to describe Ptah’s creative powers is full of references to his origins as a craftsman. For instance he’s described as the craftsman who crafts kings – he moulds the body of the deceased and newly divine Ramesses II from electrum, copper and iron, a reference to his particular association with metalworkers. He’s described as crafting bodies for the gods to inhabit – in the same way as human craftsmen would make the cult statues for the temples. As an aside, this also leads to him being credited with “inventing” one of the key funerary rituals, the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. These bodies of the gods (statues) need to have their mouths ritually opened (with an instrument reminiscent of a craftsman’s chisel) before the ka of the god can enter and live in the statue. This ritual is then recapitulated on the mummy or coffin of the deceased as part of the funerary rites, opening the mouth so the deceased will live in the afterlife. But back to the main point – even the way in which he creates the universe uses this same language of crafts: he is referred to as the sculptor of the world, or as having smelted the world.

Statue of Ptah

And this genesis as a craftsman fundamentally shapes the sort of creator deity that Ptah is. Creation narratives come in multiple flavours – the world might be created by the substance of the deity becoming the the world, or perhaps that deity makes it like you’d make a pot, or procreation is involved i.e. the world is birthed by the deities. The better known Egyptian creation myth (the Heliopolitan one, where Atum “gives birth” to Shu and Tefnut to start the whole thing off) is a procreative myth, in contrast to the Christian myth where God brings the world into being by commanding it (which is a making myth – he’s not quite a potter, but the potter works on his orders!). But the Heliopolitan creation myth is not the only Ancient Egyptian creation myth. There are broadly speaking three different creation narratives with three different focuses – once upon a time Egyptologists would think of these as competing traditions, but that’s now a rather outdated view (tho our names for the myths still reflect that idea). The Hermopolitan myth is interested in how the universe went from non-being to being and what there was before there was anything. The Heliopolitan myth is interested in how, given we have a universe in existence, it formed into the world around us complete with all its parts including human society. And the Memphite Theology (which tells us about Ptah’s creative power) is interested in the mechanics of creation itself.

Although all three are told in terms of narratives (this god, that god, doing those things, sometimes to each other) under the hood they’re actually really rather abstract, the various deities are personifications of forces and aspects of the world (like Shu is the air etc). And that is definitely the case for Ptah in the Memphite Theology – he is the personification of the transformation of an idea or concept into a real physical object, he is the creator as a craftsman. And like the Christian God (tho in actuality the linkage will be the other way round) he is creator as commander – Ptah thinks, and speaks, and it is so. In the Memphite Theology he is said to create the world via the thoughts he forms in his heart and the words he forms on his tongue. This is a part of Egyptian ideas about the power of language, particularly the written word – words can shape reality. Ptah is also said to have created the hieroglyphs as he created the objects – the thing and its written form in one moment of creation – and the hieroglyphic script was called “the god’s speech” in Ancient Egyptian.

In the Memphite Theology Ptah was positioned as the ultimate source of creation. But this was not the only tradition involving Ptah as this craftsman creator of the universe. During the New Kingdom there was an effort to merge the various Egyptian conceptions of creation into one coherent whole with Amun as the primary creator. As part of this the deity Ptah was no longer seen as a creator in his own right instead he was seen to be the means by which Amun created the universe. Amun “spoke in silence” to kick off the creative process, but this speech operated via Ptah. Garry Shaw (in his book on Egyptian Myths) uses the metaphor of commissioning a sculpture (or other piece of craft), which I rather like. Amun is the commissioner – without him there would be no creation, but he does not make it himself nor is he the material from which the sculpture takes shape. Ptah is the craftsman, who moulds the raw material but does so only by the request of the commissioner. And finally Atum and/or Tatenen are the raw material from which the creation is actually made – by themselves they cannot transform into the sculpture but it takes shape from their substance.

But the Ancient Egyptians rarely seem to’ve had only one explanation or understanding of any given phenomena (over time, or even simultaneously). And so it’s possible to overstate the idea that Ptah’s creative abilities operate via a crafting model – the ways that he is merged into broader Egyptian ideas about creation often have some flavour of procreation to them, particularly when he is being positioned as the ultimate creator. For instance one of his epithets translates as the “father of the gods, from whom all life emerged”. And in the Memphite Theology as Ptah-Nun he is referred to as the “father who begot Atum” and as Ptah-Naunet the “mother who bore Atum” – positioning him as the father & mother of the sun and creation itself. Ptah is also sometimes shown in art creating an egg on a potter’s wheel, and in a very late myth (dating to the Graeco-Roman period) he’s said to have fertilised this egg he created with his seed and thus created the Hermopolitan Ogdoad (whom he then goes on to bring together into Amun).

Procreation needs both male and female, and the Egyptians square this circle for the Hermopolitan Ogdoad by having female counterparts for each of the male deities/forces (e.g. the waters are Nun and Naunet). But for Ptah they chose another solution – he combines both male and female within himself. This concept is seen in references to Ptah in multiple periods of Egyptian history, both early and late. In this context he was referred to as “the Ancient One” and this is how he is associated with both Nun and Naunet – he is also seen as self-creating (by begetting himself).

And this multiplicity of understandings doesn’t stop there – Ptah isn’t “just” the craftsman creator, he has other roles and other associations. In the last of these articles on Ptah I’ll be looking at these other aspects.

Resources used:

Allen, James P. 2014. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge Univ. Press.
Assmann, Jan. 2003. The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs. Translated by Andrew Jenkins. Harvard Univ. Press.
———. 2014. Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. Translated by David Lorton. Abridged and updated by the author, repr. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.
Boonstra, Stephanie. 2020. ‘A Memphite Amulet Workshop in Leicester’. Presented at the EES Virtual Study Day ‘Collections from Home: Museum Favourites’, June 13.
David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books.
Fletcher, Joann. 2016. The Story of Egypt. Hodder.
Gahlin, Lucia. 2010. ‘Creation Myths’. In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson. Routledge
Griffin, Kenneth. 2021. ‘Introduction and the Great Triads’. Presented at the Egypt Centre Swansea Short Course on ‘Gods, Goddesses, and Demons of Ancient Egypt’, July 18.
Hart, George. 1990. Egyptian Myths. The Legendary Past. British Museum Press.
———. 2005. The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. 2nd ed. Routledge Dictionaries. Routledge.
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.
Martin, Geoffrey Thorndike. 1993. Hidden Tombs of Memphis: New Discoveries from the Time of Tutankhamun and Ramesses the Great. New aspects of antiquity. Thames and Hudson.
Mertz, Barbara. 2008. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. William Morrow.
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.
Teeter, Emily. 2010. ‘Temple Cults’. In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson. Routledge.
The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. 2007. 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.
———. 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.
———. 2010. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra. Bloomsbury.

Ptah Through Time and Space

Ptah is one of the more important gods of the Egyptian pantheon through the whole of Egyptian history, and his name and image are all over the place in the monuments and texts. Yet somehow he’s not one of the gods that we (amateurs, at least) talk about much – he doesn’t have good stories (like Osiris), he’s not associated with heresy and controversy (like the Aten), he’s just there. He’s attested very early in Egyptian history – he is drawn on a bowl dating to the First Dynasty, probably the reign of Den. Unusually for such an early object this bowl has a secure provenance (tomb 231 at Taharkan, excavated by Petrie) and the drawing of the deity not only has the right iconography for Ptah but is labelled with his name in hieroglyphs. As this appears to be a fully developed depiction of Ptah it seems probable that he was worshipped back into Predynastic times.

There are some suggestions that his ultimate origins may lie in cultures to the west of Egypt, but there is little evidence for this. What there is mostly hinges round the fact that the name “Ptah” does not have any secure etymology within the Egyptian language and was not written with the determinative or emblem of a deity until the New Kingdom. However it may be that it is cognate with words that mean “to sculpt” and was based on a root for those words which had gone extinct by later periods, and I am inclined to agree with those that see this as a more plausible explanation. It relates to his identity as a god of craftsmen (which was probably his first role), and as he is such an early deity it would also make sense that his name reflects ancient forms of the language.

During the course of Pharaonic Egyptian history the iconography of the god Ptah changes very little. He is generally represented as a human man (sometimes with blue skin) wrapped up in a tight-fitting garment or mummy wrappings and standing on a plinth. He wears a skull cap like Old Kingdom craftsmen do (often blue in colour) and has a straight beard (added during the Middle Kingdom as the only significant change in iconography). He often wears a heavy broad collar necklace with a counterpoise at the back, and if he doesn’t then he still has a feature that looks like the counterpoise – a tassel from the neckline of his garment. His hands emerge from his wrappings and hold a sceptre topped with the was, ankh and djed hieroglyphs (meaning “power, life, stability”). I’ve illustrated this article with the fabulous statue of Ptah that was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb which has these features.

Statue of Ptah

You’ll’ve noticed that unlike many of the Egyptian deities the iconography of Ptah has no animal elements, no matter the period of Egyptian history. However there is nonetheless a sacred animal associated with this god – a singular bull, the Apis bull, who was regarded as the ba or physical manifestation of the god.

By the Old Kingdom it is clear that Ptah was regarded as a creator deity as well as the god of craftsmen, however he doesn’t show up very much in the Pyramid Texts – in fact he’s almost an aside. Some of the books I’ve looked at suggest that this is because of rivalry between the priesthood of Ptah in Memphis and the priesthood of Re in Heliopolis (who were heavily involved in the funerary cult of the king). But I think this idea of the priests of the various cults being in opposition to each other is fairly old-fashioned, the Egyptians didn’t actually seem to view their gods like we view football teams! So instead I think it’s more likely to be some combination of Ptah not rising to national prominence till later on, or that he simply wasn’t very much involved in the funerary sphere at this point in time.

In the Middle Kingdom Ptah also shows up in the Coffin Texts as a creator deity – crafting the gods, ripening vegetation, and creating the sun – but he really rises to prominence in the New Kingdom. This can be seen by the proliferation of temples dedicated to him (particularly in Nubia during Ramesses II’s reign) and by his worship alongside the extremely important deities Amun and Re in a triad (thus he must be on a par with them). He retains this importance through the rest of Pharaonic Egyptian history and into the Roman Period. In the Ptolemaic Period and the Roman Period the Greeks & Romans tended to equate the Egyptian gods with their own, to bring the two cultures of ruling elite and local peasantry closer together – so during this time Ptah is first associated with the Greek smith god Hephaestus and later the Roman smith god Vulcan. Perhaps oddly, despite this importance very few amulets depicting him have survived – even from periods where large numbers of amulets survive of other gods. Those that have been found are generally plaques dating to the 26th Dynasty with Ptah flanked by the other members of his triad (Sekhmet and Nefertem), and appear to’ve been used in a living context rather than a funerary one.

Ptah was worshipped in many places across Egypt and into Nubia (when it was under Egyptian control), and many temples had a sanctuary dedicated to him. His primary cult centre was at Memphis, where he had been worshipped since at least the Early Dynastic Period if not before. Several of his epithets – like “Lord of Ankh-Tawy” or “South of His Wall (res-ineb-ef)” – reference Memphis, and his largest temple complex was in that city. In fact the modern English name of the country of Egypt ultimately derives from the name of Ptah’s Memphite temple – hwt-ka-ptah (house of the ka of Ptah) became pronounced as “Αίγυπτος” (Aigyptos) in Greek, and then misapplied to the whole country. Sadly not much is known of the temple (or the whole city of Memphis) because people still live in the region and the archaeology is underneath the modern city. The parts of the temple that remain mostly date to Ramesses II’s reign in the New Kingdom, but there is evidence of earlier structures including re-used blocks in that Ramesside temple. The first temple may’ve been built at the time of the unification of Egypt in the reign of Narmer (but the only evidence of that is a reference in the work of the ancient historian Manetho, who wrote c.3000 years after Narmer’s reign). And at its height the complex may’ve rivalled Karnak Temple in size (although I’m not sure what the actual evidence for this is, if nothing much survives!). In another parallel with Karnak and Amun, there was more than one temple dedicated to Ptah in his city of Memphis – for instance there was another one built next to the palace of Merenptah (Ramesses II’s successor).

And speaking of Karnak, Ptah also had a sanctuary in that temple complex). This dates back to at least the Middle Kingdom, and there is also other evidence of Ptah at Karnak dating to that period. Fragments of stone columns which were originally in the first court of Karnak have been found, showing Senwosret I worshipping gods including Ptah. The sanctuary of Ptah was rebuilt by Thutmose III after it had fallen into disrepair – or so he says, but this is also a common trope in Ancient Egyptian kingly rhetoric. Every king is responsible for maintaining maat in the world, and how better to demonstrate that than to do a bit of work on a temple and then write a grand announcement of how you found it in ruins and restored it to its full glory?

Deir el-Medina was another site where Ptah was particularly venerated – not surprisingly as like Memphis this was a place where craftsmen lived and worked. So the patron deity of craftsmen was also the patron deity of the village. More generally Ptah was particularly important during the New Kingdom, and so many temples were built dedicated at least in part to him in contexts outside those where craftsmen were working. For instance several temples in Nubia were dedicated in part to Ptah – in this context it’s due to his associations with Amun. Many of these temples were built during the reign of Ramesses II – not just the famous one at Abu Simbel but also including temples at Gerf Hussein and el-Derr . As a prominent state deity Ptah also has a presence in temples like that of Seti I at Abydos and Ramesses II’s mortuary temple (the Ramesseum).

So as I said Ptah shows up all over Ancient Egypt across both time and space. In the next article in this short series on Ptah, out in a few weeks, I’ll look more in depth at his role as a craftsman and a creator.


Resources Used:

Allen, James P. 2014. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge Univ. Press.
Blyth, Elizabeth. 2006. Karnak: Evolution of a Temple. Routledge.
Boonstra, Stephanie. 2020. ‘A Memphite Amulet Workshop in Leicester’. Presented at the EES Virtual Study Day ‘Collections from Home: Museum Favourites’, June 13.
Bryan, Betsy M. 2003. ‘The 18th Dynasty Before the Amarna Period’. In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by Ian Shaw, Oxford University Press.
David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books.
Fisher, Marjorie M. 2012a. ‘Abu Simbel’. In Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, edited by Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria. American Univ. in Cairo Press.
———. 2012b. ‘Derr’. In Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, edited by Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria. American Univ. in Cairo Press.
———. 2012c. ‘Gerf Hussein’. In Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, edited by Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria. American Univ. in Cairo Press.
———. 2012d. ‘The Art and Architecture of Nubia During the New Kingdom’. In Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, edited by Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria. American Univ. in Cairo Press.
Fletcher, Joann. 2016. The Story of Egypt. Hodder.
Gahlin, Lucia. 2010. ‘Creation Myths’. In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson. Routledge.
Griffin, Kenneth. 2021a. ‘The East Bank Temples (Karnak and Luxor Temple)’. Presented at the Egypt Centre Swansea Short Course on ‘Thebes: The City of 100 Gates’, March 28.
———. 2021b. ‘Introduction and the Great Triads’. Presented at the Egypt Centre Swansea Short Course on ‘Gods, Goddesses, and Demons of Ancient Egypt’, July 18.
Hart, George. 1990. Egyptian Myths. The Legendary Past. British Museum Press.
———. 2005. The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. 2nd ed. Routledge Dictionaries. Routledge.
Hawass, Zahi. 2012. ‘Saving Nubia’s Legacy’. In Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, edited by Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria. American Univ. in Cairo Press.
Hornung, Erik. 1982. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Cornell University Press.
Leblanc, Christian. 2011. ‘The Ramesseum: The Temple of Rameses II’. In Valley of the Kings: The Tombs and the Funerary Temples of Thebes West, edited by Kent R Weeks. White Star Publishers.
Martin, Geoffrey Thorndike. 1993. Hidden Tombs of Memphis: New Discoveries from the Time of Tutankhamun and Ramesses the Great. New aspects of antiquity. Thames and Hudson.
Mertz, Barbara. 2008. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. William Morrow.
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.
Snape, S. R. 2014. The Complete Cities of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. 2007. 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.
———. 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.Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2010. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra. Bloomsbury.

The Air They Breathed

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.

Shu Separating Nut and Geb

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.

Resources used:

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.

She Who Is Powerful

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 in the Egyptian Museum in Turin

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.


Resources used:

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.

Khonsu

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 in front of offerings

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”.


Resources used:

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.

The Way Things Ought To Be

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.

Maat at the Weighing of the Heart Greeting the Deceased, from the Book of the Dead of Tasnakht

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.


Resources used:

“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

Some Sort of Canid

Most Egyptian deities are closely associated with an animal – depicted in art either with the head of the animal or as the animal itself. The animal chosen for a deity generally represents some important feature of the deity in question. The gods I’m writing about today are all represented by some sort of canid, a dog-type animal, and are gods that are associated with cemeteries and death (including Anubis, of course). There’s an obvious link between these types of animals and death: in Predynastic times, and throughout Egyptian history for poorer people, bodies were not buried in elaborate sealed tombs but were put in shallow graves in the desert sand. And so they were vulnerable to being dug up and destroyed by desert scavengers, like jackals and other canids.

“Some sort of canid” is a pretty mealy-mouthed way to put it, isn’t it? Surely everyone knows that Anubis’s animal is a jackal so why am I being so vague? Well, it turns out that there’s a fair amount of debate about which canid species is actually represented. The opinions I read while writing this article range from “of course it’s a jackal, I can even tell you the precise species” through to “a composite of canid features”, via “some sort of hybrid seen in the wild”. The matter isn’t helped by the fact that our neat categories (dog or jackal or wolf) don’t actually map terribly well onto either how the Egyptians thought or the real world. The Egyptians don’t seem to’ve separated jackals from dogs with quite such a hard line as we do. And when you look at populations of canids in North Africa there are signs of a large amount of interbreeding between nominal canid species, including with domestic dogs. So “some sort of canid” is probably the most accurate way to phrase it, and its at the jackal-y end of this spectrum.

Coffin Detail with Canid

This canid has large erect ears, a slender neck, long legs and a bushy tail. It is represented either standing (generally on a standard) or sitting (often on a shrine) with its tail hanging vertically down in both cases. It may wear a tie around its neck, and when it’s Anubis it often has some of Osiris’s regalia sticking out of its back (a sekhem sceptre or flail or both). It is often black, but generally that is not thought to be a feature of any real animal it’s based on but rather to be symbolic. As well as the usual associations with black – the fertile soil of the Nile and thus rebirth – it may also relate to the colour a corpse will go if you don’t embalm it, an example of protection by invocation of the thing you’re protecting against.

Canids of this sort are rare in Predynastic art but there are examples from funerary contexts. One of these is a rather fine figurine found in a Naqada III period (c. 3300-3100 BCE) burial, almost in the round – it’s carved from greywacke (usually used for palettes) so it’s fairly flat because of the nature of this stone but modelling of the body is apparent. The animal is portrayed standing up, and it was found propped up against some vessels in front of the face of the deceased woman – perhaps to protect her. Other examples in Predynastic art are amulets in the shape of recumbent canids, some dating to even earlier than the figurine. Obviously one can’t just assume that later beliefs apply in the Predynastic Period, but it seems plausible that these are a precursor to the later protective funerary deities like Anubis and Khentiamentiu.

All of the three or four major canine deities are attested in the Early Dynastic Period. Anubis is the one who is most familiar to us as he remains prominent throughout Pharaonic Egypt. Before the rise of the cult of Osiris he was the most important funerary deity and he continues to play a key role after Osiris takes over. Anubis is the deity who oversees the embalming process and protects the tent where this takes place as well as the burial chamber. He also watches over the necropolis to keep it safe. Mythologically speaking he gets hooked into the Osirian family in a variety of ways (depending on the telling) – often a son of Osiris, perhaps with Nephthys as his mother – and he performs the mummification process on Osiris when Seth has killed him.

As well as Anubis there was another early protector of the necropolis & the dead, mentioned above – this was Khentiamentiu, the canine deity who was worshipped at Abydos. The first temple at Abydos was founded in the Predynastic Period, and was probably dedicated to Khentiamentiu at that point. It’s definitely dedicated to him through the Early Dynastic Period and the Old Kingdom, and is still referenced as his temple during Pepi II’s reign (the very last king of the 6th Dynasty and the Old Kingdom). After that the temple is dedicated to Osiris, and from then on Osiris is the primary deity worshipped at Abydos. This doesn’t seem to’ve been a hostile takeover. Khentiamentiu means “Foremost of the Westerners” which is a title or epithet that Osiris later uses – so the two gods may have merged, or it’s even possible that they were always the same deity. In his book on Early Dynastic Egypt Toby Wilkinson speculates that they may always have been the same god, that “Khentiamentiu” was a way to (perhaps euphemistically) refer to Osiris.

There are also another one or two major canine deities who are represented by a canid in Egyptian art. A motif that is seen from at least the 1st Dynasty onwards is of a canid standing still on a standard, with his legs together rather than in motion (like Anubis normally is). This can be Anubis or Khentiamentiu but more often it’s Sed (in very early periods) or Wepwawet from the 3rd Dynasty onwards. It’s not clear if these are two separate deities or if Sed first gained the epithet Wepwawet and then changed his name to Wepwawet. The name Sed may live on after this change or replacement in the sed festival. This festival is generally celebrated by the king in his 30th year of reigning (if he gets that far!) and every few years after that, and is intended to prove his continued fitness to rule. None of the authors I read was willing to 100% commit to the god Sed being the reason the festival is called that – not least, I think, because we can’t be absolutely sure it really was the same word for both. The Egyptian script only records the consonants of the word, so for all both are written “sd” it’s possible they had different vowels. The similar name is not the only link, however – the canid standing on a standard shows up in depictions of the sed festival.

Wepwawet is how this god is known for most of Pharaonic Egypt. His name means Opener of the Ways, which has a variety of interpretations (not so much as alternatives, rather they are all aspects of this deity). The canine association here is not from their habit of eating the dead, but from the fact that they live on the peripheries of human settlement – at the boundary between the cultivation (the living) and the desert (the dead). And who better to lead you from one place to another than one who dwells in the space between? And so one facet of Wepwawet’s opening of ways is that he leads the deceased through the underworld, and the king to ascension. He is also involved in the magical opening of the deceased’s mouth and eyes after mummification – the “adze of Wepwawet” is one of the tools used in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. But he is not purely involved in death – in the Memphite Theology he’s called “the opener of the body” which may refer to him opening the way out of the womb as a first born. And in a similar vein the Pyramid Texts refer to him opening the way for the sun to rise in the sky. Death, birth, and also during life – Wepwawet’s standard was often carried in front of the king or deity in a procession, opening the way for him. And his frequently attested warlike character sees him opening the way to military conquest for the king. All of which is a rather significant set of characteristics for a god that a lot of us (me included) think of as “the one that looks like Anubis, but isn’t”!

The theme that kept coming up over and over while I was reading for this article was blurry boundaries – in the modern day we tend to want to put things, events, ideas into neat little categories with no overlap but the world doesn’t always co-operate. “Some sort of canid” because we can’t even divide the real animals up into neat non-overlapping groups or species, let alone match the consistent yet ambiguous way that this canid is depicted in Egyptian art to one of those groups. It’s also difficult to tell which god is meant by a given canid depiction, unless there is an accompanying label. Even the gods are not entirely clearly defined. Appropriate, I think, for a collection of deities whose roles straddle the boundaries between this world and the next to be neither clearly the one thing, nor clearly the other.


Resources used:

“Animals in the Ritual Landscape at Abydos: A Synopsis” Salima Ikram
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper and Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz
“Abydos: Egypt’s First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris” David O’Connor
“Dawn of Egyptian Art” ed. Diana Craig Patch
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Wepwawet in Context: A Reconsideration of the Jackal Deity and Its Role in the Spatial Organization of the North Abydos Landscape” Mary-Ann Pouls Wegner
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Reading Egyptian Art” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Early Dynastic Egypt” Toby A. H. Wilkinson

Shaped on His Potter’s Wheel

Egyptian mythology answers the question of where people come from in multiple ways (as ever with the Ancient Egyptians, they were not fond of restrictively singular answers to questions). Some are highly symbolic (the joyful tears of Atum) and some rather more practical: the god Khnum, controller of the inundation, fashions people from the clay brought with the flood on his potter’s wheel.

Khnum is an Upper Egyptian god, and his main cult centre is on the Island of Elephantine near the modern town of Aswan. From this position at the traditional southern border of Egypt he’s said to control the annual flooding of the Nile. This doesn’t mean that he is “the God of the Nile” – rather oddly the Egyptians don’t seem to’ve had any god who was the personification of the river in the same way that for instance Geb was the personification of the land. Instead he’s regulating the floodwaters which were said to start in a hidden sacred pool on the island. Clearly the Egyptians can’t’ve believed this in any literal sense – they traded with Nubia throughout their history, they conquered bits of it several times, so they must’ve known that the floodwaters came from far further south than the Island of Elephantine. But as a symbolic belief it was a strong one, persisting into the Ptolemaic era and beyond. There is a text carved into a rock face on the nearby island called Sahel which is called “the Famine Stela” which purports to tell of events during the reign of Djoser in the Third Dynasty – it says that at that time there was a famine throughout Egypt, caused by poor inundations for 7 years. Djoser asks Imhotep for guidance and is given some rituals to perform in honour of Khnum, the director of the floodwaters. After he has done these Khnum appears to him in a vision and promises to bring a flood that will end the famine. Despite the events being set in the Old Kingdom it was actually carved during the Ptolemaic Period, and most scholars agree that it was also composed then – the temple of Khnum projecting a sense of the longevity of their cult and showing us that Khnum was still regarded as controller of the floods in this later period.

Mummy of a Ram, The Osiris the Ram of Khnum. From a necropolis of rams dedicated to Khnum, at Elephantine.

The association with the inundation develops over the course of Egyptian civilisation into Khnum’s role as a creator god. The flooding of the Nile brings silt which not only fertilises the land but is also a useful material for making pots and mudbricks to build houses. So it’s not surprising that a god who brings the flood has associations with making things. In the Old Kingdom in the Pyramid Texts Khnum is referred to as a creator of inanimate objects, like boats and ladders. By the Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom he is seen as creating living things from on his potter’s wheel but he is not yet a universal creator. He only gains that role in the New Kingdom when he becomes the creator of gods, people (explicitly both Egyptians and foreigners), animals and even plants.

A lot of our knowledge of the details of the cult of Khnum come from his surviving temple at Esna – the structure as it currently exists is mostly from the Roman Period, but founded in the Ptolemaic Period on the site of a temple that’s referred to in texts as early as the time of Thutmose III (a king of the 18th Dynasty, in the early New Kingdom). The texts in the temple detail the annual round of cult festivals, and describe Khnum’s attributes. They include a “Great Hymn to Khnum” which is to be recited at the “festival of installing the potter’s wheel”. It details how he shapes the bodies of mankind in anatomical detail, then supervises the moment of conception and 9 months later initiates the contractions that begin the birthing process. These activities of Khnum appear in earlier texts as well. For instance the Westcar Papyrus which dates to the Second Intermediate Period and tells stories set in the Old Kingdom. In one of these tales the first kings of the Fifth Dynasty are born in secret and three goddesses along with Khnum come to assist at the birth. And in the New Kingdom Khnum is depicted on temple walls supervising the conception and birth of Pharaohs (most famously at Deir el-Bahri where Hatshepsut is detailing her divine parentage).

Khnum is normally represented as a man with a ram’s head (or sometimes as a ram). He is often shown seated at a potter’s wheel shaping a person and their ka, and may be wearing two tall plumes, the Atef Crown or the White Crown. His ram’s head hints at his early origins in Egyptian history. There were two sheep species domesticated by the Egyptians over the course of their history – the first one was Ovis longipes which has a heavy build and the ram has horns extending horizontally out from its head which are wavy. This is the ram which is associated with Khnum, and is also the ram depicted by the hieroglyph E10 in Gardiner’s sign list. In the Middle Kingdom the species Ovis platyra was domesticated – it is of a lighter build, has a fat tail and horns that curve downwards around the face. This is the ram that the ram-headed sphinxes at Karnak depict. Amun doesn’t get his association with the ram until relatively late through a partial absorption of the cult of Khnum, hence the newer species being used for his ram.

The word for ram in Ancient Egyptian is ba which sounds the same as the word for one of the spirit parts of a person, and this pun leads to another of Khnum’s roles in Egyptian religion. He is seen as the ba (spirit) of a variety of gods – most often Re but also Osiris and Geb. Because of this when Re is shown travelling through the netherworld during the night he is often shown in his barque with a ram’s head, representing his ba Khnum, and sometimes this deity is called Khnum-Re.

Khnum also has the typical family associations of Egyptian gods – he has consorts and children, who are different in different times and places. On Elephantine his family is Anuket (consort) and Satet (child/consort) who are also both daughters of Re, but in Esna his consort is the minor lioness goddess Menhyt and he also has strong associations with Neith in that temple. He is sometimes also regarded as the father of Sobek, the crocodile god, with Neith as the mother. In some situations his female counterpart is the goddess Heket, a frog goddess who was the personification of childbirth.

Khnum doesn’t just illustrate how the Egyptians had multiple ideas on where people came from, he’s also a good example of how Egyptian culture & religion wasn’t static. Over the millennia he develops in an organic fashion from a local controller of the floods to a universal creator deity associated with the major cults of the Egyptian state.


Resources used:

“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends” Garry J. Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture” Richard H. Wilkinson

Hundreds of Thousands

I remember one year when I was in primary school we collected frog spawn from some local pond and put it in a fish tank in the classroom so we could watch the tadpoles hatch. And I remember being a bit in awe of just how much there was – all that frog spawn and we’d only taken a little bit of it, and there were so many tadpoles in our fish tank! There were going to be so many frogs! Of course some years later I realised that most tadpoles would get eaten by fish long before they got to be adult frogs, but the point still stands. So it should be no surprise that the ancient Egyptians, who were a lot closer to nature than a city girl in the early 1980s, should have a similar association between frogs and fertility & rebirth. It’s even embedded in their writing system – there is a frog shaped hieroglyph (used as an ideograph for the phrase wekhem ankh “repeating life”) and a tadpole shaped hieroglyph which is used to write the number 100,000.

Frogs appear in Egyptian art & artifacts from Prehistoric Egypt right through into Christian times. In Predynastic times the most common frog shaped object is small stone jars – a suitable size and material to hold small amounts of a precious or volatile liquid. Some of these have been found in non-funerary contexts and have features (like handles suitable for hanging them up) that suggest they were used in life. Sadly none of the jars that have been discovered contained any residue that could be analysed. One always needs to be cautious about making assumptions about prehistoric Egypt based on known Pharaonic beliefs but even with such caveats Diana Craig Patch speculates (in “Dawn of Egyptian Art”) that these may’ve contained substances used during childbirth.

Early Dynastic Frogs

As I alluded to in the last paragraph in Pharaonic Egypt there’s an association of frogs with childbirth. The deity most associated with the frog is a goddess called Heket. She is venerated as the female counterpart of Khnum, and is sometimes shown as a frog-headed woman assisting him at his potters wheel while he forms the person & their ka. Heket first shows up in the Pyramid Texts, helping the deceased king on his way to the sky and his afterlife. By the Middle Kingdom she is associated with childbirth and in particular the final stages of labour – she features in the Middle Kingdom story about the founding of the 5th Dynasty assisting with the birth of the three kings that inaugurated the dynasty. Also in the Middle Kingdom midwives might’ve been referred to as “servants of Heket”. She’s shown on ivory wands from the Middle Kingdom as a frog, and frog shaped amulets are fairly common from the New Kingdom onward. They’re never as common as Bes or Taweret amulets, but even during the Amarna period they are still found in reasonable numbers.

Heket had some of her own temples and her main cult centre was at a place called Herwer (but it’s not known where that actually was). She also appears depicted in temples dedicated to other deities, for instance she shows up in Seti I’s temple at Abydos receiving an offering from the king himself. Due to her association with birth and fertility she becomes associated with the Osiris mythology, for instance there’s a relief in the Late Period temple at Hibis where she’s depicted as a frog overseeing the conception of Horus. Her cult survives through until at least the end of the Late Period, as she’s mentioned in the reliefs of the tomb of Petosiris at Tuna el-Gebel which dates to around 300 BCE.

Heket was not the only deity to be associated with the frog. There are also the four male deities of the Hermopolitan Ogdoad. The Ogdoad are the eight primordial gods that existed before the world was created in the Hermopolitan mythology. They were Huh and his consort Hauhet, Nun and his consort Naunet, Kuk and his consort Kauket and Amun and his consort Amaunet. At first they are depicted as human deities, but later in Egyptian history they are shown as pairs of frog (male) and snake (female) headed deities. As well as this the frog is sometimes depicted with the god Hapi as part of a symbol of fecundity – for instance at the temple at Philae. Frogs as a symbol of rebirth don’t even die out when Pharaonic Egyptian culture fades away – they make it into Coptic Christian iconography as a sign of the resurrection!

And the last bit of frog-related iconography to look out for is tadpoles sitting on shen rings, or associated with notched palm leaves or staves. The tadpole is here as the hieroglyph for 100,000 and the two or three symbols taken together express a wish for the king to reign or live for hundreds of thousands of eternities. I didn’t know about this till I was reading up on frogs for this article, and I wish I had – so many missed opportunities to look out for tadpoles in reliefs!


Resources used:

“Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs” James P. Allen
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper & Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“Dawn of Egyptian Art” Diana Craig Patch
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Reading Egyptian Art” Richard H. Wilkinson