Menat Counterpoise

Counterpoises like this are often attached to necklaces made of beads, called a menat, which were used like a rattle to make noise during rituals for the goddess Hathor. This one however was intended to have an aegis attached, it no longer exists but maybe depicted Hathor.

An aegis is a collar with a deity’s face above it, and it would’ve been attached so that when the counterpoise was held in the hand to shake the goddess’s face was upright. I assume (but am not sure) that there would also still have been beads to make it a rattle.

The goddess picked out in gold inlay in the top part of the object is called Nebethetepet – she’s associated with Hathor and personifies the original creative act of Atum. The columns on either side of her do have Hathor heads, and there’s a Hathor head above the shrine too.

At the bottom of the object is Horus as a falcon, sitting in the papyrus marshes – a reference to how he was hidden away when young so that Seth couldn’t find him and murder him like he’d murdered Osiris. Hathor was one of Horus’s protectors during this time.

I like the way bronze with gold inlay objects such as this look, with the shiny gold against the warm dark bronze. But it’s important to remember that’s probably not how it looked! The bronze would’ve been shinier in the past and there may even have been colour added.

Menat Counterpoise (for Attachment to an Aegis). Provenance unknown. Third Intermediate Period – Late Period, c. 800-525 BCE. Acc. No.: 08.202.15

The counterpoise dates to the Third Intermediate Period or Late Period, and it’s not known where it was found. It’s now in the Met Museum, acc. no.: 08.202.15.

See it on my photo site: https://photos.talesfromthetwolands.org/picture.php?/1436/

Some of the legends I’ve retold on the blog are referenced in this object:
The Heliopolitan creation myth: https://talesfromthetwolands.org/2019/11/01/how-everything-became/
The death of Osiris: https://talesfromthetwolands.org/2019/09/01/the-draught-of-her-wings-was-the-breath-of-life-in-his-nose/
Two episodes from the dispute between Horus & Seth: https://talesfromthetwolands.org/2020/01/11/from-his-own-mouth-condemned/ and https://talesfromthetwolands.org/2021/06/07/weep-not-for-horus/

Jigsaw Puzzles:
easier: https://www.jigsawplanet.com/?rc=play&pid=0bb24103d1d8
harder: https://www.jigsawplanet.com/?rc=play&pid=235d635a0a20

Weep Not for Horus!

Come! Listen! I shall tell you a tale of days when the gods still walked the lands, a story of the contest between uncle and nephew for the inheritance of Osiris and the rage of a son betrayed by his mother!

For it was that in those days Seth of the desert, the impetuous, had lost the kingship of the Two Lands condemned by his own words to give up his rule in favour of his brother’s son, the rightful heir, Horus. Yet even with the face of Ma’at herself set against him, even so Seth the powerful, Seth the strong refused to accept the judgement of the gods against him and in his anger he challenged his young nephew to a contest of strength to determine who was fit to rule.

“Come my nephew, let us become hippopotamuses!”
“Come my nephew, let us retreat to the depths of the waters, to the depths of the Great Green itself!””
“Come my nephew let us remain there until only the strongest of us survives to rule the Two Lands!”

And Horus, youthful and full of courage, at once joined Seth as a hippopotamus in the depths. Three long months they were to remain there, three long months without rising to greet Shu of the air above, three long months to prove their strength!

A Pair of Hippos

But Isis the mother, Isis the sister, Isis the widow, Isis was full of trepidation for Seth had tricked their brother, her husband, Osiris to his death. She feared her son, Horus the rightful heir, would meet the same fate at the hands of his uncle, her jealous brother Seth! And in her fearfulness she resolved to avenge herself for the death of her husband at the hands of his brother, and protect her son from his uncle’s wrath.

Taking up a harpoon, a barbed harpoon suitable for hunting the dangerous hippopotamus, Isis the mother of Horus went down to the water’s edge and cast forth her weapon. Strong was Isis and clear sighted, and so her harpoon flew straight and true and struck where she aimed! But one hippopotamus looks much like another hippopotamus, and it was Horus, her son, who cried out in a loud voice:

“Isis my mother! Why do you pierce the flesh of your son? Remove your barb from my flesh that I may not die!”

And Isis weeping tears of sorrow for her mistake used her great magic to return her harpoon to her hand. She used that magic to heal Horus, her son, the rightful heir, so that he was as if she’d never pierced his flesh. And then she cast again, strong, clear-sighted and confident in her target! Seth, her brother, cried out in a loud voice:

“Isis my sister! Am I not your brother? Your only living brother! Why do you pierce my flesh so that I shall surely die?”

And Isis wept once more, for the bond of blood between them meant she could not bring herself to kill Seth, her brother, regardless of his crimes or her fears. So once again she used her great magic to return the harpoon to her hand and make all as if the strike had never been.

But Horus, young Horus, her son and the rightful heir, was enraged by this betrayal from his father’s wife, his mother Isis! He burst forth from the waters wearing the face of the leopard in his righteous fury! Carrying a mighty axe he came forth from the waters to confront his mother, his uncle’s sister, Isis! And with the strength of that fury, with one single stroke of that axe, he cleft the head of his mother from her body!

The gods cried out with grief!
The gods cried out with shock!
The gods cried out with horror!

And Horus the murderer of his mother, Horus still grasping the head of Isis his mother, Horus turned and fled for the desert and the mountains beyond. All the gods, even Seth the brother of Isis, set out after him to find Horus the mother-killer and to bring him for the punishment he deserved for his crime against the true order of the world!

Seth of the desert, Seth fleet of foot, Seth who knew the ways of the wild places, it was he who found Horus first as he hid in the mountains. Seth was the only one of the gods who was not filled with rage at the death of Isis his sister, Isis the meddler, Isis the one who had tricked him into giving up the lordship of the Two Lands. But this did not make him merciful to his brother’s son Horus, Horus who had the rightful claim to his father’s estate. For here was his chance to destroy his brother’s line both root and branch, his chance to eradicate all competition for the lordship of the Two Lands! And Seth, mighty Seth, over-powered young Horus the rightful heir, plucked out the eyes of Horus the killer of Isis and left him to wait for his death!

Weep not for Horus!
Weep not for Osiris’s rightful heir!
Weep not!

For Horus was always and forever within the protective embrace of Hathor, the Great Cow, she of the Western Mountain. And Hathor was the next of the gods to find lost Horus, the killer of his mother, weeping bloody tears in the mountains where Seth had left him. With her magic she brought a gazelle to them, and brought forth its milk. With this milk she anointed the sockets where his eyes had been. With her magic she healed the young Horus, son of Isis, heir to the Two Lands, and made him whole again!

And together, Horus under the protection of Hathor, they returned to the Black Land to stand before the council of the gods once more. But that, my friends, is a story for another day.


Resources used:

Hart, George. 1990. Egyptian Myths. British Museum Press.
Shaw, Garry J. 2014. The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends. Thames & Hudson.
Tyldesley, Joyce. 2010. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt.Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books.

This is a second episode from “The Contendings of Horus and Seth,” which narrates the struggle between Horus & Seth for the kingship of Egypt – it follows on immediately after From His Own Mouth Condemned. I have taken the basic plot from the resources above, and then retold the story in my own words. Don’t worry about Isis, she doesn’t seem to’ve been harmed by the events of the story, but the surviving version of the story doesn’t give any details as to how she got her head back.

Dendera Temple

One of the sites on the standard tourist itinerary is the temple at Dendera – it’s near modern Qena, a bit under 100km north of Luxor on a large bend on the river Nile. When I’ve visited we’ve done it on the way back to our Luxor hotel from Abydos. Dendera isn’t the original Egyptian name of the site, it’s derived from later Greek names (Tantere and Tentyris) – the Egyptians called the town Iunet. It’s positioned near the entrance to the Wadi Hammamat, which was an important route to the Red Sea as well as providing resources itself (including all the siltstone that Predynastic palettes were made from). As a result it was a strategically important place, and was the capital of the sixth Upper Egyptian Nome (nomes were administrative districts). Unsurprisingly, therefore, there are indications that the site was occupied from early on – the necropolis has graves at least as far back as the Early Dynastic Period.

It’s not clear when the temple complex at Dendera was first built, but there is evidence that there was a temple there during the time of Pepi I and that this may’ve been an older temple which was rebuilt during the reign of Khufu. After this there is definitely a chapel dating to the Middle Kingdom (dedicated to Montuhotep II, now in the Cairo Museum). And there is quite a bit of evidence to show that New Kingdom kings built and extended the temples at the site. The surviving temple, the one you’ve been to see if you’ve been to the site, primarily dates to the Ptolemaic Period. One reason archaeological evidence preceding this is slim is that it appears when the current structure was built the site was flattened and it’s built directly on top of the remains from the Old Kingdom. The first surviving structure at the site dates to the reign of Nectanebo I (the founder of the 30th Dynasty in the Late Period, the last native dynasty of Egyptian kings). But most of what you see is Ptolemaic or Roman. The earliest Ptolemaic cartouche in the main temple is that of Ptolemy XII Auletes (Cleopatra VII’s father, really very late, tho see below when I come back to empty cartouches at the site), and Kent Weeks suggests that most of the building work for the Ptolemaic parts of the temples took place in the reign of Cleopatra VII.

The temple was first visited by Europeans quite early in the Western “rediscovery” of Egypt. The first European to write about it was Peter Lucas who visited in 1716 CE. And the site was also one of the places that Napoleon’s great expedition in 1798 visited – they removed the Dendera Zodiac from a roof chapel and sent it to the Louvre (replacing it with a copy that has been painted black to resemble the surroundings).

Like any large Egyptian temple there are several structures on the site which are part of the temple complex as a whole, and the surviving ones are only some of those that once stood there. The primary dedication of the complex is the triad of Horus, Hathor and Ihy. The surviving main temple at the site is the one dedicated to Hathor, but there would once have been two more – the others dedicated to Horus and to Ihy (and this was Ihy’s main cult centre). Dendera is the principle cult centre of Hathor, and has been since at least the Old Kingdom. As well as the temple here there is also a burial ground for cows, the sacred animal of Hathor. The local form of Hathor is closely associated with Nut – emphasising her roles as a sky goddess and a daughter of Re. She is also a goddess with strong links to the west and the dead.

As I said, there are many structures on the site not just the main temple. These include a couple of mammisis, a sanatorium, a temple of Isis and even a Coptic church! The main temple lies on a north-south orientation and most of the other structures are at right angles to this with their entrances to the east. This is actually quite an unusual orientation, and has to do with the direction the Nile is flowing in this part of Egypt. Despite our labelling the axes according to the cardinal directions, from an Ancient Egyptian perspective it was often the case that these were relative to the flow of the Nile rather than the true cardinal directions. So temples were often situated with their main axis at right angles to the Nile, which is notionally an east/west axis (as the Nile flows from south to north). But at Dendera there is a great bend in the Nile, and it’s actually flowing to the east at this point – hence a temple pointing towards the Nile is oriented from north to south in terms of cardinal directions but is still symbolically facing east towards the Nile.

The whole thing is surrounded by a mudbrick enclosure wall, built with a technique called “pan bedding” – this produces a wavy profile to the wall, as there are alternating areas of convex and concave courses of bricks. This does have practical implications (it may improve stability on ground that expanded and contracted as the waters of the Nile rose & fell with the inundation), but in typical Egyptian fashion they may also have had a symbolic meaning. The wavy profile may symbolise the waters of Nun – the boundary wall is thus holding chaos back from the sacred ground of the temple (which is thus the domain of order or ma’at). There are a couple of gateways in the wall, one in the north (the primary gate) and one at the southern end of the east wall. The main gateway is actually rather smaller and less imposing than is the case for other temples. It’s not the typical huge pylon, but instead a structure called a “propylon gateway” and it was built during the reigns of the Roman Emperors Domitian and Trajan. Outside this gate are some other Roman structures – chapels of a type we call kiosks. And within the mudbrick enclosure wall there is also an inner wall – this was built in stone but was never finished.

As well as buildings within the walls there are also a couple of water-related features. Unlike the one at the Precinct of Mut at Karnak this is a typical example – it is rectangular in shape. At the corners were flights of stairs descending into the water, down which the priests would walk to purify themselves. There are also wells on the site, one of which may be a nilometer used to measure the annual inundation.

To the west of the main temple between the gateway and the outer hypostyle hall of the main temple are four buildings. Two of these are mammisis – mammisi is a word that was coined by Jean-François Champollion (as a new word in the Coptic language). It means “birth-place” or “birth-house” and it used for a particular type of building found associated with several Egyptian temples dating from the Late Period through to the Roman Period. The two at Dendera pretty much cover the date range. The older one was built during the reign of Nectanebo I and the other was built by the Emperor Augustus and decorated by Trajan. As is typical they are both small temples placed at right angles to the main temple. The decorations within focus on the marriage (in this case of Hathor) and the birth of Ihy (the child of the triad) and the Pharaoh. The decoration in the Roman mammisi is particularly fine. One of the most famous scenes is of Ihy being formed on the potter’s wheel, and there are also scenes of other deities praising Ihy. The texts include hymns to all three members of the triad. And in keeping with the theme of birth the god Bes (a patron of childbirth) is depicted around the tops of the columns.

The temples were the site of “mystery plays” (so-called by analogy to medieval European mystery plays, I think, rather than being an Egyptian term). The play had 13 acts, with 2 intervals, and re-enacted the birth of Ihy and of the Pharaoh – symbolically linking them together and ensuring the continued existence of the royal line. Although not quite the same idea there are resonances between these plays and the reliefs from the New Kingdom that depict the parentage of the king as being the god Amun impregnating his human mother. Both link the king’s birth explicitly with the gods, even though the link is different in each case.

The other ancient Egyptian building in this group i that’s still on the site is a sanatorium – the chapel dedicated to Montuhotep II that I mentioned above isn’t on the site any more. The sanatorium is where pilgrims to the site would’ve stayed and was also for their healing. It is possible it was a place where they slept in order to receive healing dreams (an “incubation chamber”), but it’s more likely that the primary function was as a centre for cippus healing (where water would be poured over a stela called a cippus depicting Horus and covered in spells, and the now magical water was ingested by the ill person). The presence of a sanatorium at this temple may be because Hathor has healing associations (in one myth she restores the sight of Horus after Seth put his eye out), but they were also more generally attached to temples regardless of dedication from the Late Period onward. Although, having said that – this one is the only one that is known to’ve been built for this purpose, at other sites the evidence is less clear cut.

And finally, nestled between the mammisis, is a Coptic church which was built in the 5th Century CE. This seems a little incongruous but it’s something that often happens – a lot of Ancient Egyptian temples have Coptic churches or monasteries built in or next to the ancient structure. This isn’t restricted to Christian buildings, for instance there’s a mosque inside Luxor Temple. Sacred sites seem to hang on to their sacredness even as the religion around them changes.

Unlike Christian churches, temples in Ancient Egypt were not places where the general public could go inside and worship. And so there had to be more accessible structures for personal petitions to the gods. On the outside of the southern wall of the main temple there is a false door which is shaped like a Hathor sistrum which once had a wooden canopy. This is a place where those who could not enter the temple itself could leave their offerings and make their prayers. Inside the temple, in a chapel that backs onto this false door there is a niche that matches up with the outer structure, which once contained a statue of the goddess.

As a tourist visitor to the temple one is also taken to this wall, but not to leave one’s prayers for Hathor. Instead what we look at is the large relief on the western end of the wall that shows Cleopatra VII (“the” Cleopatra) and her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion, standing and making offerings to the gods. A part of Cleopatra’s campaign to promote Caesarion as the heir to her throne. Whilst with hindsight we know it was doomed, she must’ve been hoping that with Rome as her ally (and her Roman son lined up to take the throne) there might be a new period of stability for Egypt. The Ptolemaic Period in general, and particularly towards the end of it, was a time of great political instability with multiple civil wars and a high turnover of rulers. You can maybe see signs of that elsewhere in the decoration of Dendera Temple as well – there are reliefs where the cartouches are empty and the name of the king hasn’t been filled in, and some just contain the word per-aa (Pharaoh). One possible explanation is that as the king kept changing the people carving the reliefs didn’t have time (or want to commit) to carve a name in them. But I’ve also heard an alternative explanation that it’s more about symbolising eternal kingship rather than one particular king, and I’m not sure if there’s convincing evidence to determine which is the case.

The rest of the decorative scheme of the outer side of the walls of the main temple focuses on scenes of the king laying out the temple, placing the first stones (symbolically one assumes!) and dedicating the temple to Hathor. There are similar scenes in other more public spaces of the temple, including the outer and inner hypostyle halls (see below) – this tells us something about how the kings (mostly Roman Emperors) who commissioned this decoration wanted to be seen. Not as much emphasis on warmongering as earlier kings (perhaps a little close to the bone in a country they conquered?), and more on building houses for the gods.

Immediately behind the main temple is a structure called the Iseum – it’s a temple dedicated to Isis and build by the Emperor Augustus re-using stones from earlier structures on the site. The axis of this temple is unusual – it’s split with the main part of the temple facing towards the east like all the other subsidiary temples on the site, but then the sanctuary faces north towards the sanctuary of Hathor in the main temple. Once there was a statue of Osiris supported by Isis & Nephthys in the sanctuary.

Temple of Dendera

Entering the temple proper (finally!) the facade that greets you consists of six columns joined by a half-height wall between them and a central doorway that leads into the temple. This part of the temple, and the outer hypostyle hall behind it, was built after Cleopatra’s time – in the 1st Century CE, at the orders of the Emperor Tiberius. There’s a Greek inscription above the door that tells us this, saying that the temple is “for the Emperor Tiberius Caesar, the new Augustus, son of the divine Augustus […]”. The columns in this area are all topped with four heads of Hathor arranged to make a cube. These heads are themselves topped with a naos-shaped sistrum. The heads were pretty much all deliberately damaged in antiquity. Hathoric columns are not unique to this Roman structure at Dendera – there are examples seen from the Middle Kingdom onward at a variety of different sites. This is just the most well known example.

Inside the outer hypostyle hall is a spectacular ceiling – it still retains a lot of its colour, and has recently been cleaned, so it looks pretty impressive. It’s decorated with a chart of the sky, mixing newer ideas about the stars brought in by the Greeks and Romans with traditional Egyptian ideas about the sun’s journey. For instance there are signs of the zodiac that came, ultimately, from the Babylonians mixed in with images of Nut swallowing the sun so that she can give birth to it again which is a very old Egyptian belief. The walls include the decorative motifs I talked about above – the king (or rather, Emperor in this case) laying out, building and dedicating the temple. There are also scenes of the purification of the king.

Moving further into the temple you come to the inner hypostyle hall. This room is called the Hall of Appearances, and is where the statue of the goddess was brought to appear at the beginning of rituals and processions. The hall has 6 columns, and the walls are decorated once again with depictions of the king participating in the building of the temple. There are six small rooms opening off the hall, 3 on the east side and 3 on the west. One of the eastern ones we call a “perfume laboratory” as the reliefs have to do with the making of perfume and show the king offering incense – this also has representations of the god Shezmu, originally the god of wine & oil presses but by the Ptolemaic Period known as the Provider of Perfumes for the gods. In another room on the east the king offers food to the goddess. And on the western side there is a room where the king offers silver, and another where he pours libations of water. The rearmost room on each side is a treasury. An opening to the east allows offerings to be brought in, and to the west another opening leads to a well. The area as a whole appears to be for the preparation of offerings and the storage of items needed for the daily ritual at the temple.

Continuing deeper into the temple you come to a room called the Hall of Offerings, to the sides of this room are the stairs to the roof. This hall was the area where sacrifices were dedicated to the deities of the temple, and the scenes on the walls show the king making these offerings . From each side of this room are stairs leading to the roof. The room after this is called the Hall of the Ennead (the name for “group of nine gods”) which is immediately outside the inner sanctuary – here the statues of other deities assembled before joining processions. Amongst the various deities represented in the temple at Dendera were Shezmu (who I just mentioned), Shepet (a form of Taweret, in the Roman mammisi), the Heliopolitan Bull Mnevis and the lion god Mahes. To the left and right are chambers that sorted the clothing and other accessories of these gods – the western room is a linen chamber, and the eastern room is a treasury. If you go through this treasury you come to a courtyard with a set of stairs at the end leading up to a room called the wabet or “Pure Chapel”. In this room ceremonies of offering to Hathor are performed, and these are shown on the walls of the courtyard (along with scenes of processions of deities from Upper & Lower Egypt).

The sanctuary itself is now empty, but it would once have held a shrine containing the statue of the goddess Hathor and her ceremonial barque in which she would travel during processions. These items are depicted on the decoration of the sanctuary. Surrounding this room were 11 chapels dedicated to the other deities who were associated with Hathor at this site. These included deified forms of two of Hathor’s chief attributes – her sistrum and the menat necklace.

Underneath the main temple and within its walls there are crypts, which were used to store cult objects used in the temple. I remember when I visited the temple I’d assumed that this usually invisible and functional space would also be plain – but that is not the Egyptian way, the walls of the underground one I went into are decorated with reliefs that depict the items that were once stored there. This includes a ba statue of Hathor which was once used in processions, such as one at New Year. In this procession the statue was taken out to visit various parts of the temple, including a chapel for Nut and a chapel on the roof where the ba statue was placed overnight. In the morning with the first sunrise of the New Year the statue was bathed in sunlight, which was seen to infuse it with new life for the new year. The staircases on which the procession travelled were decorated with representations of the procession itself – participated in by gods & kings for eternity. On the western staircase the procession carved into the walls leads up to the roof, and in the eastern one the procession goes down into the temple once more.

This was not the only chapel on the roof of the temple at Dendera – there were also others, including two symbolic mortuary chapels for Osiris. These were mirrored with one suite on the east and one on the west of the roof. The roof of one of these was the famous Zodiac ceiling which is now in the Louvre as I mentioned above. The zodiac design itself is primarily a Babylonian zodiac, and is not the same as earlier Egyptian depictions of the heavens (such as those in tombs in the Valley of the Kings). Having said that, it’s not purely a foreign import, elements of Egyptian ideas are incorporated – just like the outer hypostyle hall ceiling combines both ideas of the heavens. Nonetheless even the idea that the stars can influence human destiny wasn’t part of the Ancient Egyptian mindset until the Ptolemaic Period – presumably imported from the Greek culture of the new rulers – previously unlucky and lucky days were based on mythology and the timing of festivals. The date that this zodiac depicts isn’t clear, as it’s difficult to be sure how to match the Egyptian constellations and planet names to our own. However one suggestion is that it may’ve originally represented the conception date for Caesarion, but was later altered to a significant date in the Emperor Augustus’s life. I don’t think that’s widely accepted, however.

There are other more typically Ancient Egyptian elements to the decorative scheme of these chapels. These include figures of Nut (so a more typically Egyptian sky than the Babylonian zodiac) and scenes depicting elements from the mythology of Osiris. This includes the conception of Horus, with Isis as a falcon hovering over the phallus of the mummified body of her dead brother-husband Osiris in order to receive his seed. An inscription also details the annual ceremonial burial of a corn mummy made of soil and grains of barley mixed together. This would then sprout, symbolising the rebirth of Osiris.

Another chapel is one of the earlier structures of the temple – at the southwestern corner of the roof is a kiosk with 12 Hathor-headed columns surrounding it which once supported a wooden roof. This has cartouches of Ptolemy XII on it. And demonstrating that the roof continued to be important ceremonial space the roof of the outer hypostyle hall (the newest part of the temple proper) was used by pilgrims in antiquity who waited there for signs & miracles from Hathor herself.

And also on the roof are waterspouts. Even though it doesn’t rain often in Ancient Egypt, when it does it can be as substantial rainstorms – so the flat roofs of temples need some sort of drainage. The spouts at Dendera (as at some other temples) have lion heads decorating them. These are thus symbolically protective as well as functional pieces of architecture. And as well as these protective associations they are also harnessed to generate water imbued with magic powers – in a vertical line on the wall directly below the waterspout are written magical texts. In the Egyptian belief system the written word itself had power, and pouring water over words (like with the cippi I mentioned above) would transfer this power into the water.

So here ends our tour of the temple complex at Dendera – it’s a delight to see, as it’s so well preserved. But equally it’s so well preserved because it’s so new, relatively speaking – although a lot is Ptolemaic, it’s late Ptolemaic and a lot is also Roman.


Resources used:

Park, Rosalind. 2015. “Reflections on the Dendara Zodiac: Addressing the What, When and Why.” Spring Lodge Centre, Witham, Essex, December 6.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum.
Weeks, Kent R. 2005. The Illustrated Guide to Luxor Tombs, Temples, and Museums.American Univ. in Cairo Press.
Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt.Thames & Hudson.
———. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.

And She Blew Through the Towns Like the Hot Desert Wind

Come! Listen! I shall tell you a tale from days long ago, so long ago that not only was it before your mother was born, but also before the birth of her mother and her mother’s mother too.

And in those days the gods lived amongst men, and there was not the separation that there is now. Re ruled over the towns of mankind and the greatest of men was to Re as the meanest peasant is to our own Pharaoh. For many long years there was peace & plenty: the flood waters rose, the harvests ripened and the people grew fat off the land. But even Re himself is not immune to the passage of time and the god became old, his bones turned to silver, his flesh to gold and his hair to the bluest of lapis lazuli. The ageing of a god is not like that of mortal man, yet still the people murmured amongst themselves. “He is too old to rule!” “He is surely weak and cannot protect us!” and other such lies & calumnies.

So it came to pass that mortal men plotted and schemed amongst themselves and rose up against Re, pursuing rebellion even at the the gates of his palace walls. And fearsome was his wrath and the people fled before him, fleeing into the desert. Yet Re was not satisfied with this terror and fearing that the people would rise up again he took secret council amongst the oldest of gods. Nun, the chief amongst them, advised his king that there would be no peace until the rebellious ones were destroyed. So Re called his daughter, his Eye, to attend him: “Hathor, come! I have a task for you”. On hearing the insult done to her father, Hathor too became full of rage and gladly accepted his commandment. In her rage she took on her most terrible aspect, Sekhmet, She Who Is Powerful, the lioness of the desert. And she armed herself with plague and with pestilence and took up her bow. First to the desert she went, and there she slew those who had fled. But her wrath was not yet sated; she turned towards the river.

And she blew through the towns like the hot desert wind.

Statue of the goddess Sekhmet

Where she looked, men sickened. Where she walked, men were injured. The arrows she shot met their marks, and the people died of wounds, and of sickness. Death stalked through the land in her wake and the bodies lay thick on the ground. The river ran red with blood, and as the day drew to a close Sekhmet returned to Re. Her muzzle red with the blood of mortal men she proclaimed to Re “I have begun my task, and I find it pleases me! The mortals shall trouble you no further for tomorrow I shall bring all to an end”.

As Sekhmet rested to gather her strength, Re found that he was troubled. Not all men had rebelled, and those wrongdoers were long since dead. His anger had faded, his thirst for vengeance satisfied, and he was moved to protect what remained of his creation for those men still alive had done him no wrong. But he knew Sekhmet would not be so easily turned aside now that she had tasted blood. So Re ordered his servants to fetch him many barrels of beer, and he ordered his servants to bring vast quantities of red ochre. And they mixed the ochre into the beer until it was the colour of blood, and poured it out on the fields by the river where Sekhmet would pass by in the morning.

And when she went forth she saw this pool, this glistening pool, this deep red blood-coloured pool, and she could not resist drinking for she had a taste for the blood of men. The goddess drank, she drank deep, and she drank until the fields were dry.

And when she had finished, the beer had done its work and cat-like she curled up where she was and she slept the sleep of the drunk. In her sleep a change took place and she rose as Hathor once more, her thirst quenched and the fire of her fury diminished. And she returned to the side of her father.

But Re was no longer content to remain amongst men, for he feared that this cycle would return again and again as he grew older and men grew more restless. And so he resolved to leave this world behind him. He designated a Pharaoh, a Son of Re to rule in his place and he ascended to the heavens on the back of Nut, she of the sky.

And that, my friends, is why the gods no longer walk among us as they once did.


Resources used:

“The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods & Legends” Garry Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson
“Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley

I took the plot of the legend from “The Destruction of Mankind” which is part of the New Kingdom royal funerary text “The Book of the Cow of Heaven”, as described in both Tyldesley & Shaw’s books. I have then retold it in my own style combining Egyptian imagery (in particular that associated with Sekhmet) with my own cultural references.