We talk an awful lot about Egyptian sun deities, but not so often about moon ones. Well, one of them does come up quite often but not in the context of his association with the moon – and anyway, he’s not the deity I was planning to talk about today. But it is the case that at first Thoth was the primary deity associated with the moon, but he became a more general god of knowledge and time, and so Khonsu took over his role as the god of the moon. Much later, in the Late Period, Iah takes on this role – as the concept of Khonsu too has shifted away from association with the moon.
Before I move on to talk more about Khonsu, let’s just back up a moment and I’ll point out something I learnt while reading for this article that I had never really considered before. The names of the “cosmological” gods of Ancient Egypt generally bear little to no relationship to the name of the element of the cosmos that they are associated with. For instance the word for moon is jʿḥ – yes, the Late Period moon god called Iah is the same (accounting for anglicisation of the transliteration), but neither Thoth nor Khonsu are very similar at all. And Erik Hornung cautions that one should therefore avoid a simplistic assignment of a deity as “the moon god” or whatever it might be – the relationship between deity and element of the cosmos is clearly more complex than a straightforward personification.
One of the two proposed etymologies for Khonsu’s name does fit in well with his being a moon god, however – which is that it derives from the verb khenes which means “to cross over or traverse”. Khonsu therefore means “the wanderer” or “he who traverses [the sky]”. The other possible etymology is dismissed by Richard Wilkinson as outdated, although at least one author I read prefers it – this explanation splits the name into kh (meaning placenta) and nesu (meaning king), and sees Khonsu as also being a personification of the king’s placenta. In his book “Early Dynastic Egypt” Toby Wilkinson prefers this explanation as it makes sense of a piece of kingly regalia – early depictions of the king show him accompanied by standards topped by various objects which are perhaps each an aspect of kingship. One of these is a bag-like object later associated with Khonsu. There are a few suggestions for what this might be but Toby Wilkinson’s preferred explanation is that it represents a placenta. He also says that the royal placenta may’ve been associated with the royal ka – the spirit that conveys divine kingship on the mortal king – and cites parallels for the deification of the placenta in other related African cultures. However he also says that the royal placenta may’ve been thought to be the king’s stillborn twin, which I’m afraid I completely boggle at – the Egyptians must surely’ve been able to tell the difference between the afterbirth and a dead baby!
Khonsu, as well as Thoth, was involved in the reckoning of time – an appropriate activity for a god associated with the moon. He’s the god associated with Hour 8 of the day, but I didn’t find any discussion of why particular gods had particular hours in my books. His more general involvement in the reckoning of time included influencing the gestation of humans and animals (which again fits well with an association with the placenta). And both he & Thoth were believed to assign a fixed lifespan not only to people but to the gods as well.
Khonsu’s roles change over the length of the Egyptian civilisation. In the Pyramid Texts he is a bloodthirsty deity who helps the king catch and slay the gods, so that the king can eat them and absorb their powers (as described in the Cannibal Hymn with hotly debated levels of symbolism vs. realism). Later he is associated with childbirth, which again ties into the association with the placenta and with an influence on the time of gestation. From the New Kingdom and afterwards he’s most often thought of as part of the Theban Triad, the child of Amun & Mut and worshipped with them in the vast temple complex at Karnak. And as so often the Egyptians didn’t feel the need for strict consistency in their religious thought: he’s also the child in another more minor triad – Sobek, Hathor and Khonsu, who were worshipped at Kom Ombo.
By Ptolemaic times he’s part of a complicated rebirth story for Amun as well – during this time period the Egyptians believed that when Amun died he took the form of Osiris and entered the body of Osiris’s mother Opet-Nut, he was then reborn as Khonsu – and there was a temple for Opet-Nut next to the temple of Khonsu in the Karnak complex where this rebirth was supposed to’ve taken place. Khonsu was also linked to Osiris at Edfu temple (a Ptolemaic structure) and called the “son of the leg” (which was the body part of Osiris that was believed to’ve been found there when Osiris’s body was scattered by Seth). And also by this period of Egyptian history Khonsu’s role had morphed once more and he (or at least one form of him, see below) was seen as a healing god. Ptolemy IV believed that Khonsu had personally healed him, and used the epithet “beloved of Khonsu who protects the king and drives away evil spirits”.
Khonsu is generally depicted as a mummiform human figure or wearing a tight-fitting garment. He might have a hawk head, and is sometimes represented by the same sort of baboon as Thoth (the cynocephalus baboon portrayed in a squatting position). If he has a human head he generally wears the sidelock of youth, and may wear the curved beard of the gods. His arms may be partially or completely unrestricted by his tight clothing or mummy wrappings. And if that sounds a lot like Ptah then Richard Wilkinson provides a handy diagnostic – generally Khonsu wears a necklace with a crescent shaped pectoral and a keyhole shaped counterpoise, Ptah’s necklace will not have that shape of counterpoise. In his hawk headed form to distinguish him from other such gods you need to look for his headdress – he wears a full moon sitting inside a horizontal crescent moon on his head. In his hands he may carry a crook & flail – the sceptres associated with Osiris or Horus, and with the king – and he may carry a was and/or djed sceptre as well or instead of those.
The main temple for Khonsu was inside the Amun precinct at the Karnak temple complex, as I mentioned above. It’s well worth a visit if you’re at Karnak as it still has a roof so a lot of colour has survived and it has recently been cleaned (within the last decade) – I remember the decoration as very striking with a white background and lots of reds & golds. This particular temple building was started in the 20th Dynasty by Ramesses III, and finished by later kings. It’s not unusual for multiple gods to have temple buildings or shrines within one larger complex, but I did find it noticeable that (with one exception) all of Khonsu’s shrines are within other larger complexes. The exception is at Tanis where there is a temple to a form of Khonsu called Khonsu-Neferhotep. At Tanis there is also a temple to the Theban Triad as well as a temple that has shrines for Mut, Khonsu and Astarte. These are all Late Period (and later temples), mostly built when the 21st Dynasty moved the capital north to Tanis.
As part of the Theban Triad Khonsu took part in two major annual festivals in the Theban region. These were the Beautiful Festival of the Valley and the Opet Festival. Both were processional festivals where the cult images of the triad were taken in their sacred barques to visit other parts of the area – Khonsu’s barque had falcon heads at stern & prow. The Beautiful Festival of the Valley had begun in the Middle Kingdom, when it was just Amun who was taken from Karnak to Deir el Bahri. It became more elaborate during the New Kingdom – cult images of Amun, Mut and Khonsu plus statues of dead kings and queens were carried first to Deir el Bahri and then along the West Bank to visit each king’s mortuary temple (such as Medinet Habu) as it was built and added to the route. The Opet Festival was a similar occasion, the three cult statues of the Theban Triad were taken in procession from Karnak to Luxor temple. It’s not documented before the 18th Dynasty and when it began the gods travelled by land on the way to Luxor and by river on the way back, but later in the New Kingdom they travelled by river in both directions (being towed along in their sacred barques). It too became more elaborate over time, and by the time of Ramesses III it lasted for month. The central moment of this festival didn’t directly involve the Theban Triad at all – while they rested in their shrines at Luxor the king entered the most sacred part of the temple where he performed a ritual that merged his mortal self with the royal ka, thus renewing his divinity. None of the books I read that talked about Opet Festival mentioned the possibly outdated link between Khonsu and the royal ka that Toby Wilkinson discusses in the context of Early Dynastic Egypt, but it seems suggestive to me for Khonsu (and family) to be involved in this ritual.
As well as temples, festivals and the trappings of state religion there are also amulets of Khonsu dating to later Egyptian history. And small plaques depicting Khonsu are also found. There are two types of these – the first depicts Khonsu with his Theban parents. The second ties into the healing aspects of Khonsu’s later role – they are cippi, which normally depict Horus the Child standing on a crocodile and are intended to have healing properties. These cippi, however, replace Horus with Khonsu but presumably have a similar function.
Khonsu comes in at least three forms (which don’t seem to correlate with the various roles I talk about above), and one of the only stories about him that we have involves one of them sending another to perform a miracle (essentially). This is a lovely piece of propaganda we call the Bentresh Stela which is now in the Louvre – the story purports to be set in the time of Ramesses II but was almost certainly written in Ptolemaic times. In the story Ramesses II is married to a foreign woman, whose sister (called Bentresh) back home in her native land (somewhere in modern day Syria) falls ill. Pharaoh is asked for help, and after consulting with Khonsu of Thebes (the most important form of Khonsu) agrees to send a statue of Khonsu the Provider (a junior form of Khonsu particularly adept at driving out evil spirits) to take the god to this princess to heal her. On arrival of the statue the evil spirits leave the princess and admit the superiority of even this junior form of Khonsu. Bentresh’s father was supposed to send the statue back, but he was so impressed by its ability to heal that he neglects to do so – until Khonsu the Provider appears to him in a dream where the god flies back to Egypt as a golden falcon. Realising he cannot force a god to stay, the statue is returned.
This story is clearly based in some sense on history in that Ramesses II did exist, as did a foreign queen with almost the same name as on the stela (Nefru-Re on the stela, Maat-nefru-Re in history). But its primary purpose is to assert the hierarchy of the different forms of Khonsu – it was found in Karnak, so unsurprisingly the senior form is Khonsu of Thebes who is worshipped there. And of course it makes a point about the innate superiority of even junior Egyptian gods over these foreign spirits and peoples – asserting a sense of national pride during a time when Egypt was ruled by Greek outsiders. Yet another role, for a god who turns out to be a rather more complex concept than just a “moon god”.
Hart, George. Egyptian Myths. The Legendary Past. London: British Museum Press, 1990.
Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1982.
Robins, Gay. The Art of Ancient Egypt. London: The British Museum Press, 2008.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 2008.
Teeter, Emily. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 2007.
Weeks, Kent R. The Illustrated Guide to Luxor Tombs, Temples, and Museums. Cairo: American Univ. in Cairo Press, 2005.
Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003.
———. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000.
Wilkinson, Toby A. H. Early Dynastic Egypt. London: Routledge, 2001.