Sekhmet is a goddess we’ve all seen, I’m sure. As with shabtis pretty much every museum that has an Egyptian collection has a statue of Sekhmet, often more than one. The British Museum even has a dozen or so lined up in the basement as they don’t have space in their galleries to display them all! All these statues have come from either Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple or the Temple of Mut at Karnak, and I’ll touch on why there were so many of them later in the article.
Sekhmet was generally represented as a woman with the head of a lioness. She normally wears a long wig and a sun disk with a uraeus as her headdress. In profile (in 2D art) this is the same as the headdress of Re-Horakhty – although clearly they’re otherwise pretty easy to tell apart! Her long dress is often red in colour – perhaps symbolising Lower Egypt or perhaps her warlike nature (red being the colour of blood after all). The dress may have a rosette over each nipple, which may be a way of representing a lion’s fur patterns or perhaps a star in the Leo constellation (associated with her). She often carries a long papyrus sceptre symbolising Lower Egypt.
Sekhmet’s name means “she who is powerful” and she is the personification of the aggressive side of many feminine deities. This doesn’t just mean that she is referenced when talking about their aggression, in the mythology these goddesses will become Sekhmet when they become enraged and then return to their normal form once they have been appeased. She also had various epithets reflecting her different roles, which were not limited to feminine aggression. Some examples are “Smiter of the Nubians” as a military patroness, “Mistress of Life” as a healing deity and “Mistress of Red Linen” which references her red dress.
Egyptian gods are often arranged into triads or families, worshipped together in a temple complex in a particular town. Sekhmet was part of one of the more important triads – the Memphite Triad, which consisted of Ptah, herself and Nefertem. Originally Sekhmet and Ptah were a pair, with their child Nefertem being added later. She was also regarded as the consort of Sokar, because Sokar and Ptah were to some extent merged together before even the Old Kingdom period.
She is one of a cluster of goddesses who are all identified as the Daughter of Re or the Eye of Re. The boundaries between the edges of what counts as one deity or another seem pretty fluid in Egyptian thought – they are in general a culture more comfortable with fuzzy boundaries and overlapping categories than we are. Amongst the deities she’s linked with are Mut, Hathor, Isis, Mehit, Pakhet and Bastet. Her connection with Mut was particularly strong during the New Kingdom when the Theban Triad of Amun, Mut and Khonsu had become the most prominent gods. This is one explanation for why Amenhotep III commissioned so many Sekhmet statues for the Temple of Mut – the two goddess were regarded almost as a single deity in some times and places. If the image of Sekhmet you are looking at is wearing the Double Crown then this is generally sign that she is Mut & Sekhmet fused.
Sekhmet was also linked to Wadjet, and to the uraeus that the protects the king. This link with kingship also shows up in the Pyramid Texts where she is twice said to have conceived the king, spells PT262 and PT2206. This lends her protection of the king a motherly aspect, which seems particularly relevant to her later link with Mut in the New Kingdom (as Mut was a mother goddess). Her link to the king was not solely motherly and protective, however. She was also invoked as a military patroness, as I mentioned above. Sekhmet was believed to breath fire against her enemies, and the desert winds (which were hot rather than cooling) were thought of as her breath. Pulling together these concepts of motherly protection of the king with aggressive deity waging war with or on behalf of the king is a story about Isis – when she was bringing up the infant Horus and needing to protect him and herself against Seth she became Sekhmet and breathed fire on the attackers that Seth had sent.
And in her role as a plague goddess, which I’ll come to in a moment, she was invoked to describe the king’s power in battle – in the story of Sinuhe it says that the fear of the king overran foreign lands like Sekhmet in a time of pestilence – which conjures up a very powerful image of confusion, suffering and death. Powerful indeed is the king who can cause that level of fear!
Aggression can be protective, but aggression can also be turned against humanity. A whole class of demons in Egyptian thought were referred to as “Messengers of Sekhmet” or “Slaughterers of Sekhmet”, and one role of these demons was to bring plague & pestilence for Sekhmet’s role as a plague goddess. A sick person might also be referred to as having been shot by the “Seven Arrows of Sekhmet”. This is another possible reason for the over 700 statues of Sekhmet that Amenhotep III commissioned – if there was an outbreak of plague during his reign then Sekhmet was the goddess to propitiate. She was regarded as the patron deity of doctors, and her priests were involved in medicine too – perhaps with more of an emphasis on what we would call the magical side of medicine, although that’s not clear. It is suggestive, however, that another possible offspring for Sekhmet was Heka who was the personification of magic. There was even a formal rite of “appeasing Sekhmet” that should be performed in a time of an epidemic – maybe we should consider resurrecting that now!
Sekhmet also shows up in some conceptions of the netherworld – in the Amduat (a royal book of the afterlife) she appears in Hour 10 of the sun god Re’s journey through the night. I read two different descriptions of this hour when I was writing this article – both agreed that Sekhmet and Thoth together heal the Eye of Horus during this hour, showing Sekhmet in her benign aspect. Joyce Tyldesley also described part of this hour as involving eight aspects of Sekhmet punishing the damned before their bodies were destroyed by Horus – showing the goddess’s aggressive side as well.
And of course the most well-known story involving Sekhmet is the tale of her involvement in the destruction of mankind – an Egyptian equivalent of the flood myth, only in this case the destruction is via an angry goddess rather than via floods (which were benevolent in the Egyptian mind). I’ve re-told that story earlier on this blog: And She Blew Through the Towns Like the Hot Desert Wind.
Unsurprisingly for such a powerful goddess, with such a potentially devastating effect on people’s every day lives she had several cult centres across Egypt . But her primary one was in Memphis, where as I said she was part of the local (and nationally important) triad. She’s attested from at least the 5th Dynasty in reliefs at Abusir and more generally known to’ve been worshipped in the Old Kingdom. Her cult continues throughout the rest of the Pharaonic period, well into Graeco-Roman times.
She was also invoked in the popular religion of the people (which was not always the case for the grand state deities). There were many spells and charms to help avoid attracting the wrath of Sekhmet. The end of the year was a particularly dangerous time, and so there was a spell (“The Book of the Last Day of the Year”) to be recited over a piece of cloth you then wore protectively around the neck. And gifts of amulets of Sekhmet were exchanged on New Year’s Day itself to propitiate her.
So despite the fact that the only story we tell about her is focused on destruction and drunkenness, Sekhmet was a complex and all pervading goddess. She was involved in the esoteric mysteries of kingship, she was the personification of rage and of destructive forces, and was the goddess to whom one turned when one was sick. Truly she was the powerful one.
Allen, James P. 2014. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. 3rd ed., rev. and reorg., with a new analysis of the verbal system. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. London ; New York: Penguin Books. Hornung, Erik. 1982. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press. ———. 1999. The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife. Translated by David Lorton. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press. Shaw, Garry J. 2014. The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends. New York, New York: Thames & Hudson. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. Rev. and expanded ed. London: British Museum. Teeter, Emily. 2011. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press. Tyldesley, Joyce. 2010. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt. London, England: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books. Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson. ———. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson.
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We talk an awful lot about Egyptian sun deities, but not so often about moon ones. Well, one of them does come up quite often but not in the context of his association with the moon – and anyway, he’s not the deity I was planning to talk about today. But it is the case that at first Thoth was the primary deity associated with the moon, but he became a more general god of knowledge and time, and so Khonsu took over his role as the god of the moon. Much later, in the Late Period, Iah takes on this role – as the concept of Khonsu too has shifted away from association with the moon.
Before I move on to talk more about Khonsu, let’s just back up a moment and I’ll point out something I learnt while reading for this article that I had never really considered before. The names of the “cosmological” gods of Ancient Egypt generally bear little to no relationship to the name of the element of the cosmos that they are associated with. For instance the word for moon is jʿḥ – yes, the Late Period moon god called Iah is the same (accounting for anglicisation of the transliteration), but neither Thoth nor Khonsu are very similar at all. And Erik Hornung cautions that one should therefore avoid a simplistic assignment of a deity as “the moon god” or whatever it might be – the relationship between deity and element of the cosmos is clearly more complex than a straightforward personification.
One of the two proposed etymologies for Khonsu’s name does fit in well with his being a moon god, however – which is that it derives from the verb khenes which means “to cross over or traverse”. Khonsu therefore means “the wanderer” or “he who traverses [the sky]”. The other possible etymology is dismissed by Richard Wilkinson as outdated, although at least one author I read prefers it – this explanation splits the name into kh (meaning placenta) and nesu (meaning king), and sees Khonsu as also being a personification of the king’s placenta. In his book “Early Dynastic Egypt” Toby Wilkinson prefers this explanation as it makes sense of a piece of kingly regalia – early depictions of the king show him accompanied by standards topped by various objects which are perhaps each an aspect of kingship. One of these is a bag-like object later associated with Khonsu. There are a few suggestions for what this might be but Toby Wilkinson’s preferred explanation is that it represents a placenta. He also says that the royal placenta may’ve been associated with the royal ka – the spirit that conveys divine kingship on the mortal king – and cites parallels for the deification of the placenta in other related African cultures. However he also says that the royal placenta may’ve been thought to be the king’s stillborn twin, which I’m afraid I completely boggle at – the Egyptians must surely’ve been able to tell the difference between the afterbirth and a dead baby!
Khonsu, as well as Thoth, was involved in the reckoning of time – an appropriate activity for a god associated with the moon. He’s the god associated with Hour 8 of the day, but I didn’t find any discussion of why particular gods had particular hours in my books. His more general involvement in the reckoning of time included influencing the gestation of humans and animals (which again fits well with an association with the placenta). And both he & Thoth were believed to assign a fixed lifespan not only to people but to the gods as well.
Khonsu’s roles change over the length of the Egyptian civilisation. In the Pyramid Texts he is a bloodthirsty deity who helps the king catch and slay the gods, so that the king can eat them and absorb their powers (as described in the Cannibal Hymn with hotly debated levels of symbolism vs. realism). Later he is associated with childbirth, which again ties into the association with the placenta and with an influence on the time of gestation. From the New Kingdom and afterwards he’s most often thought of as part of the Theban Triad, the child of Amun & Mut and worshipped with them in the vast temple complex at Karnak. And as so often the Egyptians didn’t feel the need for strict consistency in their religious thought: he’s also the child in another more minor triad – Sobek, Hathor and Khonsu, who were worshipped at Kom Ombo.
By Ptolemaic times he’s part of a complicated rebirth story for Amun as well – during this time period the Egyptians believed that when Amun died he took the form of Osiris and entered the body of Osiris’s mother Opet-Nut, he was then reborn as Khonsu – and there was a temple for Opet-Nut next to the temple of Khonsu in the Karnak complex where this rebirth was supposed to’ve taken place. Khonsu was also linked to Osiris at Edfu temple (a Ptolemaic structure) and called the “son of the leg” (which was the body part of Osiris that was believed to’ve been found there when Osiris’s body was scattered by Seth). And also by this period of Egyptian history Khonsu’s role had morphed once more and he (or at least one form of him, see below) was seen as a healing god. Ptolemy IV believed that Khonsu had personally healed him, and used the epithet “beloved of Khonsu who protects the king and drives away evil spirits”.
Khonsu is generally depicted as a mummiform human figure or wearing a tight-fitting garment. He might have a hawk head, and is sometimes represented by the same sort of baboon as Thoth (the cynocephalus baboon portrayed in a squatting position). If he has a human head he generally wears the sidelock of youth, and may wear the curved beard of the gods. His arms may be partially or completely unrestricted by his tight clothing or mummy wrappings. And if that sounds a lot like Ptah then Richard Wilkinson provides a handy diagnostic – generally Khonsu wears a necklace with a crescent shaped pectoral and a keyhole shaped counterpoise, Ptah’s necklace will not have that shape of counterpoise. In his hawk headed form to distinguish him from other such gods you need to look for his headdress – he wears a full moon sitting inside a horizontal crescent moon on his head. In his hands he may carry a crook & flail – the sceptres associated with Osiris or Horus, and with the king – and he may carry a was and/or djed sceptre as well or instead of those.
The main temple for Khonsu was inside the Amun precinct at the Karnak temple complex, as I mentioned above. It’s well worth a visit if you’re at Karnak as it still has a roof so a lot of colour has survived and it has recently been cleaned (within the last decade) – I remember the decoration as very striking with a white background and lots of reds & golds. This particular temple building was started in the 20th Dynasty by Ramesses III, and finished by later kings. It’s not unusual for multiple gods to have temple buildings or shrines within one larger complex, but I did find it noticeable that (with one exception) all of Khonsu’s shrines are within other larger complexes. The exception is at Tanis where there is a temple to a form of Khonsu called Khonsu-Neferhotep. At Tanis there is also a temple to the Theban Triad as well as a temple that has shrines for Mut, Khonsu and Astarte. These are all Late Period (and later temples), mostly built when the 21st Dynasty moved the capital north to Tanis.
As part of the Theban Triad Khonsu took part in two major annual festivals in the Theban region. These were the Beautiful Festival of the Valley and the Opet Festival. Both were processional festivals where the cult images of the triad were taken in their sacred barques to visit other parts of the area – Khonsu’s barque had falcon heads at stern & prow. The Beautiful Festival of the Valley had begun in the Middle Kingdom, when it was just Amun who was taken from Karnak to Deir el Bahri. It became more elaborate during the New Kingdom – cult images of Amun, Mut and Khonsu plus statues of dead kings and queens were carried first to Deir el Bahri and then along the West Bank to visit each king’s mortuary temple (such as Medinet Habu) as it was built and added to the route. The Opet Festival was a similar occasion, the three cult statues of the Theban Triad were taken in procession from Karnak to Luxor temple. It’s not documented before the 18th Dynasty and when it began the gods travelled by land on the way to Luxor and by river on the way back, but later in the New Kingdom they travelled by river in both directions (being towed along in their sacred barques). It too became more elaborate over time, and by the time of Ramesses III it lasted for month. The central moment of this festival didn’t directly involve the Theban Triad at all – while they rested in their shrines at Luxor the king entered the most sacred part of the temple where he performed a ritual that merged his mortal self with the royal ka, thus renewing his divinity. None of the books I read that talked about Opet Festival mentioned the possibly outdated link between Khonsu and the royal ka that Toby Wilkinson discusses in the context of Early Dynastic Egypt, but it seems suggestive to me for Khonsu (and family) to be involved in this ritual.
As well as temples, festivals and the trappings of state religion there are also amulets of Khonsu dating to later Egyptian history. And small plaques depicting Khonsu are also found. There are two types of these – the first depicts Khonsu with his Theban parents. The second ties into the healing aspects of Khonsu’s later role – they are cippi, which normally depict Horus the Child standing on a crocodile and are intended to have healing properties. These cippi, however, replace Horus with Khonsu but presumably have a similar function.
Khonsu comes in at least three forms (which don’t seem to correlate with the various roles I talk about above), and one of the only stories about him that we have involves one of them sending another to perform a miracle (essentially). This is a lovely piece of propaganda we call the Bentresh Stela which is now in the Louvre – the story purports to be set in the time of Ramesses II but was almost certainly written in Ptolemaic times. In the story Ramesses II is married to a foreign woman, whose sister (called Bentresh) back home in her native land (somewhere in modern day Syria) falls ill. Pharaoh is asked for help, and after consulting with Khonsu of Thebes (the most important form of Khonsu) agrees to send a statue of Khonsu the Provider (a junior form of Khonsu particularly adept at driving out evil spirits) to take the god to this princess to heal her. On arrival of the statue the evil spirits leave the princess and admit the superiority of even this junior form of Khonsu. Bentresh’s father was supposed to send the statue back, but he was so impressed by its ability to heal that he neglects to do so – until Khonsu the Provider appears to him in a dream where the god flies back to Egypt as a golden falcon. Realising he cannot force a god to stay, the statue is returned.
This story is clearly based in some sense on history in that Ramesses II did exist, as did a foreign queen with almost the same name as on the stela (Nefru-Re on the stela, Maat-nefru-Re in history). But its primary purpose is to assert the hierarchy of the different forms of Khonsu – it was found in Karnak, so unsurprisingly the senior form is Khonsu of Thebes who is worshipped there. And of course it makes a point about the innate superiority of even junior Egyptian gods over these foreign spirits and peoples – asserting a sense of national pride during a time when Egypt was ruled by Greek outsiders. Yet another role, for a god who turns out to be a rather more complex concept than just a “moon god”.
Hart, George. Egyptian Myths. The Legendary Past. London: British Museum Press, 1990. Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1982. Robins, Gay. The Art of Ancient Egypt. London: The British Museum Press, 2008. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 2008. Teeter, Emily. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 2007. Weeks, Kent R. The Illustrated Guide to Luxor Tombs, Temples, and Museums. Cairo: American Univ. in Cairo Press, 2005. Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003. ———. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000. Wilkinson, Toby A. H. Early Dynastic Egypt. London: Routledge, 2001.
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The Egyptian worldview is full of dualities – Upper & Lower Egypt, the living world and the world of the dead, the cultivated land and the desert, Horus and Seth, and so on and so forth. Probably the most fundamental of these is the duality of maat (order) and isfet (chaos), it’s set up at the moment of creation and underpins everything about the world of the Egyptians.
Translation between languages which are as different as Ancient Egyptian & English is rarely a straightforward matter of replacing one word with another. So although I glossed maat above as “order” we don’t actually have a single word in English that covers the concept in all its nuances (as far as we understand it). In the books I read for this article it was variously translated as: balance, control, connective justice, correctness, decorum, harmony, justice, the norms of society, order, original state of tranquillity at the moment of creation, proper behaviour, righteousness, rightness, the status quo, truth, the way things ought to be. Listing them all out like that (rather than just picking one of them) gives us a flavour of the concept – although I’m pretty sure there’ll be nuances that’ve been missed – but it’s rather unwieldy for referring to the concept, so as everyone else does I’m mostly going to stick to using the Egyptian word rather than a potentially misleading translation.
The concept of maat is, as you would expect, personified by a goddess and referred to in mythic terms – this is how the Egyptians conceptualised their world. The goddess Maat is normally represented by a human woman, with no associated animal, wearing a feather as her headdress. She may be standing, but she’s more often seated, and she’s sometimes just represented by her feather. You most often see her being offered to the gods by the king, and sometimes greeting the deceased in the Weighing of the Heart scene. She’s often referred to as the daughter of Re, which gives her a close connection with the Egyptian king who is called Son of Re as one of his titles.
Maat (goddess and concept) comes into being at the very moment of creation – before there was nothing but chaos, and the act of creation brings order (etc.). It is maat that regulates the seasons, the movements of the stars, the inundation of the Nile, the cycle of days and nights. One of the Egyptian conceptions of time (djet) is that the pattern of the universe is fixed and unchanging for eternity – and maat is that pattern. So maat permeates the whole universe, but it’s not something that just “is” it’s something that needs to be maintained and it’s in that context that it affects the lives of humanity.
The primary role of the king – the point of a king, if you like – is to maintain maat and present it to the gods, and if he does that then all will be as it should be in the universe. One of the ways in which he does this is to defeat and control the world outside Egypt and some of the familiar parts of Egyptian iconography represent this. The Egyptian way of life is seen as conforming to maat and all foreign ways of doing things are therefore not in accordance with maat – and so when you see the king smiting foreign enemies on the walls of a temple, that is the king maintaining maat and defeating chaos. When you see the king portrayed with bound captives beneath his feet (or the bows that represent the nine traditional enemies) then once again he’s imposing order and defeating chaos.
Maat also needs to be maintained within Egypt, and this is done via the legal system and administration – maat is the concept that underpins all the bureaucracy. The king is pivotal here as well – with his connection to the gods as the Son of Re he has the duty and necessary knowledge to create laws that uphold maat. But these laws were not handed down as divine in origin – they were essentially practical: behaviour which promoted harmonious and balanced relations between people was maat and should be promoted, behaviour which didn’t was isfet (and thus should be forbidden). It was also not egalitarian in any fashion – all men were not supposed to be equal, but instead were to behave appropriately for their place in society. Jan Assmann quotes Rousseau as saying “Between the weak and the strong freedom is the oppressive and law the liberating principle”* – i.e. the law is what stops the strong from trampling the weak, and this is what maat was in this aspect of Egyptian society.
*that is presumably an English translation of a German translation of the original French
The king also needs to present the maat he has upheld within and without Egypt to the gods. This is frequently depicted on temple walls, with the king shown kneeling and offering up a small figure of the goddess Maat to another god. There is a sense in which this is equated with all the other offerings that are given to the gods in their temples. The food that is offered is maat, the clothing that is offered is maat, the incense that is burnt is maat – all that a god eats, wears, breathes etc is maat. So the king’s upholding of, and offering of, maat maintains the existence of the gods (and their associated concepts and roles) and thus the universe remains as it should be.
And maat is also something that an individual should adhere to in his or her life. There’s a whole genre of Egyptian literature (the wisdom texts) which discusses how to live one’s life in accordance with maat – once again in terms of practical measures rather than as a theoretical concept. Over the course of Egyptian history ideas about how transgressing maat would affect you changed. In the Old Kingdom it was assumed that a failure to act in accordance with maat would lead to failure in this life. From the Middle Kingdom onward the Egyptians expected to be judged in the afterlife, and only those who had done maat in this life would be permitted to become an akh and to reach the Field of Reeds. And later, from the Ramesside Period on, people had more direct relationships with any given god – offending a deity would lead to divine punishment in this world – but that doesn’t mean maat was no longer important, it did still affect one’s afterlife.
There are at least a couple of different antonyms for maat. One of these is fairly narrow – the word gereg means falsehood and is the opposite of maat in its sense of speaking truth. The more commonly found one is isfet and its meaning is much broader in scope. As with maat it’s translated in a variety of ways by the different authors I read, but they generally seem to regard the concept as more straightforward – isfet is chaos, disorder, wrongness. It can also be translated as “sin”, which Boyo G. Ockinga does (writing in “The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson), but he cautions that one needs to be wary when reading that translation. The concept of isfet is of actions that are chaotic or wrong, there is not the concept of humanity as being essentially sinful in the way that there is in Christian thought. Theoretically one can maintain maat in all one does, failure is not inevitable.
This is not the only way that the Egyptian duality of maat vs isfet is different to our own cultural duality of right vs wrong or good vs sinful. Another fundamental difference is that “good” is not the same as “ordered”, and this has ramifications that shape the rest of society (and that we should carefully keep in mind when thinking about Ancient Egypt). In our culture it is easy to see that “doing the right thing” can in some cases mean going against the law or transgressing the norms of society – it’s possible for the individual to be good whilst not conforming, and it is possible to see society as needing to be changed in order to become a better society. But in the Ancient Egyptian culture maat has much heavier overtones of keeping in one’s place and this leads to a much more conservative outlook on life. Obviously Egyptian culture did change over time, but it had to be carefully justified as “returning to what had been done before”. Change itself was seen as undermining maat and the proper order of things. Things should be done the way they have always been done, and then the pattern of the universe is maintained in the way that it should be and all will be well in the world.
“Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs” James P. Allen “Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt” Jan Assmann (trans. David Lorton) “The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs” Jan Assmann (trans. Andrew Jenkins) “Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt” Erik Hornung (trans. John Baines) “Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation” Barry J. Kemp “Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz “The Pharaoh: Life at Court and On Campaign” Garry J. Shaw “The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson “Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley “The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson “The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson
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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.
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.
Where do you go after you die? In fact, do you go anywhere after you die? That’s one of the big philosophical questions, and one that’s particularly impervious to investigation – after all, no-one ever comes back to tell us what it’s like. In some cultures there’s a belief in an afterlife where the deserving dead live an eternal blessed life, something almost to look forward to. And in some cultures the dead are, well, dead – even if there’s some sort of post-life existence it’s not something you want to be part of, and your “immortality” is through memory or your children. Think of the Greek Hades, or the way Gilgamesh’s reaction to knowledge of his own mortality is to seek to avoid it.
The Egyptians (as so often) embraced the power of “and” and believed in both. During the Old Kingdom normal people were simply dead, continuing to exist at their tombs if their names were spoken and offerings were made but not going on to an afterlife. But the king had a different experience – he was no ordinary man in life, and in death the Pyramid Texts tell us about his becoming part of the company of the gods or travelling with Re on his barque as he travels across the sky. During the First Intermediate Period and into the Middle Kingdom this sharp boundary between the king and normal humanity blurs in both the secular and religious spheres – and for the afterlife their beliefs undergo a shift that modern scholars sometimes refer to as the “democratisation of the afterlife”. Obviously this doesn’t mean that people voted for or against an afterlife! Instead it refers to a shift from having your entry into the afterlife determined by who you were to having it determined by what you knew. So potentially any Egyptian could navigate through the underworld to a blessed life, providing they knew the way and knew the right spells. This is what the Coffin Texts and the later Book of the Dead were all about – they contained all the knowledge you needed for a good afterlife.
So now it was open to everyone, where did the Ancient Egyptians think you went after you died? One of the possible destinations was the Field of Reeds, sometimes also known as the Field of Offerings (although sometimes this was a different place). The Field of Reeds does show up in the Pyramid Texts – there it was a part of the sky, and a place where the deceased king was purified before he passed on to his afterlife. By the Middle Kingdom it is also a destination for the more general deceased, and this is the role it plays in the Book of the Dead tradition. It’s not entirely clear where the Field of Reeds is supposed to be – it might still be in the sky, but it is also part of Osiris’s domain (and perhaps a synonym for the whole of Osiris’s domain) in the underworld. It is, however, in the east where Re finishes his night journey and begins his day journey – Spell 149 of the Book of the Dead announces “I know the gate in the middle of the Field of Reeds from which Re goes out into the middle of the sky”.
The Field of Reeds is an idealised version of the Ancient Egyptian landscape, where the deceased were to lead an idealised life. Spell 110 of the Book of the Dead talks about the deceased “ploughing therein, reaping and eating therein, drinking therein, copulating therein, and doing everything that was once done on earth by the reader”. This is where shabtis fit in, too – the eating, drinking and copulating clearly sounded just fine to the Ancient Egyptians, but servants were required for the ploughing and reaping! The crops here never failed, the waters never rose too high (nor did they ever fail to rise high enough). The Book of the Dead is also quite specific about what the crops would be like – larger than usual, but not to a degree that would be intimidating: “its barley stands 5 cubits high, with ears of 2 and stalks of 3 cubits, and its emmer stands 7 cubits high, with ears of 3 and stalks of 4 cubits”. 5 cubits is roughly 2.5m in modern measurements, so you can see that this is “the largest barley (or wheat) plants you’ve ever seen, taller than a man” but not so huge that you couldn’t see yourself harvesting it with a bit of effort.
As well as written descriptions the Field of Reeds is normally shown in a large illustration in copies of the Book of the Dead, sometimes the spells aren’t ever written out and the illustration stands in for them. It’s “read” from bottom to top and this reading matches the description in Spell 110. The registers of the illustration are separated by waterways, and at the bottom the deceased arrives by boat. There are normally two boats depicted – one belongs to Osiris, the other to the sun-god Re. Here the deceased meets the Great Ennead, a group of gods, and receives food & drink. Moving up a register the deceased has come to the place where the crops are grown. He (or she) is shown doing agricultural tasks – ploughing, harvesting, perhaps sowing the seed – normally dressed in their best clothes. Here the deceased receives an abundance of nourishment – symbolised by a depiction of the Heron of Plenty. And then in the top register the deceased comes to a place called Qehqenet where they may meet with their deceased parents, and once again travel by boat to meet the Great Ennead. As with so much in Ancient Egyptian thought this is a cyclical journey.
This conception of the afterlife has an afterlife of its own – I mentioned the Greek Hades at the beginning of the article as a place where the dead were dead, but the Greeks also had the Elysian Fields which were a place where the blessed dead lived an eternal blessed life. The Greeks themselves talked about this idea as having come from Egypt, and there are hints in the etymology of the Greek words used that back this up. Elysium has no obvious Greek origins as a word, but may be derived in part from the Egyptian for “reeds” – which can be rendered as iaru or ealu. Jan Assmann also points to similarities between the Greek word for blessed (makarios) and the Egyptian word for a deceased person who has reached the Field of Reeds (maa kheru, translated as “true of voice”).
All in all it’s a very Egyptian way of looking at the afterlife – that blend of esoteric and pragmatism that often characterises their outlook on life. First you travel through dangerous realms, meeting gods and demons, surviving your own judgement because of the knowledge and virtue that you possess. And then you get to the eternal life that waits for you, where you live a life very much like the one you had before death only bigger and better, and forever.
“Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt” Jan Assmann (trans. David Lorton) “Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David “The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper and Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan “The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson “Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead” ed. John H. Taylor “Reading Egyptian Art” Richard H. Wilkinson “The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson
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Ancient Egypt is a place of firsts or near firsts – the first monumental stone building, one of the first civilisations to develop writing, one of the first places people lived in cities – but one that I haven’t often seen mentioned is that it has the first significant corpus of written religious texts in the world. This is another of these things that we take for granted today, most of the extant religions of the modern world have a canonical body of written literature that underpins what people believe and how they practice their religion. It’s also an illustration of how comparisons to the modern world can be misleading – these Egyptian texts weren’t an ancient Bible or Book of Common Prayer. For starters the population was almost entirely illiterate and so these texts would’ve been no more than pictures & squiggles carved in stone to them (as, to be fair, they are to most of us who can’t read hieroglyphs). And secondly the copies we’ve found were carved on the inner chambers of pyramids – hence the modern name of Pyramid Texts – and so were inaccessible to everybody once the king had been buried.
The Pyramid Texts were first discovered in the 1880s, much to the surprise of archaeologists in general. Most Old Kingdom pyramids, like the ones at Giza which we’ve all heard of, have nothing on the walls of their burial chambers. But something changes in the late 5th Dynasty and from then until the end of the Old Kingdom the walls of the internal chambers are covered in texts. There are (so far) 10 pyramids known to have these texts, all of them at Saqqara. The first is that of Unas, the last king of the 5th Dynasty (reigning some 200 years after the builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza). The kings of the 6th Dynasty follow suit (Teti, Pepi I, Merenre, Pepi II), and some of their wives also have texts in their pyramid chambers: Ankhesenpepi II (wife of Pepi I) and three wives of Pepi II (Neith, Iput II, Wedjebetni). The last known king to have these texts was an obscure 8th Dynasty king called Ibi – in fact he’s so obscure that the only evidence for his existence is his pyramid texts! This isn’t the end of the line for the texts – they in some sense develop into or merge with the Coffin Texts (so called because they’re found written on Middle Kingdom coffins). The books I read are divided in how much they think this was an evolution of one turning into the other and how much the Coffin Texts were a parallel development that borrowed from the Pyramid Texts. Some aspects of the texts definitely survive through into the New Kingdom and beyond (like the Opening of the Mouth ritual), whereas others aren’t even found in all the pyramids that have Pyramid Texts. There’s also a bit of a renaissance for the texts in the Late Period (around 2,000 years after Unas) as part of a general culture of harking back to the “old ways”.
The texts are written in columns and were divided up by the ancient writers into sections – generally each starts with a word meaning “Recitation” and ends with “chapter” or “section”. We call these sections spells or utterances – I think I prefer utterances because spells has all sorts of connotations which don’t always seem appropriate, whereas if they themselves wrote “Recitation” at the beginning then they were all intended to be uttered. Modern scholars give them numbers to make it easier to discuss them, but these numbers have no ancient relevance. The original numbering was done by the German Egyptologist Kurt Sethe who numbered them according to where they were found in the pyramid, going from the inside out. Then as more examples were found with extra utterances these were added onto the end of the list (not always consistently). There are around 800 utterances found in total (so far!) but not all of them are found in every pyramid, for instance Pepi II had over 600 but Unas had only a couple of hundred.
There are indications that the texts that end up on the pyramid walls were copied off a papyrus master copy written in a cursive script (rather than the monumental form carved in the stone). James Allen describes how you can use mistakes in the copying to detect this, and to detect how the spells were edited for their new location. For instance, some texts began life in 1st person but were edited into 3rd person to be carved on the walls with some 1st person pronouns replaced with the deceased’s name and some with the appropriate 3rd person one – and there are occasional places where the original pronoun is left intact, or a verb form hasn’t been changed to match the new grammatical structure. So this is very clearly not a new set of rituals or theology that spring up from out of nowhere in the 5th Dynasty. Instead it looks like an already existent tradition is expanding into a new context, that adds a level of permanence to the rituals and utterances.
The overall purpose of the texts is to ensure a successful afterlife for the king (or queen) for whom they were inscribed. They can be divided up into a few broad genres of texts, although almost every author seems to divide them up a bit differently. In essence there are texts that have to do with rituals, there are texts that have to do with protection from problems (which are the ones for which “spells” seems most appropriate) and there are descriptions of the journey the deceased must take into the afterlife and what he or she will do once there. The ritual ones often look like instructions for the priests conducting these rituals – words to be said and stage directions for the required actions. Some scholars (in particular Siegfried Schott) have used these to argue that the whole corpus should be interpreted as the funeral ritual written out on the walls in the order the priests should read it as they bring the body into the chamber. I think this specific idea is almost entirely discredited now, although the general concept that the ordering reflects order of “use” is still influential. James Allen’s recent translation of the texts sees them as being ordered for the convenience of the resurrecting king – in the burial chamber are texts to protect him and to help him resurrect and start his journey. Then in the antechamber and corridors there are spells that the king must read on his journey to the afterlife (via the exit from the pyramid).
Taken as a whole the texts do not form a coherent or consistent body of literature. They don’t even seem to’ve all been written at the same time – some have language & imagery that implies they are contemporary with the pyramids that they’re written in, some seem much older. And they appear to be deliberately obscure. To write things down was in some sense to make them magically present for eternity so that affected what & how the Egyptians were willing to write in their texts. Hieroglyphic signs that had the shape of dangerous animals were damaged to make sure they couldn’t cause harm to the king in his tomb. And myths tended to be talked round and referred to rather than spelt out – Mark Lehner suggests they might’ve been regarded as too potent to commit to writing. Altogether this makes it rather difficult to reverse engineer a sense of “the Ancient Egyptian Religion” from these texts, and I don’t think there’s even general agreement as to whether these texts represent a single tradition or a selection from co-existing and/or competing concepts for the gods & the afterlife.
In some parts of the texts the king is to rise from his tomb and make his way to the “imperishable stars” (the ones near the northern pole star that never set) there to join with the court of the gods. In some parts of the texts the king rises up to the sky (assisted by wind, by flying, by jumping like a grasshopper) and travels with Re in his solar boat across the day sky. And in yet other parts of the texts the king travels through the Duat (the underworld) to merge with Osiris and become reborn. But there is an underlying consistency – the king will rise from his tomb and go to join with the gods in some capacity. Contemporary non-royals expected an afterlife in the vicinity of their tombs – the idea that everyone might partake in the Osirian afterlife doesn’t develop until the Middle Kingdom after the political upheavals of the First Intermediate Period.
And finally I should mention the Cannibal Hymn, the most notorious utterances of the Pyramid Texts. This part of the texts describes quite graphically how the king will eat the gods and absorb their powers to become more mighty than them, and pretty much always gets brought up in any discussion of the texts. As is so often the case how the Cannibal Hymn is interpreted shines more light on the person doing the interpreting than the text itself. Some scholars jump in both feet first and use some indications of retainer sacrifice in Early Dynastic Egypt to back up a bloodthirsty story of ancient ritual cannibalism now only referenced in this one hymn. Other scholars clearly take a step back, reflect on the fact that we don’t think early Christians ever actually ate Jesus or anyone else during the Eucharist, and interpret the whole thing as entirely symbolic and magical. And yet others take a path that’s a mixture of the two – hinging round the fact that some Egyptian gods had bulls as avatars. The most well known one is the Apis Bull (an avatar of Ptah) and I’ve mentioned the Buchis Bull (avatar of Montu) in a previous article. In later periods of Egyptian history these bulls were mummified and buried in catacombs, but there’s some evidence that in earlier periods they were cooked and eaten – a presumably ritual & symbolic meal where the king consumed the powers of the god via this avatar. I’m most inclined to this mix of practical & symbolic, which presumably tells you all something about me!
“The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts” James P. Allen “Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David “The Serapeum at Saqqara” Aidan Dodson; talk given at Sussex Egyptology Society 28 September 2019 “The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher “Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt” Wolfram Grajetzki “The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper & Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan “The Complete Pyramids” Mark Lehner “Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol I: The Old and Middle Kingdom” Miriam Lichtheim “Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz “A History of Ancient Egypt Vol 2: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom” John Romer “The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw “The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson “Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley “Pyramids” Miroslav Verner “The Egyptian World” ed. Toby A. H. Wilkinson “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson
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