This stela was set up by a man called Pakeshi, who held the title God’s Father of Amun, as did his father Nespautitawi. Pakeshi stands before Osiris and the Four Sons of Horus, and the text below is a fairly standard offering formula. It’s not known where it was found.
It dates to the 25th or 26th Dynasties, somewhere around 750-525 BCE. It’s made of wood with gesso over it and painted in this pastel style that’s typical of the time period (so says the Met Museum, and I assume it’s on this basis that they date it to this period).
Despite looking nicely made it’s got one feature that looks like the artisans who made it dropped the ball – you can see in front of the face of each figure there’s a neatly outlined space where the name should go, but no-one’s come back and written the text in!
Last time I talked about the deity Ptah I talked about the way he looks, and where and when we find him. The sort of things you’d find in a “Spotter’s Guide to Egyptian Deities”. But today I’m going to talk about what the point of Ptah was, his main role in the ancient Egyptian system of thought. Ptah was a maker of things – both in terms of crafts and in terms of the whole world.
Throughout most of Pharaonic Egyptian history, from at least the Old Kingdom, Ptah was seen as both the patron deity of craftsmen and as a universal creator deity. Ptah’s original role was as the patron deity of crafts and craftsmen. He was associated with the mineral aspects of the world – the stone, the metal ores – and was seen as a metalworker. He was thus the patron of those who created metal objects, as well as those who created using metal objects. And this role became expanded to covering all the crafts, which he was said to have created. The places associated with Ptah (in particular Memphis from very early on and Deir el-Medina in the New Kingdom) were centres of crafts and production for the royal court and funerary complexes. The titles of his High Priest reflect this – one of these titles was wer kherep hemw which means “Supreme Leader of Craftsmen” (or “Greatest of Those who Supervise the Craftsmen”).
This initial association with crafts then expanded into a more general role in creation. The imagery used to describe Ptah’s creative powers is full of references to his origins as a craftsman. For instance he’s described as the craftsman who crafts kings – he moulds the body of the deceased and newly divine Ramesses II from electrum, copper and iron, a reference to his particular association with metalworkers. He’s described as crafting bodies for the gods to inhabit – in the same way as human craftsmen would make the cult statues for the temples. As an aside, this also leads to him being credited with “inventing” one of the key funerary rituals, the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. These bodies of the gods (statues) need to have their mouths ritually opened (with an instrument reminiscent of a craftsman’s chisel) before the ka of the god can enter and live in the statue. This ritual is then recapitulated on the mummy or coffin of the deceased as part of the funerary rites, opening the mouth so the deceased will live in the afterlife. But back to the main point – even the way in which he creates the universe uses this same language of crafts: he is referred to as the sculptor of the world, or as having smelted the world.
And this genesis as a craftsman fundamentally shapes the sort of creator deity that Ptah is. Creation narratives come in multiple flavours – the world might be created by the substance of the deity becoming the the world, or perhaps that deity makes it like you’d make a pot, or procreation is involved i.e. the world is birthed by the deities. The better known Egyptian creation myth (the Heliopolitan one, where Atum “gives birth” to Shu and Tefnut to start the whole thing off) is a procreative myth, in contrast to the Christian myth where God brings the world into being by commanding it (which is a making myth – he’s not quite a potter, but the potter works on his orders!). But the Heliopolitan creation myth is not the only Ancient Egyptian creation myth. There are broadly speaking three different creation narratives with three different focuses – once upon a time Egyptologists would think of these as competing traditions, but that’s now a rather outdated view (tho our names for the myths still reflect that idea). The Hermopolitan myth is interested in how the universe went from non-being to being and what there was before there was anything. The Heliopolitan myth is interested in how, given we have a universe in existence, it formed into the world around us complete with all its parts including human society. And the Memphite Theology (which tells us about Ptah’s creative power) is interested in the mechanics of creation itself.
Although all three are told in terms of narratives (this god, that god, doing those things, sometimes to each other) under the hood they’re actually really rather abstract, the various deities are personifications of forces and aspects of the world (like Shu is the air etc). And that is definitely the case for Ptah in the Memphite Theology – he is the personification of the transformation of an idea or concept into a real physical object, he is the creator as a craftsman. And like the Christian God (tho in actuality the linkage will be the other way round) he is creator as commander – Ptah thinks, and speaks, and it is so. In the Memphite Theology he is said to create the world via the thoughts he forms in his heart and the words he forms on his tongue. This is a part of Egyptian ideas about the power of language, particularly the written word – words can shape reality. Ptah is also said to have created the hieroglyphs as he created the objects – the thing and its written form in one moment of creation – and the hieroglyphic script was called “the god’s speech” in Ancient Egyptian.
In the Memphite Theology Ptah was positioned as the ultimate source of creation. But this was not the only tradition involving Ptah as this craftsman creator of the universe. During the New Kingdom there was an effort to merge the various Egyptian conceptions of creation into one coherent whole with Amun as the primary creator. As part of this the deity Ptah was no longer seen as a creator in his own right instead he was seen to be the means by which Amun created the universe. Amun “spoke in silence” to kick off the creative process, but this speech operated via Ptah. Garry Shaw (in his book on Egyptian Myths) uses the metaphor of commissioning a sculpture (or other piece of craft), which I rather like. Amun is the commissioner – without him there would be no creation, but he does not make it himself nor is he the material from which the sculpture takes shape. Ptah is the craftsman, who moulds the raw material but does so only by the request of the commissioner. And finally Atum and/or Tatenen are the raw material from which the creation is actually made – by themselves they cannot transform into the sculpture but it takes shape from their substance.
But the Ancient Egyptians rarely seem to’ve had only one explanation or understanding of any given phenomena (over time, or even simultaneously). And so it’s possible to overstate the idea that Ptah’s creative abilities operate via a crafting model – the ways that he is merged into broader Egyptian ideas about creation often have some flavour of procreation to them, particularly when he is being positioned as the ultimate creator. For instance one of his epithets translates as the “father of the gods, from whom all life emerged”. And in the Memphite Theology as Ptah-Nun he is referred to as the “father who begot Atum” and as Ptah-Naunet the “mother who bore Atum” – positioning him as the father & mother of the sun and creation itself. Ptah is also sometimes shown in art creating an egg on a potter’s wheel, and in a very late myth (dating to the Graeco-Roman period) he’s said to have fertilised this egg he created with his seed and thus created the Hermopolitan Ogdoad (whom he then goes on to bring together into Amun).
Procreation needs both male and female, and the Egyptians square this circle for the Hermopolitan Ogdoad by having female counterparts for each of the male deities/forces (e.g. the waters are Nun and Naunet). But for Ptah they chose another solution – he combines both male and female within himself. This concept is seen in references to Ptah in multiple periods of Egyptian history, both early and late. In this context he was referred to as “the Ancient One” and this is how he is associated with both Nun and Naunet – he is also seen as self-creating (by begetting himself).
Allen, James P. 2014. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge Univ. Press. Assmann, Jan. 2003. The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs. Translated by Andrew Jenkins. Harvard Univ. Press. ———. 2014. Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. Translated by David Lorton. Abridged and updated by the author, repr. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press. Boonstra, Stephanie. 2020. ‘A Memphite Amulet Workshop in Leicester’. Presented at the EES Virtual Study Day ‘Collections from Home: Museum Favourites’, June 13. David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books. Fletcher, Joann. 2016. The Story of Egypt. Hodder. Gahlin, Lucia. 2010. ‘Creation Myths’. In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson. Routledge Griffin, Kenneth. 2021. ‘Introduction and the Great Triads’. Presented at the Egypt Centre Swansea Short Course on ‘Gods, Goddesses, and Demons of Ancient Egypt’, July 18. Hart, George. 1990. Egyptian Myths. The Legendary Past. British Museum Press. ———. 2005. The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. 2nd ed. Routledge Dictionaries. Routledge. Hornung, Erik. 1982. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Cornell University Press. Kemp, Barry J. 2006. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. Routledge. Martin, Geoffrey Thorndike. 1993. Hidden Tombs of Memphis: New Discoveries from the Time of Tutankhamun and Ramesses the Great. New aspects of antiquity. Thames and Hudson. Mertz, Barbara. 2008. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. William Morrow. Shaw, Garry J. 2014. The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends. Thames & Hudson. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum. Teeter, Emily. 2010. ‘Temple Cults’. In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson. Routledge. The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. 2007. British Museum. Tyldesley, Joyce. 2010. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt. Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books. Wilkinson, Richard H. 1994. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. Thames and Hudson. ———. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson. ———. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson. Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2001. Early Dynastic Egypt. Routledge. ———. 2010. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra. Bloomsbury.
Ptah is one of the more important gods of the Egyptian pantheon through the whole of Egyptian history, and his name and image are all over the place in the monuments and texts. Yet somehow he’s not one of the gods that we (amateurs, at least) talk about much – he doesn’t have good stories (like Osiris), he’s not associated with heresy and controversy (like the Aten), he’s just there. He’s attested very early in Egyptian history – he is drawn on a bowl dating to the First Dynasty, probably the reign of Den. Unusually for such an early object this bowl has a secure provenance (tomb 231 at Taharkan, excavated by Petrie) and the drawing of the deity not only has the right iconography for Ptah but is labelled with his name in hieroglyphs. As this appears to be a fully developed depiction of Ptah it seems probable that he was worshipped back into Predynastic times.
There are some suggestions that his ultimate origins may lie in cultures to the west of Egypt, but there is little evidence for this. What there is mostly hinges round the fact that the name “Ptah” does not have any secure etymology within the Egyptian language and was not written with the determinative or emblem of a deity until the New Kingdom. However it may be that it is cognate with words that mean “to sculpt” and was based on a root for those words which had gone extinct by later periods, and I am inclined to agree with those that see this as a more plausible explanation. It relates to his identity as a god of craftsmen (which was probably his first role), and as he is such an early deity it would also make sense that his name reflects ancient forms of the language.
During the course of Pharaonic Egyptian history the iconography of the god Ptah changes very little. He is generally represented as a human man (sometimes with blue skin) wrapped up in a tight-fitting garment or mummy wrappings and standing on a plinth. He wears a skull cap like Old Kingdom craftsmen do (often blue in colour) and has a straight beard (added during the Middle Kingdom as the only significant change in iconography). He often wears a heavy broad collar necklace with a counterpoise at the back, and if he doesn’t then he still has a feature that looks like the counterpoise – a tassel from the neckline of his garment. His hands emerge from his wrappings and hold a sceptre topped with the was, ankh and djed hieroglyphs (meaning “power, life, stability”). I’ve illustrated this article with the fabulous statue of Ptah that was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb which has these features.
You’ll’ve noticed that unlike many of the Egyptian deities the iconography of Ptah has no animal elements, no matter the period of Egyptian history. However there is nonetheless a sacred animal associated with this god – a singular bull, the Apis bull, who was regarded as the ba or physical manifestation of the god.
By the Old Kingdom it is clear that Ptah was regarded as a creator deity as well as the god of craftsmen, however he doesn’t show up very much in the Pyramid Texts – in fact he’s almost an aside. Some of the books I’ve looked at suggest that this is because of rivalry between the priesthood of Ptah in Memphis and the priesthood of Re in Heliopolis (who were heavily involved in the funerary cult of the king). But I think this idea of the priests of the various cults being in opposition to each other is fairly old-fashioned, the Egyptians didn’t actually seem to view their gods like we view football teams! So instead I think it’s more likely to be some combination of Ptah not rising to national prominence till later on, or that he simply wasn’t very much involved in the funerary sphere at this point in time.
In the Middle Kingdom Ptah also shows up in the Coffin Texts as a creator deity – crafting the gods, ripening vegetation, and creating the sun – but he really rises to prominence in the New Kingdom. This can be seen by the proliferation of temples dedicated to him (particularly in Nubia during Ramesses II’s reign) and by his worship alongside the extremely important deities Amun and Re in a triad (thus he must be on a par with them). He retains this importance through the rest of Pharaonic Egyptian history and into the Roman Period. In the Ptolemaic Period and the Roman Period the Greeks & Romans tended to equate the Egyptian gods with their own, to bring the two cultures of ruling elite and local peasantry closer together – so during this time Ptah is first associated with the Greek smith god Hephaestus and later the Roman smith god Vulcan. Perhaps oddly, despite this importance very few amulets depicting him have survived – even from periods where large numbers of amulets survive of other gods. Those that have been found are generally plaques dating to the 26th Dynasty with Ptah flanked by the other members of his triad (Sekhmet and Nefertem), and appear to’ve been used in a living context rather than a funerary one.
Ptah was worshipped in many places across Egypt and into Nubia (when it was under Egyptian control), and many temples had a sanctuary dedicated to him. His primary cult centre was at Memphis, where he had been worshipped since at least the Early Dynastic Period if not before. Several of his epithets – like “Lord of Ankh-Tawy” or “South of His Wall (res-ineb-ef)” – reference Memphis, and his largest temple complex was in that city. In fact the modern English name of the country of Egypt ultimately derives from the name of Ptah’s Memphite temple – hwt-ka-ptah (house of the ka of Ptah) became pronounced as “Αίγυπτος” (Aigyptos) in Greek, and then misapplied to the whole country. Sadly not much is known of the temple (or the whole city of Memphis) because people still live in the region and the archaeology is underneath the modern city. The parts of the temple that remain mostly date to Ramesses II’s reign in the New Kingdom, but there is evidence of earlier structures including re-used blocks in that Ramesside temple. The first temple may’ve been built at the time of the unification of Egypt in the reign of Narmer (but the only evidence of that is a reference in the work of the ancient historian Manetho, who wrote c.3000 years after Narmer’s reign). And at its height the complex may’ve rivalled Karnak Temple in size (although I’m not sure what the actual evidence for this is, if nothing much survives!). In another parallel with Karnak and Amun, there was more than one temple dedicated to Ptah in his city of Memphis – for instance there was another one built next to the palace of Merenptah (Ramesses II’s successor).
And speaking of Karnak, Ptah also had a sanctuary in that temple complex). This dates back to at least the Middle Kingdom, and there is also other evidence of Ptah at Karnak dating to that period. Fragments of stone columns which were originally in the first court of Karnak have been found, showing Senwosret I worshipping gods including Ptah. The sanctuary of Ptah was rebuilt by Thutmose III after it had fallen into disrepair – or so he says, but this is also a common trope in Ancient Egyptian kingly rhetoric. Every king is responsible for maintaining maat in the world, and how better to demonstrate that than to do a bit of work on a temple and then write a grand announcement of how you found it in ruins and restored it to its full glory?
Deir el-Medina was another site where Ptah was particularly venerated – not surprisingly as like Memphis this was a place where craftsmen lived and worked. So the patron deity of craftsmen was also the patron deity of the village. More generally Ptah was particularly important during the New Kingdom, and so many temples were built dedicated at least in part to him in contexts outside those where craftsmen were working. For instance several temples in Nubia were dedicated in part to Ptah – in this context it’s due to his associations with Amun. Many of these temples were built during the reign of Ramesses II – not just the famous one at Abu Simbel but also including temples at Gerf Hussein and el-Derr . As a prominent state deity Ptah also has a presence in temples like that of Seti I at Abydos and Ramesses II’s mortuary temple (the Ramesseum).
Allen, James P. 2014. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge Univ. Press. Blyth, Elizabeth. 2006. Karnak: Evolution of a Temple. Routledge. Boonstra, Stephanie. 2020. ‘A Memphite Amulet Workshop in Leicester’. Presented at the EES Virtual Study Day ‘Collections from Home: Museum Favourites’, June 13. Bryan, Betsy M. 2003. ‘The 18th Dynasty Before the Amarna Period’. In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by Ian Shaw, Oxford University Press. David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books. Fisher, Marjorie M. 2012a. ‘Abu Simbel’. In Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, edited by Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria. American Univ. in Cairo Press. ———. 2012b. ‘Derr’. In Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, edited by Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria. American Univ. in Cairo Press. ———. 2012c. ‘Gerf Hussein’. In Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, edited by Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria. American Univ. in Cairo Press. ———. 2012d. ‘The Art and Architecture of Nubia During the New Kingdom’. In Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, edited by Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria. American Univ. in Cairo Press. Fletcher, Joann. 2016. The Story of Egypt. Hodder. Gahlin, Lucia. 2010. ‘Creation Myths’. In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson. Routledge. Griffin, Kenneth. 2021a. ‘The East Bank Temples (Karnak and Luxor Temple)’. Presented at the Egypt Centre Swansea Short Course on ‘Thebes: The City of 100 Gates’, March 28. ———. 2021b. ‘Introduction and the Great Triads’. Presented at the Egypt Centre Swansea Short Course on ‘Gods, Goddesses, and Demons of Ancient Egypt’, July 18. Hart, George. 1990. Egyptian Myths. The Legendary Past. British Museum Press. ———. 2005. The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. 2nd ed. Routledge Dictionaries. Routledge. Hawass, Zahi. 2012. ‘Saving Nubia’s Legacy’. In Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, edited by Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria. American Univ. in Cairo Press. Hornung, Erik. 1982. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Cornell University Press. Leblanc, Christian. 2011. ‘The Ramesseum: The Temple of Rameses II’. In Valley of the Kings: The Tombs and the Funerary Temples of Thebes West, edited by Kent R Weeks. White Star Publishers. Martin, Geoffrey Thorndike. 1993. Hidden Tombs of Memphis: New Discoveries from the Time of Tutankhamun and Ramesses the Great. New aspects of antiquity. Thames and Hudson. Mertz, Barbara. 2008. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. William Morrow. Shaw, Garry J. 2014. The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends. Thames & Hudson. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum. Snape, S. R. 2014. The Complete Cities of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson. The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. 2007. British Museum. Tyldesley, Joyce. 2010. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt. Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books. Wilkinson, Richard H. 1994. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. Thames and Hudson. ———. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson. ———. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson. Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2001. Early Dynastic Egypt. Routledge.Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2010. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra. Bloomsbury.
One doesn’t normally think of beetles and gods in the same thought, or at least I don’t at any rate. Well I suppose, there is that famous (and perhaps apocryphal) quip of Haldane’s about God’s inordinate fondness for beetles. But a beetle as a manifestation of a god, or an integral part of the correct functioning of the cosmos, or a symbol of the beginning of the universe, no that doesn’t spring easily to my mind. But if I was an Ancient Egyptian that would make perfect sense to me. The Egyptians had observed young scarab beetles emerging from balls of dung, and as far as they could tell this was spontaneous generation of beetles (obviously we now know that a female scarab had laid an egg in there first, but that bit the Egyptians didn’t see). So as a result they thought of the scarab as being associated with creation, and specifically with self-creation. And this then generated a comparison with their god Atum – Atum who emerged from the primordial mound at the beginning of creation, like a scarab beetle emerges from its dung. And yes, that does mean that there is a direct comparison between a ball of dung and the land we live on but it doesn’t seem that that was an important part of the analogy (or then again maybe it was, dung is a good fertiliser after all and the fertility of the land they lived on was essential to them).
And that’s not all that was compared to a ball of dung. Another thing that scarab beetles do, as well as emerge from dung, is push dung balls across the ground (in search of a safe place to eat it). And that made the Ancient Egyptians think of the sun – how does it move across the sky? One of their answers was that it was in a boat, that floated on the waters of Nun that were held back by the sky goddess Nut. But another of their answers was that it was pushed across the sky by the god Khepri in the form of a scarab beetle. So Khepri is another god who is associated with this beetle – he’s a solar god, and more specifically the god of the sun rising on the eastern horizon. There is one pretty big difference between reality and iconography in this case – real scarab beetles stand up on their forelegs and push their dung ball along backwards using their back legs. However Khepri pushes the sun moving forwards and using his forelegs. I find this quite intriguing and wonder if it’s related to how one of the bad things that one didn’t want to happen in the afterlife was to walk upside down on one’s hands – perhaps it was considered an ill-advised way to portray a sun god? Or maybe it was just considered more aesthetically pleasing? I find it a bit unlikely it was just random chance, the Egyptians seem to’ve been keen observers of nature so I’m sure they wouldn’t’ve just got it wrong!
Khepri’s iconography is all about the beetle as well. As with many Egyptian gods he had three main forms – a person, a person with animal attributes, and an animal. Khepri is therefore sometimes shown as a man with a beetle headdress, as a man with a whole beetle as his head, and as a scarab beetle. The beetle is often blue, like in the necklace I’m using to illustrate this article. The real beetle, unsurprisingly, is not blue – it’s black – so this colour was chosen for its symbolism, and was intended to emphasise the link between the beetle and the heavens. Some exceptions to this colour choice are in funerary texts, where the beetle is its natural black – perhaps because black signifies fertility and rebirth?
The link between Khepri and the scarab beetle goes much deeper than his iconographic representation. The original name of Khepri was kheprer, which is quite literally the word for the scarab beetle in Ancient Egyptian – so he’s not just represented by a beetle, he is a beetle. It is also linked to the verb kheper, which means “to develop” or “to come into being,” and you can see how this links the concepts of creation (and the rising sun) even more deeply into the nature of the beetle and the god Khepri as well as linking them both again to that initial moment of creation and the emergence of Atum from the primeval waters. It’s also another illustration of something I mentioned when I was talking about Khonsu – the names of the cosmological gods in Egyptian generally aren’t the names of the cosmological entities that they represent. Nothing of the sun about the name Khepri, instead it’s all about the beetle and the metaphysical ideas.
There are also tweaks to the representation of the scarab and Khepri that link them with other gods and other ideas within Egyptian cosmology. For instance Khepri could be shown as a scarab beetle in a boat being held up by the god Nun which is then a recapitulation of creation with the solar creator god rising up from the primeval waters. And also one of the other ways that the sun is supposed to travel across the sky – in a boat, floating on the waters of Nun which are held back above us by the goddess Nut as the sky. There are also scarab beetles with wings and the feet and tail of a bird – normally a falcon or a vulture, the former linking perhaps to Re-Horakhty (another solar god). And there are also ram-headed scarab beetles which represent Atum-Khepri – the solar creator god in multiple aspects, and also a symbol of the rising and setting sun together. And of course as a solar god Khepri was also considered a manifestation of Re, and sometimes he’s associated so closely with Re that it’s Re who’s said to be a scarab beetle pushing the sun in the morning with no explicit mention of Khepri.
And in something that starts to feel a little like a pattern – the solar associated scarab beetle can also be associated with the moon (c.f. Shu and Tefnut), and be depicted pushing the moon in front of it in a visually and conceptually analogous fashion to pushing the sun. There’s also a pectoral from the tomb of Tutankhamun (not the one I’ve got as my illustration) which has a winged scarab beetle holding up the boat of the lunar eye, above which is the usual moon symbol of the full moon sitting in a crescent moon. And this imagery may be associated with one of the moon gods – Iah.
As I’ve alluded to a couple of times already, scarabs beetles show up in funerary contexts. Sometimes this may be linked to something about the person – for instance because one of Tutankhamun’s names is Nebkheperure (with the “kheper” in the middle written with a beetle) the scarab beetle is used as a visual pun on his jewellery and other funerary goods. But more generally there were strong links in Ancient Egyptian thought between their creation stories and their ideas about the afterlife – linking the moment of first creation with the rebirth and renewal to come after death. Thus imagery associated with creation often shows up in funerary contexts. Rather more specifically for the scarab beetle, in his role as the pusher of the sun across the sky Khepri was thought to be swallowed by Nut each night along with the sun and reborn again in the morning. This idea that he was constantly reborn mean that he was also directly associated with resurrection. And in this sort of context he might be explicitly linked with Osiris, symbolically linking the solar realm with the netherworld. For instance in the Late Period tomb of Petosiris there is a depiction of Khepri wearing Osiris’s atef crown, and there are other depictions elsewhere of Osiris with a scarab beetle for a head with the atef crown on top.
Much later authors like Plutarch (2nd Century CE) and Horapollo (5th Century CE if he existed) take the association of scarab beetle imagery and the funerary context much much further. They say that the tunnels of Old Kingdom mastabas were built to resemble the tunnels of the scarab beetle, and that mummified bodies are wrapped to mimic scarab beetle pupae. This is dubious at best – there’s no evidence at all that this was a part of Pharaonic Egyptian thought so it’s almost certainly a flight of fancy on the part of some Roman or Greek. But it entertained me enough to tell you about it, despite its lack of foundation in fact!
So in summary, if you were an Ancient Egyptian when you saw a scarab beetle you wouldn’t just think “oh look, a beetle pushing some dung around” – you’d think of the sun, of the beginnings of the world and of life after death. A pretty weighty load for a beetle to push around.
Boonstra, Stephanie. 2019. “Reconstructing the Mid-Second Millennium BCE Using Scarab Amulets.” Spring Lodge Centre, Witham, Essex, November 3. Write up on Other People’s Tales. David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books. Hornung, Erik. 1982. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Cornell University Press. Kemp, Barry J. 2006. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. Routledge. Mertz, Barbara. 2008. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. William Morrow. Robins, Gay. 2010. “Art.” In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson. Routledge. Shaw, Garry J. 2014. The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends. Thames & Hudson. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum. Taylor, John H. 2010a. “Life and Afterlife in the Ancient Egyptian Cosmos.” In Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead., edited by John H. Taylor. British Museum Press. ———. 2010b. “The Perfect Afterlife.” In Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead., edited by John H. Taylor. British Museum Press. Tyldesley, Joyce. 2010. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt. Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books. Wilkinson, Richard H. 1994. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. Thames and Hudson. ———. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
There was an exhibition at the British Museum a few years ago, called Living with Gods, which had as its premise that religion is one of the fundamental parts of what it means to be human. While I had my quibbles with the exhibition that’s an idea that’s always fascinated me – if it’s that fundamental, what does it do for us? I think one of the “whys” of religion is explaining the world around us – making sense of the complicated environment we live in and providing the narratives that help us know how to deal with what life flings at us. Of course this is less important in the modern world, where our knowledge of how the world works is based on science and there is less space for the gods and stories to exist in. But for the Egyptians it was a part of their worldview, and many of their gods are fundamental forces of nature personified in order to make sense of them.
The god Shu is one of these: he is a god of air and of sunlight. He’s specifically the dry air, with his sister Tefnut representing moisture – understandable in Egypt with their arid climate to have your air deity separate from your moisture deity, it would be a bit different here in Britain! As befits the god of air, his ba (the way he is manifest in the world) is the wind. It’s important to note that he is the atmosphere – this is not like the Greek gods who control a specific force of nature, the Egyptian gods are those forces in nature. In part of the Coffin Texts Shu says “I am Shu … my clothing is the air … my skin is the pressure of the wind,” and an Egyptian would’ve felt the wind on their face as being Shu brushing against them.
He’s usually represented as a man wearing a plumed headdress – a single ostrich feather (which is actually the same as Maat’s headdress). This headdress is also a hieroglyph which has the phonetic value shut and is used to write the name of Shu. His name probably means “he who rises up” or “emptiness” (or “void”), and may derive from the verb šwj which means “to be empty”. He may also be depicted as a lion – there’s a shrine from the 30th Dynasty which would once have held a cult statue of Shu as a lion. On the back of the inside of the shrine is an image of this statue, a seated lion, and a description of it – it would’ve been rather splendid, made of silver covered with gold and about a foot high!
Shu is also associated with one of the Egyptian ideas of eternal time – the endlessly repeating cycles of time, which they called neheh. The other sort of eternal time is djet – time at a standstill, the sorts of things that remain perpetually the same like mummies or stone buildings. That sort of time was represented by Tefnut. Shu was particularly associated with the cycle of birth, death and rebirth of successive kings. This is linked to the idea that as the air he fills the cosmos with breath and life, which I discuss more below.
There doesn’t seem to’ve been a cult for Shu before the New Kingdom. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t a god before then, far from it – he’s mentioned in both the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts so he was a feature in Egyptian religious thought back to at least the Old Kingdom. In the Pyramid Texts the deceased king is to be purified in the lakes of Shu (probably mists) and will climb up to heaven on the bones of Shu (presumably the clouds). There are also spells that detail the creation of Shu (which I’ll come back to shortly). And in the Coffin Texts there is a suite of 6 spells (no.s 75-80) that are sometimes called the Litany of Shu (by us, not the Ancient Egyptians I think). These spells associate Shu with life and express the hope that he will be able to breathe that life into the dead, as well as detailing Shu’s creation.
His rise to greater prominence in the New Kingdom is probably due to his association with sunlight – the sun became an increasingly important part of Egyptian religion during that period, culminating in Akhenaten’s sweeping changes. And in fact the cult of Shu was one of those which wasn’t suppressed during that period – his solar associations were enough to let him be assimilated into the ideology of Atenism, and he was believed to live in the sun-disc itself. Early on in Akhenaten’s reign Shu was even a part of the names & titles of the Aten – the second cartouche of the Aten in this early titulary included “in his name of light [shu] which is in the Aten”, this was later replaced with a word for light which had no associations with non-Aten gods.
Shu was also seen as having powers that renewed the cosmos – linked to his role as the god of air, in which he was seen as filling the universe with the breath of life, and hopefully the dead too as mentioned in the Coffin Texts. Egyptian gods were, as I said, manifestations of cosmic phenomena but that didn’t mean they were remote from individual people – they also were seen as touching individual lives (in at least some periods of Egyptian history). So Shu was not just bringing life to the whole cosmos, he was also present at every birth and in every human breath. He was also credited with healing powers, that gave him a place in everyday religion in later periods of Pharaonic Egypt as the subject of prayers and spells for protection and he was also conjured to defeat demons. Shu and the stories of his creation also show up in texts dating to the Late Period and Ptolemaic Period, and there are also some amulets of Shu from later periods (tho 3D representations of him are rare).
Shu was one of the deities in the Heliopolitan Ennead – “ennead” is just fancy word for “group of 9” (and is a direct translation of the Egyptian term into Greek). This group is the nine gods or goddesses involved in the Heliopolitan creation myth which stresses the central importance of the sun. I’ve retold the story previously on this blog, it’s the creation myth that begins with the formless waters of chaos out of which the first land rises, on which is sat the first god: Atum. Atum then creates his children, either by masturbating or by sneezing, and these two children are Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture). In later texts the two methods of procreation are linked – Atum is said to’ve ejaculated into his own mouth and the twins are born from there. The creation by spitting or sneezing involves some Ancient Egyptian wordplay – Shu’s name sounds a lot like the word for sneeze, and “Tef” translates as “spit”.
One god, giving birth to two child-gods – sounds quite straightforward really. But it’s actually not quite that linear or simple. In Spell 80 of the Coffin Texts (part of the Litany of Shu) Atum has a conversation with Nun (the waters of chaos) before creation begins and in that conversation we learn that his children are the attributes that give him life. They already exist before they are born and the birth is better seen as a separation from Atum rather than an act of creation. Shu is the life that makes Atum’s heart beat and his mind function – taking him from a state like death to a state like a coma. Tefnut (here referred to as Maat) is the breath that Atum inhales to wake to full consciousness. It is only after this awakening that creation begins – and it begins with Shu expanding within his father Atum to create a void filled with air and now, finally Atum can self-create the cosmos from and within his body. So you can see that Shu is pretty integral to the whole process – he and his sister aren’t “just” the first created beings, but an important part of the process of creation itself.
Once separate from Atum, Shu and Tefnut are not yet properly alive as independent beings. At this point they lack one of the crucial parts of a person – they have no ka. So Atum must pass on his ka to them, and now they are complete. And at this moment time begins – as I said above that Shu and Tefnut are two forms of eternal time, which now exist in the cosmos.
Shu & Tefnut then become a couple, and have children of their own – Geb (earth) and Nut (sky). And in their turn Geb and Nut grow up and have their own children – these are the stars in the sky and Nut swallows them, much to Geb’s fury. Nut then stretches herself as far from Geb as she can get, trying to escape his wrath. Shu sees this, and steps between his children to prevent Geb from hurting Nut. Not all versions of the story have the same explanation for the separation, that’s the more common explanation but another version is that Shu disapproved of Geb & Nut’s love for each other so forced them apart. And a third one is that initially Geb and Nut lay so close together that Nut could not give birth and so Shu had to force them apart before her children could be born. This scene of Shu separating Nut from Geb is one of the key parts of Shu’s iconography. Quite often when you see it there are other little gods depicted helping Shu – these are the Heh gods, there are eight of them (two for each of Nut’s limbs). It seems that Shu got weary of holding up the sky on his own, and created these gods to help him.
And so here we have a narrative that explains the basic layout of the world: the earth is at the bottom and the sky at the top, separated by the air. Every morning the stars vanish (are swallowed) and the sun rises (is given birth to) and then at night the stars are given birth to and the sun is swallowed. The world we live in and the days of our lives, in one story.
This is not the only explanatory mythology involving Shu (and Tefnut). There’s a winter solstice myth (I think primarily known from the Graeco-Roman period) which has several incarnations with different participants but the same overall narrative arc. In the myth a solar associated goddess goes to the south, to Nubia, normally in a rage or out of annoyance at something. A male deity (sometimes her partner) then follows her and persuades her to return. So this is a narrative about the sun getting lower and lower in the southern sky before the solstice and then beginning to return afterwards. Generally the goddess is one of those associated with the Eye of Re, one of whom is Tefnut. And when the story is about Tefnut, it is often Shu who follows her and gets her to return to Egypt.
Shu has other associations outside his explanatory mythology. He’s not actually one of the solar deities, but as he’s the god of sunlight as well as air he has a strong association with solar deities such as Re (and the Aten, as mentioned above). As part of this he is one of the protectors of Re during his journey through the underworld overnight, helping to fight off the snake Apophis, after which he seals the entrance to the underworld after Re has emerged as the young sun at the end of the night. And later on he becomes even more intimately connected with Re. Over time Atum and Re began to merge and their mythologies and attributes overlapped more and more, so in later mythology the children Atum became known as the Eyes of Re (throughout Egyptian mythology the goddess called the Eye of Re was regarded as the daughter of Re). So Shu as one of the eyes is an exception to the general femininity of the Eye of Re but he’s still a child of Re (Atum). In this role Shu and Tefnut took on the form of lions, and were worshipped in these forms at sites in the Delta. Somewhat oddly to our modern Western need to put things in neat little boxes another part of the merging between Re and Atum is a story about the Eye of Atum, in which she rescues the children of Atum who have become separated from him. So clearly in this case the Eye of Re/Atum is not either of Shu or Tefnut.
The mythology of Shu is also part of the narrative of kingship in Ancient Egypt. Part of the Heliopolitan Creation myth is the setting up of the social order of Ancient Egypt – so once you have the ground and air and whatnot it moves on to kings who rule over the whole of the population. This initial line of kings are the male gods of the Ennead, starting with Atum (or Re, depending how linked they are at the time of telling the myth) and moving on down in the line of succession to Horus (via that unpleasantness with Seth). And after Horus the kings are human, but nonetheless still divine by their association with this unbroken line and by each king being an incarnation of Horus. One result of this is a high degree of incestuous royal marriages at various points in Egyptian history – like Ahmose I and his sister-wife Ahmose-Nefertari – this set the royal family apart from the rest of the population (who didn’t tend to practice incestuous marriages) and linked them to the gods.
So after Re (Atum) retires to the heavens his son Shu takes over as king. He’s positioned in the mythology as ruling well, and doing the things a good king should (building monuments and cities, maintaining maat etc.) The fly in the ointment is his son Geb who repeatedly rebels – in some variants this is due to his rage at Shu separating him from his sister-wife Nut. Eventually Shu, like his father, retires to the heavens leaving Geb to become ruler. There are a couple of different explanations given for this abdication – one is that he has become weak and tired, and so stepped aside to let his fitter son rule, perhaps after being overwhelmed by the forces of Apophis. Another story is that Geb overthrew him in one of his rebellions and forced him to retire (and one variant of that story has Geb seizing and by implication raping his mother Tefnut as part of his revenge).
An interesting aspect of this part of the mythology is what it tells us about Egyptian kingship. The official story of kingship in Egypt is a seamless transition from father to son, each following in their turn for an unbroken line from Horus himself down to whoever the current Pharaoh is. Obviously we know this isn’t true – we can point to specific examples where this doesn’t happen – but the narrative that’s presented is of smooth and orderly transitions of power. And yet the myths tell us a different story – a story of anxiety about the fitness of the king to rule, and a sense of the fragility of the state at the moment when power is transferred from one ruler to the next.
So far we’ve been building up a pretty coherent picture of Shu as a deity. He’s a god of air, and helps explain things about the air. He’s a god of sunlight (which given the Egyptian climate feels like an obvious association with air) and he helps explain things about sunlight (like the solstice). His sister Tefnut is his counterpart – goddess of moisture, and also associated with the sun as an Eye of Re. He’s a part of establishing the pattern of kingship for eternity. Ok there’s that oddity where Shu & Tefnut both are and are not the Eye of Atum or Re depending on the precise myth, but in general it’s a pretty cohesive story. But Egyptian culture did not share our obsession with neat Linnaean boxes filled with segregated categories of things. So because of Shu’s solar associations, Tefnut was linked to the moon (despite being a part of the sun). And Shu himself was often associated with lunar deities like Thoth or Khonsu – perhaps because his air carries moonlight much as it carries sunlight, or perhaps because Tefnut is often associated with the moon (yes, rather circular!). As so often, we need to embrace the power of “and” when thinking about Egyptian religion.
And that theme continues when we look at some of the other associations that Shu has. Egyptian gods themselves did not remain in neat little boxes – I’ve talked about that before, one example is Taweret who has multiple names or is it that she’s multiple goddesses? Another example is the merging of Sekhmet and Mut in some times and places, or the fact that the deity called the Eye of Re might be any one of a number of goddesses depending on context. And Shu has his own mergings. One of these is late on in the Ancient Egyptian period: he merges with Arensnuphis who is a Meroitic deity first attested in the late 3rd Century BCE (Meroë was the culture which lived in Nubia during this period). The cult of Shu-Arensnuphis is not only found in northern Nubia but also in southern Egypt. A little earlier (in the Late Period) and much further north (in the Delta) Shu merged with Onuris, god of war and hunting. This was because Onuris and his consort Mehit were one of the other possible pairs of protagonists in the winter solstice myth I talked about earlier in this article.
Shu is also an example of the ambiguity that often shows up in Egyptian gods – they’re not neatly divided into the “good gods” and the “bad gods.” Shu is associated with Bes in some instances – a protective role – along with his other benign associations, but he’s also described as an executioner at the head of a group of torturers in the underworld (Wilkinson 2003). In this he shows similarities with other lunar associated deities – Khonsu is a bloodthirsty god in the Pyramid Texts, as is Thoth (Tyldesley 2010).
But really a lot of this stuff is details – most importantly, Shu was the atmosphere, the air that they breathed and their understanding of a fundamental part of the cosmos.
Allen, James P. 2014. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. 3rd ed. Cambridge Univ. Press. David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books. Goddio, Franck, and Aurélia Masson-Berghoff, eds. 2016. Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds. Thames & Hudson. Hornung, Erik. 1982. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Cornell University Press. Shaw, Garry J. 2014. The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends. Thames & Hudson. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum. Tyldesley, Joyce. 2010. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt. Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books. Wilkinson, Richard H. 1994. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. Thames and Hudson. ———. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
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.
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.
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
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