Sekhmet – she who is powerful

I have been promising that I would cover this goddess for a long time and given that a few of my most recent blogs have been on topics of the feline variety why not make it a hattrick? This week I have delved into the mythology, meaning and worship of the feared lioness goddess Sekhmet possibly one of the most recognisable deities from Ancient Egypt. Happy reading!

Figure 1: Statue from the Litany of Sekhmet erected by Amenhotep III Turin Museum Authors own photo

Daughter of Ra

Figure 2: Carving of Sekhmet from the Temple of Kom Ombo dating to the Ptolemaic period https://www.sciencephoto.com/media/575562/view/ancient-egyptian-goddess-sekhmet

Sekhmet is more often than not shown as a lioness headed woman wearing a long wig, solar disc atop her head, a long red dress and clasping a sceptre in the form of a papyrus plant (Figure 1 and 2).  She is was an often-feared deity for the ancient Egyptians given her associations with plagues, hot desert winds, archers, the destruction of mankind and in general seen as an aggressive deity. She is considered the daughter of the sun god Ra and is closely linked with the royal uraeus in her role as the fire-breathing ‘eye of Ra’[1]. There are a few different versions of the Eye myth but the one linked to Sekhmet (and Hathor) states the following; when Ra became old his human subject began to plot against him and sought to punish mankind[2].  Sekhmet was pulled from his royal uraeus breathing fire and sent to see punishment done. Sekhmet waged war on humankind leading to fields being flooded with blood. When Ra saw what detestation his daughter caused, he tried to stop her but she was consumed by blood lust and ignored him. So, thinking quickly, Ra figured out a way to trick Sekhmet into getting drunk and not killing humanity. Arranging for 7,000 jugs of beer and pomegranate juice to be mixed tricking Sekhmet into drinking the beer thinking it was beer. In her blood lust, she did just that and so humanity was saved.  

Alongside being the daughter of Ra Sekhmet also forms part of the triad at Memphis alongside her husband Ptah and their son Nefertem (Figure 3). Thus, her cult centre is in Memphis but a sanctuary has been found at Abusir dating to as early as the 5th Dynasty. 

Figure 3:  Colour vignette showing Ramesses III before the triad of Memphis: Ptah, Sekhmet, and Nefertum. EA9999,43 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA9999-43

Her epithets and titles reflect the fear that she instilled in the ancient Egyptians. These include;

  • Powerful One
  • She who is powerful
  • She who dances on blood
  • The one who wields the Knife (when battling aboard Re’s solar barque)
  • Sekhmet the Great
  • Sekhmet Mistress of life
  • Mistress of the Red Linen (her connection to Lower Egypt and the Red crown or some would say the red linen is not dyed but covered in the blood of her enemies)
  • the flame (referring to the heat of the midday sun)
  • The One Who Loves Ma’at and Who Detests Evil (from the Book of the Dead)
  • Lady of Terror   
  • Smiter of the Nubians (calling of her fearsome nature in battle)

Although a deity in her own rite Sekhmet from the New Kingdom onwards was thought to be the aggressive aspect of greater goddesses in the Egyptian pantheon; first Hathor, then Mut and finally the goddesses Isis[3].

Protector of the King

Within the Pyramid Texts, a collection of mortuary prayers, hymns, and spells intended to protect a dead king or queen and ensure eternal life[4], Sekhmet is named as a parent of the king when he was reborn into the celestial afterlife[5]. In another portion, it mentions that the king was in fact conceived by Sekhmet (PT 262,2206). Therefore, she is seen as a more maternal fearsome protector of the king. Especially when you considered her connection to the uraeus worn by Re and later pharaoh’s alike you can see the connection.  She then in turn became associated with the king’s power in the Tale of Sinhue. Sinhue states that ‘the fear of the king overran foreign lands like Sekhmet in a time of pestilence’[6]. But her protection of the king seemed to be especially called upon during military activities.  Sekhmet was said to breath fire against her enemies and so she was adopted by many Egyptian kings as a military patroness and symbol of the kings might in battle[7].  Ramesses II claimed that when he rode into battle at Qadesh Sekhmet rode with him ready to destroy the enemy with her fiery breath (Figure 4). The inscription reads ‘Beware, take care, don’t approach him, Sekhmet the Great is with him, she’s with him on his horses, her hands is with him; anyone who goes to approach him, fire’s breath comes to burn his body!’[8].    

Figure 4: Ramesses II rides his chariot into battle at Qadesh from Medinet Habu.
https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Kadesh

Hands to harm and heal  

Out of all the archery goddesses within the Egyptian pantheon, such as Neith or Satet, Sekhmet was the most feared. Her arrows were personified as the ‘seven messengers of Sekhmet’ who inflicted plague and destruction on humanity, hence her title as ‘Mistress of Plague’[9]. As the controller of these messengers of disease Sekhmet thus became a patron goddess of medicine. Given the idea that she had the power to control her messengers and ward them off, she functioned as a healing deity. In this guise as a healing deity, she is referred to as Sekhmet ‘Mistress of Life’[10]. From the Old Kingdom onwards priests of Sekhmet seem to have specialised in healing magic. This healing magic included reciting prayers and spells over the sick with a specific ritual called ‘the appeasing of Sekhmet’ performed specifically to combat epidemics[11]. However, plagues and illness were not the only things that Sekhmet could bring to befall humanity she was also thought to embody the negative qualities of the sun. The hot desert winds were thought to be the breath of Sekhmet and the harsh midday sun that led to sunstroke and drought[12]. The idea that deities in ancient Egypt had the ability to harm if not appeased and protect or heal if satiated is common. The idea that by appealing to, what some may be considered negative aspects of a deity, for protection and guidance is common and the taming of this negative aspect a potent idea.

But Sekhmet had one more trick up her sleeves that made ancient Egyptians weary of her. Alongside the bringer of illnesses, Sekhmet was also considered patricianly dangerous during the end of the year. The transition between one year and the next was considered a dangerous time where the disease that Sekhmet controlled could easily take root[13].  Spells and rituals were conducted to transform the raging lioness into a beneficent goddess. One such spell called ‘the book of the last day of the year’ was to be recited over a piece of cloth which was then worn around the neck during the new years passing and on new years day amulets of Sekhmet and Bastet were exchanged in order to pacify the pair[14] (Figure 5 and 6).  

Figures 5 and 6: Amulets of Sekhmet Figure 5 String of gold cowrie shaped beads, one gold pomegranate bead and two large barrel-shaped beads, one gold and one chalcedony. and a cast gold pendant of the goddess Sekhmet. https://www.penn.museum/collections/object/21539 Figure 6 : Glazed composition amulet of Sekhmet her mane and long wig is divided by the shoulders and wears a full-length dress https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA26311

All in all, I think we can agree that you did not want to mess with Sekhmet as you most certainly would be sorry! Well, I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into the lore surrounding her I certainly had fun.

References

[1] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 257

[2] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 181

[3] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 188

[4] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Pyramid-Texts

[5] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 188

[6] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 182

[7] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 181

[8] Lichtheim, M. and Fischer-Elfert, H., 2006. Ancient Egyptian Literature The New Kingdom Volume II. Berkeley: University of California Press. Page 70

[9] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 188

[10] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 182

[11] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 182

[12] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 188

[13] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 188

[14] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 182

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