Bes – the tambourine shaking, snake strangling, protector of children

Figure 1: The bes jar from the Ashmolean that inspired this week’s blog. Authors own photo

This week’s blog is inspired by a recent trip to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford when I was reminded about how charming and intriguer Bes jars are (Figure 1). So, this set me off on a little adventure reading all about these charming jars are and the deity they represent.

Who is Bes?

Figure 2: A painted figure of Bes playing a tambourine https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA20865

The name of Bes perhaps comes from the word besa (to protect) but is considered to be a relatively late-term used to describe a number of different deities/ demons so have said maybe ten[1].  Bes is often shown as a dwarf god with the ears and mane of a lion, plummed headdress and carrying musical instruments (Figure 2 – EA20865). A number of dwarf deities are known and often shown in groups strangling snakes, waving knives, or playing musical instruments. For example, Aha ‘Fighter’ attacked /overcame the forces of evil foreign sorcerers and chaos serpants[2].  From the New Kingdom Bes during this later period display characteristics of achondroplastic dwarfism so that in his developed from the god is usually portrayed as dwarf-like with shortened legs and an enlarged head with is usually shown from the face on perspective rather than side on[3].  Bes’s face is said to be ‘mask like’ having wide eyes, a flat nose and a projecting tongue framed by his hair. 

In general, however, Bes and the female counterpart Beset is associated with the protection of children, pregnant women and women giving birth and is often shown alongside Tawaret[4]. In this role he is seen as an Apotropaic deity and calling upon his protection falls under apotropaic magic. A prime example of this is the ‘Apotropaic wands’ found in Middle Kingdom burials. Although their exact use is unknown, these wands seem to have provided protection during birth and early in life showing Bes /Taweret/ other demons protectively wielding knives (Figure 3).

Figure 3: A ivory wand showing Bes alongside Taweret https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/545740

During the Old kingdom, he or those related to him such as Aha, appear on artefacts throughout this time period and during the Middle kingdom. But, not until the New Kingdom and later do Bes figurines and images become increasingly widespread and reflect the rise in his popularity and place as a lesser deity.  He was though, just to stress, an important one nonetheless.  

Bes was believed to also protect ancient Egyptians from snakes and so he is often shown holding or even biting snakes. In this form, he is more closely associated with or assimilated with Aha who strangled serpents with his bare hands[5]. As snakes were a feared and very real threat within an ancient Egyptian household having Bes on your side was key to warding off these unwelcomed visitors. Bes in this role as a protector from snakes was most often associated with the form of Horus as Horus the child. Bes often appeared on amulets and stela depicting the young Horus and inscriptions intended to protect against snake bites etc. (known as “cippi” Figure 4)[6].

Figure 4: Wooden Cippus with Horus holding snakes watched over by the head of Bes. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA60958

Childbirth and Home  

With his rise in popularity during the New kIngdom Bes is usually paired with the fearsome hippo Godesses Taweret with these two deities celebrating the birth of kings and commoners alike[7]. Despite his apparent ferocity, he was a beneficent deity, much favoured as a protector of family and associated with sexuality and childbirth[8]. Temple and magical texts give Bes the role of opening the womb to allow a child to be born. In addition to this Bes was also believed to be able to scare off interfering and evil spirits from the birthing chamber by dancing, shouting and shaking his tambourine. Bes also had a softer side to them. Bes was also believed he remained at the child’s side after birth to protect and entertain them. It was said that if a baby laughed or smiled for no reason, it was because Bes was pulling funny faces[9]. He was also often shown cradling small babies and stayed at the side of the young god Horus protecting him. The symbol of birth was represented in tombs and sarcophagus with Bes being shown with hippo faced demons protecting the lion-shaped bed on which the dead hope to be returned to [10].

As well as being carved onto everyday objects as cosmetic items. His image was incorporated into jewellery and his amulets were worn in life he is also shown on headrests and Bes allowing him to protect the sleeper as they dreamed[11]. His image is found on the walls of the Mammisi. A Mammisi is a feature of Later Period Temples this artificial Coptic term was invented by Champollion to describe s building attached to certain temples such as Edfu, Dendra and Philea. The Ptolemaic Mammisi usually consisted of a small temple surrounded by a collonade with inter column screen walls[12]. These small temples were said to hold the ritual so the marriage of Isis /Hathor and the birth of the child-god[13].

Figure 5: Another example of a Bes jar in the Fitzwilliam from a recent visit of mine. Authors photo

Bes Jars, the objects that set me off on this deep dive fall into the category of objects that were fashioned in this god’s likeness (Figure 5). The ancient Egyptians believed that these vessels, once filled, would harness the protective power of Bes. If a child were ill, milk would be given to them in one of these Bes jars. It was believed that the milk would turn to medicine and protect the child although later this medicinal benefit was extended to all[14].

Although at the moment I would really like some of Bes’s help to get over the cold I have been fighting for the last few days. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this brief adventure into the world of the tambourine shaking, snake strangling, child protecting Bes. 🙂

References


[1] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 102

[2] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 118

[3] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 102

[4] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 102

[5] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 103

[6] https://ancientegyptonline.co.uk/bes/ Accessed 13/03/2022

[7] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 119

[8] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 60

[9] https://ancientegyptonline.co.uk/bes/ Accessed 13/03/2022

[10] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 119

[11] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 104

[12] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 189

[13] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 189

[14] http://egyptianmuseumscribe.blogspot.com/2009/03/bes-jars.html Accessed 13/03/2022

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