Seshat – She who is foremost in the Library

I have spent a lot of time surrounded by books all about ancient Egypt so it feels only right that I introduce you to the goddess Seshat mistress of the library. As it is more than likely that as I write my blogs she would be the one to guide me. So let dive in and see how she connects libraries, the length of the king’s reign and the start of building projects together.

Figure 1: The goddess Seshat shown on the back pillar of the colossal statue of Rameses II at the Temple of Luxor. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ckirie/33381782231

Seshat ‘She who is foremost in the library’ is represented as a woman clad in a long panther skin dress with a headdress consisting of a band topped with a seven-pointed star and then a bow or a pair of stylized horns[1] (Figure 1). Her name can be translated as ‘female scribe’ and so she is seen as the goddess of all forms of writing including record keeping, censuses, astronomy and mathematics[2]. Alongside this, she is considered the patroness of temple libraries, other collections of texts, scribes and builders of texts.

Mistress of the House of Books

 Seshat was known by the epithet “Mistress of the House of Books” because she looked after the library of the gods and was the patron of all earthly libraries[3]. According to one myth, Seshat invented writing, but it was Thoth who taught the people to write. The written word was considered sacred. The Greek designation hieroglyphics for the Egyptian writing system means “sacred carvings” and is a translation from the Egyptian phrase medu-netjer, “the god’s words”[4].  Thoth and Seshat are often linked as their divine purview were the same but their relationship is a little bit murkier with the potential for it to be wife and husband, sister and brother of finally father and daughter. Within the temple/temple complexes stood the ‘House of Life’ or Pr- Ankh which Sehat and Thoth respectively presided over. Within the walls of this ‘house’  research could be conducted as medical, astronomical, and mathematical texts were maintained there and copied by scribes. The institution served as a workshop where sacred books were composed and written by the ranking scholars of the times[5].

Figure 2: Seshat and Thoth record the reign of Ramesses on the Pesea Tree. Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. “Atmoo, Thoth, & the goddess of letters [Seshat], writing the name of Remeses on the fruit of the persea. Memnonium, Thebes.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed May 24, 2022. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e2-6fb8-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Seshat also played an important role when it came to the recording of the pharaoh’s reigns. During the New Kingdom, she became more associated with the Sed festival (royal jubilee). She is often depicted with the notched palm rib that traditionally represented the passing of time, and, like Thoth, she was shown writing the names of the king of the persea or ished tree a leaf representing every year of the king’s reigns granted by the gods[6]. (Figure 2, 3 )

Figure 3: A different depiction of Seshat and Toth recording the reign of Ramesses II this time on the notched palm rib rather than persea tree. http://davidspiropoulos.blogspot.com/2017/05/snapshots-of-egypt-luxor.html

Infused into the walls of every temple   

Figure 4: Foundation ritual of the red chapel by Hatshepsut and Seshat https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hatshepsut_and_Seshat.jpg

 Seshat appears early in ancient Egyptian history and myth. From the 2nd Dynasty onwards, she is shown taking part in a ritual of ‘stretching the cord’. Specifically, she is first shown aiding King Khasekhemnwy the last king of the 2nd dynasty. In this guise, she is manifesting her role as ‘the mistress of builders’[7] and involved in the ritual referred to as Stretching the cord. The ritual of stretching the cord was one of the most important elements of the foundation ritual which by the Ptolemaic period had 11 different steps. The cord this ritual refers to is the mason’s line which was used to mark out the dimensions of the building and allowed the building to be aligned with the stars or point of a compass[8]. (Figure 4) The stretching of the cord ritual had three different phases. First, the four corners of the building were marked out. Second, the actual stretching of the cord involved the burying of stakes and the tying of the cord to link them. Then, the final stage, involved the loosening of the cord so that it slipped down the stakes and lay on the ground showing the limits of the building. Alongside the cord and staked a tool known as a ‘merket’ which consisted of a notched stick through which the Great Bear constellation could be seen thus enabling the builders to calculate true north[9].

“I hold the peg. I grasp the handle of the club and grip the measuring cord with Seshat. I turn my eyes to the movements of the stars. I send forth my gaze to the Bull’s thigh (the Great Bear). I count off time, I watch the clock, I establish the four corners of your temple”[10]. Inscription at Edfu Temple

Unlike the main gods of the ancient Egyptian pantheon such as Amun, Hathor, Horus Seshat does not appear to have any formal temples. Rather by virtue of her position in the foundation ceremony she was in fact infused into the walls of every temple building. Foundations deposits sometimes contain rod-shaped objects, believed to be models of the survey poles held by the goddess Seshat in foundation rituals (Figure 5 )[11].  Deposits were placed at the corners of buildings or at points of importance in the structure. Temples would have a deposit at each corner, while tombs would have deposits by their entrances[12]. They also could be placed under obelisks, columns, hypostyle halls, sanctuaries and along the central axes of the buildings.

Figure 5: The small twisted rod in the second row of this foundation deposit represents the poles held by Seshat in the foundation rituals. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA55564  

Seshat also plays a similar role in the divine realm as she did in the mortal. As she was in charge of building the mansions of the gods (sometimes assisted by the gods of sight and hearing) and making the ‘mansions of the west’ for the revered dead[13].

Well, I hope you have enjoyed this week’s look at the Mistress of Books, Seshat and how was surfused in every important building in Ancient Egypt but especially those that contained books.

References


[1] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 297

[2] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 166

[3] https://ancientegyptonline.co.uk/seshat/

[4] https://www.worldhistory.org/Seshat/

[5] Bunson, M., 1991. Encyclopedia of ancient Egypt. 1st ed. New York: Facts on File Publications. Page 204

[6] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 297

[7] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 166

[8] https://ancientegyptonline.co.uk/foundationritual/

[9] https://ancientegyptonline.co.uk/foundationritual/

[10] https://ancientegyptonline.co.uk/foundationritual/

[11] https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA55564

[12] https://ancientegyptonline.co.uk/foundationritual/

[13] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 190

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