|Bes, the God of Protection
|A Bes statue…
Bes was one of the most popular gods in ancient Egypt. It seems like his image was in every home, from the wealthiest to the poorest. From sublime golden headrests, beds, and ivory apotropaic wands, down to the humblest clay amulet or figurine. Multiple carvings of Bes stood guard outside the giant temple complexes.
|a Bes lamp…
He’s often shown with lion aspects, sometimes having lion paws, mane, ears, or tail. In drawings and relief carvings he’s usually shown looking straight at you, instead of the more typical sideways view used to depict gods and people in Egyptian art. If you read my last blog post on Animal-Headed Deities, you may remember that the animal aspects were meant to tell us something about the gods.
We’re more familiar with goddesses with a lion head, most notably Sekhmet, but Bast, Pakhet, Wadjet, and Meretseger are shown this way too. Common themes include power – Sekhmet meaning “the Powerful One,” destruction of the enemies of Ma’at, and mercy for those who don’t deserve to be destroyed.
But what about male lions? Maahes, the son of Bast or Sekhmet, is another lion or lion-headed god- let’s take a quick look at him. He’s associated with war, knives, and lotuses. The glyphs for ‘male lion’ were used to spell the words prince, masthead, strength, and power, and shared the “Ma” symbol with Ma’at, bringing in the concept of truth. The ‘male lion’ spelling also starts with the symbols for “He who can see in front.” That might give us one of the clues for the forward-facing depictions of Bes! Hethert is one of the few other deities who is shown looking straight at you. Maybe it’s related to ‘directness of approach?’
|Bes with Sword
Protection is one of Bes’s main jobs. In this capacity he brandishes swords or knives. He and the composite hippo-crocodile goddess Tawaret were called on to protect women in childbirth, and to protect children. I’ve read that men in ancient Egypt had a less-risky lifestyle that men in other ancient civilizations because they usually didn’t hunt for food and the army often worked on projects that didn’t involve fighting. So perhaps the two common causes of accidental death in Egypt were childbirth and childhood disease. Regardless, Bes also protected the home, temples, and guarded against bad dreams, so Bes was not exclusively a woman’s god. His name may derive from “besa” meaning “protection.”
He guards against disease. His image is shown on the healing stelae, cippi, which feature the young Heru (Horus) trampling and destroying dangerous animals. Bes is a guardian of the child Heru, and by extension, all children. Being the guardian of Heru, he’s also a guardian of the earthly king as well.
|Bes, Horus, and dangerous animals.
(I like the way the Bes head is placed on this particular stela. The tombstone-shape of the tablet looks like his shoulders and body, standing guard.)
Notice the hyper-dangerous oryx-gazelle he’s holding in his right hand. Defeating the friends of chaos, one herbivorous bovine at a time!
|The Antelope of Chaos!
Bes is also strongly associated with music and dance, and humor. He brandishes harps, drums, and other instruments. The music may warn evil to avoid the area, advertising his presence.
|Bes with drum, wearing a leopard cape.
Hethert’s (Hathor’s) temple in Dendera featured an annual festival dedicated to him, in his role of bringing the angry Hethert (or Sekhmet) back from the Nubian desert in the story of the distant goddess. He’s seen as the protector of Ihy, Hethert’s son, and the three are grouped together.
|Ding, ding, ding! A Bes Bell !
The connection with Hethert and Ihy was a bit of a surprise to me. Bast, Hethert, Ihy, and Bes are the four musical deities I work with in shrine. They get a little gourd-rattle offering routine and mention every day. Now I wonder if there could be a Bast/Nefertem/Bes or Bast/Mahees/Bes connection!
Apparently Bes masks were worn by priests and Heka (magic) practitioners, both in protective rites and in processions. Perhaps this is a statue of a priest carrying a statue of Heru, now unfortunately damaged.
|Heru! Get yer Heru here! Oops!
|Another Bes mask.
There’s a wooden statue of a woman in a lioness mask, holding snake wands, in the Manchester Museum. She may have been representing Beset, Bes’s female counterpart.
Speaking of Heka, Bes appears on Apotropaic Wands made out of hippo ivory. Some of them must have received heavy use. They’re often broken, and have had holes drilled and been ‘stitched’ back together. Here are front and back views of a wand in the British Museum:
|Bes, standing to the left of the double-headed sphinx in the center.
|Bes, next to Tawaret on the left.
Bes is often called a dwarf, and he does have the large head, wide body, and short legs common to that body type. But is he little? Possibly not! Look at the the stela shown earlier in this post. He’s HUGE! One of the conventions in Egyptian art was to portray important things in a larger scale, which is why the dangerous animals in that stela are so small.
Bes is also shown as a composite deity with wings, horns, crowns, and aspects from many other gods. These appear in Heka papyri and as statues, and are called Bes Pantheos in modern literature. There is some odd theology going on here! The aspects of many other gods are being given to Bes. He may have been seen as a hidden aspect of Ra, or there might be some Heka flattery going on. I suspect that heka practitioners might have seen Bes as a more approachable, familiar deity, willing to help out and make deals. Increasing his power and influence might be part of the ‘payment.’
Bes is very much a god of the living. He doesn’t have an important funerary aspect, so he’s missed out on the ‘bling of the tomb’ exhibits, and doesn’t get the same press from the Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, and Book of the Dead that the other deities do. Beat-up terracotta icons that were used by countless generations aren’t as attractive as a golden statue that went straight from the workshop to the tomb. For a long time Egyptologists ignored heka papyri as superstitious crap, unworthy of study, so we’re still playing catch-up in our understanding.
In the modern Kemetic world, Bes often doesn’t get much respect. He’s not ‘pretty’ or ‘romantic,’ so he’s ignored. Very few people want him on their altar. I suspect many people are bothered by the nudity of some depictions, along with his ‘ugly’ appearance. He’s gone from being one of the most popular gods in ancient Egypt, strongly associated with protection and heka, to a virtual pariah. Some Kemetics have told me they’re afraid of him, and get a ‘creeper vibe’ about him, like he’s a dirty old flasher in a raincoat!
This is stunningly wrong, and another example of how, when we don’t take the time to do a little ‘digging’ into ancient Egyptian culture and symbolism, we can go off on the the wrong track.
Whenever I see one of those humble Bes statues in an exhibit, I say ‘hi’ and give a little voice offering. I think of how many people, ordinary people like you and I, gave that icon a place in their homes and saw it every day, passing it along to their children. When things went wrong, when they were scared, when the nightmares came, you can bet that icon heard about it, and probably got an offering of bread and beer. And got profuse thanks when things improved. It’s a personal connection that goes back thousands of years, that you can tap into!
Maybe it’s time to break out some beer or cool water, and some bread, and get this guy on your side!