Sekhmet – the incomparable one
by Anne Key & Candace C. Kent
Sekhmet was known as “The One who was Before the Gods Were,” as “The Lady of the Place of the Beginning of Time,” and “The Great One of Healing.” She was the most important of Egypt’s leonine deities, yet she is the least studied and the most enigmatic. Her most familiar and repeated myth has myriads of interpretations, often contradictory. Of all of Egypt’s female neter, or deities, She was the most significant manifestation of the Eye of Re, embodying the seemingly contradictory but actually complementary aspects of danger and destruction as well as protection and healing. She was known as “The Mistress of Life.”
Sekhmet from the temple of Mut at Luxor, 1403-1365 BCE
There are relatively few myths mentioning Sekhmet, and the ones that do speak of Her as the Eye of Re, the Eye of the Sun. In Egyptian mythology, the Eye of the Sun is a personage, a character, which represents the concentrated and directed strength of the sun, and the Eye is always female. The three myths about the Eye interweave and overlap, sharing characteristics and differences. They are all found in different texts, so they should not be seen as linear or congruent; however, these stories provide an interesting and fuller portrait of The Eye and Sekhmet. In the first two myths, The Eye leaves Egypt; the Eye creates humanity in the first myth and sets out to destroy humanity in the third; and the Eye’s return to Egypt in the second and third myths is heralded with fanfare and joyous festivities.
In the first of these three myths, this version from The Book of Smiting Down Apophis, the Eye leaves Egypt and follows the deities Tefnut and Shu. Upon Her return, the Eye is enraged to find that Atum-Re created another Eye to take Her place. Her tears of rage and grief form human beings. Atum-Re then places the Eye on His forehead as the Uraeus, ruling over all.
In the second myth, often referred to as “The Distant Goddess,” the Eye leaves Egypt and goes south to Nubia. Re realizes that He is powerless without the Eye, so He sends an emissary to convince the Eye to return. Through much story-telling, cajoling and charm, the Eye is persuaded to come back. Upon the Eye’s return, everyone rejoices and a great festival is given in Her honor. According to one text, upon Her return the Eye “has come to rest and has stopped in Isheru in Her form of Sekhmet.” The Eye can be seen as the first feminine being, and the ensuing festival upon Her return, in both this and the following myth, was celebrated as “the welcoming of a beneficial force for all of Egypt.”
The myth most commonly associated with Sekhmet is “The Destruction of Humanity,” from the Book of the Heavenly Cow found on the walls of royal tombs from the 19th and 20th dynasties, around 1200-1100 BCE. This myth is considered to be one of the oldest Ancient Egyptian narratives.
The “Destruction of Humanity” opens with a group of humans rebelling against Re, the aging solar god. Re brings together a council of elder deities for advice. Among those attending is the Eye, who created humans. Nun, primeval chaos, suggests that Re send the Eye out against the humans who rebelled against His authority. The Eye, in the form of Hathor, goes to slay the human rebels who have fled to the desert. She slaughters the rebels and then returns to Re, saying that She “over-powered mankind, and it was agreeable to my heart.” And it is here that “Sekhmet came into being.” Considering this, Re decides that He does indeed want to rule over the humans.
Realizing that Sekhmet will destroy the rest of humanity, Re has a change of heart. He commands his chief priest to grind red ochre to mix with 7,000 jars of barley beer being brewed by women. On the eve of Sekhmet’s planned destruction of humanity, the intoxicating draught is completed and poured into the fields where She will arrive. In the morning, Sekhmet finds the fields brimming with the red beer. Seeing Her own reflection in the flooded plains, She is delighted and drinks Her fill. She is then too intoxicated to even recognize humans, and the destruction of humanity is averted. She is subdued by an intoxicant because She cannot be subdued by force. Re greets Sekhmet with the words “Twice welcome in peace, O Charming One” and decrees that every year women will brew intoxicating draughts for a great feast in Her honor.
“The Destruction of Humanity” story recurs frequently in Egyptian mythology with different deities and different rebellions, which causes this narrative to be viewed as a repeating pattern of events. This myth shares many similarities with other myths that depict deities creating humans and then ultimately destroying them because they were dissatisfied with their creation. This supports the principle that a deity that is powerful enough to create life is also powerful enough to destroy life. And in this Ancient Egyptian myth, that power resides with female deities. The Eye is a symbol of power, the awesome and awe-ful power of the sun. This power spans the destructive acts of creation and the creative acts of destruction. The power of Sekhmet is beyond the male gods’ control; She is a force of nature, wild and indiscriminate.
Ancient Egyptians reenacted the myth of “The Destruction of Humanity” in an annual festival held in the first month of the year, immediately after the flooding of the Nile. These feasts are well-documented at the temple of Mut during the reign of Hatshepsut and well into the Ptolemaic era. The temple inscriptions describe continual singing, dancing, drinking, and music-making as acts of propitiation of Mut in Her form as Sekhmet. This New Year festival occurred after the hottest days of summer had finally ended, the rains arrived, and the Nile flooded. Ochre-colored beer, brewed by women, flowed in an ecstatic ritual of propitiation to the power of the female divine. The flooding of the Nile brought the promise of the continuation of life in an annual cycle.
The early floods would flush more clay, silt and sand down the river, creating rich and fertile sediment. With the mythic identification of the Nile and menstruation, this festival certainly honored the power of the female in all aspects. As Ellis states, “Sekhmet embodies the cyclical blood that flows at birth and death; the blood that flows from mother to child in the womb; the blood on the battlefields, and the menstrual blood or the blood of circumcision that separates the budding young adult from childhood.” Regeneration of the land, the continuation of life, was intricately tied to the cycles of the Nile. “It is the cyclical red flood of the River Nile that became equated with the red, renewing menstrual blood that cleanses and prepares the way for renewal and regenesis. This blood is a kind of communion, in which humankind partakes of the divine drink of the gods. That is the mystery of transubstantiation.”
Pendant depicting Tutankhamun with Sekhmet and Ptah
The New Year festival was one of the primary transition periods for the Ancient Egyptians. Sekhmet was invoked and propitiated as Her immense power could be wielded in many directions. A recitation of a spell called “The Book of the Last Day of the Year” was performed over a piece of cloth which was then worn as an amulet during the days leading up to the New Year. Prayers were recited to gain the protection of Sekhmet, and tokens of Sekhmet and Bastet were liberally bestowed.
The clergy of Sekhmet, the “Uab,” were famed as healers and surgeons. One of the few surviving Ancient Egyptian medical books, the Papyrus Ebers, contains many spells written expressly for the use of the clergy of Sekhmet. A comprehensive knowledge of the heart and circulation was attributed to the Uab. The heart reflected the solar attributes of regeneration. Heart scarabs, placed on the chest of the deceased, manifested the revitalizing powers of the sun, aiding the transformation of the deceased. Some heart scarabs were made of carnelian; this passage from The Egyptian Book of the Dead, beautifully translated by Normandi Ellis, refers to the stone’s regenerative and solar qualities: “Mine is a heart of carnelian…I am the phoenix, the fiery sun, consuming and resuming myself.”
“The Devouring One,” “Warrior Goddess,” “Protectress of the Divine Order,” “Lady of Jubilation” and “The Beautiful Light,” Sekhmet, the divine manifestation of the lioness-woman, encompassed all of these aspects. She was called upon by queens and kings, warriors and healers, priestesses and priests, for Her strength and power. She was truly “The Incomparable One.”
1. Joseph Kaster, The Wisdom of Ancient Egypt (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1968), 55-56.
2. Normandi Ellis, Feasts of Light: Celebrations for the Seasons of Life based on the Egyptian Goddess Mysteries (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1999), 58.
3. Lesko, The Great Goddesses of Egypt, 145.
4. Edward F. Wente Jr., trans. “The Book of the Heavenly Cow,” in The Literature of Ancient Egypt, edited by William Kelly Simpson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 289-292.
5. Kaster, The Wisdom of Ancient Egypt, 70.
6. Geraldine Pinch, Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 125.
7. Pinkowski, “Egypt’s Ageless Goddess,”45-49.
8. Jaana Toivari-Viitala, Women at Deir el-Medina. A Study of the Status and Roles of the Female Inhabitants at the Workmen’s Community during the Ramesside Period (Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor Het Nabije Oosten, 2001), 162; Judy Grahn, Blood, Bread and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 225.
9. Ellis, “Sekhmet, Bast, and Hathor,” 206.
11.Normandi Ellis, Awakening Osiris: A New Translation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead (Grand Rapids, MI: Phanes Press, 1988), 178.
Excerpted from Heart of the Sun: An Anthology in Exaltation of Sekhmet (Goddess Ink, 2011).
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