Journal: Wednesday 20 October 1999
I don’t know what it is that attracts me to the goddess Sekhmet. When all is said and done she is a nasty piece of work, the instrument of vengeance used against mankind by the sun god Re. I was thinking about Sekhmet today when Jenny and I visited the destroyed mortuary temple of Amenhotep III on the West Bank.
Most visitors know this site as the ‘Colossi of Memnon’. While many tourists will tumble out of their coaches for a five-minute photo-opportunity in front the giant statues of Amenhotep III, far fewer give a thought to the huge temple which once stood behind these colossal figures that guarded the entrance. At first glance the ‘temple’ looks like a scrubby disused piece of ground, but since 1970 excavators have been discovering more to this site than first meets the eye. The structure was robbed in ancient times, when much of the stone was taken by Merenptah to be reused in the construction of his own temple. Many fragmentary objects and architectural elements, once part of Amenhotep’s temple, have now been recovered from below the surface and some have been preserved and placed on concrete pedestals on the site. We were shown over parts of the site by a very helpful guide. The most fascinating aspect of this temple for me, is that it had a massive quantity of statuary, especially monuments to the goddess Sekhmet. Examples of these large stone statues can now be seen in just about every museum in the world and there are a number of them at Karnak, in the open-air museum and in the Temple of Mut. It has been suggested that Amenhotep depicted the ‘Litany of Sekhmet’ by including a standing and a seated statue of the goddess for each day of the year, a fact mentioned in ancient texts. Many of these sculptures were later re-used by other pharaohs in their own monuments.
So who was Sekhmet? She is most often depicted as a lion-headed woman, wearing a long wig and a solar disc with cobra-uraeus on her head and is either seated on a block or standing holding a papyrus sceptre before her. As consort of the god Ptah and mother of Nefertem, her main place of worship was at Memphis, though she is represented in many Egyptian temples. She is often associated with or considered an aspect of other female deities, notably Hathor and Mut, but also Pakhet in Middle Egypt and Bastet in the Delta. Like everything in ancient Egypt, Sekhmet had a dual aspect, seen as both a healer and a destroyer.
There is an ancient story about how the ‘Eye of Re’ defeated the sun god’s enemies. In the story, Sekhmet was considered the daughter of the sun god Re (possibly as an aspect of Hathor). When her father (who ruled the world) was an old man, humanity began to turn against him, thinking that he could no longer keep the world in perfect order and it would recede into darkness and chaos. Learning of the plots against him, Re calls a council of the gods who advise him to take vengeance and when his enemies hear of this, they flee into the deserts of Egypt. In the myth, Sekhmet/Hathor becomes the ‘Eye of Re’ who is sent out into the world to pursue her father’s enemies and she becomes a deity of invincible destructive powers, rampaging through the deserts exulting in blood-lust and slaughter. It is perhaps at this point that the gods realise that there will be no humans left on earth to make food offerings to them on the temple altars and they have a change of heart. But by this time, Sekhmet is out of control. While she is resting before her next onslaught, a messenger is sent to Aswan to bring back a large quantity of red ochre, which is mixed with beer to resemble blood and left in jars where the goddess will find them. When she wakes up Sekhmet is delighted by her ‘bloody’ refreshment, drinks deeply and becomes thoroughly intoxicated. She is then taken home and the rest of mankind is saved from the destruction of the goddess.
Sekhmet became a goddess of war, accompanying the king into battle, causing storms and floods and fierce winds or destroying enemies with the fiery heat from her own body. She was a goddess who needed to be constantly appeased, but she also became known in her more benign aspect as a goddess of magic and healing, renowned for driving away sickness and epidemics. Amenhotep was known to be a sick man towards the end of his life and perhaps this is why the king had so many statues of Sekhmet placed in his temple. Egyptian mythology is a very complex subject and there is much more to the personality of this goddess in terms of symbolism, than at first is realised.
Egyptians right up until modern times seemed to hold Sekhmet’s statues in awe and maybe this is why I do too.