Bes, God-Demon of Protection, Childbirth and Entertainmentby Caroline Seawright
September 24, 2001
Updated: December 1, 2012
Bes (Bisu) was an ancient Egyptian dwarf god who was thought to ward off chaotic beings with his tambour or harp, swords, maces and knives. Previous to being given the name 'Bes', he was known as the demonic 'Aha' ('fighter', `h3) because of his ferocity - he was thought to have been able to strangle bears, lions, antelopes and snakes with his bare hands. In this role, despite being thought of as a demon, he was seen as a supporter of Ra, helping to defeat his serpent enemies.
Many names were given him, such as Hait, Ahti, Sepd, Kheraû, in later times especially, but these implied no change in the apprehension of his nature. His usual name was at all periods Bes, a name derived from besa, which designates one of the great feliæ, the Cynælurus guttatus. It was the skin of this beast which formed his clothing, and most probably he was named after this animal in which, according to Egyptian ideas, he sometimes became incarnate.
-- Wiedemann, A. 2004, Religion Of The Ancient Egyptians, pp. 10-11
Other dwarf deities with very similar natures to that of Bes included the aforementioned Aha, who was the earliest incarnation of the dwarf god, and the god Hayet. Appearing in the Middle Kingdom, Aha was a war-like god who was depicted face-on with legs bent, wearing a lion mask and tail, and holding snakes. Hayet was an exorcist who warded of demonic spirits, especially through dance. He was characterised by having a beard, a crown with five tall feathers, a lion tail and a belt. According to Maria Isabel Toro Rueda (2006) in Nacimiento y Proteccion en el Mediterraneo: el Caso de Bes, Hayet was known by various names throughout Egyptian history:
h3ty (Haty, Hati)
`h3ty (Ahty, Ahti, Ihti)
Other early deities, such as Segeb ( sgb, Segen), and Soped ( spd, Sopdu, Sepd), son of Sopdet, were eventually conflated with Bes. Other deities, called Tetetenu (Tettetenu) Kherau, Amam, Mefdjet and Menew were also associated with, and could be merged with, the dwarf god. Most of these names are related to violence, such as strife, fighting, lamenting, and so forth.
He was usually depicted as a somewhat leonine full faced (unlike the usual profile in Egyptian art) bearded dwarf with his tongue sticking out (just as the Māori men stick out their tongues during their war dance), standing on bow legs, his genitals prominent and often with a lion's tail. He wore a plumed crown and a lion or panther skin, which was often worn by the stm priests. In earlier times, though, he was not a dwarf - he had the body of a normal human, though he did sport the lion-like beard and tail.
It is unknown why Bes was depicted as a dwarf. In Egypt, there are examples of dwarfs living in Egypt - from Seneb, who was rich enough to afford a tomb where he is shown with his normal sized wife and child, to personal attendants in the royal family, to entertainers and jesters. Other examples of dwarfs were a predynastic drawing of the "Dwarf Zer" from Abtu (Abydos) and a 5th Dynasty statuette of Khnumhotep from Saqqara. It seems that dwarfs were accepted members of Egyptian society, and when linked with Bes, they may have played an important role in ancient Egyptian religion.
Originally a deity who protected the pharaoh, Bes became a popular god of the every day Egyptian people, and was often depicted on household items such as beds, headrests, chairs, mirrors and ointment pots and even painted on the walls of the house. He was also depicted on various weapons, such as daggers, due to his fighter aspect. He was also often depicted of 'magic wands' that the Egyptian magicians used for their spells or on an amulet to ward off evil. His use as a god of protection for the daily people came to be a sign of joy and good humour, because he drove away ill humour and evil. He was thought to also be able to protect people from dangerous creatures of all types, especially when he was connected with the child Horus in the story of his growing up in the Delta area of Egypt:
Transliteration and translation of Metternich Stela incantation 10
Come to me quickly today
as you have made a boat sailing.
Repel for me every lion on the desert slope
every crocodile on the river,
every biting mouth in their cavern
Do it for me like the stone of the desert mountain, like the sherd edge in the street.
remove for me the posion of the bite which is in every limb of the patient,
so that your words are not rejected on account of it.
-- Digital Egypt, Horus Stelae
He also became a god of childbirth, frightening away all the evil spirits that could kill a newborn baby or young child. If problems arose during labour, a clay statue of Bes was often placed at the head of the expectant mother while spells were recited to the god, asking for his help. He was even depicted at royal birth scenes, especially in later times. He was linked with the hippopotamus goddess of childbirth, Taweret, as they were both very popular deities of childbirth. Until Greek times, she was regarded as his wife. Amulets of both Bes and Taweret were found even at Akhetaten, Akenaten's city. He could not banish these favourites - the Aten was no replacement for these two!
Another spell, of the dwarf. Oh good dwarf, come, because of the one who sent you - for that is Pre, the one who stands upright while Thoth is sitting down, his feet on the bottom which Nun embraces, his hand on the (roof-) beam. Come down, placenta, come down! I am Horus who conjures in order that she who is occupied with birthgiving becomes better than she was, as if she were (already) delivered. Sepertunes, wife of Horus, Nekhbet, the Nubian, the Eastern one, Unat, mistress of Unat: come to do what you can do! Look, Hathor will lay her hand on her with an amulet of health! I am Horus who saves her! - To be recited four times over a dwarf clay placed on the brow of a woman who is giving birth while suffering.
-- Borghouts, J.F. 1971, The Magical Texts of Papyrus Leiden I 348, p. 29
His status as a god of birthing became so great that, from the New Kingdom times he was often represented in the mammisi (Champollion's invented term meaning 'birth house') of temples. The first of these depictions was at Hatshepsut's (1473-1458 BC) mortuary temple, where her mother is to give birth to the child who would become Egypt's female pharaoh.
As another form of protection, an image of the dwarf god was tattooed on some women - different depictions of women, such as girls swimming, female dancers, acrobats and musicians, show them with Bes painted on their skin. The women with the image of Bes tattooed on her upper thigh an around the pubic area might be sacred 'prostitutes', the tattoo being used to ward off venereal disease. This was probably because of his association with music and entertainment, as well as a protector of women and children. It could also have been a tattoo which magically ensured sexuality or fertility.
In the Ptolemaic period, 'incubation' or Bes chambers were built at Anubieion with figures of Bes and a naked goddess - probably Beset - on the inside walls. Pilgrims might have spent the night there to have healing - or maybe erotic - dreams to renew their sexual power.
The Egyptians also saw Bes as one who not only protected but entertained children - when a child smiled for no reason, it was thought that Bes was pulling faces at the child to make him or her laugh! He was thought to entertain through dancing and singing, and so he was also thought to be a god of happiness and joviality.
Despite his fun-loving nature, the dwarf god had been regarded as a god of war since early times. He used his lion-like, ferocious nature to destroy or scare the enemies of pharaoh, as well as the evil spirits that were thought to plague the people of Egypt (including sickness, dangerous creatures and other such troubles). He was thought to be especially protective of women and children.
It was during the Greek Period that the worship of Bes became wide-spread - the numbers of amulets and charms, as well as reliefs at the temples show how popular the 'Great Dwarf' became. There were even oracles of Bes, to whom the people would ask questions, on papyrus, for Bes to give an answer to their problems. In Roman times, the god was adopted by the Roman people, and there are some figurines of him in legionnaire garb!
He was not a god of Egyptian origin. Bes was described as 'Coming from the Divine Land' and 'Lord of Punt' (perhaps an area in present day Somalia - see Hatshepsut's Expedition to Punt). He was thus linked to the goddess Hathor who was known as the 'Lady of Punt' and also a goddess of music. During this period, he was given a wife, known as Beset - a female version of the dwarf god, presiding over protection, pleasure and childbirth. She was also a goddess of the harvest and a divine nurse. The two did were not depicted together before the Ptolemaic era, but during this period an Beset was occasionally shown holding an infant Bes while she offers her breast to nurse him. This iconography was used to connect these two deities with Isis and her son Horus, or conflating them as Isis-Beset and Horus-Bes.
There is an interesting tale about Bes, still mentioned today:
After the triumph of Christianity Bes did not immediately vanish from the memory of man; for we are told of a wicked demon named Bes whom the holy Moses had to exorcise because he was terrorising the neighbourhood. To this day, it would seem, the monumental southern gate of Ipet-Isut (Karnak) serves as a dwelling-place for a knock-kneed dwarf whose gross head is embellished with a formidable beard. Woe to the stranger who, coming across him in the dusk of evening, laughs at his grotesque figure! For the monster will leap at his throat and strangle him. He is the Bes of ancient Egypt who, after long centuries, is not yet resigned to abandoning altogether the scenes of his earlier greatness.
-- The Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology 1994, p. 39
He had no temples and no priesthood other than his oracle, although he was a major deity at Khemenu (El Ashmunein) during the Middle Kingdom. Later in Egyptian history, statues and depictions of Bes were found in most homes throughout the land of Egypt. Although not originally one of the more famous of the gods, Bes came to be loved by the people of Egypt. It was the dwarf god-demon Bes that they came to call on for protection in their daily lives.
Further Information about Bes
- Bes - Wikipedia
- Bes - Encyclopedia Mythica
- Bes - Tour Egypt
- Bes - André Dollinger
- Gods and goddesses in Ancient Egypt - Digital Egypt
Video of Bes
A video filled with images of the god Bes (and other deities), by Egyptahotep:
© Caroline 'Kunoichi' Seawright 2001 - present
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