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Statue of the goddess Sekhmet

Sekhmet, Powerful One, Sun Goddess, Destructor

by Caroline Seawright

Updated: November 29, 2012

 

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The lion-headed goddess Sekhmet (Sakhmet, Sekhet) was a member of the Memphite Triad, thought to be the wife of Ptah and mother of Nefertem (though the motherhood of Nefertem was in dispute - Bast and Wadjet (Edjo) were touted as his mother in their respective cities). Associated with war and retribution, she was said to use arrows to pierce her enemies with fire, her breath being the hot desert wind as her body took on the glare of the midday sun. She represented the destructive force of the sun.

"The good god, the lord of action, Neb-Ma'at-Ra [Amenhotep III], Beloved of Sekhmet, the Mistress of Dread, who gives life eternally. The son of the God Ra of His own body, Amenhotep, ruler of Waset (Thebes), Beloved of Sekhmet, the Mistress of Dread, Who gives life eternally."

-- al-Misri, M. 1996, Splendors of ancient Egypt: from the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, p. 96

Sekhmet and Ptah

According to the legends, she came into being when Hathor was sent to earth by Ra to take vengeance on man. She was the one who slaughtered mankind and drank their blood, only being stopped by trickery (this story can be found under Hathor's tale). Like Hathor, Sekhmet, too, had seven forms - known as the Seven Arrows of Sekhmet which brought misfortune and infectious disease. She was, thus, the destructive side of the sun, and a solar goddess and given the title Eye of Ra.

Being mother of Nefertem, who himself was a healing god, gives her a more protective side that manifested itself in her aspect of goddess of healing and surgery. In a New Kingdom love poem (Papyrus Harris 500), she is linked with Ptah, Nefertem and an unknown goddess called Yadyt whose name probably meant 'pestilence'. Part of her destructive side was also disease and plague, as the 'Lady of Pestilence'... but she could also cure said ailments.

On New Year's day itself, Egyptians exchanged presents, often in the form of amulets of Sekhmet or her feline counterpart, Bast. These were intended to pacify the dreadful goddess whose demon messengers might bring plauge, famine or flood ... Fear of Sekhmet presumably remained tied to the late summer and early inundation season.

-- Pinch, G. 1995, Magic in Ancient Egypt, p. 38

Sekhmet from the tomb of Mentuherkhepeshef
Image © Paul Biesta

The priests of Sekhmet were specialists in the field of medicine, arts linked to ritual and magic. They were also trained surgeons of remarkable caliber. Magico-medical texts, which were for use by doctors or priests of Sekhmet, sometimes claim that the physician or priest was the son of Sekhmet. Pharaoh Amenhotep III had many statues of Sekhmet, and it has been theorised that this was because he dental and health problems that he hoped the goddess may cure.

Hundreds of Amenhotep's Sekhmet statues were found in the Theban temple precinct of the goddess Mut at South Ipet-Isut (Karnak). Many Egyptologists now believe, however, that they were all made for the king's funerary temple on the West Hank of the Nile and were dispersed to other sites at Waset and elsewhere beginning in the reign of Ramses II.

-- Cincinnati Art Museum 1996, Mistress of the House, Mistress of Heaven: Women in Ancient Egypt, p. 135

Sekhmet was depicted as a lion-headed woman with the sun disk and uraeus serpent headdress. Although she is connected with Bast, she has no family relationship with the cat goddess. They are two distinct goddesses in their own rights - the Egyptians did not claim they were siblings of any kind. Bast and Sekhmet were an example of Egyptian duality - Sekhmet was a goddess of Upper Egypt, Bast of Lower Egypt (just like the pharaoh was of Upper and/or Lower Egypt!)... and they were linked together by geography, not by myth or legend.

New Kingdom Red Terracotta Votive Figurine of Sekhmet

Image © Caroline Seawright
Sekhmet was mentioned a number of times in the spells of The Book of the Dead:

The Osiris Whose Word is Truth
I have made supplication to the Khati gods and to Sekhmet in the temple of Nit, or the Aged Ones ... I have approached with worship the two Khati gods and Sekhmet, who are in the temple of the Aged One [in Anu].

The Chapter of Opening the Mouth
I am the goddess Sekhmet, and I take my seat upon the place by the side of Amt-ur the great wind of heaven.

The Chapter of Giving a Heart to the Osiris
May the goddess Sekhmet raise me, and lift me up. Let me ascend into heaven, let that which I command be performed in Hikuptah. I know how to use my heart. I am master of my heart-case. I am master of my hands and arms. I am master of my legs. I have the power to do that which my KA desireth to do. My Heart-soul shall not be kept a prisoner in my body at the gates of Amenty when I would go in in peace and come forth in peace.

The Chapter of Driving Back the Slaughters Which are Performed in Hensu
My belly and back are the belly and back of Sekhmet. My buttocks are the buttocks of the Eye of Horus.

-- Wallis Budge, E.A. 1913, The Papyrus of Ani: Volume 2, pp. 421, 434, 438, 608

Sekhmet's cult centre was in Mennefer (Hikuptah, Memphis), but during the Middle Kingdom it was moved to the Faiyum region: The Mennefer Triad - Nefertem, Sekhmet and Ptah

Her cult was so dominant in the culture that when the first pharaoh of the twelfth dynasty, Amenemhat I, moved the capital of Egypt to Itjtawy, the centre for her cult was moved as well.

At Taremu (Leontopolis), tame lions were kept in her honour. The goddess Hathor-Sekhmet was worshipped at Yamu (Kom el-Hisn). During the New Kingdom, when the seat of power shifted to Waset (Thebes), some of Sekhmet's powers were absorbed by Mut, wife of Amen, the god of Waset. Sekhmet was soon represented as Mut's aggressive side, Mut-Sekhmet, rather than a goddess in her own right. She was, in later times, thought to preside over the fourth month of the Egyptian calendar, known as Koiak in Greek times.


Further Information about Sekhmet


Video of Sekhmet

A video filled with images of the goddess Sekhmet (and other deities), by Egyptahotep:


© Caroline 'Kunoichi' Seawright 2001 - present

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