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A statue of Seshat at the Louvre

Seshat, Female Scribe, Goddess of Writing and Measurement

by Caroline Seawright

Updated: November 29, 2012

 

sshatseshat determinative

Close-up of the Goddess Seshat

Image © April McDevitt
Seshat (Sashet, Sesheta, Sesat), meaning 'female scribe', was seen as the goddess of writing, historical records, accounting and mathematics, measurement and architecture to the ancient Egyptians. She was depicted as a woman wearing a panther-skin dress (the garb of the funerary stm priests) and a headdress that was also her hieroglyph (seshat determinative) which may represent either a stylised flower or seven (or nine) pointed star on a standard that is beneath a set of down-turned horns. (The horns may have originally been a crescent, linking Seshat to the moon and hence to her spouse, the moon god of writing and knowledge, Thoth.)

She was believed to appear to assist the pharaoh at various times, and who kept a record of his life: It was she who recorded the time allotted to him by the gods for his stay on earth.

-- Mysteries in Stone, Seshat

She was associated with the pharaoh at the 'stretching the cord' foundation ritual, where she assisted the pharaoh with the measuring process. During New Kingdom times, she was shown to have been involved in the sed (jubilee) festival of the pharaohs, holding a palm rib to show the passage of time. She kept track of each pharaoh and the period for which he ruled and the speeches made during the crowning rituals. She was also shown writing down the inventory of foreign captives and captured goods from campaigns. The image on the left reads 'Priest of Seshat' | An ancient sketch of Seshat, with a five pointed Star as part of her Headdress

One of the most important ceremonies in the foundation of Egyptian temples was known as Pedjeshes (Pedj--"to stretch," Shes--"a cord") and it forms the subject of one of the chief monumental ornaments in the temples of Abtu (Abydos), Iunu (On, Heliopolis), Iunet (Dendera), and Djeba (Utes-Hor, Behde, Edfu). The reigning pharaoh and a priestess personifying Seshat, the goddess of writing, proceeded to the site, each armed with a golden mallet and a PEG connected by a cord to another PEG. Seshat having driven her peg home at the previously prepared spot, the king directed his gaze to the constellation of the Bull's Foreleg (this constellation is identical with Ursa Major, "Great Bear", and the "hoof" star is Benetnasch, Eta Ursae majoris). Having aligned the cord to the "hoof" and Spica as seen through the visor formed by Seshat's curious headdress, he raised his mallet and drove the peg home, thus marking the position of the axis of the future temple.

-- Cyril Fagan (1951), Zodiacs Old and New: A Probe Into Antiquity and What Was Found, p. 15

Seshat, Goddess of Writing Seshat has no temples that have been found, though she did have a priesthood in early times. Along with her priestess', there were a few priests in the order - the Slab Stela of Prince Wep-em-nefret, from the Fourth Dynasty, gives him the title of Overseer of the Royal Scribes, Priest of Seshat. It was at a later time that the priests of Thoth took over the priesthood of Seshat.

Seti I, at Abtu, dedicated part of his temple to the goddess:

The staircase of the temple ... bears an address in 43 columns of the goddess Seshat to the king (KRI I, 186-188). The text displays a rigid scheme which deals with the temple itself and its two groups of occupants (the king and the gods) and in which pseudo-verbal/temporal aspects and non-verbal sentences/a-temporal aspects alternate. The author demonstrates that the three main elements, temple, gods and king, have each their proper place in the sophisticated and complicated structure of the text. The address consists of three parts. The first concerns the temple, its conception and its realisation. The second presents the gods who live there and guarantee its sacral nature. The third part is devoted to the king, the celebrant par excellence, who certifies its functioning. This last part has a very intricate structure, with reference to the Horus and solar aspect of the king, the Osirian aspect, and the relationship between the two. At the conclusion of the address Seshat speaks, in order to fulfil her usual task of registering the divine kingship of the pharaoh as living Horus, according to the orders of Ra and the decree of Atem.

-- Dominique Bastin, De la fondation d'un temple: "Paroles dites par Seshat au Roi Sethi Ier", pp. 9-24

The god of wisdom, Thoth, and the goddess of writing, Seshat Thoth was thought to be her male counterpart and father, and she was often depicted as his wife by the Egyptians. The child of this union was a god named Hornub, 'The Gold Horus'. Some believe her to be an example of Egyptian duality, as she bears many of the traits of Thoth. As an ancient goddess of the Old Kingdom, she was called 'The Original One, Who Originated Writing at the Beginning'. She was thought to be linked with the goddess Nephthys who was given the title 'Seshat, Foremost of Builders' in the Pyramid texts. In the Ptolemaic Period Seshat was called 'She who reckons the life-period, Lady of Years, Lady of Fate' (and was thus also linked to the god of fate, Shai).

She was also identified with Isis and assisted with bringing Osiris back to life after he had been slain by Set. Safekh-Aubi (Sefekh-Aubi) is a title that came from Seshat's headdress, that may have become an aspect of Seshat or an actual goddess. Safekh-Aubi means 'She Who Wears the Two Horns' and relates to the horns that appear above Seshat's standard.

Seshat at the Temple of Seti I, Abydos

Image © Ma'at Productions
Seshat is also a goddess who opened the House of Life (per ankh) for the deceased. The Coffin Texts state that "Seshat opens the door of heaven" (Spell 10) for the deceased, and was thus a friend of the dead.

"Seshat opens for you the House of Life," ... Seshat performs protective functions for Osiris. She helps to collect and reassemble the limbs of Osiris, much like Thoth. The House of Life appears often in the Book of Thoth, and thus provides a milieu in which the goddess may be expected to be active.

-- Richard Jasnow & Karl-Theodor Zauzich (2005), The Ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth: Volume 1: Text, p. 25

The Egyptians believed that Seshat invented writing, while Thoth taught writing to mankind. She was known as 'Mistress of the House of Books', indicating that she also took care of Thoth's library of spells and scrolls. It was as 'Mistress of the House of Architects' that she helped the pharaoh set the foundations of temples with indication that she set the axis by the aid of the stars.

The unusual and obscure 'Song of Didiu' in the tomb of Antefoqer ('Ninen' may have been his nickname) references the Seshat and the "Seshat-star": Seshat from a temple built by Ramses II

Heaven is pregnant with the Seshat-star, heaven brings forth the Seshat-star. The Seshat-star is to her mother. Ninen belongs to health, .... belongs to health. The vizier Antefoqer, born of Senet, belongs to health, Ninen belongs to life. The Seshat-star .... O Seshat(?), make yourself for Ninen(?) .... Ninen [belongs to] life, the vizier [Antefoqer] belongs to health .... I sleep, I make my own body, these my breasts, these my ...., these my ...., these my fingers, these [vertebrae] of my back. These my .... have not given you to .... Night approaches, it breaks(?), ...., it divides(?) its cup, it pours evil(?) The Seshat-star is to her mother.

-- OsirisNet, Antefoqer; Intefiqer; Antefoker; Intefiker; TT60; TT 60; Egypt tomb Luxor (04)

Pharaoh Hatshepsut (1473-1458 BC) depicted both Seshat and Thoth as those who made the inventory of treasures brought back from Punt:

'Thoth a note of the quantity', we are told, 'and Seshat verified the figures.'

-- Felix Guirand (1965), Egyptian Mythology, p. 85

Seshat Holding a Ruler-Like Instrument Seshat was the only female that has been found (so far) actually writing. Other women have been found holding a scribe's writing brush and palette - showing that they could read and write - but these women were never shown in the act of writing itself. Some archaeologists believe that the Middle Kingdom title, sheshat, when applied to a lady may refer to the title of a 'cosmetician', rather than a scribe, as it can occur with the title for 'hairdresser'. In the Late Period, Irtieru (TT390) had the title 'Female scribe, Chief Attendant of the God's Priestess Nitiqret'.

Seshat was a rather important goddess, even from earlier times in the Pyramid texts. She was the first and foremost female scribe - accountant, historian and architect to both the pharaoh and the gods. She was the female goddess of positions belonging mostly to men. Yet she did not have a personal name, only a title - Seshat, the Female Scribe.


Further Information about Seshat


Video of Seshat

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


© Caroline 'Kunoichi' Seawright 2001 - present

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