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Shai as a birthbrick, Thoth as a baboon and Renenutet as a birth brick
Image © BBC

Shai, God of Fate, Destiny, Life and Death

by Caroline Seawright

Updated: July 24, 2013


shaaygod determinative

Shai, from the Book of the Dead of Ani

Image © Peter
Shai (Shay, Schai, Schay) was the ancient Egyptian god of fate and destiny. He was both a personification of these concepts as well as a deity - the Egyptians believed that he was 'born' with each individual, yet he was also a god. During the New Kingdom he appeared in The Book of the Dead, shown in the judgement scene in the Halls of Ma'ati. He was a god related to birth in the world and rebirth in the underworld.

The name of the god - shay shaay - comes from the ancient Egyptian word for 'appoint' or 'command' - sha shaavertical scroll determinative The word shay shaay could mean 'extent' or 'bulk'. He was the god of the allotted life-span of a human being, relating Shai to the extent - the length - of their life. Another translation of his name could be 'that which is ordained'. Thus, the Egyptians believed that Shai was also related to the 'destiny' or 'fate' or even the 'luck' of a human being. The Turkish word kismet can closely describe the concept of the god Shai.

Shai first appeared in the 18th Dynasty and continued through Egyptian history even under the reign of Akenaten. The goddess Shait - shaayt - was the female version of this god. However, he was generally partnered with three specific goddesses - Meskhenet, goddess of the birth brick and fate, and Renenutet, the goddess who would give a child his or her true name and Shepset, a hippopotamus goddess of childbirth. He was depicted as a man, a cobra or snake and even as a human-headed birth brick, and most often shown in funeral papyri, near his female partners.

An Alexandrian representation of Agathodaimon

Image © Sortes Astrampsychi
As a god of destiny and fortune, Shai could be a positive or negative influence. He could protect an individual, or he could bring misfortune down on the individual. He could be an ambivalent deity, and the Egyptians believed that he followed a person from the moment of birth through to the moment of death, and beyond, even until judgement in the afterlife. His presence at the weighing of the heart could be either one of helping or hindering the deceased, or even as an unbiased party telling the court what has happened in the life of the deceased. But as Meskhenet and Renenutet were there to help with rebirth of the individual into the afterlife, Shai may also have had a similar protective purpose, rather than being a witness against the deceased. An interesting ancient Egyptian greeting was "Shai and Renenutet are with you."

Shai was originally the deity who "decreed" what should happen to a man, and Renenutet, as may be seen from the pyramid texts, was the goddess of plenty, good fortune, and the like; subsequently no distinction was made between these deities and the abstract ideas which they represented.

-- Wallis Budge, E.A. 2011, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, p. cxxv

But it was not only mortals who had to contend with Shai. It was believed that both he and Renenutet are in the hands of Thoth. To emphasise his divinity, Ramses II claimed to be "the Lord of Shai and the creator of Renenutet". Yet in the temple of Opet in Ipet-Isut (Karnak), he is mentioned as "Shai of all gods" - the destiny and fate of all gods seemed to also be in Shai's hands. In the Instructions of Amenemope, the scribe suggests that no-one could ignore Shai. Akenaten tried to link Shai with the Aten when he stated that "the Aten is the Shai who gives life". Even Akenaten, who was not the monotheist that people believe him to be (as Assmann and Hornung point out), could not ignore Shai. Shai as a composite creature, similar to Ammut, known as the 'Shai animal'

Do not set your heart upon seeking riches,
For there is no one who can ignore Shai;
do not set your thought on external matters:
for every man there is his appointed time.

-- Hill, J. 2010, Shai

He was an important god in Graeco-Roman times, where the people of Alexandria linked him to the serpent god of fortune telling, Agathodaimon (Agathodaemon). When speaking about Shai himself, they called him Psais or Psois. Set was also linked to Agathodaimon, which could be because of Shai's unpredictable nature as well as because shai shaaipig determinative meant 'pig', a sacred animal to Set.

This connection to the pig and Set may also explain the shai animal - a composite creature, similar to (and possibly confused with) Ammut, such as on the interior coffin of Nespawershefi (Nespawershefyt), and at the feet of Geb in a painted scene of the separation of Nut and Geb. The shai animal (also known as the sha animal), can also be depicted in a similar manner to that of the Set-animal. However, according to Henk te Velde, in Seth, God of Confusion: A Study of His Role in Egyptian Mythology and Religion, the shai animal has a curved tail rather than the stiff tail of Set. In one of the tombs at Beni Hassan, the shai animal has a straight tail with a stiff, arrow-like tail.

The Shai (Sha) animal as depicted at Beni Hassan, as drawn by Faucher-Gudin

Image © Faucher-Gudin

In a New Kingdom tomb at Der Rifah, where lies the cemetery of the metropolis of the Hypselite nome, there is a prayer to a god named shaawgod determinative s3w ... The capital of the Hypselite nome was shaashtptown determinative Shashotep ... the modern Shuteb; Greek, Hypselis, `hy-p-s; this name can only mean "(the city) pacifying (the god) Sha," and suggests that Sha was the original deity of the locality, although from the Old Kingdom onwards to Roman times Khnum was the chief deity of the place.

Sha, Shau, the god of Shashotep, is also identical with Shai, the god of Destiny. In a note on Khnum in Journal, XII, 226, Griffith remarks that he was the chief god of Shashotep, "where Shau (sic Psais, Destiny) was appropriately associated with him as a subordinate deity." Shay was god of Fate as well as of the vineyard and harvest. His name frequently occurs in Egyptian inscriptions. At El-'Amarnah, Akhenaten is the shay who gives life. In late texts "his shay" is sometimes substituted for "his ka," and in an Eighteenth Dynasty tomb at Thebes there is an inscription which reads "bringing all kinds of good things for Amenemhet [the owner of the tomb], and for his ka,......for his sha,...for his akhu,...and for all his modes of being."

-- Newberry, P.E. 1928, 'The Pig and the Cult-Animal of Set', The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, vol. 14, no. 3/4, pp. 220-222

Shai did seem to have a cult of his own, as there was a Second Priest of Shai during 18th Dynasty, but little else is known about his cult. He was respected by the Egyptians as the master of their fates, the one who decreed how long they would live, and who would be with them when they faced their final destiny.

Meskhenet as a birth brick, Thoth as a baboon, and Shai as a birthbrick

Further Information about Shai

Video of Shai

A video of the Book of the Dead with Shai, by Ahmed Sami:

© Caroline 'Kunoichi' Seawright 2003 - present

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