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The Shesmu Decan is a constellation which rose above the horizon at dawn, for ten days each year
Image © Olaf Tausch

Shesmu, Demon-God of the Wine Press, Oils and Slaughterer of the Damned

by Caroline Seawright

Updated: July 25, 2013



Men pressing wine in a wine press composed of a sack being twisted between two poles Shesmu (Shezmu, Shesemu, Shezmou, Shesmou, Sezmu, Sesmu, Schesmu, Schezemu) was an ancient Egyptian demon-god of the underworld. He was a slaughtering demon, god of precious oils for beauty and embalming and a god of the wine press. He was thought to be a helper of the justified dead, offering them alcoholic red wine to drink. Yet he was also seen to be a demon who would tear off the head of a wrongdoer, throwing the head into the wine press to squeeze out the blood as if it was grape juice.

Shesmu's dual personality was evident from the texts in the Pyramid of Unas and The Book of the Dead. Throughout Egyptian history, from the early dynastic times through to the Roman period he was seen as both a kind benefactor to the good and a cruel dispatcher of those who deserved it.

The Egyptians depicted him as a full man, a lion-headed man or as a hawk. On the list of Decans (bakiu; star groups into which the night sky was divided, with each group appearing for ten days annually) at the temple of Hathor at Iunet (Dendera), Shesmu appeared as a man on a boat with a uraeus on top of his head, between two stars. The Shesmu Decan included a star hieroglyph (star determinative) to differentiate the constellation from the god. Treading on grapes to make wine

Writing was invented in ancient Egypt about 3200 BC. Wine had been manufactured earlier than this date because the wine press served as one of the first hieroglyphs. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs used specialised terms for grapes, specifically: (yrp), raisins (wnsy), grapevines (yarrt), and wine press (smw).

-- Grivetti, L.E., Reading 16: Wine: The Food with Two Faces (Part 1)

Shesmu's name includes the word 'wine press' which could be spelled out as smw (smw) or as the hieroglyph of the wine press (smw) which is also read as smw.

The connection between wine and blood, and thus between helper god and punishing demon, came from the red wine the Egyptians drank. The white variety of wine appeared in the Middle Kingdom, and was a favourite of the Greeks. It was this red wine - or blood - that Shesmu offers the pharaoh in the Pyramid Texts and the deceased in their travels. Shesmu from the Temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu

..."As concerning 'the night when the sentences of doom are promulgated,' it is the night of the burning of the damned, and of the overthrow of the wicked at the Block, and of the slaughter of souls."

Who is this [slaughterer of souls]?

"It is Shesmu, the headsman of Osiris.

"[Concerning the invisible god] some say that he is Apep when he riseth up with a head bearing upon it [the feather of] Ma'at (Truth). But others say that he is Horus when he riseth up with two heads, whereon one beareth [the feather of] Ma'at, and the other [the symbol of] wickedness. He bestoweth wickedness on him that worketh wickedness, and right and truth upon him that followeth righteousness and truth.

"Others say that he is Heru-ur (the Old Horus), who dwelleth in Sekhem; others say that he is Thoth; others say that he is Nefertem; and others say that he is Sept who doth bring to nought the acts of the foes of Nebertcher.

-- Wallis Budge, E.A. 1913, The Papyrus of Ani: A Reproduction in Facsimile, Volume 2, p. 392

Statue of a lion-headed god, possibly representing the god Shesmu

Image © Tangient LLC
During the New Kingdom, his more beneficial side was preferred, and Shesmu was revered as a god of the oil press who produced unguents, fragrant oils and perfumes. For wine, the grapes were emptied into large vats, and crushed by feet. The juice would flow out of a hole in the side of the large vat, into a smaller vat. Secondary pressing was done to separate the rest of the juice form the stems, seeds and skin. This pulp was put into a sack that was stretched either on a frame or between two poles. The sack was then twisted with either one or both poles, and the juice falling from the sack was caught in a large vessel. Oil production was done in a very similar way, with olives rather than with grapes.

The Egyptians also used sesame, moringa, pine kernel, almond and castor oils. Some were used for moisturising the body in the harsh Egyptian climate, others were used as deodorisers and insect repellents, and others still were used for perfumes and for temple rituals. Oils had been used for both beautification and protection since predynastic times.

Shesmu was also connected with a drink called shedeh, first noted by Howard Carter in 1922 within the tomb of Tutankhamen. According to Guasch-Janéa et. al. in 'The origin of the ancient Egyptian drink Shedeh revealed using LC/MS/MS', "the only information we have on the preparation of Shedeh is on an inscription at Dendera's temple (MD 4,77a) as 'the beautiful work of Horus in the lab through the cooked extracts of Shesmu, the god of the press'." They conclude that it was unlikely to have been ordinary wine, but it was specifically made from red grapes.

On the sarcophagus of Ankhnsneferybra of the 26th Dynasty the inscription says that Shesmu was the manufacturer of the Oil of Ra. He was thought to be the Master of Perfumes because of the way the Egyptians infused oil to create their perfumes.

Sketch of Shesmu as depicted on the south staircase at Dendera

Image © NYPL Digital Gallery
It was in his role as a god of perfume that he was linked to the mortuary cult. Not just a god of the underworld, he was also a god who provided the sacred oils for the embalming process. It was believed that he prevented the putrefaction and decay of the flesh after death with his unguents and special oils.

After the deceased had died, it was he who caught the sinful ones for punishment. In Chapter 175 of The Book of the Dead Shesmu was known as "Lord of the Blood". It was under the orders of Osiris, that he would chop up the evil ones, take their heads and toss them into a wine press, treating the heads as if they were grapes to create blood wine.

The blood wine - and the bodies - turned into sustenance for Unas, giving him power and strength:

...Behold, Shesmu has cut them up for Unas, he has boiled pieces of them in his blazing cauldrons. Unas has eaten their words of power, he has eaten their spirits.

-- Remler, P. 2010, Egyptian Mythology, A to Z, p. 177

He was also linked with the setting of the sun - because of its red colour - and with the enemy of Ra, the evil water serpent Apep. He was also linked to Herishef under his title of "Lord of the Blood", to the hawk god Horus while in his hawk form and to the god of wisdom, Thoth. As a god of perfume, he was connected to Nefertem.

A lion god statuette, 3100 BC, possibly depicting Shesmu Being "Fierce of Face", Shesmu's lion-headed form was linked with Nefertem, who was sometimes given the head of a lion. Perfume and unguent bottles that have the form of a lion are usually depicting Shesmu, Nefertem or Maahes (son of Bast). These gods were often substituted for each other because they all had a very similar function in this area.

Shesmu had a priesthood from early times, and his cult was especially strong at the Faiyum. He was worshipped at Edfu and Iunet. He was a god found in the stars and a god of the dead. He was the headsman of Osiris, beheader of the condemned who turned their blood into deep red wine. His blood wine went to nourish the pharaoh to give him strength, his wine to quench the thirst of the dear departed. The oil from his oil presses went to protect the body of the dead, to preserve it for eternity. His oil was used in daily life for perfumes and unguents and beautification of the living body. The "Lord of the Blood" was both worshipped and feared by those who followed him throughout Egypt's history, who lived and died under his influence.

Further Information about Shesmu

Video of Shesmu

A video filled with images of Shesmu (and other deities), by Egyptahotep:

© Caroline 'Kunoichi' Seawright 2001 - present

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