Casandra Birrell

Sekhmet’s name means ‘The Powerful One’.  She was the vengeful ‘Eye of Re’ who embarked on the bloodthirsty slaughter of mankind but she was worshipped as the goddess of life by, among others Amenophis III, (Jacq 1998)1 and her followers were known as waab-priests who were trained to heal.  Her iconography is easily identifiable (unlike some of the other deities).  She is portrayed as having the body of a woman with the head of a lion, bearing the orb of the sun on the top of her head.  She carries a sceptre but not the was sceptre which can be seen in the iconography of many of the other Ancient Egyptian deities.  Instead, it appears as an elongated sceptre with a top in the shape of the papyrus plant which was the heraldic plant of lower Egypt (Hart 1986)2.  She holds the ankh, the key of life, because this is a divine presence - a goddess.

She has appeared as both Hathor and Isis in various versions concerning the myth of the ‘Eye of Re’ mentioned above which will be discussed in some detail later. She has also been merged with the benign cat goddess Bastet but these two should not be confused.  Bastet’s iconography (feline, but not leonine) and origins (north east Delta at Bubastis) are totally different.

Sekhmet was the consort of the Memphis creator god Ptah and was known as ‘The Beloved of Ptah’.  She was the mother of Nefertum ‘God of the Primeval Lotus Blossom’.  Thus, the Triad of Memphis was conceived; the necessary image of a ‘family’ to surround the creator god. 


sekhmetSekhmetSekhmet and aton
.....................Statue of Sekhmet - Medinet Habu. ............................................................ Sekhmet - Kom Omboo.................................................................Sekhmet with Akhenaten........................... .......

Sekhmet and the chaos principle:

The most well-known myth surrounding the warlike and destructive aspects of Sekhmet is that found in many of the royal tombs at Thebes.   It is said that Re was afraid that humans were about to revolt against his rule and thus weaken, or even destroy, his powers.   He was urged by the gods to send his ‘Eye’ in the form of Sekhmet (also depicted in some versions as Hathor or Isis) to teach mankind a lesson. Re ordered Sekhmet to mete his revenge on those who were seeking to destroy his absolute rule.  But things went horribly wrong. She slew thousand upon thousand and her bloodlust could not be quenched.  She was totally out of control and unable to stop the slaughter she had started.  Re was horrified.  He had to think of a plan to stop the killing developing into what could have been wholesale massacre. 

When Sekhmet was asleep, sated by the blood of her victims, Re ordered that a huge supply of red ochre be brought from Elephantine Island and put into thousands of beer containers.  This had the effect of turning the liquor the colour of blood. The containers were then taken and emptied throughout the land.  On wakening, Sekhmet started her campaign of death and destruction afresh.  She thought that she was drinking the blood of her victims, but instead she was drinking the tainted beer.  After some time, she became totally intoxicated and could no longer continue her task.  Only by attempting to halt her in this way could Re and the gods ensure that the killing stopped.   But Sekhmet was furious with the gods for thwarting her.  She thought that she had been made to look foolish and so she took flight to self imposed exile in Nubia.  In doing so, the personification of the ‘Eye of Re’ was lost and the Sun God, in turn, suffered the waning of his mighty power.   Chaos reigned.   Order was lost.  The balance was upset.   Order had to be restored.   

Thoth, the Ibis-headed God of writing and wisdom was despatched by the gods to Nubia to persuade Sekhmet to return to Egypt .  Through his efforts, her ferocity was subdued and her desire for killing was ended.  She returned to Elephantine in the form of Hathor, the goddess of love. Thus the ‘Eye of Re’ was restored. (Meeks and Favard-Meeks 1993)3.

Sekhmet and the order principle:

The chaotic side of Sekhmet’s nature has been examined.  Now let us turn to the balancing principle of order.  Where there is one, there has to be the other.  That was the Egyptian binary way of existence and thought. 

Many of the ancients regarded Sekhmet as the goddess of healing and life.  The ‘Priests of Sekhmet’ were known as doctors as they were given the power to heal. It was believed that Sekhmet in her chaotic form had the ability to call down sickness and pestilence upon humankind.  But there had to be a balance and thus her follower-priests were able to work in her name to cure, give succour and repair the damage caused.   A carved fragment from the valley temple of Sneferu at Dahshur portrays the Pharaoh as appearing to be given life by the breath of Sekhmet (Hart 1986)4.  And there is evidence in the Pyramid Texts that the goddess gave birth to the kings.  There was indeed a shrine to Sekhmet at Abusir where she was worshipped as a goddess of life. (Hart 1986)4  She was venerated, as well as being feared for her destructive might.  

Due to his failing health, Amenophis III erected over six hundred statues to Sekhmet as the goddess of health and life (Weeks 1998)5 in the hope that the goddess in her benign form could offer him protection and healing.  Although some of these statues are to be found in museums around the world many can still be seen at the Temples of Karnak at the Temple of Mut (Strudwick 1999) (ill 1).



..........................................................................................Sekhmet ............................................................................. Ptah .................................................Nefertum

In particular, in the temple of Ptah at Karnak there is a large black granite statue of Sekhmet, again holding the symbols of divinity - the ankh and the papyrus sceptre.  Among the inhabitants of Thebes there was a superstition attached to this statue.  It was recounted that seven young boys employed as basket boys for an excavation (date unknown) were clearing away rubble and stones near the statue.   Suddenly there was a rock fall and they were buried.  But their bodies were never found and the belief is that the warlike lion-headed goddess was responsible for their deaths and the disappearance of their bodies.  (Watterston 1984) 6(ill 2).  It is worth noting that the number seven should be used as it was a number of great importance to the ancient Egyptians.  Was this part of the telling of the ‘myth’ in order to make it more powerful?

Sekhmet’s leonine form was emblazoned on the chariots of Ramses II in the war against the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh, her breath of fire smiting the enemies of the Pharaoh.  She could be seen as powerful, warlike but also as the protector of the king. There is also evidence of ‘protection’ in a royal pectoral found in the tomb of Tutankhamun where the Memphis Creator God and his Consort are seen to be the ‘guardians’ of the Pharaoh. (Wilkinson 1999) (ill 3)

What, therefore, can be concluded from a study of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet?  The continuing and unbroken strand of the ideologies of Ancient Egypt can be seen again and again.  Order and chaos.  The one balancing the other.   Sekhmet is portrayed as a destructive goddess who, once borne along on the wave of her massacre of mankind, could only be stopped by the trickery of Re.   She had tasted blood and was insatiable in her urge for mass destruction.  But then there appears the balance - the goddess of health and life in whom the ailing Pharaoh Amenophis III put his trust.  She was the protector of the mighty Ramses II at the Battle of Kadesh.  Her waab priests were known as ‘doctors’ and were entrusted to heal the sick.    Two opposing characteristics; two concepts - order and chaos. 

And so today as we stumble with wide-eyed hope and anticipation into the Christian 2nd Millennium and Egypt enters its 7th Millennium, just how far have we come? We live in a monotheistic society but so many wars during the centuries have been fought in the name of religion.   Were the ancients not more at peace worshipping their own local and state deities, weaving their myths and living according to the rule of Ma’at? We live in an age of materialism, social exclusion, corruption in governments world-wide, and ‘ethnic cleansing’.   Yes, we can command technology, we live in this country in relative peace, but so many parts of the world are victims of war, famine and the degradation of their people.  Chaos and order are still at variance with each other, like a set of scales which still have to be balanced.  Can we not, even now, stop to take stock and marvel at the wisdom handed down to us in the myths, symbols and writings of an ancient civilization from whom we can still learn so much if we only look, listen and apply some of those principles to our lives today?

1.  Jacq C (1998)  Magic and Mystery in Ancient Egypt p 93 Souvenir Press Ltd.

2.  Hart G. (1986)  Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses  p. 187:  London,             Routledge.

3.  Meeks D and Favard-Meeks C (1997)  Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods p 25-26. John Murray (Publishers) London.

4.  Hart G. (1986)  Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses  p. 187:  London,             Routledge.

5.  Weeks, K (1998) The Lost Tomb, p 225 Weidenfeld & Nicholson

6.  Watterson, B (1996)   Gods of Ancient Egypt p 173 Sutton Publishing

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