Sekhmet: Egypt’s Forgotten Esoteric Goddess

Sekhmet is the Egyptian goddess of fire, hunting, wild animals, death, war, violence, retribution, justice, magic, heaven and hell, plague, chaos, the desert/mid-day sun, and medicine and healing – Egypt’s most peculiar goddess.

Who is Sekhmet?

Sekhmet-Goddess

Sekhmet is a powerful and unique therianthropic (part-animal, part human-like) mother goddess from ancient Egypt. Her name literally means ‘She who is powerful’ or ‘One who has control’. She is mentioned a number of times in the spells of “The Book of the Dead” as both a creative and destructive force.

Sekhmet was depicted with the body of a woman clothed in red linen, wearing a Uraeus and a sun disc on her lioness head. Amulets depict her as seated or standing, holding a papyrus-shaped scepter. From the abundant number of amulets and sculptures of Sekhmet discovered at various archaeological sites, it is evident that the goddess was popular and highly important.

Sekhmet’s Family 

Sekhmet’s father is Ra. She is the vengeful manifestation of Ra’s power, the Eye of Ra. She was represented as the heat of the mid-day sun (Nesert – the flame) and is described as being able to breathe fire, her breath likened to the hot, desert winds. She was a warrior goddess. She is believed to have caused plagues. She was invoked to ward off diseases.

Sekhmet represented the Lower Nile region (north Egypt). Memphis and Leontopolis were the major centers of the worship of Sekhmet, with Memphis being the principal seat. There she was worshipped with her consort Ptah. They have a son named Nefertem.

Her other son, Mahees, was considered the patron of the pharaohs and the pyramid texts, thus giving Sekhmet considerable power in the religious hierarchy and the pantheon. She protected the pharaohs and led them to war. She was also the patron of physicians and healers. Priests of Sekhmet became known as skilled doctors.

In the pyramid texts, Sekhmet is written to be the mother of the kings reborn in the afterlife. The coffin texts associate her with Lower Egypt. In the New Kingdom funerary literature, Sekhmet is said to defend Ra from Apophis. The body of Osiris is believed to be guarded by four Egyptian cat goddesses, and Sekhmet is one of them.

sun-god-ra
Sun god Ra

The Origins of Sekhmet

Sekhmet’s origins are unclear. Lionesses are rarely depicted in the pre-dynastic period of Egypt yet in the early pharaonic period the lioness goddesses are already well established and important. She seems to have been born in the Delta region, a place where lions were rarely seen.

Sekhmet is the instrument of divine retribution. Myths mention how an angry Ra, created Sekhmet out of Hathor and sent her to destroy mankind because it was not upholding the laws of Ma’at, the ancient Egyptian concept of order and justice.

Sekhmet brought terrible plagues toon the land. Her breath is said to be the hot desert winds. This narrative is often cited to explain her epithet as ‘Protector of Ma’at.’ Sekhmet’s bloodlust is so out of hands that, according to narratives inscribed in the royal tombs at Thebes, Ra ordered his priests at Heliopolis to obtain red ochre from Elephantine and grind it with beer mash. 7000 jars of red beer are spread over the land during the night. Thinking that it is the blood of her enemies, Sekhmet drinks it up, gets intoxicated, and sleeps.

Limestone fragments discovered from the valley temple of Sneferu (dynasty IV) at Dahshur depict the monarch’s head closely juxtaposed to the muzzle of a lioness deity (presumed to be Sekhmet) as if to symbolize Sneferu breathing in the divine life force emanating from the goddess’s mouth. This aligns with the pyramid texts mentioning that Sekhmet conceived the king.

Adopted by the pharaohs as a symbol of their own unvanquishable heroism in battle, she breathes fire against the king’s enemies. Eg: in the battle of Kadesh, she is visualized on the horses of Ramesses II, her flames scorching the bodies of enemy soldiers.

In a middle kingdom treatise, the wrath of the pharaoh toward rebels is compared to the rage of Sekhmet.

goddess-sekhmet

The Many Names of Sekhmet

Sekhmet is believed to have 4000 names that described her many attributes. One name was known to Sekhmet and eight associated deities, and; and one name (known only to Sekhmet herself) was the means by which Sekhmet could modify her being or cease to exist. The possibility of “not to be, of returning to nothingness, distinguishes Egyptian gods and goddesses from deities of all other pagan pantheons.”[1]

The goddess had many titles and epithets, often overlapping with other deities. Some of the significant ones are listed below:

1. Mistress of Dread: She nearly destroyed human civilization and had to be drugged to sleep.

2. Lady of Life: Spells exist that regard plagues as brought by the messengers of Sekhmet. Priesthood seems to have had a prophylactic role in medicine. The priest (waeb Sekhmet) would recite prayers to the goddess along with the practicalities performed by the physician (sunu). In the Old Kingdom, the priests of Sekhmet are an organized phyle and from a slightly later date, in its extant copy, the Ebers papyrus attributes to these priests a detailed knowledge of the heart.

3. The bloodthirsty

4. The one who loves Ma’at and who detests evil

5. Lady of Pestilence / Red Lady: Alignment with the desert, sends plagues to those who angered her.

6. The Mistress and Lady of the tomb, gracious one, destroyer of rebellion, mighty one of enchantments

7. Mistress of Ankhtawy (life of the two lands, a name for Memphis)

8. Lady of bright red linen: Red is the color of lower Egypt, the blood-soaked garments of her enemies.

9. Lady of the flame: Sekhmet is placed as the uraeus (serpent) on Ra’s brow where she guarded the sun god‘s head and shot flames at her enemies. Mastery over the sun’s power.

10. Lady of the mountains of the setting sun: Watcher and guardian of the west.

Worship of Sekhmet

Sekhmet was worshipped along with Ra at the Heliopolis since the early Old Kingdom. Memphis was the main region of her cult. According to Memphite theology, Sekhmet was the first-born daughter of Ra. She was the wife of Ptah (patron god of artisans) and bore him a son Nefertum.

During the New Kingdom (18th and 19th dynasty), when Memphis was the capital of the Egyptian empire; Ra, Sekhmet, and Nefertum were known as the Memphite Triad. Archaeologists have discovered approximately 700 larger-than-life granite statues of Sekhmet dated to the reign of Amenhotep III (18th Dynasty). The goddess is carved with a Uraeus raising at her forehead, holding a papyrus scepter (the symbol of lower / north Egypt), and an ankh (giver of fertility and life through the annual flooding of the Nile). These statues are rarely discovered in complete form. Most display systematic mutilations of specific parts, especially the head and arms. It is speculated that these statues were created to pacify the goddess and please her. An annual festival was celebrated in honor of Sekhmet.

It is difficult to distinguish Sekhmet from other feline goddesses, especially Bastet. Inscriptions of many of the statues declare that Sekhmet and Bastet are different aspects of Hathor. In the Amarna period, Amenhotep’s name was systematically erased from inscriptions of the thrones, then methodically re-inscribed at the end of the 18th dynasty.[2]

When the center of power shifted from Memphis to Thebes during the New Kingdom, her attributes were absorbed into Mut. The cult of Sekhmet declined in the New Kingdom. She became merely an aspect of Mut, Hathor, and Isis.

Hathor-Goddess
Goddess Hathor

Why ‘Forgotten Esoteric’ Goddess?

Esoteric is that which is beyond the ordinary. One needs refined or higher-order capabilities to understand the esoteric phenomenon. Every culture has esoteric practices, knowledge, and deities to represent both. Ishtar, Inanna, Persephone, Demeter, Hestia, Astarte, Isis, Kali, Tara, etc are some of the names that pop into the mind when we talk about esoteric goddesses.

Looking at Egypt, Isis is the only deity that one can conceive of as being esoteric because she brought back her husband from the dead. Isis often reminds one of Persephone or Psyche just as Hathor reminds one of Aphrodite or Venus. However, Sekhmet is forgotten. We have very little information about Sekhmet from historical sources available, at least to the general public. Of the 200 books available in open source about Egyptian mythology, hardly seven or eight had anything substantial to say about Sekhmet. All of that information has been concised so far in this article.

There is no standard version of the Egyptian pantheon. Myths change upon who is writing them, where, and when. Fragmentary Egyptian literary sources spread across thousands of years make reconstructing a unitary, comprehensive narrative difficult. Sometimes she is seen as the daughter of Geb and Nut, and sometimes as the principal daughter of Ra. Different myths interchangeably call Sekhmet an angry manifestation of Hathor or Hathor and Bastet as docile manifestations of Sekhmet. Which of these is true, we do not know. But what we do know is that this fascinating goddess held dominion over contradictory themes: war (and violence and death), plagues (diseases), and healing and medicine.

In the Greek pantheon, Apollo was the god of medicine and often brought down plagues to punish mankind. However, there were distinct war gods (Ares), gods of strategy (Athena), and gods of death (Hades). Egypt is perhaps the only pantheon to have all of these responsibilities attributed to one deity. Sekhmet is not even a primordial deity like Chaos, Ananke, or a creator deity like God from the Bible, and yet she has dominion over almost all aspects of human existence.

In her book ‘The Dark Goddess: Dancing with the Shadow,’ Marcia Stark describes Sekhmet as ‘Lady of the beginning / Self-contained / She who is the source / Destroyer of appearances / Devourer and creator / She who is and is not.’ Similar descriptions are used for many lunar goddesses serving esoteric functions. However, Sekhmet is a solar goddess.[3]

A passage from the “Book of the Dead reads,” “ … superior to whom the gods cannot be …. thou who are pre-eminent, who riseth in the seat of silence… who is mightier than the gods … who are the source, the mother, from whence souls come and who makest a place for them in the hidden underworld… And the abode of everlastingness.” This description matches completely with that of the Triple Goddess, a deity who presides over birth, life, and death.[4]

Sekhmet’s uncontrolled bloodlust, aggression, and domain over divine retribution, life, and death reminds one of the Hindu goddess Kali. Much like Shiva did with Kali, Ra had to resort to trickery to calm Sekhmet’s anger and bring her out of her killing spree.

New age or neo-paganist practices and theology rarely include Sekhmet, yet she does feature in a handful of personal works.

book-of-the-dead
The Book of the Dead

References and Citations

1. https://arce.org/resource/statues-sekhmet-mistress-dread/#:~:text=A%20mother%20goddess%20in%20the,as%20a%20lion%2Dheaded%20woman.

2. https://egyptianmuseum.org/deities-sekhmet

3. Hart George (1986). Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London

4. Martha Ann & Dorothy Myers Imel (1993) Goddesses in World Mythology: A Biographical Dictionary, Oxford University Press

5. Marcia Stark & Gynne Stern (1993) The Dark Goddess: Dancing with the Shadow, The Crossing Press

6. Pinch Geraldine (2003) Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press.

7. Lorna Oakes & Lucia Gahlin (2002) Ancient Egypt, Anness Publishing

8. Ions Veronica (1983) Egyptian Mythology, Peter Bedrick Books

9. Barret Clive (1996) The Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, Diamond Books

10. Lesko Barbara (n.d) The Great Goddesses of Egypt, University of Oklahoma Press

[1] Marcia Stark & Gynne Stern (1993) The Dark Goddess: Dancing with the Shadow, The Crossing Press

[2] https://arce.org/resource/statues-sekhmet-mistress-dread/#:~:text=A%20mother%20goddess%20in%20the,as%20a%20lion%2Dheaded%20woman.

[3] Marcia Stark & Gynne Stern (1993) The Dark Goddess: Dancing with the Shadow, The Crossing Press

[4] Marcia Stark & Gynne Stern (1993) The Dark Goddess: Dancing with the Shadow, The Crossing Press

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