From the Palette
"The One Before Whom Evil Trembles." "The Lady of Slaughter." "Mistress of Dread." These are a few of the titles given to Sekhmet, the warrior goddess of Egypt in the time of the pharaohs. Sekhmet's name actually means "the one who is powerful," and according to the ancient Egyptians she was very powerful indeed. She was not only the protector of the pharaohs who led them in warfare, but also the goddess of healing in Upper Egypt.
Paintings and sculpture show her most often as a woman with the head of a lioness, the fiercest hunter known to the Egyptians. They believed Sekhmet was so powerful that she destroyed the pharaoh's enemies with arrows of fire, and that her body sometimes took on the bright glare of the sun, giving her another title -- "Lady of Flame." When the hot desert wind blew, it was said to be the breath of Sekhmet.
Along with providing cures for illness, she could also bring disease to those who displeased her. But she was best known as a healer. The name "Sekhmet" actually became synonymous with physicians and surgeons during the Middle Kingdom. In the early days of her cult, the priests of Sekhmet were often considered to be on the same level as physicians.
Sekhmet was easily angered, and appeasing her wrath was important. Festivals were held at the end of battles to encourage Sekhmet to stop the destruction, and rituals were constantly held to calm her. Many images of this goddess were preserved because her priestesses performed a different ritual before a different statue of the goddess each day of the year. Most of these statues were designed to last a long time, and they are therefore rigidly crafted, with little show of movement or life and no expression of the actions she was associated with. It is estimated that in one temple alone -- that of Amenhotep III on the Nile's west bank -- there were over 700 statues of Sekhmet. In addition, tame lions were kept in temples dedicated to Sekhmet.
In art, Sekhmet is depicted as either a fierce lioness or a woman with the head of a lioness. Her clothing is red -- the color of blood. Sekhmet is occasionally portrayed with little or no clothing. Sometimes her dress is shown with a rosette pattern over each nipple, an ancient motif associated with lions. The pattern is intended to represent the shoulder-knot hair common on lions.
One myth says that Ra, the sun god, created Sekhmet to destroy mortals who conspired against him. Unfortunately, Sekhmet's bloodlust continued after the battle was over, and she almost destroyed all of humanity. To stop the destruction, Ra turned the Nile into beer mixed with pomegranate juice to resemble blood. Sekhmet immediately drank it all down and became so drunk that she gave up senseless slaughter. Because the Nile turns red with silt each year during flooding, people believed that Sekhmet drank the excess every year to save them from inundation.
At the beginning of each year a festival was held to placate Sekhmet. Participants danced, played music, and deliberately drank great quantities of beer as part of the ritual. When the city of Thebes became more important, many of Sekhmet's festivals took place in the temple of Mut, who (in the somewhat confusing way of Egyptian gods and goddesses) also took on some of Sekhmet's characteristics.
In 2006 archaeologists from Johns Hopkins University working at this temple uncovered new findings about the intoxication festival. They included illustrations of drunken priestesses being ministered to by temple attendants. The excavations at Luxor also revealed a "porch of drunkenness" built onto the temple by the Pharaoh Hatshepsut during her 20-year reign.
You can see a beautiful graphite drawing of Sekhmet in the upcoming June Art Exhibit at the Wassenberg Art Center. In the picture "Sekhmet," by Leslie Wilson of Fort Wayne, Ind., the goddess holds a half-empty goblet, a reference to the festivals of intoxication held in her honor. Does she look a bit under the weather, or is she just pensive? That's for the viewer to decide.