Bes is the name of one of the oldest deities in Africa. He is usually represented as a short, stout man with a broad forehead, wide nostrils, large phallus, and an open mouth with a protruding tongue. However, the physical features of Bes were not the most interesting aspects about him. Of course, he was an African figure, perhaps representative of the Twa or Mbuti people, but he was more than that to the ancient Africans in the Nile Valley, who saw him as the great representative of humanity. This entry looks at his history and beliefs about his powers.
The god Bes occurred so early in the human imagination that it reaches back to the earliest of human settlements along the Nile. But Bes is not only a name that reaches deep into the past, but it is also one that has a widespread existence in the ancient world. In fact, there are indications that the deity's image was so widespread that it was found from Punt (Somalia) to Mesopotamia (Iraq). Who could contemplate the origins of the human race without thinking of the black-headed one that came from the ancient cradles of human beings? Thus, Bes, many scholars believe, sits at the door of the beginnings of human involvement with carving images that reflected the most intense desires of the human community for communication with the mysterious.
Various representations of Bes reflect the beliefs and attitudes of the artists carving the image at the time. For instance, there are portrayals of Bes with a cape of lion's skin, with a very high-plumed headdress, and with knives and musical instruments. Sometimes he is shown with the SA hieroglyphs, indicating his protective powers. Thus, Bes is a multidimensional god with numerous functions. He could be called on as an energetic defender of the community, as the symbol of majesty, as a hunter or an explorer, or as a musician. These were just some of the activities for the awesome powers of this deity.
The fact that Bes is so ancient is not amazing given the fact that childbirth is at the beginning of the human race and Bes is the deity of the birthing houses, the mammisi, throughout ancient Kemet. Mothers went into labor with Bes by their sides; when they gave birth to children, the first deity to bless them was often Bes. One can still see examples of Bes on the walls of temples in the Nile Valley. At the great temple of Kom Ombo, one can see evidence of the presence of Bes as the deity welcoming the newborn child into the world. Of course, the carving of the image of Bes on the walls of the temple simply reflected the consciousness of the people of the day about the importance of this deity.
The totality of the Bes experience in the Nile Valley is enormous. Nothing surpassed the familiarity that the ordinary ancient Egyptians felt for Bes. In that respect, he was the earliest comforter of the sick, the disabled, the perplexed, and the birthing mother. The joy with which the people embraced him furthered his influence as the merrymaker and the creative force for good and happiness.
According to the ancient texts, the home of Bes was Punt, but this is not certain because the evidence shows that his provenance was far beyond Punt. The fact that the greatest representations of this well-valued deity are found in Egypt suggests that he might have been indigenous to the Nile Valley. It is known that Bes was depicted on statues and in reliefs with increasing frequency as the Egyptians found themselves invaded by others. Could this have been a response to the anxieties and complexities of life that were brought to bear on the people by the foreign invaders? Although this question cannot be fully answered, it is probably that Bes, with his bowed legs and broad ears, adorned in animal skins, was also a patron of war and the protector of hunters, suggesting that he was ready to join with the people in any eventuality.
A God for All Reasons
If the ancient Egyptians could have had an all-around deity, one to be called on at the moment of urgent need, one to be available when others were away performing specific missions, and when one was alone with individual discomfort, then Bes was that deity. So ubiquitous was Bes that, during the Middle Kingdom in the town of Kahun, there were lion figures associated with Bes, and in the New Kingdom there were images of Bes at the Ramesseum. Bes could be called on during the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom to ward off snakes. In fact, there are figures of Bes, as the deity Aha, strangling two snakes with his bare hands.
Therefore, Bes was the deity who comforted women in childbirth and later oversaw women, men, and children as they prepared to confront situations that could bring about their deaths. Probably no other deity with the exception of Tawaret was used on amulets for good fortune as much as Bes. If there were hints of strength, power, vigor, and cleverness in Bes, there were also beneficent qualities of sexuality, love, laughter, and abundance. A deity for all occasions, using his considerable power and energy, to span the lifetime of his subjects, Bes remained a popular deity down through the Ptolemaic Era of Egyptian history.
Indeed, during the Ptolemaic reign, images of Bes were painted on the walls of temples, and certain rooms of those temples became the sleeping rooms of pilgrims who sought to have healing dreams to revitalize their sexuality in the presence of painted images of Bes with naked women. Clearly, Bes accommodated many people and functioned to bring blessings to the Nile Valley for thousands of years.
- Aldred, C. (1965). Egypt to the End of the Old Kingdom. New York: McGraw Hill.
- Bourriau, J. D. (1988). Pharaohs and Mortals. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Kemp, B., (1989). Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. London: Routledge.