Typical of cats, the leonine goddesses of ancient Egypt, including Sekhmet are very elusive, despite countless research papers. A review of the attestations of the cult of feline deities in Egypt reveals their wide geographical extent. They were not localised. Indeed there was seemingly a whole pride of feline deities inhabiting the ancient Egyptian pantheon ranging from fearsome lions to cute pussy cats.
Bastet statuette holding a sistrum and a basket. Late Period–Ptolemaic Period (664–30 BC) Metropolitan Museum of Art (Public Domain)
Old Kingdom Leonine Deities
The earliest named lion deity was the goddess Bastet who is recorded in the Second Dynasty (c2890– c2686 BC). During the Fourth Dynasty (c2613- c2494 BC) the goddess Sheshmet is named. In the next dynasty which lasted approximately 150 years, from the early 25th century BC until the mid-24th century BC, the goddess Sekhmet tentatively appears almost always in syncretistic connection with the two earlier goddesses. Collectively these Dynasties are referred to as the Old Kingdom. Whilst these deities may at first sight appear as separate entities, they may in fact have originated from a common source.
Eva Lange in The Lion Goddess in the Old Kingdom Nile Delta: A Study in Local Cult Topography (2016) theorises that: “in pre-modern times, evaluation of the natural environment always involved the confrontation between humans and the sometimes dangerous wildlife in a much more direct way than we can possibly imagine nowadays. Ancient Egypt, being more or less an enormous river oasis, was populated by several species of terrestrial and aquatic predators such as lions, crocodiles, and snakes and other dangerous species, such as hippopotamuses. Any encounter with such animals was potentially life-threatening and therefore led to careful observation of their habits and behaviour in order to avoid such situations. The challenges of living in such an environment also led to astonishingly creative and intellectual achievement…The prominence of the Delta cults of lion deities in general is, however, quite surprising. We would rather expect lions to be more prominent in the conceptions of people living in Upper Egypt, where the arboreal vegetated semi-desert habitat for lions intermediates between the desert and the agricultural area bordering the Nile and thus is much closer to the settlements. Therefore, the overriding preference for lioness cults in the Delta seems unexpected. Yet, a detailed investigation of the oldest traceable lioness cults in the Delta may help to answer this question. As the earliest attestations of the cults of Sekhmet, Bastet and Shesemtet have shown, their origins are located in the south-eastern Delta near the entrance to the Wadi Tumilat.”
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Nic Costa is a graduate of the Royal College of Art. He is a freelance writer, lecturer, and artist who boasts the unique distinction of having discovered the site of a hitherto unknown crusader castle in the west of Cyprus. He is the author of Search for Joanna the Real Arodafnousa: Peter I of Lusignan and Joanna the German and Atlantis, the Amazons, and the Birth of Athene: The True Story
By: Nic Costa