Friday, 13 May 2016

Shamans, Masks and Bes, Again!

Cippus, notice the Bes head above Horus the Child
I've been reading some interesting stuff recently. It all started as I was thinking about the Bes objects in the Egypt Centre. Many of them seem to show Bes’s head but not the rest of him. For example, we have Bes head amulets, a Bes head bell, Bes head pottery vessels. Our cippus has Bes's head only.


Bes bell












This seems to suggest that that it was the head that was the most important bit. While this may be natural, most other deities tend to be shown with their full body. Perhaps Hathor is the sometime exception, where her head appeared particularly powerful. Both and Bes and Hathor are unusual in Egyptian art with their heads turned towards the viewer.

Bes holding his tail
So, maybe, the Bes head is actually showing that the ancient experience of Bes was through a masked human, maybe a dwarf, or child (when Bes is shown with his body he appears dwarf-like)? The way New Kingdom Bes’s are shown holding their tails might support this idea that the Bes the ancients were thinking of was a dressed up human. If one is cavorting around in a costume, a long tail might get in the way, hence the need to keep a hold of it. If one was a real deity, one would expect that one could control one’s tail!

Maybe this doesn’t matter, but it does raise some interesting related issues. For example, did the ancient Egyptians have shaman-like figures, where, the human might become an actual deity through costume and masking? Masks enable people to cross over from one sphere to another. Masking activities may be dismissed as mere 'role play', but it is possible that they actually represented the actual becoming a deity. There is non-Bes related supporting information for shamanic type ideas in ancient Egypt. For example, one might see the cloaked king in the Sed festival as renewing his divinity, then there is the evidence for masked Anubis priests. But, we’re on Bes here, so back to him.

A masked figure, allowing a crossing over from one realm to another would be perfect as a protector in liminal areas. And Bes does seem to be associated with liminal areas. He appears fro example on artefacts to do with Birth (apotropaic wands, a birthing stool, etc.). He appears on things to do with sleep and dreamers are between worlds, and he appears in areas associated with death and transition to death. He is also associated with music and musicians. In some cultures musicians are considered to be possessed by daemons. We do not know if this was the case in ancient Egypt. However, in some New Kingdom tomb scenes, the musician is turned towards the viewer, which might suggest and apotropaic or liminal quality (Graves-Brown 2015, 22). Bes is also associated with female adolescence, though in the New Kingdom these tend to be musicians (Graves-Brown 2015, 23). One might also posit that he appears in areas associated with puberty rites (see below). He also appears in areas associated with the story of the Return of the Distant One, in which the angry goddess of Eye, Sekhemet turns into the peaceful Hathor. This story is associated with female adolescence (Graves-Brown 2015), a time of transition. There is a little more on this, in the next blog post dealing with Bes as a god of watery abodes.

First, what is the evidence for Bes masks, apart from that listed above? Well, Bes covers a whole host of deities, some not all called Bes, so here I should state that I am using the term to cover leonine-headed, dwarf deities.

The earliest possible evidence for a masked 'Bes' is a fragment in the BritishMuseum (EA994). It belongs to the 5th Dynasty and shows a lion-headed figure dancing with children. He holds up his tail. This has been seen as a puberty rite (similar scenes without Bes are described and discussed by Janssen and Janssen 1990, 62-66). Above the figure is written: xb.t jn SdXt translated by Smith (1946, 210) as ‘dance of the SdXt youth’ (Capart 1931). See Weis (2009, 201 footnote 72) for different interpretations of translation. Bes is well known as a protector of children and it is possible that he started out, not as a dwarf wearing a mask, but maybe as a child wearing a mask (an idea suggested by Penny Wilson). There is another Old Kingdom relief in Leipzig (Number 2095)showing an androgynous figure wearing a mask (Wente 1969, 86–8) and a third now in Berlin. Horváth (2015, 138) discusses all three.  There are also Middle Kingdom statuettes of boys wearing such masks, for example the Middle Kingdom ivory figure from Sedment  (Petrie Museum UC 16069; Petrie and Brunton, 1924, 18, pl. XL; 27, pl. XLII, 7).

Of the actual evidence for masks themselves, there is the so called ‘Bes’ mask  from Kahun found in the room of a house in the workman’s village, with a wooden statue of a masked dance nearby, now lost (Petrie 1890, Plate VIII). But is it really Bes? It does look weird. It is now in Manchester Museum (Manchester 123). The masked dancer is much more convincing. The dancer was buried with clappers. A line can be seen dividing the body from head which supports the idea of this being a mask. It has drooping breasts, which might indicate a female persona, or alternatively, if one believes this depicts a divinity rather than a human dressed as a divine figure, it could be a fecund male figure, like Hapy, or a fat males, possibly like the priests in Kheruef's tomb discussed below. There are New Kingdom depictions of Bes breast feeding, which may be relevant here. This Kahun figure is similar to the one from the Ramesseum which is more clearly female, to which I shall return shortly.

There are two other possible Bes masks, both from Deir el-Medina found in house S.E.IX Room 1, which according to the excavator had once contained a ‘lit clos’ though no evidence of it remained (Bruyère, 276–7 and fig. 148). Bruyère assumed the masks had decorated the ‘lit clos’ platform. These are clearly clay Bes heads, and they are life-size, but are they actually masks? Unfortunately the publication doesn't show the backs of them and I'm not sure where they are now (if they still exist). They could just be flat depictions of Bes masks.

The Ramesseum figure of the Late Middle Kingdom has a Bes head, but is it a mask? It has lines on the cheeks, something also seen on other depictions of Bes. These may be jowls or indicate that the mask is a partial face mask covering the upper part of the face.

The New Kingdom tomb of Kheruef (TT192) shows three figures wearing lion masks (discussed by Wente 1969, 86–87). These appear to be either androgynous or overweight males and have pendulous breasts.

By the Graeco-Roman Period, Bes masks seem to have been similar to satyr masks.
So then there does seem to be evidence of people dressed up as Bes throughout Egyptian history.  But this doesn't mean that all depictions of him were necessarily people dressed up.

Volokhine (1994) points out that as dwarf figures in the Old Kingdom go out of use, figures of Bes tend to come in. This might suggest that Bes is derived from the dwarf, perhaps a masked dwarf.

Of course it could be that these Bes heads don't actually represent masks but are related to beheaded deities. For example the Mesopotamian Humbaba with wild locks and staring eyes was beheaded and his head used an an apotropaic charm. There is also the Greek Medusa. There are other examples in other cultures.

This is only part of what could be said about Bes and masking. For more information you might like to read the following:

Bruyère, B. 1939. Fouilles de Deir el Medineh (1934-1935) III. Cairo.

Capart, C. 1931. Note sur un fragment de bas-relief au British Museum [avec 1 planche], Bulletin De L’Institut Français D’Archéologie Orientale, 30,  73–75.

DuQuesne, T. 2001. Concealing and Revealing: The Problem of Ritual Masking in Ancient Egypt, Discussions in Egyptology, 51, 5–31.

Graves-Brown, C. 2015. Hathor, Nefer and Daughterhood in New Kingdom Private Tombs. In Navratilova, H. and Landgráfová, R. (eds.) Prague, 15–33.

Janssen, R.M. and Janssen, J.J. 1990. Growing up in Ancient Egypt. London: The Rubicon Press.

Horváth, Z. Hathor and her Festivals at Lahun, In Miniaci, G. and Grajetski, W. (eds.) The World Of Middle Kingdom Egypt (2000-1550BC). Contributions on archaeology, art, religion and written sources,  Vol. 1., 125–144.

Wente, E.F. 1969. Hathor at the Jubilee In Hauser, E.B. (ed.), Studies in Honor of John A. Wilson. University of Chicago, 83-91.

Petrie, W.M.F. 1890. Kahun, Gurob and Hawara. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner.
Petrie, W.M.F. and Brunton, G. Sedment I, London.

Smith, W.S. 1946. A History of Egyptian Culture and Painting in the Old Kingdom. Boston.

Volokhine, Y. 1994. Dieux, Masques et Hommes: À Propos de la Formation de l’iconographie de Bès. Bulletin de la Société de Egyptologie, Genève, 18, 81–95.

Weis, L. 2009. Personal Religious Practice: House Altars at Deir el-Medina. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 95, 193–208.


Wilson, P. AB. 2011 Masking and Multiple Personas. In Kousoulis, P. (ed.) Ancient Egyptian Demonology. Studies on the Boundaries Between the Demonic and the Divine in Egyptian Magic. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta Leuven, 77–87.

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