As a devotee to Sekhmet, I’ve found that one of the hardest parts about wanting to learn as much as I can about my deity is finding the information necessary to learn about her. Too often, I stumble on websites and books that tend to lump her into a category of “Eye of Re” deities. And while this is a component part to who she is as a goddess, it’s only a single layer in the numerous layers that make her up as a god. Another common problem is the fact that she tends to be assimilated into the culture of other goddesses. Too often, I find her as an aspect of Hetharu, Bast, or Mut. (There are other aspects and mash-ups that I’ve seen but those are the most common.) And lastly, another problem I tend to find is that she tends to become a smaller portion to the triad she belongs to (as Ptah-Sekhmet-Nefertem of Memphis/Inebou-Hedjou).
So, finding information about Sekhmet on the Internet can be difficult. Websites proliferate and are rife with information, but how much can be attested to via a historical source? There are few treatises that are not in foreign languages (French and German being the lingua fraças of early Egyptology) that we can look to with clear-cut results. My largest issue with this is the fact that she doesn’t seem to deserve her own “street cred,” even with the Destruction of Mankind myth under her belt, so to speak. This bothers me because (A) as a hard polytheist, I view her as her own deity and (B) because as a devotee of her, I don’t really care how her counterparts and mash-ups were viewed by ancients or even today’s worshipers. I want to know about her.
I think part of the reason finding information about her is so difficult because she is constantly surrounded by goddesses that are larger than life or who proliferated more fully in the later dynasties of ancient Egypt. As I mentioned, more often than not, we see her name linked to Mut, Hetharu, and Bast. I have called this act of syncretism as “sister-selves.” To me, this means that they are separate beings but that they can dress up in one another’s clothes, dawn appropriate accents, and generally pass as one another if the need arises. As a quick lesson: in ancient Egypt, it was pretty well-known that the imagery we would deem as portraits of the gods was only for the human benefit. It was made quite clear that in their natural forms, we had no idea what the gods looked like and that if they so desired, they could take any form they so chose. So, in doing thus, each goddess could become the other if it was warranted. (Although, one has to wonder if this ever ended up with childish games of pretending to be one another to other gods and to followers…)
In her syncretism with Hetharu, the most common form, it is understandable. In the Book of the Celestial Cow, it is shown that when Re tired of humanity, he first sent Hetharu to remove the human threat before allowing Sekhmet a chance to be his agent on earth. (And, boy, was she.) In the case of Bast and Sekhmet being paired together, it tends to be in the arena of two warriors goddesses unifying together. There are some comments about this. In some instances, scholars tend to believe that Sekhmet came from the south and so, she was a protector of Upper Egypt while Bast held dominion over Lower Egypt. Or, on the other hand, we can see both of these leonine goddesses as protectors of Lower Egypt who became conflated together around the Middle Kingdom or so. In either case, the end result appears to be the same: two warriors becoming unified in a single composite deity. In regards to the syncretism with Mut, there doesn’t appear to be a concrete path that can easily inform as to why the two of them were mixed together. It’s possible it merely stems from the two of them being Eyes of Re, but this seems too easy. Sekhmet isn’t always paired with other Eyes. So, I think the mixture between the two stems from the two goddesses being some of the older goddesses in existence. And in keeping around one (Mut, who became a very popular goddess in her own right), we continue to feel the presence of the other.
One thing I tend to fight against, repeatedly, when doing the research and going through what I can about Sekhmet is the constant belief that she is nothing but a blood-thirsty goddess. In Egyptian Mythology by Geraldine Pinch, she tends to paint the picture of a goddess who is only out to destroy and drink the blood of her children. While yes, this was a component part to the mythology surrounded by main goddess, this isn’t the entirety of who she is or even who she was. In The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt by Richard H. Wilkinson, she is represented with more of a rounded component picture: he mentions more prominently than Ms Pinch that Sekhmet also had a hand in healing and protection against pestilence. There’s also minor mention of her mix with other goddesses (one of whom I forgot to mention above being Pakhet).
On the opposite scale of these issues when researching my main goddess, I tend to find whole websites littered with commentary about her being a “mother goddess.” I think this tends to more be a miscommunication between the representation of Sekhmet-Mut and Mut herself. I’ve commented before about Mut herself, so I won’t rehash old news. But the thing is that when the two were combined to form a composite deity, it appeared that the ancient Egyptians were more about giving Mut a protective side than about giving Sekhmet a kinder side. The protection of a mother, especially a major mother goddess like Mut, would have been best linked with a warrior goddess, such as Sekhmet.
Aside from her blood thirst and her ability to bring pestilence, and besides the fact that she could heal, Sekhmet also stood for justice. In the New Kingdom she usurped Sutekh’s role of standing in the solar barque to protect Re against his enemies each night. And the ancient Egyptian pharaohs harped on her as a protective goddess, as well, especially when it comes to war outside of their country. (Let’s not forget that the ancient Egyptians felt that isfet was almost analogous with foreigners, part and parcel to Sutekh’s later demonization.)
I’ve often said it and I’ll repeat myself again, when it comes to working with gods and goddesses that have a “darker” aspect to their mythos, it’s best if we try to crack through the layers and layers of mythological propaganda. I’m not saying this because I want people to constantly stick their nose in a book – although that would be awesome – but because I think it’s very important to remember that with each new cycle of a dynasty, a god or goddess of ancient Egypt could change. They could be usurped into a larger figure or they could be mixed with others. This is never more commonly prevalent than in watching the mythology and belief surrounding Sutekh carry from a chaotic deity who slays
Apep nightly to the devil version we can see as quite popular in Greco-Roman times.
Each god has layers and it’s our job, as their followers, to peel back those layers to know, truly, who it is we are devoted to.