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Simply the Bes: 7 reasons Bes should be your favourite Egyptian god

Cerys RJones6 April 2019

Forget Anubis, Horus and Ra, Bes is the bes(t) Egyptian god around! His figure may not land him any jobs striding down our catwalks (he is short and has a large protruding stomach) but his distinctive and playful face won the hearts of Ancient Egyptians and even spread to the Roman empire, Cyprus, Syria and more. Here are 7 reasons why you should love Bes as much as the Egyptians did:

1) He protects your home
Like our modern day ‘live laugh love’ wall stickers, Ancient Egyptian families often decorated their home with images of Bes. His figure is found on a range of household objects including mirrors, cosmetic jars and even the headboard of beds where he’d protect the person sleeping.

Wooden cosmetic-spoon featuring Bes at the British Museum. Museum number EA5954.

2) He loves music and dancing
If you could only have one Egyptian god at your house party, you’d choose Bes. What better party guest than one who can provide great music and dance all night whilst simultaneously protecting the house? You can see figurines of Bes dancing at the current exhibition in the Petrie Museum called ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll: Sounds of Roman Egypt’. He is often depicted playing a tambourine or harp or dancing near other musicians, and some performers even tattooed his image on their bodies.

Dancing Bes alongside seated group of musicians in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accession number: 23.6.79.

3) You can wear him on your jewellery
The collection in the Petrie Museum contains many strings of beads with amulets of Bes, such as the blue faience bead of Bes’ head (read more about the bluefaiencein Arendse’s blogpost.). These were probably worn for protection but make for a great statement piece too.

Amulets of Bes in the Petrie Museum with accession numbers UC37498 (top) and UC38008 (bottom). Engager’s own photo.

4) There are vessels made in the shape of his head
It’s impossible to miss the abundance of pottery vessels in the Petrie Museum featuring Bes’ face. They’re so charming and always popular among the visitors at the museum, featuring heavily on the #PetrieMuseumInstagram hashtag.

Pottery vessel with Bes’ face decoration in the Petrie Museum. Accession number: UC8902. Engager’s own photo.

5) He makes you smile…and he’s supposed to!
When ancient Egyptian babies would unexpectedly laugh or smile, many Egyptians believed that Bes was somewhere in the room pulling funny faces. He was a protector of mothers, children and pregnant women, and wall paintings of Bes have been found in rooms that were associated with children or childbirth.

Column Capital in the form of a Bes-image in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accession number: 23.2.35. Engager’s own photo.

6) He had a distinctive style
As can be clearly seen on the amulets, Bes often wore a headdress made of feathers. He also was depicted wearing a lion skin cape, although after the New Kingdom he often opted for a leopard skin cape instead (very on trend!). However, the Romans adopted him as a military deity and often depicted him in their legionary costume.

Bes with a tambourine in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accession number: 23.6.16

From the ultimate party guest to splashing his face on vases, Bes is the best Ancient Egyptian god. Initially as a protector of the Pharaoh, Bes became the god of the people, looking after their homes and their children. He was a multifaceted god, who was a serious protector and a merry entertainer. In fact, the only temple believed to have been dedicated to Bes was next to a vineyard so he could protect the grapes and oversee the production of wine! Many relics still exist today featuring his distinctive figure. Visit the Petrie Museum where you can find many Bes related artefacts including several vases, amulets and figurines!

I have sung and praised the sun disc, I have joined the baboons

GemmaAngel15 April 2013

Suzanne Harvey #2  by Suzanne Harvey

 

 

 

 

 

What links the evolution of language to the collection of baboon figurines at the Petrie Museum of Egyptology? I have previously speculated on the reasons why Ancient Egyptians might create figures of baboons performing acrobatics, playing the harp and even drinking beer. After months of sporadic research and conversations with museum visitors on the subject, I have finally chosen a favourite theory (without a hint of bias) that just happens to link directly to my own research on baboon communication.

Monkey with beer potThis post was inspired by an essay entitled Some Remarks on the Mysterious Language of the Baboons, [1] which mentions this quote from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Chapter 100:

I have sung and praised the sun disc, I have joined the baboons.

The reason that Egyptians considered baboons to be sacred is actually quite straightforward. When baboons wake in the morning, like many primates (humans included), they tend to stretch and produce vocalisations. To some, the pose baboons adopt while stretching – sometimes raising their front legs in the air – resembles worship. As they stretch more often at sunrise, this action together with their ‘chattering’ noises when moving from sleeping sites, was interpreted as singing and dancing to praise the Sun-god, Ra. [2]

 

Caption for baboon chatterThis only explains the role of language in making baboons sacred. Of several Gods to whom they are sacred, the deity who links baboons unequivocally with language is Thoth. Thoth is often depicted as a baboon scribe who not only spoke and wrote, but who actually gave the gift of language to the Egyptians, rather than simply understanding it. [3]

The voice of the baboon is the voice of God

This title might seem a somewhat unusual interpretation of the famous vox populi, vox Dei maxim, but it is in fact the Ancient Egyptian variation on this theme. Their belief was that whoever understood the language of the baboons had access to religious knowledge that was usually hidden. This is very good news indeed for modern primatologists – though I’ve yet to decipher any religious revelations while analysing baboon vocalisations! I can however dispute the Greek author Aelianus’s assertion that baboon language is “utterly incomprehensible to ordinary human beings”. [4]

ThothThoth’s significance in language and wisdom suggests that my earlier supposition – that baboons playing harps and drinking beer was not linked to religion due to the absence of sober, worshipful poses – was in fact erroneous. It seems that Egyptians were motivated to experiment with baboons, trying to train them to perform feats such as playing the harp, to reveal the link to Thoth hidden within them.

A range of baboon statuettes are currently on display as part of the Foreign Bodies exhibition in UCL’s North Cloisters. They represent a unique interpretation of other species that are nevertheless similar to our own, and a fascinating insight into how a distant culture defined themselves in relation to other primates – believing themselves to be inferior to baboons in terms of both holiness and wisdom. Ancient Egyptians recognised the human-like intelligence, ability to communicate and dexterity of baboons that we are equally fascinated by today, albeit from an evolutionary science perspective, rather than a religious sensibility. The quest to discover the inner Thoth continues…


References:

[1] H. Te Velde: ‘Some Remarks on the Mysterious Language of the Baboons,‘ in Kamstra, J. H., Milde, H. & Wagtendonk, K. (eds). Funerary Symbols and Religion. (1988), J.H. Kok: Kampen.

[2] G. Pinch: Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. (2004), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3] Hans Kummer:  In Quest of the Sacred Baboon. (1995), Chichester: Princeton University Press.

[4] H. Te Velde, (1988), p.134.