BY Alastair Sooke in Features | 08 SEP 16
Featured in
Issue 5

Democratic Deity

The enduring popularity of the minor European god Bes

BY Alastair Sooke in Features | 08 SEP 16

When my wife was preparing to give birth to our first child, she packed an emergency bag so that she could leave for hospital at a moment’s notice. I wasn’t involved in selecting its contents, but there was one item that I thought she should include: a cheap, black figurine, which I had picked up in a bazaar in Cairo, depicting the ancient Egyptian dwarf god, Bes.

As I write this, I am looking at him — and, believe me, he is one grotesque little fellow. His physique is squat and stocky, with flabby man-boobs, pronounced buttocks and a pot-belly. He crouches as though he is about to defecate, so that his genitals dangle, prominently, between bandy legs. A wild beard frames his gargoyle’s face, along with a lion’s mane. Yet, his ferocious visage also has a playful aspect, since he sticks out his tongue, like a clown pulling a crude face.

Cosmetic jar in the form of Bes, 664-525 BCE, limestone, 14 cm. Courtesy: Rupert Wace Ancient Art, London

It still amazes me that my wife agreed to take this rude, lewd troll into the birthing unit. But, then, thanks to my enthusiasm for Bes, she was already familiar with his mythical powers. For two millennia, Bes enjoyed enormous popularity along the River Nile. Eventually, he attracted followers across the Mediterranean world: Cypriots and Romans, for instance, were fans, as were the Phoenicians. And Bes was widely revered as a protector of women during childbirth.

Call me superstitious, but I thought that, when my wife went into labour, it couldn’t hurt to have Bes by her side. In the event, everything turned out fine. Whether this was thanks to Western medical science or the benign influence of Bes is moot.

The pantheon of gods worshipped in Upper and Lower Egypt was always varied and compelling. As children, many of us were fascinated by the strange, composite appearances of Egypt’s animal-hybrid deities, such as the jackal-headed Anubis, associated with mummification and the afterlife, or Thoth, the god of writing, who had, upon his shoulders, the bird-brained cranium and long, curved beak of an ibis. 

Bes had an ‘apotropaic’ function: he was a friendly gremlin, not a hideous fiend, who boasted the power to avert evil creatures and malign influence.

Still, I appreciate that my passion for Bes may seem eccentric. After all, Egyptian gods are generally slender, graceful beings, while Bes is — unquestionably — irredeemably ugly. The thing is, in ancient Egypt, Bes-love was very common. From at least the New Kingdom (1550‒1069 BCE) onwards, he was an ever-present member of Egypt’s divine cast. Sure, he was never a glamorous protagonist like Osiris or Isis. Some scholars even doubt whether he should be considered a god at all. (The consensus seems to be that he ought to be classified as a ‘minor deity’.) But nor was he a bit-part player. Within the field of Egyptology, he is certainly back in vogue: Amsterdam’s Allard Pierson Museum is preparing the world’s first exhibition devoted exclusively to Bes, which is due to open in 2018.

Once you have learned to recognize his inimitable features, you will see Bes everywhere in the material culture of ancient Egypt. For many centuries, he was a staple motif for artisans and craftsmen. He was carved onto items of furniture such as beds and headrests, and he also appeared on amulets and magical wands. Surprisingly, given his monstrous appearance, he even graced mirrors and cosmetic containers. Bes never had any state-sponsored sanctuaries dedicated to him, but still he was commonly represented — in relief, on temple walls and column capitals, as well as on stone and wooden stelae. And mostly, of course, he appeared sticking out his tongue.

Statuette of Anumbis, 664-30 BCE, Cupreous metal, 14 x 4 x 6 cm. Courtesy: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Despite seeming, to modern eyes, like a terrifying demon, Bes always offered some sort of protection. As archaeologists put it, he had an ‘apotropaic’ function, much like the stony-eyed Gorgons visible on Greek temples. In other words, Bes was a friendly gremlin, not a hideous fiend, who boasted the power to avert evil creatures and malign influence.

Recently, I accompanied Marcel Marée, one of the keepers of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum, on a visit to its stores, in order to examine some of the hundreds of images of Bes that form part of the collection. One of the first drawers that Marée opened revealed scores of faience (glazed earthenware) figurines, in various shades of turquoise and aquamarine. For a moment, they looked like a battalion of toy soldiers. Here was Thoth, with his ibis-head. There was a strange-looking protective fertility goddess called Taweret: a rearing hippopotamus with a swollen belly and long, drooping dugs. And scattered throughout the drawer were images of Bes, made at different times over many centuries. They included one of the earliest representations of the god, dating from a period when he went by another name altogether. ‘There he is,’ said Marée, fondly. ‘He’s got a broad smile on his face and looks like an Ewok. Isn’t he cute?’

It was true: in this particular case, the precursor of Bes did look especially huggable. What would later become a beard is here a lion’s mane. He dates from the 18th century BCE: the time of Egypt’s so-called Middle Kingdom. There are scraps of evidence that a being with attributes later ascribed to Bes already existed in the Old Kingdom (2686‒2160 BCE). A limestone tomb-relief from the Fifth Dynasty, now in the British Museum, depicts a group of boys playing a game of cops and robbers. One of them wears an unusual, Bes-like mask with pointy ears. The Manchester Museum holds the remains of an actual mask from the Middle Kingdom, made of painted linen and plaster, with leonine, Bes-like features. It’s extremely rare and was discovered in a ‘pyramid town’ at Lahun, in the Fayum Oasis. During certain religious ceremonies, performers in ancient Egypt seem to have dressed up as Bes or as one of his prototypes. Around the same time, a deity resembling Bes first appears in representations. According to Marée, the god’s origins are still obscure: ‘We don’t know when exactly this god first took the name Bes.’ What we do know, he says, is that, during the Middle Kingdom, the Egyptians knew a Bes-like deity called Aha, which means ‘fighter’. Often, Aha was depicted strangling snakes. The Ewok-like figurine in the British Museum holds snakes as well, drawn in black glaze and spiralling his arms (even if he hardly looks like a bruiser). But Aha also appeared in two dimensions on magic wands, which were designed to protect infants born into this world and people reborn into the next. Marée showed me one such wand in the British Museum: a boomerang-shaped piece of hippopotamus tusk incised with various figures, including a skinny Aha with prominent ribs quelling a pair of serpents. Unusually for Egyptian art, Aha and, later, Bes were typically shown frontally, rather than in profile.

Statuette of Tawaret, 332-30 BCE, faience, 11 x 3 x 5 cm. Courtesy: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

By the time of the prosperous New Kingdom, Aha had merged with the increasingly popular Bes. Images of him proliferated. In art, he was depicted wearing a plumed headdress or crown, and his protective powers were invoked by royalty and commoners alike. For instance, the figure of Bes was painted on a frieze inside the palace of Amenhotep III, while his frightening image adorned objects, including a lavish headrest, in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Humble Bes amulets are prominent among the archaeo­logical discoveries at Amarna, the site of the city that Tutankhamun’s father, the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, built from scratch in honour of the Aten or ‘sun disc’, which was the focus of his radical new religion. It is testimony to Bes’s popularity that, in the privacy of their own homes, Akhenaten’s subjects rejected his official monotheistic creed in favour of a much-cherished divinity with the stature of a dwarf.

I suspect that Bes’s approachability was one of the reasons for his success: although his grim outward appearance set him apart from humanity, he never seemed remote. He was regularly invoked by pregnant Egyptian women: two surviving New Kingdom spells, for instance, refer to a ‘dwarf of clay’ to be placed on the belly of a woman in labour. Mortality in ancient times was especially high among infants and childbearing women, so Bes’s protection was much needed during the dangerous moments of childbirth and early childhood.

Bes grew so popular that, once Egypt had been conquered by the Romans, his worship spread all over the Mediterranean.

In time, anyone seeking safeguarding from evil forces might appeal to Bes. Often he was shown brandishing a knife, emphasizing his don’t-mess-with-me role as a watchman. Small figures of Bes were placed on domestic shrines. The idea was that he would ward off not only vermin, such as snakes and scorpions, but also supernatural creatures, as these too posed a threat to the household.

Through his association with procreation and childbirth, Bes naturally acquired broader associations with fertility and sexuality. A famous faience drinking cup, now in the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, depicts a sexy young female lute player with a tattoo of Bes upon her thigh. She only wears a girdle, which a monkey, itself a symbol of sexuality, tries to undo. Tattooed images of Bes may have been in vogue among prostitutes, but the evidence for this is slim. Bes’s associations with sexual potency grew more rampant in the centuries following Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt, the Ptolemaic Period (332‒30 BCE). He gained a female companion called Beset. Mud-plaster figures of Bes, along with his new naked consort, decorated ‘incubation chambers’ constructed at Saqqara. These were designed as bedrooms where pilgrims suffering from infertility or impotence could spend the night, perhaps in the hope that healing dreams would renew their sexual prowess.

Late Roman period statuette of Bes, c.1st century BCE, Schist, 42 x 31 cm. Courtesy: British Museum, London

It was during the Ptolemaic and subsequent Roman Period that Bes’s popularity reached its zenith. His bearded, mask-like face was replicated on thousands of amulets and magical gems. He had become associated with a cardinal Egyptian myth that focuses on Horus-the-child, a god secretly born of Isis in the marshes of the Nile Delta. Horus was destined to fight for the throne of Egypt against the evil usurper Seth, who had seized it by killing Osiris, the father of Horus. Bes was an appropriate protector for the infant god and his image became a fixture in temples concerned with this mythology. Many are still visible at Dendera, Philae and elsewhere. In particular, Bes was depicted on a new type of building known as a ‘birth house’, examples of which stand intact in Dendera and Philae.

Bes grew so popular that, once Egypt had been conquered by the Romans, his worship spread all over the Mediterranean. There are lots of terracotta Roman images of Bes. Many emphasize his fierce nature and he could even be shown in armour, as a legionary. Bes initially survived the advent of Christianity in Egypt, when the new faith increasingly supplanted the old gods. Pagans still consulted the oracle of Bes at Abydos, but his influence waned in the 4th century — more than two millennia after his first appearance, as Aha, in the Middle Kingdom.

Today, of course, the cult of Bes has withered: mention his name now and people assume that you are referring to Mark ‘Bez’ Berry from the Happy Mondays. (In fairness, many ancient Bes figurines do have a gurning, crazy eyed quality.) Even so, around the world, there are still one or two initiates willing to acknowledge the unsung power of this unlikely-looking saviour. To the ancient Egyptians, Bes meant many things. At various points, he was associated with fertility, sexual pleasure, merriment, dancing and music (sometimes he clutches an instrument, such as a tambourine). In other words, he embodied those essential, lusty spirits that animate mankind.

Ultimately, I admire Bes because he was a democratic, rather than an exclusive, god: he always belonged primarily to the people; he was not of the priestly caste. Human beings aren’t perfect creatures and neither is Bes. Indeed, his flamboyant physical imperfections signal that, although he’s a god, he is also, emphatically, one of us.

Alastair Sooke is a broadcaster and an art critic at The Daily Telegraph. He lives in London, UK.