By Lesley Jackson
Being a contrary child I always liked snakes and was later delighted to discover that they had a very close relationship to the Goddess. I could never understand why snakes were considered evil when other deadly creatures were viewed as merely dangerous. This link to the Goddess subsequently explained it. The ability of the snake to shed its skin symbolises rebirth and cyclical time and links it to the ever-changing phases of the moon and so to women through their menstrual cycle. The snake is also a symbol of infinity, portrayed by the tail-eating Ouroborus. The symbolism of snakes is, appropriately enough, endless and far too vast a topic to dwell upon in one article so I will confine myself to three Egyptian Snake Goddesses.
Snakes were widespread and common in Egypt and there are numerous spells to prevent and cure snakebite. Despite this the Egyptians never viewed the snake as intrinsically evil just because it was potentially deadly. This is in contrast to most other cultures who saw a logical progression from dangerous to evil and as evil meant ‘anti-men’ the snake could then be vilified along with the Goddess it portrayed. Symbolism aside snakes did perform one very useful role for an agricultural people. They preyed on vermin, such as sparrows and rodents, which ransacked the food stores and spread disease. There were many snake deities in Egypt and the Snake Gods range from benevolent, though dangerous, to the ultimate evil. Not so the Snake Goddesses, they were all good though not necessarily safe. The Snake Goddesses are all portrayed as cobras; indeed the determinative (a symbol used to clarify the meaning of a word but which is not pronounced) for ‘Goddess’ is a rearing cobra. Why the cobra is considered feminine is not clear. Certainly the rearing cobra with an erect hood is very impressive. Maybe the hood gives the cobra curves that are more suggestive of a woman compared to the straighter, more phallic form of other snakes.
The Snake Gods tended to have a role in the afterlife and spirit world whereas the Cobra Goddesses played a more important role in everyday life. Many Goddesses can be portrayed as a snake but I am restricting myself to three whose main form was a cobra: Meretseger, Renenutet and Wadjyt. Each Goddess is associated with one of the three main areas where snakes are found; Meretseger in deserts and hills, Renenutet in the fields and Wadjyt in the marshes.
Somewhat aptly for a desert dweller Meretseger’s name means “she who loves silence”. She was the guardian Goddess of the Peak of the West, a pyramid shaped mountain that overlooked the Theban necropolis, where the Valleys of the Kings and Queens are located. The workers on the New Kingdom royal tombs (1500-1069 bce) encountered her and soon discovered that she didn’t like being disturbed, so they made offerings to propitiate her to allow them to work on her lands in safety. Meretseger wasn’t malevolent but she could be dangerous if upset. “She smites with the smiting of a savage lion: She pursues him that transgresses against her.”Snakes do not like being surprised or threatened but will usually leave you alone if you announce your presence and do not corner them. Small shrines and chapels cut into cliff-sides were set up to Meretseger on the slopes of the mountain and a number of stele dedicated to her have been found. Many of these stele are inscribed with admissions of guilt, Meretseger was believed to strike down those who made false oaths or committed unspecified transgressions. Nefer’abu said “I wrought the transgression against the Peak, and she chastised me.” It is an almost automatic reflex to say “what have I done to deserve this?” when things go wrong and most of us can come up with something that we have done wrong or a duty neglected. In a perverse way it does give you some sense of control, if you know what you did wrong then you can prevent the disaster from recurring. Meretseger was forgiving and benevolent to those who apologised and learnt their lesson. “I called upon my Mistress: I found that she came to me with sweet airs; She was merciful to me, (After) she had made me behold her hand. She turned again to me in mercy: She caused me to forget the sickness that had been [upon] me. Lo, the Peak of the West is merciful, if one call upon her.”1
Meretseger’s worship also had a more formal aspect. In a papyrus from the worker’s village at Deir el-Medina there is a reference to a man who “has been appointed as the singer of Meretseger”2 and her statues have been found in the nearby temples of Hathor and Ptah (the God of craftsmen). She was portrayed either as a serpent with a woman’s head or as a cobra.
Meretseger was never encountered anywhere else and when the necropolis was abandoned her cult and worship disappeared and Meretseger went back to enjoying her silence. There are many similar places in the Egyptian deserts and mountains where the workers would have encountered both snakes and Goddesses, but Meretseger confined herself to her Peak. She is a true genius loci, a guardian deity of a specific location. If similar local Goddesses were encountered elsewhere they left no record.
Renenutet is a complete contrast to Meretseger. She was an old Goddess, worshiped from at least the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 bce) and was “the Good Snake”; the Goddess of cultivated land, granaries and kitchens. The ‘rnn’ component of her name means ‘nourishment’ and she carries the immature corn God Neper within her, who was later considered to be an aspect of Osiris. As a Goddess of fertility and harvest she ensured both a good harvest and its safekeeping. Some of her epithets are “Lady of the Granaries” and “Mistress of the Threshing Floor”. She was worshiped at all levels of society and wherever there were fields and granaries. Festivals were held in her honour during sowing, harvest and the pressing of grapes. She had a popular cult at Dja in the Faynum region (a fertile area about 60km south-west of Cairo) and a shrine at the national granaries of the New Kingdom Temple of Amun-Ra as well as innumerable shrines built by agricultural workers. The Egyptians believed that the dead needed nourishment as well as the living and depictions of Renenutet appear on both royal and private tombs.
Renenutet’s fertility is synonymous with the Nile floods which brought not only water but also a layer of fertile silt. During the inundation the snakes, and their prey, would have been forced onto the higher ground concentrating them near the settlements. This helped reinforce the link between snakes and the subsequent life giving benefits of the inundation. The Egyptians considered Renenutet a beautiful and bountiful Goddess with no dangerous aspects. It seems unlikely that people weren’t bitten during harvest and sowing, unless the noise of this labour- intensive activity frightened the snakes away. Maybe Renenutet intervened to protect the workers; whatever the reason, if agricultural workers were bitten then it wasn’t considered to be retribution by her.
Cobras were considered to be good mothers. The female does guard her eggs but I am not enough of a naturalist to comment on the maternal aspects of snakes. Renenutet was associated with the nourishment of a mother’s milk and was sometimes portrayed as a nursing Goddess. Her other forms were as an erect cobra with a sun disc and cow-horns or as a snake-headed woman. She was viewed as one of the divine foster mothers who nourished the king’s ka (his vital energy). The female pharaoh Hatshepsut linked herself with Renenutet (amongst many other deities) because it was the ruler’s responsibility to ensure the prosperity of Egypt and the nourishment of its people.
The Egyptians were unusual in having an Earth God, Geb, rather than an Earth Goddess. He, along with Osiris, provided the fertility of the earth and the crops. In Renenutet we have our closest concept of the Earth as an all providing, nurturing mother with her epithet of “the field that brings forth everything”.3
Our third Goddess, Wadjyt, is very old. There are references to her from the 1st Dynasty (3100-2890 bce) so she will have been a Predynastic Goddess. She is the protective Cobra Goddess of the Delta, or Lower Egypt. With the unification of Egypt she became one of the Two Ladies of Egypt and was portrayed on royal insignia with the Vulture Goddess Nekhbet, who was the Goddess of Upper Egypt. Wadjyt’s name means “the Green One”, or “She from the Papyrus” which, according to the Pyramid Texts, she created. It is possible that she was the original Earth Goddess of the Delta, but if she was then most of those attributes were lost as she became increasingly associated with kings and the state of Egypt.
The spitting cobra (it actually sprays venom rather than spits) aims for the eyes and its venom causes a burning sensation as well as blindness which is probably why they are portrayed as spitting fire. For this reason they are aligned with the fiery, destructive power of the Solar Eye of the Sun God Ra (who is always portrayed as a Goddess). “As for Wadjet, Lady of the Devouring Flame, she is the Eye of Re.” Wadjyt is often shown as the aggressive and protective uraeus cobra on the forehead of both Ra and the king. Without the protective might of the uraeus both these powerful males were powerless. Because of this association Wadjyt is usually depicted as an erect cobra with its hood extended ready to slaughter the enemies of state with her scorching breath. “I am Wadjet, Lady of the Devouring Flame, and few approach me.”4 Not surprisingly she was referred to as “Mistress of Awe” and “Mistress of Fear”.
If treated immediately, and properly, the blindness caused by the cobra’s venom may only be temporary. This is likely to account for some of the stele thanking the Goddess for lifting the affliction.
Wadjyt does have an epithet “Great of Magic” and she is invoked in the spells for “Overthrowing Apepi” (a serpent who was the arch-enemy of both Ra and all of creation). “Thou art (condemned) to this fire of the Eye of Re, it sends forth its fiery blast against thee in this its name of Wadjet.”5 Despite being from the watery marshes of the Delta Wadjyt’s element is fire. Her shrine in Buto was called “per nu” the house of flame.
On coronation scenes Wadjyt is shown in human form beside the king. She still retains her nursing association and was said to have been a nurse for Isis’ son Horus when he was hidden in the marshes of the Delta. In Ptolemaic temples (332 - 30 bce) she is portrayed nursing the king. Wadjyt was critically important to the state of Egypt and the kings but she may have been too formidable, grand and remote to be worshiped at an individual, personal level.
The Egyptian deities were very fluid and many share each other’s attributes and merge with each other at times. Meretseger appears to have kept herself to herself but Wadjyt and Renenutet show this trait. Wadjyt can be portrayed in leonine form which aligns her with the more familiar lioness-headed Sekhmet, the daughter and Eye of Ra. Renenutet is sometimes equated to Wadjyt as the king’s uraeus. She is also connected with spinning and weaving. In the Temple of Edfu she is called “Mistress of the Robes” where she represents the magical powers of the cloak that the king wears in the afterlife. As in many cultures there is a link between spinning and fate and Renenutet is sometimes paired with Shay (the God who personifies fate) and with Meskhent (the Goddess of Childbirth who determined the life-span of the newborn child).
The cobra has thus given us three very different Goddesses. At one extreme we have Wadjyt, the dangerous but protective Goddess whose remit is king and country, at the other the very localised and personal Meretseger. Then there is Renenutet; loving, peaceful and bountiful, a national and personal Goddess who relates both to kings and commoners. In later periods Renenutet became associated with Isis and she has that same all-encompassing presence. As with Isis, I feel that you could set up an altar to Renenutet anywhere. Wadjyt I’m not sure about, personally I feel that it would have to be a pretty large national or environmental emergency to bother this lady with. If you want to meet Meretseger then you will have to go to the Peak of the West and walk on her mountain. I confess that I have a fondness for this lady. I too enjoy my times of silence and reflection and am apt to get grumpy if disturbed.