Elusive Egyptian Goddesses: Seshat the Lady of Numbers
by Lesley Jackson
The Ancient Egyptians, wise people, had goddesses aplenty but the fame of a few, such as Isis and Hathor, has overshadowed and absorbed many others. Like women, goddesses have not escaped being stereotyped but not all will fit the maiden-mother-crone model nor are they all earth focused. One of these is the scribal goddess Seshat.
The literal translation of her name is ‘female scribe’. Many of her epithets reflect this aspect of her, such as “lady of writing, the chief of the library”.1 Seshat is often considered the consort of Thoth, the god of wisdom and writing, or merely his female equivalent. Seshat frequently merits no more than a brief entry in the dictionaries of Egyptian deities. Many seem to pass her by, assuming her to be merely a cut-down, female version of the God of the Scribes and a very minor goddess long since eclipsed by her more glamorous, all-encompassing sisters; a footnote amongst the Egyptian goddesses. Sometimes the footnotes are worth following up though and I have discovered that there is much more to Our Lady of Writing than appears at first sight.
Seshat is always portrayed as a woman and has no animal symbolism. As with many Egyptian goddesses, it is her headdress which identifies her. She wears a headband which supports a seven-pointed star, or rosette, on a long stem. It is surmounted by something described as inverted horns or a bow. This symbol has changed considerably over time. In the 3rd Dynasty (2649-2575 BCE) it was a stylised flower, or tree, surmounted by a crescent moon supporting two feathers. By the 12th Dynasty (199
1-1783 BCE) the flower had become the stylised rosette and the feathers merged with the crescent and split in half giving the appearance of two horns. At this period Seshat is called “She who has laid aside the (two) horns”.2 This may have reflected both her changing function and the result of a trend towards simplifying and stylising symbols. Over many hundreds of years it is possible that the scribes didn’t understand the symbols they were copying and interpreted them in different ways. The lack of certainty opens the way for interesting speculation. The crescent moon links her to the old sky religion as well as to Thoth and the measurement of time. In the old religion feathers were a symbol of the sky gods which might be why they were replaced. Do these later horns align her with Hathor? Was the original depiction not a flower but the palm tree she used to mark the passage of time? There is no obvious answer and the symbols can be read as you want them to be.
Less open to speculation is the leopard skin robe she wears. This is a very ancient form of dress, only worn ceremonially after the Old Kingdom (2575-2134 BCE). A leopard skin garment was worn by the sem-priests who officiated at funerary rites. It has been suggested that this was shamanic in origin, but why would a goddess of writing wear a shamanic garment? The third item associated with Seshat is a palm rib, which she holds and writes on, or carves notches to record time or numbers. The palm rib became the hieroglyph for ‘year’ and it symbolises recorded time.
Seshat is a very ancient goddess and was often referred to as “The Original One”.3 She comes to us from the very beginnings of Egyptian culture as one of a group of sky deities who were ousted by the solar religion of Ra. Seshat was already fading from the popular pantheons by the Old Kingdom. Originally she was a major goddess who had temples, priests and festivals. It is likely that she also had priestesses but there is no direct evidence for that. A 5th Dynasty (2465-2323 BCE) inscription mentions a festival of her birth and elsewhere there are references to three of her priests and a few personal names which incorporate her name. For most of the Pharonic Period Seshat received little worship and appears to attend solely to the king. What caused this reversal of fortune? Other goddesses prospered so we cannot blame the patriarchy this time. It is likely that Seshat refused to fit into the new popular solar religion, which happily incorporated some of the other ancient deities such as Nephthys. This does beg the question as to why Seshat continued to be present, albeit in a more limited capacity, through to the Greco-Roman Period. One major reason was her importance to the king and to sacred buildings.
Seshat loves counting and recording, she is the ultimate Lady of Lists. In many ways she is more the personification of numeracy than literacy, the goddess of accountants and record-keepers. Seshat is the Goddess of Numbers who “reckoneth all things on earth”.4 One of her main tasks was to write the name of the king on the leaves of the sacred persea tree at his birth and to record the length of his reign on a palm stick. This was the earliest method of recording numbers and is additional evidence of her antiquity. Seshat was counting and recording before the Egyptians were writing.
There is nothing a king likes so much as treasure, especially war booty, and Seshat is often portrayed recording the latest additions to the royal coffers. One example is from the 5th Dynasty where she records livestock seized by King Sahura from his Libyan enemies. In a 12th Dynasty relief she notes the names and tributes of foreign captives.
As well as measuring time Seshat also measures space in her role as patron of architect and surveyors, she is the “Lady of Builders”.5 The most important foundation ritual for a new temple was establishing the ground plan, which had to be accurately aligned to astronomical or landscape features. This “stretching of the cord ceremony” has been recorded throughout Egyptian history and was carried out by the king, or a priest acting on his behalf, who acted as the conduit for Seshat’s power. It is possible that a priestess took the role of Seshat. Seti I (1306-1290 BCE) has Seshat say, “I stretched out the measuring-cord within its walls, my mouth was (devoted) to it with great incantations”.6 The cord was stretched along predetermined lines and held in place by pegs. One inscription shows Seshat and the king grasping the cord and holding the large clubs used to hammer in the pegs. On the Ptolemaic Temple of Horus at Edfu there is an inscription showing Seshat with the Seven Builder Gods. I feel it is particularly gratifying to have a goddess as the patron of surveyors and architects, that closely guarded male preserve who believe that gender determines a person’s ability to measure and calculate accurately.
Seshat may have started out as a tally-keeper but she soon progressed to be closely associated with writing and books becoming “Foremost of the House of the Book, Lady of Hieroglyphs”.7 If she was worshipped by scribes then there is no evidence of it, but the scribe Hori, writing in the 19th Dynasty (1307-1196 BCE), describes himself as a “champion in valour and in the art of Seshyt”.8 Seshat was also closely associated with the House of Life, along with deities such as Isis, Nephthys and Thoth. The House of Life was attached to temples and was a centre of learning and teaching, an archive and scriptorium. It functioned as the repository of all knowledge, sacred and profane. Seshat was the “Lady of Writings in the House of Life”.9
In one interesting sideline Seshat was responsible for all foreigners in Egypt, a role which probably arose from her enumeration duties. Having counted and classified the foreigners she continued to take an interest in them. Remember that when you visit Egypt or need help with immigration officials.
Although largely ignored in life Seshat did have a function in the afterlife which encompassed everybody, not surprisingly it largely reflected her role as writer and builder. Seshat gave access to the afterlife, “the portal is opened for you by Seshat”,10 and gave the deceased the magical documents which would help them safely traverse the dangers of the afterworld. “You shall bring Thoth to him in his shape and Seshat in her shape, and they shall bring him this writing.”11 Her other role was to build houses for the deceased. To the Egyptians heaven was a mirror of Egypt, albeit a perfect one with none of the unpleasant aspects, so you would need somewhere to live. “This house of mine is built by Seshat.”12 The Egyptian deities were not, on the whole, vindictive. Despite receiving no worship or offerings Seshat was still willing to help the deceased.
There are references to a Book of Thoth in many of the Egyptian writings and there are surviving fragments dating to the 1st and 2nd century CE. It is believed to have originated in the early Greco-Roman Period (about 300 BCE) and incorporates older material. Similar in some ways to the Hermetic teachings, the Book of Thoth is a guide for initiates. Like all sacred teaching it is full of obscure and veiled symbolism and meaning. The spiritual path of the scribe is illustrated by reference to the journey through the afterworld and it is presented as a dialogue between Thoth and his pupil. Seshat plays a significant part in this teaching. Initially this may appear surprising. Even though she is closely associated with Thoth, Seshat has so far presented a fairly scientific and clerical character, even with her afterlife roles. Accountants and librarians shouldn’t be involved in the occult, should they? But remember the shamanic leopard skin robe. What abilities and knowledge has Seshat brought from her hidden past? We often assume that left brain activities, such as numeracy and analytical ability, are the antithesis of spiritual and esoteric life, but this wasn’t a view which the Egyptians held. They saw no split between science and religion; measuring and studying the natural world was as valid a method of worship as the temple ceremonies. The Book of Thoth has a strong emphasis on the scribal profession and the House of Life so it is not surprising that Seshat was an important participator. She knows all the knowledge contained in the House of Life and this will have included the secret teachings of magic and religion as well as the more mundane worldly things.
Returning briefly to Seshat as the Lady of Builders. In Medieval Western Europe it was the master masons who held and passed on secret teachings and who encoded them as symbols and patterns in the great cathedrals. Divine secrets and mysteries were turned into geometry and frozen safely in stone for future generations to discover. It is not too large a leap of logic to connect Seshat with a similar role.
In the Book of Thoth one epithet of Seshat is “Mistress of the Sustenance of the Foremost of the Chamber of Darkness” The Chamber of Darkness is often referred to and probably alludes to the need to withdraw from mundane life and focus on the inner life as well as suggesting aspects of the afterlife. Darkness is needed for the development of intuition and the unfolding of the mysteries. Seshat is called “She-who-is-wise, this one who first established (the) chamber, she being ... a lamp of prophecy”. Seshat brings the light of understanding, of gnosis, into the darkness of ignorance and isolation. We have her worship recorded for the first time. “I shall ... kiss the earth for Shai”. (i.e. Seshat). The initiates also invoke Seshat. “If you should praise her at the occasion of the New Year, ‘The Mighty-One’ will return so as to answer to you.” It is interesting that Seshat, having lost her popularity after the Old Kingdom, should be revived and worshiped during the Late Period (712-332 BCE) and into the Greco-Roman Period. Was she rediscovered by those yearning for a more spiritual path, those who desired contact with their deities before death and found the official religions unfulfilling? This has close parallels with our time where the Ancient Ones have been recalled by the Pagan and Goddess movements for their spiritual nourishment and guidance. A goddess steeped in all written wisdom and who has enumerated everything on heaven and earth is an excellent choice as a spiritual guide, for she can “open for you the House of Life”.13
Did Seshat ever really fade away, sidelined into a few royal roles, or did she see what was coming at the end of the Old Kingdom and step into the shadows to wait for those prepared to seek her out and ask for her guidance? Like the modern priestess who has a ‘sensible’ day job, Seshat opens a few surprise doors for the observant and studious.
PINCH G, Egyptian Mythology, Oxford 2002
WILKINSON R H, The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson 2003