Serket, the Goddess who understands Poisons
by Lesley Jackson
We are accustomed to lovely and inspiring creatures associated with the Goddess; from the elegant ferocity of the lioness of Sekhmet to the gentler cat of Bastet, or even the endlessly hypnotic snakes of the Cobra Goddesses. Given the variety of animals that the Ancient Egyptians encountered it is surprising that they should associate a scorpion with a Goddess, particularly a largely benevolent one.
The Scorpion Goddess Serket (Selkis or Selket) is first attested to in the 1st Dynasty so she will have been a Pre-dynastic Goddess (before 3,100 BCE). Serket can be depicted either as a woman with a scorpion on her head or as a scorpion with a woman's head and torso. Her name Serket Hetyt means "she who causes the throat to breathe".1 A Goddess responsible for the divine breath of life or a euphemism referring obliquely to the effect that scorpion venom has on its victim's breathing.
Scorpions were very common in Ancient Egypt and they have a unique and distinct appearance. Scorpion stings were a common, but none the less distressing, hazard. Attendance registers from Deir el-Medina contain many occurrences of men missing work because of scorpion stings. The potency of the venom varies and some species are relatively harmless. The symptoms are burning pain followed by shortness of breath but for the young, elderly and weak the poison could be fatal. It is because of the latter symptom that Serket was thought to control breathing. Female scorpions are larger than the male and so have more venom. Was this why they were associated with a Goddess rather than a God, or was it pure misogyny?
Why was the scorpion associated with the divine anyway? It could have been regarded as a demon, perhaps such a powerful entity needed placating not demonising. One reason might be that the agent which inflicted the damage was the one best able to remove it, or at least reduce its impact. To the ordinary Egyptian, at the base of a rigid social hierarchy, there was a direct correlation between rank and power. In an absolute monarchy their king was almost godlike in his power over the life and death of his subjects. Any creature, such as the scorpion, with the ability to kill appeared to have an equivalent divine power.
The scorpion caught the Ancient Egyptians' imagination, even if it was for painful reasons, and the scorpion ideogram was one of the earliest hieroglyph signs. Words contained power so the scorpion was often depicted without its sting, just in case magic brought it to life. Until the New Kingdom (1,550 BCE) Serket's name was written without the complete scorpion. However, when Serket wears a scorpion on her head it always has its tail erect – poised ready to sting. They did not wish to disempower their Goddess.
In common with other cultures of the Near East, the Egyptians regarded the scorpion as a symbol of motherhood. Along with the more familiar Goddesses such as Isis, Serket was considered the divine mother of the king. This role may be a remnant of a Pre-dynastic role as a Mother Goddess or a consequence of her close association with Isis. The scorpion is not an obvious, or comfortable, role model of a devoted mother to us but the Egyptians saw the ever vigilant scorpion carry her babies on her back and took that as a symbol of conscientious and protective motherhood.
One of Serket's main roles was funerary. She was the "lady of the beautiful house",2 namely the embalmers' tent and a less beautiful place would be hard to find. She was one of the four guardian Goddesses placed on the corners of the canopic chest which contained the mummified viscera. The other Goddesses are Isis, Nephthys and Neith. Serket also helps the deceased breathe again. Although this does tie in with her responsibility for breathing many deities were invoked for this critical function. "O Serket, I shall exist in the length of eternity".3
Through her control of scorpions Serket was the patron Goddess of the magician-healers who dealt with scorpion stings. Surprisingly many of the spells to treat and avoid stings don't refer directly to Serket. Perhaps it was considered too dangerous to call Her and Her scorpions directly under such circumstances.
Even the deities were not immune to scorpion stings. "Oh Re, come to your daughter for a scorpion has stung her on a lonely road."4 This Middle Kingdom (2,022-1,650 BCE) spell refers to a cat, probably the Goddess Bastet, who was stung whereupon an appeal was made to the Sun God Ra to save her.
When Isis was pregnant with Horus she hid in the marshes to escape from Seth, who had murdered her husband Osiris and wanted to kill her unborn child. Isis was protected by seven scorpions who are believed to be a seven-fold manifestation of Serket. They are Tefen and Befen who walk behind her, Mestet and Mestetef who walk by her side and Petet, Thetet and Maatet who walk in front. The homeless Isis was turned away by a rich woman and finally found lodgings with a poor woman. The scorpions became angry and they all shared their venom with Tefen who went back to the rich woman's house and stung her baby son. Isis took pity on the woman and her dying baby. Because she knew the true names of the scorpions she could draw out the venom. "Fall down, poison of Mestet. You will not run, poison of Mestet. You will not rise, poison of Petet and Thetet. You will not travel, poison of Maatet ... recede, yield, retire."5 In gratitude the rich woman gave some of her wealth to the poorer one. The fact that Isis knew the names of the scorpions meant she knew the true name of Serket. This suggests that Serket might be a manifestation of Isis as the deities kept their true names secret.
In this role Serket echoes the hidden venom of our thoughts and actions, both individually and collectively. Angry at the perceived injustice Tefen struck back but in her blind fury she hurt the baby rather than the perpetrator. Throughout history the innocent and vulnerable have suffered for a variety of reasons; sometimes from being in the wrong place at the wrong time or sometimes because they are an easy target. This continues today despite the endless fine words about peace and protection.
Perhaps the seven manifestations of Serket reflect our own anger and venom. Without it we are afraid to speak out or to fight oppression and we fade into weak victims. With too much we are blinded by aggression and act with knee-jerk reactions, striking out without thought for the consequences of our actions.
Today most of us need not worry about scorpion stings but there are plenty of other venoms and poisons that we all have to be aware of and deal with. Negative and harmful thoughts and beliefs, whether subconscious or otherwise, fed and circulated by fear, anger and propaganda. Toxic relationships that we cannot, or will not, escape from. The earth is continuously injected with pollutants, deliberately or otherwise. Dangerous chemicals, radiation, pesticides, toxic waste – a seemingly endless and depressing list. Tefen has run amok. Perhaps it is time to call upon Serket. "She who causes the throat to breathe" can help us survive this torrent of poison and give us the knowledge and courage to start removing the toxins we are injecting into the earth. With her guidance we can also learn how to breathe properly, from taking deep breaths and thinking before speaking and acting to mindful meditation focused on breathing.
At a later stage in the Isis story the Horus child is stung by Seth who transforms into a scorpion. This time Isis is unable to save Horus, presumably because she did not know the true names of Seth, and has to beg Thoth for assistance. The importance of true names to the Egyptians cannot be understated. They were the key to all magic and transformations.
Can Serket guide us towards her seven true names? A meditation on possible ones give us:
• She who pierces the lie
• She who is in control of her anger
• She who knows how to fight
• She who protects
• She who draws out toxins
• She who purifies the air
• She who understands poisons
Euphemisms are associated with Serket. She of the "beautiful house" who "causes the throat to breathe". Does this "gentle" Goddess remind us to read between the lines and look beneath the lies in superficial and sneaky words and slogans? To be aware of our own bias and false assumptions?
Serket is not always an easily pleased Goddess. Sometimes she has to be the sharp-tongued, acidic teacher because it is not a gentle world and because we haven't listened to or understood what the gentler Goddesses are trying to say. Most of us in the West have never encountered a live scorpion but that doesn't mean that we have no place for Serket in our lives and hearts.
1 Hart G, (2005) The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, p 141
2 Hart G, (2005) The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, p142
3 Lesko B, (1977) The Ancient Egyptian Book of Two Ways, p 63
4 Bourghouts J F, (1978) Ancient Egyptian Magical Texts, p56
5 Adapted from Bourghouts J F, (1978) Ancient Egyptian Magical Texts, p61