Serket, the Goddess who understands Poisons

by Lesley Jackson

Serket image by Jeff Dahl
Serket image by Jeff Dahl

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. Continue reading "Serket, the Goddess who understands Poisons"