The Statues of Sekhmet: 'Mistress of Dread'
The lion-headed goddess Sekhmet is one of the most common deities in Egyptian collections worldwide. Thousands of amulets depict her, either seated or standing and holding a papyrus-shaped scepter. But what comes to mind for most Egyptian art lovers are the hundreds of larger-than-life-sized, granodiorite statues of Sekhmet carved during the 18th-dynasty rule of the great pharaoh Amenhotep III. These many statues, now found in museums and archaeological sites, testify to the importance of the fierce goddess.
A mother goddess in the Old Kingdom, Sekhmet was associated with Ptah as his consort during the New Kingdom. But she is best known as the Eye of the Sun, the violent, dazzling and protecting aspect of the creator god. Her name, “the Powerful one,” is best illustrated by her fearful appearance as a lion-headed woman. The sun disc above her head reminds us she was the defender of the sun, and the uraeus raising at her forehead marks her as the royal Daughter of Ra. Sekhmet also carries a papyrus-scepter and the ankh-sign in her hands, which represent her capacity to give life and fertility through the yearly Nile floods in Egypt. These attributes and her iconography sometimes make Sekhmet difficult to differentiate from other feline goddesses – mainly Bastet. They are all aspects of the same entity, Hathor, as declared in inscriptions of many statues.
Some believe the Amenhotep III statues of Sekhmet number more than 730. The question that arises, of course, is why would a king spend such incredible resources to produce so many large statues? French Egyptologist Jean Yoyotte proposed a convincing theory that this group of statues was the stone materialization of a Sekhmet ritual to pacify the goddess, neutralize her fearful aspects and attract her beneficial qualities. Yet in an age when aesthetics were critical to worship, even Amenhotep III, the king who ordered the statues, does not display a similar number of effigies. If such a large number of statues were mentioned only in texts, Egyptologists likely would not believe they existed. But the proof resides in museums worldwide (the largest groups of statues are in Turin, London, Paris, Berlin, New York and Cairo) and in the ruins of Mut’s temple in Karnak. Missions led by Betsy Bryan of Johns Hopkins University re-displayed dozens of statues along the temple’s courtyard walls. On the Nile’s other bank, excavations led by Hourig Sourouzian revealed another large series of Sekhmet statues around the solar court of Kom el Hettan.
So many large statues also demonstrate a rare royal commitment to many trained sculptors. The size and quality of the sculptures is striking, given that smaller effigies might have accomplished the same goal. Although the size and proportions vary slightly, these hundreds of statues precisely render a wild feline expression and details such as mustaches, radiant hair, wig strands, nipple flowers and bracelets on the wrists and ankles.
If the creation of these statues is by itself extraordinary, their successive lives reveal fascinating practices about images during pharaonic civilization. In the Amarna period, the name of Amenhotep III was systematically erased from inscriptions of the thrones of Sekhmet’s statues, then methodically re-inscribed at the end of the 18th dynasty. With their original viewing perhaps meant to be limited, several of the statues were moved, re-displayed in various temples and sometimes re-inscribed – notably for Ramses IV and Sheshonq I. These reuses probably represent a “re-actualization” of these ancient images in another architectural and cultic context. Sekhmet’s statues were even re-displayed without being finished or inscribed, as in the temple of Ptah in Karnak, where the standing statues of Sekhmet (now in Turin’s Museo Egizio) were found. It is notable that Egyptian statues did not necessarily need to be “finished” to serve a purpose. Many Sekhmets left uninscribed, unpolished or without carved details have been found with complete statues, which suggests that the two types were considered to carry the same level of effectiveness.
Their perceived power must have been a factor for those who defaced or destroyed these effigies, perhaps in the late antiquity. Rare, indeed, are statues that are discovered in a complete state. For various reasons, most were attacked at some point in history. Some show lines of deep and regular tool-marks made with hard metal chisels, probably to cut them into blocks for new building. Most, however, display systematic mutilations of specific parts, indicating the damage was not a random accident or demolition. The severity of the attacks can vary, but the head and hands are the privileged targets. Such alterations have been difficult to date, but they clearly happened when the statues were seen as magical and thus needed to be neutralized by removing or damaging head and hands.
Many questions remain for Sekhmet statues. Can we, for example, estimate the number of sculptors involved and the amount of work necessary to produce hundreds of statues relatively quickly? Why are there so many seated statues, compared to a lesser number of standing ones? Were all the statues originally planned to adorn the solar courtyard of the temple of Amenhotep III, or were they meant, from the beginning, for various sites? The ongoing discoveries of statues and other treasures in Kom el-Hettan continue to feed such queries. Even if some answers are never found, the statues of Sekhmet will always spur reflection on the role and importance of statuary in the Egyptian landscape.
Bryan, Betsy. “The statue program for the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III.” In The Temple in Ancient Egypt: New Discoveries and Recent Research, edited by Stephen Quirke, 57-81. London: British Museum Press, 1997.
Goyon, Jean-Claude. Le rituel du sehetep Sekhmet au changement de cycle annuel. D’après les architraves du temple d’Edfou et textes parallèles, du Nouvel Empire à l’époque ptolémaïque et romaine. Bibliothèque d’Étude 141. Cairo: IFAO, 2011.
Sourouzian, Hourig, Rainer Stadelmann, Myriam Seco Alvarez, Josef Dorner, Nairy Hampikian, and Ibrahim Noureddinem. “The Temple of Amenhotep III at Thebes: Excavations and conservation at Kom el-Hettân, Fourth Report on the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Season in 2004, 2004-2005 and 2006” In Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 63, 247-335. Cairo: DAI, 2007.
Sternberg, Heike. “Sachmet.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, V, edited by W. Helck and E. Otto, 323-333. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1984.
Yoyotte, Jean. “Une monumentale litanie de granit. Les Sekhmet d’Aménophis III et la conjuration permanente de la Déesse dangereuse.” Bulletin de la société française d’égyptologie 87-88 (1980): 46-75.