folklore

Bes, the Egyptian God Who’s Part Dwarf, Part Lion

As unlikely as it might seem, the ugly demon Bes was a much-loved guardian of the home and childbirth. Heck, he could even cure impotence.

Look for this block carving of Bes in the courtyard of Dendera

Look for this block carving of Bes in the courtyard of Dendera

We liked him instantly — perhaps because he’s so unlike all of the other gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt we had seen carved onto temple walls and painted in the dark, narrow tombs. And since most of those deities feature animal heads, that’s saying something.

Even so, Bes is perhaps the most unique character in the Ancient Egyptian pantheon. I’d try to come up with my own colorful description, but once Duke read this to me, I figured why bother? I can’t top Alastair Sooke’s write-up in Frieze, who describes this “grotesque little fellow” so evocatively:

His physique is squat and stocky, with flabby man-boobs, pronounced buttocks and a pot-belly. He crouches as though he is about to defecate, so that his genitals dangle, prominently, between bandy legs. A wild beard frames his gargoyle’s face, along with a lion’s mane. Yet, his ferocious visage also has a playful aspect, since he sticks out his tongue, like a clown pulling a crude face.

I realized part of Bes’ uniqueness among his fellow Egyptian gods is that, aside from cow-eared Hathor, Bes is the only other deity depicted face-on. The rest of the pantheon are always shown in profile. 

Bes was a popular guardian deity, popping up on household items and amulets like this one

Bes was a popular guardian deity, popping up on household items and amulets like this one

The Household Guardian

For some reason, the ugly little bugger became a common household apparition. Artisans and craftsmen carved him onto beds and headrests, mirrors and makeup containers. His likeness is even found in the ruins of Amarna, where Pharaoh Akhenaten forbid all worship besides that of the sun disk, Aten. Bes was so popular that people might have been risking their lives to keep this protective imp in their homes.

Bes guarded households, much like gargoyles on a Catholic church or the hideous monsters outside a Thai temple. The name Bes came later, a logical choice given his role — besa means “to protect.”

A cosmetic jar shaped like Bes. Both sexes wore makeup, in part to protect from the sun and insects, so the connection to a protector god makes sense

A cosmetic jar shaped like Bes. Both sexes wore makeup, in part to protect from the sun and insects, so the connection to a protector god makes sense

His worship goes back at least as far as the 1700s BCE, Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, though some scholars think Bes originated even earlier, in a more lionlike form. 

Bes, a conglomeration of numerous gods and monsters, was a fighter, protector, partier and clown

Bes, a conglomeration of numerous gods and monsters, was a fighter, protector, partier and clown

Bes’ popularity was aided by the fact that he was also a god of humor, music and dancing. He knew how to have a good time. There weren’t any temples to Bes, he had no high priests or priestesses — and yet he was a favorite god across all classes, from the royal family down to the poorest laborer. There is evidence that someone would don a Bes costume during religious ceremonies. 

Priests might have dressed in a lionlike Bes costume during some rituals

Priests might have dressed in a lionlike Bes costume during some rituals

Ten or so deities and demons that shared characteristics with Bes became conflated with him, an ever-evolving leonine dwarf deity. In one of these earlier forms, Bes was known as Aha, or Fighter, and is shown strangling snakes with his bare hands. This explains why his image appears on knives as a protection charm for the wielder.

Aha, the god or demon who later morphed into Bes

Aha, the god or demon who later morphed into Bes

By the New Kingdom, Aha had merged into Bes, when he was sometimes given an elaborate feathered headdress.

Bes developed moobs (man boobs) and a potbelly to evoke characteristics of a pregnant woman

Bes developed moobs (man boobs) and a potbelly to evoke characteristics of a pregnant woman

Protector of Pregnant Women and Childbirth

Bes also shows up on magic wands designed to help infants come into this world, and for the dead to leave it for the afterlife. The dwarf became associated with childbirth, protecting pregnant women. In fact, two magical spells mention a “dwarf of clay” that was placed on the belly of a woman in labor — giving birth was a particularly dangerous process back then, and women and newborns needed all the help they could get. Bes would dance, shout and shake his rattle to scare off evil spirits. 

In these depictions, Bes is shown with a protruding belly and fleshy breasts, probably to connect him to his role as protector of pregnant women. He was sometimes said to be the husband of Taweret, the hippo goddess of childbirth.

If a baby laughed or smiled for no reason, it was said that Bes must be nearby, making funny faces.

Bes mania spread throughout the Mediterranean, where he became, um, quite well endowed, to represent his connection to virility

Bes mania spread throughout the Mediterranean, where he became, um, quite well endowed, to represent his connection to virility

Incubation Chambers to Cure Infertility and Impotence

As a protector of the pregnant, it’s not too far a stretch to imagine why Bes later became associated with fertility and sexuality. The imp was given a nude female companion named Beset during the Ptolemaic Period (332‒30 BCE), and mud plaster images of them decorated “incubation chambers” at Saqqara. Pilgrims would spend the night here, hoping for erotic dreams to cure them of infertility or impotence.

Bes and Beset, his nude female companion, decorated incubation chambers, where pilgrims would sleep, praying to be cured of infertility or impotence

Bes and Beset, his nude female companion, decorated incubation chambers, where pilgrims would sleep, praying to be cured of infertility or impotence

Prostitutes were known to get tattoos of Bes on their thighs in the hope that he’d help prevent them from getting STDs. Other women might have gotten a similar tattoo to increase fertility.

Maybe you should get a tattoo on your thigh of Bes, like this carving at Philae, to protect you from venereal diseases!

Maybe you should get a tattoo on your thigh of Bes, like this carving at Philae, to protect you from venereal diseases!

The god even found his way to Pompeii, where he’s depicted in this fresco

The god even found his way to Pompeii, where he’s depicted in this fresco

Simply the Bes

The Bes craze reached its peak during the Roman era. He became part of the Horus myth, protecting the falcon-headed infant from his murderous uncle Set. Worship of the tiny troll spread all around the Mediterranean. 

In another protector role, the dwarf god adorned mammisi, the birth houses that honored infant deities such as Horus. 

Who’d have known that this ugly squatting dwarf who’s sticking out his tongue would capture the hearts of so many for so long?

Who’d have known that this ugly squatting dwarf who’s sticking out his tongue would capture the hearts of so many for so long?

Bes became a mascot for the military, as well. Roman legionnaires put Bes in armor and gave him a sword and round shield. 

True to his origins as a war god, Bes became a mascot of Roman legionnaires

True to his origins as a war god, Bes became a mascot of Roman legionnaires

It wasn’t until after the advent of Christianity that Bes finally got his own priesthood — oracles at Abydos, where he was said to have guarded the corpse of the death god Osiris. The cult of Bes drew an impressive crowd, until Emperor Constantius II shut down the operation around 359 CE. 

Bes confronts a sphinx in this bas relief from the Ptolemaic era

Bes confronts a sphinx in this bas relief from the Ptolemaic era

While you’re exploring the ancient temples of Egypt, be on the lookout for this merry prankster, the dwarf Bes, with his genitals exposed and his curlicue beard adorning his oversized head. He’ll be sticking his tongue out at you, making you giggle even as he protects you from harm. –Wally

The Tomb of Ramesses IV in the Valley of the Kings

KV2 is a particularly fine example of these once-hidden burial chambers, where magic spells helped guide the pharaoh through the afterlife.

A glimpse into burial chamber of Ramesses IV

A glimpse into burial chamber of Ramesses IV

Arid, desolate and dusty, the colorless desert landscape of the Valley of the Kings belies the magic and mysticism hidden beneath in the tombs of the pharaohs. 

Our early morning arrival allowed us to avoid some of the crowds, a welcome reprieve, as we’d travelled halfway around the world and didn’t want to share our trip with throngs of other tourists. And though the entrances to Egypt’s New Kingdom pharaohs’ burial chambers were intended to remain secret, they now dot the barren tract of land in every direction you look.

Early explorers, such as Jean-François Champollion (who deciphered hieroglyphics using the Rosetta Stone), used the tomb as lodging during their time excavating the Valley of the KIngs.
Wally near the tomb’s entrance

Wally near the tomb’s entrance

While visiting the site, your ticket includes admission for three tombs. Our guide, Mamduh, chose the tombs of Ramesses III, IV and IX — each of which is beautiful and unique in its own way.

We refer to many Egyptian pharaohs with Roman numerals like those of the kings of Europe. But, as Barbara Mertz points out in Temples, Tombs & Hieroglyphs, “such designations were never used by the Egyptians. (It’s easier to keep track of these fellows by such means than by trying to remember their distinctive throne names, which are often annoyingly similar and which were sometimes changed midreign.)”

The pharaoh with the god Horus

The pharaoh with the god Horus

Heqamaatre Ramesses, otherwise known as Ramesses IV, was the fifth and youngest son of Pharaoh Ramesses III. He was appointed crown prince by the 22nd year of his father’s reign, after his brothers had died — it wasn’t uncommon for people to die young in Ancient Egypt. With the assasination of his father in 1156 BCE, Ramesses IV, who was at this time middle-aged, inherited the throne. He died a mere six years into his reign. 

Magic spells line the walls of the tomb to guide Ramesses through the dangers of the afterlife

Magic spells line the walls of the tomb to guide Ramesses through the dangers of the afterlife

Passage to the Underworld

Each site in the Valley of the Kings now has a designator that begins with KV, for Kings’ Valley. Ramessess IV’s tomb is known as KV2 and has been open since antiquity. The area in front of the entranceway to the tomb was excavated by Edward Ayrton in 1905, and later by Howard Carter in 1920 (of King Tut fame). The archeological dig yielded a few relics, including shabti figures (which would act as servants in the afterlife) and glass and glazed earthenware pottery known as faience. 

Early explorers, such as Jean-François Champollion (who deciphered hieroglyphics using the Rosetta Stone), Ippolito Rosellini and Theodore David, among others, used the tomb as lodging during their time excavating the valley. 

The entryway has a staircase divided by a sloping central ramp that descends into a linear 292-foot-long passageway representing the symbolic journey of the sun god Ra (or Re). The tomb’s design is comprised of three corridors, an antechamber and a burial chamber with small annex chambers beyond.  A large number of Coptic Christian and Roman graffiti can be seen scattered throughout the tomb, including prayers, drawings of crosses and saints. A particularly large inscription in red paint can be seen near the entrance to the tomb.

Those naughty Coptics defaced the walls near the entrance

Those naughty Coptics defaced the walls near the entrance

Look for the red graffiti left by early Christians

Look for the red graffiti left by early Christians

Unlike other tombs from this era, KV2’s original design was modified: The chamber intended to be a pillared hall was converted to a burial chamber when the king died sooner than expected. Ramesses IV had doubled the workforce on the project to speed it along, but no one can stop death from coming — even a deified ruler.

A pair of rectangular niches set high into the walls at the front of the second corridor are decorated with manifestations of Ra. These figures continue as a register above the texts of the Litany of Re, which cover both walls of this corridor. The detailed carvings remain vibrant, despite the age of the tomb. 

Look up to see stars painted on the ceiling

Look up to see stars painted on the ceiling

Seeing Stars 

The third corridor contains a vaulted ceiling decorated with scenes from the funerary text the Book of Caverns. Although no well shaft was ever cut, a descending ramp passes through the antechamber and ends at the burial chamber’s entrance. Surrounded by golden stars on a blue background, the king’s names follow the path of the sun — the pharaoh and Ra had become one. 

The paint is surprisingly bright, considering it’s millennia old

The paint is surprisingly bright, considering it’s millennia old

The massive stone sarcophagus would have housed at least two coffins like nesting dolls

The massive stone sarcophagus would have housed at least two coffins like nesting dolls

Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut

In the burial chamber, scenes from the Book of Gates show towering gateways that separate the divisions of the underworld guarded by fire-spitting serpents. Illustrations from other funerary texts, including the Amduat and the Book of Heavens, were inscribed on the ceiling of the sarcophagus chamber, depicting Ra’s nightly journey through the underworld. 

Watch out for snakes! A depiction of what we can expect in death

Watch out for snakes! A depiction of what we can expect in death

Scenes from funerary texts were carved onto the walls of the tomb

Scenes from funerary texts were carved onto the walls of the tomb

Cobras and Anubis, a jackal-headed god of death

Cobras and Anubis, a jackal-headed god of death

Ancient Egyptians believed that paintings could come to life — no need to bury servants alive; just draw them on the wall!

Ancient Egyptians believed that paintings could come to life — no need to bury servants alive; just draw them on the wall!

The burial chamber is almost filled by the massive quartzite sarcophagus. Twin figures of the sky goddess Nut are depicted on the ceiling, her elastic, naked body held aloft by her father Shu, the god of air and sunlight. Nut’s arms and legs extend downward to touch the horizon. Each night she swallows the sun disk, which travels through her body and emerges in the form of a winged scarab from her womb in the morning. 

Ramesses IV’s tomb is an impressive example of New Kingdom burial chambers — though I’m not sure I’d want to have a slumber party in there like all those archaeologists. –Duke

 
You get to choose three tombs to visit with your pass

You get to choose three tombs to visit with your pass

The Tomb of Ramesses III in the Valley of the Kings

Explore KV11, one of the largest tombs in Luxor, and learn why it takes a strange and sudden turn.

Most tombs have a long, straight corridor — but this one takes a slight turn because it ran into a neighboring burial site!

Most tombs have a long, straight corridor — but this one takes a slight turn because it ran into a neighboring burial site!

Egypt is a country steeped in myth and history, and one of the most interesting places to see this can be found on the West Bank of the Nile River — the direction of the setting sun and the underworld of ancient Egypt. Known as the Valley of the Kings, it was part of the capital city of Thebes and was where the tombs of the deceased New Kingdom pharaohs were built. 

As mentioned in an earlier post on the Valley of the Kings, the admission price (160 Egyptian pounds, or about $9) includes three tombs. We had read about the richly decorated tombs filled with spells and scenes from the Book of the Dead and couldn’t wait to see them with our own eyes. 

Ramesses III’s mummy was so unappealing that it became the model for Boris Karloff’s character in the 1930s film “The Mummy.”

Rasha from Egypt Sunset Tours arranged our itinerary, including our guide and driver, and could not have been more accommodating and flexible. One of the tombs included on our visit  was KV11, that of Ramesses III. (These kings are sometimes spelled Ramses or Rameses, though we’ve gone with the most widely used by Egyptologists, Ramesses.)

The pharaoh is welcomed to the afterlife by the falcon-headed god Horus

The pharaoh is welcomed to the afterlife by the falcon-headed god Horus

Ramesses III, the Great Bull

Usermaatre-Meryamun, or Ramesses III, was the second Twentieth Dynasty ruler and considered to be one of the last great pharaohs of the New Kingdom, before Egypt plunged into chaos. Being king meant that he had five royal names. His Horus name, which he adopted upon taking the throne, was something along the lines of Kanakht Asnesyt, which translates to the Great Bull, Great of Kingship. (Names typically have multiple spelling variants after transliteration which aims to preserve sound, given differences in the languages’ sounds and writing systems.) 

The walls of the tomb is covered with spells from the  Book of the Dead

The walls of the tomb is covered with spells from the Book of the Dead

Ramesses III chose to finish the tomb his father abandoned

Ramesses III chose to finish the tomb his father abandoned

Although Ramesses III’s reign was fraught with conflicts, his troops secured the empire's borders against foreign invasion attempts by Libya and the mysterious Sea Peoples of the Mediterranean (depicted on the walls of his mortuary temple and royal palace, Medinet Habu), earning him the reputation as a mighty warrior king. 

Using Ramesses II as his model, he took a harem of many wives — though they would ultimately lead to his demise. The god-king’s 31-year reign ended when he fell victim to an elaborate assasination plot known as the Harem Conspiracy. A minor wife, Tiye, hatched a plan to have the monarch killed and seize the throne from Ramesses’ designated heir for her son, Prince Pentaware. 

The assailants succeeded in killing Ramesses III — the throat of his mummified remains reveals that his throat was slit — but failed in its goal of crowning Pentaware. Queen Tiye, Prince Pentawere and dozens of others were caught and put on trial.

The mummy of Ramesses III. The wrappings hid the fact that the pharaoh’s throat was slit when he was assassinated during a massive coup

The mummy of Ramesses III. The wrappings hid the fact that the pharaoh’s throat was slit when he was assassinated during a massive coup

Fragmentary documentation known as the Judicial Papyrus of Turin details the court trial that followed, including the accusations and punishment against its multiple conspirators. How the law dealt with Queen Tiye is unknown, but Pentawere was found guilty and forced to commit suicide. 

The four-pillared hall leads into the burial chamber

The four-pillared hall leads into the burial chamber

Repurposing His Father’s Abandoned Tomb

The plan of KV11, the designation of the royal tomb of Ramesses III, is comprised of an inclined entrance passage with steps cut into the floor, a descending central corridor, pillared hall and burial chamber. Its first three corridors were started by his father, Setnakhte, the last king of the Nineteenth Dynasty, but abandoned when it collided with KV10, the earlier tomb of the deposed pharaoh Amenmesse while excavating the fourth corridor. The cartouches of Setnakhte were later plastered over and reinscribed with the name of Ramesses III.

Not wanting to waste the resources already put into excavation, Ramesses III resumed work on the abandoned tomb, realigning the axis to the right and extending the corridor. The tomb is one of the longest in the valley, measuring a total of 180 meters, or 262 feet. The relatively straight axis represented the sun god Ra’s western descent into the tomb and his ascension in the east. 

Scottish explorer James Bruce took some artistic license in his drawing of a scene from Ramesses III’s tomb in his series  Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile

Scottish explorer James Bruce took some artistic license in his drawing of a scene from Ramesses III’s tomb in his series Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile

Tomb of the Harpers

This tomb contains colorful well-preserved relief scenes, with the first two corridors depicting the 74 manifestations of Ra. Ramesses III added small side alcoves to the second corridor, one of which contains a relief of two blind harpists. Scottish explorer James Bruce drew attention to it with the publication of his illustrated five-volume Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, which features a beautiful but inaccurate take on the scene. Worried for his safety, Bruce quickly sketched one of the harpists and later drew it from memory, giving it a Victorian flourish and for a time, KV11 was referred to as the Tomb of the Harpers.

Just some of the 74 depictions of the sun god Ra seen in the tomb

Just some of the 74 depictions of the sun god Ra seen in the tomb

A narrow yellow ribbon runs through the center of the ceiling and contains additional spells and funerary texts from the Litany of Re

On the doorframe between the second and third corridors are symbols of a different kind: two knots of Isis with djed-pillars (the symbolic backbone of Osiris, meaning stability) and ankhs (symbolizing life) holding animal-headed was-sceptres (power). 

The fourth corridor rises to clear the underlying chamber of KV10, descends to a shallow well shaft and continues on to a pillared hall with another passage leading to a pair of anterooms and the burial chamber. 

On the wall here, Ramesses III offers incense before the seated god Ptah-Sokar-Osiris. He holds three vessels, their contents spilling onto the platform on which the god sits. Behind the triple deity stands the goddess Isis. The pharaoh’s titles are listed in front of him: Ramesses the ruler of Heliopolis and his coronation name, which translates to the Justice of Ra, Beloved by Amun. 

The identification of Rameses III with the greatest of gods, Amun, ensured that he would experience endless regeneration, a necessity for his eternal well-being in the afterlife. 

In the fourth corridor is a scene from another funerary text, the Amduat, depicting a goddess with the Red Crown of Lower Egypt, standing in front of a guardian serpent with four legs and a human head. The narrative illustrates the nocturnal voyage of the sun god Ra-Horakhty, who travels through the underworld from the time when the sun sets in the west to when it rises again in the east. The underworld, as the Ancient Egyptians saw it, is divided into 12 hours of the night, each representing different allies and enemies for the pharaoh/sun god to encounter. The iconography and symbolism here is wonderful.

Some of the carvings depict the monsters and deities of the underworld

Some of the carvings depict the monsters and deities of the underworld

Adding elements of temple architecture, Ramesses commissioned a four-pillared hall decorated with scenes and texts from the Book of Gates that depict him and various deities on their nightly journey through the netherworld — the fifth hour on the left side and the sixth hour on the right side. Also on the right is a side chamber with scenes where Ramesses III is led by the gods Thoth and Horus and offers ma’at (the concept of justice and balance) to Osiris. A double scene on the rear wall immediately before the burial chamber shows the king making offerings to Osiris. 

In the burial chamber, the name of the king was inscribed within a disc formed by the entwined bodies of two serpents. By placing his name within this device, the king identified himself directly with the solar deity and joined his cyclical daily journey. 

Sadly, the quartz sarcophagus was removed by Italian explorer and former circus performer Giovanni Batista Belzoni and currently resides in the Louvre in Paris. Its lid is in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. Prior to the establishment of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, it wasn’t uncommon for unregulated foreign excavators digging in the valley to ship statuary and crates filled with tomb friezes back to Europe, where they found their way into collections such as that of the Louvre or the British Museum. The empty burial chamber ends with an anticlimactic darkened hallway and gate.

themummykarloff.jpg

The Inspiration for Karloff’s Mummy

French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero is credited with finding a cachette of royal mummies, including that of Ramesses III. But it was actually discovered by accident, when a straying goat fell into a concealed tomb shaft in Deir el-Bahari. The unwrapped mummy is now on display in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, and its features were considered so unappealing that they found fame as the model for Boris Karloff’s character in the 1930s film The Mummy. –Duke

 

Dendera Temple of Hathor: One of the Best Temples in Egypt

Walk up to see the Dendera Zodiac and descend into a secret passage to see the Dendera light bulb.

Dendera’s Temple of Hathor has stood for 2,000 years

Dendera’s Temple of Hathor has stood for 2,000 years

A mammisi, or birth house, honored the birth of a god or goddess

A mammisi, or birth house, honored the birth of a god or goddess

This headless sphinx would have been part of a long line of identical statues

This headless sphinx would have been part of a long line of identical statues

Egypt has a storied history, filled with monuments and temples that are all amazing in their own way. But some were much more astonishing than others — and Dendera (also spelled Dandarah) just might be my favorite of the bunch. Its massive columns covered in hieroglyphics utterly dwarf you, and zodialogical creatures romp on the turquoise ceiling. Then there’s the secret passage below the temple.

All of these aspects make Dendera majestic, but there’s something else to it. Duke and I quickly realized that the temples we liked best were those not swarming with tourists. Yes, Abu Simbel is jaw-droppingly awesome, but while visiting there, I felt like a tourist. At Dendera, which we had mostly to ourselves, wandering the quiet, cool colonnade, looking up in awe, I felt like a pilgrim. I truly understood that this was a holy site, a sacred space.

The site includes a couple of birth houses, a large temple, smaller chapels and a pylon gateway

The site includes a couple of birth houses, a large temple, smaller chapels and a pylon gateway

The Dendera Complex

The oldest structure at Dendera is the mammisi of Nectanebo II, the last of the native pharaohs, from 360-343 BCE. Mammisis are translated as “birth houses” and were small chapels at the entrance of temples to honor the nativity of a deity.

Another mammisi stands on the Dendera grounds. It’s generally thought that Nero (Roman emperor from 54-68 CE) began construction, which was then completed by Trajan (who reigned from 98-117 CE), as both are represented in carvings here.

The exterior of the Temple of Hathor glows in the bright sunlight

The exterior of the Temple of Hathor glows in the bright sunlight

The temple, originally known as Iunet, or Tentyris in Greek, was commissioned by Ptolemy XII. The Greek ruler set about building temples all over Egypt — not only to win the favor of the natives, who would appreciate a foreign king honoring their time-honored traditions, but also to reap the financial benefits. Temples were landowners, storehouses and centers of economic activity. Queen Cleopatra VII (yes, that Cleopatra) wrapped up construction. She had bas-reliefs carved of her and Caesarion, her son by Julius Caesar. Construction took place around 54-20 BCE.

How cool is it to think that you’re walking around a temple that Cleopatra herself helped build and worshipped in?

It’s sad to see that every single image of Hathor atop the columns has been vandalized

It’s sad to see that every single image of Hathor atop the columns has been vandalized

The Much-Loved, Multifaceted Hathor

Hathor was one of the most popular goddesses in the Egyptian pantheon, her roles shifting through the ages. Her hieroglyphics literally translate to “House of Horus,” referring to her protective role as a mother figure and/or wife of the falcon god Horus. As such, she was also a sky goddess, ruling over the realm where Horus flew.

You’ll often see Hathor bearing a cow head or just the ears, as depicted atop Hathor columns like those at Dendera. This refers to her role as a nurturing royal nurse; she’s said to suckle the pharaohs of Egypt — even as adults.

A rare non-mutilated top of a Hathor column at the site. Check out Hathor’s cute little cow ears

A rare non-mutilated top of a Hathor column at the site. Check out Hathor’s cute little cow ears

She was also called Mistress of the Vagina and was associated with fertility and female sexuality. (No surprise that the Greeks connected her with Aphrodite.)

And, among other attributes, Hathor was the goddess of drunkenness and music. A rattle-like instrument called a sistrum was used in her worship.

Hathor’s dominions are pretty all-encompassing and were tied to the monarchy. Her worship took place all over Egypt — but it was centered at Dendera.

Hathor, seen at the top of these columns, was a popular goddess, her domains covering everything from motherhood to sexuality, from healing to drunkenness

Hathor, seen at the top of these columns, was a popular goddess, her domains covering everything from motherhood to sexuality, from healing to drunkenness

The highlight of the year for the worship of Hathor was the festival of her marriage to Horus. During the summer, her sacred statue would travel by boat along the Nile to the Temple of Horus at Edfu. There it would unite with that of Horus, and a raucous celebration would take place over the next two weeks.

Duke admires the giant scale of the temple

Duke admires the giant scale of the temple

Exploring the Temple of Hathor

The Temple of Hathor remains — in fact, with Philae, it’s one of the best-preserved temples of the Greco-Roman period in Egypt. Temples to her consort Horus and their child, Ihy or Harsomptus, once stood nearby but have been destroyed.

Policemen and guards in robes are common sights at Egypt’s temples

Policemen and guards in robes are common sights at Egypt’s temples

Egyptian pharaohs and Roman emperors played their part in the construction of Dendera over the centuries

Egyptian pharaohs and Roman emperors played their part in the construction of Dendera over the centuries

The walls and columns of Dendera’s Temple of Hathor are covered with carvings

The walls and columns of Dendera’s Temple of Hathor are covered with carvings

The massive colonnade is what really makes Dendera a marvel to explore

The massive colonnade is what really makes Dendera a marvel to explore

Imagine the temple as it originally stood — gleaming white in the desert sun, the carvings that cover the façade painted in bright colors. Now, though, thousands of years of sand and wind erosion have reduced the exterior to the same color as the sand it stands upon.

The gateway in front was constructed during the reigns of the Roman emperors Domitian and Trajan, and fit within the surrounding mud-brick wall that enclosed the complex.

During the 1st century, Emperor Tiberius added the gorgeous hypostyle hall, featuring 24 soaring columns bearing the cow-eared head of Hathor, each face vandalized in antiquity. The ceiling retains its original paint, and you’ll get a sore neck craning to look up at it — but it’s worth it. After the empire fell, the temple was half-buried in sand, and locals used the structure as shelter, lighting fires for cooking and warmth. There are still swaths of the ceiling that remain covered in soot, but the scenes that have been revealed after meticulous restoration are nothing short of incredible.

The sky goddess Nut frames this part of the ceiling, swallowing the sun at twilight and giving birth to it in the morning. You can also see signs of the zodiac, including Taurus the Bull and Sagittarius the Archer

The sky goddess Nut frames this part of the ceiling, swallowing the sun at twilight and giving birth to it in the morning. You can also see signs of the zodiac, including Taurus the Bull and Sagittarius the Archer

It features a chart of the heavens, including signs of the zodiac, which the Romans introduced. You’ll also see the goddess Nut in her typical position: straight-armed and straight-legged, forming three sides of a square to represent the sky. Every evening she swallows the sun, which then passes through her body, until she gives birth to it the next day at dawn.

You’ll see this vulture motif on a lot of temple ceilings — it depicts Nekhbet, the protector of Upper Egypt (in the south part of the country) and the pharaoh. The serpents are a reference to Wadjet, goddess of Lower Egypt. Together, they show the unification of the realm

You’ll see this vulture motif on a lot of temple ceilings — it depicts Nekhbet, the protector of Upper Egypt (in the south part of the country) and the pharaoh. The serpents are a reference to Wadjet, goddess of Lower Egypt. Together, they show the unification of the realm

Crane your neck to look up at Dendera — the blue ceiling is one of the coolest parts of this temple

Crane your neck to look up at Dendera — the blue ceiling is one of the coolest parts of this temple

Duke and Wally kept oohing and ahhing at Dendera

Duke and Wally kept oohing and ahhing at Dendera

The inner hypostyle hall is where the statue of the goddess Hathor and her solar barque would be brought from her sanctuary during festivals.

Inside the sanctuary, there’s a false door, usually built to allow the soul’s passage in and out of the underworld. This one is unusual in that it’s high up. You can climb a ladder into this loft, where the statue of Hathor was usually kept.

A lot of carvings in Ancient Egyptian temples show pharaohs making offerings to the various gods

A lot of carvings in Ancient Egyptian temples show pharaohs making offerings to the various gods

Around back of the sanctuary, a passage slopes down to a sunken chamber. our guide Mamduh (pronounced Mom-doo) explained that due to a marvel of acoustics, supplicants could whisper prayers to the goddess, and her priestess could respond mysteriously from below.

The Dendera Light Bulb From Ancient Aliens

Secret passageways lead to subterranean crypts, where treasure was hidden away. Duke and I of course opted to take the makeshift ladder down and squeeze into the narrow space to explore them. The walls are covered with the most bizarre hieroglyphics we have seen on this trip. We were down there with another couple from the United States, and as we headed back up, we heard the man excitedly call out, “It’s the lightbulb from Ancient Aliens!”

Wally and Duke crept down into this secret passageway, where treasures were once hidden away. It’s now more famous as housing “the Dendera light bulb” carving

Wally and Duke crept down into this secret passageway, where treasures were once hidden away. It’s now more famous as housing “the Dendera light bulb” carving

He was referring to a strange carving of long, tapering ovals with squiggles inside. The crackpot TV show Ancient Aliens insists that this represents a light bulb, 4,000 years before Thomas Edison “invented” it. How did the Ancient Egyptians have electricity to light the temple? Why, alien technology, of course.

Here it is: the legendary Dendera light bulb. Is it a depiction of the creation of the world — or evidence that aliens shared their technology with Ancient Egyptians?

Here it is: the legendary Dendera light bulb. Is it a depiction of the creation of the world — or evidence that aliens shared their technology with Ancient Egyptians?

When we met up with our guide Mamduh and told him what we had heard, he smiled and nodded, familiar with that particular conspiracy theory. He told us that those bas-reliefs were actually how Ancient Egyptians depicted the moment of creation; the “light bulb” is actually a representation of the womb of the goddess Nut, and the so-called filament inside the bulb is obviously a snake.


Book your tours of Egyptian temples with EGYPT SUNSET TOURS.


The oldest complete sky map of the ancient world, the famous Dendera Zodiac, now in Paris’ Louvre museum

The oldest complete sky map of the ancient world, the famous Dendera Zodiac, now in Paris’ Louvre museum

The Chapel of Osiris and Dendera Zodiac

After descending into the secret passageway, we took a corridor up to the top of the temple. It spiraled up gradually as a tribute to the falcon-headed god Horus, mimicking the circling pattern of the birds of prey when rising into the sky. (Another staircase for descent is short and straight, like the plunging dive a falcon takes when attacking prey.)

Our guide Mamduh explains how the statue of the goddess Hathor was brought to the solar chapel to rejuvenate in the sunshine

Our guide Mamduh explains how the statue of the goddess Hathor was brought to the solar chapel to rejuvenate in the sunshine

At the top of the structure is a small temple that was used for rituals to greet the rising sun.

There’s also the Chapel of Osiris, a small dark room, depicting the death and resurrection of the god.

The Osiris Chapel shows scenes of the god’s death and resurrection

The Osiris Chapel shows scenes of the god’s death and resurrection

The portico at the entrance features a blackened ceiling relief known as the Dendera Zodiac. It’s said to be the only complete map we have of an ancient sky. Most of the zodiac representations are the same as today, though Aquarius is shown as the Nile god Hapy.

Mamduh explained that the one we were looking at was actually a replica. In 1821, the Egyptian ruler, Mohamed Ali Pasha, allowed the original to be transported to Paris, France, where it remains, on display at the Louvre.

The ruins of a sanatorium are also on the grounds, for Hathor, that goddess of all trades, was also a healer. Pilgrims would come here to bathe in the sacred pool and bring home containers of holy water. There were also sleeping quarters here where supplicants would hope to dream of the goddess and receive her wisdom.

Admission to the temple costs 100 Egyptian pounds. Even without the secret passage that has launched a thousand conspiracy theories, the aqua blue ceiling covered with zodialogical signs and massive columns in the Temple of Hathor make Dendera a must-see. It’s an hour-and-a-half drive from Luxor and can be paired with Abydos. –Wally

Dendera Temple Complex
Qism Qena
Dandarah
Qena Governorate
Egypt

Abu Simbel: Ramesses II’s Ego Run Wild

This stunning but crowded day trip from Aswan has been moved from its original location.

Add Aswan to your itinerary and spend a morning at Abu Simbel

Add Aswan to your itinerary and spend a morning at Abu Simbel

Pharaoh Ramesses II embarked upon one of the most ambitious construction programs in Ancient Egypt. But it was his temple in Abu Simbel, far from the judgemental eyes in Memphis and Thebes, in the southernmost part of the Egyptian Empire that he gave his megalomania free reign.

There’s a discrepancy in the dating of the site, but it took place over two decades, either 1264-1244 BCE or 1244-1224 BCE.

The Abu Simbel temples were chopped into 16,000 or so blocks — and reassembled like a giant-sized puzzle in an artificial mountain 200 feet higher.

Carved into the side of a sandstone cliff, Ramesses II’s temple to his own awesomeness immediately impresses the visitor with its four massive seated colossi of the king that rise 69 feet high. One, sadly, has lost its torso, which now lies shattered at its feet.

Four seated colossi of Ramesses II are larger than life, at 69 feet tall

Four seated colossi of Ramesses II are larger than life, at 69 feet tall

A carving of Ra-Horakhty, the conflation of two sun gods (noticeably smaller than the statues of Ramesses II), stands in the center of the façade. A line of baboons decorates the top of the exterior, which faces east, with the rays of the rising sun bathing the frieze in light. Baboons were associated with the sun, as their cries were thought to greet the dawning of a new day.

Inside, the first hall contains eight giant-sized replicas of the pharaoh in the Osiride style, meaning they have their arms crossed over their chests to portray Ramesses as Osiris, lord of the underworld.

We don’t call him Ramesses the Great for nothin’.

The first hall features eight giant statues of the pharaoh as Osiris, the god of the underworld

The first hall features eight giant statues of the pharaoh as Osiris, the god of the underworld

Ramesses II was quite the egotist — his image is all over the temple

Ramesses II was quite the egotist — his image is all over the temple

It’s crazy to think that the temple is around 3,200 years old!

It’s crazy to think that the temple is around 3,200 years old!

In theory, though, the Great Temple was dedicated to Ra-Horakhty, Amun (creator god of Thebes) and Ptah (creator god of Memphis). Oh, and the deified Ramesses II rounded out the grouping, of course.

It’s a family affair at Abu Simbel — those smaller statues at the bottom are Ramesses’ wife, mother and children

It’s a family affair at Abu Simbel — those smaller statues at the bottom are Ramesses’ wife, mother and children

Building the temples in the southernmost part of the country, facing Nubia, also acted as a deterrent to any invaders coming from that direction. They would see these massive statues of their enemy and would hopefully be frightened away.

The temple was a genius stroke of propaganda. The famous Battle of Kadesh, in which the Egyptians fought the Hittites, actually ended as a stalemate. But that didn’t stop Ramesses from declaring a victory and commissioning numerous carvings portraying himself as the protector god and showcasing his “triumph” over one of Ancient Egypt’s archenemies.

Other reliefs on the interior walls are decorated with scenes showing the king defeating the Syrians, Libyans and Nubians, presenting prisoners to the gods.

The reliefs inside showcase Ramesses’ military “victories,” including the famous Battle of Kadesh, which actually ended in a draw

The reliefs inside showcase Ramesses’ military “victories,” including the famous Battle of Kadesh, which actually ended in a draw

Abu Simbel was built on the border of Nubia as a deterrent to invasion, and shows a line of Nubian slaves

Abu Simbel was built on the border of Nubia as a deterrent to invasion, and shows a line of Nubian slaves

At the very back of the temple, carved deep into the mountain, lies the innermost sanctuary, the holy of holies. It houses four statues. There are the three great state gods of the late New Kingdom: Ra-Horakhty, Ptah, Amun-Ra and, no surprise here, the deified Ramesses.

Sunlight bathes these three of these gods on two days only: February 21 and October 21 (some sources say it’s the 22nd), one of which is thought to be Ramesses II’s birthday, the other possibly his coronation day. The figure of Ptah, associated with the underworld, remains in partial shadow.

The temple next door is fit for a queen — in fact, it’s dedicated to Ramesses’ wife, Nefertari

The temple next door is fit for a queen — in fact, it’s dedicated to Ramesses’ wife, Nefertari

Nefertari’s Temple to Hathor

Nearby is another temple, dedicated to the goddess Hathor, though it really seems to be for Nefertari, Ramesses II’s chief wife (pharaohs were polygamous, with a harem full of spare wives). Even here Ramesses insisted upon sharing the spotlight: Out front are two 33-foot-tall statues of the queen, along with two more of the king. Diminutive figures of their children round out the family portrait.

What was groundbreaking at the time, though, was that Ramesses II portrayed his favorite wife as equal to him — her statues on this temple are the same size as his.

Inside, while it’s still impressive, the pillared hall didn’t get as much attention as the one next door. The Hathor columns, a popular style at the time, where the pillars are topped with the head of one of the most revered deities in the Egyptian pantheon, look downright amateurish in comparison. Hathor, considered the first goddess, was depicted with bovine features. The heads atop the columns all have cow ears.

Don’t have a cow! These Hathor columns aren’t as ornate as those in Ramesses’ temple

Don’t have a cow! These Hathor columns aren’t as ornate as those in Ramesses’ temple

On the rear wall, Hathor is depicted as a cow emerging from a mountain, with the king standing beneath her chin. Nefertari is shown participating in the divine rituals — on equal footing as Ramesses.

Nefertari is shown as a divine being, being crowned by the goddesses Hathor and Isis

Nefertari is shown as a divine being, being crowned by the goddesses Hathor and Isis

Fun fact: Abu Simbel isn’t what the complex was called in ancient times. In fact, it’s supposedly named after the local boy who led one of the archeologists to the site. Abu Simbel is a bit more catchy than the original name, Hut Ramesses Meryamun, the Temple of Ramesses, Beloved of Amun, if you ask me.

The entire temple complex was cut into pieces and relocated on higher ground to avoid it being flooded by the Aswan High Dam

The entire temple complex was cut into pieces and relocated on higher ground to avoid it being flooded by the Aswan High Dam

A Monumental Relocation Project

The Abu Simbel you’re visiting today isn’t at the same spot it was in ancient times. The original site has been submerged beneath the waters of the newly formed Lake Nasser after the construction of the Aswan High Dam. What happened to the temple complex?

Egyptians (and UNESCO) couldn’t bear to have such a stunning monument lost beneath the water. So, from 1963 to 1968, teams underwent an impressive undertaking. They chopped up the entire temples into 16,000 or so blocks — and reassembled them like a giant-sized puzzle in an artificial mountain 200 feet higher.

Instead of repairing the sculptures — as mentioned, one of the colossi has lost its head (and upper body) — the project team chose to keep the temples exactly as they were before the relocation.

If you arrive close to opening time, you’ll be stuck with busloads of other tourists. But around noon, the complex was much less crowded

If you arrive close to opening time, you’ll be stuck with busloads of other tourists. But around noon, the complex was much less crowded

Visiting Abu Simbel

If you’re staying in Aswan, chances are your guide will want to get an early move on. Abu Simbel is, after all, a three-hour drive away. But if you leave at the crack of dawn, around 6 a.m. like us, you’ll arrive at the same time all the massive tour buses pull in as well. That meant we arrived at the impressive edifice along with swarms of other visitors. There’s nothing that takes you out of the experience more than having to share an enclosed space with throngs of tourists taking selfies for Instagram and moving en masse all around you.

We suffered through a claustrophobic exploration of Abu Simbel, then went over to see the Nefertari temple. When we returned to Abu Simbel, it had largely emptied out since it was around noon. Only then did we experience the awe of this sacred space.

If you want to take a picture without swarms of tourists, snap one as you come back from Nefertari’s temple, where a low wall obscures the crowds

If you want to take a picture without swarms of tourists, snap one as you come back from Nefertari’s temple, where a low wall obscures the crowds

In an effort to prevent congestion, guides can’t go in the temples, so Mamduh, from Egypt Sunset Tours, gave us the rundown and then set us free, meeting us back at the café near the entrance.

Admission costs 200 Egyptian pounds, and be sure to spring for the 300 L.E. photo pass. This was one of the sites where we saw guards forcing violators to delete the pics right off their phones.

Like most sites you’ll visit in Egypt, you have to walk through the bazaar on your way out. As we hurried through, a dagger with a curving horn handle caught my eye. Duke likes to joke that everywhere I go I look for daggers and dollies (it’s funny cuz it’s true). I negotiated a price of 350 L.E., or about $20. I could have probably gotten him to go lower, but I was OK with that price.

As we exited on the other side of the temple hill, a policeman smiled and began chatting with us. Of course we had no idea what he was saying, but it seemed like he wanted to pose for a picture with us (for a tip, naturally). He presented his machine gun like he was offering for us to hold it, but I hope I was wrong about that. –Wally

 


Horus vs. Seth: Homosexuality, Hippos and Familial Violence

The Egyptian myth described in The Contendings of Horus and Seth is as graphic as it is bizarre.

The young falcon-headed god Horus battles his evil uncle Seth to become pharaoh of Egypt

The young falcon-headed god Horus battles his evil uncle Seth to become pharaoh of Egypt

Osiris ruled as pharaoh of Egypt with his sister-wife Isis, bringing peace and prosperity to the land. But his elder brother, Seth (or Set), became insanely jealous and led Osiris to a watery death after tricking him into a perfectly fitted coffin.

The story of how he chopped his brother into pieces, which Isis hunted down to reassemble, is a tale for another blog post. This one deals with the power struggle that ensued between the two contenders for the throne: the murderous Seth and Osiris’ son, the falcon-headed Horus. The story is told in the Chester Beatty Papyrus No. 1, The Contendings of Horus and Seth, which dates back to the early Middle Kingdom (2040-1674 BCE). The myth most likely has origins even earlier than that.

Be warned: Parts of this twisted tale get quite graphic.

Seth argues that Horus cannot be king because his breath stinks — an allusion to Horus breastfeeding from his mother, Isis, and a dig at his youth

Seth argues that Horus cannot be king because his breath stinks — an allusion to Horus breastfeeding from his mother, Isis, and a dig at his youth

The Battle to Become Pharaoh of Egypt

As the son of Osiris, Horus presented his claim to the throne to a tribunal of three of the most powerful deities in the Egyptian pantheon: the sun god Ra (aka Re); Thoth, the god of wisdom; and Shu, the god of air.

Thoth and Shu declared Horus the rightful ruler of Egypt, but Ra argued that Seth was more powerful and therefore deserved the throne.

“The throne is mine by virtue of my strength,” Seth said. “‘Let Horus prove that he is better than I, and he can have the throne!”

“Challenge me to what you will. I will prove you the weaker!” Horus declared.

Much like the shapeshifting Egyptian gods Horus and Seth, these hippos battle for dominance

Much like the shapeshifting Egyptian gods Horus and Seth, these hippos battle for dominance

Hippos Holding Their Breath

Seth decided that the first feat of strength would be to have them both turn into hippopotami and sit on the bottom of the Nile. The first to come up for air would lose.

Isis, desperately wanting her son to be pharaoh, magically created a copper harpoon, which she threw into the water. Her aim was off, though, and she hit Horus instead of Seth. Realizing this, she pulled free the harpoon and cast it back into the water. This time it sunk into the body of Seth.

But the injured god appealed to Isis as her brother, and she caved and helped him. Horus, enraged, emerged from the water. He wasn’t worried about losing the first challenge — he was focused on taking revenge on his mother for what he felt was a betrayal. Horus cut off Isis’ head, carried it up a mountain and tossed it away. Talk about mommy issues!

Fear not, though: Thoth picked up Isis’ head and reunited it with her body.

Seth really liked salad — only that wasn’t ranch dressing on it!

Seth really liked salad — only that wasn’t ranch dressing on it!

Homosexual Incest and Semen-Covered Lettuce

Tired from decapitating his mother, Horus went to sleep on the mountaintop. Seth snuck up and gouged out his nephew’s eyes, burying them in the ground. Overnight, they grew into lotuses. Taking pity on the blinded boy, the cow-headed goddess Hathor came to Horus’ aid, pouring gazelle milk on his wounds and restoring his sight.

The judges wanted the two gods to make amends. They did reconcile, but the wily Seth decided to seduce his nephew.

Seth wasn’t discriminate in his liaisons. In the world of Ancient Egypt, there wasn’t any real conception of homosexuality. What mattered was who was the top (the one who was doing the penetrating), as that proved dominance over the other person.

Now afterward, [at] evening time, bed was prepared for them, and they both lay down. But during the night, Seth caused his phallus to become stiff and inserted it between Horus’ thighs. Then Horus placed his hands between his thighs and received Seth’s semen. Horus went to tell his mother Isis: “Help me, Isis, my mother, come and see what Seth has done to me.” And he opened his hand[s] and let her see Seth’s semen.

She let out a loud shriek, seized the copper [knife], cut off his hand[s] that were equivalent. Then she fetched some fragrant ointment and applied it to Horus’ phallus. She caused it to become stiff and inserted it into a pot, and he caused his semen to flow down into it.

So to sum this up: Seth intended to humiliate his nephew by fucking him up the ass — but Horus secretly caught Seth’s semen in his hands. When young Horus showed his mother, Isis, what had happened, she cut off her son’s hands, aroused him and jerked him off into a jar. Not quite a Disney movie.

Isis then tossed Seth’s semen into the marshes of the Nile and devised a plan to deceive him:

Isis at morning time went carrying the semen of Horus to the garden of Seth and said to Seth’s gardener: “What sort of vegetable is it that Seth eats here in your company?” So the gardener told her: “He doesn’t eat any vegetable here in my company except lettuce.” And Isis added the semen of Horus onto it. Seth returned according to his daily habit and ate the lettuce, which he regularly ate. Thereupon he became pregnant with the semen of Horus.

Seth approached the tribunal and declared with confidence, “Let me be awarded the office of Ruler … for as to Horus, the one who is standing [trial], I have performed the labor of a male against him.”

This drawing on a shard of pottery shows that Ancient Egyptians had a gay old time

This drawing on a shard of pottery shows that Ancient Egyptians had a gay old time

Semen Calling

Horus spoke up: “All that Seth has said is false. Let Seth’s semen be summoned that we may see from where it answers, and my own be summoned that we may see from where it answers.”

Thoth put his hand on Horus’ shoulder and said, “Come out, you semen of Seth.” It answered him instead from the marsh along the Nile, where Isis had dumped it.

The god then put his hand on Seth’s shoulder and said, “Come out, you semen of Horus.” Because it had been ingested with the lettuce leaves, it answered from inside Seth’s stomach.

Deeming itself too important to flow out of Seth’s ear, the divine seed emerged from his head in the form of a golden solar disk. Thoth snatched it away and placed it as a crown upon his own head.

At some point, Horus and Seth seem to have made up, for here they are both adoring a ruler of Ramesside period

At some point, Horus and Seth seem to have made up, for here they are both adoring a ruler of Ramesside period

The Stone Ship Race

Despite this damning evidence, Seth somehow convinced the trio of judges to stage one more contest: a race of stone ships down the Nile. That didn’t seem like the wisest choice, since Seth’s boat sunk instantly. But Horus’ floated along the water — for he had tricked everyone by making his boat out of pine and covering it in gypsum, a sort of plaster, so that it looked like it was made of stone.

In a rage, Seth once again transformed into a hippopotamus and bashed his head into Horus’ ship. It came apart in splinters, exposing the young god’s deceit.

This back-and-forth had now gone on for 80 years. Seeking a final verdict, the judges decided to appeal to Osiris, who now ruled the underworld. Not surprisingly, Osiris argued that his son, Horus, deserved to be pharaoh, and Seth, in chains as a prisoner, finally conceded. –Wally

The Legend of Rangda, Bali’s Queen of the Demons

The origin of the queen who became a child-eating witch goddess fated to battle Barong, the King of the Spirits, for eternity.

The wild woman known as Randga, the Widow, is the personification of evil for the Balinese

The wild woman known as Randga, the Widow, is the personification of evil for the Balinese

When my husband, the king, died, his people began to call me Rangda, which means “widow.” As if my entire life should be reduced to the loss of a single thing, namely a feckless spouse.

It’s ironic that my name would be tied to him for eternity, for he cast me aside to marry another woman. Was I even still officially his wife?

Ours had been a strategic alliance to unite two kingdoms. I was born Mahendradatta, princess of Java, and when I came of age, my father arranged for my marriage to King Udayana and shipped me off to the neighboring isle of Bali.

I never let silly romantic fantasies enter my mind. As a royal, I had a job to do, a responsibility to my people.

As a queen, though, I didn’t have much power. My marriage would politically tie Java to Bali, and that was all that was required of me, aside from making sure I provided heirs.

All over Bali, you’ll see statues of me holding innocent babes, the instant before I devour them.

Try not to judge me too harshly. If I am to act as a profane foil to all that is sacred, I must corrupt that which is most holy.

(That their tender, plump bodies taste even more delicious than suckling pig is just an added bonus.)

But I craved power; I yearned to be strong. Hindus have hundreds of deities, but the one I focused my prayers on was the goddess Durga, whom I had always emulated. Such a strong woman, a fierce warrior, her many arms clutching weapons, riding upon a snarling tiger. Yes, this was who I wanted to be.

I had few options. With little power of my own, I decided to harness the strength of others. I turned to witchcraft, learning how to control demons, those dim-witted ground-dwellers, to do what I demanded of them. If someone displeased me, I would inflict a horrific illness upon them.

At last, power coursed through my veins, an intense, almost orgasmic feeling.

But secrets never last long in a palace. Someone, hoping to gain favor with the king, told my husband what I was up to at night in my open-air chamber that faced the graveyard at the edge of the sea. Udayana called the court together and stood upon the sacred platform and shouted, “Mahendradatta, you have brought shame upon this kingdom. You have let evil into Bali. You are no longer my queen! I exile you!”

And before I knew what was happening, his guards had grabbed me and dragged me out of the palace, abandoning me in the dark jungle amidst the screeching of monkeys. I had only the clothes on my back. No food or supplies. A woman left exposed in the wild — Udayana assumed I would soon die, and everyone could forget all about me and the shameful fact that I had corrupted this island with the introduction of witchcraft.

The nocturnal sounds of the jungle filled my ears. I could hear animals moving stealthily through the foliage, stalking their prey. But I was no weak woman. I called upon Durga and the demons to protect me.

After a week or so, some villagers had learned of my exile and went into the jungle to seek me out. They heeded the alluring call of the dark arts; they wanted me to teach them how to enslave demons. Bitter souls who wanted to curse others, who wanted to spread sickness among their enemies.

These were my first students, my first leyaks, or witches. No longer the Queen of Bali, I became Queen of the Leyaks, and eventually, Queen of Demons.

Randga statues can be found out front of temples of death, like the one in Ubud

Randga statues can be found out front of temples of death, like the one in Ubud

A Son’s Betrayal, A Daughter’s Shame

One of the demons I used to spy on the court returned one evening, slithering along the ground to inform me that my husband planned to remarry.

Fury filled my breast. Who was Udayana to replace me, the mother of his children, the woman who brought his son, Erlangga, the king-to-be, into the world?

I screamed in rage, a horrific cry that wilted the plants around me and sent the animals scurrying away in fright.Trembling with anger, I sent a message to Erlangga to meet me at the edge of the jungle.

I saw the prince sneaking down the path for our illicit rendezvous, his eyes darting in every direction, worried he might be seen.

“My son, my son,” I called, a whisper that carried on the wind to his ears.

“Mother,” he said, looking at the ground. He would not meet my eyes.

“I have called you here to request a favor. Convince your father that he must not remarry. I will not be replaced.”

“I cannot,” he said after a time. “I cannot.” Erlangga turned from me and fled back to the palace.

If he had looked upon me — by this time I was a rather frightening sight, unbathed, my clothes in tatters, my hair matted — things might have turned out differently.

But it seemed Erlangga feared his father more than he feared me. That would be the biggest mistake of his life.

On top of my firstborn’s betrayal, I learned that my daughter, Princess Ratna Menggali, a young maiden known for her loveliness (this is not just a mother’s pride speaking), couldn’t find a single suitor. No one of high caste wanted to marry a daughter of mine. My association with witchcraft had tainted my poor daughter.

I found Ratna running through the jungle in tears, not seeming to notice or care about the branches that scratched her beautiful face.

I gathered her to me and held her against my chest.

“Come, daughter,” I told her. “You have a place here. Your life is not over, but just beginning.”

Ratna became my pupil, one of my most powerful leyaks.

“We shall make them pay,” I told her, seething at the wrong we had both suffered.

Randga is Queen of the Witches and brings doom to many

Randga is Queen of the Witches and brings doom to many

A young girl from the village wandered too far into the jungle one misty morning, and Ratna snatched her and brought her to me. While the child trembled and sobbed in fear, I dragged my claw-like nails across her throat.

“Take this innocent blood as an offering, Durga, O Invincible One!” we chanted.

The goddess heeded our call. The sea rose in a rush of water, a black tide that flooded the entire village. The crops became unharvestable, homes destroyed.

The success of the sacrifice sparked an idea. On Bali, babies are holy, for they have only recently left the spirit realm. In fact, for months, the Balinese do not let their newborns even so much as touch the ground. For that, you see, is where my minions must stay. Demons are relegated to the dirty, profane earth, where only the filthiest of body parts, the feet, should touch.

Whenever we learned of a child’s death, I would send Ratna and the other leyaks on a mission to dig up and steal the tiny corpse for our black rituals.

Even today, all over Bali, you’ll see statues of me holding innocent babes, the instant before I devour them. Try not to judge me too harshly. If I am to act as a profane foil to all that is sacred, I must corrupt that which is most holy. (That their tender, plump bodies taste even more delicious than suckling pig is just an added bonus.)

My patron deity Durga, pleased with my drive and my devotion, granted me immortality and full dominion over the demons. I felt as if I were on fire, as my mortal essence burned away. I had become a goddess.

Erlangga Enlists the Aid of Barong

One day, years later, I learned that Udayana had died and Erlangga was now king. I refused to forgive him for not defending my honor. He had abandoned his own mother and he would pay the price.

Erlangga knew of the danger of my wrath. Reports of desecrated graves had spread, of a wild woman of the jungle and her pet demons, which wreaked havoc on the people of Bali.

While my son mustered an army to fight me, I sent a foul plague creeping throughout the kingdom. Within days, half of the population lay dead.

Erlangga fretted. What chance would mortal men have against a goddess and her army of witches and demons?

As Queen of Bali, Randga was exiled for practicing witchcraft. She later became the goddess of evil and ruler of demons

As Queen of Bali, Randga was exiled for practicing witchcraft. She later became the goddess of evil and ruler of demons

My son called upon Empu Pradah, a legendary holy man, and asked him how to defeat me. He was told to seek the aid of another god, Barong, the King of the Spirits, a mighty shape-shifting beast. He sometimes takes the form of a boar, sometimes an elephant, sometimes a tiger — though the lion guise is his favorite.

Barong ambles along clumsily. But don’t let that fool you — when it comes time to fight, he becomes as fierce as any of my demons. People don’t like to think of him as a monster, but that’s what he is.

Erlangga’s army approached, carrying wavy silver knives called keris, the tips coated with poison.

Let’s give them a taste of their own medicine, I thought.

All of the soldiers were suddenly consumed with an overwhelming desire to turn the keris upon themselves, to commit suicide by stabbing the toxic blades into their own hearts.

But just as the daggers were about to pierce their skin and become inflamed with the poison the soldiers meant for me and my demons to suffer, Barong reared up and cast a counterspell. Instantly, the skin of Erlangga’s soldiers became impenetrable. The keris were deflected. The army was saved.

My frustrated shriek caused the men to cover their ears, to tremble in fear. But I had gone.

Barong, on the left, is the representation of good on Bali and, as such, is the yin to Rangda’s yang

Barong, on the left, is the representation of good on Bali and, as such, is the yin to Rangda’s yang

The Balance of Good and Evil

For, you see, a realization had dawned on me, like a bright light piercing the darkness. This was my role for eternity: Barong and I were to engage in a never-ending battle. Neither good nor evil could win.

Of course, Barong’s battle is seen as necessary. The Balinese love him. He is their benevolent hero. His violence is forgiven, while mine is reviled. So be it. The minute we are done battling, Barong is back to his docile self, lumbering along like a puppy dog. He knows how to play to his audience.

By the time I had gained immortality, I had become an old woman. I let my hair grow long and wild; it became a mass of tangled white strands, some matted into dreadlocks. For the most part, I stopped bothering to wear clothes — what was the point? I was a fearsome deity. My breasts drooped farther and farther, until they swung across my stomach when I snarled. My teeth continued to grow as well, forming fangs that curved outward like a boar’s. I let my fingernails lengthen until they were razor-sharp claws. And I stretched out my tongue to demonstrate my insatiable hunger. A sense horror overwhelms all who see me.

People call the spirits over which I reign “evil.” But do you feel evil when you are consumed by grief or pain? Is it evil to feel fear or hopelessness? To be sick? Unloved?

I quickly realized that without my army of so-called evil demons, people would not realize the joy brought about by my counterpart, Barong, and his legion of spirits.

The world must remain in balance, and I must do my part. Do not wish for a paradise. Utopias are dull places, for how can you know what happiness is if that’s all there is? How would you know peace without there being stress to escape from? Paradise, as humans naïvely imagine it, is the epitome of boredom, not pleasure.

Does this sound strange to you? It is no more strange than the fact that Christians pray to a demigod dying in agony. There, too, you have the balance of good and evil.

Perhaps I am wrong about the Balinese. Perhaps they do realize I have an essential part to play.

I, too, crave worship. The usual fruit and flowers will do. But sacrifice a rooster if you want me to ensure your fertility. And once you conceive, maybe, just maybe, I’ll keep away from that tasty little morsel. –Wally

Barong, King of the Spirits on Bali

What is Barong? Or should we say, who is Barong? The Balinese personification of good fights an eternal battle with the demon queen Rangda.

The mythical creature Barong represents all that is good in the world

The mythical creature Barong represents all that is good in the world


I fell in love with Barong the first time I saw him. And really, who could resist his charm? He’s most often depicted as a bright red, playful creature who gallops along good-naturedly like a playful Labrador retriever. Somehow his bug eyes and fangs don’t detract from his cuteness.

While Barong’s name supposedly comes from a word meaning “bear,” it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what type of creature he is. He looks a lot like a Chinese fu dog, which to me has always seemed a muddling of a lion and a Pekingese.

Barong bids visitors farewell in this mural at the Denpasar airport

Barong bids visitors farewell in this mural at the Denpasar airport

If an epidemic rages through a village, the local priest will dip the beard of the Barong mask into a bowl of water, which will imbue it with white magic that will heal the populace.
A popular figure on the island, Barong pops up everywhere, such as this street art in Ubud

A popular figure on the island, Barong pops up everywhere, such as this street art in Ubud

The Barong Ket, or Lion Barong, is the most popular, though the creature sometimes takes other forms:

  • Barong Celeng: Boar

  • Barong Macan: Tiger

  • Barong Naga: Dragon or Serpent

  • Barong Gajah: Elephant

Wally and Duke make some new friends, including Barong and Rangda, which they watched battle in a dance

Wally and Duke make some new friends, including Barong and Rangda, which they watched battle in a dance

It helps that Barong is essentially all that is good in the world. He protects the Balinese in their villages. Barong is represented by a mask, its dark beard usually made of human hair. The mask is often kept in the village’s pura dalem, the temple of death, or in a small shrine near the bale banjar, the meeting hall.

An entire pavilion at the temple of Samuan Tiga is filled with Barong masks

An entire pavilion at the temple of Samuan Tiga is filled with Barong masks

Barongs come in various shapes, including that of a celang, or boar, as seen in the middle

Barongs come in various shapes, including that of a celang, or boar, as seen in the middle

The Hindus of Bali offer flowers and fruit to thank Barong for protecting them. The mask on the left is the form of a macan, or tiger

The Hindus of Bali offer flowers and fruit to thank Barong for protecting them. The mask on the left is the form of a macan, or tiger

If, for instance, an epidemic rages through a village, the local priest will dip the beard of the Barong mask into a bowl of water, which will imbue it with white magic that will heal the populace. Oil dripping from the mask’s eyes has even been said to cure scabies.


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His worship predates Hinduism and is a relic of animism, the belief that animals have supernatural protective powers.

During the Galungan festivities, boys don the Barong mask and parade through town, looking for sweets

During the Galungan festivities, boys don the Barong mask and parade through town, looking for sweets

Galungan Guise

When I first visited Bali, we arrived in September during the Galungan Festival. It struck us the Balinese version of Halloween. All through the town of Ubud, we’d hear the clanging of metal percussion instruments, and would gawk as a strange creature approached. This was Barong, its wooden jaw opening and closing with a loud thok. One boy worked the mask, with its golden, mirrored crown, while others hid under a sheet to form the bumpy body that moved jerkily along the street. The kids, in their Barong costume, would stop at various business and receive sweets or coins. We later learned that Galungan was the most holy of holidays for the Hindus of Bali.

During the galungan holidays, the island was suddenly filled with magnificent masked beasts. With glaring eyes and snapping jaws, with elaborate golden crowns, great hairy bodies bedecked with little mirrors, and tails that rose high in the air to end in a tassel of tiny bells, they pranced and champed up and down the roads from village to village to the sound of cymbals and gongs, as though they had newly emerged, like awakened dragons, from caves and crevices in which for months they had been lying dormant.

This was the barong, a beautiful composite animal, lion, said some, bear, said others, Ruler of the Demons, said still others. …

These creatures were high-spirited and full of whims, dancing a strange ballet, coquettish and playful one moment, rolling on the ground like a puppy, and suddenly and unaccountably ferocious the next, snapping and stamping in fine fury as the two dancers within the body synchronized their steps and movements with beautiful coordination.

–Colin McPhee, A House in Bali


Barong engages in a never-ending fight with the Demon Queen, Rangda, in the middle

Barong engages in a never-ending fight with the Demon Queen, Rangda, in the middle

Barong vs. Rangda, the Battle Between Good and Evil

As the king of the good spirits, Barong fights a never-ending battle with the demon queen Rangda.

His nemesis is more human-like, a hideous half-nude witch with sagging breasts, disheveled hair and a long tongue lolling out of her fanged mouth. Barong and Rangda, like yin and yang, cannot exist with the other; there is no good without evil. Unlike in our Western lore, where people often tend to live happily ever after, in Balinese legend, neither Barong nor Rangda ever truly win. Their battle is the subject of a favorite dance on Bali. The forces of good and evil, of order and chaos, must remain in balance. –Wally


More Myths From Bali and Java

The Legend of Bandung Bondowoso and the Slender Virgin of Prambanan

Princess Loro Jonggrang didn’t want to marry the magician who killed her father. So she came up with a clever plan to deceive his demon helpers.

An Indonesia stamp commemorates the legend of Roro (aka Loro) Jonggrang and the magician Bandung Bondowoso, who summoned demons to perform a seemingly impossible task

An Indonesia stamp commemorates the legend of Roro (aka Loro) Jonggrang and the magician Bandung Bondowoso, who summoned demons to perform a seemingly impossible task

The massive towers and reliefs of the Hindu temple complex of Prambanan in Java, Indonesia flourished in the late 9th century. A marvel of ancient engineering, the dark volcanic stone structures took decades to complete — though local lore holds that the complex was built in single night by nocturnal spirits.

The temples of Prambanan on Java in Indonesia are the setting of a legend involving demons and a princess trapped in stone

The temples of Prambanan on Java in Indonesia are the setting of a legend involving demons and a princess trapped in stone

According to a stone tablet found while excavating the ruins of Prambanan, the temple was built to honor Lord Shiva, one of the most important gods in the Hindu pantheon. The compound’s original name was Shivgarh, the House of Shiva, when it was constructed around 850 CE by Rakai Pikatan, a king of the Sanjaya dynasty. It later took the name Prambanan, after the village where it’s located.

The princess’ deceit angered the magician, and he cursed her.

She was turned into a statue of the goddess Durga and remains enshrined in the central spire of Prambanan.

Although the temples were abandoned and reclaimed by the jungle, they were never completely forgotten. The origin myth popular among the Javanese tells of the story of the Slender Virgin, Roro or Loro Jonggrang, which is set in Prambanan. Like most stories told in the oral tradition, many variations exist, but its conclusion is generally the same.

Bandung Bondowoso and Loro Jonggrang

Long ago, in feudal Java, there were two neighboring kingdoms, Pengging and Prambanan. The kingdom of Pengging was prosperous and wisely ruled by Prabu Damar Maya. The other, Prambanan, fell under the reign of a wrathful and wicked half-demon king named Prabu Ratu Boko. Although he lived in a massive stone palace, he grew envious and devised a plan to take the kingdom of Pengging by force.  

Loro Jonggrang was so beautiful, the man who killed her father wanted to marry her

Loro Jonggrang was so beautiful, the man who killed her father wanted to marry her

The troops of Damar Maya put up a good fight, but were no match for the supernatural armies of Ratu Boko. Fearing he would lose his kingdom, Damar Maya consulted his chief brahmin priest, whose nephew, Bandung Bondowoso, was skilled in dark magic and was able to summon demons. Bondowoso created a supernatural arrow and climbed to the highest vantage point in Pengging to assess the enemy. When he saw Ratu Boko, he drew his bow back and shot the arrow straight through the demon king’s heart, killing him instantly.

Ratu Boko’s army retreated to Prambanan and delivered the news of the king’s death to his daughter, Princess Loro Jonggrang, whose name translates as “Slender Virgin.” Her beauty was known throughout the land, and like her father, she was willful and arrogant. The princess asked who had slain Ratu Boko and was told that it was a man named Bandung Bondowoso.

Loro Jonggrang arranged an elaborate ceremony to cremate the remains of her father on the palace grounds and extended an invitation to Bondowoso. Not only was she slender and beautiful, but she was also a graceful dancer. At the ceremony, accompanied by her court dancers, Loro Jonggrang glided out into the audience hall to perform a dance in homage to her father. Grief made her even more striking, and Bondowoso fell under her spell, determined to marry her.

Demons are said to have built 1,000 temples in a single night

Demons are said to have built 1,000 temples in a single night

Some days after, he sent a small delegation to request her hand in marriage. The princess reluctantly agreed, but set a seemingly impossible challenge: She would only marry Bondowoso if he were able to build 1,000 temples in a single night. The magician accepted her unusual request, and as the sun set, summoned an army of nocturnal spirits and demons. They worked tirelessly and quickly.

As punishment for her deceit, the princess became the statue of Durga in the Shiva Temple at Prambanan

As punishment for her deceit, the princess became the statue of Durga in the Shiva Temple at Prambanan

Not wanting to marry the man who had killed her father, Loro Jonggrang conceived of a plan to trick the supernatural beings. She enlisted the help of her servants and ordered the women of the village to fill their stone mortars with dried rice stalks and pound the grains from their stems, a task performed daily at dawn. The princess then sent her servants out to the east to burn the dried paddies. The combination of noise and firelight prompted the confused roosters to crow. Alarmed, the spirits fled back to the underworld, thinking the sun was rising and leaving the final temple incomplete.

The badass Durga, riding her tiger mount, defeats an evil buffalo demon

The badass Durga, riding her tiger mount, defeats an evil buffalo demon

Loro Jonggrang’s deceit angered Bondowoso, and he cursed her, uttering the words, “There’s only one temple left — let you be the one to complete it!” The princess was turned into a statue of the goddess Durga the Inaccessible, now known as the Slender Virgin. The statue remains enshrined in the north chamber of the central spire of Prambanan, presumably the 1,000th temple. –Duke

The Demon Lilith and the Ghost of Doc Benton

The monsters of Supernatural, Season 3, Episodes 15 & 16 include Adam’s first wife and a Dartmouth urban legend.

To ensure his immortality, Doc Benton steals body parts from other people, and over the years has come to resemble Frankenstein’s monster

To ensure his immortality, Doc Benton steals body parts from other people, and over the years has come to resemble Frankenstein’s monster

S3E15: “Time Is on My Side”

Monster: Doc Benton

Where it’s from: Moosilauke Ravine Lodge in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, owned and operated by Dartmouth College

Moosilauke Ravine Lodge in New Hampshire, where unsuspecting Dartmouth students stay — not knowing they could be the next victims of Doc Benton!

Moosilauke Ravine Lodge in New Hampshire, where unsuspecting Dartmouth students stay — not knowing they could be the next victims of Doc Benton!

Description: On the show, Doc Benton is cobbled together from various people’s body parts, like Frankenstein’s monster.

What it does: Doc Benton is the star of a ghost story used to scare freshmen. He was an insane recluse who kidnapped a girl named Mary. Benton threw her off a cliff, and when locals examined her corpse, they noticed a scratch behind her ear and a red dot on her head. Doc Benton became obsessed with the idea of living forever, and figured out a way to do so by stealing the vital organs of healthy young specimens (like Dartmouth freshmen, for instance). He has beaten death for centuries now, and can continue to commit his sick surgeries for eternity.

Doc Benton has been stitched up numerous times over the centuries. Don’t go near him if you want to keep that kidney!

Doc Benton has been stitched up numerous times over the centuries. Don’t go near him if you want to keep that kidney!

On Supernatural, a dead man’s fingerprints are all over a guy’s stomach, but only his liver was removed — surgically.

“Zombies do like the other other white meat,” Dean quips.

Another victim is missing his kidney. He’s sewn up with silk, which was used for sutures in the 18th century. And maggots are placed on the wound to eat infected tissue and leave the good — a startling practice still used today, if you can believe it.

The snarkiest of the Winchester Brothers, of course, has some great nicknames for Doc Benton: Slicey McHacky and Dr. Quinn, Zombie M.D.

Doc likes to set up shop in the middle of the woods near a river — a good place to dump intestines, fecal matter and whatnot.

Reading the mad doctor’s medical notes, the Winchester Brothers realize that he has discovered the secret to eternal life.

“Drink blood out of a baby’s skull?” Dean asks.

No black magic, Sam says. Just science.

Sammy gets kidnapped by Benton, who’s about to scoop out his eye with a Victorian-era melon baller. Eww!

How to defeat it: Doc Benton tells Dean and Sam that Daddy Winchester cut out his heart. “That was very inconvenient,” he adds.

You can’t run him over. And you can’t shoot him. “What part of immortality don’t you understand?” the phantom asks.

So they dip a knife in chloroform to knock out the not-so-good doctor and bury him alive.


This terra cotta carving from Mesopotamia is called  The Queen of the Night  and possibly depicts the demon Lilith

This terra cotta carving from Mesopotamia is called The Queen of the Night and possibly depicts the demon Lilith

S3E16: “No Rest for the Wicked”

Monster: Lilith

Description: On the show, Lilith takes the incarnation of a little girl. It’s a solid choice and scores high marks on the creepiness scale. Especially when her dress is covered in blood cuz her pet Freckles was mean to her — along with the babysitter lying dead nearby.

Where it’s from: The Near East, especially in what is now Iraq

What it does: Lilith has been described as the most notorious demon in Jewish tradition. She was the first woman and was Adam’s wife before Eve. Lilith is particularly dangerous to pregnant women and newborns, and her breasts are filled with poison instead of milk.

Lilith was Adam’s first wife in Jewish lore. When she refused to be subservient to him, she was demonized, and Eve was created to take her place

Lilith was Adam’s first wife in Jewish lore. When she refused to be subservient to him, she was demonized, and Eve was created to take her place

Her name means “Night,” and she embodies all that goes along with that: terror, sensuality and unbridled freedom.

The Babylonian Talmud says, “It is forbidden for a man to sleep alone in a house, lest Lilith get hold of him.” That’s because Lilith fertilizes herself with unsuspecting men’s sperm to give birth to other demons. Some of us might be demon baby daddies and not even know it!

How to defeat it: This demon is best avoided. She’s one badass bitch: “Lilith would have peeled the meat from your pretty, pretty faces,” the Winchesters are told. That would’ve been a shame; they do have such pretty, pretty faces.

Sam and Dean get the demon-killing knife from Ruby, but she warns them that to Lilith it would be a mere “pig sticker.”

Dean can see demons’ true forms as his time on Earth nears its end. But how are they going to convince others that the child is a powerful demon? It’s not like they can sneak in, grab a 10-year-old girl and give her a Colombian necktie (a slash across the throat and the resulting bloodbath).

Dean has a deadline: At midnight his time is up — and sure, enough, once the clock strikes 12, he gets torn apart by hellhounds. Bad doggies! –Wally


READ MORE SUPERNATURAL EPISODE RECAPS