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.
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.
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.”
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’ 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.
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.
By the New Kingdom, Aha had merged into Bes, when he was sometimes given an elaborate feathered headdress.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bes became a mascot for the military, as well. Roman legionnaires put Bes in armor and gave him a sword and round shield.
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.
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