To support the Egypt Centre, please click the button below

Monday, 28 September 2020

Religion at Deir el-Medina

The blog post for this week is written by Dr Abeer Eladany. Abeer is has been the Curatorial Assistant of Museums and Special Collections, University of Aberdeen, since 2018. She studied at the Faculty of Archaeology, Cairo University, and previously worked in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo for many years before travelling to Manchester to study at the University of Manchester where she obtained her MSc and PhD in Biomedical Egyptology.  Her main research interests are animal and human mummies. Abeer also obtained a Museum Studies degree from the University of Aberdeen in 2015.

This week on the Deir el-Medina course, we discussed religion at the village. The lecture was focused on deities, domestic piety, shrines, temples, and festivals in the village. Here are some of the important deities as there are so many and it would not be possible to include all of them in one lecture or indeed in a blog!

Starting with my favourite goddess in the Egyptian pantheon, Meretseger. She was exclusively worshipped in the village and was considered the local deity. Her name translates as “She who loves silence”, which relates to the fact that she lives in the mountain region where it is quite silent and desolate. She is the personification of the Western Peak or “Dhenet-Imenetet”. However, the peak itself rarely enters the goddess iconography. She is represented in various forms such as a coiled serpent, a rearing cobra, a serpent with a woman’s head, a snake-headed woman, or as a full human. She may wear a disk with horns or a modius with uraei. She is commonly represented on stelae, ostraca, and in tombs. Meretseger is known to have been evoked in graffiti throughout the western mountains (fig. 1). She is known as the protector of the deceased as well as the tombs due to their location in her area. Officials in Deir el-Medina were commonly seen represented on stelae kneeling down in adoration in front of Meretseger represented as a snake. As she was believed to have the power to cure blindness and snake bites, prayers to Meretseger asking for a cure for blindness or snakes’ bites are known from the village. Because she is represented as a snake, she is known to strike wrongdoers with snake bites and blindness. Ramesses III was represented being suckled by the goddess where she is represented as a female on a decorated stela in a sanctuary between Deir el-Medina and Valley of the Queen. The goddess was seldomly worshiped after the New Kingdom as the village was abandoned. 


Fig. 1: BM EA 8510

Hathor is a prominent goddess in the Egyptian pantheon and was a state deity who was worshipped generally in ancient Egypt. Her sanctuary was the principal sanctuary before the Ptolemaic temple was built, which might be the reason of the lack of evidence of her cult in the village. The villagers maintained a small sanctuary or temple in which Hathor was worshipped. They performed the daily and seasonal rituals that were usually performed by the professional priesthood in large state temples. Many village women bore the title songstress of Hathor, which is a musical occupation. An ostracon in the Egypt Centre depicts Hathor, represented as a cow with the sun disk between her horns (W1327). Below Hathor, a procession of officials is depicted with their hands raised in adoration (fig. 2). Sketches such as this were made by the villagers of Deir el-Medina in Western Thebes as exercises for their official work as draughtsmen in the nearby tombs of the New Kingdom royalty or to record passive incidents in their daily life. Digital manipulation of the image using D-stretch software proved very useful and enhanced the faded scene showing great detail (fig. 3). The ostracon (W1327) came to the Egypt Centre through the collection of Sir Henry Wellcome (1853–1936) who purchased it in 1906 from Robert de Rustafjaell (1876–1943). The provenance of Deir el-Medina is recorded at the back by Rustafjaell.

Fig. 2: Ostracon from Deir el-Medina (W1327)

Fig. 3: Ostracon after DStretch filter

Ptah is another patron deity of the village. He was commonly worshipped at the village mainly because of his association with craftsmen. Ptah is a state god and one of the main deities of Memphis. Ptah, Amun, and Re became the three main deities in the Egyptian pantheon during the New Kingdom. Ptah has a specific role in Deir el-Medina and is well represented on stelae and in tomb scenes, such as the tomb of Pashedu where Ptah is represented with Khepri and Osiris in the form of the djed-pillar. A number of shrines located between Deir el-Medina and valley of the Queens were dedicated to him and Meretseger. The Egypt Centre houses a limestone wall relief fragment (W927), which is probably from a chapel in Deir el-Medina. The relief, which dates back to the reign of Ramesses II, shows Khabekhnet (son of Sennedjem, one of the celebrities of Deir el-Medina) and his wife Sahte in adoration before Ptah, Ptah-Sokar, and Isis (fig. 4). This fragment was purchased in 1907 by Henry Wellcome from the collection of Robert de Rustafjaell and was acquired by the Egypt centre in 1971 via the dispersal of the Wellcome Collection.


Fig. 4: Relief depicting Khabekhnet and Sahte before the gods

Tawaret, or the “Great female one”, was often identified as the consort of Bes. She was also called the concubine of Seth who was sometimes represented as a hippo. She was the protector of both women and children, and in particular seems to have been associated with pregnant women. Taweret is usually depicted as a hippopotamus with pendulous breasts, swollen belly, and an open mouth showing her teeth probably to emphasis her protective role. She usually wears a female tripartite wig surmounted with feathered headdress, a modius, or the horns and solar disk (fig. 5). At the village, she was clearly associated with a happy home and family life. She was invoked within the home rather than in shrines. However, there is some evidence for a cult of Tawaret in the village. A pair of inscribed doors were found at the site by Bernard Bruyère. The inscription refers to a servant of Tawaret, which might indicate that there was a shrine dedicated to Tawaret. The inscription gives praise to the goddess and describes here as “Lady of heavens, mistress of all the gods, lady of nourishment, mistress of provision, lady of marriage”.

Fig. 5: Stela of Benboui adoring Taweret (Louvre)

The god Bes was another popular deity, whose name comes from the word Besa, which means “to protect”. Bes emerges in the Old Kingdom and he is represented in some images on scores of artefacts from the Middle Kingdom. He comes to prominence in the New Kingdom (fig. 6). He is a powerful apotropaic and protective deity who is associated with children and women especially pregnant women. He is a household deity and is often seen alongside Tawaret.


Fig. 6: Fragment of a Bes vessel from Deir el-Medina (W1702)

Amenhotep I and his mother Ahmose Nefertari became the patron deities at Deir el-Medina (fig. 7). Some scholars argue that Amenhotep was the founder of the village at Deir el-Medina and that is why he, along with his mother, were deified at the village. However, there is no clear evidence to support this. In his chapel, the daily ritual took place three times a day. The oracle of Amenhotep I is also well attested in the village. Ahmose Nefertari was the daughter of Seqenenre Tao and his wife Ahhotep. She was the wife of Ahmose II, who was responsible for defeating the Hyksos, and the mother of King Amenhotep I. On monuments, she is mentioned as king’s daughter, king’s sister, king’s great wife, God’s Wife of Amun, and mistress of the Upper and lower Egypt. In later inscriptions, she also appears with the title king’s mother. Her mummy shows an age of death of about seventy years. Representations of Ahmose Nefertari appear on stelae and in tombs and she was deified throughout the Luxor region. 


Fig. 7: Adoration to Amenhotep I and Ahmose Nefertari (Turin C 1452)

The Aswan triad of Khnum, Satet, and Anqet were commonly represented at the village. It is not clear why, but several scholars suggest that some craftsmen were originally from the Aswan region where the triad were mainly worshipped. There is evidence that the villagers appealed to the triad for good inundation as they would have suffered the most during low inundation due to their remote location. The triad were represented in tombs, such as in a scene from the tomb of Nakhtamun (TT 335). A limestone stand for an offering table (W957), which belonged to the infamous Paneb, contains an inscription mentioning the Aswan triad (fig. 8).


Fig. 8: Offering stand belonging to Paneb addressing the Aswan triad (W957)

Stelophorus statues are well known from the village. The owners of these statues were usually depicted kneeling and holding a stela, which is usually inscribed with a hymn to the rising sun, part of chapter 15 of the Book of the Dead. Ancestor worship as an important part of religion in the village. Almost all ancestor busts discovered date to the Ramesside Period and most of them were found in Deir el-Medina. They were located near walls in the main living room and were probably situated in niches. The busts portray household deities as representative of spirit of the ancestors. Some busts were inscribed with individual names and figures of this type can also be found in the Book of the Dead (spell 151), “spell of the head of mysteries”, specifically invoking the Akh spirit or the blessed dead. Over seventy ancestor stelae have been discovered at Deir el-Medina. They testify to the existence of household cults devoted to deceased relatives. They are often referred to as ꜣḫ i͗ḳr n Rꜥ stelae, which is translated as “excellent spirit of Re” (fig. 9). The ancient Egyptians believed that spirits could be dangerous if offended and offerings were propitiatory as well as reverential. Letters to the dead were usually prompted by some misfortune thought to be caused by the dead person and were often written on limestone flakes or pottery and were later discarded. The living could ask the dead to intervene in matters on earth and in the afterlife.


Fig. 9: Fragment of an ancestor stela (AB129)

There are many chapels and shrines in the village that were dedicated to various deities, which attests to the devotion of the villagers (fig. 10). These small temples were dedicated to Amenhotep I, Seti I, Ramesses II, and Ptah. Several of the chapels, which are largely mudbrick structures, had benches for seating up to twelve persons. Cult statues, votive stelae, and libation basins were discovered at these temples, which suggests that the chapels were special gathering places for the villagers to pray, venerate their ancestors, and the local deities. A small chapel dedicated to Amenhotep I stood on the terrace just above the enclosure of the Ptolemaic temple at the north-east corner of the village and was dedicated to the cult of the deceased king. The chapel was extended, with modifications taking place over time. The chapel of Seti I is located on the north side of the Ptolemaic temple and was dedicated to Hathor. The chapel consists of a series of architectural elements before a tripartite sanctuary at the rear. The Amun temple is located directly opposite the Ptolemaic temple and was constructed during the reign of Ramesses II. It consists of several courtyards leading to a tripartite sanctuary at the back. Fragments of wall plaster as well as a statue of the vizier Panehesy were found here. The chapel of the Feast of the Opet was built outside the village along the north side of its precinct wall and was probably built sometime after the reign of Ramesses VII. It is not clear the god to which it was devoted but traces of the lower part of a mummiform figure found on the walls indicate that it could be Ptah, Amun Kamutef, or Min.

Fig. 10: Chapels at Deir el-Medina

The Ptolemaic temple was constructed during the reigns of Ptolemy IV Philopator, Ptolemy VI Philometor, and Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos (c. 220–145 BC), almost 1000 years after the abandonment of the village (fig. 11). The main temple, which is in an excellent condition, was dedicated to several deities including Hathor, Maat, Imhotep, and Amenhotep son of Hapu. It is remarkable that the mudbrick wall surrounding the temple still stands to its original height. The temple includes chapels for Amun-Sokar-Osiris, Amun-Re-Osiris, and a sanctuary for Hathor and Maat. A very unique scene adorns one of the walls of the Amun-Sokar-Osiris chapel, which was recently cleaned by an Egyptian conservation team. A text describes the scene as the Hall of two Maats and it is a judgment scene, chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead, usually only found in tombs and on papyrus.

Fig. 11: Facade of the Ptolemaic Temple

Villagers were given time off work to participate in major festivals, such as the Beautiful Festival of the Valley. A number of feast days is known from various documents. There were several feasts dedicated to Amenhotep I, such as the Great Feast of Amenhotep I, and his cult statue is commonly referred to in many texts. It is possibly that it was housed in one of the chapels at the north-west of the Ptolemaic temple. There is evidence that oracles were consulted in the New Kingdom in order to resolve disputes. Many ostraca bear short questions to the oracle such as “My good Lord, shall we be given rations? These questions would have been placed in front of the procession and the priests who are carrying the bark would be responsible for the answers (fig. 12). The questions were usually asked so they would have a yes or no answer. A forward move would mean yes, and a backward move would mean no. If you were to ask the oracle a question, what would it be? My question to the oracle would be “are we going to have another lockdown?”!


Fig. 11: Procession of Amenhotep I

I look forward to the next session about justice at the village and the workers’ strikes.


Demarée, R. J. 1983. The ꜣḫ i͗ḳr n Rꜥ-stelae: on ancestor worship in ancient Egypt. Egyptologische Uitgaven 3. Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten.

du Bourguet, Pierre 2002. Le temple de Deir al-Médîna. Mémoires publiés par les membres de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale 121. Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale.

Griffin, K. 2007. An ꜣḫ i͗ḳr n Rꜥ stela from the collection of the Egypt Centre, Swansea. In Schneider, Thomas and Kasia Szpakowska (eds), Egyptian stories: a British Egyptological tribute to Alan B. Lloyd on the occasion of his retirement, 137–147. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag.

Harrington, Nicola 2005. From the cradle to the grave: anthropoid busts and ancestor cults at Deir el-Medina. In Piquette, Kathryn and Serena Love (eds), Current research in Egyptology 2003: proceedings of the fourth annual symposium which took place at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, 18–19 January 2003, 71–88. Oxford; Oakville, CT: Oxbow Books.

Keith, Jean Lewis, Sylvie Donnat, Anna K. Stevens, and Nicola Harrington 2011. Anthropoid busts of Deir el Medineh and other sites and collections: analyses, catalogue, appendices. Documents de fouilles de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale 49. Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale.

McDowell, A. G. 1999. Village life in ancient Egypt: laundry lists and love songs. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Valbelle, Dominique 1975. Témoignages du Nouvel Empire sur les cultes de Satis et d’Anoukis à Eléphantine et à Deir el-Médineh. Bulletin de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale 75, 123–145.

Weiss, Lara 2015. Religious practice at Deir el-Medina. Egyptologische Uitgaven 29. Leuven: Peeters.

Wilkinson, Richard H. 2003. The complete gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson.

No comments:

Post a comment