Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bes Jars

Bes was one of the most important gods of ancient Egypt, although few people have heard of him. Unlike the official forty-two state gods, Bes was a household god. He was easily identified by his curly beard and the knives or rattles that he wielded. He was portrayed as looking fierce and threatening, in order to ward off bad luck and evil. Before being given the name ‘Bes’, he was known as the demonic ‘Aha’, or fighter. He was thought to be able to strangle bears, lions, and snakes with his bare hands.

Originally being reserved solely as a protector of the king, he soon became a popular god of everyday ancient Egyptian people, and was often depicted on household items such as beds, chairs, mirrors, and walls. Bes protected the home, and the people of ancient Egypt would honor him in the hope of family protection.

Bes may be most well known though, for his protection of children, beginning at birth. Images of him were painted on walls of birthing rooms protecting both mother and child. If problems arose during labor, a clay statue of Bes was placed by the head of the mother, while protective spells were cast over her. Children throughout all of Egypt, both rich and poor, wore amulets of him in hopes of keeping accidents and illnesses at bay.

The ancient Egyptians believed in a principle called Ma’at, or balance in everything. Probably owing to this belief, Bes was not just associated with fierceness, but also entertainment, laughter, and happiness. He was thought to please and entertain children with singing and dancing, and is therefore depicted as both happy and jovial.

One of the most common depictions of Bes were jars decorated with his face. If a child were ill, milk would be given to them in one of these Bes jars. It was believed that the milk would turn to medicine and protect the child. If the child didn’t get well though, of course a doctor would be called. It was then not uncommon for the physician to offer medicine out of a Bes jar.

The final form of Bes jars came during the Roman period. Bes jars were no longer delegated to only children. Soldiers, believing that they were vulnerable, just like a child, often drank their beer rations out of Bes jars in hopes of protection from attacks.

The most important aspect of life to the ancient Egyptians was family. Ancient Egypt was a very dangerous place to live, with 30-50% of people not even making it to adulthood, due to disease, animal attacks, and more. Rather than feeling helpless to the dangerous conditions, Egyptians honored gods such as Bes to protect their family, therefore giving them a sense of control over their chaotic world.

-- Jen Slauter, Docent

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