Bes is an ancient Egyptian apotropaic god, who protects children, women in childbirth, and sleeping people. He also has a mythological role as guardian of the sun's infant heir. The name Bes (Bs) perhaps means an unborn or premature child (Meeks 1992). Egyptologists have applied the name of this god to imagery of male gods with dwarf-like or leonine features. Images of these gods were created from the Old Kingdom to the Roman period (ca. 2506 BCE–283 CE). "Bes" is first attested as a god's name in the 21st Dynasty (ca. 1081–931 BCE). Only in the Greco-Roman period (ca. 332 BCE–283 CE) is the name directly associated with Bes imagery.
The image of Bes characteristically faces forward with a wrinkly grimace, protruding tongue, beard, long hair, rounded ears, and slightly bent legs. These features recall rearing lions or hippos (see Lions, Pharaonic Egypt). In the mid-18th Dynasty (ca. 1420 BCE), the god's imagery adopted characteristics of achondroplastic dwarfism. He also sometimes has a headdress, skirt, animal pelt, musical instruments, weapons, or wings. As the god Bes-Pantheos, he displays an amalgamation of attributes of many Egyptian deities. The frontality displayed in his imagery does not conform to the Egyptian preference to depict bodies in profile in two-dimensional art (see Art, Egypt). Bes' confronting stance is connected to his role as an apotropaic god. Because Bes is connected with fertility, he is sometimes depicted with feminine features such as pendulous breasts. A female counterpart to Bes also occurs from the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2061–1665) onward. Her name, Beset (Bst), is only attested from the Greco-Roman period.
Bes, together with Bes imagery, was a significant figure in popular religion in ancient Egypt. Bes' imagery may have evolved out of the ritual costume of masked priests (Volokhine 1994: 82–4). Bes imagery is frequently found as protective devices or decoration on objects and structures related to childcare, birthing, sex, and sleeping. Magical knives from the Middle Kingdom and second Intermediate period (ca. 2061–1569) include Bes and Beset images among other magical creatures. Faience figurines of Bes were popular from the New Kingdom through the Roman period (ca. 1569 BCE–283 CE). Bes' head typically appears above Horus cippi, magical objects for protection against noxious creatures. Bes jugs – Bes images modeled in clay on vessels with an unknown cultic use – are also attested throughout this period (see Pottery, Pharaonic Egypt). From the New Kingdom onward, Bes imagery was exported to other cultures around the Mediterranean and Near East.
In the Greco-Roman period, Bes was an important deity for oracular consultation. In the Papyri Graecae Magicae there are three magical formulae invoking Bes (see Magical papyri, Greek). Incubation chambers with large images of Bes, wherein people would seek oracles through dreams, have been found at Bahariya Oasis and Saqqara. In the Roman period, the oracle of Bes at Abydos was a popular place of pilgrimage (see Abydos, Egypt). This oracular site was officially closed by the emperor Constantius II, but popular devotion to Bes there lingered long enough for him to appear as a demonic antagonist in the life of St. Moses of Abydos (ca. 500 CE).
Apotropaic gods; Childbirth; Childhood, Egypt; Dwarfs; Fertility, natural; Magic, Pharaonic Egypt; Medicine, Pharaonic Egypt; Oracles, Pharaonic Egypt; Sex and sexuality, Pharaonic Egypt.
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