Egypt: Meretseger, Goddess of Punishment and Mercy, Protectress of the Necropolis Under the Peak of the West
By Caroline Seawright
Meretseger (Mertseger, Merseger, Mereseger) was the ancient Egyptian goddess of the necropolis at Waset (Thebes). She watched over the deceased in their tombs, protecting them and their belonging from tomb robbers.
She also protected the area from criminals and oath breakers, striking all those with evil intent down with snakebites or with blindness. The workmen of Deir el Medina feared her wrath, begging for her forgiveness and a cure for blindness or venomous bites, believing that she had struck them down. They believed she was a merciful goddess who would cure them if they were repentant. Her reach did not extend beyond the necropolis, so she was not worshiped throughout Egypt. She was revered mostly by the people who worked in the necropolis, building and decorating the tombs of the New Kingdom pharaohs.
Meretseger was generally shown as a coiled cobra, or as a cobra with a woman’s head. Sometimes she was shown in cobra form with head and arm projecting from the hood of the cobra. At other times she was shown as a snake, with three heads – that of a woman, that of a cobra and that of a vulture. On occasion she was also shown as a cobra headed woman or as a full woman, though this is very infrequent. Her name, ‘She Who Loves Silence’, comes from mr ‘love’ (with the feminine t ending) and sgr ‘quiet’.
She was believed to live on a certain peak, shaped like a pyramid (which has the sound mr, so this could be a pun on Meretseger’s name), on the mountain chain above the Valley of Kings. At times she was known as her dwelling place – ‘The Peak of the West’ – as a term of respect. This also connected her with the peak in the Egyptian mind, making them one. It also meant that her worship was focused around Waset, and she only had power over the royal necropolis there. After all, the other deities were generally not fixed to a specific geographical location. While they were worshiped mainly at one city or another, they were not the personification of that city. Meretseger, on the other hand, became the personification of the peak. She did not move – the people who revered had to be near the peak.)
A deity of protection, she was thought to guard the tombs in the Valley of the Kings from the heights of the mountain that overlooked the royal necropolis. The workmen at the village at the necropolis left stelae dedicated to her, worshiping her as a dangerous, merciful goddess. Yet they were fearful of her.
They believed that she would strike down those who desecrated the sacred tombs, poisoning them with her snakebites or scorpion stings, or striking them down with blindness. These same fates were reserved for those who committed any crime, or those who swore false oaths. Yet she was merciful to the repentant, curing them of the results of her anger – many stelae frequently seek to make atonement for their wrongdoings. The people stepped lightly around this goddess.
“We have the confession of Neferabu, a modest employee at the necropolis, who admits to having been justly stricken with illness for his sins. Afterwards he proclaims that he has been cured by the ‘Peak of the West’, having first repented and ardently besought her forgiveness.” — Egyptian Mythology, Paul Hamlyn
Her worship was centered around the city of Waset, and the village of workmen of Deir el Medina, during the New Kingdom. When the royal tombs there were abandoned during the 21st Dynasty, the worship of Meretseger died out. The goddess was one with the mountain, so when nobody visited the area, the people of Waset forgot about her. She was often associated with Ptah, due to the workmen at Deir el Medina. Ptah was the patron of craftsmen, and the workmen were craftsmen, cutting and decorating the royal tombs. The two main deities of these workmen were, naturally, shown together – the protectress of the men, and the deity who guided their hands while the men worked on the tombs. A small temple to these two deities was built near the Valley of the Queens.
Meretseger was a goddess who struck fear into the hearts of the people of Waset, yet she was also a forgiving deity. Sin was not part of the Egyptian mindset – they followed ma’at, and any deviation from this was chaos, rather than sin. Yet Meretseger had the Egyptians naming their wrongdoings, and asking the goddess for forgiveness. This was a very unusual situation in ancient Egypt, the idea of repentance from sin. None of the other protective/vengeful deities had such an unusual impact on the thought pattern of the everyday Egyptian as did this one goddess.
She was a goddess who protected and healed those who admitted their sins, and asked for her mercy. Fixed to the peak of one mountain, she watched over the people who worked in the necropolis of Waset. And when nobody worked in the necropolis, there was no longer a need for her protection, and so her worship faded as the people left to bury the dead in other areas of Egypt.