Other Names: Bisu, Aha (fighter)
Meaning of Name:“Little Warrior.” The word Bes also appears to be connected to the Nubian word for “cat” (besa.)
Family: Bes’ wife was thought to be Taweret. Beginning during the late Middle Kingdom, he was paired with a female form, named Beset or Besit.
Titles: “Lord of Punt”
“Great Dwarf with a Large Head and Short Thighs”
Bes was a deity originally African in origin who was absorbed into the Egyptian pantheon. Bes frightened off bad spirits with his fearsome face, but was fiercely loyal to his family, and comforted them in times of sickness or childbirth. A popular household idol, the ancient Egyptians believed that Bes protected against snake and scorpion bites. He was called “The Fighter” because of his ferocity – Bes was thought to have been able to strangle lions, antelopes (thought to be agents of chaos), and cobras with his bare hands.
Bes helped to encourage sleep and drove away bad dreams, and amulets of Bes were very popular and widespread. Bes’ protective duties extended to warfare – he appears on a Second Intermediate Period archer’s brace, shields, and on the war chariot of Tutankhamen. Bes was also a bringer of peace to the dead, being depicted on the headrests supporting the heads of mummies. He was associated with the protective hieroglyphic sign sa.
Originally a deity of protection of the pharaoh, Bes became a favorite god of the everyday Egyptian people, and was often depicted on household items such as beds, bowls, spoons, musical instruments, offering tables, lamp stands, chairs, mirror handles, cosmetic tools, and even painted on the walls of the home. Mischievous Bes was blamed when food went bad or when a person stumbled. Amulets of Bes, made of gold, faience, carnelian, glass, and bronze, were found at Akhetaten (Amarna), the city of the heretic pharaoh Akenaten. He could not banish this favorite – the Aten was no replacement for Bes.
As a form of protection, the image of Bes was tattooed on some women – different depictions of women, such as girls swimming, female dancers, acrobats, and musicians show them with Bes painted on their skin. This was probably because of his association with music and entertainment, as well as being a protector of women and children. It could have also been a tattoo relating to sexuality or fertility, or to help ward off venereal disease.
Bes was considered to bring good luck and prosperity to married couples and their children, and was connected to sexuality and childbirth. He aided Taweret as a midwife, and when a child was born he would stay by the cradle and entertain it – when a child smiled for no reason, it was thought that Bes was making faces at the child to make them laugh!
In a magical text, Isis tells her son Horus that a “sow and a dwarf” (Taweret and Bes) were the protectors of his infant body. A few unusual statues show Bes suckling or cuddling baby Bes figures, monkeys, or kittens, a protector of the most innocent. When a child reached adulthood, it was said that it was Bes who cut off his Sidelock of Youth. He was also thought to use his knife to circumcise.
Prayers to Bes have been found, wishes from women who wanted to conceive children, as well as those expressing gratitude for a successful delivery. Images of Bes were a common decorative element in birth-houses, and pregnant woman wore protective Bes amulets. Miscarriages and infant deaths seem to have been placed under the special care of Bes. A child’s coffin from the Third Intermediate Period is decorated with the god’s face, and four large wooden statues of Bes, hollowed out from behind, contained the remains of human fetuses.
Statues of Bes were often set beside the bed to provide protection for mothers nursing their children, or giving birth. Many examples have been found, made of wood, faience, bronze, clay, ivory, carnelian, steatite, limestone, and lead. In the “Spell of the Vulva” a woman in pain shouts to bring her “a dwarf statue made of clay.” The spell then recited goes
“O Bes, the Good Dwarf, come, because of the one who calls you! Come down placenta, come down placenta, come down! . . . I lay upon you an amulet of health! I am Bes who saves her!”
This spell was to be recited four times over a clay statue of Bes, which was “held to the forehead of a woman who is giving birth and suffering.” During Roman times “Bes chambers” were used in healing rituals.
Bes was portrayed as a jovial, bearded dwarf, frequently sticking his tongue out. He was often pictured wearing the skin of a lion or having lion-like features such as a mane and tail – in the earliest depictions Bes was an actual male lion rearing up on his hind paws. Sometimes Bes wears the priestly leopard skin or a soldier’s tunic, so as to appear ready to launch an attack on any approaching evil. Bes was often depicted as using musical instruments and knives to frighten away evil spirits. Occasionally he is seen grasping or biting cobras and holding papyrus and lotus flowers, or the protective Eye of Horus.
The dwarf god, like other divine beings, does not have merely human proportions. In many spells, Bes is described as a “great dwarf,” short, but rising from earth to sky, as if he could be small and gigantic at the same time. In the Late Period Brooklyn Magical Papyrus, Bes appears as a “giant of a million cubits” who “carries the sky in his powerful arms.”
In rare instances Bes was pictured with the wings of a falcon, wearing the Hemhem Crown. In most images Bes wears on his head a tiara of feathers, suggestive of his African origin. On some statues of Bes the god has facial tattoos or scars similar to those of present-day Sudanese groups. In a few instances Bes is crowned with a scarab or cat. Figurines of Bes standing on two lions, two rams, or two sphinxes may evoke the sun-god rising above the horizon (Aker).
In earlier times, Bes was not a dwarf – he had the body of a normal human, though he did sport the lion-skin robe and tail. Unlike other Egyptian deities, Bes was always shown full-face in images (highly unusual by Egyptian artistic conventions). The only other deity to ever be pictured this way was the goddess Hathor.
It is unknown why Bes came to be depicted as a dwarf. It is theorized that the worship of Bes originally came from the Great Lakes Region of Africa, coming from the Twa people (a pygmy group) in Congo or Rwanda. The ancient Twa were about the same height as the depictions of Bes. Other suggested origins of the god are from Nubia, the Sudan, or Punt.
In ancient times, infants with physical deformities, such as dwarfism, were routinely left exposed to die shorty after birth. The Greek scholar Diodorus explains that this custom was unknown in ancient Egypt, because food was so easy to find that all children could be reared. The New Kingdom Instruction of Amenemope teaches that care for the old, sick, and malformed was a moral duty. The mummy of a boy who suffered heavily from scoliosis was buried with bread, fruit, and jewelry, and another child, Iryky, was born with a severe birth defect resulting in an enlarged torso and head and stunted limbs, was buried in a decorated coffin. That such children survived in ancient times, even for a few years, suggest that they were loved and well cared for.
Physical irregularities did not seem to disqualify people from fulfilling public and priestly offices in ancient Egypt. A man with a thin and atrophied leg is depicted as a priest offering to Anat on a stela dating to the 19th Dynasty, and a humpbacked man held the prestigious title of “Attendant to the King.” There are also cases of lame kings, like the pharaoh Siptah, whose mummy shows that he suffered from a club-foot.
The blind held a special status, and were often employed in temple choirs or as harpists and singers in the households of the elite. The critical function of land measurement after the inundation is sometimes shown being preformed by blind people, perhaps because one could not question their impartiality. Dwarfs held important positions not only in Bes’ temples, but in the worship of other deities as well. Some examples are “Prophet of Amun-Ra,” “Priest of Wadjet,” and “Servant of Neith.”
According to some texts, the “half-formed” appearance of Nmw – dwarfs – may have embodied the continuing process of creation, a fetal form of the developing sun on the point of being reborn. Dwarfs were identified with the sun-god in his youthful form of Horus because of their ambiguous physical appearance, infantile and mature at the same time, like a god who is newly born but already wise and experienced. From Predynastic times dwarfs were known as the “Sons of Ra,” and preformed sacred dances and songs celebrating the sun at its rising.
Ceremonies of Bes included mummers acting out the part of the god, often short-statured people, dressed in costumes and Bes-masks. The masks that they wore have been found, made of clay or canvas, sometimes painted blue. The silhouette of dwarfs was also assimilated to that of the sacred scarab-beetle of the sun-god Khepri; their physical malformation was not regarded as a disquieting attribute, but as a divine one.
Similar to Indo-European mythology, dwarfs were thought to have special artistic skills, particularly as smiths and metalworkers. The god of craftsmen, Ptah, was occasionally referred to as Ptah-Pataikoi (“Ptah the Dwarf”), and dwarfs were sometimes called the “Sons of Ptah.” In Egyptian reliefs, dwarf craftsmen are depicted stretching or gilding gold, adding jewels to collars and ornaments, or stringing beads, a delicate task appropriate for their small hands. In several reliefs dwarfs work alongside fully grown men, differentiated only by their physical disproportion, which is not emphasized to create a grotesque or spectacular effect. The dwarfs are seated on very low stools, so that their feet touch the ground, or they work at small tables.
Statues of a number of high-ranking dwarfs have been found in their tombs, such as the nobleman Seneb, who was depicted with his normal-sized wife and children. Because people were almost universally depicted in their funerary statues as perfect physical specimens, we can only assume that the portrayal of dwarfs in their natural state was a positive statement indicating the prestige that ancient Egyptian society accorded them. Seneb was an honored high official – his mummy was found wearing an expensive necklace of silver beads. Twenty of his titles are inscribed on the walls of his tomb, such as “Overseer of the Crew of the Ships,” barques that were probably reserved for royal or cult uses, and “Priest of Wadjet.”
Several elements in the decoration of Seneb’s tomb are unusual and show the desire to give him a very dignified image. The designer compromised between two conventions to indicate both rank and physical characteristics: he depicted Seneb on a large scale, as tall as his fully grown servants, but faithfully rendered his dwarfish proportions. In most scenes, the composition softens the enlargement of the figure. On his barque, Seneb only half-kneels, while the paddling sailors squat in order to lessen their size. Similarly, the scribe rendering accounts of cattle is depicted on a sightly smaller scale than the figures in the register below; he is not placed directly before Seneb, but stands at the entrance of the pavilion, separated by two dogs, which preserves the eminence of the personage. In another scene, three scribes diminish in size towards Seneb, in order to minimize the difference.
The tombs of dwarfs generally do not differ from those of fully grown people – a female dwarf, Sene, was buried with the standard funerary equipment of an elite lady (jewelry, toiletries, a magical wand, fine linen, Ushabti, and musical instruments.) Excavations of the tombs of the dwarfs Karesy (a scribe), Wediwesekh (a jewelry maker), Simanetjer (a temple singer), Petpennesut (a nobleman), and Itsenbet (a high official) reveal that dwarfs were buried in coffins fitted to their height, and that furniture such as beds, stools, and litters were specially made to fit their size.
No ancient Egyptian medical text takes note of dwarfs. No source gives the prayers of a dwarf who wished to become taller. These gaps in the evidence have a positive meaning – they suggest that the Egyptians welcomed short-statured people, and considered dwarfism neither a disease to be cured, nor as a result of a religious transgression to be countered. Pregnant women did not ask for protection against it – on the contrary, they invoked the dwarf-god Bes as a protector during delivery. It seems that dwarfs were accepted members of Egyptian society, and they had an important part in the Egyptian religion, being linked with Bes.
Like several of the other Egyptian deities, the worship of Bes was adopted by the Greeks and Romans. The belief in Bes as a guardian of women was deeply rooted. It is still expressed in a Greek stela dating to the 4th or 5th century C.E. from Memphis. The god is addressed as “the Great Lord of Women’s Wombs, Protector, Guardian, Healer, Sower, Feeder, and Awakener.”
The worship of Bes […] proved popular with the Phoenicians and the ancient Cypriots. Amulets with the image of Bes have been found in Coptic Christian graves, and in a Coptic papyrus Bes is equated with Christ.