Egypt Centre, Swansea: Shamans, Masks and Bes, Again!
Carolyn Graves-Brown wrote:
Shamans, Masks and Bes, Again!
Cippus, notice the Bes head above Horus the ChildI've been reading some interesting stuff recently. It all started as I was thinking about the Bes objects in the Egypt Centre. Many of them seem to show Bes’s head but not the rest of him. For example, we have Bes head amulets, a Bes head bell, Bes head pottery vessels. Our cippus has Bes's head only.
This seems to suggest that that it was the head that was the most important bit. While this may be natural, most other deities tend to be shown with their full body. Perhaps Hathor is the sometime exception, where her head appeared particularly powerful.
Bes holding his tailSo, maybe, the Bes head is actually showing that the ancient experience of Bes was through a masked human, maybe a dwarf, or child (when Bes is shown with his body he appears dwarf-like)? The way New Kingdom Bes’s are shown holding their tails might support this idea that the Bes the ancients were thinking of was a dressed up human. If one is cavorting around in a costume, a long tail might get in the way, hence the need to keep a hold of it. If one was a real deity, one would expect that one could control one’s tail!
Maybe this doesn’t matter, but it does raise some interesting related issues. For example, did the ancient Egyptians have shaman-like figures, where, the human might become an actual deity through costume and masking? Masks enable people to cross over from one sphere to another. There is non-Bes supporting information for shamanic type ideas in ancient Egypt. For example, one might see the cloaked king in the Sed festival as renewing his divinity, then there is the evidence for masked Anubis priests. But, we’re on Bes here, so back to him.
First, what is the evidence for Bes masks, apart from that listed above? Well, Bes covers a whole host of deities, some not all called Bes, so here I should state that I am using the term to cover leonine-headed, dwarf deities.
The earliest possible evidence for a masked 'Bes' is a fragment in the BritishMuseum (EA994). It belongs to the 5th Dynasty and shows a lion-headed figure dancing with children. Above the figure is written: xb.t jn SdXt translated by Smith (1946, 210) as ‘dance of the SdXt youth’ (Capart 1931). See Weis (2009, 201 footnote 72) for different interpretations of translation. Bes is well known as a protector of children and it is possible that he started out, not as a dwarf wearing a mask, but maybe as a child wearing a mask (an idea suggested by Penny Wilson). There is another Old Kingdom relief in Leipzig (Number 2095)showing an androgynous figure wearing a mask (Wente 1969, 86–8) and a third now in Berlin. Horváth (2015, 138) discusses all three. There are also Middle Kingdom statuettes of boys wearing such masks, for example the Middle Kingdom ivory figure from Sedment (Petrie Museum UC 16069; Petrie and Brunton, 1924, 18, pl. XL; 27, pl. XLII, 7).
Of the actual evidence for masks themselves, there is the so called ‘Bes’ mask from Kahun found in the room of a house in the workman’s village, with a wooden statue of a masked dance nearby, now lost (Petrie 1890, Plate VIII). But is it really Bes? It does look weird. It is now in Manchester Museum (Manchester 123). The masked danceris much more convincing. The dancer was buried with clappers. A line can be seen dividing the body from head which supports the idea of this being a mask. It has drooping breasts, which might indicate a female persona, or alternatively, if one believes this depicts a divinity rather than a human dressed as a divine figure, it could be a fecund male figure, like Hapy. There are New Kingdom depictions of Bes breast feeding, which may be relevant here. This Kahun figure is similar to the one from the Ramesseum which is more clearly female, to which I shall return shortly.
There are two other possible Bes masks, both from Deir el-Medina found in house S.E.IX Room 1, which according to the excavator had once contained a ‘lit clos’ though no evidence of it remained (Bruyère, 276–7 and fig. 148). Bruyère assumed the masks had decorated the ‘lit clos’ platform. These are clearly clay Bes heads, and they are life-size, but are they actually masks? Unfortunately the publication doesn't show the backs of them and I'm not sure where they are now (if they still exist). They could just be flat depictions of Bes masks.
The Ramesseum figure of the Late Middle Kingdom has a Bes head, but is it a mask? It has lines on the cheeks, something also seen on other depictions of Bes. These may be jowls or indicate that the mask is a partial face mask covering the upper part of the face.
The New Kingdom tomb of Kheruef (TT192) shows three androgynous figures wearing lion masks (discussed by Wente 1969, 86–87).
By the Graeco-Roman Period, Bes masks seem to have been similar to satyr masks.So then there does seem to be evidence of people dressed up as Bes throughout Egyptian history. But this doesn't mean that all depictions of him were necessarily people dressed up.
Volokhine (1994) points out that as dwarf figures in the Old Kingdom go out of use, figures of Bes tend to come in. This might suggest that Bes is derived from the dwarf, perhaps a masked dwarf.
This is only part of what could be said about Bes and masking. For more information you might like to read the following:
Bruyère, B. 1939. Fouilles de Deir el Medineh (1934-1935) III. Cairo.
Capart, C. 1931. Note sur un fragment de bas-relief au British Museum [avec 1 planche], Bulletin De L’Institut Français D’Archéologie Orientale, 30, 73–75.
DuQuesne, T. 2001. Concealing and Revealing: The Problem of Ritual Masking in Ancient Egypt, Discussions in Egyptology, 51, 5–31.
Horváth, Z. Hathor and her Festivals at Lahun, In Miniaci, G. and Grajetski, W. (eds.) The World Of Middle Kingdom Egypt (2000-1550BC). Contributions on archaeology, art, religion and written sources, Vol. 1., 125–144.
Wente, E.F. 1969. Hathor at the Jubilee In Hauser, E.B. (ed.), Studies in Honor of John A. Wilson. University of Chicago, 83-91.
Petrie, W.M.F. 1890. Kahun, Gurob and Hawara. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner.Petrie, W.M.F. and Brunton, G. Sedment I, London.
Smith, W.S. 1946. A History of Egyptian Culture and Painting in the Old Kingdom. Boston.
Volokhine, Y. 1994. Dieux, Masques et Hommes: À Propos de la Formation de l’iconographie de Bès. Bulletin de la Société de Egyptologie, Genève, 18, 81–95.
Weis, L. 2009. Personal Religious Practice: House Altars at Deir el-Medina. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 95, 193–208.
Wilson, P. AB. 2011 Masking and Multiple Personas. In Kousoulis, P. (ed.) Ancient Egyptian Demonology. Studies on the Boundaries Between the Demonic and the Divine in Egyptian Magic. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta Leuven, 77–87.