Herishef is one of my chief deities, one very near and dear to my heart. He is a God Who was exceptionally popular in Antiquity, with numerous feast days dotting Ancient calendars, and was even elevated to the status of Supreme High God of the unified Egyptian State during the 9th and 10th Dynasties under the Herakleopolitan Kings. (Thomas, 12) Despite His prominence in historical Egyptian religion, Herishef has since fallen into almost total obscurity. Among His epithets are “Mighty Phallus,” “Majesty of the Gods,” and “Lord of the Blood” — the lattermost epithet I will be discussing at length in this piece.
Many Modern images and statues peddled as Khnum are actually depictions of Herishef, or nondescript ram-headed guardian-demons in Osiris’ employ within the Duat, whose images are taken from the third funerary shrine of Tutankhamun (the ram-headed Osirian guardian-demons are mirrored on the left and right-hand sides of the left panel in the linked image). I did manage to find a faithful depiction of Herishef in the form of a small Hachette resin statuette, but there were absolutely no appropriate amulets for Herishef anywhere — I like wearing the symbols of my Gods. Donning apotropaic amulets is where and how my (relatively minor) sense of superstition manifests, and is for me a public symbol of devotion to specific Gods. If money were no object, I would probably cover myself with apotropaic and devotional jewelry. Thankfully my means do not allow such gratuitous materialistic spending, and I do not live beyond my means. When I do indulge myself in this regard, it has significant meaning for me.
As a latent birthday indulgence late last autumn, I contacted Peter Chiappori to commission a bronze Herishef pectoral amulet. He is a phenomenal sculptor, and is perhaps the only professional sculptor in the Western Hemisphere to have an Ancient Egyptian specialization — not that his skills are by any stretch of the imagination limited to that realm of interest. He’s certainly one of a very precious few who is so literate in Ancient Egyptian writing, literature, iconography, and religion. Consequently, his reproductions of Ancient art are incredibly faithful.
The pectoral Peter Chiappori is crafting for me depicts Herishef as Lord of the Blood, and is loosely based on this electrum artifact on display at the Louvre Museum. The original artifact depicts Herishef as the hypostatic primordial being par excellence, seated on a throne of lotuses — two new buds, and one mature blossom. This symbolism ties Him directly to both Ra and and the God Nefertem.
The Sun God Ra, in at least one popular version of His numerous creation myths, is said to have emerged from the Nymphaea caerulea, or blue lotus flower, on the First Occasion. Or in other words, the moment light dawned upon Creation for the first time, when Creation was in its most pure and beautiful state. (Redford et al., 274) The blue lotus is associated with the sun and the dawn, and with the rebirth of all good things, as it sinks beneath the water when darkness descends upon the world, and reemerges each morning with the light of the sun. The rhythm of the lotus, like the rhythm of the solar cycle, naturally re-enacts Zep-Tepi.
The blue lotus flower is also a major part of the God Nefertem’s identity. Nefertem’s name means “He Who Has Newly Appeared is Perfect,” which is a kenning for the blue lotus flower. (Redford et al., 274) He is referred to as “the Lotus Blossom at the Nose,” and “the King as a Flower in the Hand of the Sun God” within spells 266 and 249, respectively, of the Pyramid Texts. (Redford et al., 274) Furthermore, Nefertem can be construed as the personification of Divine Ecstasy, since the blue lotus is also a sexual aide and hallucinogenic entheogen that was historically employed by the Ancient Egyptians for recreational and sexual as well as non-sexual ritual purposes. (Bertol, Mari, 2004) The oil of the macerated blue lotus was likewise one of the most prized luxuries to the Ancient Egyptians. It was a Divine scent, one associated with the Gods, including but not limited to Nefertem. Too delicate and precious a commodity to export, Kings used it to reward their favored officials, and the wealthy adorned themselves with it as a mark of social status. (Manniche, 106)
In any event, by virtue of association, Herishef is to be considered a God of these roles and functions via shared attributes and functions with Nefertem, in addition to His own distinct qualities.
Herishef’s name means “He Who is Upon His Lake.” The meaning of Herishef’s name identifies Him as a primordial deity, and as a God of purification, the vital inundation of the Nile, agricultural fertility, and rebirth. Peter Chiappori and I decided to have Herishef seated over the N 39 shē glyph (Wilkinson, 137), depicting a pool of water or lake, so that He would not be mistaken for other Gods represented by the Ovis longipes ram, such as Khnum, Lord of the First Cataract. Not only is the N 39 glyph more appropriate; it was also less painstakingly time-consuming to flesh out than the lotus-throne would have been.
A “mythic chapter” from the Book of the Dead R.T. Rundle-Clark includes in his book Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt describes how Osiris acquired the Atef crown from Ra, the regnal symbol of Ra’s overwhelming Divine power and authority. It also indirectly explains how Herishef came to have His lake at Henen-nesu (Hwt-nn-nsw), later called Herakleopolis Magna by the Hellenes, which was Herishef’s chief cult center. The myth likewise helps to explain His epithet “Lord of the Blood.”
To summarize, Osiris wished to humiliate His powerful brother Set, and Osiris asked Ra to lend His Atef, so that Set might kneel before Osiris, and that all Gods and peoples would worship and adore Him. Ra, the High God, had since abdicated His throne, and obliged Osiris to wear the crown, representing the burdensome weight of authority and dominion over the whole world. According to the myth, the lake at Henen-nesu is made up of the nosebleeding of Set (considered to have given fertility to the land there) as He knelt on the ground before His brother Osiris donning the Atef. The lake is also comprised of the pus and blood from Osiris’ forehead, the result of Osiris’ hubris, since no forehead but one as mighty as Ra’s could support it without immense suffering. Osiris had let the power “go to His head” (literally), though Ra kindly relieved Osiris of the pain Osiris had brought upon Himself.
Rundle-Clark relays the story to us from the 175th chapter of the Book of the Dead (136 – 7) :
There was a cry of great acclamation in Henen-nesu, [a cry] of joy in Naref, when Osiris appeared [as King] in the place of Re; He had inherited His throne and was ruling the Two Lands and all the people —
The company of Gods was well content thereat but Set was in great despair:
‘I would that You give Me the panoply of the Universal Lord,’ said Osiris to Re, ‘for then Set would respect Me when He saw My appearance as Yours and there would come to me all the people, commoners, citizens, noblemen — all — who would see how You have established My respect and created My authority.’
Now it seemed good to Re to do all that He had said, whereupon Set came and He cast His face upon the ground when He saw what Re had done for Osiris, and the blood flowed from [Set’s] nose — and that is how agriculture began (variant adds ‘in Henen-nesu’).
But, on the very day He wore it, Osiris had much suffering in His head from the heat of the Atef crown which [He wore] that men and Gods should respect Him. And when Re returned in the evening to see Osiris in Henen-nesu, He found [Osiris] in His house with His head angry and swollen from the heat of the Atef crown.
Then Re proceeded to let out the pus and the blood and Re said to Osiris:
‘Behold, You are freed from the blood and the pus which were hurting Your head.’
And that is how the majestic pool came into existence in the temple at Henen-nesu.
Rundle-Clark adds, “Osiris is not sufficient of Himself; He must have the authorization of the High God if He is to be recognized as Universal King by Set and all the classes of mankind. The episode concerning the Atef crown emphasizes the subordinate position of Osiris. Re’s crown is so holy that its Divine numinous powers can harm [any lesser being]. The High God is the source of all authority; it is useless to rule except in His name.” (138) Osiris took the crown for less-than-honorable reasons, and suffered accordingly.
Where Herishef was during this myth, it is not certain. Herishef — being the chief God of Henen-nesu before Osiris’ cult was introduced to the area, and being Supreme High God during the 9th and 10th Dynasties — likely took on the guise of Ra in this myth. We cannot be entirely certain of this; it is mostly conjecture, and it is just as likely that Osiris was representing or standing-in for Herishef in this myth. What we can be reasonably certain of is that Herishef’s epithet “Lord of the Blood” refers to the lake at Henen-nesu, and that He rules over it as “He Who is Upon His Lake.”
Herishef, rather than holding an ankh in His hand — which would have been a more historically faithful choice — bears a knife in the pectoral amulet I’m having made.
In Egyptian religion, the knife is not simply a tool used in sacrificial rites. It is considered a powerful magical weapon that can injure and repel otherwise unassailable malevolent forces. The piece is intended to be an apotropaic amulet, and the presence of the knife emphasizes this.
Through His epithet of “Lord of the Blood,” Herishef shares a particularly gory associative relationship with the violent God Shezmu, the Executioner of the Wicked, merciless slaughterer of the enemies of the High God, “He Who casts wickedness upon the wicked, and truth upon he who follows truth.” (Remler, 177 – 8) The knife incorporated into the pectoral amulet viscerally reinforces Herishef’s association with Shezmu, and with blood — the blood of ritual sacrifice, and the blood of foes.
Incidentally, Shezmu, like Herishef, is linked to the Gods Ra and Nefertem. (Remler, 178) In regard to Shezmu and Nefertem, They were considered to share the same mother (Sekhmet, or alternatively, Bast), both were represented by the lion, and both were associated with perfumery; namely, the Divine scent of the blue lotus. The Ancient Egyptians were rather polyvalent and circular in their approach to the Divine, it would seem — particularly during later periods of Egyptian religious history.
Herishef, like Set and Shezmu, is considered to be a very mighty God, noted by shared epithets such as “Great of Strength,” brimming with masculine vitality. These qualities are, as mentioned previously, conveyed through epithets such as “Powerful Phallus,” and these attributes led to Herishef’s later association with the Greek (demi)God Herakles. The knife, being a symbol of power, masculine aggression, and somewhat phallic in appearance, underscores the multifaceted relationships between these deities.
Herishef is a complex and profound Numen, one too often overlooked by many Kemetic practitioners. I have barely scratched His surface in my writing about Him here. In any event, I am honored to have Peter Chiappori creating this piece of art for me. When it is finally finished, I will proudly wear it over my heart, as a token of love for a God I am deeply interested in, and Who has so deeply affected my life and praxis.
W O R K S C I T E D
Bertol, Elisabetta, and Francesco Mari. “Nymphaea Cults in Ancient Egypt and the New World : A Lesson in Empirical Pharmacology.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Vol II. 2004. Web. Date of Access : 10 Apr. 2013. <http://www.jrsm.rsmjournals.com/content/97/2/84.full>.
Manniche, Lise. Sacred Luxuries – Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt. 1st Ed. Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1999. Print.
Redford et al. The Ancient Gods Speak – A Guide to Egyptian Religion. New York : Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.
Remler, Pat. Egyptian Mythology, A to Z. 3rd Ed. New York : Chelsea House, 2010. Print.
Rundle-Clark, R. T. Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt. London : Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1978. Print
Thomas, Angelina P. Egyptian Gods and Myths. Princes Risborough : Shire Publications Ltd, 2001. Print.
Wilkinson, Richard H. Reading Egyptian Art – A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. London : Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1992. Print.