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At the temple of Sahure, which dates to the Fifth Dynasty, Herishef is represented without His characteristic Atef headdress. This type of depiction, specifically its occurrence at the temple of Sahure, is the oldest-known instance of Herishef in zooanthropomorphic form.

At the temple of Sahure (reigned 2487 – 2475 BCE), which dates to the 5th Dynasty, Herishef is represented without His characteristic Atef headdress. This crown-less depiction, specifically its occurrence at the temple of Sahure, is the oldest known instance of Herishef in zooanthropomorphic form. Art by Jeff Dahl.

Herishef, like virtually all Ancient Egyptian deities, possesses an exhaustive list of alternate names, epithets, and honorifics. Unlike some deities, His primary name is two-fold, in that it has two different spellings in its language of origin (at least when transliterated into Latin characters — the ways in which the two variants were rendered both in archaic script and in the hieroglyphs of later periods number into the dozens), each name having a different linguistic meaning and religious significance. The second variant of Herishef’s name came to be popular during later periods of Ancient Egyptian history, though the first variant never lost its frequency of use. The transition that took place between these two variants informs us of the cultic and mythic developments concerning Herishef and the other deities He came to be identified with.


Hry.š.f, written out as “Herishef” or “Heryshaf,” is the oldest of the variants of His primary name. Until the Ramesside Period this was virtually the only way in which the God’s name was rendered. This general spelling remained fairly popular throughout Ancient Egyptian history, despite the fact that the meaning of this name, “He Who Is Upon His Lake” was, according to Mokhtar, “in many instances forgotten” by the Middle Kingdom and especially during the New Kingdom Period. (148)

Concerning the lake referenced in Herishef’s name, there are three possibilities:

  • Lake Moeris. Herishef’s temple is located in the region dominating the entrance of the Faiyum to its south, thereby placing the God and His cult center in direct connection with this lake. Khnum is also connected to this lake by virtue of proximity to this geographical region. Neither God was associated with this lake because of Their ovine cults and forms.
  • The sacred lake or “reflecting pool”/ablution tank directly on temple grounds at Henen-Nesu.* They were a common feature of most major temple complexes. They represent the Primaeval Ocean and the cycles of renewal of particular interest to chthonic and especially solar deities and Their cults. The ablution tanks were used for a variety of religious purposes.
  • The mythological lake of blood, from which Herishef derives His epithet Neb-Deshru, “Lord of the Blood” (dšrw, “redness” = blood) mentioned in Ancient Egyptian liturgical texts, i.e. Spell 420 of the Coffin Texts and Chapter 175 of the Book of the Dead. (Leitz, 565) However, this may be dismissed, as most of the mythic material surrounding Herishef dates to the 9th and 10th Dynasties or later, making it too late to have provided any foundational meaning for the Hry.š.f variant. This is not to say that the later mythic material did not lend further, layered significance to the meaning of Herishef’s names. Only that it did not do so until a later time.

We have two Old Kingdom Period sources for the variant Hry.š.f. The first occurs on the famous Palermo Stone, where mention is made of Herishef, Henen-Nesu, and the sacred lake of the temple of Herishef. (Wilkinson, 115) While the Palermo Stone is the earliest known occurrence — which possibly dates to the 5th Dynasty, though this has been debated* — the document suggests that this name and the God it belongs to were established in Pre- and Early Dynastic times. The second source we have from the Old Kingdom Period is the tomb of Herishef-Shema, or “Herishef-is-Wandering,” dating to the 6th Dynasty at Saqqara, the necropolis of Men-nefer (Memphis). The evidence for the variant Hry.š.f being, of course, part of the tomb owner’s name. (Mokhtar, 139)

Ovis longipes ram hieroglyph/determinative.

Ovis longipes ram hieroglyph/determinative.

It is worth mentioning that Herishef is represented in full Ovis longipes ram form when referring to the sacred lake on the Palermo Stone. In such archaic writing, Mokhtar advises, we should take this to show His form rather than a rendering of His name. Varied zooanthropomorphic (animal-headed humanoid) determinatives and supplementary signs in Herishef’s fully-rendered name became much more common during and after the Ramesside Period, “which was inclined towards [sic] symbolic ways of writing.” (Mokhtar, 146)


As mentioned previously, the earlier meaning of Hry.š.f was in many instances forgotten during and after the Ramesside Period. Mokhtar notes that “Ancient Egyptian writers were sometimes puzzled between the two spellings [of each variant].” (148) This may have contributed to the transition toward emphasis on the meaning of the new variant. The writing of His name as Hr-šfy (Harshefy) came to be influenced by Herishef’s ram head/foreparts as a determinative for the term šfy.t, and alternatively šfšf.t,  the basic conception of Herishef’s power. These generally translate to “magnificence,” “respect,” “dignity,” and  “bravery.” (Mokhtar, 148) Hr-šfy thus comes to be rendered as “The One with the Magnificent Appearance.” The strong relation between Herishef and šfy(.t) is demonstrated in His epithet Aashefyt, “Great of Appearance,” as well as in the formula given after His titles in the Mammisi of Behdet/Edfu temple: “May He Give All Magnificence.”

It was from this name variant rather than the original variant Hry.š.f that Greeks such as Plutarch arrived at the translation “Arsaphes” and identified Him with one of their own Gods, Herakles. Plutarch rendered it as “manliness,” which is honestly not too far off from Herishef’s proclivities as a Ram God. Nor is it terribly off-base regarding one of the meanings of the roots of the Hr-šfy variant.

Amun(-Ra) in zooanthropomorphic form. Image source.

Amun(-Ra) in zooanthropomorphic form. Image source.

The terms šfy.t, and šfšfy which contains the same root as šfšf.t of particular relevance tothis variant, also refer to a specific kind of “terror.” Salim Hassam defines “terror” as the original meaning of the terms in his 1930 text Hymnes Religieux du Moyen Empire. This “original meaning” was apparently never lost, as Klotz describes this very šfy.t-terror as per its relevance to the statue cult of Amun at Deir el-Medina circa Dynasty 20. Klotz explains this šfy.t-terror and its cultic experience (273:2006):

After completing the initial purification and fumigation ceremonies, the King/Priest would open the sanctuary and “reveal the face” (wn-hr) of Amun. This episode was followed by “seeing god” (m33 ntr) and several repetitions of “kissing the earth” (sn-t3) before finally presenting hymns to Amun. The reason for this sequence seems to be the fear inspired by the mysterium tremendum of Amun’s initial appearance, newly reawakened and thus reborn. As the Priest exclaims in the Amun Daily Cult ritual:

rdi.n=i (wi) hr h.t=i n sndj=k
sndj.kw n šfšfy=k

‘It is out of fear of you that I have placed myself on my belly, being fearful of your awe-inspiring terror (šfšfy).’

The object of the proscynesis in the MMA Stela is the name of Amun, which elsewhere is associated with his šyf.t-terror, and the power of the name of a god is a well-attested phenomenon. Thus it makes perfect sense that the people bow down (in terror) before Amun’s terrifying name.

In brief, there seems to be an uncanny link between Ram Gods and Divine magnificence and terror, more so than for other groups of deities (despite all deities being, after a fashion, terrifying in the midst of Their aura of overwhelming power and mystery). What inspired Egyptians to feel this way and conceive such notions regarding these particular Gods and the rams that represent Them is perhaps unknowable. This does not stop Mokhtar from putting forth his own ideas concerning the Ovis longipes ram’s striking appearance, which he posits are brought on by its “projecting chest” and “horizontal horns that make its head turn up,” in addition to the ram’s tendencies toward aggression. (148) Herishef is not an isolated case — šfy.t also appears in association with the other major Ram Gods Khnum, Banebdjedet, and Amun as mentioned above (Mokhtar, 168), as well as a Ram God called Kherty of Khem (Letopolis) Who has a particular penchant for slaughter within the funerary texts He appears. (Griffiths, 173 – 174) That having been said, the concepts of magnificence and terror attached to Ram Gods in general are decidedly meaningful to Herishef and His cult.

Outside of the use of šfy.t and šfšfy(.t) directly, it is evident through a number of epithets of Herishef that the God has specific kinds and behaves in specific capacities of terror. Spell 420 of the Coffin Texts gives us a description of Herishef as both a magnificent “King of the Gods” and a terrifying deity: “Lord of the Blood, with fresh slaughterhouses, the Able Soul which is in Henen-nesu, on Whose top is the Double Feather of Sopdu and the Atef diadems of His father Re.” (Mokhtar, 167) Leitz provides an impressive collection of epithets, some of which relate to Herishef’s aspects and functions of terror, such as Wer-Naru-em-Neset-Netjeru (wr-nrw-m-nst-ntrw) or “Great of Terror on the Throne of the Gods”* and Sema-Sebau-Netjer (sm3-sbiw-ntr) or “Slayer of the Enemies of God.” (565)

The foremost source for the mythic significance of the Hr-šfy variant is Chapter 175 of the Book of the Dead. It contains the passage concerning the Atef and the Gods Ra and Osiris/Wesir. Mokhtar confirms that in this passage Herishef is Osiris, and Osiris is Herishef. Wordplay within the passage informs us of this. When Osiris was crowned with the potent diadems of Ra, and desiring that all other Gods (specifically Set) fear and respect Himself (Osiris), Osiris felt His head swell with blood and pus from the unbearable heat of the solar disc and the noxious venom of the uraeus. His face and head became swollen, and He became “Aashefyt,” and so the name of the God as Hr-šfy came into being. (Mokhtar, 149)

Late Period bronze statuette of Osiris, on display at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. Image source.

Late Period bronze statuette of Osiris, on display at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. Image source.


Herishef had long since been identified with Ra. The precedent had been established before the seat of Pharaonic rulership was transplanted to Henen-nesu with the founding of the 9th Dynasty and before the “solarization” of local chief deities became a widespread phenomenon during the 12th Dynasty. (Mokhtar, 168 – 9) When the Herakleopolitan Pharaohs succeeded to the proverbial throne of the political structure of a more or less unified Egypt at the close of the Old Kingdom Period, the link between Ra and Herishef was cemented for good and all. As the incumbent God of the Royal Residence, Herishef became heir to Ra and the Memphite-Heliopolitan dogma of the previous age. (Mokhtar, 168) Additionally, as the Royal God of the 9th Dynasty — and during the 10th, but beginning in the 9th — Herishef was with immediacy combined with Osiris, the latter of Whom was by that time already considered a “substitute” for Ra. At least for the duration of the Herakleopolitan Supremacy, Herishef functioned as a tripartite deity. Like Banebdjedet, with Whom Herishef became identified in the New Kingdom Period, Herishef served as the “Ba of Ra” and the “Ba of Osiris,” or in other words, the Divine vessel of indwelling for the otherwise independent deities Ra and Osiris. (Griffiths, 221)

The associations between Herishef and Osiris, and the dependent tripartite functionality of Herishef, are not explicitly attested before the 9th Dynasty. Likewise, Herishef’s names, epithets, and honorifics do not make appearances at Abdju (Abydos), one of the principle “homes” of Osiris, until after the establishment of the cult of Osiris in Henen-nesu and His subsequent identification with Herishef as State God during the same period. It must also be understood, as Mokhtar (169), Griffiths (221), and Rundle-Clark (136 – 8) corroborate, that the amendments to liturgical texts such as the Coffin Texts and Book of the Dead emphasizing the new prominence of Henen-nesu — placing it on the level of Djedu (Busiris) and Abdju (Abydos) — did not manifest until after the establishment of the Herakleopolitan Supremacy. Even after Henen-nesu lost its bid for power to Waset (Thebes) at the close of the First Intermediate, the identification of Herishef with Osiris was too established in the religious mind of Ancient Egypt to disappear, and only became more pronounced over time. Osiris’ cult had thoroughly absorbed Herishef during the Herakleopolitan Supremacy, and eventually Herishef was considered by many Ancient Egyptians to be just another form of Osiris.

Herishef gained new and expanded solar associations into and beyond the New Kingdom Period. This was due in part to Herishef’s early conflation with Ra and established syncretism with Osiris, but also due to the inherent solar functions and attributes ascribed to ovine deities after the establishment of the Amun Supremacy. Herishef is addressed on the stela of Petubastet as “Harakhty” (Mokhtar, 169), and on the stela of Somtutefnakht as “Harakhty the Universal God.” (Lichtheim, 41) This simply goes to show that, while Herishef’s identity had been largely subsumed by the identities of at least two other prominent deities*, Herishef did not lose His overall status and importance when the rulers of His native residence lost theirs.


The Palermo Stone

The Palermo Stone. Antonio Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum, Palermo, Italy.

1.) Henen-nesu (Hnn-nsw — variations from various periods include Nnw-nswt, Nn-nswt, Hwt-nn-nsw, Ht-nn-nswt) is the Egyptian name of Herishef’s sepat or nome and its cult center. It is also referred to as Hnes, which I believe is derived from the Hebrew rendering of the place-name. It is best known as Herakleopolis Magna, the name given to it by the Greeks. The Arabic Egyptian name of the site is Ihnâsya el-Medina. Throughout this article, I use Henen-nesu and Herakleopolis interchangeably. Herakleopolis is the name preferred by scholars, thanks to centuries of established interpretatio graeca within what have become the fields of Egyptology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies. All these names refer to the same general area.

2.) The age of the Palermo Stone has been hotly contested over the last century. While Mokhtar writes as if assuming it is an Old Kingdom/5th Dynasty document, other scholars have suggested that it is a later (possibly New Kingdom) copy of an Old Kingdom original. Toby Wilkinson elaborates upon these and other controversies and competing theories surrounding the Palermo Stone throughout his text Royal Annals of Ancient Egypt – The Palermo Stone and Its Associated Fragments.

3.) Also a reference to Behdet/Edfu. This and similar epithets, some of which denote falcon form both as Heruakhty and as the winged sun disc (Leitz, 564 – 5), link Herishef to the resident God Heru-Behdety. Indeed, Herishef and His name make notable appearances throughout the temple complex.

4.) By the New Kingdom and Late Periods, Herishef had come to be identified and equated with a great many Gods beyond Osiris and Ra. These include but are not limited to Banebdjedet; various incarnations of Khnum; Amun; Ptah and Sokar in Their “indwelling” form of Ptah-Sokar, by virtue of all three Gods’ association with Osiris and Osiris’ links to the Naret tree cult of Herishef’s locale, explicitly mentioned in the Bremner-Rhind Papyrus (Mokhtar, 171); Sopdu; and Heru-Behdety. A very small number of scholars including Golenischeff and Lange have, at various points over the last 130 years or so, tried to prove a syncretic link between the adopted Canaanite deities Reshep and Horon and the Egyptian deity Herishef. Mokhtar denies any such relationship exists outside a coincidental phonetic similarity between Reshep’s and Herishef’s primary names. (171)


Griffiths, John Gwyn. The Origins of Osiris and His Cult. Leiden: Brill, 1980.

Klotz, David. “Between Heaven and Earth in Deir el-Medina – Stela MMA 21.2.6.”  Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur, Bd. 34 (2006), pp. 269-283.

Leitz, Christian. Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen. Leuven : Peeters Publishers & Department of Oriental Studies, 2003.

Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature – The Late Period. Volume 3. Berkeley : California University Press, 2006.

Mohktar, Mohamed Gamal El-Din. Ihnâsya el-Medina (Herakleopolis Magna) – Its Importance and Its Role in Pharaonic History. Paris : Publications de l’Institut Français d’Archaeologie Orientale du Caire, 1983.

Rundle-Clark, R. T. Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt. London : Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1978.

Wilkinson, Toby A. H. Royal Annals of Ancient Egypt – The Palermo Stone and Its Associated Fragments. New York :Columbia University Press, 2000.