A Goddess uniquely attested at the 26th Dynasty tomb of the merchant Bannentiu in the Bahariya Oasis, Abaset is depicted there twice as a woman in a red dress wearing a vulture headdress with uraeus cobra at the forehead and a distinctive hedgehog element on top. The interpretation of Abaset’s name is uncertain. Sherbiny and Bassir suggest it be read ꜥb-ꜣst, from ꜥb (often ꜥbꜥ), meaning “to praise” or “to boast” and the name of the Goddess Isis, hence “praising Isis” or “boasting [of] Isis”. The spelling of the name, however, ꜥbꜥst, and the lack of either an orthography definitively identifying the ꜥb element as the word meaning praise/boast—there are a number of other ꜥb words in Egyptian—or the throne element normally used in the name of Isis, makes this reading questionable, and other authors have not ventured a translation. Another meaning of ꜥb is the horn of a hoofed animal, also used for the stinger of a scorpion (Wörterbuch 1, 173.12-174.1); could the term refer as well to the quills of the hedgehog? It is worth noting, too, that Fakhry, in his initial publication of the tomb, thought Bannentiu to be a Libyan name (Oases of Egypt II, 140 (1)), which at least suggests the possibility of a Libyan origin for Abaset; but Sherbiny and Bassir are convinced of the Egyptian provenance of Bannentiu’s name as well. Sherbiny and Bassir bolster their reading with reference to one of the tomb’s texts, where Abaset is depicted with a figure depicted as a man with a ram’s head surmounted by a solar disk and bearing the uas-scepter and identified simply as Bꜣ, that is, Ba, ‘soul/manifestation’. (Sherbiny and Bassir identify the figure as the Ba of Re, while other authors think he is Banebdjedet). Abaset says “Horus and Anubis, pay attention every day to (?) the tears of Isis … so that you (?) may eat bread (?) and praise her (?) [ ḥsi=s].” Here Abaset is explicitly linked to Isis, and ḥsi, lit. ‘to sing’, is possibly intended as a synonym for ꜥb[ꜥ], ‘to praise’. In the other scene where Abaset appears, she accompanies Re-Horakhty, and is called ‘the Great Goddess, Mistress [nb(t)] of Heaven, Mistress [ḥnw(t)], Goddess’. For the latter phrase we could perhaps read ‘Mistress of the Goddess’, where ḥnwt need not have the sense of superiority, but of ‘equipping’ or ‘protecting’; in which case we would have some slight further indication that Abaset is explicitly posited in relation to some other Goddess. Abaset is evidently an important Goddess in the context of Bannentiu’s tomb, as her and Banebdjedet/the Ba of Re are depicted on one of the four pillars of the central hall, along with Nut and Geb, Isis and Osiris, and Tefnut and Shu.
Until and unless further attestations of Abaset are uncovered, interpretation of her nature has to focus on the general symbolism of the hedgehog in Egyptian culture, to which an entire study has been devoted (Von Droste zu Hülshoff 1980). Egyptians, of course, noted the hedgehog’s defensive prowess, and scaraboid hedgehog amulets, of which quite a few are extant, inscribed with invocations of diverse Goddesses and Gods (Von Droste zu Hülshoff pp. 222-240), presumably summon this protective power, in addition to whatever other aspects of hedgehog behavior might have struck Egyptians as symbolically significant. For example, in rolling itself into a ball when threatened, the hedgehog might suggest the sun, with its quills as rays; Abaset is clearly associated with solar deities such as Re-Horakhty. Vandier (p. 109) regards Abaset as a variant form of Iusâas and the hedgehog as a variation on the scarab beetle. Another notable symbolic depiction of hedgehogs is decorating the prows of ships in certain tomb scenes and on model boats from temple contexts (Von Droste zu Hülshoff pp. 95-117; Van Haarlem 1996).
Sherbiny, H. and H. Bassir. 2014. “The Representation of the Hedgehog Goddess Abaset at Bahariya Oasis.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 50.1: 171-189.
Vandier, J. 1964. “Iousâas et (Hathor)-Nébet-Hétépet.” Revue d’Égyptologie 16: 55–146.
Von Droste zu Hülshoff, V. 1980. Der Igel im alten Ägypten. Hildesheim: Gerstenberg.
Van Haarlem, W. 1996. “A Remarkable ‘Hedgehog-Ship’ from Tell Ibrahim Awad.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 82: 197-8.