(Also Harsaphes, Herishef, Heryshaf) A God depicted as a long-horned ram or a ram-headed man, Arsaphes was, peculiarly, associated by the Greeks with their own Herakles, and so his cult center, the Upper Egyptian city of Hnes or Ninsu, became known to the Greeks as ‘Herakleopolis’. The name of Arsaphes means ‘He Who is Upon His Lake’, referring to a sacred lake at his temple and, by extension, to Arsaphes as a God emerging from the primeval waters and proceeding to the activity of creation. The –shef element in his name was also interpreted by Egyptians as deriving from a word meaning strength or bravery, which perhaps contributed to the Greek impression that Arsaphes was akin to Herakles, who had also through the Orphic writings taken on a cosmogonic function.
A remarkable stela dedicated by an official of the fourth century BCE named Somtutefnakht at the temple of Arsaphes at Hnes was found during the excavation of the temple of Isis at Pompeii, where it had been taken in antiquity. In this stela Somtutefnakht expresses his devotion to Arsaphes, his divine patron, whom he praises as “Lord of Gods … whose right eye is the sun-disk, whose left eye is the moon, whose ba [manifestation] is the sunlight, from whose nostrils comes the northwind, to make live all things,” (Lichtheim 1980 p. 42). Somtutefnakht narrates how Arsaphes enabled him to curry favor with the Persian king Artaxerxes III, who conquered Egypt in 341 BCE, then kept him safe as he witnessed at first hand the defeat of the Persians under Darius III by the Greek forces of Alexander the Great. Arsaphes then appears to Somtutefnakht in a dream, urging him to return through the turmoil of the Persian collapse to Hnes. Somtutefnakht attributes his “long lifetime in gladness” (ibid. p. 43) in the midst of such a turbulent age to the grace of Arsaphes: “My heart sought justice in your temple night and day, you rewarded me for it a million times,” (42).
In spell 17 of the Book of the Dead (spell 335 in the Coffin Texts), the deceased (or an operator reciting the spell while alive, inasmuch as the rubric to the spell remarks that “It goes well with one who recites them [the ‘extollations’ and ‘commemorations’ of the spell] on earth.”) affirms that s/he has been cleansed “in the two great, stately ponds that are in Herakleopolis on the day when the common folk make offerings to this great God who is therein,” the great God in question probably being Arsaphes, although the gloss on the spell says it is “Re himself.” Similarly among a list of epithets of Osiris in spell 142 we find “Osiris the lord of the lake, Osiris the lord of Herakleopolis.” These kinships with Re and with Osiris are expressed iconographically in the crowns worn by Arsaphes atop his horns, either the solar disk of Re or the atef crown of Osiris. The spell in the Coffin Texts corresponding to this spell (335) glosses the references to the cleansing in the two lakes as a reference to birth: “It means that his navel-string has been cut. Going out into the day … It means that he was cleansed after his birth,” (Faulkner 1973 p. 267). In spell 420 of the Coffin Texts, the deceased seeks the vision of Arsaphes in his “pillared hall” after bathing in the “Lake of Natron” (i.e. one of the sacred lakes mentioned above), praising him as “potent spirit who dwells in Ninsu, on whose head are the plumes of Soped and the atef crowns,” which are identified in one manuscript as the atef crowns of Re. This brief spell also characterizes Arsaphes as ‘lord of blood’ and ‘flourishing of slaughter’, referring possibly to either of two myths associated with Herakleopolis, the first being that of the slaughter of rebellious humanity by Sekhmet, which commences at Herakleopolis, the other being the myth which is alluded to in spell 1 of the Book of the Dead, where the deceased affirms that “It was I who seized the hoe on the day of fertilizing the earth in Herakleopolis,” which seems to relate to the fragmentary extension of spell 175, where the blood of Osiris is said to fertilize the earth in Herakleopolis. The references to slaughter in the epithets of Arsaphes therefore would seem to refer at once to the blood of birth and to the sacrifice of the ‘rebellious’ lower self implicit in the purification rites performed at Hnes under the supervision of Arsaphes. Spell 47 of the Coffin Texts says, for instance, “may your evil be purged in Ninsu.” References to the spilling of blood may also refer to animal offerings, which are consistently distinguished symbolically from non-animal offerings.