A widely-worshiped popular religion deity across Egypt, and whose unmistakeable image was disseminated internationally, Bes is depicted, almost always with bold frontality, as a staring, bearded dwarf, naked or semi-naked, with a large head, broad face and short legs. Bes’ unusual physical characteristics seem to be borrowed from a lion (Romano 1980): a lion’s ears, mane, and sometimes tail, flexed legs like a lion standing on hind paws, protruding tongue, and sometimes a number of secondary leonine elements such as a forehead groove and ventral mane. His variable iconography also includes a plumed crown similar to that worn by Anukis and which is broadly associated with Nubia, knives (or later a sword and shield), musical instruments (especially the tambourine, harp, or double flute) or bouquets of flowers. Bes also frequently appears grasping snakes in his hands or mouth, and may be accompanied by other animals, such as cats, monkeys or frogs. Elaborate depictions of Bes from magical texts show an almost unlimited profusion of features such as multiple animal heads, erect penis, wings, crocodile tail, and so forth. Bes protects the living body in every situation of vulnerability—pregnancy, birth, childhood, sleep—and also promotes procreation. Bes has a female counterpart, Beset.
Bes specializes above all else in the protection of women from the hazards of childbirth and he is almost invariably invoked, with Taweret, during labor and for all female concerns. Bes is also the general protector of children up to the age of puberty, the mythic guardian of the Horus child (Harpocrates), and an intimate protector throughout life, warding off demons of disease and venomous animals. He is also a God of music, of dancing and of good cheer, especially in association with the Goddess Hathor and her son Ihy. Hathor’s temple at Dendara hosted an annual festival for Bes, and reliefs depict him playing music and dancing for Hathor, having accompanied her on her return from Ta-Sety (a term for Nubia or for a mythical place to the south of Egypt). Bes has the role, in particular, of appeasing Hathor in her wrathful aspect. In accord with his association with the living body, Bes is not prominent in the afterlife literature, although his image appears on coffins for infants. Bes is also the protector of the sacred space of the temple, inasmuch as his images frequently appear in the outer areas, which also served a demand for popular access to his images. Otherwise, the image of Bes is usually to be found in the rooms of the temple dedicated to the ceremonies pertaining to the birth of divine and/or royal infants. An increasing theological significance accorded to Bes in the late period expresses responsiveness to popular religious sentiment after the end of state sponsorship (on which see especially Frankfurter 1998), as well as the symbolic potency of the assistance Bes renders to infants when the infant is transposed into a symbol of cosmic renewal, at which point Bes becomes the guardian of the cosmos, or even its ‘pantheistic’ embodiment (for the roots of the ‘pantheistic’ Bes, see especially Malaise 1990). Due to his association with the most immediate human concerns, in the late period Bes enters into fusion and identification with many of the great Gods of Egypt. It is interesting to note that Bes is depicted on amulets and furniture dating from the Amarna period, showing that he escaped the monotheist pharaoh Akhenaten’s suppression of Gods other than the Aten (Bosse-Griffiths 1977, 100-101).
The name ‘Bes’ may derive from the word besa, meaning to guard or protect. In earlier depictions the figure who came to be called Bes is called ‘Aha, ‘the fighter’, and in later times is also sometimes called Haty, Hity, or Hatiti, which may mean ‘the dancer’. The universal designation of these figures by the name ‘Bes’ is somewhat more a feature of modern scholarship than of Egyptian practice. Bes is commonly depicted on cosmetic items and household objects of every kind, imparting to them his protective power over the body’s perimeter and on beds, as protection against nightmares or to encourage sexual intercourse and procreation. He also appears on equipment used by magical specialists, such as ivory ‘magical knives’ and on the healing stelae known as cippi. Bes also gives oracles, both by dreams and by direct visions, as in a spell from the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM VIII. 64-110) in which Bes is identified with the magically potent menstrual blood of the Goddesses Isis and Nephthys. The roots of the cult of Bes may lie in the Egyptian reverance for dwarves already attested in the Old Kingdom. Thus in PT utterance 517 the king affirms “I am that pygmy, a dancer of the God, who pleased the heart of the God in front of his great throne,” while the sixth dynasty pharaoh Pepi II sent a letter to Prince Harkhuf asking him to fetch such a dwarf “of the God’s dances” from Punt (eastern Sudan and Eritrea) in order that he perform at the court (Lichtheim, vol. 1, 26-27).
Allen, T. G. 1974. The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [BD]
Betz, H. D. 1992. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [PGM, PDM]
Bosse-Griffiths, Kate. 1977. “A Beset Amulet from the Amarna Period.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 63: 98-106.
Faulkner, R. O. 1969. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [PT]
Frankfurter, David. 1998. Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Lichtheim, Miriam. 1975-80. Ancient Egyptian Literature. 3 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Malaise, Michel. 1990. “Bes et les Croyances Solaires.” Pp. 680-729 in Sarah Israelit-Groll, ed. Studies in Egyptology Presented to Miriam Lichtheim. Jerusalem: Magnes Press.
Romano, James F. 1980. “The Origin of the Bes-Image.” Bulletin of the Egyptological Seminar 2: 39-56.