(Sakhmet, Sachmet or -mis, etc.) Sekhmet, whose name means “the Powerful”, is depicted as a lioness-headed woman, often with the solar disk atop her head. A Goddess of healing and of pestilence alike, Sekhmet often bears the epithet “Eye of Re,” identifying her as the executor (irt, “eye” can also be read as ir.t, “doer” or “agent”) of the will of the sovereign solar power of the cosmos. Sekhmet and Hathor both operate as the “Eye of Re” in the myth from the Book of the Celestial Cow in which Re sends first Hathor, then Sekhmet to strike rebellious humanity. Sekhmet is to “wade in their blood as far as Herakleopolis [Hnes],” on a southward path (referring to the southward course of the sun after the summer solstice), but Re saves humanity by ordering the production of a great quantity of beer with an additive to make it red like blood, with which the Goddess is intoxicated and her destructive mission terminated, perhaps at Kom el-Hisn in the Western Delta. Sekhmet can cause as well as avert all forms of pestilence, whether natural disaster, famine or epidemic, but she is particularly associated with illness and its cure, and priests of Sekhmet played a prominent role in Egyptian medicine. Sekhmet’s consort is Ptah and she is the mother of Nefertum.
Sekhmet’s “arrows” (often specified as seven in number) are a common term for her striking power, as is her “knife” and her “flame”. Several spells exist (nos. 13-15, 20 in Borghouts) which are designed to protect against pestilence associated with the transition into the New Year (hence the title of no. 13 in Borghouts, The Book of the Last Day of the Year) which make frequent mention of Sekhmet and of the demons in her retinue, her “emissaries” (wepwety), “wanderers” (shemayu) or “murderers” (khayti), who must be placated. In many of these spells, it seems that Sekhmet’s protection is won by identifying the individual with Horus—as in no. 20: “I am your Horus, Sekhmet.” Horus is also often called “sprout of Sekhmet” in such spells, in which the word translated as ‘sprout’ is wadj—Horus is thus literally the ‘greening’ of the Goddess who is paradigmatically red with blood (note that the papyrus scepter which Sekhmet and a number of other Goddesses carry is also wadj). The relationship between Sekhmet and Horus is not one of parentage, but rather alludes to Sekhmet being one of the wrathful Goddesses charged with the protection of Horus during his vulnerable infancy in the marshes. The pharaoh is sometimes characterized as “brother [sen]/image [senen] of Nefertum, born of Sekhmet.” State rituals involving Sekhmet were particularly important at the new year, which was linked to the heliacal rising of Sirius and thus took place in late summer (northern hemisphere). The purpose of such rituals appears to have been to prevent the contamination of the new year by inimical forces emanating from the old year as well as to ensure the proper alignment of life on earth with its divine paradigms; hence two of the most important rituals involving Sekhmet at this time were known as the “union of the disk,” focusing on the physical disk of the sun, the aten, and the “conferring of the heritage.” It is important to note that the term iadet, or “pestilence,” which is associated with Sekhmet, is a very broad term, and appears to be identical to a word for “net,” which occurs repeatedly in spells from the afterlife literature to protect the soul from becoming trapped like a fish in such “nets” (e.g., Coffin Texts spells 473-481). Sekhmet can thus be regarded as having power over virtually any misfortune or “net” of circumstances which might “trap” the individual indiscriminately.
Sekhmet is often paired or juxtaposed with Wadjet, who also bears the title “Eye of Re,” as in CT spell 757, where the operator affirms, “My White Crown is Sekhmet, my Red Crown is Wadjet,” referring to the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt, in accord with a tendency in Egyptian thought to identify defenders of the crown, such as Sekhmet and Wadjet, with the crown itself. In a version of the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony (BD spell 23), the deceased, whose ka statue has been empowered, states, “I am Sekhmet-Wadjet who dwells in the west of heaven.” In a ritual for offering meat to the sacred hawk that lived at the temple of Horus at Edfu, in which we probably see an adaptation of a ritual performed originally on behalf of the king, we find the interesting invocation, “O Sekhmet of yesterday, Wadjet of today, thou hast come and hast replenished this table of the Living Falcon … even as thou didst for thy father Horus, when thou camest forth from Pe,” (Blackman, p. 60 [155, 8-9]). Sekhmet replenishes the table inasmuch as meat-offerings are identified with the flesh of royal foes, the text’s invocation of Sekhmet turning the occasion of the meal into an enactment of the destruction of the king’s enemies. The identification of Sekhmet with “yesterday” and Wadjet with “today” is unusual and harder to explain, but it perhaps invokes Sekhmet’s protection against the nonbeing of the past. In CT spell 957 Sekhmet is juxtaposed with Nekhbet, the operator affirming, “I have ascended to the upper sky, and I have fashioned Nekhbet; I have descended to the lower sky of Re, and I have fashioned Sekhmet.” Another sort of opposition is posed in the Book of the Celestial Cow, in which Hathor is sent to strike humans in the mountains or desert, while Sekhmet is sent to strike them in the Delta.
Multiplication seems in some fashion essential to Sekhmet, perhaps because power diversifies itself at its points of application; thus she is referred to as “Sekhmet of multiple appearances,” (Edfou I, 278 & IV, 116) and as “Sekhmet the great, mistress of the Sekhmets,” (Edfou VII, 14). In the Tenth Hour of the Amduat book, the healing of the wedjat, the Eye of Horus, is shown being carried out by Thoth, in baboon form, and eight forms of Sekhmet, four with lioness heads and four with human heads.
Allen, T. G. 1974. The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [BD]
Blackman, A. M. 1945. “The King of Egypt’s Grace Before Meat.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 31: 57-73.
Borghouts, J. F. 1978. Ancient Egyptian Magical Texts. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
Faulkner, R. O. 1973-8. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. 3 vols. Warminster: Aris & Phillips Ltd. [CT]