Seshat is the divine patroness of scribes—her name simply means ‘the Scribe’ or ‘the Writer’—and is closely linked to Thoth. Egyptians distinguished conceptually between “words” (mdw) and “writing” (drf or sesh). Thoth, although ultimately responsible for both, is associated more strictly with the former and Seshat with the latter (Saleh 1969). Seshat is regarded as the inventor both of writing, of reckoning, especially in the archaic form of notching palm-leaf stalks, and measurement in general—she “reckons all things on earth” (Chassinat, Edfou I, 291). She records the royal name at birth and writes it on the leaves of the sacred ished, or persea tree, at Heliopolis; she records the royal titulary at the coronation; she grants the king sed-festivals, commemorating his accession and renewing his sovereignty; she keeps count of the spoils brought back by the Pharaoh from foreign lands; and she marks the king’s lifespan by notching off years on the palm-stalk, an image augmented by a symbol signifying a limitless quantity, indicating that the king’s reign is eternal. In temple foundation scenes, Seshat holds the string which is used to mark out the structure’s perimeter. This ritual, called the “stretching of the cord,” expresses her grasp of all the subtle forces that must be harmonized in order for the sacred structure to fulfill its function. In general, Seshat guarantees that rituals of all kinds are performed according to the instructions in the holy books. In Egyptian thought the concept of fate (shaï) is always imagined in connection with writing, and hence Seshat is a Goddess of fate as well, which in Egyptian theology paradigmatically involves reckoning the lifespan. The divine command is written down, not as a mere record, but to render it concrete, and the writing of it is inseparable from its enforcement. Seshat is depicted anthropomorphically, usually carrying the equipment of a scribe, wearing a headband and with a sign over her head consisting of a pair of downward pointing bovine horns enclosing a palmette with seven leaves which may represent a scribe’s brush. This sign is apparently indicated by a common epithet of Seshat, Sekhefabwy or Sefkhetabwy, ‘She who releases the two horns’, suggesting that the inversion of the horns—a typical headdress of Goddesses such as Hathor—implies their activation. The epithet may also incorporate the word sefekh, meaning seven, so that the epithet would mean ‘Sevenfold of the two horns’. According to Wainwright 1940, the ‘horns’ of her headdress were originally the month-sign with two feathers atop it; he also notes that the seven-petalled flower or palmette often occurs alone in monuments of the first-dynasty king Narmer (c. 3150 BCE). In PT utterance 364, Nephthys collecting together the parts of the body of Osiris is compared to Seshat, “Lady of Builders,” inasmuch as the temple is like a divine body.

In CT spell 10, Seshat is said to open the portal of the netherworld for the deceased, in which we may understand the ‘portal’ in question to be the successful mastery of ritual under Seshat’s guidance. A similar interpretation can be assumed for phrases such as “your mother Seshat clothes you,” (CT spell 68). Again, when Seshat is invoked to help build a mansion in the netherworld for the deceased (e.g., CT spell 709), one may think at once both of Seshat’s role with respect to sacred buildings, as well as of the role of ritual texts and afterlife literature such as the very Coffin Texts themselves in constructing a dwelling in the netherworld. A juxtaposition of Seshat and Ihy, the divine musician and son of Hathor, in CT spell 746 seems to symbolize command over both the lyrics and the music or, so to speak, the letter and the spirit of the ritual text: “My hands are those of Seshat who is in my mouth as Ihy.” An especially clear role is established for Seshat by CT spell 849, “To open the tomb and to bring writings to a man in the realm of the dead,” which brings Thoth and Seshat to the deceased, each “in his/her shape,” to “bring to him [the deceased] this writing,” for “it is his recognition, it is his being made a spirit in the Island of Fire … so that N. may see those who are yonder among the blessed.” BD spell 169, “for setting up the bier,” portrays the resurrected state of the deceased: “Thou coolest thyself on the cedar tree beside Weret-Hekau [‘the one great of magic’, an epithet of several Goddesses, but especially Wadjet], while Seshat is seated before thee and Sia [divine personification of perception] is the magical protection of thy body.”

In the fragmentary demotic composition which has been labelled the “Book of Thoth” (trans. Jasnow and Zauzich 2005), Seshat is generally referred to by the epithet Shêï or Shaï, “the primeval one,” which is not to be confused with the word shaï, “fate,” and its personification, the God Shai, although such a confusion may have been encouraged. A “chamber of darkness” (ê.t-kky) features prominently in the “Book of Thoth,” and Seshat is referred to in this text as well as in inscriptions from Edfu as “Mistress of the rope, foremost one of the chamber of darkness,” possibly referring to Seshat’s role in the ceremony of “stretching the cord.” Alternatively, the epithet might be read as “Mistress of the sustenance of the foremost one of the chamber of darkness.” Seshat is associated as well in this text with a “ritual of entering the chamber of darkness,” and the aspiring initiate expresses a desire “to bark among the dogs of Shêït the great,” i.e. Seshat (B07, 17; compare the Egyptian text entitled “Dialogues of Dogs,” supposedly translated into Greek by Eudoxus (Diogenes Laertius 8. 89). The text also refers to Seshat as a “huntress” and “trapper” (C04.1, 12-13). At Esna Seshat is depicted holding a net with Khnum, and she was associated with a “House of the Fish-net” at Thoth’s cult center of Hermopolis. The symbolism of the net in Egyptian theology extends from the dangerous nets in the netherworld (CT spells 477-480, BD spell 153) to the depictions of fishing and fowling that decorate the walls of tombs and the literary depiction of the king’s enjoyment of such activities in the fragmentary hieratic text known as “The Pleasures of Fishing and Fowling” (in Caminos 1956); and it would be naïve to think the positive depictions to be any less weighted with symbolic significance than the negative ones. In another passage of the “Book of Thoth,” the aspiring initiate, designated “the one who loves knowledge,” questioned about whether he has crossed certain bodies of water—in the sense of netherworld ferryboat spells like BD spell 99—states in reply, “I have caught their fish. I have trapped the best of their exotic birds,” (L01.5, 10/13).

An unusual characterization of a learned scribe is as one “whom Thoth himself has taught, into whose mouth Seshat has spat,” which is uncannily reminiscent of a Greek myth recounted by Apollodorus, in which Polyeidos deprives Glaukos of the arts which Glaukos has learned from him by having Glaukos spit into his mouth.

See also: “Opening the Way of Writing: Semiotic Metaphysics in the Book of Thoth,” pp. 215-247 in Practicing Gnosis: Ritual, Magic, Theurgy and Liturgy in Nag Hammadi, Manichaean and Other Ancient Literature. Essays in Honor of Birger A. Pearson. Ed. April D. DeConick, Gregory Shaw, and John D. Turner. (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

Allen, T. G. 1974. The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [BD]
Caminos, Ricardo. 1956. Literary Fragments in the Hieratic Script. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Faulkner, R. O. 1969. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [PT]
Faulkner, R. O. 1973-8. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. 3 vols. Warminster: Aris & Phillips Ltd. [CT]
Jasnow, Richard and Karl-Theodor Zauzich. 2005. The Ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth. 2 vols. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.
Saleh, Abdel-Aziz. 1968. “Plural Sense and Cultural Aspects of the Ancient Egyptian Mdw-Nṯr.BIFAO 68: 15-38.

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6 Responses to “Seshat”

  1. […] 1 Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  2. Please … write in bigger Characters … and the Paragraphs not so much ‘ glued ‘ to one another .

    In General .

    Its difficult to read Your WONDERFUL Texts ,
    always , because they are so much
    – visually –
    restricted to a very Small Space . The lay-out .

    I will make ‘ Copy_Paste ‘ of it in my WORD
    in bigger Characters and with more Space to the Paragraphs .

  3. Nevertheless , what You write is
    to our Brains .
    Minds and Souls .
    And Hearts .

    A Real Treasure .

    You give us so much . Its so Beautiful .

    You are so imbued with Altruism .

    Thank You …

    You are really GREAT .
    SUBLIME , SUBLIME You are .

  4. Excellent Research – Seshat would be proud of you!

  5. Thora Dorn said

    I love your articles on deities – so well researched. Seshat was the name I chose (after meditation) as my belly-dancing name. Who knew that I would end up a writer.

  6. […] scribes continued to reverence her, mainly in connection with Thoth. (see below) According the site Henadology, one text described a learned scribe as one “whom Thoth himself has taught, into whose mouth […]

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