(Shay; in Greek Psais or Psois, from addition of the definite article) Shai’s name comes from the word sha, to ordain, order, assign, settle, or decide. Possibly related words are sha’e, meaning to begin or be the first (to do something), or to originate (in both senses; sha’e m, ‘originate from’); and shau, meaning weight, worth, value, with extended uses such as n shau, ‘apt to, fit for’, and n shau n, ‘in the capacity of’. The concept of shai, which Shai personifies, is usually translated, not entirely adequately, as fate or destiny. Sometimes it is said that Shai embodies fate as opposed to what we would call ‘fortune’, with its sense of mutability, the latter being associated with Renenutet, but this seems to have little substance, and in most cases Shai and Renenutet play indistinguishable roles, save for the fact that Renenutet is firmly attested as a deity, while Shai straddles the border between deities and personified concepts.
The concept of shai is of a kind of decree, itself emanating from the Gods, but which the Gods can also overrule. Hence in a hymn to Amun (Leyden I, 350, III, 17) it is said that Amun “gives more than that which is fated [shayt] to him whom he loves.” ‘That which is fated’ refers here, as elsewhere, most immediately to lifespan, but there is a wider sense in which what is ‘fated’ for an individual is what might be expected in general or for the most part, while the Gods can offer the unexpected and the exceptional. The unexpected and the expected alike refer to the potential which lies in the personality or character. Character is destiny, the saying goes, and this was true in a particular sense for Egyptians. It is said in the “Instructions of Ptah-hotep” that “He whom the God loves, hears, but he whom the God hates hears not.” What the sage means is that the Gods grant to those they love the capacity to learn and hence to improve their character, while failure to work upon oneself brings about its punishment all on its own. Shai embodies what we might call the givens of mortal life, prominent among which, of course, is the inevitability of death, which sometimes seems to be his most distinct function, in which capacity he may be depicted accompanying the deceased at the afterlife judgment scene. In this sense, Shai is often juxtaposed with Meskhenet, both being depicted as human-headed birth bricks, Meskhenet representing birth, Shai death, but transformed into a symbol expressing the transition to the afterlife as a new birth. More commonly, Shai is depicted in nondescript human form, or as a cobra, largely as a result of the transfer to him of the iconography of Renenutet.
A fragmentary cosmology in demotic from Tebtunis in the Fayyum and dating from the second century CE speaks of ‘Pshai’ (that is, Shai, with the addition of the late Egyptian definite article at the front of his name) as existing in the beginning pa Nwn, in or as the Nun, or primordial abyss. Shai finds a place for himself to stand in the abyss, while within the waters there is also a plant which, although adrift, grows into a large thicket, eventually coming to rest at the place where Shai is; these are the reeds, upon which Shai spreads his seed, and from which in some fashion Ptah comes into existence. Ptah creates the Gods of the Hermopolitan Ogdoad, who merge to create the God Amun, from whom comes a wind which separates the sky from the earth and fertilizes an egg from which the sun emerges, an event which the text conceives as the return of Shai, who goes on to create other deities, notably Thoth, with whom Shai engages in a dialogue. It is not clear whether Shai plays a role in subsequent mythical events narrated by the text. This cosmology is unusual for placing Shai in the position of primordial creator, and he either does so in the tradition of personal creator-Gods such as Atum or as a symbol of natural, destinal forces within the abyss (see Smith 1998).
The Coptic Christian Shenoute complains in a sermon from the fifth century CE of people in the region of Panopolis (Akhmim) “saying that ‘Today is the worship of Shai, or the shai of the village or shai of the home’,” (cited in Frankfurter, p. 63), indicating that after the imposition of Christianity, worship of the old Gods was concealed beneath the terminology of anonymous ‘fates’ that were supplicated for protection and prosperity.
Frankfurter, David. 1998. Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Smith, Mark. 1998. “A New Egyptian Cosmology.” In C. J. Eyre, ed. Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress of Egyptologists, Cambridge, 3-9 September 1995. Leuven: Peeters. pp. 1075-1079.