Sekhmet, the Egyptian Goddess of War and Female Empowerment

Statue of Sekhmet, Egyptian goddess with a lioness head.

Few historical places on earth perpetually spur such a strong sense of mystery and interest as ancient Egypt. Though millennia have passed since the days of the pharaohs, mythological figures whose presence adorn myriad walls, monoliths, and scriptures, continue to inspire those who find meaning in what they represent. Among them is the powerful lioness goddess Sekhmet, perhaps the ultimate mythological representation of female power.

Sekhmet, also spelled Sachmet, Sekhet, Sakhet or Sakhmet, was one of the oldest gods and goddesses in the ancient Egyptian pantheon who went by many names and titles, appearing often in her characteristic red dress. She is often associated with the goddesses Hathor and Bastet and is depicted with the Uraeus, associating her with the Wadjet.

Above her upright head, as if postured for battle, is the celestial solar disk, and in her hand, grounded steadfast in the Earth is the ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life. When standing or striding, she often holds the papyrus scepter symbolizing Lower Egypt.

Scholars note that her scepter is one of the most significant representations of the goddess. And, because Sekhmet has the head of a lioness, some have surmised that her likeness may have been inherited from Sudan, Egypt’s neighbor to the South, where lions roamed in great prides.

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The Myth of Sekhmet: Solar Deity, Daughter of the Sun God Ra

According to Sekhmet’s story in Egyptian mythology, the sun god Ra grew angry at mankind’s lawlessness. He decided to enact a punishment by sending an aspect of his daughter, the Eye of Ra, to earth in the form of a lioness. She became Sekhmet, and her rampage turned the fields red with human blood. But, as myth would have it, Ra was not a cruel deity, and he ordered Sekhmet to stop the destruction. Yet, she would not obey. 

Knowing that Sekhmet’s desire was fueled by blood, the sun god decided to show her what she wanted to see. He resorted to pouring 7,000 jugs of beer and pomegranate juice (which stained the beer blood-red) in her path. She gorged on this ersatz blood and became so drunk that she slept for three days. Upon awakening, Sekhmet’s blood lust had waned, and humanity was saved. Regardless, it was Sekhmet’s tenacity and power as one of the fiercest hunters that would never be forgotten.

An Enduring Symbol of Female Empowerment

Sekhmet, whose name may be translated as “she who is powerful,” naturally inspires female empowerment because she bears the immense and ubiquitous heat of the sun, which is the most powerful entity known to humankind.

From her awesome status, she had garnered the name Nesert, meaning flame. Although also associated with healing and medicine, above all Sekhmet was the destroyer of the enemies of the sun god Ra. 

Sekhmet, the goddess of the flame and warrior goddess of Upper Egypt, was an elite protector of the pharaohs during the war. Her fierceness and otherworldly powers were the focus of ancient celebrations and sacrifices meant to appease her and avoid her terrible wrath.

While Sekhmet was known as one of the more terrifying Egyptian deities to her enemies, those in her graces would benefit from her power to avert plague and cure disease. On the other hand, as the “Lady of Pestilence,” she could cast plagues against those who angered her. Ironically, this lady of terror was also known as the “lady of life.”

Hieroglyphic carving of Sekhmet

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Tiamat: Planet, Goddess, Creator

The story is familiar: chaos reigned before order; darkness filled the void before light; waters crested and ebbed to shape the land and mountains; generations of gods and humans battled over power and control. These are shared mythologies that run through continents and civilizations. Out of all the creation narratives, one name rises above the rest Tiamat, the ancient Babylonian goddess considered the foundational force of the universe.

Ancient Babylonia, part of the Mesopotamian empire, was renowned for its beautiful gardens, astronomy, and astrology, and as a cultural bridge between Africa and Asia. The legend of Tiamat is told through the ancient Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, thought to have been scribed by Hammurabi, the sixth ruler and considered the first king of the Babylonian Empire.

The Enuma Elish: The Seven Tablets of Creation

Enuma Elish is the Babylonian creation story, predating and influencing early Judeo-Christian texts. Comprised of 1000 lines etched on seven clay tablets, the Enuma Elish is the primary source for Mesopotamian cosmology and tells the story of how the order was shaped out of swirling chaos. The shaper is Tiamat, goddess of the deep salt waters, who with her mate Apsu, the god of fresh, clean water, gives birth to the first generation of deities. The opening passage sets forth how raw and unformed the world was prior to Tiamat’s efforts:

When on high the heaven had not been named,

Firm ground below had not been called by name,

Naught but primordial Apsu, their begetter,

(And) Tiamat, she who bore them all, Their waters commingling as a single body;

No reed hut had been matted, no marshland had appeared,

When no gods whatever had been brought into being,

Uncalled by name, their destinies undetermined—

Then it was that the gods were formed within them.

This early generation of deities is violent and power-hungry, ready to overthrow Apsu and assume power, launching Tiamat into her second, more violent stage. Many scholars view Tiamat through two phases — the nourishing, creative force, and the destructive, vengeful goddess.

 

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