When we think of ancient Egypt, the god who leaps to mind is the sun-god Ra, but the Egyptians were also well-provided with moon-gods, including Thoth, Khonsu, and Aah.
Khonsu is probably familiar from the comic Moon Knight, in which he saves the life of mercenary Marc Spector, who takes up crime-fighting to atone for his past. In the comic, Khonsu is said to have four aspects: Pathfinder, Watcher, Defender, and the Watcher of Overnight Travellers, as well as a secret aspect, The One Who Lives on Hearts. (Moon Knight #1)
It makes sense that a moon-god would protect night travellers, both because the moon provides light and because he had to make his own journey across the sky, which was fraught with peril. In fact, his name is derived from a word like “wanderer” or “to cross over”.1
During the Pyramid era, Khonsu did develop a bloodthirsty aspect, completely different from his Theban persona:
In the spell which aims to give the king power to hunt and eat certain deities, thereby absorbing their strength, Khonsu is a bloodthirsty god who helps to catch and slay these victims.2
The Lower Egypt version of Khonsu had the lion-goddess Sekhmet for a mother, so perhaps his reputation for violence was inherited.
In the papyrus of Nu he devoured the hearts of the deceased, and some Books of the Dead call him Slaughterer of the Lords. He also was called the Destroyer of Evil Spirits, so like his mother he took on a protective function, especially against disease. The Bentresh Stela records a cure worked by Khonsu on a foreign princess.
What makes it interesting is that it mentions two different cults of Khonsu, Khonsu at Thebes, and his more specialist aspect, Khonsu-pa-ir-sekher, who drives out demons.3
Theban Khonsu: divine child
Khonsu-at-Thebes was mainly depicted as a youth, with the side-lock that children wore. Oddly, he wears a mummy’s wrappings, with his hands unbound so he can hold the crook and sceptre. Like most Egyptian deities, he was part of a triad, with Amun and Mut as his parents. In the New Year’s festival at Thebes his statue was brought in his sacred boat to rejoin those of his parents.
Khonsu had many temples at Thebes (and he had a number of titles there, including Khonsu-the-child (Khonsu-pa-khered), Khonsu-who-governs (Khonsu-pa-sekher), and he controlled destiny as Reckoner of the Life Span (Khonsu Heseb Ahau).4
Khonsu was also associated with the air-god Shu, as divine child, and at the temple at Kom-ombo (Nubt) he changed his parentage to that of Sobek the crocodile god and Hathor the sky-goddess. In Lower Egypt, his parents were the lion-headed Sekhmet and the creator-god Ptah.
Khonsu and Thoth: gambling for light
He was linked to the moon-god Thoth, and shared the baboon with him as their animal, and as a sky-god and divine child he was linked to the hawk-headed god Horus. (Both of them protected against dangerous animals.)
One famous Egyptian myth tells how Thoth and Khonsu bet on a game of “passage”, something like draughts or checkers, and Thoth demanded 1/72nd of the moon’s light as his prize. When he lost, Thoth had five extra days to add to the calendar. (The goddess Nut used the extra five days to give birth to five deities: Isis, Osiris, Nepthys, Set and Horus the Elder.)
Although many of us now associate the moon with illusion and uncertainty (see the Tarot, among others), the ancient Egyptians appreciated its regularity, and had a lunar-based calendar, with some modifications, which is why the calendar myth involves two lunar deities, and Thoth was the god of mathematics and writing as well as time and the moon.
While Khonsu may seem paradoxical – both divine child and devourer of hearts, it must be remembered that Egyptian deities evolved over a very long time, and had many aspects. Also, his sometime mother Sekhmet had a similarly split personality, since the lion-headed goddess was literally an embodiment of the anger of Hathor, the sun-goddess whose form was a cow. Sekhmet nearly destroyed humanity, but beer saved the day.
She and Khonsu both had protective functions, which licensed their ferocity. You can see how he might be an inspiration for a superhero who fights the darkness, and wears the moonlight as his armour.
Barrett, Clive 1992: The Egyptian Gods and Goddesses: the Mythology and Beliefs of Ancient Egypt, Aquarian Press, London.
Hart, George 1996: A Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, Routledge, London.
Lurker, Manfred 1987: Dictionary of Gods and Goddesses, Devils and Demons, Routledge, London. (trans. Angela Hart)
The image at the top comes from Flickriver, by Elsie esq.