Seshat: Mistress of the Books

The Egyptian goddess Seshat is one of the lesser-known Egyptian deities, and yet she was an enduring one. Her name means “Female Scribe” and the art of the scribe was her area: the burgeoning state of Egypt needed to keep records, formalize contracts and agreements, and make blueprints for buildings. This made her a useful deity, but also limited her cult, as we shall see.

Goddess of the Written Word

She was the goddess of architecture, astronomy and mathematics, as well as libraries. Anything that needed precise measurements and records was her province, and she is probably best known to us as the goddess of libraries, “mistress of the books”. Her worshippers were architects and state officials; there is no record of any cult among the ordinary people.

Seshat was seen as an early goddess, “the primeval one”, who “wrote the first time”. (Jackson: Loc. 2220) Her cult is most prominent during the Old Kingdom, when she was a companion of the king. Her close connection to royalty may have limited her cult, but 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 Seshat has spat.”

While she appeared in the art on temples, she didn’t have any temples of her own. She did have a priesthood, though. Prince Wep-em-nefret of the 4th Dynasty, left a slab stela which calls him “Overseer of the Royal Scribes” and “Priest of Seshat”. (Incidentally, his wife had her own funerary stela, showing her wearing a leopard-print dress. Was she a priestess of Seshat?)

The part she played in the construction of temples, especially the “stretching of the cord” ceremony (Pedjeshes,from Pedj “to stretch,” and Shes “a cord”), the ancient Egyptian equivalent of cutting the ribbon or digging the first spadeful, ensured that she was remembered in many temples and other buildings. (The cord was a mason’s line, used for measuring the dimensions of a building.) The earliest record of such a ceremony comes from the First Dynasty, with a priest of Seshat officiating.

An inscription from the temple of Horus at Edfu describes the ceremony:

I have grasped the stake along with the handle of the mallet. I take the measuring cord in the company of Seshat. I observe the progressive movement of the stars. My eye is now fixed upon Meskhetiu [the seven stars of the “Big Dipper”]. The god of time-keeping stands by me, in front of his merkhet. Then, I have established the four corners of the temple.

(A merkhet was used to keep time by checking the alignment of certain stars, especially Polaris.)

Seshat was involved with the pharaoh in other ways. In the image below, she cuts notches in a palm-stick to mark the length of the his reign. (This method of tallying dates back to earliest times.) Sometimes she presents a pharaoh with a palm tree, symbolic of a long reign.

Seshat with her leopard skin dress and seven-pointed symbol. Wikimedia.

Iconography

Her leopard skin was a status item, worn only by the pharaoh and priests. They were mainly associated with the funerary priests, (because Anubis wore one) but the spots could also refer to the endless stars in the sky. (Linen made to look like leopard skin often had stars or rosettes instead of spots.)

The symbol above her head in the picture above is the hieroglyph for “Seshat”, and while it often appears in that form, a seven-pointed star on a stem with two horns above it, sometimes it is capped with feathers instead. One of her names was Sefket-Abwy, She of the Seven Points.

It has remained a mystery whether the seven-pointed symbol was intended to represent a flower, a star*, or a stylized palm tree. (Other theories suggest a lotus blossom or a papyrus reed, shown below.)

Image from PIxabay

Real-Life Seshats

It’s hard to get a firm answer to the question of how literate women in ancient Egypt would have been. One thing all the sources agree on is that the number of women who could read and write increased over time, so that by Ptolemaic times the mummy of a woman called Hermione described her as a ‘teacher of Greek grammar’.

Earlier, during the Middle Kingdom, women were occasionally described as seshat, although the argument about what exactly that means is still raging. As the site Women and Literacy in Ancient Egypt puts it:

In the Middle Kingdom we see occasional references to seshet which sounds like the feminine of the Egyptian word for scribe.  It is quite possible that one woman with this title was indeed a scribe, but the others were clearly from a non-elite class.  One with the title was a hairdresser by trade and it has been suggested that seshet could have been an abbreviated word for cosmetician.  These references do not appear in the Old or New Kingdoms.  There may have been a few women scribes, but it seems certain that the position was almost totally reserved for men. No woman achieved prominence in the bureaucracy of government.

Women did serve in temples, but it is quite possible that their duties did not require literacy.

Several New Kingdom scenes show women with a scribal kit under their chairs. In only one, however, can we be certain that the kit belonged to the woman in question.  There are letters from women but we cannot be sure that they did not have a servant to do the writing.

Egyptian art shows women reading documents, which suggests that some could at least read. Unlike women in other parts of the Mediterranean, Egyptian women worked outside the house, including in jobs that might have required literacy, such as overseer, steward and priestess.

Lady Tchat of the Middle Kingdom was Treasurer and Keeper of the Property, while a letter from Henuttawy of the New Kingdom to her husband survives. (He was a scribe, who would probably marry an educated woman.) On the most elite level, princesses were educated, but laundry lists and dressmaking advice have been found at Deir el-Medina suggest that ordinary women had some ability to read and write. (Jackson: Loc. 939)

Seshat and Thoth

I mentioned earlier that Seshat assigned the length of a king’s reign, as well as recording it. She shared this task with the better-known god Thoth, god of the moon and, by extension, the calendar. They also assigned fates to ordinary people, writing them on the birthing bricks the mother crouched on. (Scroll down here to see how they did this.)

Thoth was scribe to the sun-god Ra, and invented writing. (According to one text, he taught Isis both sacred and demotic writing.) So it’s not surprising that Seshat was often associated with him as his wife, daughter or mother. On a relief from a temple in Edfu, Ptolemy X offers Thoth and Seshat a scribal palette, thanking them for the gift of writing. (Jackson: Loc. 911)

Seshat and Thoth at the temple of Osiris in Abydos. From Sacred Sites Journeys.

Seshat plays an important part in a manuscript nicknamed the Book of Thoth, a dialogue between Thoth and a seeker who may be a scribe, since the text deals with a scribe’s work, the gods (Thoth, Seshat and Imhotep) and the afterlife.

It would seem that as time went on Thoth eclipsed Seshat, although she still appeared as his consort. He plays a large part in the mythology, while she has no mythological role at all. As his cult rose in prominence he was inserted into more stories, and his role as scribe to the ruler-god Ra and general counsellor ensured his prominence as god of scribes.

Seshat was, almost inevitably, paired with Isis, who seems to have tried to absorb every Egyptian goddess at some point, but she also was assimilated to Nephthys, Isis’ sister. Nephthys was a goddess of the dead, and several texts refer to her reckoning years or numbers of the dead, implying that she is functioning as Seshat when she does this. She was assimilated into the Isis/Nephthys nexus in other ways, too. At least one text says she helped find and reassemble the dismembered Osiris.

So Seshat’s cult seem to have been more meaningful in early times, but her lack of myths, and her close connection to the royal cult, seem to have limited her popularity. In time, she was overshadowed by Thoth and more prominent goddesses, but she still maintained her position as goddess of all things written.

*An obscure hymn to Seshat makes several references to the “Seshat-star”, so perhaps there was a stellar element to her cult, which her hieroglyph references.


References
Jackson, Lesley, Thoth, Avalonia Books. (Kindle edition)
Magdolen, Dušan 2005: “The Development of the Sign of the Ancient Egyptian Goddess Seshat Down to the End of the Old Kingdom: Analysis and Interpretation Part II,” in Asian and African Studies 14/2: 55-72. (academica.edu) (Part I can be found here, and Part III can be found here.)
Pinch, Geraldine 2002: Handbook of Egyptian Mythology, ABC-CLIO. (Google Books)
Smith, William Stephenson 1963: The Stela of Prince Wepemnofret, in Archaeology 16/1: 2-13. (JSTOR)
Wainwright, G.A. 1941: “Seshat and the Pharaoh,” in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 26 (Feb. 1941): 30-40. (JSTOR)

Links:
Wikipedia entry
Egyptian Mythology for Smart People
Ancient Egypt Online
Henadology article
Ancient.eu
Seshat article by Caroline Seawright
Leopard Skins and Priests (lots of pictures)

Female Literacy in Ancient Egypt:
Women and Literacy in Ancient Egypt
From Warrior Women to Female Pharaohs: Careers for Women in Ancient Egypt
Egypt, Ancient: Literacy
Women in Ancient Egypt

You can find the image at the top here.

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