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Saturday, May 2, 2020

Bes: Egyptian God in a Roman Context

Bes together with his feminine counterpart Beset, is an Ancient Egyptian deity worshipped as a protector of households and, in particular, of mothers, children and childbirth. Bes may have been a Middle Kingdom import from Nubia or Somalia, and his cult did not become widespread until the beginning of the New Kingdom.  Bes was responsible for such varied tasks as killing snakes, fighting off evil spirits, watching after children, and aiding women in labour by fighting off evil spirits, and thus present with Taweret at births.

Since he drove off evil, Bes also came to symbolize the good things in life – music, dance, and sexual pleasure. In the New Kingdom, tattoos of Bes could be found on the thighs of dancers, musicians and servant girls. Many instances of Bes masks and costumes from the New Kingdom and later have been uncovered. These show considerable wear, thought to be too great for occasional use at festivals, and are therefore thought to have been used by professional performers, or given out for rent. 

Worship of Bes spread as far north as the area of Syria, and later into the Roman and Achaemenid Empires. While the female variant was more popular in Minoan Crete, the male version would prove popular with the Phoenicians and the ancient Cypriots. The Balearic island of Ibiza derives its name from the god's name, brought along with the first Phoenician settlers in 654 BCE. These settlers, amazed at the lack of any sort of venomous creatures on the island, thought it to be the island of Bes. Later the Roman name Ebusus was derived from this designation.

During the Ptolemaic period,  chambers were constructed, painted with images of Bes and his wife Beset, thought by Egyptologists to have been for the purpose of curing fertility problems or general healing rituals.  Because of his defensive nature, Bes was sometimes depicted in a soldier's tunic including the garb of a Roman soldier during the Roman Period.

 Bronze Bell in the form of Bes also from the Roman Period of Egypt at the British Museum courtesy of the British Museum.
Relief of Bes dressed as a Roman Soldier from The Petrie Museum in London, from the Roman Period courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg). 

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