Why Bes, the bow-legged Egyptian god of childbirth, is unique among his fellow gods

Emmanuel Kwarteng November 11, 2022
Ancient Egypt Bes Statue. Image via Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Worshipping lesser gods is a part of every culture, including traditional African culture. Europeans thought that the Africans’ lesser gods were bad, so they brought Christianity to them to change their “ungodly” ways. However, some of these lesser gods helped the ancient Africans in ways that were more important.

Bes is one of the lesser gods who was well-liked in the New Kingdom of ancient Egypt because of how he helped people have children and care for women. Bes, the ancient Egyptian god of pregnancy and childbirth, also played a role as a defender of both mothers and their unborn children. He was also revered as a sexual deity, a humorist, and a god of war. 

He is typically shown as a short man with disproportionately big ears, a beard and long hair, protruding genitalia, and bow legs. It is thought that warriors would carve images of Bes, a god of safety and protection, onto their shields and goblets before going into battle.

Bes’s female counterpart, Beset, is called on in rituals to get rid of ghosts, witchcraft, demons, and other supernatural evils. According to the World History Encyclopedia, Bes is more accurately called a demon than a god. However, the word “devil” should not be used in its modern sense.

Bes was originally and primarily worshipped as a fertility deity associated with giving birth. If a woman was having trouble conceiving, she may spend the night in the Bes Chamber (sometimes called an incubation chamber) at the Temple of Hathor at Dendera. In the Ptolemaic-era Bes Chambers, there were pictures of a naked Bes with upright genitalia and a naked goddess. These were meant to help with fertility and health. According to legend, women often used or carried things that looked like the god and had tattoos of his image on their bodies as well. 

Egyptian “old women” probably retold stories about Bes, but those accounts have been lost to time. Dwarf deities are mostly attested to by visual artifacts. They can be found on cosmetics cases, dressers, and wands. In fact, amulets and figurines made by the Bes dynasty were widely collected for almost two thousand years. Women have been known to get Bes tattoos in an effort to enhance their sexual lives or fertility, Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch wrote.

Ever since the New Kingdom, whenever representations were made to celebrate birth or fertility, Bes was usually shown next to Taweret—a female god—who was usually pregnant. Pinch further asserted that both Bes and Taweret served as protectors of the celestial children venerated in the Birth Houses of temples during the first millennium B.C. According to magical and religious traditions, the god Bes is responsible for releasing the uterine walls so that a baby can be born.

One of the best Egyptian deities is Bes. While his size wouldn’t get him hired to strut down our runways, his unique and charming appearance captured the hearts of Ancient Egyptians and eventually made its way to the Roman Empire, Cyprus, Syria, and beyond. Images of Bes were prevalent in ancient Egyptian household decoration. As a form of protection, his image is on many everyday things, such as mirrors, cosmetics containers, and even bedheads.

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