Bes: The Egyptian Dwarf God Who Guarded Against Evil Spirits

Credit: Met Museum

Introduction – A Dwarf Who Was an Egyptian God?

Bes (also known as Bisu or Aha) was a unique character in Egyptian mythology in the sense that he was venerated as a deity (or Egyptian god) through visual motifs. But archaeologically, except for a vineyard sanctuary, there is not a single temple found in Egypt that was dedicated to the worship of Bes.

This certainly brings us to the question – who was Bes? In short, Bes was a protector deity associated with childbirth, sexuality, and even antithetical elements like humor and war. And short he was! Incredibly enough, visually, Bes was usually represented as a bearded dwarf with an unkempt beard, lolling tongue, and unusually long arms (and sometimes wearing a lion mask and an elaborate headdress).

Even more interesting is the fact that in spite of having no formal form of worship and dedicated temples, Bes was probably one of the most popular gods in ancient Egypt. This is evident from the sheer number of Bes statues, figurines, and other representative mediums like mirrors, cups, and ointment vessels.

So without further ado, let us delve into the history and mythology of Bes – the goofy Egyptian dwarf deity who was genuinely venerated as the protector god, also associated with sexuality and fertility. The name ‘Bes’, possibly derived from the verb besa – meaning ‘to protect’, was possibly a moniker that was offered later in reverence to the dwarfish divinity.

Origins and History of Bes in Ancient Egypt


The widespread popularity of Bes rather masks his ambiguous origins in ancient Egypt. What historians hypothesize is that Bes originated before the emergence of the Middle Kingdom (circa 1700 BC), possibly in a lion-like form. One theory even suggests how Bes possibly came from Africa, with one of his titles referring to him as the ‘Lord of the Punt’. Punt is conjectured to be the ancient mystical region comprising what is now North West Somalia with parts of Eritrea.

It is also entirely possible that Bes was originally a demonic entity – conflated with Aha (‘Fighter’), a leonine dwarf who could strangle serpents with his bare hands. But, unlike the ‘evil’ demonic beings we come across in later religions, Egypt had its fair share of well-meaning demons. Thus by the time of the New Kingdom, Bes and Aha became a singular deity invoked for protection against evil spirits.

However, it is more probable that, like many other deities of Egyptian mythology, the visualization and veneration of Bes were not based on any single entity. Contrastingly, the dwarf god may have been a composite of many gods and demons. Additionally, he may have shared many characteristics with minor deities like Hayet, Mefdjet, and Sopdu.

In any case, historically, it is pretty much evident that Bes was a widely popular deity during the New Kingdom period (post-16th century BC) – when ancient Egypt reached its greatest territorial extent. In fact, such was the popularity of Bes that his amulets have even been found in Amarna. To put things into context, Amarna was the royal capital of Pharaoh Akhenaten who forbid the worship of all Egyptian gods with the exception of Aten – the solar disk.

Incredibly enough, Bes was also venerated beyond the borders of the Egyptian kingdom. For example, Phoenician settlers may have brought the worship of Bes to one of their trading posts on a Spanish Balearic island – a place we know as Ibiza, derived from Iboshim, meaning ‘island of Bes’.

Similarly, a relief from the Neo-Hittite city of Azitawataya (in present-day Turkey), dating from circa 8th century BC, features Bes as the protective entity who guarded the gateway. Going further eastward, images of Bes, sometimes wearing Persian clothes, were also found engraved on various items from the Achaemenid Persian Empire, ranging from gold belts to ceramic jars.

The prevalence and esteem of Bes rather continued to rise during the Ptolemaic period. By this era (305 to 30 BC), even oracles of Bes were set up, along with the famed Bes chambers (discussed later) in most major settlements of Egypt.

Bes was also venerated during the Roman period. For example, Roman legionaries stationed in Egypt were known to have images of Bes inscribed on their shields. And given Bes’ status as one of the protective deities, soldiers also drank from Bes-engraved goblets before the commencement of battles.

Myths and Attributes of Bes


Unlike the great Egyptian gods of the pantheon like Ra and Horus, whose myths were intricate and interwoven, Bes was more of a domestic god – basically a protective deity accessible to the common folk. To that end, there are not many stories from Egyptian history that directly elaborate on the origins and feats of Bes.

However, Bes, the composite god, was sometimes linked to Tawaret, the hippo goddess who was also the patron goddess of mothers and children. Consequently, one primary attribute of Bes related to his protectiveness over pregnant women, especially during childbirth.

By extension, he was also the protective patron of children and households who could scare evil spirits with his goofy (or even hideous) countenance, loud musical instruments, and wild dancing. In fact, Bes was also perceived as the symbolic overseer of toilet training and the cultural development of children. Pertaining to the latter, the dwarf was invoked in daily domestic rituals of seeking both justice and joy-making.

Now beyond his innocuous nature as an ancient Egyptian god of protection and safety, Bes was further associated with fertility and virility. In that regard, the minor god symbolized many positive functions of life, including music, dance, and sexual pleasure. Even his power as a protector god ‘covered’ protection against venereal diseases – as can be discerned from the practice of having Bes tattoos by some Egyptians, including musicians and prostitutes.

The Bes Chambers

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Given Bes’ domestic status as a patron of pregnancy and sex, there were specific chambers containing motifs of the dwarf god. Also known as incubation chambers, these rooms specifically catered to people who had trouble with conceiving. These pilgrims were encouraged to spend the night in the presence of the god’s virile power. Most of these private compartments were usually constructed within temple precincts, like the one at the Temple of Hathor at Dendera.

By the Ptolemaic period, Bes was depicted in a more animalistic form with his prominent genitals. His paintings were usually accompanied by that of a naked goddess, possibly Beset (his female form). And together, the divine couple was believed to have induced soothing or erotic dreams that could cure the pilgrim of infertility or impotence.

Depictions of the Goofy God by Ancient Egyptians

A Bes Amulet

Among the ancient gods of Egypt, Bes was probably the most popular – when it came to his representations, depictions, and motifs across a wide variety of items. Simply put, instead of grand temples and monumental statues, Bes found his way into the cultural lives of the commoners through objects like votive figures, amulets, furniture carvings, knives, and even magic wands (also known as birth tusks – that were crafted for ritual use during childbirth).

Furthermore, household items like headrests, mirrors, cups, ointment vessels, and other personal articles also displayed their fair share of Bes imagery. Now in many of these motifs, he was depicted in a rather goofy manner. There may have been a simple reasoning behind these jokey representations, especially on the walls of mammisi (‘birth houses’). Ancient Egyptians may have believed that if the baby laughed, it was because of the funny faces made by the jovial god.

Beyond just object-based depictions, Bes was also represented via temporal means. For example, mothers would offer their short prayers (and spells) and then draw an image of the dwarfish god on the hand of their child for protection. Similarly, Bes-invoked clothes were tied to the hands of suffering children so that they could be soothed by the pleasant dreams furnished by the god.

Talking of protection, many of the older depictions of Bes also tended to feature the god’s leonine (or feline) features, with his reared-up hind legs and a long tail. Interestingly, even the Nubian word besa possibly referred to a cat. According to researchers, these features might have alluded to the power, majesty, and vitality of Bes. By extension, he was perceived as the protector of the commoners, women, and children – much like Bastet (or Sekhmet), the cat/lioness goddesses who were considered as the divine protectors of the Egyptian soldiers.

And lastly, even the physical attributes of a male child could determine his future occupation in ancient Egypt. For example, if the child was chubby, he was identified with the pot-bellied depictions of Bes. Consequently, the male child was earmarked as a potential Merchant Priest – a member of the priestly class who oversaw the flow of goods and commodities to and fro from the temple precincts. In essence, the guardian god was probably also venerated as the protector of goods and the economy in ancient Egypt.

Featured Image Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sources: Livius / World History / Ancient Egypt Online

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