Egyptian God Bes, Ancient Egyptian Tattoos, Tattoo

Egyptian Women’s Tattoos Depict Protective Deity at ‘The Place of Truth’

Researchers have revealed more about ancient women with tattoos discovered at The Place of Truth, Deir el-Medina, northwest of Luxor (ancient Thebes), Egypt. The ancient town was home to artisans who built royal tombs in the nearby necropolises, the Valley of the Kings and Queens, between 1550 to 1070 BC, over 3000 years ago.

The workers here were called the “Servants in the Place of Truth,” and many of the women living there were part of the artisan’s families. However, there was also a temple where tattoed high priestesses worshipped. Both men and women could serve Hathor, unlike other deities of ancient Egypt. 

Deir el-Medina was originally the name of the Temple of Hathor, where people worshipped goddesses Hathor and Maat in the isolated desert. It was one of the largest structures there, with sanctuaries for Amun-Sokar-Osiris and Amun-Re-Osiris.

Ptolemaic Temple of Hathor at Deir el-Medina by kairoinfo4u via Flickr, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

From Place of Truth to Monastery of the Town

After the Christian era, the town changed names when monks took residence in the abandoned Temple. It’s important context about this place but overlooked in the news. Instead, many reports mention a nearby ancient dump of pay stubs, receipts and letters on papyrus, “the Great Pit.” But nothing recorded there mentions the practice of tattooing.

“Early in the Christian era the village, then deserted, was occupied by monks who took over the Temple of Hathor for use as a cloister. The temple was referred to as Deir el-Medina (“Monastery of the Town”) and this name finally came to be applied to the entire site,” writes Word History Encyclopedia.

It’s also not the first time that significant archaeological finds related Hathor has been strangely downplayed. For example, in 2021, LiveScience reported on a “garbage dump” of relics found at the Hatshepsut Temple at Deir el-Bahari nearby. However, these were huge mounds of votive offerings dedicated to the Goddess.

Video by il Faroane Tours:

Tattooed Priestesses of Hathor

In 2016, LiveScience discussed what researchers were learning about the Egyptian women at Deir el-Medina. Their tattoos were the first of their kind ever found and so far exclusively found on women. These women had symbols on the throat, arms, neck, back, and shoulders depicting lotus blossoms, snakes, cows and divine eyes associated with Hathor. 

The tattooed female mummies were discovered in the 20s, but new research reveals many more details. 

Wadjat Eye, Wikimedia

Tattoos on the neck of protective Wadjet eyes may have been a symbol of “the sign of beauty or goodness,” according to bioarchaeologist Dr. Anne Austin. And, of course, these eyes can be a symbol of the Eye of Horus and Hathor, known as the Eye of Ra.

Anne Austin via Peopling the Past with two of the tattoos she examined (Image credits: Anne Austin)

“Hathor was a goddess that was celebrated for the family,” said Anne Austin. “She had a temple dedicated just to her at this site.”

Anne Austin talks about her research below via PeoplingThePast:

Tattoos of The Protective Dwarf God Bes

In the latest research, Austin, lead bioarchaeologist at Deir el-Medina since 2012, and Marie-Lys Arnette have used new technology, infrared photography, to discover more about tattoos on two female mummies. Now, researchers don’t have to unwrap the mummies to discover the symbols on the ancient skin.

Image of Bes by Andrew Moore via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The tattoos on the thigh and hips may depict the Egyptian deity Bes wearing a crown of feathers. Bes was chiefly a guardian of women and children and protected during and after childbirth. Depictions of him are sometimes as a bearded dwarf with large ears, and he stood guard outside birth houses. He became so popular that he appeared on many household items for people from all walks of life. 

Along with Hathor, artists depicted Bes face-on, while all others are depicted in profile.

At the magnificent Temple of Hathor at Dendera, there is a Bes Chamber, an “incubation chamber,” where visitors would spend the night to cure their infertility or impotence.

Some, like researcher JJ Ainsworth suggest images like Bes are found worldwide (see video below).

“We find the symbol of Bes, oftentimes just the face, globally. We find it in other parts of Africa, Greece, in Italy, even Mesoamerica,” says Ainsworth.

Statue of Bes with researcher JJ Ainsworth via YouTube

Video by MegalithomaniaUK:

The feminine aspect of Bes is Beset, who wards off evil. She looks much like Maat, who wears a feather on her head and is diminutive in size.

Bes and Best by Rama via Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY-SA 3.0 FR) with Bes from the Cleveland Museum of Art via Wikimedia CommonsCC0

Bes was among the most popular ancient gods, although there is no origin story. Possibly, he evolved from the deity called Aha, the Fighter, who resembled a lion. Nevertheless, people honored this deity from the Old Kingdom to the New. Even Roman soldiers adopted Bes, wearing his face on their shields.

“In keeping with the Egyptian concept of the value of balance, Bes is as often seen in art laughing, dancing, and singing as he shown as a fierce warrior/protector,” writes World History Encyclopedia. “He was thought to entertain little children with his songs, and if a child were seen smiling or laughing seemingly at nothing, it was thought Bes was the cause.”

Image credits: Anne Austin

Other Tattoos Found

Some of the other tattoos the researchers found:

  • Bowl used for a purification ritual 
  • A zigzag line thought to represent a marsh

They suggest the zigzag is a symbol of a marsh where women would go during childbirth to cool down. Notably, Hathor was the goddess of the afterlife in the Field of Reeds, transitioning to eternal life. She also was known for the sistrum rattle, similar to Bes, who shook a rattle and stuck out his tongue. Also, both were associated with cat-like powers.

Tattoos as Magical Amulets

Bioarchaeologist Sonia Zakrzewski, who wasn’t involved in the study, suggested the tattoos were like a “portable magical amulet” to protect the women. Indeed, clay figurines with tattoos were found with the mummies suggesting more evidence that the tattoos were protective and magical.

Magic and medicine were synonymous in ancient Egypt, and magical amulets were always popular. Similarly, sculptures featuring Bes are thought to have magical powers.

For example, there are many of the so-called “Cippus of Horus,” featuring Bes looking over the god Horus. Cippi are low pillars featuring relief sculptures and inscriptions on both sides. By pouring liquid over the stela, believers could transfer the protective power of healing spells written on the reverse to the worshipper.

“On the base, sides and back, these cippi characteristically have protective spells carved in hieroglyphs. The texts allude to the legend of Osiris and Horus and are meant to protect against and cure injuries made by the dangerous animals represented on the stele. These texts generally consist in two spells, which Egyptologists call Text A and Text B. The magical power of the texts was transferred by pouring water over the inscriptions and collecting it in a bowl, which a person would drink in order to ‘fill his body with Heka (magic)’ and thereby heal him or her. A portable amulet such as this one would be immersed in water and that water would then be consumed ritually. The small amulets could also transfer their power by kissing or rubbing them, and this is the reason why their surface is in many cases worn out,” writes Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum.

The Etruscans, Greeks, and Romans created Cippi.

Cippus of Horus (magical stela) MET via Wikimedia Commons, public domain with Magical stela Wikimedia, public domain
The reverse of Magical Stela (Cippus of Horus) MET. Image via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Ancient Tramp Stamps?

By today’s standards, tattoos on the lower back are sometimes named “tramp stamps.” That’s how the Daily Mail decided to describe the tattoos in their title: “Ancient Egyptian women got ‘tramp stamp’ tattoos more than 3,000 years ago to protect them and their child during birth: Markings found on the lower back symbolize good luck and health.”

Likewise, the presence of tattoos on female mummies discovered in the late 19th century was disparaged by historians in the Victorian era. Unfortunately, both the Temple and the tattooed women were viewed with bias. 

Image credits: Anne Austin

When the tattooed women were discovered most academics dismissed them as women of low status, probably prostitutes, ‘dancing girls’ or maybe royal concubines because the area where the bodies were found, Deir el-Bahari, was the site of royal and high-status burials,” wrote Ancient Origins in 2013.

Reconstruction. Image credit: Anne Austin/University of Missouri-St. Louis) with Bes, public domain

The Priestess and Goddess Amunet

One of the previously discovered tattooed mummies was Amunet, discovered in 1891. She lived in Egypt around 2100 BC and was a Priestess of Hathor.

“The most famous of these tattooed mummies is Amunet, Priestess of the Goddess Hathor. The mummy of Amunet was discovered in 1891 by the French Egyptologist Eugène Grébaut and from all accounts, the tattoos were seen as quite sensual, of course at this time curved table legs were also considered sensual so one must view their reaction in context to their Victorian mores,” wrote Ancient Origins.

Amunet’s tattoos were carefully delineated dashes, even suggestive of ancient knowledge of acupressure for women during childbirth. But this was overlooked in preference to the idea that the tattoos indicated something derogatory. Instead, these tattoos had religious, protective purposes, and the women who had them were held in the highest regard like the Goddess they worshipped.

Notably, there is also a Goddess Amunet, who is associated with fertility, the “Mother Who is Father,” and “the Hidden One.” Sometimes, Amunet is depicted as a primordial cow like Hathor.

Related: 4,000-year-old Egyptian tomb of a woman named Ankh is unearthed

Tattoo of Priestess Amunet (artist unknown) Tattooed figurine (MET), Colossus of Amunet at the Karnak Temple in Luxor, via Wikimedia Commons

Featured image: Image of Bes by Andrew Moore via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)