Bes was a unique deity in the Egyptian pantheon. There were no temples dedicated to his worship, and no priests were ordained in his name, yet his cult was pervasive, reaching every household in every echelon of society. Bes was a protector. He was the champion of all that was good, and the averter of all that was evil. His security over the home especially safeguarded women and children, and childbirth in particular, for which his role was to ward off all evil influences. In everyday life, he offered safety from all dangers, including snakes and demons and malevolent forces. Inversely, Bes came to embody the pleasures of life, including dance, humour, music and sexual desire. His physical presence in the home would promote these tenets and insure protection.
Bes’ appearance is also unique amongst other Egyptian deities. He is grotesque, with several leonine features, including a full mane and tail. He is shown full faced, as if wearing a mask. He has the body of a human dwarf, with bandy legs, muscular limbs and a corpulent belly, and he is typically depicted nude. All of these characteristic features appear here, on this exceptionally carved statuette of the monstrous god. The base material is steatite, a soft talc-like stone. It was glazed with a pale green vitreous material and was then fired, further strengthening the stone and protecting it from its friable tendencies.
Bes’ mane is here rendered as a thinly striated beard that fringes squarely along his chest. His long downturned moustache overhangs his thick lips. The eyes are deeply carved to receive now-missing inlays, and three small recesses are fashioned along his forward, also once inlaid. He dons the skin of a leopard, which envelopes his back, with the tail hanging down between his legs, and the head falling just above his navel. Large scales are incised along the back and top of this head indicating his radiating layered mane. There is a rectangular mortise at the crown of his head to receive the separately-made plumes that would have completed his distinguishing attributes.
Worship of Bes became widespread in Egypt during the New Kingdom, the period during which this remarkable figurine was so finely sculpted. This was the height of artistic prowess in ancient Egypt, and the present Bes is a testament to the exceptional quality of everyday objects during this notable period.
This outstanding figure of Bes was part of the prominent collection of the renowned scholar William Kelly Simpson, who died in 2017 after a long and prolific career in Egyptology. He was revered for his impeccable taste and connoisseurship. His great knowledge has touched generations of students and colleagues, and as his collection disseminates, a part of his vibrant spirit continues to inhabit each piece.
Antiquities, Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, 11 December 1976, lot 193.
William Kelly Simpson (1928-2017), New York, acquired from the above.
Exhibited: Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 13 December 1976-8 June 2000 (Loan no. 176.1976)