Egypt: Seshat, Female Scribe, Goddess of Writing Measurement, A Feature Tour Egypt Story

Seshat, Female Scribe, Goddess of Writing Measurement

By Caroline Seawright

sshSeshat determinative

Seshat (Sashet, Sesheta), meaning 'female scribe', was seen as the goddess of writing, historical records, accounting and mathematics, measurement and architecture to the ancient Egyptians. She was depicted as a woman wearing a panther-skin dress (the garb of the funerary stm priests) and a headdress that was also her hieroglyph - Seshat determinative - which may represent either a stylized flower or seven pointed star on a standard that is beneath a set of down-turned horns. (The horns may have originally been a crescent, linking Seshat to the moon and hence to her spouse, the moon god of writing and knowledge, Thoth.)

She was believed to appear to assist the pharaoh at various times, and who kept a record of his life:

It was she who recorded the time allotted to him by the gods for his stay on earth.

She was associated with the pharaoh at the 'stretching the cord' foundation ritual, where she assisted the pharaoh with the measuring process. During New Kingdom times, she was shown to have been involved in the sed (jubilee) festival of the pharaohs, holding a palm rib to show the passage of time. She kept track of each pharaoh and the period for which he ruled and the speeches made during the crowning rituals. She was also shown writing down the inventory of foreign captives and captured goods from campaigns.

One of the most important ceremonies in the foundation of Egyptian temples was known as Pedjeshes (Pedj--"to stretch," Shes--"a cord") and it forms the subject of one of the chief monumental ornaments in the temples of Abydos, Heliopolis, Denderah, and Edfu. The reigning pharaoh and a priestess personifying Seshat, the goddess of writing, proceeded to the site, each armed with a golden mallet and a PEG connected by a cord to another PEG. Seshat having driven her peg home at the previously prepared spot, the king directed his gaze to the constellation of the Bull's Foreleg (this constellation is identical with Ursa Major, "Great Bear," and the "hoof" star is Benetnasch, Eta Ursae majoris). Having aligned the cord to the "hoof" and Spica as seen through the visor formed by Seshat's curious headdress, he raised his mallet and drove the peg home, thus marking the position of the axis of the future temple.

- Cyril Fagan, Zodiacs Old and New (1951)

Priest of Seshat

Seshat has no temples that have been found, though she did have a priesthood in early times. Along with her priestess', there were a few priests in the order - the Slab Stela of Prince Wep-em-nefret, from the Fourth Dynasty, gives him the title of Overseer of the Royal Scribes, Priest of Seshat. It was at a later time that the priests of Thoth took over the priesthood of Seshat.

Seti I, at Abydos, dedicated part of his temple to the goddess:

The staircase of the temple ... bears an address in 43 columns of the goddess Seshat to the king (KRI I, 186-188). The text displays a rigid scheme which deals with the temple itself and its two groups of occupants (the king and the gods) and in which pseudo-verbal/ temporal aspects and non-verbal sentences/ a-temporal aspects alternate. The author demonstrates that the three main elements, temple, gods and king, have each their proper place in the sophisticated and complicated structure of the text. The address consists of three parts. The first concerns the temple, its conception and its realisation. The second presents the gods who live there and guarantee its sacral nature. The third part is devoted to the king, the celebrant par excellence, who certifies its functioning. This last part has a very intricate structure, with reference to the Horus and solar aspect of the king, the Osirian aspect, and the relationship between the two. At the conclusion of the address Seshat speaks, in order to fulfil her usual task of registering the divine kingship of the pharaoh as living Horus, according to the orders of Ra and the decree of Atum. - Dominique Bastin, De la fondation d'un temple: "Paroles dites par Seshat au Roi Sethi Ier,"

Seshat, Goddess of Writing

Thoth was thought to be her male counterpart and father, and she was often depicted as his wife by the Egyptians. Some believe her to be an example of Egyptian duality, as she bears many of the traits of Thoth. She was thought to be linked with the goddess Nephthys who was given the title 'Seshat, Foremost of Builders' in the Pyramid texts. She was also identified with Isis. Safekh-Aubi (Sefekh-Aubi) is a title that came from Seshat's headdress, that may have become an aspect of Seshat or an actual goddess. Safekh-Aubi means 'She Who Wears the Two Horns' and relates to the horns that appear above Seshat's standard.

The Egyptians believed that Seshat invented writing, while Thoth taught writing to mankind. She was known as 'Mistress of the House of Books', indicating that she also took care of Thoth's library of spells and scrolls. It was as 'Mistress of the House of Architects' that she helped the pharaoh set the foundations of temples with indication that she set the axis by the aid of the stars.

Pharaoh Hatshepsut depicted both Seshat and Thoth as those who made the inventory of treasures brought back from Punt:

Thoth made a note of the quantity and Seshat verified the figures.

Seshat was the only female that has been found (so far) actually writing. Other women have been found holding a scribe's writing brush and palette - showing that they could read and write - but these women were never shown in the act of writing itself.

She was a rather important goddess, even from earlier times in the Pyramid texts. She was the first and foremost female scribe - accountant, historian and architect to both the pharaoh and the gods. She was the female goddess of positions belonging mostly to men. Yet she did not have a personal name, only a title - Seshat, the Female Scribe.