Shai, God of Fate and Destiny
by Caroline Seawright
Shai (Shay, Schai, Schay) was the ancient Egyptian god of fate and destiny. He was both a personification of these concepts as well as a deity - the Egyptians believed that he was 'born' with each individual, yet he was also a god. During the New Kingdom he appeared in the Book of the Dead, shown in the judgement scene in the Halls of Ma'ati. He was a god related to birth in the world and rebirth in the underworld. The name of the god - shay - comes from the ancient Egyptian word for 'appoint' or 'command' - sha The word shay could mean 'extent' or 'bulk'. He was the god of the allotted life-span of a human being, relating Shai to the extent - the length - of their life. Another translation of his name could be 'that which is ordained'. Thus, the Egyptians believed that Shai was also related to the 'destiny' or 'fate' or even the 'luck' of a human being. The Turkish word kismet can closely describe the concept of the god Shai.
Shai first appeared in the 18th Dynasty and continued through Egyptian history even under the reign of Akenaten. He was even sometimes given the name Shait - - and was depicted as female rather than male! He was often partnered with three specific goddesses - Meskhenet, goddess of the birth brick and fate, and Renenutet, the goddess who would give a child his or her true name and Shepset, a hippopotamus goddess of childbirth. He was depicted as a man, a cobra or snake and even as a human-headed birth brick, and most often shown in funeral papyri, near his female partners.
As a god of destiny and fortune, Shai could be a positive or negative influence. He could protect an individual, or he could bring misfortune down on the individual. He could be an ambivalent deity, and the Egyptians believed that he followed a person from the moment of birth through to the judgement in the afterlife. His presence at the weighing of the heart could be either one of helping or hindering the deceased, or even as an unbiased party telling the court what has happened in the life of the deceased. But as Meskhenet and Renenutet were there to help with rebirth of the individual into the afterlife, Shai may also have had a similar protective purpose, rather than being a witness against the deceased. An interesting ancient Egyptian greeting was "Shai and Renenutet are with you."
Shai was originally the deity who "decreed" what should happen to a man, and Renenutet, as may be seen from the pyramid texts, was the goddess of plenty, good fortune, and the like; subsequently no distinction was made between these deities and the abstract ideas which they represented.
But it was not only mortals who had to contend with Shai. It was believed that both he and Renenutet are in the hands of Thoth. To emphasise his divinity, Ramesses II claimed to be "the Lord of Shai and the creator of Renenutet". Yet in the temple of Opet in Ipet-Isut (Karnak), he is mentioned as "Shai of all gods" - the destiny and fate of all gods seemed to also be in Shai's hands. In the Instructions of Amenemope, the scribe suggests that no-one could ignore Shai. Akenaten tried to link Shai with the Aten when he stated that "the Aten is the Shai who gives life". Even Akenaten, who was not the monotheist that people believe him to be (as Assmann and Hornung point out), could not ignore Shai.
Do not set your heart upon seeking riches, For there is no one who can ignore Shai; do not set your thought on external matters: for every man there is his appointed time.
-- Instructions of Amenemope
He was an important god in Graeco-Roman times, where the people of Alexandria linked him to the serpent god of fortune telling, Agathodaimon. (When speaking about Shai himself, they called him Psais or Psois.) Set was also linked to Agathodaimon, which could be because of Shai's unpredictable nature as well as because shai meant 'pig', a sacred animal to Set.
Shai did seem to have a cult of his own, as there was a Second Priest of Shai during 18th Dynasty, but little else is known about his cult. He was respected by the Egyptians as the master of their fates, the one who decreed how long they would live, and who would be with them when they faced their final destiny.