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In Egyptian mythology, Sekhmet (also spelt Sachmet, Sakhet, and Sakhmet), was originally the war goddess of Upper Egypt, although when the first Pharaoh of the 12th dynasty moved the capital of Egypt to Memphis, her cult centre moved as well. As Lower Egypt had been conquered by Upper Egypt, Sekhmet was seen as the more vicious of the two war goddesses, the other, Bast, being the war goddess of Lower Egypt. Consequently it was Sekhmet who was seen as the Avenger of Wrongs, and Scarlet Lady, a reference to blood. As the one with bloodlust, she was also seen as ruling over menstruation.
Her name suits her function, and means (one who is) powerful, and she was also given titles such as (One) Before Whom Evil Trembles, and Lady of Slaughter. Sekhmet was believed to protect the pharaoh in battle, stalking the land, and destroying his enemies with arrows of fire, her body being said to take on the bright glare of the midday sun, gaining her the title Lady of Flame. Indeed it was said that death and destruction were balsam for her heart, and hot desert winds were believed to be her breath.
In order to placate Sekhmet's wrath, her priesthood felt compelled to perform a ritual before a different statue of her on each day of the year, leading to it being estimated that over seven hundred statues of Sekhmet once stood in the funerary temple of Amenhotep III, on the west bank of the Nile. It was said that her priests protected her statues from theft or vandalism by coating them with anthrax, and so Sekhmet was also seen as a bringer of disease, to be prayed to so as to cure such ills by placating her. The name "Sekhmet" literally became synonymous with doctors and surgeons during the Middle Kingdom. In antiquity, many of Sekhmet's priests were often considered to be on the same level as physicians.
She was envisioned as a fierce lioness, and in art, was depicted as such, or as a woman with the head of a lioness, dressed in red, the colour of blood. Sometimes the dress she wears exhibits a rosetta pattern over each nipple, an ancient leonine motif, which can be traced to observation of the shoulder-knot hairs on lions. Tame lions were kept in temples dedicated to Sekhmet at Leontopolis.
To pacify Sekhmet, festivals were celebrated at the end of battle, so that there would be no more destruction. On such occasions, people danced and played music to soothe the wildness of the goddess, and drank great quantities of beer. For a time, a myth developed around this in which Ra, the sun god (of Upper Egypt), created her from his fiery eye, to destroy mortals which conspired against him (Lower Egypt). In the myth, however, Sekhmet's blood-lust lead to her destroying almost all of humanity, so Ra tricked her into drinking beer coloured with red ochre so that it resembled blood, making her so drunk that she gave up slaughter and became the gentle Hathor once more.
After Sekhmet's worship moved to Memphis, as Horus and Ra had been identified as one another, under the name Ra-Herakhty, when the two religious systems were merged, and Ra became seen as a form of Atum, known as Atum-Ra, so Sekhmet, as a form of Hathor, was seen as Atum's mother. In particular, she was seen as the mother of Nefertum, the youthful form of Atum, and so was said to have Ptah, Nefertum's father, as a husband.
Though Sekhmet was originally identified with Hathor, over time both evolved into separate deities because the character of both goddess were so vastly different. Later, Sekhmet was syncretized with the goddess Mut, the great mother, became significant, and gradually absorbed the identities of the patron goddesses, merging with Sekhmet, and also sometimes with Bast.
A Hymn of Sekhmet says:
- Mine is a heart of carnelian, crimson as murder on a holy day.
- Mine is a heart of corneal, the gnarled roots of a dogwood and the bursting of flowers.
- I am the broken wax seal on my lover's letters.
- I am the phoenix, the fiery sun, consuming and resuming myself.
- I will what I will.
- Mine is a heart of carnelian, blood red as the crest of a phoenix.