• Before: I remember you, didn’t you have a caracal in your entourage?
  • After: It’d be daft not to hang around you in a war-torn desert.

The name of Egyptian lion goddess, Pakhet, means “the one who tears” or “the scratcher”. If she sounds like a naughty kitten, how about this: her claws were strong enough to carve a valley.

About 3km (1.8 miles) from Beni Hassan in Egypt, it used to host two rock-cut temples in the lioness’ honour. The larger surviving one, Speos Artemidos, was built by female pharaoh Hatshepsut during her reign 1473–1458 BCE but unfinished, and later renovated by King Seti I (reign 1292-1190 BCE).

By Einsamer Schütze – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Impressive landscaping, sure, but why did she deserve a temple?

A good head on her shoulders. But which?

Whether a lion-headed woman, an actual lioness, caracal or panther, desert huntress Pakhet is sometimes merged with more famous felines Bastet and Sekhmet. In some iterations she is an aspect, like the vengeance of Sekhmet; in others, a possible middle-road (or “knock-off”, if you’re feeling catty). Or a literal fusion.

Transforming into a three-headed god with divine mother Mut and vulture goddess Nekhbet, Pakhet would protect the deceased, an incredibly sarcastic pledge if the ancient Egyptians hadn’t believed in an afterlife. For a later civilisation, she took a human form.

She was already walking on two legs for some reason.

When the Greeks stumbled across her temple, they basically shrugged and said “Yep, that’s the virgin hunter Artemis” – hence Speos Artemidos, or “cave of Artemis”. Overlooking, of course, her distinctly lion-like appearance and less-than-virginal clinches with other gods. But let’s talk about the other topic guaranteed to grab attention: violence and death.

Wadi Warrior

Pakhet was the most terrifying lion goddess, and in the Coffin Texts, a main source of Egypt’s  “Book of the Dead”, she is:

“…Pakhet the Great, whose eyes are keen and whose claws are sharp, the lioness who sees and catches at night”.

That’s a pretty low bar for a lioness, but she also killed snakes, loomed over conquered enemies, and pledged to Amun, King of the Gods:

“I place fear of thee in all lands. I rear myself up between thine eyebrows, my fiery breath being as a fire against thine enemies…”

But she wasn’t all fire and brimstone: her other honorary titles were “Goddess at the Entrance of Wadi”, and “She Who Opens the Ways of the Stormy Rains”.

No surprise then, as ruler of a desert-based dynasty, that Hatshepsut wanted her on side.

The lion’s share

When the temple was built, Egypt was recovering from attacks from the Hyksos dynasty of Asia. Hatshepsut inscribed that she drove them away, but possibly to cover her back, added a dedication to the “Great Pakhet” too, and the insides of the temple, both old and restored, are riddled with texts where she, Pakhet and Seti I honour each other with gifts like it’s Christmas. A bunch of incense in return for two sweet holy cobra sceptres is a pretty poor show though, Hatty. I hope you were embarrassed.

Let’s hope Seti I’s gifts (right) were more elaborate. Image by Kurohito.

A nearby cemetery of mummified cats and hawks is also thought to be in Pakhet’s name, maybe since she enjoyed inter-sheet shenanigans with falcon god Horus.

You didn’t have to build a temple or bury a pet to win her favour though: if you made the right fashion choice as a woman (i.e. wore her amulet), she would grant you protection and a happy motherhood. And, when she wasn’t doing any of the above, she was nice enough to defend the royal palace of Pero. So maybe the incense went down a treat after all.

TLDR

What? Ancient Egyptian lion goddess who was a terrifying hunter and protector of the dead.

Where? Her temple Speos Artemidos is about 3km (1.8 miles) from Beni Hassan in Egypt, and she was thought to rule the eastern Sahara.

How big? Depending on her form, the size of a human woman, a lioness, a panther, or a dinkier caracal.

Probable motto: Excuse me while I sharpen my claws on your enemies.

Just to prove I’m not fibbing (about the legend, anyway!)

Africa Geographic Editorial. 2018. “15 lion facts you need to know“. Africa Geographic.

Anon. 1250 BCE (seriously). “The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth By Day“. Translated by Faulkner, Raymond O. Chronicle Books.

Bunson, Margaret R. 2002 (1991). “Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt“. Facts on File, Inc.

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Coffin texts“. Britannica.com.

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Mut“. Britannica.com.

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Nekhbet“. Britannica.com.

Fairman, H.W., and Grdseloff, Bernhard. 1947. “Texts of the Hatshepsut and Sethos I inside Speos Artemidos“. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 33(Dec., 1947):12-33.

Faulkner, R. O. 1977. “The Ancient Egyptian Coffin 1“. Aris & Phillips Ltd.

Galán, José M. et al (eds). 2010. “Creativity and Innovation in the Reign of Hatshepsut“. Occasional Proceedings of the Theban Workshop. University of Chicago.

Hill, J. 2008. “Bast“. Ancient Egypt Online.

Liszka, Kate. 2013. “Speos Artemidos“, in The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. Blackwell Books.

Mark, Joshua J. 2016. “Egyptian gods – the complete list“. Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Monaghan, Patricia. 2014. “Encyclopedia of Goddesses & Heroines“. New World Library.

Remler, Pat. 2010. “Egyptian Mythology, A-Z“. Chelsea House.

Shaw, Ian. 2003. “Exploring Ancient Egypt“. Oxford University Press.

Sutherland, A. 2019. “Pakhet ‘Night Huntress’: Egyptian War-Like Lioness Goddess Associated With Artemis“. Ancient Pages.

Tyldesley, Joyce. 2019. “Hatshepsut“. Britannica.com.

Featured image credit: “Pakhet” by Shan Ahmed.