Seshat is an Egyptian goddess of writing and measuring. Her name literally translates as “The Female Scribe”. Seshat had no cult centre, nor any temples dedicated to her in Ancient Egypt, yet was present in the foundation ceremony of all temples, as the one who assisted the Pharaoh in the Stretching of the Cord ceremony that marked the start of construction work on a new religious structure.
Seshat is the only female, human or divine, depicted in the act of writing. Her position as a divine scribe predated that of Thoth, who later came to eclipse her, and even with his arrival she retained her exclusive title as being the “Foremost” in the House of Books. Whilst Thoth was served as scribe to Ra, Amun and the other great and good of the Egyptian pantheon, Seshat was regarded as the maintainer of the libraries, records and accounts of the gods, and though her mostly Old Kingdom priests, their earthly counterparts. She was also responsible for recording the jubilees and reigns of the Pharaohs throughout Egyptian history. With her omnipresent yet elite status, present in official religion but never appearing in common or "folk" religious contexts, she bears a striking similarity to another goddess closely related to Thoth, Ma’at.
Seshat is first recorded in the 2nd Dynasty where she is mentioned by Khasekhemwy in the Stretching of the Cord on a new temple building. She was not a “goddess of the people”, except as a possible patroness of scribes and architects, and so it seems unlikely that she enjoyed recognition or a following before the establishment of both the institutions of a scribal class and Kingship. The province or city from which she originated remain unknown.
Characteristics & Responsibilities
Seshat was very much a goddess of the state, tied in the to scribal profession, a bulkwark of Egyptian officialdom, where she is depicted being involved in the census (from the Old Kingdom onwards), recording of accounts, notation and all kinds of writing and recording. Her title as She Who is Foremost in the House of Books also gives her a role as patroness of libraries in general.
She is also associated with the ceremonies of architecture, including the Stretching of the Cord ceremony and her title as Mistress of Builders and Mistress of the House of Architects bears out her responsibilities with regards to building and architecture. She is mentioned as being associated the Stretching of the Cord from the Early Dynastic period onwards.
Another of her key roles is recording the reigns and jubilees of the Pharaohs, as part of her responsibilities as a goddess of the scribal tradition, and she is often depicted with the notched palm stem that is used for recording time in this role.
Seshat has an unusual crown and attire. The seven pointed figure surmounted by a downward curving line, with a notch at the top of the curve, has been variously interpreted as a papyrus plant (pointing to its obvious scribal associations) or a seven pointed star surmounted by a downward pointing object, possibly horns or a bow. This may be an earlier pre-dynastic divine or royal standard. This characteristic and unusual sign was occasionally used as hieroglyph in the spelling of her name.
Along with this she is seen wearing a leopard skin as worn by priests, or a long, tight fitting, leopard skin patterned dress, along with a diadem. In some depictions her dress, rather than a leopard skin design, has a pattern of stars. It is believed that the leopard skin was associated with a starry sky, and therefore the heavens and time (including eternity), hence it’s relevance to the priesthood (some of whom served as astronomers and timekeepers), and to Seshat. Occasionally, the bottom of her palm stem bears the Sn (“shen”) hieroglyph, ideogram for eternity, accompanied by a tadpole, the numerical hieroglyph for the value 100,000. Curiously, this was not the highest numerical glyph the Egyptians used, so it’s association here with eternity is quite interesting. When recording the jubilees and celebrations of the Pharaoh, her palm branch is often dressed with the symbols of the celebration. She is also sometimes depicted with the surveyors cord and mallet, as used in the Stretching of the Cord ceremony.
Seshat is always depicted as an anthropomorphic female.
Associations and Prominence
As a goddess so heavily associated with the formal arts and professions of state, she doesn’t appear to have had much popular following amongst the commoners. However we do find a reference to there being a priesthood for the goddess, even though no individual cult centre is known to have existed. Prince Wep-em-Nefret, from 4th Dynasty the reign of Khufu, records on his funerary stela found at Giza that he was a priest of Seshat as well as Overseer of Royal Scribes. This may imply that amongst scribes and architects Seshat enjoyed a “patroness” like status, giving her a degree of public worship in addition to a formal priesthood.
On the other hand, it is also possible that certain scribes held the title “Priest of Seshat” in the same way that judges were considered “Priests of Ma’at”, in that in performing their duties there were honouring the goddess, as opposed to being priests in the literal sense of the term. Although most scholars today believe she did enjoy a formal priesthood, there are no known temples dedicated to her. She is, however, particularly prominent at Abydos, and a particularly beautiful and well known depiction of her can be found in Luxor temple. As such, a dedicated temple of her own may well have been seen as somewhat redundant, given her role in the founding ceremonies of all of them.
Seshat has a relatively simple set of associations, most obviously with Thoth, who eclipses her in the New Kingdom, but never replaces her. There are conflicting stories of their precise association, it being recorded that he is her husband, brother or father. Another name for Seshat, Sefkhet-Abwy, is mentioned in later texts, form the New Kingdom onwards.
She is also associated with Nephthys in the netherworld, probably due to her role in recording reigns and lives. As a result of this association, it should be no surprise that she is also associated to some degree with Isis, though less explicitly.
- She Who is Foremost in the House of Books
- Mistress of Builders
- Mistress of the House of Architects
- The Female Scribe (her name)
Due to her crucial role in the Stretching of the Cord, and recording of jubilees and other official events, Seshat’s profile remained steady throughout the life of state backed Ancient Egyptian religion. Alas, her fortunes dived with it, for unlike Hapi, she never enjoyed such a significant role in common religion. No folk memory of Seshat is known to have endured after the enforcement of Christianity in Egypt during the Roman era.
- Wilkinson, R (2000), The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson, London
- Wilkinson, R (2003), The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson, London