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Who was Seshat?

September 21, 2013

When I started this blog I felt I had to come up with a name that suited the subject and my interests. The subject is, of course, Egyptology and my main interests in this field are cat mummies and hieroglyphs (or I should say: writing in ancient Egypt in general). My best friend, Joanne, came up with Seshat’s Journal after doing a little bit of research regarding ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses. But who was Seshat?

Seshat is not one of the major gods of ancient Egypt, so you may not have heard of her.
She was the goddess of wisdom, knowledge and writing, and also of architecture, astronomy, astrology, building, mathematics, and surveying. Writing, for me, is the main thing.

As you can see on the banner of this blog, Seshat has something on top of her head. This is meant to represent the papyrus plant. The papyrus plant gives the source material to make papyrus. And papyrus is the material they wrote on. To be fair, they also wrote on stone, inscribed in wood, made notes on pieces of broken pottery, but I’m focussing on the material used for most official texts.

With the ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses nothing is straightforward. The same goes for Seshat. She is identified as either the female aspect of Thoth, his daughter or his wife. What is important regarding the link with Thoth is the fact that he is also associated with writing and scribes.
According to Wainwright (1) she was also part of Nephthys who was a sky goddess.

Seshat used to have her own priests and officials who resided in Memphis and she was even associated with the Sed festival. She was known from the 2nd Dynasty (2890-2686 BC) until the Late Period (712-323 BC), but according to Wainwright (1) her popularity and influence declined after the Old Kingdom. He bases this on the Pyramid Texts in which her role has diminished to tally keeper. This is indicated by the palm-stick she holds. Palm-sticks were used to keep track of time (in Seshat’s case years of Pharaoh’s life) and this was, after the Old Kingdom, an old-fashioned way to do it. Another thing he points out is that Seshat’s typical dress is a leopard skin which was only seen as ceremonial dress after the Old Kingdom.

Nevertheless, she is mentioned until Ptolemaic times. A little searching resulted, for example, in two scribe’s palettes (both in the British Museum) with the offering formula mentioning Seshat (numbers EA5514 and EA12779, 18th and 19th Dynasty respectively) (2).
There is a Late Period statuette of Seshat in the Louvre. So we cannot possibly say that she became completely unknown after the Old Kingdom. Rather, her role changed and apparently became less important.

If I want to give a fuller account of who Seshat was and what her role was in the various periods I’d have to spent a lot more time researching her, which goes beyond the introduction I have in mind at this moment. Let’s just say that her link with knowledge and writing were inspiring enough for me to name my blog after her.

(1) Wainwright, G.A., Seshat and the pharaoh, JEA vol. 26, 1941, pages 30-40
(2) Glanville, S.R.K., Scribes’ Palettes in the British Museum. Part I, JEA vol. 18, 1932, pages 59 and 60


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