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Gods of music in ancient Egypt: Ihy, Hathor and Bes

hathor and Ihy facing a papyrus
Mario Friscia

Mario Friscia

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Who is the Egyptian god of music?

Before rushing to answer, we’d better re-frame the question a little bit and ask:

what gods were related to music in ancient Egypt?

In fact, though Ihy is commonly regarded as the Egyptian god of music, there are two other deities that have been connected with the world of sounds by the Egyptian culture: Hathor, Ihy’s mother, and Bes.

In this article you’re going to learn more about these three divine beings.

Let’s get started!

 

Ihy: god of music and lord of the sistrum

Ihy, the “Lord of vibration”, the “sistrum player” was an Egyptian god associated with music.

The exact meaning of his name has been debated a lot by scholars.

Some believe that Ihy means “sistrum player” or “musician” while others hold the view that his name could also mean “calf”.

The link with the bovine species could derive from the fact that Hathor, his mother, was often depicted with a cow’s head.

Ihy, son of Horus and Hathor, did not have any temples specifically devoted to his propitiation and his worship occurred at his mother’s temple in Dendera.

Iconographically, Ihy was usually represented as a naked child holding a sistrum in his right hand.

The sistrum is a sacred rattle made of bronze or brass.

Ihy was primarily honored as the joyful embodiment of childhood.

However, he was also invoked to symbolize other concepts like fertility and sensual pleasure.

In the Coffin texts and the Book of Dead he takes a funerary role, a position somewhat antithetic to his cheerful nature.

There are several images of Ihy depicted within the temple complex at Dendera.

This photo portrays Ihy while playing the sistrum:

Ihy shaking a sistrum at Hathor while holding the menat. Horus looks on
“Ihy Hathor Horus” by Apollo is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The association between Ihy and the sistrum depends on the fact that this instrument was closely connected with his mother, the goddess Hathor.

When he played his sistrum, he had the power to push away evil entities and shield human beings from negative energies.

Egyptians considered him not only as the deity of the sistrum but of the menat as well.

What is a menat?

The word menat refers to a category of rattles played by women during the rituals that took place in Egyptian temples.

Shaking the sistrum played a key role in the worship of Hathor, Ihy’s mother.

Ihy as the god of music represented the playful side of childhood.

 

Hathor and the erotic connotation of the sistrum

Hathor is a female deity honored in Egypt as the goddess of fertility, music and dancing.

Hathor’s temple in Dendera gives us the opportunity to better understand the importance of sistrum in the worhsip of the goddess.

You can find columns shaped like sistra and one of the sanctuaries is called the “shrine of the sistrum.”

dendera temple entrance with hathor sistrum like columns
“Roof of the Hathor Temple at Dendera (III)” by isawnyu is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Hathor loves music and worshippers seek her protection by entertaining her with musical offerings.

Dendera temple reliefs depict musical performances enacted in Hathor’s honor by percussionists and players of harp, lyre and sistrum.

Why was the sistrum linked to Hathor?

The rattling sound of the sistrum was believed to have erotic connotations and Hathor was the goddess of fertility and maternity.

A perfect match, I would say!

Hathor was so closely connected with the sistrum that she was frequently represented carrying a sistrum in her necklace.

This video by SGD Sacred Geometry Decoded deepens the relationship between Hathor columns and the sistrum:

 

Bes: the multi-instrumentalist dwarf god

Bes was a dwarf god traditionally associated with music, dance, war and childbirth.

His nature was ambivalent: half deity and half demon.

There were no temples built in his name but he was highly respected in ancient Egypt as one of the most popular deities.

Bes was regarded as a protective and auspicious creature, capable of fighting all the negative forces that surrounded households, mothers and children.

Given his friendly nature, Bes became also a symbol of music making and dancing.

The relief sculptures in the temple of Philae give us evidence of his artistic personality and musical skills.

Take a look at this picture:

Bes playing harp on a column of Hathor temple, Philae Island, Egypt
I, Rémih, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

In fact, we can see Bes playing various instruments in honor of Hathor such as the harp and the frame drum.

We also know that musicians and dancers were used to bear a tattoo of the god Bes hoping to gain his protection.

Moving from Egypt to ancient Greece, we find other three mythological figures connected to the harp or lyre.

I’m referring to Orpheus, Amphion and Apollo.

You can learn more about the musical powers of these Greek deities and demigods by clicking on their names and reading the articles specifically devoted to them.

 

Sources and further readings

Robert D. Anderson, “Music and Dance in Pharaonic Egypt,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Ed. Jack M. Sasson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1995): 2555–2568.

Lisa Manniche, Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt (London: British Museum Press, 1991).

C.J. Bleeker, Hathor and Thoth: Two Key Figures of the Ancient Egyptian Religion: 26 (Studies in the History of Religions), 1973

Geraldine Pinch, Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt (Oxford University Press, 2004)

Emily Teeter, Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mario Friscia

Anthropologist of sound
music teacher

“Open your doorway to music cultures and listen to the world with gentler ears”

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