Sekhmet was the early warrior goddess of Upper Egypt. This protector of pharaohs was shown as a fierce lioness. Over time, the myths around her started to change, and the Sekhmet of Early Egypt was a far cry from the motherly goddess of later years. Over the years, she held many roles.
In early years, Sekhmet was a sun goddess, depicted with a sun disk and cobra on her crown. As protector of Upper Egypt, she was a powerful warrior, stronger than the defeated Bast of Lower Egypt. Sekhmet was the Avenger of Wrongs, the Scarlet Lady, in reference to bloodlust.
Sekhmet’s name meant She Who is Powerful, though was also known as the Lady of Slaughter and the Mistress of Dread. In battle, she would protect the pharaoh, striking down his enemies with arrows of fire. The hot desert winds were her breath, and death and destruction made her heart sing with joy.
She was a demanding goddess. Her priestesses performed rituals every day, each time in front of a different statue., Scholars believe that there were over 700 statues in one single funerary temple (that of Amenhotep III). Sekhmet’s statues were said to be protected by coating them with anthrax, an effective deterrent to thieves and vandals.
In ancient times, Sekhmet’s priests were respected as physicians. She brought disease and could also provide the cure to all ills, becoming synonymous with surgeons and doctors.
In art, Sekhmet was shown as a lioness, or as a lioness-headed woman. She often wore red, symbolic of blood. She was so closely linked with lionesses that tame lions were kept at some of her temples in Leontopolis.
At the end of each battle, a festival was held in Sekhmet’s honor, ensuring that the destruction would end.
At the beginning of each year, a festival of drunkenness would take place. Egyptians would sing, dance, and drink large amounts of beer. Historical records indicate that tens of thousands may have attended these festivals in later years, once Sekhmet was absorbed into Mut-Sekhmet-Bast-Nekhbet.
This ritual drunkenness commemorated an important event. Ra, the sun god, created Sekhmet to destroy the humans who conspired against him. The battle ended but Sekhmet’s bloodlust ran unchecked, and humanity was almost destroyed. Ra tricked her by turning the silt of the Nile blood-red. During the annual flooding, when the Nile deposited this red silt onto the fields, she would drink deeply. Ra had changed it into beer and pomegranate juice. Getting Sekhmet drunk convinced her to give up the slaughter, becoming a kinder, gentler goddess.
During this gentler phase, Sekhmet became linked with Hathor, the mother of the sun. however, the goddesses were fundamentally different from each other, and this was not to last. Over time, Hathor and Sekhmet separated into two deities once again. Sekhmet continued to be linked to Bast, lioness-headed goddess of Lower Egypt, and Mut, the great mother spirit.