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Goddess of the Cats
Excerpted from La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1909, 1924
IN THE TEMPLE OF THE OGRESS
meeting the lion goddess Sekhet (Sekhmet)
This evening, at the hour in which the
light of the Sun begins to turn to rose, I make my way along one of
the magnificent roads of the town-mummy. A road through the vast chaos of ruins that goes off
at a right angle to the line of the temples of Amen, and, losing
itself more or less in the sands, leads at length to a sacred lake.
road was begun three thousand four hundred years ago by a beautiful New Kingdom queen called Makeri, and in the following centuries a number of
kings continued its construction. It was ornamented with pylons of a
superb massiveness. Pylons are monumental walls, in the form of a
trapezium with a wide base and a door at the center, which
the Egyptians used to place at either side of their porticoes and long
avenues--as well as by colossal statues and interminable rows of rams,
larger than buffalo, crouched on pedestals.
At the first pylon I have to make a detour. The walls are so ruinous that
their blocks, fallen down on all sides, have closed the passage. Here
used to watch, on right and left, two upright giants of red granite
from Syene. Long ago in times no longer precisely known they were
broken off, both of them, at the height of the loins. But their
muscular legs have kept their proud, marching attitude, and each in
one of the armless hands clenches passionately the emblem of eternal life.
And this Syenite granite is so hard that time has not altered it in
the least. In the midst of the confusion of stones the thighs of these
mutilated giants gleam as if they had been polished yesterday.
Farther on we come upon the second pylon, foundered also, before
which stands a row of Pharaohs.
On every side the overthrown blocks display their utter confusion of
gigantic things. In their midst, the sand continues patiently to
bury them. And here now the third pylon, flanked by two
marching giants who have neither head nor shoulders. And the road,
marked majestically still by the debris, continues to lead towards the
The South entrance of the Temple of Karnac
From "la Description de l'Egypte".
And then the fourth and last pylon, which seems at first sight to mark
the extremity of the ruins, the beginning of the desert nothingness.
Time-worn and uncrowned, but stiff and upright still, it seems to be
set there so solidly that nothing could ever overthrow it. The two
colossal statues which guard the exit on the right and left are seated on
thrones. One, that on the eastern side, has almost disappeared. But
the other stands out entire and white with the whiteness of marble,
against the brown-colored background of the enormous wall. His face alone has been mutilated, and he
preserves still his imperious chin, his ears, his Sphinx's headgear.
One might almost see his meditative expression before this deployment
of the vast solitude which seems to begin at his feet.
Here, however, was only the boundary of the quarters of the God Amen.
The boundary of Thebes was much farther on, and the avenue which will
lead me directly to the home of the cat-headed goddesses extends
farther still, to the old gates of the town. You can scarcely
distinguish the road between the double row of sphinxes all broken and
The day falls, and the dust of Egypt, in accordance with its
invariable practice every evening, begins to resemble in the distance
a powder of gold. I look behind me from time to time at the giant who
watches me, seated at the foot of his pylon on which the history of a
Pharaoh is carved. Above him and above his
wall, which grows each minute more rose-colored, I see, gradually
mounting in proportion as I move away from it, the great mass of the
palaces of the center of Karnak. The hypostyle hall, the halls of Thothmes and
the obelisks, all the entangled cluster of those things at once so
grand and so dead, these are things which have never been equalled on Earth.
All this is now a long way behind me, but the air is so clear, the
outlines remain so sharp, that the illusion is rather that the temples
and the pylons grow smaller, lower themselves and sink into the earth.
The white giant who follows me always with his sightless stare is now
reduced to the proportions of a simple human dreamer. His attitude
moreover has not the rigid hieratic aspect of the other Theban
statues. With his hands upon his knees he looks like a mere ordinary
mortal who had stopped to reflect. (Statue of Amenophis III)
I have known him for many days--
for many days and many nights. With his whiteness and the
transparency of these Egyptian nights, I have seen him often outlined
in the distance. Under the dim light of the stars he becomes a great phantom in
his contemplative pose. And I feel myself obsessed now by the
continuance of his attitude at this entrance of the ruins. I, who shall
pass without a morrow from Thebes and even from the Earth - even as we
Before conscious life was vouchsafed to me the Phantom was there, had
been there since times which make you shudder to think upon. For three
and thirty centuries, or thereabouts, the eyes of myriads of unknown
men and women who have gone before me, saw him just as I see him now.
Tranquil and white, he remained in this same place, seated before this same
threshold, with his head a little bent, and his pervading air of
I make my way without hastening, having always a tendency to stop and
look behind me, to watch the silent heap of palaces and the white
dreamer, which now are all illuminated with a last Bengal fire in the
daily setting of the sun.
The Temple of Mut at Karnak
by Otto Georgi, 1850.
The hour is already twilight when I reach the goddesses. Their domain is so destroyed that the sands had succeeded in covering and hiding it for centuries. But it has lately been exhumed. There remain of it now only some fragments of columns, aligned in
multiple rows in a vast extent of desert, broken and fallen stones and
I walk on without stopping, and at length reach the sacred
lake on the margin of which the great cats are seated in eternal
council, each one on her throne. The lake, dug by order of the
Pharaoh, is in the form of a crescent. Some
marsh birds that were about to retire for the night now traverse its
mournful sleeping water. Its borders, which have known the utmost of
magnificence, have become mere heaps of ruins on which nothing grows.
And what one sees beyond, what the attentive goddesses themselves
regard, is the empty desolate plain, on which some few poor fields of
grain mingle in this twilight hour with the sad infinitude of the
sands. And the whole is bounded on the horizon by the chain, still a
little rose-colored, of the rugged mountains of Arabia.
Sekhmet. Wall relief at Kom Ombo.
Photograph by Gerard Ducher, CreativeCommons.
They are there, the cats, or, to speak more exactly, the lionesses,
for cats would not have those short ears, or those cruel chins,
thickened by tufts of beard. All of black granite, images of Sekhet (Sekhmet or Sachmet), who was the Goddess of War, and in her hours the Goddess of Lust. They have the slender body of a woman, which makes more terrible the
great feline head surmounted by its high bonnet. Eight or ten, or
perhaps more, they are more disquieting in that they are so numerous
and so alike.
They are not gigantic, as one might have expected, but
of ordinary human stature. They would be easy therefore to carry away, or to
destroy, and that again, if one reflects, augments the singular
impression they cause. When so many colossal figures lie in pieces on
the ground, how comes it that they, little people seated so tranquilly
on their chairs, have contrived to remain intact, during the passing
of the three and thirty centuries of the world's history?
The passage of the marsh birds, which for a moment disturbed the clear
mirror of the lake, has ceased. Around the goddesses nothing moves and
the customary infinite silence envelops them as at the fall of every
night. They dwell indeed in such a forlorn corner of the ruins! Who,
to be sure, even in broad daylight, would think of visiting them?
Down there in the west a trailing cloud of dust indicates the
departure of the tourists, who had flocked to the temple of Amen, and
now hasten back to Luxor. The
ground here is so felted with sand that in the distance we cannot hear
the rolling of their carriages. But the knowledge that they are gone
renders more intimate the interview with these numerous and identical
goddesses, who little by little have been draped in shadow. Their
seats turn their backs to the temples of Karnak, which now begin to be
bathed in violet waves and seem to sink towards the horizon. They seem to lose
each minute something of their importance before the sovereignty of
And the black goddesses, with their lioness' heads and tall headgear--
sit there with their hands upon their knees, with eyes fixed since
the beginning of the ages. The goddesses continue to regard that desert, which now is only a confused immensity of a bluish
The fancy seizes you that they are possessed of a kind
of life, which has come to them after long waiting, by virtue of that
expression which they have worn on their faces so long, Oh! so long.
Plan of the Temple of Mut at Karnac,
Beyond, at the other extremity of the ruins, there is a sister of
these goddesses, taller than they, a great Sekhet, whom in these parts
men call the Ogress, and who dwells alone and upright, ambushed in a
narrow temple. Among the fellahs and the Bedouins of the
neighborhood she enjoys a very bad reputation, it being her custom of
nights to issue from her temple, and devour men. None of them
would willingly venture near her dwelling at this late hour. But
instead of returning to Luxor, like the good people whose carriages
have just departed, I rather choose to pay her a visit.
Her dwelling is some distance away, and I shall not reach it till the
dead of night. First of all I have to retrace my steps, to return along the whole
avenue of rams, to pass again by the feet of the white giant. He has
already assumed his phantomlike appearance, while the violet waves
that bathed the town-mummy thicken and turn to a greyish-blue. And
then, leaving behind me the pylons guarded by the broken giants, I
thread my way among the palaces of the center.
It is among these palaces that I encounter for good and all the night,
with the first cries of the owls and ospreys. It is still warm there,
on account of the heat stored by the stones during the day, but one
feels nevertheless that the air is freezing.
At a crossing a tall human figure looms up, draped in black and armed
with a baton. It is a roving Bedouin, one of the guards, and this more
or less is the dialogue exchanged between us (freely and succinctly
"Your permit, sir."
"Here it is."
(Here we combine our efforts to illuminate the said permit by the light of a match.)
"Good, I will go with you."
"No. I beg of you."
"Yes, I had better. Where are you going?"
"Beyond, to the temple of that lady ... you know, who is great and powerful and has a face like a lioness."
"Ah! . . . Yes, I think I understand that you would prefer to go
alone." (Here the intonation becomes pleading.) "But you are a kind
gentleman and will not forget the poor Bedouin all the same?"
He goes on his way. On leaving the palaces I have still to traverse an
extent of uncultivated country, where a veritable cold seizes me.
Above my head are no longer the heavy suspended stones, but the far-off
expanse of the blue night sky--where are shining now myriads upon
myriads of stars.
For the Thebans of old this beautiful vault,
scintillating always with its powder of diamonds, shed no doubt only
serenity upon their souls. But for us, it is on the
contrary the field of the great fear, which, out of pity, it would
have been better if we had never been able to see. The incommensurable
black void, where the worlds in their frenzied whirling precipitate
themselves like rain, crash into and annihilate one another, only to
be renewed for fresh eternities.
All this is seen too vividly, the horror of it becomes intolerable, on
a clear night like this, in a place so silent and littered so with
ruins. More and more the cold penetrates you--the mournful cold of the
sidereal spheres from which nothing now seems to protect you, so
rarefied--almost non-existent--does the limpid atmosphere appear. The gravel, the poor dried herbs, that crackle under foot, give the
illusion of the crunching noise we know at home on winter nights when
the frost is on the ground.
Temple of Ptah at Karnak, 1911.
Called by the local people the temple of the Ogress.
I approach at length the temple of the Ogress. These stones which now
appear, whitish in the night, this secret-looking dwelling near the
boundary wall of Karnak, proclaim the spot. At such an hour
as this it has an evil aspect. You pass Ptolemaic columns, little vestibules,
little courtyards where a dim blue light enables you to find your way.
Nothing moves, not even the flight of a night bird. An absolute
silence, magnified awfully by the presence of the desert which you
feel encompasses you beyond these walls.
Beyond, at the bottom,
three chambers made of massive stone, each with its separate entrance.
I know that the first two are empty. It is in the third that the
Ogress dwells, unless, indeed, she has already set out upon her
nocturnal hunt for human flesh. Pitch darkness reigns within and I
have to grope my way. Quickly I light a match. Yes, there she is
indeed, alone and upright, almost part of the end wall on which my
little light makes the horrible shadow of her head dance.
goes out. Irreverently I light many more under her chin, under that
heavy, man-eating jaw. In very sooth, she is terrifying. Of black
granite--like her sisters seated on the margin of the mournful lake--
but much taller than they, from six to eight feet in height. She has a
woman's body, exquisitely slim and young, with the breasts of a
virgin. Very chaste in attitude, she holds in her hand a long-stemmed
lotus flower. By a contrast that nonplusses and paralyses you the
delicate shoulders support the monstrosity of a huge lioness' head.
The lappets of her bonnet fall on either side of her ears almost down
to her breast. Surmounting the bonnet is a large moon disc. Her dead stare gives to the
ferocity of her visage something unreasoning and fatal. She is an
irresponsible ogress, without pity as without pleasure, devouring
after the manner of Nature and of Time. And it was so perhaps that she
was understood by the initiated of ancient Egypt, who symbolised
everything for the people in the figures of gods.
Sekhmet carved in granite.
Pharaoh Amenhotep III had hundreds of similar statues made.
These two are in the Berlin Museum.
photo: Magnus Manske, 2005. License.
In the dark retreat, enclosed with defaced stones, in the little
temple where she stands, alone, upright and grand, one is
necessarily quite close to her. In touching her, at night, you are
astonished to find that she is less cold than the air. She becomes
somebody, and the intolerable dead stare seems to weigh you down.
During the visit one thinks involuntarily of the
surroundings, of these ruins in the desert, of long lost and forgotten dreams, of the cold beneath the stars. And, now, that summation
of doubt and despair is confirmed by the meeting with
this divinity-symbol, which awaits you at the end of the journey. A rigid horror of granite, with
an implacable smile and a devouring jaw.
Excerpted from La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1909, 1924
Sacred to Pasht by Edwin Long
Both bronze cats are mummy masks from the Ptolemaic era,
now in the British Museum. Photographs from Egyptarchive.
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