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Goddess of the Cats

Bastet, Ptolemaic Period, British Museum. From EgyptArchive.

Excerpted from La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1909, 1924
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.

This particular 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 desert.

Pylons, a ceremonial entrance and the beginning of the avenue of sphinxes.
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 well-nigh buried.

Bastet, Late Period, British Museum. Photograph from EgyptArchive.

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 all pass.

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 thought.

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 Karnac
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 debris.

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 the night.

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 ashy-grey.

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,
by Erbkam.

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.

SekhmetAt 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 translated):

"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.

The match 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.

The lion headed goddess Sekhmet.
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.

wings of the Sun.

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