The Lion Queen: The Creation of Sekhmet (and Hathor)

As I try to wade through my final (no seriously, this one is the last one, I swear) edit of Daughter of Eagles, some of you might be wondering why this part of the writing process seems to take so much longer than, you know, the actual writing. Some of it is simply the battle against the human brain’s amazing ability to create whole content from fragmentary information, i.e. why you can read the same sentence eighty times and still not notice that you didn’t put an “of” where you thought you had. Hence why having a copy editor is invaluable.

But the other part of the editing process is me and my editor (or me and myself) hashing out what is necessary to the story and what may be interesting, but impedes it. Given the general length inclinations of my writing, some of you may also be incredulous that this is something I do, but believe me, my typical editing process habitually shaves fifty to hundred pages off the end result. So what happens to the scraps? Some of them are simply trash, and some are condensed and absorbed into other parts of the narrative, but sometimes you have coherent chunks left over that are just fun tidbits. And I thought I’d use this blog space to share a few of them with you all once and a while moving forward.

This week I’m going to start with a retelling of an Egyptian myth, the creation of Sekhmet, that is an example of a part of Daughter of Eagles that didn’t even make the cut in the version of the manuscript that I sent to my editor. A self-edit, if you will. It is a fun little story, one that explains the dual nature of the Goddess of Love and War that we met in The God’s Wife, but it was in a place in the story that ended up really slowing down the action, hence its exclusion. Anyway, the basic story is ancient, to which I added a few embellishments. Next week, I’ll give you a taste of an Egyptian myth of my own devising that (rightfully) suffered the axe of my prudent editor for similar pacing reasons. I hope you all enjoy these bite-sized writings — if only because tragically my weakest writing form is short story, so this probably as close as I can get at my current level of development…

Once upon a time, when Father Ra still ruled the Egyptians from the falcon throne in the flesh, he grew increasingly weary of the wickedness of men. They lied, they blasphemed, they stole, they killed one another without a prick of conscious. So he called together all of the gods and asked them what could be done to punish mankind for such evil. 

The various gods put forth this solution until Set, the devious desert god, offered to cast a spell that would harness Ra’s wrath and give it a form that could be unleashed on the rebellious humans. Set’s sister, Isis — herself a powerful sorceress — tried to dissuade the king of the gods from this course. In part because she knew giving Ra’s anger form would make it tenfold more powerful, and therefore difficult to control, but also because she and Set had been rivals since birth and she tried to thwart him in all things. The gods argued back and forth as to whether Set or Isis had the right of it, yet in the end Ra allowed himself to be persuaded by Set, for he was very angry with humanity, and because he was still put out with Isis for tricking him into revealing his hidden Name.

So Set, being Ur-Hekau — He Who is Great in the Words of Power — in addition to being the god of deserts and storms and war, held out his was-scepter and channeled his dark power into a whirlwind that rattled the very roof beams of the House of the Sun. He changed into his animal form, the unknowable sha, and used the creature’s long tongue to siphon out the black rage of Ra into his mouth as an anteater draws out ants. Having done this, he reverted to his man-form, and taking the anger of the god on his tongue, he spat it out into the whirlwind. It roared with a loud voice and evaporated, leaving only a goddess in a red shift dripping with blood and eyes like burning coals.

Many of the other gods shrank back from the terrifying lady, but Ra was unafraid. He raised a hand and conjured a lioness from the air, which sprang toward the goddess, snarling and flashing its cruel claws. In the blink of an eye, the newborn goddess strangled the lioness and tore its skin from its back, draping the gory fur over her long, black hair like a cloak. Several of the watching gods shuddered, but Ra was pleased. He smiled upon the goddess and named her Sekhmet — meaning “She Who is Powerful” — and commanded her to go amongst his people and wield the awesome wrath of their king. The goddess flew from the halls of the sun and descended on the people of Egypt like a calamity that knows no end.

From the moment she set foot along the banks of the Nile, there was no abatement from the slaughter. The great river of Egypt turned red with blood as Sekhmet tore apart the kingdom, killing all who fell into her path. She was born with the knowledge of every weapon and every battle strategy thanks to Set, so even the greatest warriors of Egypt were obliterated by her hand. She slept not, and gorged herself on the blood of mankind joyously until the people cried out in one voice to the gods to save them from the terrible goddess.

The gods heard the wailing of the Egyptians and took pity on their plight. They sent a delegation, led by Isis, to Ra and begged him to recall Sekhmet. Ra, having been drained of his anger towards humanity by the fearsome goddess’ creation, agreed to their request and lifted his hand in summons to Sekhmet. But she did not come. He called out to her, but she did not answer. He turned his fiery eyes towards her, but she was his daughter and therefore the heat of the sun scorched her not. Sekhmet could not be recalled, even by the power of Ra.

The gods rose in a panic, crying out that without men, there would be no one to tend their altars. A way must be found to undo the dread goddess. Ra shook his ponderous head, knowing that nothing in creation once made can ever be completely destroyed. It seemed all hope was lost until Thoth, the god of invention, stepped forward to address the assembled deities with a plan. He conjured an enormous mud pottery cask and ordered the gods to bring him all of the beer that had been given to them in their temples. 

While the gods rushed off to obey him, Thoth flew into the desert where he found Set gleefully observing the carnage of Sekhmet upon the people. Thoth convinced the Lord of Chaos to help subdue the goddess, pointing out that Set could hardly fulfill his ambition to one day rule Egypt if he had no subjects to govern. Conceding to Thoth’s arguments, Set allowed Thoth to take a large sack of red dust from the black god’s kingdom and bring it back to the halls of the sun, where the other gods were pouring their beer offerings into the giant cask.

Once all of the beer had been accounted for, Thoth added the red dust to the brew until it turned as red as blood. Then with the help of Isis and her sister, Nephthys, he took the cask to the banks of the Nile and poured its contents onto the ground. Isis then turned herself into a beautiful antelope and lured the bloodthirsty Sekhmet to where the ground was soaked with the red beer. Sekhmet, thinking that the beer was blood, bent down and began to eagerly lap it up. She drank and drank and drank until at last the beer made her so intoxicated that she fell asleep and the gods carefully carried her back to the house of Ra.

The gods placed Sekhmet in Ra’s hands and he petted away all of the blood and gore until only the beautiful goddess remained. When at last she awoke in her father’s arms, her eyes were no long dark furnaces of hate, but instead glowed with warmth. Ra smiled upon her once more and declared that he would give her a new name — Hathor — meaning “She of the Falcon House,” that is, the house of Ra. She would henceforth be a goddess of love and beauty, and slay mankind with desire rather than death. Her animal would be the docile cow and her voice would be like music in the ears.

And so mankind was saved from total destruction by the cleverness of Thoth, and the Egyptians always made sure to make offerings of beer to the gods in thanks for their deliverance. The gods in turn remember the words of Ra and know that although the lovely Hathor walks in the setting sun as the Lady of the West and the Queen of Joy, she is still Sekhmet Blood-Drinker, who can not be unmade. When she lays aside her gentle cow’s horns and dons the lioness hood, she is not the barbarous creature she was at her birth, but she is still formidable. Which is why it is said that the gods do not drink the beer placed at their altars, but rather save it up in case they must capture the war goddess in the future.

Hathor was also called the Lady of Sycamores, hence this evocative tomb painting.

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