HOW EGYPTIAN god Bes GAVE THE CHRISTIAN DEVIL HIS LOOKS
With the squat, stocky body of a bandy-legged dwarf, he faces outwards, arms akimbo. His grotesque head has a leering, lewd expression, as his thick tongue lolls towards his chin, while the strands of his beard end in flickering spirals. A tail dangles suggestively between his legs. This, I learned, was the ancient Egyptian deity Bes – who was beloved for centuries not only in Egypt but also across the Mediterranean, and ultimately helped to shape the appearance of the Christian Devil.
Although he never had a state-sanctioned cult, Bes was tremendously popular in ancient Egypt. He was worshipped in ordinary homes, where he was associated with many of the good things in life: sex, drinking, music, and merriment. He also had an important protective function, and was often invoked during childbirth (hence his appearance in the divine birth house at Dendera). In other words, although to modern eyes he may appear frightening, he was actually decent. Friend to beer-swilling carousers and expectant mothers alike, he warded off noxious spirits like a gargoyle on a medieval church.
To the ancient Egyptians, Bes was a friendly, protective god. Yet the Christians cast him as alien and disturbing in order to demonstrate the triumph of the new faith over older customs. So next time you find yourself considering an artistic representation of the Devil – such as Giotto’s bearded, pot-bellied monster munching on sinners in the Arena Chapel in Padua – spare a thought for his art-historical forefather, Bes. If nothing else, Bes teaches us that appearances can be deceptive