Heket – Egyptian Goddess of Life Death and Rebirth

A Heketean working with Heket

As a Heketean since 2008 I came across the conflation between Heket and Hekate quite early on in my research but was always puzzled by it.  Beyond similar entomology I instinctively felt that the similarities proposed were too cosmetic but could not pinpoint it further.  After writing a short article on Hekate and Childbirth I encountered Heket on a more intellectual level, and when developing an abundance altar and ritual in 2010, I took the opportunity to work with Heket on a spiritual level.

Over time and through my ritual work I have reached a personal understanding of these two goddesses and find them individual and unique, and understand the conflation less and less.  Whereas Hekate takes an interest in all aspects of her devotees life;  be it work, spiritually,  love,  friendships / connections, etc Heket is very focused. Her interest is in fertility,  abundance, the creation of life, and midwifery.

On occasions I have consulted her regarding the pregnancies of friends and on matters of abundance, both financial and conceptual abundance (good friends, good health, happiness, etc). Particularly when working with Heket, I invoke the Egyptian concept of ankh, wedja, seneb. These three words were used in epithetic formulas following the names of kings and in closing letters. The translation is usually presented as Life, Prosperity, and Health, although wedja can also be translated as Endurance.

In comparison to Hekate, who is a goddess of many moods, Heket is a gentle presence. Even at times when she is expressing her displeasure, it is done in subtle and gentle ways, which can be missed; however those ways are no less pervasive than any influence of Hekate.
As with any magical working,  personal experience and communication with a deity that strengthens research and understanding. It was my work with Heket as a unique and individual goddess that drew me to delve deeper in to her individual mythology, and reflect upon it in terms of Hekate. As I have worked with her I have developed personal opinions about how her role in mythology might be perceived, and the following article sets out my thoughts.

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Introduction
Usually when Hekate and Heket are mentioned in the same breath it is by someone seeking to create a link between the two. At worst the writer or speaker cites the similarity between the names of these goddesses. A slightly more substantial argument references superficial shared functionalities and symbols, such as midwifery and knives.
In some, not all, cases the assertion is made that Hekate and Heket are one and the same goddess,  or that Hekate assumed some of Heket’s roles over time. Whilst these suggestions, on the surface,  are compelling and attractive, they do not stand up to scrutiny. There is no evidence of a direct link between Heket and Hekate, and whilst I am an exponent of the phrase “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, it is an uncertain foundation for any hypothesis. However it is possible to make a compelling case for a similarity between these two deities, which goes beyond the one dimension and the superficial.
This article assumes that the reader has some familiarity of Hekate as the Cosmic World Soul, and Her Kourotrophos epithet, and will not explore these in any great detail.  Instead it will focus on Heket, her cult and mythology, as well as putting forward my beliefs and understanding of Heket as a Cosmic World Soul in the Egyptian panthaeon. It will conclude by comparing the similarities, and highlighting substantial differences, between these two goddesses.

Who is Heket?
Heket (also spelt Hekat and Heqet) is the Egyptian goddess of fertility and is primarily associated with the later stages of pregnancy and childbirth. She is often depicted as a woman with the head of a frog carrying knives in her hand. Her association with frogs may be an allusion to the implied fertility and abundance of frog spawn/tadpoles, and the fact that in Egypt, frogs would emerge from the Nile muds in their adult form seemingly by magic. Whilst the Egyptians don’t appear to have a word for midwife people trained in the arts of childbirth were referred to as “the servants of Heket”.

Heket is an old goddess,  the earliest cult statue being identified as being from the late Predynastic periods, possibly originating from Abydos where other deposits of frog statues have been found under the Abydos Temple. This has been taken as an  indication that Abydos may have been an early cult centre. Veneration of this goddess appears to have been consistent with evidence for her worship appearing in the First,  Second,  Middle Dynasties. Temples were being built and dedicated to her as late as the Ptolemaic Period, where her cult centre appears to have been at Gesy, modern day Qus, in Upper Egypt.
She is known as the daughter of Ra, and in the Pyramid Text spell 258, a spell for “not perishing forever”, Heqet’s name is pluralized and is described bearing the deceased Ka to the Eastern horizon. The same text also states that the Heqets performed the same service for Ra on the same journey through the night.  This is significant in Egyptian mythology as the Eastern horizon was visualised both as a marsh and the vulva of Nut, and is thus a land of rebirth.

Heket is often described as being the consort of the potter god Khnum. Ram headed Khnum is a creator god and his role in Egyptian mythology was to create the human body from the Nile mud. Whilst Khnum is responsible for the formation of the physical body,  Heket breathed a Ka into the inanimate form, and was responsible for bringing both body and spirit into the world, and ensuring that no cord bound it to its firmer existence. Thus, together they are responsible for the creation of each living human in the Egyptian Universe.  The most famous image of the pair depicts Khnum working at his wheel and creating a new child  whilst Heket is knelt before him, wielding her knives.
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Heket as midwife and psychopomp
Heket appears both as midwife and guide to the recently dead, also known as a psychopomp, within her mythology and archaeology.
One of the compelling examples of Heket as a midwife can be seen in the tale of Triplets, as depicted in the Westcar Papyrus. In this story Ra sends Heqet, Isis and Meskhenet to the birthing chamber of the royal mother Ruddedet to aid her in the birthing of triplets destined to be Pharaoh’s. Once the goddesses have entered the palace, disguised as dancing girls,  Heket hastens the birth of the babies whilst Isis names them and Meskhenet predicts their future.

As well as this tale, Heket appears on ivory wands as a knife welding frog, such as the example from the 12th century found in the Cairo Museum. It is important to note that these ivory artefacts are in fact ‘wands’, boomerang shaped items, and not knives as they sometimes identified. They are more akin to throwing sticks as seen in hunting scenes than any cutting implement. In the tale of the Triplets Heket does wield a flint or obsidian knife akin to the embalming implement however it is unlikely that the ivory implements served as a knife, practically or symbolically.

These apotropaic wands are presumed to have had some ritual function. Used in the drawing of protective energies or environs during dangerous times these wands are majoritively associated with the liminal time of childbirth, when both mother and child are at risk from negative forces.  It is also interesting to note that many ivory wands are found at the entrance to tombs in a broken state. The most obvious interpretation is that the wands are broken and removed from the physical realm, as is the presumption with similar acts in other cultures around the world.  Ritual destruction and deposition appears to be the most likely explanation;  however it is interesting to keep this in mind whilst considering Heket’s other role as a psychopomp and resurectionist.

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Heket appears in a number of funerary contexts, one of which has already been discussed above, and is hailed as a resurrector. Frogs themselves have a magical connection in the Egyptian spiritual world. Pliny the Elder records that the Egyptians regarded frogs as being spontaneously generated by the mud left by the receding Nile floods, whilst the hieroglyphs of the tadpole represented the figure 100,000. The amphibian form generically represents abundance and birth; however when the frog hieroglyph is used in conjunction with the phrase Ankh Wajet Seneb (‘repeating life’), the concept of rebirth into the afterlife is being represented.

As the Osirin myth developed, Heket found a role at the foot of his bier as the force that resurrected the king into the afterlife. From this position She breathed new life force in to the dead Osiris, acting as a divine midwife at his rebirth, and allowed him to return and take his place as King of the Underworld.  Frog shaped amulets were included as part of funerary rite,  presumably the hope of that Heket would perform the same role for them during their rebirth into the afterlife. Moving forwards in time, there is evidence that the association between frogs and resurrection into early Christianity in Egypt, with frogs found in combination with crosses on some pottery lamp fragments.
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Is Heket a Cosmic World Soul?
Although Hekate is confirmed in the role of the World Soul within the Chaldean Oracles, the concepts expressed seem universal.  The translation of the spiritual body from one state of existence to another, and working in partnership with a male creative force in the birthing of the physical body can also be seen in the mythology of Heket.
As Khnum moulds the physical body, Heket causes the soul to enter it. As the physical body is birthed, her knives sever the binding cords. When death visits, Heket is there not only to sever the bindings life places upon the soul, but stands by ready to guide the body into the next life.

To all intents and purposes, Heket appears to be the Cosmic World Soul;  however there is no evidence that her mythology influenced the creation of the Chaldean Oracles, or that this concept is something that that the Egyptians understood or subscribed to.

Certainly these things are used to strengthen the ‘connection’ between Hekate and Heket, and are worth noting here, but however enticing these thoughts are, it is not possible to make any firm statements without evidence. Perhaps Heket represents a proto Cosmic World Soul, perhaps the evidence is there waiting for us to find it … or perhaps not.  As much as I like the idea, I for one will not be holding my breath.

Similar but not the same
The Internet has a lot to answer for, especially with the conflation of Hekate and Heket. Most of the basis of the conflation seems to have resulted from the misidentification of ivory wands as knives, and the repeating of similarities as fact without evidence and reference. With each repetition it becomes truth.

The facts are that both Heket and Hekate assume the role of midwife, and both served in this role for the divine and mortals. Both goddesses move within a liminal realm between life and death and wield knives in their divine tasks.

However, there is no evidence that Heket was exported beyond the boundaries of Egypt, nor that she influenced anyone but the Coptics of Egypt in their understanding of rebirth. Hekate carries the epithet Phroune, meaning ‘she toad’, as appears in the Hymn to Selene – Hecate – Artemis from a Greek magical handbook (PGM IV 2714-83); however the context does not refer to midwifery, or any other concepts associated with Heket. In his Encyclopaedia of Religions, Volume 1, John G. R. Forlong refers to this hymn in relation to Baubo and states that ‘Hekate was called Phroune or ‘she toad’, and the Egyptian goddess Heket was also frog headed’. Forlong says no more on the subject, and as yet I have not tracked down his reference; however I fail to understand how the goddesses have been conflated from this passage.

Heket is an Egyptian goddess with a focus on an Egyptian phenomenon, and concepts of life and death.  Hekate may have Anatolian origins, extending back into the breadbasket of the world; however there is no evidence of her roots extending towards Egypt, or the two cults becoming conflated in the archaeological or historical record.

References
Heqet, Frog Headed Goddess of Childbirth – Caroline Seawright (http://bit.ly/1heO1Gk)
Early Dynastic Egypt; Toby A.H. Wilkinson; pp247 (http://bit.ly/1cMSvDh)
Wikipedia – Westcar Papyrus (http://bit.ly/1heKKXG)
Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt; Geraldine Pinch; pp 139-140 (http://bit.ly/19tyn8p)
The Penguin Book of Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt, Joyce Tyldesley (http://bit.ly/1cMQC9H)
AZIZ SURYAL ATIYA; ed by Sami A. Hanna; The Frog on Lamps from Karanis; Louise A. Shier pp 357 (http://bit.ly/1bUAm6m)
Wikipedia -Ankh Wajet Seneb (http://bit.ly/1jcawAh)
Encyclopaedia of Religions, Volume 1; John G. R. Forlong; pp 269 (http://bit.ly/1bLC3lq)

Images
Heket and Khnum (http://bit.ly/1bLjGxg)
Apotropaic Wand (http://bit.ly/18RzVsl)
Frog Statuette (http://bit.ly/18RAMt8)

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About knotmagick

Weaving Magick and Crochet in the madhouse I call home. I am a devotee of Hekate and a follower of Pan.
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5 Responses to Heket – Egyptian Goddess of Life Death and Rebirth

  1. Pingback: Hekate and Childbirth | Knot Magick

  2. Sinnan says:

    Cross-cultural parallels
    Paul McKechnie and Philippe Guillaume in “Ptolemy II Philadelphus and His World” relate Hekate with Heqet, the Egyptian goddess of fertility and childbirth, who breathed life into the new body of Horus at birth.

    In “Ptolemy the second Philadelphus and his world”
    by Paul R. McKechnie, Philippe Guillaume

    “The crone goddess Hekate was central to the Eleusinian Mysteries, whose name like that of nearly all Greek divinities has no indo-european etymology. Her name almost certainly derives from Egyptian frog goddess Heket or Heqet. Both were versed in magic, and fertility. ”

    He continues with:
    “There is, to my knowledge, only one connection drawn between Hekate and frogs. his comes in Aristophanes’ parody of the Eleusinian initiation, ‘The Frogs’where the chorus condemns those who defile Hekate’s shrine. The chorus of frogs appears while the travellers are crossing to Hades on Kharons ferry. In the Egyptian ‘Coffin Texts’ of the middle kingdom, sokar’s ferry to the Underworld is reported to have “her bailers…[as] the frog goddess Heqet at the mouth of her lake”

    He sources:
    Aristophanes -Frogs 367
    Faulkner- Coffin texts vol 2 p 34 spell 208

    • knotmagick says:

      I found this, and tend towards disagreeing with it on two grounds; firstly in the Rape of Persephone, which is central to the Eleusinian Mysteries, Hekate is described as a maiden indeed the Ancient Greeks don’t refer to her as a Crone at all. Such reference are much later (modern) and include conflations such as with the character Baubo. Secondly ‘almost certainly derives..’ doesn’t sit well with me. Even people unaware of this text make the statement ‘well it sounds the same.’ Just because something sounds the same doesn’t mean it is the same. I have that daily with my daughter’s name.

      Whilst they undoubtedly have similar functions in their individual cosmologies I am not yet convinced that a case for direct derivation can be made on the strength of a mention in Aristophanes parody The Frogs. Certainly the the two have been conflated however Hekate has many other attributes and dominions than those she shars with Heket.

      That said, I intended to read The Frogs in full when I became aware of it and clearly have forgotten about it. I will remedy this and perhaps it might change my mind.

  3. Sinnan says:

    I believe that Heqet and Hekate are aspects of the same Deity, the same way Jupiter is Zeus and Artemis is Diana. Cultures will take Gods and Goddesses and create new names for them but in fact the connection of attributes leads us to eventually say they are the SAME Deity. I have read somewhere (forget where now) That stated that ALL Goddesses of Egypt were actually Isis in her many forms, as She was the ALL Goddess, in which enerything came from. Some people like the separation of each individual deity, (as we are individual humans) but I like to think that they are connected as Deities as a whole, no matter what pantheon you “worship” you can always find another Deity of another pantheon of similar attributes and connections. While they arent “the EXACT SAME” they are similar in aspects and attributes to say that they have a connection.

    • knotmagick says:

      What you are describing there is soft polytheism, the belief that all god/desses share the same divine origins. A hard polytheist would rejecting that.
      Whilst there is no doubt that there are similar and shared attributes that does not, in my mind, mean that they are they same Goddess as many assert. Given their origins I cannot immediately see a shared common origin and I am of the opinion that they developed independently and we’re not linked until much later through things like the Chaldean Oracles. Certainly this has been reinforced in their relative personalities whilst I have worked with both.

      I have been thinking on the matter of names recently. “Hekate” is a transliteration if the Greek Ekaten/Ekãtn. I don’t think we can honestly know a) how exactly Egyptians pronounced the name of the Goddess Heket (also Heqet) never mind b) how the Greeks spelt or pronounced the same name. I suspect that the similarly that people so often site is a much later coincidence with the advent of the English transliterations.

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