Musical Deities

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Musical Deities

Hathor and Ihy.

The Egyptians associated the deities Hathor, her son Ihy, Bes, Isis, and Osiris with music. Egyptians honored the goddess Hathor and her son Ihy at her temple in Dendera as the deity of the sistrum and the menat, rattles played primarily by women during worship of the gods. Hathor's temple in Dendera has a roof supported by columns shaped like sistra. One of the sanctuaries in the temple is known as the "shrine of the sistrum." In the crypts below the temple there are relief sculptures of sistra that were specially decorated and part of the temple's treasure. Hathor's son, Ihy, also was depicted in the Dendera temple playing the sistrum.


The god Bes has associations with music in the temple and in the home. In the temple of Philae in southern Egypt, relief sculptures of Bes depict him playing the harp, playing the frame drum, and dancing in honor of Hathor. In the home Bes was associated with childbirth. The combination of the two areas—music and childbirth—explains why the goddesses who act as midwives in the story found in Papyrus Westcar disguised themselves as musicians. Furthermore some musicians in New Kingdom paintings bear a tattoo of the god Bes.

Isis and Osiris.

Isis and Osiris had no real connection with music according to Egyptian traditions. Yet Greek and Roman traditions about Egypt closely associated them with Egyptian music. By the time that Greek philosophers and historians like Plato (427–347 b.c.e.) took an interest in Egyptian music, Isis and Hathor had merged in the minds of many people. Thus as the religion of Isis and Osiris spread across the Mediterranean Sea, Isis took with her some of Hathor's associations with music, along with the reputation given to her by Plato—that she had established all the forms of Egyptian music. In Apuleius' Latin novel Metamorphoses, written in the second century c.e., Isis transforms the hero Lucius from an ass or donkey back into a man with the use of a sistrum. The Greek writer Plutarch (45–125 c.e.) recorded that Osiris ruled the world by the power of his reason and his music. In reality, the Egyptians themselves called Osiris the Lord of Silence and forbade music during his worship except during one joyous ceremony called the Raising of the Djed Pillar. Plutarch also preserved the tradition that the trumpet could not be played at Osiris' temple at Busiris because its sound reminded the god of his evil brother, Seth, sometimes represented as an unidentified animal who could make a similar sound.


introduction: The Egyptians themselves did not write about music. Many Greek and Roman writers, however, commented on Egyptian music, including the Roman novelist, Apuleius of Madaurus. In his novel Metamorphoses, written in Latin in the second century c.e., the hero Lucius is magically transformed into an ass, then magically returned to his original form through worship of the Egyptian goddess, Isis. The goddess appears to him and promises her aid in transforming him back to human form. Music and musical instruments play a role both in the worship of Isis and in the transformation. In this passage Lucius hears the answer to his prayers to Isis.

When I had thus poured out my prayers, adding pitiable wailings, sleep again spread over my wilting spirit and overpowered me on that same sandy bed. I had scarcely settled down when lo! from the middle of the sea a face divine arose, showing above the waves a countenance which even gods must admire; and then gradually the radiant image of the whole body, when the brine had been shaken off, seemed to stand before me. I will try to communicate to you her wonderful appearance …

First, her abundant, long hair, gently curled over her divine neck or loosely spread, streamed down softly … The things she carried were of quite varied kind. For in her right hand she bore a bronze rattle in which a few rods in the middle, thrust across a thin sheet of metal that was curved like a belt, emitted a tinkling sound when the arm made three quivering jolts. From the left hand there hung a golden vessel … Such was the great goddess who, breathing the blessed fragrance of Arabia, deigned to address me with divine voice.

"Lo, I am with you, Lucius, moved by your prayers, I who am the mother of the universe, the mistress of all the elements, the first off-spring of time, the highest of deities, the queen of the dead, foremost of heavenly beings. …

"I am here taking pity on your ills; I am here to give aide and solace. Cease then from tears and wailings, set aside your sadness; there is now dawning for you, through my providence, the day of salvation. For this reason pay careful heed to these commands of mine. The day which will follow the coming night has been dedicated to me by eternal religious sanction. Then, when the storms of winter have been calmed, and the wild waves of the sea have been stilled, my priests are wont to vow a new barque to the now navigable sea and offer it as first-fruits of a new year's navigation. You should await that sacred rite with a mind neither anxious nor profane.

"For at my suggestion a priest in the very midst of the moving procession will carry a crown of roses attached to the sistrum in his right hand. Without delay, therefore, push through the crowds and eagerly join the procession relying on my favour; then get close to the priest and gently, as if you meant to kiss his hand, pluck off the roses with your mouth and forthwith cast off the hide of that vile beast that has long since been hateful to me. … You shall live indeed a happy man, you shall live full of glory in my protection. …"

Thus did the revered oracle come to an end, and the unvanquished deity withdrew into her own being.

While these amusing delights of the people were appearing all over the place, the procession proper of the Saviour Goddess was on its way … Then came the charming music of many instruments, and the sound of pipe and flute in the sweetest melodies. They were followed by a delightful choir of the most select youths, radiant in snow-white festal tunics; they repeated a captivating song which a skilled poet had written for music with the aid of the Goddesses of Song, and the theme of this from time to time contained musical preludes to the solemn vows to come. There came also flautists dedicated to great Sarapis, who repeated through a reed, held sideways towards the right ear, a tune traditional to the temple and its deity; and there were many shouting out, "Keep the way clear for the holy procession!"

And behold! here come to me the promised blessings of the most helpful goddess and a priest approaches bringing with him my destiny and my very salvation. He was equipped as the divine promise had foretold, carrying in his right hand a sistrum intended for the goddess, and a crown for me—and assuredly the crown was most fitting, since after enduring so many and so great toils and passing through so many dangers, by the providence of the mighty goddess I was now overcoming Fortune that had buffeted me so cruelly. …

First my scruffy bristles fell off, then my rough hide became thin and the fat belly subsided, while the soles of my feet now ended in toes instead of hoofs and the hands were no longer feet, doing their work now in my upright posture. My lofty neck contracted, my mouth and head became round; my huge ears regained their former slenderness and my rock-like molars returned to human scale; and my tail, my chief torment of old, was non-existent!

source: "Apuleius of Madaurus," in The Isis Book (Metamorphoses, Book XI). Trans. J. Gwyn Griffiths (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1975): 73, 75, 77, 81, and 85.



[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]



Robert D. Anderson, "Music and Dance in Pharaonic Egypt," in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Ed. Jack M. Sasson (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1995): 2555–2568.

Lisa Manniche, Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt (London: British Museum Press, 1991).

see also Dance: Cult Dances ; Religion: Myth of Osiris

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Musical Deities

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