GMC: Bes, Agathos Daimon, and Household Worship

GMC: Bes, Agathos Daimon, and Household Worship

So, Bes and the Agathos Daimon both shoved up in the same month, which I find fascinating. A cursory examination of Bes’ symbolism shows that He was regarded in Egypt as a protector of the home. He is sometimes also called Aha, which means “fighter”. There do not appear to be any temples to Bes or formal rituals for Him. Instead, His worship was entirely in the home. Many statues have been found in household shrines for Him, often near the door so He can guard it. He especially protects young children and pregnant women.

Bes is depicted completely differently than any other Egyptian God, and in fact is believed to have originally beebesdenderan a foreign God from another part of Africa than was adopted in the Middle Kingdom. He is depicted as stocky, bearded dwarf, often with his tongue sticking out. He is shown sometimes shown with lion-like features such as a tail and mane, or wearing an animal skin as a cape. Some scholars think that in earlier times that He was drawn as a lion rearing on its hind legs. He also wears a crown of feathers (which alludes to His African origin). His name may also come from the Nubian word for cat, ‘besa’. Unlike every other Egyptian God, He is never shown in profile, but head-on, face staring out at you. Bes is usually naked, but sometimes wears the short tunic of a soldier.

Bes was believed to drive away evil spirits, often by dancing around the room and yelling, especially during childbirth. He also entertained children, so that when a baby or toddler smiled or chuckled for no reason, they said that Bes was in the room making faces at them. I’ve seen Him referred as a “Fool Shaman”. Because He drove away evil spirits causing death, harm, and illness, He came to be associated with all good things in life, particularly music, dancing, food, alcohol and sex.

The Agathos Daimon, or “Good Spirit”, was depicted as a coiled snake. The Agathos Daimon was primarily a household spirit, protector of the home and individual. A protector of the home in general, His specialagathos daimone concern is watching over the pantry and the food stores. While in our modern society this may seem a strange or very minor job for a God, in fact in the ancient world it was one of the most important. When you grow your own food, harvest it yourself, and preserve it, then it is a substantial investment in time and energy. Moreover, try to imagine a world where there are no grocery stores to run to when you are hungry. This food must get you and your family through the entire winter, and any lean times that many be coming. If there is a drought, or some other kind of natural disaster, the supplies will need to be stretched even further. Suddenly, the God of the pantry doesn’t seem so minor. The Agathos Daimon was considered so important that after the Noumenia, the Greeks set aside the first day of the lunar month honor Him. Tame snakes were kept in the households of Greece and bowls of milk and honey left out from them. In return, they rid the house of mice, which were very dangerous because they could eat all of your food stored for the winter, not to mention they often carry dangerous diseases

Everyone is also thought to have their own Agathos Daimon, attached to them like a guardian angel. But in Alexandria it became the patron of the city as well. Alexander had a special relationship with the Agathos Daimon, and signs of snakes have been said to follow him many times in his life. When Alexander first drove the Persians from Egypt, one of the first things Alexander did was to go to the Oracle of Ammon at Siwah. But Alexander and his men got lost in the desert their way. By one version of the story, two serpents appeared to lead the way to the Temple of Ammon and out of the danger of the desert:

 

In fact Alexander’s army went astray, and the guides were in doubt as to the route. Now Ptolemy son of Lagoes says that two serpents preceded the army giving voice, and Alexander told his leaders to follow them and trust the divinity; and the serpents led the way to the oracle and back again. But Aristobulus agrees with the more common and prevalent versioCn, that two crows, flying in advance of the army, acted as guides for Alexander. That some divine help was given him I can confidently assert, because probability suggests it too; but the exact truth of the story cannot be told; that is precluded by the way in which different writers about Alexander have given different accounts[1].

 

While Alexander’s visionary city was being built, a huge serpent appeared at the building site every day and terrorized the workers. Alexander had to order that it be killed, but afterwards he built a shrine to on the spot to ask forgiveness, and buried the body of the snake. The Alexandrians instituted a special festival for the household snakes (and presumably the Agathos Daimon, although it’s not specified) on the 25th of Tybi.

 

And they began to build the city of Alexandria in the middle of the plain. … And a serpent used to come to those who were busy working, and it frightened the workers and put a stop to the work. Because of the serpent’s raids, Alexander came and said, “Let it be captured by the workmen wherever it is found tomorrow.” and upon receiving the order, they subdued and slew the beast when it came  to place that is now called Yark (“Place of Habitation”). And Alexander asked that a shrine be built there, and they buried the serpent in it.  And he declared that the excavation for the foundations be made nowhere else but on the same spot, where to this day the high mountain called Albiwrk (“Mound”) appears. …. and there were donkeys and mules at work there. For Alexander was still there on the twenty-fifth of Tubi, building the city and that very shrine for the serpent. Thus, when these snakes came into the houses, the gatekeepers worship them as kindly spirits, for they are not poisonous, like wild animals, but rather, drive out poisonous beasts. And sacrifices are made to him as being of the family of serpents. And the king ordered that grain be given to the guards. And when they had ground the grain and made bread, this was given to the inhabitants as in time of great rejoicing. On account of this, to this day these customs are kept among the Alexandrians on the twenty-fifth of Tybi. They garland all beasts of burden, and offer sacrifices to the god, and render homage to the serpents who safeguard the home, and make a distribution of bread[2].

 

Alexander had many other interesting and sacred encounters with snakes in his life, including a dream where a snake brings him the correct herb to heal the poison the Ptolemy was dying from in India[3]. This is the same Ptolemy who will eventually become Alexander’s successor in Egypt. Snakes continued to be a very important symbol in Alexandria. Although this story is related to Asklepios, it illustrates the importance of snakes in the religious life of Alexandria:


Egyptian histories relate that in the time of Ptolemy Philadelphos there were brought from Aithiopia to Alexandria two live Drakones and that one of them was fourteen cubits long, the other thirteen; and in the time of Ptolemy Euergetes three were brought, one was nine cubits long, the second seven, and the third snake one cbit less. And the Aigyptians assert that they were tended with great care in the temple of Asklepios[4].

 

The Agathos Daimon was often equated with Serapis, Zeus, and Osiris. He has no titles that I am aware of. As a household God, there are few myths about Him that I could find. His symbols include the snake, cornucopia, wine, barley, and all produce of the fields. Cultivating a relationship with your personal Agathos Daimon can be very rewarding. Socrates said that he was so in touch with his Agathos Daimon that when he was out walking and came to a bend in the road, it would tell him which path to take. I’ve prayed to my household Agathos Daimon for help in troubled times when I had no heat in my house because of serious financial problems, and somehow I always pulled enough money together to survive, however tight and difficult the circumstances. The Agathos Daimon gifts the family that honors him with good luck, health, wisdom, and an abundance of food at all times of year.

One thing about Bes that strikes me as different from the Greek household Gods (or rather, the household aspects of the Olympian Gods) is than He seems less serious and more joyful, loudly so. Many of classical Deities associated with the household project a sense of quiet dignity, of seriousness. Hestia symbolizes and values calm, emotional steadiness, domestic tranquility. Zeus is the stern pater familaras, in His form as Zeus Herkios, “of the Fence”, He protects the boundary behind the safe haven of home and the danger world “out there”. Even in His less stern aspect as Zeus the Kind, where He is specifically related to the protection of young children, He is given a Khthonic, or Underworld aspect, which speaks to me of solemnity, silence, and seriousness.

But Bes is different kind of household God. He delights in loud clamor and thunderous music, riotous dancing, boisterous laughter. In fact He specifically uses these things to drive away the evil spirits in the first place. He is considered a God of good luck and happiness, some of His blessings to the family that honors Him. A few years ago I would have thought Bes was somewhat silly (He is, I think, but in a fun, wholesome, good kind of way) and I probably would have preferred a much more serious God. But life is hard and sometimes we need a break from seriousness. I think now that our culture has an obsession with behaving “grown up” to an unhealthy degree, to such a point where some people I know make fun of me, a 28 year old woman, for enjoying animated movies that are aimed at children. Some shows with dark, gritty realism are wonderful (Jessica Jones rocked!), but sometimes I just need to get the hell away from the grimdark for a while. Life can be grim. Life can be dark. What’s wrong with adults enjoying the levity and light in a “kid’s” movie, many of which specifically celebrate the beauty of life in a way that adults’ movie just don’t? (Incidentally, I can’t wait for Zootopia).

Anyway, all this has me thinking that if I were to integrate Bes into Zeus my household worship, it’s another way to make my practice more authentically Greco-Egyptian, instead of mostly Greek but with Isis and Anubis thrown in as well. For more than a decade and a half I have worshipped the Greek Gods in one form or another. Conversely, the Kemetic side of my practice is only a few years old, and I am still finding my way around the Netjer. Many of them don’t speak to me on a personal level, even if I have studied Them and find them intellectually interesting. Besides Isis and Anubis, Who have become increasingly important in my practice, I have had a few positive experiences with Sobek, Who I admire greatly. But I could see Bes working out well in my household. It probably doesn’t come across in my writing (I hope), but in “real life”, I am a serious, anxiety-ridden person with a short fuse. I don’t like to think of myself as an angry person, but I am easily angered, and when I allow myself to become angered I often verbally lash out in hurtful ways. This is something I am working very hard to control and rectify. I don’t need more seriousness. Part of my problem is that I take life too seriously. I think Hermes is trying to teach me to lighten up, and I can see Bes injecting some much needed humor into my life. The challenge for me right now is that I am at a bit of an in-between time, household wise. Most of my belongings are in Missouri, but my brother and I still have a few more trips to make before we’ll be officially moved out there. Even then, we still need to frame out the windows in the cabin, insulation, install the bathtub, dig the well, hook up the solar power, etc. Getting the homestead running will take a minimum of 2 months. So my “household” is a little spread thin right now.

You know, I have the hardest time with endings. I did four pages of research, writing, and random thoughts, but I sometimes I can’t write a good ending to save my life. So, anyway, I’m posting this as it is, without a perfect ending wrapping up all my thoughts. Sorry, its late and I’m tired and eager to get it out there. Have fun with the GMC!

Amanda Artemisia Forrester

[1]    Arrian. Anabasis. 3.3.4-6.

[2]    Pseudo-Kallistenes. Alexander Romance. 84-90. Armenian translation.

[3] Cicero. On Divination II. LXVI .

[4] Aelian. On Animals 16.39

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One Response to GMC: Bes, Agathos Daimon, and Household Worship

  1. Pingback: Wrap-up of the June/July GMC | Temple of Athena the Savior

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