Meretseger, the divine guardian of the Valleys of the Kings and Queens in western Thebes, lived atop a snake-infested pyramid-shaped desert mountain that served as one of the entrances to the Egyptian underworld. Her name translates to ‘she who loves silence’, an appropriate epithet for a goddess who dwelled in the secluded region guarding the dead. Although the Theban hills were an ideal place for the interment of royalty due to their isolated locations and placements near the underworld, snakes and scorpions thrived in the hot valleys and posed serious threats to the health and well-being of the dead and to the workers who built and decorated their tombs. Since there were no cures for stings and bites that did not involve magic and divine intervention, Meretseger quickly became a popular choice to worship for protection from these dangers. Prayers and offerings were made to her so that she might protect them from snake bites and scorpion stings.
Meretseger: A Call for Protection
Meretseger was called the Peak of the West, stemming from her association with the hill now called el Qurn, “The Horn”, located on the West Bank of Luxor in Upper Egypt. A natural peak in the Theban hills, it overlooks the Valley of the Kings; when viewed from its opening, it has a pyramid-like shape, which is why it was thought to have served as an entrance to the Duat, the Egyptian underworld. In addition to being the location of the blessed Field of Reeds, the Duat was also a place teaming with dangerous and chaotic snakes. Thus, the need for safety was almost certainly one of the reasons for Meretseger’s association with these creatures.
She was usually depicted as a coiled cobra, a snake-headed woman, or a cobra with a woman’s head, though on occasion she was shown as female-headed scorpion. The snake and the scorpion were two of the few creatures that inhabited this desolate region and were thus seen as fitting symbols for the goddess. Once the artists and artisans from the workmen’s village at Deir el-Medina propitiated this goddess, usually in the form of a votive stela, they felt protected enough to continue working on and inside of the royal tombs. The Egyptians recognized the protective nature of serpents in addition to chaos and danger and assigned these characteristics to Meretseger accordingly.
Meretseger was worshipped primarily by the workers in the Theban area; consequentially, her cult is attested in the New Kingdom period, but seldom after the Theban necropolis ceased to be used for royal burials. As a local goddess, her worship comprised small rock temples like the one located on the path leading to the Valley of the Queens and stelae upon which workers carved prayers and pleas for forgiveness of various wrongdoings. Many of the smaller stelae depicted worshippers of Meretseger kneeling in adoration of the goddess in one of her many forms thanking her for her help.
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The four cobras carved atop the upper part of this limestone stela of Amennakht and the goddess on the right capped with a solar disk and horns are meant to symbolize the great the Great Peak of the West. Amennakht is shown kneeling in praise inside a rectangle intended to represent a chapel. These sloping lines probably depict the two hills of the rock shrine of Ptah and Meretseger located at Deir el-Medina.
Similarly, the Turin Stela of Nekhtamun, son of Didi, bears a rather unusual representation of the peak. Gaston Maspero, a famous French antiquarian Egyptologist, has described it as “two slopes of a hill, depicted in accordance with the usual conventions of Egyptian draughtsmanship, running down from right and left and enclosing near the summit a sort of parallelogram, in which four coiled serpents forming a cornice stand out in relief”. Nekhtamun celebrates the goddess as:
The Peak of the West,
Who gives her hand to him that she loves,
And gives protection to him that sets her in his heart.
According to the archaeological evidence, it seems that for the ancient people living in the Theban necropolis the local goddess Meretseger was as important as some of the major deities, and perhaps even as significant as Osiris. Even though Meretseger was quick to exact punishment by blinding tomb desecrators or poisoning them with her snakebites or scorpion stings, she was also a merciful deity toward those who atoned and sometimes even healed their grievous injuries provided that she was convinced of their remorse.
Penitential Hymns on Stelae
The best-preserved example of this kind is the Stela of Neferabu, a votive slab located in the Turin Museum. According to the stela, Meretseger saw that the draftsman Neferabu committed a transgressive act and struck him blind. After he begged for her forgiveness, she restored his sight and Neferabu erected a stela to honor her and warn others of her might:
Giving praise to the Peak of the West,
Kissing the ground to her ka.
I give praise, hear (my) call,
I was a truthful man on earth!
Made by the servant in the Place-of-Truth, Neferabu, justified.
(I was) an ignorant man and foolish,
Who knew not good from evil.
I did the transgression against the Peak,
And she taught a lesson to me.
I was in her hand by night as by day,
I sat on bricks like the woman in labor,
I called to the wind, it came not to me,
I libated to the Peak of the West, great of strength,
And to every god and goddess.
Behold, I will say to the great and small,
Who are in the troop:
Beware the Peak!
For there is a lion within her!
The Peak strikes with the stroke of a savage lion,
She is after him who offends her!
I called upon my Mistress,
I found her coming to me as sweet breeze;
She was merciful to me,
Having made me see her hand.
She returned to me appeased,
She made my malady forgotten;
For the Peak of the West is appeased,
If one calls upon her.
So says Neferabu, justified.
Behold, let hear every ear,
That lives upon earth:
Beware the Peak of the West!
Such prayers are characteristic of the Ramesside Period, but this development can be traced back to at least the Middle Kingdom. In the typical Egyptian fashion, Neferabu does not stress his own negative conduct, and as such the exact nature of the offenses was not revealed on the stela. Instead, the text focused on praising the goddess for her merciful will in healing his affliction.
This limestone stela was dedicated to Meretseger by Amennakht, Scribe of the Place of Truth, and depicts him kneeling before the seated figure of the Western Peak. It is unknown if this Amennakht is the same man who also dedicated the other stelae because the name was so common at Deir el-Medina. The two texts below are both penitential hymns to Meretseger, Peak of the West. Unlike the Stela of Neferabu, though, these only note the donors’ requests for forgiveness without mention of Meretseger restoring the wrongdoers’ sense of sight:
Praises for your spirit, Meretseger,
Mistress of the West, by the Scribe of the
Place of Truth, Amennakht true-of-voice;
he says: ‘Be praised in peace, O Lady of
the West, Mistress who turns herself to
grace! You made me see darkness in the
day. I shall declare your power to other
people. Be gracious to me in your grace!’
On a British Museum stela the Scribe of the Necropolis Nekhtamun addresses Meretseger as follows:
Praised be thou in peace, Oh Lady of the West,
The Mistress that turns herself toward mercy!
Thou causest me to see darkness by day.
I will declare thy might to all people (?).
Be merciful to me in thy mercy!
The inscribed words on all of these stelae testify to a clear and sincere sense of wrongdoing on the part of the donor, and they also speak to the unwavering confidence in the mercy and forgiveness of the goddess. Propitiating Meretseger meant that those living and working in the Theban area stood a chance against the dangerous creatures. Their calls for protection and forgiveness allowed the Egyptians to believe that they had some sort of power and control over these creatures.
Their remedies for snakebites offered relief only to a certain extent, so utilizing magic and praying to Meretseger served as a potent psychological security system in the realm of Egyptian medicine. Snakes were such a constant threat and their attacks seemed to have such unusually sinister effects that the Egyptians believed that these creatures acted as representatives of chaotic supernatural involvement, thus rendering their bites virtually incurable without additional mythological assistance.
The Fall of Meretseger
Although her close association with the Valley of the Kings solidified her status as a powerful local goddess, outside of Thebes Meretseger never reached the prominence of more ubiquitously worshipped deities. This meant that her worship depended heavily upon her Theban followers. Under the later Ramessids, the power and prestige held by Thebes began to weaken due to governmental economic failures. The 20th dynasty Papyrus Abbott record complaints to the vizier Khaemweset that certain royal and other tombs had been robbed. As a result, the vizier commissioned an official examination of the tombs. Other Tomb Robbery Papyri document how non-royal tombs were targeted by criminals during the reigns of Ramesses IX and Ramesses XI. Her close association with the Valley of the Kings prevented her becoming more than a local deity, so when Thebes was finally abandoned as the Egyptian capital around the 21st dynasty, the necropolis fell out of use and so too ceased her worship.