Marie Vandenbeusch, British Museum

Following Seth’s path? The ambivalent nature of ancient Egyptian donkey-headed deities

Egyptian gods are well known for their ability to take various shapes, in particular animal forms. Most animals living in Egypt are involved in these transformations. Amongst them, the donkey is often associated with the god Seth, known for his malevolent and ambivalent nature. This association is most apparent during the Ptolemaic period, when Seth in the shape of a donkey is shown being killed in numerous temple reliefs, especially in Edfou and Dendera. This connection is already clear earlier, especially during the New Kingdom, when donkey-headed gods seen at the prow of the solar bark defend it from attackers. These scenes associate the donkey with Seth, who is also known for his protective role in the solar journey. However, not all of the representations of donkey-headed gods are clearly linked to Seth, nor do they necessarily present evil qualities.

This talk will present the various functions of the donkey-headed figures in religious text and imagery, which populate the funerary world, from their first appearance to the Graeco-Roman period. It will show that whilst the assumption that the donkey is equivalent to Seth is often true, there are some significant exceptions, which show the ambiguity and the richness of the Egyptian religious world.

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