So a few months ago I wrote about an article discussing Taweret’s inclusion into Minoan art/mythology, which you can read here. However, I didn’t cover the second half of the article, which discusses Beset’s similar arrival into Minoan art. Since there was a little buzz about Bes yesterday over on tumblr, and Beset always needs more publicity, I decided to summarize the rest of this interesting piece!
The article I’m examining is “The Arrival of Egyptian Taweret and Bes[et] on Minoan Crete” by Weingarten. In the first half of the article, Weingarten presents her now-accepted idea that Taweret is the basis for the Minoan Genius, a monstrous apotropaic figure with libation roles in ritual.
Weingarten begins our second half with a simple question on the origins of the Minoan Genius – “Why not Bes?” (372) Bes and Taweret served very similar functions, were both household gods, and had monstrous, “demonic” appearances. Bes is a special case even in Egypt, depicted from the front instead of the side, and a “dwarf god” with strange leonine features. All of these unusual traits show up in Middle Minoan art, the same time Taweret was adopted into Minoan culture – but Taweret cannot truly explain any of these.
Late Middle Kingdom statuette of Beset
However, it wasn’t until 2005 that an actual Bes-like figure was uncovered in Crete, when several gemstone “seals” turned up in a house excavation. On these Middle Minoan seals is a figure very similar to Bes, with a major exception – pendulous breasts reminiscent of Beset. When we factor in a marked female pubic region and straight legs (in opposition to Bes’ bow-legged stances), it seems that the Minoans imported Beset, the female counterpart to Bes.
We very quickly find changes between Egyptian and Middle Minoan depictions of Beset. The Minoans covered Beset’s pubic region, which in Egyptian magic would have been a large part of Her apotropaic power. The Minoans also gave Beset their famous bent-armed snake-holding pose, where Beset holds snakes above Her head instead of keeping her arms down at her sides. Also, the lion mane she shares with Bes is striated in a way that suggests the Minoans began drawing the mane as a wig. What do these changes tell us? That Beset had already been part of Minoan art long enough by the Middle Minoan time to undergo strictly-Minoan changes, even if we haven’t found older evidence (373).
So we’ve seen the evidence that the Minoans imported Beset. The Minoans imported tons of protective demon figures; Taweret as Minoan Genius and the ANE sphinxes are the most famous. However, it’s important to present Weingarten’s final thoughts on the reception of Beset vs. Taweret.
Middle Minoan depictions of Beset
Taweret and Beset were both probably taken home from Egypt by craftsmen who worked at places like Deir el-Medineh. Just as Taweret and Bes are very similar – even paired – Taweret and Beset are frightening, protective demon-gods who had their biggest role in protecting the home. However, Taweret is associated with purification and lustral waters, whereas Beset is specifically a snake-killer. Taweret entered Crete at the same moment Minoan civilization adopted the rhyta jugs for ritual purification and libation, fitting perfectly with Taweret-Ipet’s purifying roles (Mistress of Pure Waters). Beset doubled as an Egyptian, protective, demonic goddess, but entered Crete where there was little fear of poisonous snakes. Weingarten argues that Beset was, as such, redundant to the Minoans (374).
Even if Beset was redundant and fell out of favour in place of Taweret and more relevant demons, it is important to recognize that Beset was popular enough to be transferred from Egypt to Crete, and that She spent enough time in Minoan civilization to be transformed to Minoan standards. Although we never read much about Beset, She was vital enough to the Egyptian populace that foreigners brought Her all the way back to Crete and tried to adapt Her to their own religious environment!
I’ll end with this interesting quote from Weingarten:
“As one of ‘Those Who Protect,’ Taweret might have left Beset no independent space in which to evolve. Beset, it was true, was a first-class snake-killer but there would have been little need for a ‘Snake-Biter’ in a land with no poisonous snakes…They were both private, popular beings who mingled more freely with human beings than did deities and who acted on behalf of human beings, yet they could also mingle with higher deities.”