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Bibliomaniacs' Corner
by Martin Davies

The Story of Bes (Part One)

Throughout recorded history, human beings and unsolved mysteries have enjoyed a close - and often financially-rewarding - relationship. Of special relevance to bibliomaniacs is an enigma which has not only outpaced the rediscovery of Noah’s Ark, but also kept statues on Mars and divinely-encoded bibles firmly on the back-burner. The Hall of Records, as it is called, is an elusive archive which can hardly be left out of our bookish tour of Ancient Egypt. It was first glimpsed on 29th October 1933 during a deep trance by the great Kentucky clairvoyant Edgar Cayce (1877-1945). Over the following dozen years the Sleeping Prophet continued to receive additional data regarding its fabulous age and provenance. In recent years his findings have attracted a worldwide following, thanks to the considerable literary talents of John Anthony West (see Part Seventeen) and Graham Hancock, author of five alternative-prehistory bestsellers, including Keeper of Genesis (1996). For these and a growing band of bibliozealots, the Hall lies a tantalizing fifty feet beneath the Giza Sphinx. It contains, besides a potted history of Atlantis, a sort of global survival-kit which the sages of yore thoughtfully put aside to allow mankind to weather the self-inflicted catastrophes of modern times:

This Hall of Records - when discovered - will have a profound effect upon the world! It will change our perception of many of our ideas and will, at one stroke, rewrite our history books and upgrade and revolutionise our scientific know-how. Many people believe that this Hall of Records will be discovered in the fairly near future. When the Hall of Records is eventually opened we shall, at long last, have all the evidence we need to prove the existence of Atlantis. At that time we shall then discover that Atlantean technology and knowledge was far more advanced than we had hitherto thought possible!

Nuclear weapons, landmines, ozone-holes and genetically-engineered food - all swept firmly into the cupboard like the wayward toys of Mary Poppins. It would certainly be none too soon. On a more serious note, could the Hall of Records have a real-life alias? We have been looking at rediscovered scrolls in Herculaneum and the lost libraries of Alexandria, Carthage and Rome. What are the chances that Egypt’s dry atmosphere might not have preserved something special for us booklovers? In fact the entire country is an archival repository - hieroglyphs, papyri and ostraka (inscribed stone and pottery fragments) surviving by the million, easily outstripping any other location on the planet. Conventional Egyptology once focused on the accessible dynastic inscriptions, but in recent years the fascinating details of everyday life have been emerging thanks to the Herculean labours of backroom translators. One of the principal sources was located in a New Kingdom village of exceptionally literate craftsmen who built the tombs in the Valley of the Kings outside Thebes (several hundred miles upriver from Old Kingdom Giza). It was here in 1950 that French archaeologist Bernard Bruyère stumbled not upon a Hall but a well of records. The village in question is now known as Deir el-Medina or ‘Monastery of the City’, but its original name was Set Maa, ‘the Place of Truth’ - a euphemistic reference to the nearby Necropolis. The dryness of the surrounding terrain made it a fitting locale not only for royal mummies but also the world’s oldest book, The Teaching of Ptah-Hotep, commonly known as the Prisse Papyrus after its discoverer, Émile Prisse d’Avennes (1807-79). It also ensured that the shaft of a projected village well was a particularly deep one: soon after the founding of Set Maa in 1550 BC an attempt was made to reach the water table. After descending 150 feet the villagers gave up & over the following five hundred years used the bottomless pit as a rubbish dump.

Temple of Het-Hert At Deir el-Medina
It thus became the final resting-place for about thirty thousand rock-shard 'notepads' - laundry lists, love songs, employee absences, receipts, legal settlements and ruminations about gods and dreams. 'They were incredibly bureaucratic,' as one investigator has observed. Could they possibly be related to the Spanish?

Unique mural of Bes from the tomb of Senneferi, Thebes, 1420 BC

As the most talented craftsmen in the civilized world, the villagers of Deir el-Medina could hardly resist decorating their dwellings inside and out with furnishings and frescoes. The commonest motif was the god Bes, a versatile deity associated not only with childbirth, dancing, music, dreams and fertility but later on with Ibiza (‘the Island of Bes’) because of its miraculous lack of snakes and scorpions. Such creatures were known to shun the presence of the ferocious talismanic dwarf - just as malevolent spirits fled before his astonishing ugliness: a grotesque face, a curly beard or mane, lion-like ears, a lion’s tail, a prominent belly and bandy legs. The overwhelming majority of Carthaginian coins minted on our island bear his bizarre anthropoid features. His name, incidentally, may be related to besa, the panther whose skin is often draped over his shoulders and whose head appears as a pendant. The charismatic deity is the protagonist of Shelli Wright Johnson’s recent children’s book, The Story of Bes (2000 - to be reviewed in a fortnight), which includes a foreword by John Anthony West, the subject of our last article (Weekly Edition 083). Bes also takes centre stage in Jean-Charles Pichon’s Le Jeu de Bes (2001), a novel set in present-day France which combines an ingenious plot with generous doses of mythology and ancient history. It so happens that our dwarf god also shares some interesting characteristics with the Giza sphinx: both have a mixture of leonine and human features and both enjoyed protective roles vis-à-vis the royal house of Egypt… and just possibly their treasured books. Hmmmn.

Bes and Beset, Ptolemaic period, Saqqara Necropolis


To conclude, let us take a closer look at ancient plural cases. The Phoenician name for Ibiza - Ybshm - means either the ‘Islands of Bes’ with a Semitic plural ‘m’ (as in ‘cherubim and seraphim’) or just possibly the ‘Island of the Beses’ (we will ignore for the present a rival etymology - ‘The Islands of Aromatic Pines’). The latter would be a reference to the original nuclear family, Bes plus female consort (Beset) and two little scamps (Boy Bes and Girl Bes). Could those last-named rascals have something to do with the impish barruguets unique to Ibiza which we came across in Weekly Editions 056 & 058? Bes and the Pityusan archipelago are not the only ancient entities whose plural cases are often swept under the carpet: according to our Sleeping Prophet, the Hall of Records also existed at the same time as two companion archives - one in Yucatan, and a third which disappeared beneath the waves at the same time as Atlantis. Hancock is convinced he has just found the latter off Japan and his forthcoming blockbuster, Underworld, will provide more details. Let us wish the maverick investigator economically-rewarding diving. By the way, Bes’s temple-sanctuary remains to be found on Ibiza. Wannabe Harrison Fords should drop by in a fortnight’s time for a few tips.

Scarab from Carthage showing Bes holding a (scape) goat with flanking papyri stems (rattles for scaring away demons).

form the first two sections of an impressive online catalogue of Phoenician scarabs set up by Oxford University’s Beazley Archive: eighty-three Beses from collections around the world spearhead this project, one of the largest collections of images yet published of ancient Ibiza’s protective deity (see illustration above). Statues of Bes and his lesser-known consort from a variety of different website are shown below.

Lamp with Bes and Beset, terracotta. Favum
Egyptian faience Bes amulet
Ceramic statue of Bes found at Kawa (Nubia) in 2000
Bronze figure of Pantheistic Bes, 644-525 BC
Egyptian faience amulet, 664-525 BC.
664-525 BC. A turquoise amulet of the god Bes, naked, with hands at his side and wearing a plumed headdress.

Wooden tablet of Bes holding papyrus-stem rattles, New Kingdom (Brussels, Musées Royaux)

Martin Davies



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