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Bibliomaniacs' Corner
by Martin Davies

The Story of Bes (Part Two)

Remember Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Well today we have in our sights Midlothian Hancock and the Temple of Bes. The aforementioned ex-sociologist takes most of the credit for the pseudoarchaeological feeding frenzy which has recently been going on at Giza (see Ibiza History Culture Archive articles Part Seventeen in Weekly Edition 083 of Saturday 28th September 2002 and Part Eighteen in Weekly Edition 085 of Saturday 12th October 2002). Could he and his numerous followers be looking in the wrong place though? I have a vision of a breakaway prehistorian (perhaps Ibiza’s own ‘Manhattan West’) hacking a path through the Ibicenco scrub, intent on bringing to light Ibiza’s other long-lost sanctuary. Once we recall that Tanit’s shrine at Es Culleram in the island’s north-east corner lay untouched for two thousand years, it seems quite possible that the same might have happened to that of our presiding deity. The image of Bes - a writhing snake in one hand and a mace (or machete) in the other - is to be found on the overwhelming majority of Carthaginian coins minted on Ibiza between 350 BC and 50 AD. This unprecedented numismatic run provides solid proof that Iboshim or ‘the Islands of Bes’ were indeed the dancing deity’s very own snake-hunting preserve. Local archaeologists believe that these images may have reproduced the features of a large cult-statue which presided over an important shrine, perhaps at the summit of Dalt Vila. But although a mould for making earthenware plaques has come to light, not a single votive statue of Bes has ever been found on Ibiza. After a hundred years of painstaking excavations, the hypothetical treasure remains out of sight, perhaps in an overlooked cavity deep in the Pityusan hills - like the six hundred Tanits which slumbered peacefully until a scorching July day in 1907. It was almost certainly thanks to Bes too that the Romans called Ibiza and Formentera the ‘Sacred Islands’ (Insulae Augustae). To ancient minds it was indeed miraculous that not a single snake or scorpion could be found in the archipelago, unlike neighbouring Mallorca and Menorca - to say nothing of the snake-infested Maghreb.

The Bawiti Bes, Bahariya Oasis

It often used to be said that no temples were ever built to Bes, that he was a domestic deity with nothing but small household shrines, but a recent discovery in western Egypt is bringing about a radical reassessment. Two hundred miles south-west of Cairo, the Bahariya Oasis lies a good fifty leagues from the nearest major archaeological site and is surrounded on all sides by the burning sands of the Libyan Desert. But it has become the hottest site in the land in quite another sense thanks to the discovery eight years ago of over a hundred Graeco-Roman mummies, many wearing gold masks. When a journalist dubbed it the Valley of the Golden Mummies, Klondike fever descended overnight. Like many another legendary location, a halo of myths soon clustered around, one being that the catacombs were discovered when a guard on a donkey sank into a hole in the ground - as indeed happened exactly fifty years earlier (1946) in the case of our own Hipogea de la mula or Tomb of the Mule on Puig des Molins. Egypt’s archaeological supremo, Zahi Hawass has suggested that as many as ten thousand mummies may be lying in the sandstone vaults, waiting patiently for his team’s toothbrushes and trowels.

Amid the frenzy of gold and donkey-chatter, an earlier discovery at Bahariya has been quietly overlooked, namely the first and only temple dedicated entirely to Bes, unearthed back in 1988. Remember that Bes was popular in ancient Egypt for at least two millennia (and in the Phoenician-Punic world for not much less) it is really quite remarkable that no temple dedicated to him had previously come to light. But wait a minute: in ancient Bithia on Sardinia’s southern coastline, the recovery of a two-and-a-half foot sandstone Bes led Italian archaeologists to talk of a temple there, even if the one at Bahariya is the first to be fully-accredited. The Egyptian sanctuary contains what is probably the finest statue of the dwarf-god ever found; four feet high with traces of the original paint (see illustration above).

It is time once again to step onto our magic library carpet and it so happens that today’s destination is the home state of Indiana Jones himself. Shelli Wright Johnson’s The Story of Bes (2000) opens just a few miles from the shores of Lake Michigan in the gabled attic of an old farmhouse. While little Andy’s parents are going through the worldly goods of his recently-deceased grandma down below, their inquisitive nine-year-old and his trusty terrier are picking their way through the weird and wonderful objects stored for generations out of sight and mind. Among them is great-great grandpa Horace’s old wooden box from Egypt containing a roll of tattered and crumbling ‘paper’. Andy is puzzling over its strange squiggles when Max starts growling at a strange creature lurking in a corner:

To Andy, the 'intruder' looked like a life-sized version of the troll doll Uncle Skip had given to him for Christmas a few years ago: a short, plump little character with wrinkled blue skin, bowed legs, long arms, a round face with big dark eyes and protruding eyebrows, lion-like ears, and a thick, curly, gray beard. Instead of the usual tuft of long, crazy hair one would expect to find on a troll doll, this peculiar creature sported a tiara of somewhat faded but still colourful feathers. He was dressed in what appeared to be a leopard skin wrap, fastened around the waist by a snakeskin belt [.] Hanging from the left side of the snake belt was a small red leather pouch, and on the right was what appeared to be a harp, or some sort of stringed instrument. A bow was slung over his hairy blue shoulder, and Andy could see the feathered tips of at least a half dozen arrows sticking out from the quiver that hung alongside. The dwarfish intruder held a wooden walking stick shaped like an ankh (which Andy immediately recognized as the ancient Egyptian symbol representing eternal life), and he waved it wildly in the air as he yelled in some strange language Andy and Max did not understand. What they did understand was that whatever or whoever this bright blue creature was, he was clearly not happy at the moment.

The Story of Bes, p. 30

Of course not! Our local Indiana hero has unwittingly pipped the dwarf-god to the post, the papyrus being a vital document the latter has been chasing over the previous two thousand years. But after a brief session of magical harp-playing the two become bosom pals and treasure-hunting gives way to a tutorial on Egyptian mythology. Bes proudly explains his role in the saga of Osiris, assisting in the birth of falcon-headed Horus (Horace, geddit?). I am delighted to say that Byblos (see Part Seventeen in Weekly Edition 083 Saturday 28th September 2002), where Osiris’s coffin-like casket was washed ashore, gets an honorary mention.

A welcome change of pace comes in the second half of the tale, set in real time (i.e. ancient Egypt) as Andy’s endless interruptions - like the omnipresent italics - will grate on most nerves. After slaying a gigantic sea-serpent and a fearsome crocodile, Bes leads Isis out of a fifty-day sandstorm into a quiet cave where the latter gives birth to Horus. At this point Andy’s father interrupts the narrative with the news that Mom is about to give birth prematurely. An invisible Bes does his childbirth protective act in the local hospital’s Emergency Room and all turns out well. Before taking his leave at the farm, Bes assures Andy that there are many more stories to tell - how he protected young Horus during childhood and trained the god for the ultimate showdown with evil Uncle Set (like Disney’s The Lion King). Before The Story of Bes, Part Two rolls off the presses, I do hope someone has a quiet word with the author and her editor about italics.

The discovery of Tanit’s sanctuary in San Vicente came about thanks to a shepherd-boy who was searching for a lost goat - or so the story goes; the sanctuary at Bithia came to light in 1930 after a sea-storm swept away part of the neighbouring coastline; then there is the conventional shrine-detector mentioned above - a donkey or mule. So what can be done to increase the chances of finding Bes’s Pityusan fastness? I would put money on it being either in an extremely obvious place, or else in an extraordinarily remote one: either at the top of Dalt Vila (underneath the citadel, currently being excavated) or at the opposite end of the island from Tanit - the steep escarpments overlooking Cala d’Hort. The view across to Es Vedrà would provide a neat mirror image of the view to Tagomago from the rocky platform in front of Es Cuieram. If the cult of Phoenician-Egyptian Bes arrived in Ibiza before that of Carthaginian Tanit, then his priests would surely have appropriated the site with the best view. Is there anywhere else in the Mediterranean that can hold a candle to it?

Well yes, there is a third possibility: the Illa Plana just beyond Marina Botafoc was first excavated in 1907-8, yielding a large number of strange curviform figurines over which at least three generations of archaeologists have been scratching their heads. They have been called Cypriot, for want of a better label, but could they perhaps have something to do with the forgotten cult of Bes? And might not the original statue whose image was reproduced on Ibiza’s Carthaginian coins be lying just under the surface - to which a complicating layer of closely-packed chalets has just been added?

So Mystery-Hunters, why squander hard-earned royalties digging for imaginary halls beneath the Giza Plateau or the Yucatan shelf? Just two months ago a group of Italian archaeologists announced the discovery of a large statue of the Carthaginian fertility god Baal-Addir and an unusual polychromatic Egyptian relief (ca. 425 BC) in a painted underground chamber in Sulcis, southern Sardinia. The White Island too is calling. Don’t forget to bring the donkey.

From Alvaro Campaner y Fuertes,
Estudio sobre las monedas de Insula Augusta y Ebusus (Seville, 1878)

Martin Davies



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