Mirror of Isis - An Official Fellowship of Isis Publication

Wenet the Swift One: Hare Goddess of Ancient Egypt

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COVER: Volume V, Issue 3, Samhain 2010
Table of Contents
Dedication
Editorial
Oracle
The Wild and Grassy Slope
We Honor the Earth
The Berwyn Mountains of Poetic Adventure
The Coming of the Cailleach
An Isian Midwinter Meditation
Wenet the Swift One: Hare Goddess of Ancient Egypt
Awakening of Aengus Og and Tara Rite
Druid in the Garden
Ancient Egyptian Creation Myths
Announcements: From Olivia Robertson
REPORT: Convocation of the Fellowship of Isis at the Temple of Isis 2010
REVIEW: Avalonian Aeon
MUSES SYMPOSIUM: Bentreshyt: Harp of Joy
Hestia's Hearth Fires
Shadow Queen
Hymn to Isis
Prayer to Isis
Correspondent's Reflections
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Wenet The Swift One
Unnut, Lady of Unu
By Linda Iles
 
 
To the ancient Egyptians, Deity permeated everything.  Every creature, every thing we can see, hear, smell, taste and touch had correspondence with a Deity in some form or other.  For the ancient Egyptians, the act of creation wasn’t the result of the handiwork of a single Deity.  Creation came about through an initiating force springing from a primal Divine Being which then took the form of a plethora of Gods and Goddesses, Who were the manifestations of the building blocks of life.  In their cosmology, divine essence underlay all that we as human beings experience with our senses in the physical world, and all that we experience in the unseen world of spirit.  The universe was therefore a conscious whole in which all the parts were interrelated, a concept which underlies modern hermetic theory.  Traditionally, it is the god Thoth who is attributed with hermetic theory and several other bodies of sacred knowledge, which include architecture, medicine and alchemy.  And it is to the city of Thoth, called Hermopolis Magna by the Greeks and Khemenu, ‘The Town of Eight’ by the ancient Egyptians that a search to find information about the ancient Egyptian goddess Wenet begins. 

In early dynastic times this main cult center of Thoth, honored several goddesses and gods. The Ennead of Hermopolis included four pairs of creator gods and goddesses:  the male deities in these pairs shown either as frogs or as frog-headed, the female deities shown as serpents or as serpent-headed.  Along with these four pairs of creator deities there were two other very ancient deities, a baboon god who was subsequently assimilated by the god Thoth at a very early period, and the hare goddess Wenet. 

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Thoth

The pairs of frog and serpent deities gave the city of Thoth its name, but it was the hare goddess, Wenet, whose name was given to that whole province of ancient Egypt, called a Nome, in which the city of Khemenu was located.  The Nome of Wenet, the province of Hermopolis, was therefore “District of the Hare.”  Wenet was both the patron goddess of the area of Wenu, the 15th Upper Egyptian Nome and of the city of Thoth which is more commonly referred to as Hermopolis.  These two deities have some interesting similarities and are often paired in ancient Egyptian symbolism and art, which will be discussed further along in this article.  Thoth is the scribe of the gods, credited with the invention of writing by the ancient Egyptians.  Curiously, it is a hare deity in Mayan belief who invented writing.

The Hare in Ancient Egypt

References to the hare are plentiful in ancient Egyptian mythology and literature.  The god Osiris, husband of Isis, was sometimes called Un-nefer, and portrayed with the head of a hare.  As Un-nefer, Osiris was sacrificed to the Nile each year to facilitate the annual flooding which brought renewal of the land and crops. Un-nefer has been translated variously as “The Good Being” or “The One Who Brings Good into Being” or “Beautiful Renewal.”  Wenet’s male counterpart, Wenenu (or Unnu), was sometimes identified as a form of Osiris or Re.  The hare also appears as a standard hieroglyphic phonetic sign.  This hieroglyph which is called “Wn” symbolized the very essence of life itself, and depicts a hare over a single ripple of water, the very substance from which life first appeared out of the primordial waters of Nun in ancient Egyptian creation myths.   

Wenet and Thoth, in their animal forms of hare and baboon respectively, share some interesting similarities.  The hare was often depicted as a messenger for Thoth, and the hare was shown greeting the dawn in ancient Egyptian mythology and art, just as the baboon was.  The baboon in nature has been documented from ancient times as patiently sitting and watching for the sun to rise over the horizon at dawn.  The Cape Hare, the variety of hare which is the particular sacred animal of Wenet, has a distinctive yellow chest and white abdomen, which may have lent something to this animals association with greeting the sun at dawn.  The Cape Hare was the subject of amulets found in tombs and tomb paintings.  The Cape Hare is included under the scientific name of Lepus capensis, with the European Hare and Brown Hare.  Lepus capensis is the animal upon which the Easter Bunny is based. 

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Hare, Hunter's Palette

During the Middle Kingdom, faience figurines of the Cape Hare were occasionally deposited in tombs - perhaps their legendary fecundity came into play as a symbol of fertility and thus ultimately of renewal.  The earliest surviving ancient Egyptian amulets in the form of a hare come from the late Old Kingdom to First Intermediate Period.  They were typically made of carnelian and ivory.  The earliest surviving example of a Cape Hare in Egyptian art to date, comes from an elaborately decorated votive schist ‘Hunters’ Palette’ which features a desert hunting scene from the Late Predynastic Period.  This piece is on display at the British Museum. 

During the Eighteenth Dynasty, Cape Hares appear as popular subjects among offerings pictured on tomb-chapel walls to nourish the deceased.  One very beautiful example appears on a fragment of a wall painting from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun at Thebes.  In the New Kingdom images of the hare were used as decorative motifs, particularly on items used for cosmetics and personal grooming.  Dating from the Late Dynastic and Ptolemaic periods several finely cast bronze votive statuettes have been found, and a great number of small green-blue faience amulets which indicate the revered status of the hare as an amulet during these times.

The hare was credited with powers of regeneration probably because of its well known fecundity.  Its swiftness of movement and keenness of senses were seen as desirable defenses against forces of darkness. An amulet in the form of a hare amulet could be worn in life to endow its wearer with fertility, in death with the hope of rebirth, and both in life and in death for purposes of protection. 

Behavior, Characteristics and Habitat

One of the best ways to get a grasp of the functions of a particular goddess or god is to study the habits and characteristics of the animal that is held sacred to them.  The ancient Egyptians studied the behavior of animals around them, and like other cultures in India, China and Tibet, they believed that the behavior of certain animals manifested an aspect of deity.

First of all, some of you may not know the differences between a rabbit and a hare.  I didn’t!  I have found that many animals we normally call ‘rabbits’ are actually a variety of hare.  Jackrabbits are a perfect example of this.  The primary differences between hares and rabbits are the hare is generally larger with longer ears and has more powerful hind legs. The hare lives in open habitat and runs to escape predators rather than hiding in the woods as the rabbit does. The hare does not build nests for its young which are born fully furred with their eyes open, an attribute called precocial. The rabbit does build nests and its young are born hairless with their eyes closed. 

The hare takes readily to the water, where it swims well.  Hares are remarkably fecund, mating when scarcely a year old.  The female can bring forth several broods in one year.  Usually two young are born at a time and sheltered in a clump of grass or under a bush. In the early stages of life they do not seem to have a body scent, as they are passed over by predators. They grow and develop quickly, becoming weaned and independent at about one month old.
  
The Cape Hare lives in open, dry country from coastal plains to mountains, open fields of grasslands, and open areas of sparse woodlands, that contain low grass for feeding and grass stands for cover. They can inhabit many habitats that are too arid or open to support other varieties of hares.  The Cape Hare eats grass, corn, fruit, clover, wheat and other green plants in the summer. In winter it eats buds and twigs. Their resting places are shallow depressions in the ground which are known as ‘forms’ because they are shaped by the animal's body.  A Cape Hare will return to its ‘form’ day after day, and will sleep lying in exactly the same position: it is only when under stress that it may take alternative refuge in the underground burrow of some other animal. The Cape Hare is predominately nocturnal, after dark it emerges to feed on grasses and sometimes on other plants. The upper incisors are long and chisel-like and they grow throughout the hare's lifetime.

Their behavior when they are angry includes grinding of teeth, drumming of forefeet and stamping of hind feet. When warning others a Cape Hare makes a grating sound with its teeth or screams when distressed.  When disturbed, the Cape Hare will suddenly leap up and dart off using a zigzag motion, sharp turns, and back tracks frequently to evade a predator. When chased, it can run 30 mph with bursts of speed up to 45 mph.  It also makes very sharp turns and back tracks frequently when chased, just as it tends to do when disturbed from resting or hiding in it's 'form'.  Leaps of 4' to 12' leap have been observed.
 
Cape Hares occur throughout Africa, as well as many parts of the Middle East and Asia. The Cape hare is native of all non-forested areas of Africa, Europe and Asia to central China. It was introduced in New York in the 1890s and now inhabits open areas of New York as well as parts of Connecticut, Massachusetts and southeastern Ontario.

So what does this tell us of the Goddess Wenet?  Lets read the ancient texts and see if these “hare facts” can help in interpretation.

The Hare Goddess Wenet

Wenet was depicted either as a hare, or as a woman with a standard bearing a recumbent hare on her head, or as a woman with the head of a hare.  According to Plutarch the Egyptians venerated the hare on account of its swiftness and keen senses, but the hare’s form was also taken by certain other deities who had associations with the Otherworld.  In one of the vignettes of the Elysian Fields from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a hare-headed god, a snake-headed god, and a bull-headed god sit side by side; a hare-headed deity also guards one of the Seven Halls in the Underworld.  Wenet was sometimes depicted in the form of a snake, a creature with clear Otherworld associations.

In the Chapter of the Egyptian Book of the Dead titled, “Of the Four Blazing Flames which are Made for the Khu,” taken from the Papyrus of Nu, Sheets 26 and 27, there is a rubric which mentions Wenet by a more archaic spelling of her name, Unnut.  In this rubric Nu records “And you...shalt write down these writings in accordance with the things which are found in the books of the royal son Heru-ta-ta-f, who discovered [them] in a hidden chest - now they were in the handwriting of the god himself - in the Temple of the goddess Unnut, the Lady of Unnu (Hermopolis) during his journey to make an inspection of the temples...”  This furthers Wenets association with the Otherworld, for according to this text the spells for the Book of the Dead were found in her temple at Hermopolis, written out in scrolls by the god Thoth himself.  In the Papyrus of Ani is a hymn to Ra in which is found the following passage:  “The goddess Net-Unnut is stablished upon thy head; and her uraei of the South and the North are upon thy brow; she taketh her place before thee.”  As Net-Unnut or Nebt-Unnut, the goddess Wenet is a Guardian of the Underworld, titled “Lady of the Hour.”

WenetGuardianUnderworldAni.jpg
The Hare Goddess as Guardian in the Otherworld

A portion of spell 17 of the Book of the Dead reads  “...Who is he? ‘Swallower of Myriads’ is his name, and he dwells in the Lake of Wenet...”  This takes on a whole new meaning when one realizes that hares can swim, coupled with the fact that creation first came about in the watery abyss of Nun, out of which the primordial mound of creation first appeared, from which the newly born god manifested.  To dwell in the Lake of Wenet given the well known fecundity of the Cape Hare means to live renewed, revitalized, to be reborn, to live, forever and ever renewed after death, as the god Atum-Re.  Spell 17 does go on to identify the dweller in the Lake of Wenet as Atum-Re, the creator of all, whose father is said to be Nun, because he rose out of the ‘watery abyss.’

This is further emphasized in other passages which mention Wenet in the Book of the Dead.  Spell 149 describes the ‘Mounds of the West’ (14 in number) which the spirit travels through to be reborn, rejuvenated while in the Otherworld or Duat: “...The twelfth mound; green.  Isdjedet in the West.  N. says:  As for that Mound of Wenet which is in front of Rosetjau, its breath is fire, and the gods cannot get near it, the spirits cannot associate with it; there are four cobras on it whose names are ‘Destruction.’  O Mound of Wenet, I am the greatest of the spirits who are in you, I am among the Imperishable Stars who are in you, and I will not perish, nor will my name perish.  ‘O savour of a god!’ say the gods who are in the Mound of Wenet.  If you love me more than your gods, I will be with you for ever...”   Not only is the Mound of Wenet a site of sacred creative energy, the ability of the hare to elude destruction, makes Wenet, through her association with this animal a haven for the spirit, where it is rejuvenated on its journey through the Otherworld, a place where it cannot perish.

The Coffin Texts also mention Wenet.  Spell 47 reads ,  “...may Wenet make firm your head for you, may you receive a sceptre in the Bark of Night, may the roads of the Lord of All be shown to you.  Ho N! Raise yourself to life for ever!”  It is through the goddess Wenet that the deceased will attain strength (firmness of head) and the authority (a sceptre) to become established and live again in the Otherworld.

Spell 495 of the Coffin Texts reads: “I extend my arm in company with Shu, I am released in company with Wenet.  I have fled with the Sistrum-player, I have reached the horizon as a great falcon, I have got rid of my impediment in the horizon, I have saved myself from the slayers...”  Knowing what we do of the habits of the hare to elude its enemies, this passage corresponds this ability of the sacred animal of Wenet with a final victory of the deceased to rise above all difficulties to be reborn again in the horizon as the solar falcon. 

Spell 720 of the Coffin Texts states:  “...I am a dawn-god.  The plumes tremble when Nut ascends, those who are in the storm tremble... my voice is (that of) Wenet; ...I regard myself as a dawn-god...”  Remember that the hare has the capability to scream when distressed, and that the hare greets the dawn as a protective deity.  Further on, near the end of the Coffin Texts, in Spell 942,  “...when this goddess goes forth, having appeared as Re [...] the Sole Lord...she has nothing which has been done against her in [this her name] of Wenet...”  It is as Wenet, appearing as the solar god Re, brilliant and shining forth with new life that the deceased finds renewal of life.

A strong resemblance to the ancient Egyptian role of Wenet in the spells of the Book of the Dead and the Coffin Texts also surfaces in the mythology of the Algonquin Indians of North America.  They believed that after death, their spirits traveled to a hare god known as Menabosho.  The hare was sacred to the goddess Freya and to Ostara, goddess of springtime.  This link with the goddess Ostara led to the modern day Easter Bunny.  The Mongolians, Chinese, Japanese, and other Far Eastern peoples all held similar beliefs about the hare. Eros, god of sexual love, is sometimes represented carrying a hare, and the hare was a favorite animal of Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty.  When a hare rested at the feet of the Virgin Mary it was a symbol of triumph over desires of the flesh.

“In many ancient civilizations the hare is a “lunar animal,” because the dark patches (maria, “seas”) on the surface of the full moon suggest leaping hares....In Buddhist, Celtic, Hottentot and ancient Egyptian cultures as well, the hare was associated with the moon...known for it’s vigilance and for the myth of it sleeping with it’s eyes open.  The early Christian Physiologus mentions a further peculiarity of the hare:  with its shorter front legs, it can run fastest uphill, eluding its pursuers...It’s speed and vigilance, according to Plutarch (AD 46 - 120), have a “divine” quality...A trickster figure, the hare outwits larger and stronger animals...For psychologically oriented symbologists, neither the speed nor the “timidity” of the hare is critical, but rather the rate at which it multiplies: this makes the animal a symbol of fertility and passionate sexuality.”  (Biedermann, ‘Dictionary of Symbolism’)

A Vision of Wenet

Beautiful Mother,
As the Light of Re illuminates Your Face,
Your Beauty enfolds my soul.

Swiftly runs Wenet, Lady of Wenu,
Between the Two Horizons.
Swiftly runs Wenet, Lady of Wenu,
Between the Adze of the North
And the Adze of the South.
I sing to You this day, Lady of Wenu,
That the Way will be opened
To all who seek You.

Beautiful Mother,
As the Light of Re illuminates Your Face,
Your Beauty enfolds my soul.

The Goddess turns and rises above me
Holding the two jars,
The Black and the White.
She anoints my mouth.
Sacred Words long unspoken rush forth from my lips.
She anoints my heart.
Divine Light quivers and bursts from my being.

I am reborn.

Beautiful Mother,
As the Light of Re illuminates Your Face,
Your Beauty enfolds my soul.



Bibliography

Budge, E. A. Wallis, The Gods of the Egyptians, Vol. I and II

Durdin-Robertson, Lawrence, The Goddesses of Chaldaea, Syria and Egypt

Wilkinson, Richard H., The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt

Faulkner, R. O., The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead
                            The Coffin Texts, Vol. I, II, III

Andrews, Carol, Amulets of Ancient Egypt

Biedermann, Hans, Dictionary of Symbolism

Houlihan, Patrick F., The Animal World of the Pharaohs




About the Author: Linda Iles is an ordained priestess in the Fellowship of Isis and the Temple of Isis. She is certified and teaches as a head instructor in all branches of the Fellowship of Isis, including the Adepti Spiral, the College of Isis, Solar Alchemy of the FOI Priesthood, Noble Order of Tara and Druid Clan of Dana.  Linda is a founding member of the Circle of Isis Advisory Board of the Fellowship of Isis, a member of the Circle of Isis FOI Central Website staff, and a founding member of the Temple of Isis, Geyserville Chapter of the Muses Symposium and Sister member of the Circle of Pelagia. She is a member of two of the Foundation Triad Unions of the Fellowship of Isis, the ArchDruid Union of the Druid Clan of Dana and Grand Commander Union of the Noble Order of Tara. Linda undertakes some of the editorial duties for the Mirror of Isis. She has been an active teacher, given presentations at FOI events in Los Angeles and Geyserville and contributed articles, poetry and illustrations for Fellowship of Isis publications since early 1998.

 

All written material on this page is copyrighted © Linda Iles

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