Bes was one of the most popular deities of ancient Egypt. He was a god of the common people, not a god of the ruling class. Here are some quick facts about him:
- Bes was a protector god – he was so dreadful that he was scaring away the evil spirits themselves. He was a dwarf, and his statues decorated the doorsteps of Egyptian houses, similar to statues of dwarfs in modern house yards.
- He was a god of dance and music – his symbols are drums and bells.
- He was a god of war and his animal is a lion.
- He was a god of fertility.
- According to some authors, he was a prototype for Christian devil
- He was never worshiped in temples, but many masks are found indicating some form of a ritual.
- He was often portrayed with his tongue sticking out, feathers on his head and unlike all other deities of Egypt, he was never drawn in profile!
- Because of the last fact, there was a widespread opinion is that he was not an Egyptian god at all!
So if not Egyptian god, whose god was it? The most popular theory is that he is an import from Nubia and that he is of African origin. Why – because he wears feathers on his head, just like some African tribal chiefs. And also, one of his titles was “Lord of Nubia” while “besa” means “cat” in Nubian. (but note, it does not mean “a lion” – his sacred animal)
Bes and the sea peoples
Truth be told, Bes was much more popular in Phoenicia and Cyprus than in Nubia. And even in Europe of those days, feathers were a big fashion trend too. Warriors wore them in the exact manner of native American Indians. Remember, Bes was also a god of war.
Egyptians portrayed their notorious foes, “sea peoples”, with feathers on their heads. These pirates started attacking Egypt in the period of the New Kingdom. In the end, a lot of them were captured and forced to join the ranks of the Egyptian army. This is roughly the same time when an almost forgotten Bes became more popular than ever.
So what is the deal with feathers? According to some theories, a warrior would get one feather whenever he defeated an enemy. Hence, the more feathers the fiercer the warrior.
There are some indications that this custom survived for quite a long time in Europe, all the way to Hussars – the famous Polish Calvary. However, not many people are aware that Hussars originated in Balkans, and that in the early days even their Polish ranks consisted predominantly of Serbs. Wikipedia mentions this fact only as a sidenote. By the way, Hussar means “pirate“.
Bessi / Bessoi – a Thracian tribe
A Thracian tribe of Bessi dwelled on the territory of what is now Serbia and Bulgaria, from the times immemorial. Bessi were fierce warriors, and as Thracians, they could easily be one of the tribes of “sea peoples”. Thracians had a strong naval force long before the Romans and Greeks. A small remote island of Samothrace is just one small reminder of that. One of the tribes of the sea peoples was Shardani. modern scholars connect them to Sardinia and the city of Sard but neglect the fact that the ancient name of Sofia was Serdika.
But that is not all, in 570 AD, Antoninus Placentius mentions that in the valleys of Mount Sinai there was a monastery in which the monks spoke Greek, Latin, Syriac, Egyptian and… Bessian. (?)
On proven genetic connections between Sardinia and Balkans check out my post: Genetics speaks – Who is who on Balkans
The masked rituals of Balkans
Alright, so we have a Thracian tribe with a similar name to this god, and possibly some feathers… so what does that prove? Nothing really, until a third and most important element of the story kicks in. It is an ancient Thracian custom, still preserved all over the Balkans – the Kukeri ritual.
Traditions of Kukeri is so ancient that it has many parallels in Africa and Asia. However, it has been present in Europe since times immemorial, especially on the Balkans. Even the Carnival of Venice draws its roots from there.
Basically, at a specific time of the year, people would put on their demonic masks and walk through the village. They would go from door to door, singing, and dancing and clapping their bells. All this with a goal to chase away evil spirits and provide fertility for the next year. (Word “kukur” means “grain” ie “kukuruz” = “corn” in Serbian). So no need for a temple. Also, they became demons with the arrival of Christianity. These are in a nutshell, all the main attributes of the god Bes, from the beginning of this article.
Since Bessi were a Thracian tribe, we can almost be certain that their ritual was similar to that of modern Bulgarians. Nowadays, the most popular location for this festival is in the city of Pernik – in the very heart of the ancient Bessi tribe territory!
Bies – A Slavic demon
And finally, if we look for the etymology of the name “Bes” in Slavic languages of Balkans instead of Nubia, we get a meaning “demon, evil spirit”. In my opinion, this is much more appropriate for this type of “deity”. (Bulgarian – “Byas”, Croatian – “Bjes”, Serbian – “Bes”) This word exists in Northern Slavic countries as well – see Bies
Well, perhaps Bes could be a Thracian origin after all. However, a tongue sticking out (as well as the whole Kukeri ritual) is more reminiscent of the cultures of Asia. Its purpose is to ward off the evil spirits. If you would like to know how this connection could have happened, and what could be the link between the citizens of Bessipura (capital of Bessi) and lions – sacred animals of Bes, you can read my previous post on Singidunum.