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By John Smith posted July 20, 2016

Lecture archive


Tree Goddesses of Ancient Egypt 

Dr. Joanne Backhouse

Auctions & x-rays; Animal Mummies in Liverpool

Dr Ashley Cooke

Tree Goddesses of Ancient Egypt
Dr Joanne Backhouse

January  2024

Dr. Backhouse began by showing a picture of a sycamore growing in Egypt today;(Ficus sycomorus) this is not the same variety we see in the UK but one with edible fruits providing nourishment, timber and shade. She went on to consider how the majority of the gods and goddesses in Ancient Egypt were often portrayed in multiple forms, human, animal and as objects and likened them to a vase. We can think of the gods as the empty vessel that could be filled with any of the 3 identities.

Trees, being one such identity, were used by many of them with Hathor, Isis and Nut as prime examples. A good illustration of this is found in the tomb of Sennedjem. He and his wife are shown in the Field of Reeds with lush farmlands and an orchard, mirroring a scenario from the afterlife which they hoped to achieve. The trees represented in part of the scene appear to be Ficus Sycomorus which are cultivated all over Egypt, though are probably originally native to Southern Africa. In the tomb of Meketre, 24 small models were found depicting an idyllic life. These included butchers, brewers, weavers and a model of a garden with a pond area that could be filled with water. The trees in this garden would provide a delightful shady area for leisure.

Many goddesses can represent water or breath. Today we understand that as trees add oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from the air they have a practical use in improving air quality. Perhaps the Ancient Egyptians grasped this subconsciously, without having a scientific understanding of the process of photosynthesis. The wood obtained from the native trees, though often of poor quality, was valued, amongst other things, for the construction of coffins, such as the 6th Dynasty coffin of a priestess of Hathor displayed in the British Museum (EA46634 BM). Coffin texts often show the deceased greeting a goddess in her tree form. Many tomb paintings show scenes of sycamore fruits and wood being harvested.

Pairs of sycamores have an important association as part of the essential cycle of day to night to day, based on the travels of the gods and the deceased through the underworld and back into the light. The pairs of trees were associated with general offerings at first but later with individual goddesses, especially with those whose title was ‘Mistress of the Sycamore’. This title was also linked with the goddess Hathor, a major national goddess who was often called ‘Mistress of the Sycamore in all her places ‘. A statue of Menkaure in the Cairo Museum shows her empowering him to carry out his jubilee Hebsed ceremony.

Many early priestesses were the daughters of the king but later we start to see non-royals taking on this title. The worship of Hathor as Mistress of the Sycamore probably started at Memphis, although it is not possible to know this for certain.

One of the coffin texts from the First Intermediate Period says :

Where it is granted for you to eat

Say they who are there

Under the branches of the sycamore

I desire it

Together with the musicians of Hathor.

This shows an idealised picture of the afterlife with a depiction of two trees with the sun rising between them. In KV34 Tuthmosis III is shown suckling and taking sustenance from a tree, combining the concepts of the goddess Isis as a tree and his mother; a cleverly devised reference to fertility and nurture. In the tomb of Sobekhotep there are two representations of him and his wife or a goddess, who emerges from a tree and presents fruits, giving him permission to eat. They are by a lake full of solar symbols such as water lilies and tilapia fish which are representations of rebirth and suggest he is reborn in the afterlife. In the tomb of Nakht (TT52) from the reign of Amenhotep III, goddesses are shown wearing trees on their heads as symbols. The false door shows relatives bringing offerings. Two sycamore trees are shown on his Book of the Dead, placed in the coffin to help him transfer successfully to the afterlife and then be reborn like the sun. In the tomb of Khabekhnet the deceased, attended by Anubis, is accompanied by the goddesses Isis and Nephthys with a tree on either side to create a space for the transformation to take place.

At Dendera, the goddess Nut is shown using two ished trees to direct the life-giving rays of sun to the temple dedicated to a local form of Hathor. Nut is named in the tomb of Khensumose, priest of Amun-Ra (21st Dynasty), who stands in front of a tree giving sustenance to him. Some papyri are also a source of illustrations of the veneration of tree goddesses, showing the deceased sitting under a tree in the afterlife or often the tree stands in a pot on a small table and is adored. In the tomb of Qenamun, chief Steward of Amenhotep II, a tree is named as Onn, a representative of the goddess Nut. Similarly in the tomb of Sennefer (TT96) he is shown venerating an ished tree as a manifestation of Isis. This symbolism becomes incorporated into the Garden of the West; the ideal garden to which the family could withdraw. The tree is linked to water and shows the whole agricultural cycle of the year. No two trees are painted the same, showing the infinite variety in the garden.

Nut, Hathor and Isis are often shown in human form with a symbol on their head, or we sometimes see a local manifestation of these goddesses, such as Imenet as a local variant of Hathor. Another example in Nakhtamun’s tomb has Taweret as a representative of Nut as a tree. The scene continues to show a djed pillar with Isis and Nephthys and a composite god, representing rebirth. Later in the 18th Dynasty trees are often shown personified with hands reaching out from inside. A representation of Ramesses II from Deir el Medina, shows him being breast fed by Nut under a sycamore and this is the focus of the whole scene.

Dr. Backhouse, through her richly illustrated lecture, linked earthly life and the afterlife with tree goddesses. Trees provided food, shade and wood in both this life and the next and assisted in the passage of the deceased between the two. She also highlighted the association with water and breath, necessities in both earthly life and the afterlife, and demonstrated comprehensively how and why tree goddesses were so venerated in Ancient Egypt.