Anuket is an ancient Egyptian Goddess of the cataracts or rapids
on the Nile River in the region of Abu Island (called Elephantine Island in
classical and modern times) in the south of Egypt, near the traditional border
with Nubia. The cataracts there, the first of several stretches of rapids along
the Nile, formed a barrier to boat travel that was very treacherous or even
impassable except in seasons of high flood. She is the sister or daughter to
Satet, another Nile Goddess of the area of the First
Cataract, and the two of them plus Khnum, a local Ram-God, made up the Elephantine
Triad from Middle Kingdom times (c. 2040-1640 BCE). Anuket is associated with
the gazelle, as Satet is with the antelope, and both animals were linked with
water in the Egyptian mind, perhaps because antelope and gazelles are often
found near rivers or watering holes.
Anuket's name means "She Who Clasps" or "She Who
Embraces" (which I suppose could also be interpreted as "She Who Hugs"),
and may refer to the steep and enclosing banks of the Nile at the First Cataract,
which hold the river as in the arms of the Goddess. Alternately, Her name may
refer to the annual inundation of the Nile, whose floodwaters overflowed into
the fields along the banks (though not in Her immediate neighborhood, as the
banks are just too steep!), since these waters were said to "embrace"
the fields in some ancient sources. Her name does have some darker connotations
however, for it can also mean "She Who Strangles"; this may indicate
a dual nature to the Goddess, like that of Hathor
(who in some tales goes on a murder spree much like Sekhmet),
and in fact Anuket was associated with Hathor in Thebes.
The worship of Anuket was known from at least Old Kingdom times,
and may be of Nubian origin. She was strongly associated with that land and
was known to have been worshipped there. Though the First Cataract traditionally
marked the border between Egypt and Nubia, in Predynastic times (when a surprising
amount of Egyptian religion and worship was established) the border had not
yet been pushed that far south. So, if Anuket's worship at the First Cataract
dates back to Predynastic times (and I suspect it might, though I can't prove
it, because that particular landmark and location is so striking, and She is
so strongly associated with it), then She is by definition of Nubian origin.
In Old Kingdom times Anuket was thought of as the daughter of
Re, the Sun-God, though by Middle Kingdom times, as mentioned above, She had
been incorporated into a triad with Satet and Khnum. She seems to have been
at first considered a lesser wife of Khnum, after Satet, but in New Kingdom
times was thought of as the daughter of Satet and Khnum.
Anuket has aspects of a huntress Goddess, much like Satet, perhaps
because both were associated with varieties of antelope, a prime game animal
in the area. She can be depicted as a woman with the head of a gazelle, or,
less often, as the animal itself. Usually, however, She is depicted as fully
human, as a woman in a sheath-dress wearing a flat-topped crown ringed with
tall feathers (this headdress is thought by some to be proof of a Nubian origin).
Her headdress sometimes bears a uraeus, the cobra of Lower Egypt, which
oddly enough is the downstream or northern part of Egypt, though perhaps in
Her case it is simply a royal association rather than a geographical one. She
usually carries a papyrus sceptre, symbolic of strength and renewal, and an
ankh, the symbol of life, both of which are appropriate to a water Goddess.
She was equated by the Greeks with their Hestia, a fire and hearth
Goddess who was an avowed virgin. This is a little strange, especially since
Anuket is very much a water Goddess, but also because Anuket's name of "Embracer"
carries with it the connotations of a motherly embrace, and She was invoked
as a maternal Goddess who protected the King; in fact in some texts She bears
the title "Mother of the King". Perhaps because She was in late times
the daughter figure in the triad with Khnum and Satet She was identified with
Hestia, or perhaps Her huntress abilities reminded the Greeks of their fellow
virgin-Goddess Artemis (who was Herself identified with the Lioness-Goddess
Anuket 's main cult center was at Abu Island near Aswan, where
She was worshipped alongside Khnum and Satet. She also had Her own temple on
the island of Setet (modern Sehel) , which is about 2 miles upstream of Abu
to the south. She was worshipped through much of Lower Nubia (the northernmost
part of Nubia on the border with Egypt) and is depicted on the temple to Amon-Re
at Beit el-Wali in Nubia, about 38 miles south of Abu, built by Ramesses II
(1290-1224 BCE). The original cult statue of Amon-Re has been destroyed (probably
when the temple was used as a churchthe name Beit el-Wali in Arabic
means "House of the Holy Man" and a hermit may have lived there once
upon a timethough surprisingly enough the paintings inside were left alone
and are in good condition today) but there is still a statue of the King with
Anuket and Khnum. In one relief at this temple, Anuket is depicted suckling
the King, an act of protection and acceptance in Egyptian religious thought.
Anuket was also depicted in a Ptolemaic temple in el-Dakka, Nubia; both these
temples were dismantled and rebuilt on higher ground before the Aswan High Dam
was completed in 1971 and the new Lake Nassar flooded the area.
Abu or Elephantine Island was the capital city of the first Upper
Egyptian Nome (a Greek word meaning "province" or "administrative
region") and was home to a very ancient settlement dating from the early
Dynastic period (3100-2686 BCE), which included a temple built among the rocks
of the cataract. Because space was limited, several temples were built there,
one on top of the other, leaving a clear progression of building levels (an
archaeologist's dream). The earliest shrine there was a niche in the rocks that
probably housed the cult-statue; the exact Deity worshipped there at that time
is unknown, but as many of the early votive offerings found there were figures
of children, implying wishes for an easy childbirth, I'd guess the Deity there
was one of the Goddesses rather than a God, (my hunch is Satet, as She is more
strongly associated with childbirth) as She was also worshipped at that spot
in later times and Egyptian religion is generally uncannily stable.
Elephantine Island gets its classical name from the trade in
ivory that passed through the region, as it was a gateway to Nubia; and both
trade and royal expeditions were commonly launched from there. Anuket, with
Satet and Khnum, were invoked by these travellers as protective guardians on
their sometimes dangerous trips, and on the island of Sehel, which was consecrated
to Her, more than 200 inscriptions to the three are found, some asking for a
safe journey into Nubia, others giving thanks for a safe return.
Anuket is very closely linked with Satet, and it may be that
they are sister Goddesses, or two aspects of the same Goddess, as They are both
protective Goddesses of the Cataracts and the Nile in the region of Abu Island.
The Elephantine triad of Khnum, Satet and Anuket was in late times paralleled
with that of Osiris, Isis and Nephthys; as Isis and Nephthys are sister Goddesses,
and are often depicted equally in their roles supporting or mourning for Osiris
(though Isis otherwise is more well known), perhaps this indicates a similar
equal relationship between Anuket and Satet.
Also spelled: Anket, Anquet, Anqet, Anjet. Anukis is the Greek
version of Her name.
Epithets: Mother of the King, Lady of Elephantine, Lady of Life,
Lady of the Cataracts, Lady of Heaven, Mistress of the Gods, Mistress of Nubia,
Lady of Setet