With his googly eyes and protruding tongue, a bearded fat dwarf deity called Bes adorned many ancient Near East residences, driving away evil spirits through laughter. An unprecedented fragment of a clay Persian-period “Bes-Vessel” was recently discovered during excavations of a refuse pit in the City of David National Park’s ongoing Givati Parking Lot excavations.
According to an Israel Antiquities Authority press release, Bes is imported from Egyptian mythology and was considered the protector of “households, especially mothers, women in childbirth, and children.” Due to his association with positive activities such as dancing and music, “Over time, he became regarded as the defender of everything good.”
One of the most famous examples is a circa 332–30 BCE five-foot statue that was discovered in the desert oasis of Bahariya, 124 miles west of the Nile River, which housed an entire temple dedicated to the deity. Portly and naked aside from a belt and a lion’s skin cape on his back, he is reminiscent of a laughing Buddha.
Also in Egypt, Bes adorned a circa 1330 BCE seven-inch ivory headrest that was discovered in the Tomb of Tutankhamun. According to archaeologist Zahi Hawass in an article about the treasures in the Cairo Museum, “the image of Bes would have protected him while he slept, warding off any evil spirits lurking nearby.”
On two large pithoi, or storage jars, discovered in the Sinai Desert, a famous 800 BCE inscription speaks of Yahweh (the God of Israel) and his Asherah (a female deity). The paleo-Hebrew words are found alongside depictions of animals and deities, including our funny dwarf Bes.
According to a 2012 Biblical Archaeology Review article, “An inscription above the heads of the Bes figures reads in part: “I have [b]lessed you to YHWH [Yahweh] of Shomron [Samaria] and to his asherah.” (Scholars are divided as to whether the inscription and Bes depictions are truly connected.)
What does seems to be certain is the intention in using Bes: “This grotesque figure is apparently intended to evoke joy and laughter and drive away the evil spirits,” according to the IAA release.
Amulets, statues, decorations, and these Bes-Vessels have been uncovered throughout the Holy Land, in which the deity is depicted in various forms, including a short, stocky dwarf — as is the case in the Bible Land Museum’s new exhibit, which features an unusually large stone depiction — or even as a slim jester wearing a feathered hat. Bes-worship was adopted by a swath of peoples, from the Egyptians to the Phoenicians to the Persians — and even at a 7th century Judahite settlement.
The pottery fragment marks the first time a Bes-Vessel was found in Jerusalem or in the Judean highlands. Unearthed in a joint archaeological excavation by the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel Aviv University, it dates to the Persian period (4th – 5th century BCE).
“Pottery from this period was exposed in the past in the City of David, but this is the first time that such a vessel has been found in archaeological excavations in Jerusalem or anywhere in the Judean highlands,” said Prof. Yuval Gadot of Tel Aviv University and the IAA’s Dr. Yiftah Shalev.
And that is no laughing matter.
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