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Grimacing faces, furrowed brows, and gaping mouths with tongues sticking out to confront the viewer are usually connected to the god commonly referred to as "Bes" in Cyprus. Images identified with Bes—as masks, on amulets, gems, appliquées, and in sculpture—are found in a variety of contexts and in a variety of materials. There is no compelling evidence to identify these figures specifically with the Egyptian god. In Cyprus, however, we do witness the primary attributes associated with the god in his earliest manifestations in Egypt (Middle and New Kingdom) and the Near East (Old Babylonian): a grotesque, monstrous, frontal visage;, furrowed brow;, bandy legs;, feather crown; and stout, dwarf features. The god is usually represented nude; in some instances, he wears a lionskin indicated by a tail hanging between the legs. He is often represented holding additional attributes such as knives, snakes, and musical instruments; in some cases, he is represented as a master of animals. The main Cypriot types signal an iconographic debt to both Egyptian and Near Eastern (Phoenician) sources, which mingled to create a novel, hybridized image for a Cypriot audience.

From the beginning, Bes appears to personify a multiplicity of functions, but in general one sees the god as a benevolent guardian who wards off evil spirits and serves as a protector of children and mothers, making him an ideal visual symbol in both religious and funerary settings, but also as well as political ones (e.g., palaces). Among the earliest representations in Cyprus is a twelfth-century BCE ivory wall bracket bearing a Cypro-Minoan inscription found at Kition. With his leonine features, the god strikes a Smiting God pose with a weapon raised above the head, dressed in an Egyptianizing kilt and wearing the characteristic feather crown. These attributes are especially popular after the Archaic period, when the Cypriot Bes appears in two distinct types. The first type features a grimacing, disembodied head with facial striations, open mouth, and extended tongue; examples include furniture accessories, as seen on an ivory bed discovered in Tomb 79 at Salamis, as well as a monumental, sculpted head set atop a pillar found near Pyla, but also as pendants, amulets, and decorative reliefs on clothing. The second type retains the grotesque, apotropaic facial features, but here the god is full-figured, nude or clothed in an animal skin, and featuring a variety of attributes, and sometimes multiplied and or moving, as on the Amathous Sarcophagus in the Metropolitan Museum of Art or on the wall bracket discovered at Malloura (AAP-AM-2431). We also find animal elements (especially leonine) in the facial features, such as a broad nose, animal ears, mane-like hair, and, in some cases, horns. Bes assumed a variety of roles in Cyprus, often associated with lions, snakes, and other animals, but also without additional attributes serving as simple dedications or as decorative elements. In almost every instance, the head of the god is shown frontally, confronting the viewer, almost invariably with a protruding tongue—a feature that gives primacy to the face/gaze as a source of power and, presumably, connects to apotropaic functions of protection and repulsion.

Suggested Citation

Derek B. Counts. "Divine Images: Bes". (2020) In Visualizing Votive Practice: Exploring Limestone and Terracotta Sculpture from Athienou-Malloura through 3D Models. Derek B. Counts, Erin Walcek Averett, Kevin Garstki, Michael Toumazou (Eds.) . Released: 2020-07-28. Open Context. <>

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