Visitors to Egypt cannot help but notice depictions of the ancient god Min, even if they do not initially know who he is. Min was one of the oldest Egyptian gods, associated with the primordial force of male sexual fertility. Min was typically shown standing upright in a fully anthropomorphic form, as a wrapped, or mummified, ithyphallic man. He wears a cap, or crown, to which long streamers are attached, and which is also topped with two tall plumes. In this form, Min’s legs are usually held tightly together, often bound by bandages. However, Min’s arms are typically free, with the left hand shown holding his erect penis, and the right hand held aloft, which may be a protective gesture, or possibly a smiting pose (he frequently holds a flail in his right hand). Min is often depicted as a syncretised god, particularly during the New Kingdom when he was associated with the Theban god Amun.
In coloured artworks, Min is often shown with black-coloured skin, thought to represent the fertility of the ‘Black Land’ of Nile floodplain silt. From the Sixth Dynasty to Roman times, depictions of sacrifices to Min on pots or offering tables consisted of lettuce, since its white sap is reminiscent of semen, symbolising male fertility. The main sites for the cult of Min were Coptos/Gebtu (modern Qift) and Khent-Min (the Shrine of Min; modern Akhmim), which was called Panopolis by the Greeks. While the origin of the name ‘Menu’ (Min) is unknown, Plutarch claimed it meant ‘that which is seen’, due to the similarity with the Egyptian verb ‘to see’. Although Min is not mentioned in the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts by name, there is maybe reference to him as he ‘who raises his arm in the east’, thereby alluding to his long association with the Eastern Desert.
Lord of the Foreign Lands
Worship of Min may have originated with the Medjay desert nomads. It is suggested that Min may have been an important deity in the Eastern Desert since the Naqada II Period (c.3500-3200 BC), since rock carvings showing an ithyphallic figure with a feathered headdress are known from Wadi Gash and Wadi Umm Salam. The two feathered headdresses of the deities Mut and Amun are thought to denote foreignness. Similarly, Min was called the ‘Lord of the Foreign Lands’, and this may also explain his popularity with respect to trade missions. It is thought that the first chapels in the Eastern Desert devoted to Min were the rounded platforms that date to the Middle Kingdom, discovered at Mersa Gawasis. Their association with Min was proposed because many fragments of Lambis lambis (spider conch) shell occasionally linked with the god were found there. Subsequently, in the New Kingdom, sanctuaries took the form of rock shelters. This form may explain Min’s patronage of mining activities. Furthermore, travellers using rock shelters as refuges from the elements may have shown their gratitude to the local deity Min by dedicating these refuges as his sacred spaces.
Min and Pan
At Akhmim, Min had both an urban shrine within the settlement, and a chapel, the ‘al-Salamuni speos’, in the nearby mountain cliffs. Archaeologist A D Espinel suggested the speos may have originally inspired Min’s association with the wilderness, and influenced the form of around 20 other rock chapels in the Eastern Desert. Similarly, the ancient Greek god Pan was often worshipped in crevices in rocks, such as on the Athenian Acropolis, which reflected his own origins in the wilderness of Arcadia. This may have encouraged the identification (syncretisation) of Min with Pan in the Graeco-Roman Period, and reinforces the suggestion that Min was associated with wilderness locations. Like Min, Pan was a god of exuberant male sexuality and fertility. The identification of the rock shelters as paneia (shrines or chapels to syncretised Min/Pan) is often made, based on images of Min found therein, such as the one added to older rock-art images at Wadi Minayh. Hence, the paneia are strong evidence for the popularity of Min in the Eastern Desert, and their form as rock shelters suggests the reasons for his popularity.
Association with water
Min/Pan’s popularity in the Eastern Desert may also have come through his association with the watery nature spirits, known as nymphs, and thus water sources. During the 3rd century BC, a building façade was carved into the rock surface at an ancient spring and well at Bir Abu Safa, located on the track that connected Abraq to the Nile near Aswan. Before it faded, due to erosion, an inscription was noted above the false door suggesting the shrine was built by Ptolemy III Euergetes (c.246-221 BC).
Throughout the Mediterranean, monuments in the form of nymphaea (shrines to the nymphs) were often built beside water sources, and thus the carving may be one of these. More substantial sanctuaries to Min existed in the Eastern Desert, too. A religious building, comprising two rooms, was found near the Mons Ophiates quarries, bearing an inscription in Greek that indicated the building was erected during the reign of Augustus (AD 11) to the god Pan/Min. The inscription also had an image of Pan/Min that is similar to that found at Mons Porphyrites.
The reason for the popularity of Min is sometimes made explicit in inscriptions themselves. One such inscription has been found north of the main fort at Wadi Ma’mal, inside a building that was probably a shrine or temple. The Greek inscription recorded that Gaius Cominius Leugas discovered the Mons Porphyrites quarries and the multicoloured marbles there, and in AD 18 dedicated a sanctuary to Pan and Serapis for the well-being of his children. A large image of Pan/Min was found on a stone standing to the left of the inscription. The invocation of Min as the protective deity may be related to his role as god of the Eastern Desert, since protection seems to have been the reason for the popularity of other deities. French excavations of Roman-era praesidia (troop garrisons), along the road joining the port of Myos Hormos to the Nile at Coptos, noted that each garrison seemed to have its own protective patron deity. Ostraca found at the forts suggested the particular deities invoked to avert evil included Apollo, Athena, the Dioscuri, Serapis, and Philotera, the deified sister of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 BC). Min/Pan was honoured in at least one of these desert praesidia, too.
Further inscriptions suggest the popularity of Min was connected as well to his relationship to travellers and trade in the desert. Min was regarded as the patron deity of the caravan routes to the Red Sea, probably because they often departed from his city of Coptos. The geographical location of the key sanctuary of Min at Coptos, at the west end of the Wadi Hammamat, may have encouraged his identification as the god of the Eastern Desert. A number of the Wadi Hammamat inscriptions record expeditions sent by the Eleventh Dynasty king Nebtawyra Mentuhotep IV to the Red Sea coast and to quarry stone for royal monuments. These suggest that Min was regarded as the god of the desert lands and the one to be thanked for the success of missions there:
Year 2, second month of the inundation, day 15. Horus: Lord of the Two Lands, Two Ladies: Lord of the Two Lands, Gods of Gold: King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Nebtawyra, Son of Ra, Mentuhotep, who lives forever.
My majesty sent the prince, mayor of the city, vizier, chief of royal works, royal favourite, Amenemhat, with a troop of ten-thousand men from the southern nomes of Upper Egypt, and from the [garrisons] of Thebes, in order to bring me a precious block of the pure stone of this mountain, whose excellence was made by Min, for the lord of life, who recalls eternity even more than the monuments in the temples of Upper Egypt, as a mission of the king who rules the Two Lands, so as to bring him his heart’s desire from the desert lands of his father Min.
He made it as his monument to his father Min of Coptos, lord of desert lands, ruler of Bowmen that he may give many [jubilees] and to live like Ra forever.
Horus and Amun
Min was syncretised with Horus, too. Until the Middle Kingdom, Min was identified with Horus the Elder, as god of fertility and rain – characteristics of obvious importance to desert travellers and inhabitants. From the Middle Kingdom onwards, Min was identified with Horus, son of Osiris, through the connection of the pharaoh as the source of abundance. Some paneia, such as that at al-Buwayb, also contain images of falcons, which may represent the deity Horus, or just be expressions of pharaonic power. Min himself was also depicted as a falcon in the fifth Upper Egyptian nome.
During the Eighteenth Dynasty, Min had become associated with Amun, and this may explain why Amun is connected with safe travel and mining in the desert during the Nineteenth Dynasty. The Greek goddess Aphrodite may have been associated with the Eastern Desert as well because, as the goddess of sexual love, she shared her key role with the Syrian goddess Qadesh (or Qetesh), who became the consort of Min during the Eighteenth Dynasty.
Min may have been worshipped in the form of a bull as well, at Berenike on the Red Sea. Remains from the 4th- to 5th-century phase of use of the southern harbour temple at Berenike include fragments of a figurine with a human torso and a bull’s head. Based on the artistic style, Steven Sidebotham suggested the bull’s head, at least, came from Southern Arabia sometime during the period 200 BC to AD 200. Near to where the bull’s head was found, a coin was unearthed depicting the Roman emperor Julian II (r. AD 361-363), with a bull on the reverse. The coin had three holes drilled in it, suggesting it was used as a pendant. In Southern Arabia, the bull was predominantly the symbol of the solar deity Almaqah, but was also sacred to other Arabian deities. Given that Berenike probably traded with Southern Arabia, it seems plausible that Almaqah may have been worshipped in Berenike by traders travelling to and from the city. Sidebotham suggested that the bull is unlikely to have been associated with the Mithraic cult because this was not particularly fashionable in Egypt. However, the bull is associated as well with Min, as a god of fertility, and so the bull imagery may indicate direct links with Min, or the common symbol of the bull for both Min and Almaqah may have encouraged the worship of a syncretised version of these two gods in the Eastern Desert.
To the ancient Egyptians, the god Min was far more than a god of fertility. Although he was commonly depicted as a standing man, he was also associated with a range of other gods, and sometimes depicted as a falcon or bull. However, it was his associations with desert refuges and water sources that led to Min’s popularity, in his role as the protector of brave and hardy travellers, traders, and miners trying to survive in the harsh environment of the Eastern Desert.
Sean Rigby is Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Nottingham, UK, where his research interests include ancient glass manufacture. He also holds MAs in Ancient History and Ancient Religions from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD). You can read his account of the biblical parting of the Red Sea in AE 130.
A D Espinel (2012) ‘Gods in the Red Land: Development of Cults and Religious Activities in the Eastern Desert’, in H Barnard and K Duistermaat (eds) The History of the Peoples of the Eastern Desert (Los Angeles: Costen Institute of Archaeology), pp.90-102.
S E Sidebotham et al. (2008) The Red Land: The Illustrated Archaeology of Egypt’s Eastern Desert (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press).