The primary function of Khonsu in Egyptian religion was as a lunar deity, and so he was portrayed with the symbols of the moon's disk and crescent on his head. Khonsu's name means “the traveler” (ḫnsw) and most likely refers to his nightly journey across the sky in a boat. In his role as a moon god, Khonsu assisted the god Thoth, also a lunar deity, in marking the passage of time. Khonsu was also influential in effecting the creation of new life in both animals and humans.

Khonsu was the son of Amun and Mut. Together with them, he formed the family triad worshiped in the area of Thebes in southern Egypt. He was depicted as a mummified youth wearing the sidelock, characteristic of childhood; he is also shown holding the royal symbols of the crook and flail and, like the god Ptah, he frequently wears a menat-necklace.

As a divine child of Amun and Mut, Khonsu had close connections with two other divine children: the god of air, Shu; and the falcon-headed sun god, Horus. Because of this association with Horus, Khonsu is sometimes shown with a falcon's head, wearing a headdress with a sun disk and a moon crescent. He was also linked to Horus in his role as a protector and healer.

Khonsu is described in early Egyptian religious texts as a rather bloodthirsty deity. He was mentioned only once in the Pyramid Texts, in the spell known as the “Cannibal Hymn,” where he was described as “Khonsu who slew the lords, who strangles them for the King, and extracts for him what is in their bodies.” He was mentioned a number of times in the Coffin Texts, where his violent nature was again noted: in Spell 258, he is “Khonsu who lives on hearts”; in Spell 994, he lives on heads; and in Spell 310, he is capable of sending out “the rage which burns hearts.”

Although he was mentioned in these earlier texts, Khonsu did not rise to prominence in the Egyptian pantheon until the New Kingdom. During its later days, one of his divine epithets was “the Greatest God of the Great Gods,” and he was worshiped at Thebes as “Khonsu-in-Thebes-Neferhotpe.” During late Ramessid times, most of the construction at Karnak temple focused on the temple of Khonsu, begun under Ramesses III, which is situated near the temenos wall of the temple of the god Amun. One of the ancient Egyptian creation myths is known as the “Khonsu Cosmogony.” It is preserved in a Ptolemaic text recorded on the walls at the Khonsu temple at Karnak and explains the connection of the Theban Khonsu to the creation myths of Memphis and Hermopolis.

In his role as a healing deity, however, Khonsu became well known beyond the boundaries of Egypt. A stela, possibly dating to the twenty-first dynasty, records the sending of a statue of Khonsu to Bekhten to cure an ill princess; upon its arrival, the princess was immediately cured. The ruler of the country tried to hold the image hostage, but after experiencing a nightmare in which the god appeared as a golden hawk, he allowed Khonsu to return to his temple in Thebes, where his arrival was met with great rejoicing.

Khonsu's fame as a healer continued into the Ptolemaic period. King Ptolemy IV was healed of an unknown illness though the intervention of Khonsu, and he was so impressed that he called himself “Beloved of Khonsu Who Protects His Majesty and Drives Away Evil Spirits.”

Khonsu also had cults at the sites of Memphis, Edfu, and Hibis. At Kom Ombo he was worshiped as part of a different triad, in which he was the child of the crocodile deity Sobek and the divine cow Hathor.

Bibliography

  • Brunner, Hellmut. “Chons.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 1: 960–963. Wiesbaden, 1974.
  • Quirke, Stephen. Ancient Egyptian Religion. London, 1992.
  • Shafer, Byron, ed. Religion in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca, N.Y., 1991.

Jennifer Houser-Wegner