Khonsu, The Lunar God who Came to Greatness

Khonsu, The Lunar God who Came to Greatness

by Jimmy Dunn

A black and red granite statue of Khonsu with the sidelocks of youth now in the Egyptian Museum

The name of the moon god, Khonsu, was at first thought to have been derived from the elements kh (placenta) and nesu (king), as a personification of the royal placenta, but it is now generally believed to be based on the verb, khenes, meaning "to cross over" or "traverse", related to "he who traverses [the sky]".

Khonsu might be considered a fine lesson in ancient Egyptian religion. Many novices interested in this theology at first see it as a static religion, but indeed, over time and in various regions it was very different. The moon god Khonsu illustrates this fact, for his earliest attested character became considerably altered by the New Kingdom at Thebes (modern Luxor), where he appears as the benign son of Amun and Mut.

Yet in the early Pyramid Texts, he appears in the well known "Cannibal Hymn" (Utt. 173-4) as a bloodthirsty deity who assists the deceased king in catching and slaying those gods that the king "feeds upon" in order to absorb their strength. Specifically, it refers to him as "Khonsu who slew the lords, who strangles them for the King, and extracts for him what is in their bodies". Though only mentioned once in the Pyramid Texts, he is also referred to in Spell 258 of the Coffin Texts, where he is "Khonsu who lives on hearts", and in Spell 310, where he is capable of sending out "the rage which burns hearts". He later becomes associated with childbirth prior to becoming the better known god of the Theban triad, consisting of Amun, Mut and himself.

Khonsu on a relief in his temple at Karnak

At Thebes, Khonsu was primarily known as a lunar god known as "Khonsu in Thebes Nefer-hotep", but in fact his mythology was not limited to that role. He has several different aspects, appearing in among other forms as Khonsu pa-khered, or Khonsu the Child; Khonsu pa-ir-sekher, or Khonsu the provider (the Chespisichis of the Greeks); and Khonsu heseb-ahau, or Khonsu, decider of the life span, which was in reality one of the most important Theban manifestations of the god.

Different aspects of this god could interact with each other, as evidenced by an inscription known as the Bentresh Stela now in the Louvre Museum. It was produced in Thebes in the 4th century BC by priests, though it claims to record a pronouncement of Ramesses II some 800 years earlier. It spins a story about that Pharaoh loaning a statue of Khonsu pa-ir-sekher to the king of Bakhtan to aid in the healing of a princess, Bentresh, and includes a conversation between this form of Khonsu and the more senior Khonsu in Thebes.

Ramesses IV offers the first fruits of the season to Khonsu in the Khonsu Temple at Karnak

Above: Ramesses IV offers the first fruits of the
season to Khonsu in the Khonsu Temple at Karnak

Below: Khonsu offers the palm tree of the years and the sed-festival
symbol while Isis breast-feeds the young king prince wearing the white crown

Khonsu offers the palm tree of the years and the sed-festival

A synopsis of this document is provided by George Hart, in his Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses:

"Ramesses on a tour of inspection in Syria falls in love with the daughter of the prince of Bakhtan (-Bactria?).

The princess goes to Egypt as his Great Royal Wife Nefrure.

A request arrives from Bakhtan for help in curing Nefrure's younger sister, Bentresh.

The Royal scribe Djeheutyemheb goes to Bakhtan and diagnoses that Bentresh is possessed by a hostile spirit. He informs the pharaoh.

In Egypt Ramesses consults Khonsu in Thebes Nefer-hotep.

Khonsu approaches the manifestation of himself specializing in healing and riving out demons, who is Khonsu pa-ir-sekher.

This Khonsu's statue is sent to Bakhtan, a journey of seventeen months.

To the amazement of the Bakhtan court, Khonsu cures Bentresh and the hostile spirit acknowledges his supremacy.

The Prince of Bakhtan deliberately detains the statue for three years and nine months until a dream of Khonsu as a golden falcon flying away causes a crisis of conscience.

Khonsu's statue returns to Thebes laden with treasure from the prince, which is handed over to Khonsu in Thebes Nefer-hotep - obviously the senior partner."

Khonsu's nature did not simply change over time. Although firmly associated with Amun and Mut at Thebes, at Kom Ombo Khonsu was considered the son of Sobek and Hathor, and in Edfu, Khonsu was linked with Osiris as "the son of the leg", referring to a relic of that netherworld god said to be preserved in that temple.

Seti I stands behind Khonsu  in a relief in the Gu8rna Temple of Seti I

As a moon god, Khonsu was sometimes associated with Shu, the god of the air, and also with Horus. And he participated in the reckoning of time like, and as an assistant to Thoth. He was also believed to influence the gestation of both humans and animals, and was even connected to creation myths by the Khonsu Cosmogony, which was preserved in a Ptolemaic text recorded on the walls at the Khonsu temple at Karnak and which explains the the connection between the Theban Khonsu and the creation myths of Memphis and Hermopolis.


Khonsu was typically represented in anthropomorphic form, usually as a younger man wrapped in mummy bandages or a tightly fitting garment, though his arms may be partially or completely unrestrained. He is frequently depicted wearing his lunar symbol, which consists of the full lunar disk resting in a crescent new moon upon his head. However, in his role as divine child of Amun and Mut, he commonly wears the sidelock of youth, even though he may also wear the curved beard of the gods. Often, he holds the crook and flail associated with Osiris and Horus, as well as a was or djed-headed staff. His most distinctive adornment, however, is a loosely hanging necklace with a crescent-shaped pectoral element resting on his chest and with a heavy counterpoise on his back. This counterpoise usually has an inverted keyhole shape, which is useful in differentiating this god from representations of the god Ptah, whose necklace counterpoise is of a different shape.

The falcon-headed form of  Khonsu with the disk and crescent moon from the 20th Dynasty tomb of  Montuherkhepeshef in the Vally of the Kings

As a god of the sky, Khonsu may also be depicted with the head of a falcon, but can be differentiated from Horus and Re by the lunar disk and crescent surmounting his head. As a lunar deity, one of his symbols was the Cynocephalus baboon, considered a lunar creature by the ancient Egyptians, though he does not nearly so frequently appear in this form as does the god Thoth. In the later dynasties, Khonsu may take human form on small amulets. Also during Egypt's late history, he may be depicted on plaques as fully human or in his falcon-headed form, together with his divine parents, Amun and Mut. He may also be depicted like Horus, standing on the back of a crocodile.


Khonsu was a major Egyptian god with sanctuaries throughout the ancient land of Egypt, including temples at Memphis, Edfu and Hibis. However, his main cult center was at Thebes. Within the precincts of the great Amun temple at Karnak, his temple to the south of the first court was begun in the 20th dynasty by Ramesses III and completed by a number of later rulers. Like his parents, Khonsu participated in various processions, such as the New Year's festival at the temple of Luxor, where the god's statue was transported from his precinct at Karnak on a sacred barque that could be identified by a falcon's head at its prow and stern. In this festival, the god traveled along his own statue-lined avenue which ran from his temple to Luxor, indicating his importance in this and other celebrations. In fact, the pylon of Khonsu's temple, known as "Benent", was the starting point of the processional avenue leading to the Luxor Temple, and in the late Ramessid period, most of the construction at Karnak, where one of his divine epithets was "the Greatest God of the Great Gods", focused on his temple.

Pylon of the Temple of  Khonsu at Karnak

Particularly during later times, Khonsu's fame as a god of healing was widespread, and enhanced by the fact that he was believed to have personally healed one of Egypt's kings during the Greek Period, Ptolemy IV, who called himself "beloved of Khonsu who protects the king and drives away evil spirits. In fact, as a healing god, Khonsu came to be worshipped by the common people as well, who sometimes took the god's name as part of their own.

Statue of Khonsu at the time of its discovery in 1903

Statue of Khonsu at the time of its discovery in 1903

Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011






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