SHEMSET
The Follower Symbol


   Shemset is a bit peculiar and difficult to understand; Egyptologists haven't really gotten a firm handle on the meaning of this complex and ambiguous sign. This strange, K-shaped creation, which appears to be a staff (the vertical part of the K) with a knife (des) attached to the middle of it (the upper branch of the K), joined by some kind of rope or package (the middle of the K) to another kind of object (the lower branch of the K), in this case, a leg. Most scholars believe that these are the objects (staff, knife, package) that were carried by attendants or followers of the early Egyptian chieftains. Whatever the origin of this enigmatic combination of objects, the symbol is almost universally used to depict "followers" or "attendants"; as a result, the symbol is used for both kings and gods, since both have followers.

   The follower symbol is closely associated with the Underworld; the deceased wish to become attendants to Re in his solar barque—this is the highest privilege that can be accorded to a dead soul since it would allow that soul to become a part of the eternal and stable cycles of life. Re is often depicted as being joined by other gods, in particular, Thoth and Ma'at; shemset is often used in pictures of the solar barque as a short-hand symbol to represent these attendant gods. We do not, however, know exactly what the follower symbol means in the underworld or in the cycle of death, rebirth and judgement.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 4-8-97