Heryshef was a Ram-god who was prominent in Middle Egypt at ancient Hnes (modern Ihnasya el-Medina) on the west bank of the Nile near Beni Suef. His cult apparently, as recorded on the annals inscribed on the Palermo Stone, existed at this location as early as the 1st Dynasty of the Old Kingdom.
However, the earliest cult site that can be attributed to him (at Hnes) is a temple that dates to the Middle Kingdom (12th Dynasty). From this time, there is a literary reference to the god in a narrative known as the “Eloquent Peasant”. Here, in his fourth attempt to obtain redress for the unwarranted seizure of his donkeys and goods they were carrying, the peasant comes across the official to whom he has been putting his complaints coming out of the temple of Heryshef. This temple of Heryshef was considerably enlarged during the New Kingdom, particularly by Ramesses II, who was responsible for the monolithic granite columns with palm-leaf capitals that adorn the Hypostyle Hall, and appears to have thrived through the end of the Greek Period. was responsible for the monolithic granite columns with palm-leaf capitals that adorn the Hypostyle Hall within the temple.
A fine miniature gold statuette of Heryshef wearing the “Atef” was found at the temple, which now resides in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It provides the name of the ruler who lived at Hnes about 734 BC as Peftuaubast when Egypt was invaded by the Nubian King Piye. He is known to have risen to considerable importance during the First Intermediate period when, for a time, Hnes became the capital of northern Egypt. His name literally means, “he who is upon his lake”, and it has been suggested that he was a creator god who emerged from the waters of the first primeval lake. However, this may just as easily refer to a topographical feature at his cult center, perhaps the sacred lake in his temple, which nevertheless is an architectural attempt to recreate the primeval waters. Unfortunately, inscriptional evidence of this god is scant, so his exact nature is unclear.
The Greek historical Plutarch rendered his name as Arsaphes, a word which means “manliness”, though this seems to be based on an apparent etymology suggested by the procreative aspect that was part of the god’s essential nature. However, George Hart believes that it is more likely derived from an original (and typical) Egyptian ply on words between “shef”, meaning “his lake” and a word of similar consonantal sound translating as “respect” or “manly dignity”. The Greeks associated Heryshef with Herakles and thus the gods major cult site, named Hnes by the Egyptians, became Herakleoplis (town of Herkles) during the Ptolemaic Period.
The best description of the god is from a stela originally set up at Hnes but discovered in the temple of Isis at Pompeii, and now in the Naples Museum. In it, the career of Somtutefnakht is recorded during the time of the last native Egyptian pharaoh through the second Persian rule of Egypt. The god assures Somtutefnakht in the stela that he will remain unharmed during this turbulent period. Then, Heryshef appears to him in a dream advising him to return to his home town of Hnes and serve in the temple. In the stela, the god is described as “king of the Two Lands” and “ruler of the riverbanks”. These two titles ascribe the sovereignty of Egypt to Heryshaf, and solar symbolism is employed in the stela to invoke Heryshef as a manifestation of Re. Heryshef became associated with both Osiris and Re and was known as the ba of these gods. He was also associated with Atum, who was linked with the sacred “naret” (perhaps sycamore) tree of Hnes.
Iconographical representations of the god were usually as a long-horned ram or ram-headed man. In the latter pose, he took on a kingly stature wearing a royal kilt though with the head of a ram. Since he was associated with Osiris, Heryshef also frequently wore the Atif Crown, and since he had links with Re, he could also be depicted wearing the sun disk. In popular religion, Heryshef appears on ivory wands of the Middle Kingdom and is also clearly the deity represented by many ram or ram-headed amulets during later times.