‘Sekhmet, The Lion-Headed Goddess Of War’ by Margaret Atwood is a five stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The longest is fourteen and the shortest is four. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme but Atwood did make some use of both full and half-rhymes.
For example, the ends of lines seven and eight of the first stanza rhyme with “slaughter” and “together”. Half rhyme, also know as slant, can be seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. For example, the endings of lines two and three with “fly” and “alive,” both make use of the long “i” sound.
Atwood also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. In the first stanza, three of the lines start with the word “He”. There is another strong example at the end of the poem. The final four lines all start with “and”. When this technique is utilized successfully by a writer, especially in the latter example, a list-like phrasing of the lines occurs. They build off of one another. In this case, the lines come together to form the image of the “kind lion”.
The poem begins with the speaker telling the reader that she’d rather not spend her life stuck in a museum. She is with other gods, such as Osiris, that she doesn’t really like. The speaker also doesn’t enjoy being looked at by the school children and used to teach them a lesson. She’s such rather go back to when she was in power and able to influence the people under her.
The speaker goes through a bit of god history and complains about the rise of the pharaohs. By the end of the poem she has constructed an idealized image for herself that she knows the museum and its visitors would like to get from her.
You can read the full poem here and more Atwood poetry here.
The single speaker of this piece is the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet. She is a warrior, now for her hunting and healing skills. She is usually depicted as a woman with a lion’s head.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
In the first stanza of ‘Sekhmet, The Lion-Headed Goddess Of War’ the speaker, who is Sekhmet herself, speaks. She refers to a man, someone who is living alongside her. He is a simple, harmless “man / who wouldn’t hurt a fly”. Atwood’s speaker uses humour to comment on how his quirks, such as saving all the flies, compared to the fact that he is not dead. The speaker’s own opinion of him is made clear when she states that he is not her “patron” because he “preferred full granaries” and she preferred battle. Through context clues it becomes clear that she is speaking about Osiris the god of the dead, agriculture and fertility.
Although the two are very different, they’ve ended up in the same museum together. Everyday they are faced by the “fitful” children who have been taken into the museum to learn about “mutli- / cultural obliteration”. While a good thing for kids to learn about, the speaker does not enjoy being part of the story. She doesn’t see herself as an object to be admired, but as the god she used to be.
When she sits through hours of observation she thinks about much more important things. Her thoughts go to the past, when she was in power and feared as she should’ve been. This gives her pleasure, and reminds her that she was not always a museum exhibit. Her place of “power” was out in the “desert beyond” the confines of the museum.
Again, Atwood uses humour to give the character a clear voice and make her seem like a real person. The casual style of diction in ‘Sekhmet, The Lion-Headed Goddess Of War’ is interesting to consider as one would assume a god would speak much more formally. She recalls the shape of the “conical tombs” and how to her, they looked like “dunces’ hats”.
At the same time, she makes a statement about her world and its own absurdities, she isn’t immune to them. For example, she speaks about what’s inside the tombs, the “wooden boats / in which the dead sail endlessly / in no direction.” She understands that this was just another ritual—one of many in a multi-cultural world.
The third stanza of ‘Sekhmet, The Lion-Headed Goddess Of War’ confronts the reader with a question, and reminds one of who Sekhmet is. As stated in the introduction, Sekhmet is a warrior goddess with the head of a lion. But she is also referring to the other animal gods. Then, she contracts her one time with the later years in which the gods were “fully human”. This is a reference to the pharaohs who believed they were godson earth. She thinks at first this would make them more rational, therefore making decision that would make more sense, but that isn’t the case. She says that they “were not such good news either”.
They were demanding in a different way, asking for favours and riches and for others destroy their enemies. This is the “gist,” she says of historical god behaviour.
But wait, she adds at the end of this stanza. There is one more thing. They also were always demanding to be made immortal. And what do the gods get in return for granting this gift? “blood / and bread, flowers and prayer, / and lip service.”
The fourth stanza is the shortest at only four lines. She thinks back on what she said about her own time and the later times of Egyptian pharaohs and considers maybe she missed something. Maybe there’s a reason for the gods that she isn’t thinking of. The next two lines of ‘Sekhmet, The Lion-Headed Goddess Of War’ add that the speaker is never going to be the “selfless” goddess that people might want.
In the fifth stanza the speaker concludes the poem by bringing the story back to the beginning. She reminds the reader that she is still in the museum, forced to sit where she is put. She is “stone,” (aka she’s a statue) and made of “wishful thinking”. While some of her own thoughts might be contained in the next lines they are mostly what the museum and those who visit would like to imbue her with.
When they see this warrior goddess they want to remember her as something else, the one who heals. This is another aspect of her story, that she was a hunter, healer and protector of pharaohs in warfare.
Rather than the fierce lion that she feels like she is, the world would like her to be the “kind lion” the “final one” that comes with bandages to heal and “the soft body of a woman”. She would, in the mind of another, “pick your soul up gently by the nape of the neck” and bring “you into darkness and paradise”.