Sekhmet was the most important of Egypt’s leonine deities. She was originally a Memphite god who came to be associated with the Theban goddess Mut, consort of Amun. She had two distinct facets to her personality, on the one hand a dangerous and destructive aspect and on the other a protective and healing aspect. Her name means “powerful” or “the female powerful one.” Because Sekhmet was said to breathe fire against her enemies, the hot desert winds were referred to as the “breath of Sekhmet.” She was also directly associated with plagues, and the goddess had the power to ward off pestilence and function as a healing deity, as noted in her epithet, “Sekhmet, mistress of life.” She was typically depicted with a human female body sheathed in a tight-fitting gown and a lion’s head often crowned with a sun disk.
Most surviving large-scale images of Sekhmet were sculpted during the reign of Amenhotep III, who ruled for 38 years from 1391-1353 B.C. More than 600 statues of Sekhmet survive from this period, seated and standing, and it has been suggested that there may have been 730 in all. They were originally set up within Amenhotep III’s Temple of Mut to the south of the Great Temple of Amun at Karnak, as well as in the king’s mortuary temple in western Thebes. Perhaps 365 Sekhmet statues were on the east bank of the Nile and served the daytime while a similar number on the west bank served the night. Her statues required the ritual performance of liturgies twice daily. Each statue weighs nearly one ton, and despite the repetition of the subject, many are of unsurpassed beauty, dignity and technical excellence.
What inspired Amenhotep III to commission such a large number of Sekhmet statues is not known with certainty, but more statues exist for her than of the king and all other deities combined. Much is known about his reign, in part by the chance survival of contemporary documents, including correspondence with neighboring kingdoms. However, for Years 12 to 19, nothing survives, but it is thought that the Sekhmet statues were erected during this period. The reason for the gap is not known but it has been postulated that it was a period of crippling plagues in Egypt. Thus it has been suggested that the Sekhmet statues were erected in the hope of ending the pestilence. Many of the statues are inscribed with the names of towns and villages that seem to have mysteriously vanished from the face of the earth, their names on the goddess’s statues the only records of their existence, and attesting to the destruction wrought on Egypt by plague during this period. For a study of these statues, cf. A. Kozloff (et al.), Egypt's Dazzling Sun, Amenhotep III and His World, Cleveland Museum of Art, 1992, pp. 225-226.