There are a number of recent and upcoming games, films and tv shows that use various cultures and mythologies to drive their stories. This series aims to explore the relationship between an IP and its surrounding mythology and how this shapes its characters. Today, we look at the tv show Moon Knight, exploring the character design of Khonshu and his links to Egyptian Mythology.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Moon Knight.
Moon Knight is Disney+‘s latest TV show set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Oscar Isaac stars as Steven-‘with a v’-Grant, a museum gift-shop employee, who has blackouts and a sleeping disorder. Steven learns he has dissociative identity disorder and shares a body with Marc Spector, a mercenary. Steven is suddenly thrust into a world of violent Egyptian mythology when it turns out Marc Spector is the chosen avatar of Khonshu, the Egyptian god of the moon. Under the guise of Moon Knight, Steven and Marc must work together if they are to overcome the evil forces that seek destruction of the world.
But who exactly is Khonshu?
In the TV show, Khonshu is a mysterious figure that seems to haunt both Steven’s mind and city rooftops. A violent god who uses his avatar to kill people – the god seems to be a mix of a petulant child throwing temper tantrums and a narcissist, claiming to be “true justice”. This unpleasant mix is also seen in the comics, with Khonshu manipulating Marc Spector to do his bidding and bring “vengeance” on those he deems deserving. The similarities between the comics and the TV show also extends into the character design of Khonshu. The god is presented as a looming figure, wrapped in bandages with a large bird’s skull for a head. But who exactly is this god?
Khonshu is based on the Egyptian god Khonsu. Khonsu was the god of the moon, but also associated with fertility and healing. It’s thought the name Khonsu comes from the Egyptian word, khenes, meaning to wander or travel. Khonsu, as the personification of the moon, would travel across the sky and was changeable in his nature – waxing and waning throughout the year.
Seen as the sole source of light during the night, Khonsu was seen as a protector against evil – battling the darkness, while Ra descended into the underworld to do battle there. Closely related with the darkness, therefore, Khonsu was also seen as a violent and vengeful god – and it’s here we see the links with the comic book Khonshu. In fact, Khonsu is mentioned in both the Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts – Ancient Egyptian sources – as a force of vengeance. The Pyramid Texts state “he is the envoy who is sent to punish” and this is clearly echoed in Moon Knight, where Khonshu declares “I only punish those who deserve it, I am true justice.”
On a side note, it is also interesting how the concept of Khonsu changed over time. This is the only mention of Khonsu in the Pyramid Texts, suggesting he wasn’t that prevalent in early Egyptian mythology. This might explain why in the TV show, Khonshu seems to be sidelined by the major deities of the Egyptian pantheon. However, in the later Coffin texts, Khonsu is mentioned far more often, suggesting he had grown in importance. And by the time of the New Kingdom, when his temple was built at Karnak, he was described as “the greatest god of the great gods.” An epithet that was also used in Vol 188 of the Moon Knight comics.
The Iconography of Khonsu and Khonshu
The Egyptian god Khonsu was either depicted in mummiform or wearing a bird head. In the TV show and comics, we see Khonshu’s design takes both these elements. The mummified aspect in Egyptian iconography was probably used to point towards the eternal aspect of the god. But it also perhaps points to his protection of the wandering souls, seen in the Coffin Texts. In the comics and TV show, it serves to connect Khonshu with Ancient Egypt and also adds a disturbing element to the character. The flowing robes of the character also makes it feel ghostly – as well as a priestly image.
The TV and comics also make use of the bird head depiction. However, whilst in Ancient Egypt Khonsu was presented with a hawk or falcon head, Khonshu seems to have a raven or crow head. The falcon or hawk in Ancient Egypt was a symbol of power and sight – king of the sky overlooking his domain. However, the character design of Khonshu once again focuses on death imagery, with ravens and crows being carrion and scavengers of corpses. In addition, the use of a skull creates this unsettling image and the long, overreaching beak creates a more threatening feel than that of a hawk or falcon.
With this in mind, it is clear the character design seems to pull as much from Grim Reaper iconography as it does Egyptian mythology. With his flowing bandages, hollow skull and crescent moon-adorned staff, the character seems designed to evoke the image of Death – which can only be bad news for Steven ‘with a v’.
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