Ancient Egyptian bestiary: Cattle
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Man helping cow give birth
Hathor suckling Hatshepsut
In the myth of the divine birth of the pharaoh, Hesat, mother of Anubis, suckled the young ruler.
For "little cattle" see Sheep and Goats
Wild cattle, some species of aurochs, lived in Egypt in historic times. Cattle hunts were recorded by a number of pharaohs, notably Amenhotep III, who slaughtered wild bulls by the dozens with the support of his army and commemorated it proudly by issuing scarabs bearing a description of the occasion. An immensely strong and dangerous animal pharaohs loved to be likened to the bull:
He fixed my Horus upon the standard; he made me mighty as a mighty bull. He caused that I should shine in the midst of Thebes [in this my name, Horus: "Mighty Bull, Shining in Thebes"].
Domesticated, cattle were the animals the Egyptian economy was based on: cows were the main power source apart from human labour, they were milked, slaughtered, sacrificed and eaten. On the other hand they were a reservoir for the tuberculosis bacillus the human variety of which infected a large portion of Egyptians and the bovine tapeworm.
J.H.Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 143
A number of gods were worshipped in the form of bulls or cows. Originally a fertility god, Apis, the most important male deity among them, took on the role of Ptah's herald and was identified with his Ka as the Splendid Soul of Ptah. After his death he merged with Osiris , and was called Serapis (Osiris-Apis), a death god.
Other bull deities were Buchis (a white bull dedicated to Montu and worshiped at Hermonthis), and the Heliopolitan Mnevis (connected with Atem). Both Amen and Min carried the epithet Bull of his Mother - Kamutef.
Hathor, goddess of love was depicted as a cow carrying a golden sun disk between her horns, and Isis too was closely connected with cows.
The Egyptian priests were very particular about the animals they sacrificed and the ritual slaughter was laid down precisely:
The males of the ox kind they consider to belong to Epaphos, and on
account of him they test them in the following manner:--If the priest
sees one single black hair upon the beast he counts it not clean for
sacrifice; and one of the priests who is appointed for the purpose
makes investigation of these matters, both when the beast is standing
upright and when it is lying on its back, drawing out its tongue
moreover, to see if it is clean in respect of the appointed signs,
which I shall tell of in another part of the history: he looks also at
the hairs of the tail to see if it has them growing in a natural
manner; and if it be clean in respect of all these things, he marks it
with a piece of papyrus, rolling this round the horns, and then when he
has plastered sealing-earth over it he sets upon it the seal of his
signet-ring, and after that they take the animal away. But for one who
sacrifices a beast not sealed the penalty appointed is death.
In pre-historic times skulls of cows were displayed at temple entrances, fastened to poles. This custom disappeared during the millennia that followed.
In this way then the beast is tested; and their appointed manner of
sacrifice is as follows:--they lead the sealed beast to the altar where
they happen to be sacrificing, and then kindle a fire: after that,
having poured libations of wine over the altar so that it runs down
upon the victim and having called upon the god, they cut its throat,
and having cut its throat they sever the head from the body. The body
then of the beast they flay, but upon the head they make many
imprecations first, and then they who have a market and Hellenes
sojourning among them for trade, these carry it to the market-place and
sell it, while they who have no Hellenes among them cast it away into
the river: and this is the form of imprecations which they utter upon
the heads, praying that
if any evil be about to befall either themselves who are offering
sacrifice or the land of Egypt in general, it may come rather upon this
head. Now as regards the heads of the beasts which are sacrificed and
the pouring over them of the wine, all the Egyptians have the same
customs equally for all their sacrifices; and by reason of this custom
none of the Egyptians eat of the head either of this or of any other
kind of animal: but the manner of disembowelling the victims and of
burning them is appointed among them differently for different
I shall speak however of the sacrifices to that goddess whom they
regard as the greatest of all, and to whom they celebrate the greatest
feast.--When they have flayed the bullock and made imprecation, they
take out the whole of its lower entrails but leave in the body the
upper entrails and the fat; and they sever from it the legs and the end
of the loin and the shoulders and the neck: and this done, they fill
the rest of the body of the animal with consecrated
loaves and honey and raisins and figs and frankincense and myrrh and
every other kind of spices, and having filled it with these they offer
it, pouring over it great abundance of oil. They make their sacrifice
after fasting, and while the offerings are being burnt, they all beat
themselves for mourning, and when they have finished beating themselves
they set forth as a feast that which they left unburnt of the sacrifice.
The clean males then of the ox kind, both full-grown
animals and calves, are sacrificed by all the Egyptians; the females
however they may not sacrifice, but these are sacred to Isis; for the
figure of Isis is in the form of a woman with cow's horns, just as the
Hellenes present in pictures, and all the Egyptians without distinction
reverence cows far more than any other kind of cattle; for which reason
neither man nor woman of the Egyptian race would kiss a man who is a
Hellene on the mouth, nor will they use a knife or roasting-spits or a
caldron belonging to a Hellene, nor taste the flesh even of a clean
animal if it has been cut with the knife of a Hellene.
And the cattle of this kind which die they bury in the
following manner:--the females they cast into the river, but the males
they bury, each people in the suburb of their town, with one of the
horns, or sometimes both, protruding to mark the place; and when the
bodies have rotted away and the appointed time comes on, then to each
city comes a boat from that which is called the island of Prosopitis
(this is in the Delta, and the extent of its circuit is nine
/schoines/). In this island of Prosopitis is situated, besides many
other cities, that one from which the boats come to take up the bones
of the oxen, and the name of the city is Atarbechis, and in it there is
set up a holy temple of Aphrodite. From this city many go abroad in
various directions, some to one city and others to another, and when
they have dug up the bones of the oxen they carry them off, and coming
together they bury them in one single place. In the same manner as they
bury the oxen they bury also their other cattle when they die; for
about them also they have the same law laid down, and these also they
abstain from killing.
Herodotus, Histories II
The cow was a symbol of rebirth: the celestial cow gave birth to the sun every day. (Cf. Hathor
carrying the sun disk between her horns.) During the funeral rites the
deceased was placed on a bed which had the form of a cow. Similarly,
the corpse of Osiris was put in a cow-shaped coffin during the
Mysteries pending his rebirth.
The role of the cow as nourisher was not absent in the underworld:
The Osiris Ani, whose word is truth, saith:- Homage to thee, O Ra, the Lord of Truth, the Only One, the Lord of Eternity and Maker of Everlastingness. I have come before thee, O my Lord Ra. I would make to flourish the Seven Cows and their Bull. O ye who give cakes and ale to the Spirit-souls, grant ye that my soul may be with you. Let him be born on your thighs. Let him be like unto one of you for ever and for ever. Let the Osiris Ani, whose word is truth, have glorious power in the Beautiful Amentet.
The Names of the Seven Holy Cows and their Bull: 1. Het-Kau Nebtertcher. 2. Akertkhentetasts. 3. Khebitetsahneter. 4. Urmertusteshertshenti. 5. Khnemtemankhanuit. 6. Sekhmetrensemabats. 7. Shenatpetuthestneter. Bull: Kathaihemt.
Budge, The Papyrus of Ani