ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian bestiary: Reptiles
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Chameleon     The Common Chameleon, lat. Chamaeleo chamaeleon or Ch. vulgaris, is found all around the Mediterranean.

Probably a Common Chamaeleon
Ostracon from Deir el Medina [1]

It is a small reptile up to about 30 centimetres long with a prehensile tail, independently moving eyes, and a long sticky tongue with which it catches small insects. Its feet have two pairs of toes, pointing in opposite directions and giving the animal an excellent grasp of the stems and branches of the plants it lives on. It famously can change its skin colour, varying between light yellow and dark green. A second chameleon species living in Egypt is the African Chameleon, lat. Ch. africanus or Ch. basiliscus, which looks very much like the Common Chameleon.

Chameleon Chameleon climbing through reed thicket
Bas relief, British Museum [2]

    While in sub-Saharan Africa chameleons play a role in mythology, practically nothing is known about them from ancient Egypt. Only three depictions of chameleons have survived, and even the animal's Egyptian name is unknown. The kArA or kr, a manifestation of Anubis, a green animal with a white belly and the ability to adapt its colour to its surroundings has been identified as a chameleon,[5] others do not agree. Chameleons may occasionally have been part of charms [3] or receipes as were other lizards,[4] but given the uncertainty about how they were called, this remains speculative.


[1] Keimer, op. cit., Pl.II
[2] Keimer, op. cit., Pl.I
[3] Pinch op. cit. p.108
[4] The American Journal of Psychiatry, Volume 116, Part 1, p.299
[5] Sauneron, op. cit., p.35

Ludwig Keimer, "Sur quelques représentations de caméléon de l'ancienne Égypte" in BIFAO 36 (1936-1937), p. 85-95
Geraldine Pinch, Magic in ancient Egypt, University of Texas Press, ISBN: 978-0-292-72262-0
Serge Sauneron, Un traité égyptien d'ophiologie, Publications de l'Institut français d'archéologie orientale du Caire, 1989
The American Journal of Psychiatry, Volume 116, Part 1

© December 2010