ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian bestiary: Crocodiles
Main menu Main Index and Search Page History List of Dynasties Cultural chronology Mythology Aspects of Life in Ancient Egypt Glossary of ancient Egyptian terms Herodotus on the pharaohs Ancient Egyptian texts Apologia and Bibliography

Printout
  For best results save the whole webpage (pictures included) onto your hard disk, open the page with Word 97 or higher, edit if necessary and print.
  Printing using the browser's print function is not recommended.

-

Crocodiles

    The Nile crocodile, Crocodylus niloticus, was the biggest and most dangerous predator living in ancient Egypt. It has since become extinct in the lower reaches of the river. Crocodiles prey on any animal in or near the water, and humans and their livestock are part of their diet. Most people had to rely on their attention and wits to escape them, as fighting them was generally not an option.
I mention for you also the fisherman. He is more miserable than one of any other profession, one who is at his work in a river infested with crocodiles. When the totalling of his account is made for him, then he will lament. One did not tell him that a crocodile was standing there, and fear has now blinded him. When he comes to the flowing water, so he falls as through the might of God.
The help of the gods was enlisted, with people using spells and other magic to keep them at bay, and given the awe people felt for them, it is no wonder that they often figured in curses:
May the crocodile be against him in the water, may the snake be against him on land, if he does anything against this (tomb).
Mastaba of Meni, Giza [1]
    People who had shown their courage fighting crocodiles, prided themselves on their feats:
I have curbed lions, I have carried off crocodiles, I have crushed the people of Wawat, I have carried off the Medjay, I have made the Asiatics slink like dogs.

 
Source: 'Ancient Egypt', Time-Life Books     The god Sobek (Sukhos), whose cultural centre was at Crocodilopolis in the Fayum, was represented by a crocodile living in the temple. A few other temples also kept sacred crocodiles, occasionally even a pair of them.
    A whole mummification industry grew up around his cult, with crocodiles specially grown for the purpose. A crocodile necropolis was discovered at Kom Ombo.
    The main deities of Bakchias in the Fayum were the crocodile gods Sokanobkoneus and Soknobrais.
    At Athribis Khenthekhai was worshipped, but he lost his reptilian character over time and took on the form and essence of Horus. Even the Earth God Geb took occasionally the form of a crocodile.
 
    Egyptians were well aware of the danger crocodiles represented to themselves and their cattle. A lover might risk a river crossing
An arm of the river lies between us, And crocodiles lurk on the sand-banks. But I enter the water, I plunge into the flood...
18th dynasty love song
After Samivel, The Glory of Egypt, 1955
Anpu, when chasing his brother Bata was more cautious
And Ra stood and heard his cry; and Ra made a wide water between him and his elder brother, and it was full of crocodiles; and the one brother was on one bank, and the other on the other bank; and the elder brother smote twice on his hands at not slaying him. And thus did he.
    Herodotus with his usual mixture of realism and fantasy describes them thus:
Of the crocodile the nature is as follows:--during the four most wintry months this creature eats nothing: she has four feet and is an animal belonging to the land and the water both; for she produces and hatches eggs on the land, and the most part of the day she remains upon dry land, but the whole of the night in the river, for the water in truth is warmer than the unclouded open air and the dew.
Of all the mortal creatures of which we have knowledge this grows to the greatest bulk from the smallest beginning; for the eggs which she produces are not much larger than those of geese and the newly-hatched young one is in proportion to the egg, but as he grows he becomes as much as seventeen cubits long and sometimes yet larger. He has eyes like those of a pig and teeth large and tusky, in proportion to the size of his body; but unlike all other beasts he grows no tongue, neither does he move his lower jaw, but brings the upper jaw towards the lower, being in this too unlike all other beasts. He has moreover strong claws and a scaly hide upon his back which cannot be pierced; and he is blind in the water, but in the air he is of a very keen sight. Since he has his living in the water he keeps his mouth all full within of leeches; and whereas all other birds and beasts fly from him, the trochilus is a creature which is at peace with him, seeing that from her he receives benefit; for the crocodile having come out of the water to the land and then having opened his mouth (this he is wont to do generally towards the West Wind), the trochilus upon that enters into his mouth and swallows down the leeches, and he being benefited is pleased and does no harm to the trochilus.
Now for some of the Egyptians the crocodiles are sacred animals, and for others not so, but they treat them on the contrary as enemies: those however who dwell about Thebes and about the lake of Moiris hold them to be most sacred, and each of these two peoples keeps one crocodile selected from the whole number, which has been trained to tameness, and they put hanging ornaments of molten stone and of gold into the ears of these and anklets round the front feet, and they give them food appointed and victims of sacrifices and treat them as well as possible while they live, and after they are dead they bury them in sacred tombs, embalming them: but those who dwell about the city of Elephantine even eat them, not holding them to be sacred.
They are called not crocodiles but
champsai, and the Ionians gave them the name of crocodile, comparing their form to that of the crocodiles (lizards) which appear in their country in the stone walls.
There are many ways in use of catching them and of various kinds: I shall describe that which to me seems the most worthy of being told. A man puts the back of a pig upon a hook as bait, and lets it go into the middle of the river, while he himself upon the bank of the river has a young live pig, which he beats; and the crocodile hearing its cries makes for the direction of the sound, and when he finds the pig's back he swallows it down: then they pull, and when he is drawn out to land, first of all the hunter forthwith plasters up his eyes with mud, and having done so he very easily gets the mastery of him, but if he does not do so he has much trouble.
Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg
    Crocodiles also inhabited the After Life
I have become a spirit in my forms, I have gotten the mastery over my words of magical power, and I am adjudged a spirit; therefore deliver ye me from the Crocodile [which liveth in] this Country of Truth.
The Book of Ani,
Translated by Budge
    At the same time the dead makes a transformation into a crocodile
The Osiris Ani, whose word is truth, saith:- I am the Crocodile-god (Sebak) who dwelleth amid his terrors. I am the Crocodile-god and I seize [my prey] like a ravening beast.
From the Book of Ani
    According to Herodotus those killed by crocodiles enjoyed a special status:
Whenever any one, either of the Egyptians themselves or of strangers, is found to have been carried off by a crocodile or brought to his death by the river itself, the people of any city by which he may have been cast up on land must embalm him and lay him out in the fairest way they can and bury him in a sacred burial-place, nor may any of his relations or friends besides touch him, but the priests of the Nile themselves handle the corpse and bury it as that of one who was something more than man.
Herodotus Histories Part II
Crocodile metaphors and similes are not rare in the Instructions and other writings, most of them easily understandable, others like the wig-wearing crocodile somewhat obscure:

When the crocodile shows itself its reputation is measured.
A crocodile does not die of worry, it dies of hunger.
If a woman loves a crocodile she takes on its character.
If a crocodile loves a donkey it puts on a wig.
Papyrus Insinger
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, pp.167ff
There is the evil man who is calm like a crocodile in water.
Instruction of Ankhsheshonq
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, p.204

[1] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae web site, S. Grunert (ed.): Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Grabinschriften => Gisa => West Field (PM III, 47-179 => Mastaba des Meni => Scheintüren => Sturzbalken mit Türrolle (Mü 5) => Inschrift, accessed 5. June 2010
 

 
© 2002
Updates: June 2010

CSE xhtml validated
-