ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian bestiary: Fish
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Glass, perfume container
Tilapia, Source: Excerpt, The Glory of Egypt by M.Audrain
Elephantfish, Source: Excerpt, The Glory of Egypt by M.Audrain
Catfish, Source: Excerpt, The Glory of Egypt by M.Audrain
Catfish, Nar, appears also on the Narmer Palette
Eel, Source: Excerpt, The Glory of Egypt by M.Audrain
Source: Excerpt, The Glory of Egypt by M.Audrain
Nile Perch, tomb of Menna
Nile perch (Lates niloticus)
Shark, Source: Excerpt, The Glory of Egypt by M.Audrain
Catfish, Source: Excerpt, The Glory of Egypt by M.Audrain
Source: Excerpt, The Glory of Egypt by M.Audrain

The poisonous pufferfish
Tilapia scaraboid, Source: Petrie Museum collection
Tilapia scaraboid
Source: Petrie Museum collection
    The attitude of the Egyptians towards fish as food seems to have been ambivalent, changing over the centuries and differing from region to region.
    On the one hand the populace relied heavily on fish as a source of protein, using nets, weir-baskets, harpoons, and line and hook to catch them, and at times people kept fish in little ponds in their gardens.
    On the other hand some appear to have abhorred them, probably because of their connection with Seth, who by the first millennium BCE had become the incarnation of evil:
They (i.e. four rulers who came to surrender to Piankhi) entered not into the king's house, because they were unclean (seemingly in the sense of uncircumcised) and eaters of fish; which is an abomination for the palace. Lo, King Namlot, he entered into the king's house, because he was pure, and he ate not fish.
and everybody was aware of what happened when you let fish lie around in the sun. Their stench was proverbial:
Behold, my name is detested,
Behold, [more than the smell of] a catch of fish
On a day of catching when the sky is hot.

The natural history of the fish

    Unlike the Egyptians who lost few words about the nature of animals unless it was in the context of the supernatural, the Greeks at least attempted to understand nature. The efforts of Herodotus to explain natural life are, if not wholly in accord with the facts, at least entertaining.
    Of fish also they (i.e. the Egyptians) esteem that which is called the lepidotos to be sacred, and also the eel; and these they say are sacred to the Nile.
    Fish which swim in shoals are not much produced in the rivers, but are bred in the lakes, and they do as follows: When there comes upon them the desire to breed, they swim out in shoals towards the sea; and the males lead the way shedding forth their milt as they go, while the females, coming after and swallowing it up, from it become impregnated: and when they have become full of young in the sea they swim up back again, each shoal to its own haunts.
    The same however no longer lead the way as before, but the lead comes now to the females, and they leading the way in shoals do just as the males did, that is to say they shed forth their eggs by a few grains at a time, and the males coming after swallow them up. Now these grains are fish, and from the grains which survive and are not swallowed, the fish grow which afterwards are bred up.
    Now those of the fish which are caught as they swim out towards the sea are found to be rubbed on the left side of the head, but those which are caught as they swim up again are rubbed on the right side. This happens to them because as they swim down to the sea they keep close to the land on the left side of the river, and again as they swim up they keep to the same side, approaching and touching the bank as much as they can, for fear doubtless of straying from their course by reason of the stream.
    When the Nile begins to swell, the hollow places of the land and the depressions by the side of the river first begin to fill, as the water soaks through from the river, and so soon as they become full of water, at once they are all filled with little fishes; and whence these are in all likelihood produced, I think that I perceive. In the preceding year, when the Nile goes down, the fish first lay eggs in the mud and then retire with the last of the retreating waters; and when the time comes round again, and the water once more comes over the land, from these eggs forthwith are produced the fishes of which I speak.

Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg

    Strabo in his Geography enumerates the Nile fish:
There are in the Nile fish in great quantity and of different kinds, having a peculiar and indigenous character. The best known are the oxyrhynchos [the sturgeon], and the lepidotus, the latus, the alabes, the coracinus, the choerus, the phagrorius, called also the phagrus. Besides these are the silurus, the citharus, the thrissa [the shad], the cestreus [the mullet], the lychnus, the physa, the bous, and large shellfish which emit a sound like that of wailing.

Fish and the divine

    Fish were thought to be impure by some, and there is no evidence that they were ever offered to the gods, but they were not detested by the gods and often shared their company:
    Hatmehit, a goddess worshipped at Mendes, was depicted as a fish or a woman carrying a fish on her head.
    Oxyrhynchus, the Elephant-snout fish, Mormyrus kannume, which, according to the legend, had swallowed the penis of Osiris after his dismemberment by Seth, was held sacred in the Fayum. According to Plutarch the Nile carp and the Phagrus also ate parts of the gods phallus.
    A species of perch, Lates niloticus, was linked to Neith and venerated at Esna, Greek Latopolis.
    Tilapia accompanied Re's solar barque as pilots through the underworld. A mouthbreeder, the bulti fish (tilapia nilotica) was observed swallowing its eggs and "giving birth" to its fry by spitting them out. It became therefore a symbol of re-birth.
    Eels, like the snakes they somewhat resemble, were quite frequently mummified, placed in little bronze coffins and given as offerings to the god Atem. On top of these miniature coffins there were often little figurines of these fish, which at times had the swollen hood of a cobra and a god's head sporting the divine beard and wearing the Double Crown, just as Atem was represented.[2]
The artists documenting the Egyptian expedition to Punt under Hathepsut, depicted a number of sea creatures living in the Red Sea, among them rays,
swordfish (Xiphias gladius), and a flatfish with one eye depicted larger than the other, as occurs in nature,
Naso unicornis-Scorpionfish
a naso unicornis and some kind of scorpionfish with its dorsal spines laid back to look like an ordinary backfin
Platax-Balistes-Balistes assasi
platax, possibly balistes niger, and balistes assasi
Tetrodon-cheilinus undulatus-acanthurus velifer
some other tetrodon, cheilinus undulatus with its distinctive lips, whose ventral fin was not very distinct in the original and has been completely omitted in the copy, and a surgeonfish, acanthurus velifer.[1]

[1] Drawings and text after : Dümichen 1868
[2] Mysliwiec 2000, p.99
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt. Chicago 1906
Dümichen, Johannes [Hrsg.], Die Flotte einer aegyptischen Koenigin aus dem XVII. Jahrhundert vor unserer Zeitrechnung und altaegyptisches Militair im festlichen Aufzuge auf einem Monumente aus derselben Zeit abgebildet: nebst einem Anhange enthaltend ... als ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Schifffahrt und des Handels im Alterthume, Leipzig, 1868
Lurker 1998, p.73
Karol Mysliwiec, The twilight of ancient Egypt: first millennium B.C.E., Cornell University Press, 2000
Shaw & Nicholson 1995, pp.100f.
W. K. Simpson, ed., The Literature of Ancient Egypt, New Haven & London, 1973,

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April 2010
October 2009