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Ancient Egyptian bestiary: Ibis
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Source: Excerpt,     The sacred ibis was one of the animal forms given to Thoth, the other is a baboon.
The story goes that at the beginning of spring winged serpents from Arabia fly towards Egypt, and the birds called ibises meet them at the entrance to this country and do not suffer the serpents to go by but kill them. On account of this deed it is (say the Arabians) that the ibis has come to be greatly honoured by the Egyptians, and the Egyptians also agree that it is for this reason that they honour these birds. The outward form of the ibis is this:-- it is a deep black all over, and has legs like those of a crane and a very curved beak, and in size it is about equal to a rail: this is the appearance of the black kind which fight with the serpents, but of those which most crowd round men's feet (for there are two several kinds of ibises) the head is bare and also the whole of the throat, and it is white in feathering except the head and neck and the extremities of the wings and the rump (in all these parts of which I have spoken it is a deep black), while in legs and in the form of the head it resembles the other.
Herodotus, Histories II

Ibis Crested Ibis
The Oriental Institute, Chicago, The Tomb of Kheruef, University of Chicago 1980, plate 77, excerpt

    The Egyptians created their own etymological explanation of the name 'ibis' by referring to the myth of Osiris, punning on hebiu (hbjw), 'ibis' and hebiu (hbjw), 'penetrate'. Translators did likewise with the last sentence of this passage, when they emended a lacuna with akhet (Ax.t), 'Crested Ibis', to pun with akhet (jx.t), 'relic':
Concerning the ibis, this bird had eaten from the divine body (i.e. of Osiris) in the water. Horus sailed on the river far from the great evil deed. The moon had been caused to enter the heavens (become invisible) by (the magic of) a wretched Nubian who was in the Southland. This bird ate from him in the water. It rested on its belly after being sated. Its heart weighed heavy upon it.
One says about it "ibis" (translit. hbjw) because it had penetrated (translit. hbjw) the corpse of Osiris with its bill, when it landed in the Great Sea of Flames. One also says about it [Crested Ibis] (?) (translit. Ax.t) of the heart, because it had eaten the relic (translit. jx.t) of the venerable corpse in Nun.
F. Feder (ed.), Mythological Manual for the upper Egyptian Nomes 7-16, Roman period
After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => späte Ritualbücher => Tempelbibliotheken => Bibliothek des Sobektempels von Tebtynis => pFlorenz PSI inv. I 72 => Mythologisches Handbuch für die oberägyptischen Gaue 7-16
    Ibises were protected. Their main burial place was at Hermopolis
Whosoever shall kill an ibis or a hawk, whether it be with his will or against his will, must die.
The shrewmice however and the hawks they carry away to the city of Buto, and the ibises to Hermopolis;

Herodotus, Histories II

    Three species of ibis were found in Egypt, the white bodied Sacred Ibis, Ibis religiosa (Threskiornis aethiopicus), with a black head, neck and black wing feather tips, the Glossy Ibis, Ibis comata (Plegadis falcinellus) with dark iridescent plumage and the Hermit Ibis seldom depicted in ancient times.
The tamest animal, however, is the ibis; it resembles a stork in shape and size. There are two kinds, which differ in color; one is like a stork, the other is entirely black. Every street in Alexandria is full of them. In some respects they are useful; in others troublesome. They are useful, because they pick up all sorts of small animals and the offal thrown out of the butchers- and cooks-shops. They are troublesome because they devour everything, are dirty, and with difficulty prevented from polluting in every way what is clean and what is not given to them.
Strabo, Geography
Text scanned and modernized by J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton
    Ibises have become rare and are in danger of becoming extinct in Egypt.

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August 2009
February 2004