ancient egypt: history and culture
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Animals divine, wild, domestic and imaginary

Source: British Museum website     In ancient times North Africa was less arid and much less populated than it is today. A number of animals used to live in the waters of the Nile, the marshes of the Delta and the desert regions of the country but have disappeared since. Hippos and crocodiles, ostriches and gazelles, lions and panthers were found and hunted. Even the quail, which landed in huge numbers in northern Egypt after crossing the Mediterranean Sea, have all but disappeared.
    The ancient Egyptians lived close to many animals, some of them dangerous like crocodiles, hippopotamuses, scorpions, and cobras. They hunted the wild beasts and tried to domesticate many of them. They painted their images, carved them in stone, and even drew animal cartoons, with wolves herding sheep and lions playing games against antelopes, and they gave most of their gods animal or partially animal forms.
    Their knowledge of the fauna was practical, but whenever they did not have an answer based on experience and observation, they relied on mythology to fill in the void, e.g. seeing the migratory birds fly over their country they connected this behaviour with what they knew about the sun: it crossed the sky during the day and returned through the underworld to rise again in the morning. At the extreme limits of their world there was a passage between the sky and the underworld, a passage used by the migrants.
Concentrated darkness, the cool water region of the gods,
The place from which the birds come.
These are at her (Nut's, i.e. the sky) north-western side to her north-eastern side
Which open to the underworld, which is at her northern side.
The faces of these birds are like those of human beings,
But their form is that of birds.
They speak with each other in the tongue of humans.
But when they come to eat herbs and feed in Egypt,
They settle under the rays of the sky and adopt their avian form.
After Jan Assmann Ägypten - Theologie und Frömmigkeit einer frühen Hochkultur, pp.77f
    Without necessarily being incarnations of mortals, they were described as ba-birds. They were also thought to raise their young in these far-off northern regions which the sun did not reach, having built
Nests, which are in the cool water region.
    In most temples the resident god was represented by a statue, but in many he was also incarnated by a live animal. A temple may have kept a herd of animals, but apparently only one individual among them was a holy animal, though his offspring enjoyed a special status and was not sacrificed, but permitted to die a natural death. At Crocodilopolis in the Fayum Sobek was a crocodile, in the Serapeum at Saqqara the Apis bulls were embalmed and buried. The death of an Apis bull was announced with the cry There is no god. After the entombment of a holy animal it was replaced by a carefully chosen young one.
    Animal offerings were pleasing to the gods. It was mostly cattle that was slaughtered and presented on the altars, but many other species were also used. Animals to be offered had to be acceptable to the gods and were inspected by Sekhmet priests and Serqet magicians.
    In the Late Period large numbers of animals were kept by appropriate temples (cats in the Bastet temples, ibises in those of Thoth etc, where they were referred to as gods, nTr.w), were killed and mummified in the name of paying believers and stored in caches.


Source of the picture: British Museum website

Offsite Links   (Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availabilty or content of these sites
-     Eastern Desert Rock Art: animals and boats (Brian Yare)
-     Animals in ancient Egypt
-     Tierkulte im pharaonischen Ägypten
-     Falcons and rats or shrews, oh my!
-     Weird Animals from the Elite Cemetery by Veerle Linseele
© 2001
Update: May 2003