ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian bestiary: Rodents - rats, mice jerboas
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Mice and rats

    Mice, Egyptian pn.w, and rats were terrible pests, causing great damage to human possessions, above all to the grain stores which, being built of unburned bricks, they could easily invade. Whether the ancient Egyptians distinguished between them is unknown, but neither the Greeks nor the Romans seem to have done so.[12]
    Three species of mice live in Egypt: the House Mouse, Mus musculus, living close to human habitations, the Cairo Spiny Mouse, Acomys cahirinus, whose natural habitats are rocky areas and hot deserts, and the Golden spiny Mouse, Acomys russatus, an omnivorous diurnal desert creature.[10]
    Five rat species are found in the country today: the House Rat (Rattus rattus), which lives close to human habitations in the wetter parts of Egypt, its commensal the Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus), which reached Egypt during the Middle Ages, the Nile Kusu, the Bandicoot Rat, and the Fat Sand Rat (Psammomys obesus), which prefers desert conditions.[9]
    Even though they were a nuisance, mice were a recognized, legitimate part of creation, but their role was–like that of the donkeys–a destructive one:
The frogs praise Hapy, the mice eat the emmer.
The oxen harvest the barley and emmer, the donkeys eat it.
The Instruction of Ankhsheshonq
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol. 3, p. 177
and in the Book of the Dead they were referred to as Re's abomination.[8]
    Mice, being proverbially small and weak, figured frequently in animal fables [2], such as the tale of The Mouse as Vizier in which a mouse rose to greatness, proved itself to be morally inept, and was condemned to live in holes underground ever after. In another story a mouse saved a lion by gnawing through the net in which he had been trapped [6]. In a third Herodotus recounts how a huge throng of mice saved Egypt by destroying the bow strings of an enemy army about to attack the country [7]. They are quite popular in cartoons as well [5] attacking cats or driving chariots. The Hellenists parodied the Iliad by creating figurines of a frog in armour and what is probably a mouse carrying a shield fighting each other with huge phalluses [3].


    Two species of dormice live in Egypt, the Middle Eastern Dormouse, Eliomys melanurus and the Garden Dormouse, Eliomys quercinus. They are small, omnivorous and mouselike, but have furry tails. They are excellent climbers, though the Middle Eastern Dormouse spends much of the time on the ground.[11]


    Gerbils, of which there are about a dozen species in Egypt, were probably just mice to the ancient Egyptians.


Jerboa From a relief in the mastaba of Ptahhotep
J. E. Quibell, The Ramesseum - The Tomb of Ptah-hetep, Egyptian Research Account, 2nd Memoir, pl.XXXII

    Three species of jerboa, Egyptian HTs, small mouselike rodents with long hindlegs and a long tail, which hide during the day in burrows, are indigenous to Egypt. The Lesser Egyptian or desert jerboa, Jaculus jaculus, feeds at night, mostly on seeds and plants, but occasionally it eats insects. The Greater Egyptian Jerboa, Jaculus orientalis live in the dry shrubland, sandy shores, and arable land of North Africa. The Four-toed Jerboa, Allactaga tetradactyla, lives along coastal salt marshes, and in dry clay desert areas.
    Quaintly referred to as a species of kangaroo by one Francis Lister Hawks [1] who visited Egypt in the middle of the 19th century, jerboas do move around the desert hopping like kangaroos, achieving leaps of up to three metres.
    As far as Egyptology is concerned the only claim to fame of the jerboa is the suggestion that the top of the was-sceptre is a jerboa head [4], but this remains pure speculation.
[1] Francis Lister Hawks, The Monuments of Egypt: Or, Egypt a Witness for the Bible, 1850, p.137
[2] Lynn Meskell, Object Worlds in Ancient Egypt: Material Biographies Past and Present, 2004 Berg Publishers
[3] Karol Myasliwiec, The Twilight of Ancient Egypt: First Millennium B.C.E., 2000 Cornell University Press, p.202
[4] G. Maspero, History of Egypt, 2003 Kessinger Publishing, p.31
[5] Ann Rosalie David, The Pyramid Builders of Ancient Egypt: A Modern Investigation of Pharaoh's Workforce, 1996 Routledge, pp.87f.
[6] Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings: The Late Period, 1980 University of California Press, pp.156ff.
[7] Herodotus, Euterpe, [2.141.1]
[8] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae:Totenbuchprojekt, Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften => pLondon BM EA 10477 (pNu) => Tb 033
[9] Richard Hoath, A Field Guide to the Mammals of Egypt, American Univ in Cairo Press, 2009, pp.205ff., p.187
[10] Richard Hoath, A Field Guide to the Mammals of Egypt, American Univ in Cairo Press, 2009, pp.198ff.
[11] Richard Hoath, A Field Guide to the Mammals of Egypt, American Univ in Cairo Press, 2009, pp.210ff.
[12] Donald W. Engels, Classical cats: the rise and fall of the sacred cat, Routledge, 1999, p.15

© 2002
October 2009
April 2007