ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian bestiary: Birds
Plovers and lapwings

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The swallow

Source: Excerpt, 'Ancient Egypt', Time-Life Books
Source: 'Ancient Egypt', Time-Life Books

    The swallow was venerated in the region of Thebes. Together with herons and hawks it was one of the birds the dead wished to be turned into.
The Osiris Ani, whose word is truth, saith:- I am a swallow, [I am] a swallow.
From the Book of Ani
the swallows being identified since the Old Kingdom with the circumpolar stars, those who do not set:
This Pepi has gone to the great island in the middle of the Offering Fields, where the gods and swallows alight–the swallows are those who do not set–and they will give this Pepi that wood of life which they live on and you shall (all) live on it together.
Pyramid Texts PT 519 [5]
    According to Plutarch Isis flew around the pillar enclosing the coffin of Osiris in the shape of a swallow.
Isis nursed the child by giving it her finger to suck instead of her breast, and in the night she would burn away the mortal portions of its body. She herself would turn into a swallow and flit about the pillar with a wailing lament, until the queen who had been watching, when she saw her babe on fire, gave forth a loud cry and thus deprived it of immortality.
Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, 16
    One of four Demotic texts written on a pot, a literary letter, featured an allegorical swallow and its fruitless revenge against the sea:
A letter from the servant Awskj, great of the land of Arabia, before Pharaoh Psamtik Neferpre.
//// [the] great of the land [of Arabia (?)] (and ?) the great ones of my lord. May he (i.e. the pharaoh) celebrate a million
sed-festivals! Could Pharaoh, my lord, have said: "I shall cut the land of Arabia into pieces"? May Pharaoh, my lord, listen to the tale which happened to [the] swallow when she gave birth by the sea. Whenever she got ready to leave in order to search food for the belly (?) of her young, she spoke to the sea: "Look after my young until I return!" And it happened that this was her daily habit.
One day it happened that she got ready to leave in order to search for food for the belly of her young, and she spoke to the sea: "Look after my young ones until I return according to my daily wont!"
Then it happened that the sea rose in a rage. It swept away the young of the swallow. Then it happened that the swallow returned. Her beak was full, her eye was wide open. Her heart was glad.
She did not find her young. She said to the sea: "Return [my] children with whom I have entrusted you. If you do not return my children with whom I have entrusted you, I shall empty you today. I shall carry you away. I shall bail you out down to the bottom (?). I shall carry you to the sand of the shore and I shall carry the sand of the shore to you."
This became the swallows daily habit. [///] happened to the swallow, by her going, by her pouring (the sand) into the sea, by her filling (her) beak with seawater, by her pouring it onto the sand of the shore. This was now the wont of the swallow.
Thereafter Pharaoh, my great lord, has said: "When the swallow bails out the sea I shall /// cut to pieces the land of Arabia."
Written [by ////]
Memphis, 1st century BCE
After a German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website

The sparrow

    Some songbirds were less popular than the swallow and a few were considered outright pests, the ubiquitous house sparrow among them. Its hieroglyph, sparrow, translit. qsn. qsn.w–which may have referred to other small songbirds as well–was used as a determinative in words denoting "badness". A New Kingdom snakecharm was designed to protect from snakes and invoked the myth of Isis and Horus:
You shall spit out, Black Face, you shall be blinded, Bright Eye, who advances twisting, O Evil (qsn), which emerged from the thighs of Isis and bit (her) son Horus.
Cairo JE 69771[6]


Doves, source: Jon Bodsworth
Doves, according to J.Bodsworth a Turtle dove on the left and a Rock dove on the right
Picture contrasts have been enhanced for better viewing
Source: Jon Bodsworth
    Doves were proverbial for their role as prey. Ramses III is described in a Medinet Habu inscription:
He rages like the hawk among the birdlets and the doves
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 106
    People also consumed them, as they did with most birds. According to the Harris Papyrus the oblations Ramses III gave to the temple at Karnak included 6510 doves.
    In the morning the bird noises, among which the cooing of doves was especially insistent, accompanied the waking of people which to a romantic person in love might sound as if the birds were talking to them:
The voice of the dove is calling,
It says: "It's dayl Where are you?"
O bird, stop scolding me!
I found my brother on his bed,
My heart was overjoyed;
Each said: "I shall not leave you,
My hand is in your hand;
You and I shall wander
In all the places fair."
Love poem from Papyrus Harris 500
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 2, pp. 190f

The hoopoe, Upupa epops

Hoopoe and opther birds in acacia tree
Hoopoe in acacia tree

    This beautiful migratory bird can be found all year long in Egypt. It nests in burrows and hollow trees. Young hoopoes were captured and grown as pets. Even the child god Harpocrates is at times shown holding such a bird. According to Horapollo (5th century CE) the hoopoe was famous for being grateful towards its parents, to which Claudius Aelianus (around 200 CE) in his On the Nature of Animals added that grown hoopoes were honoured for being doting parents, without giving a reason though.[2]
    While representations of hoopoes are not rare and there is even a hoopoe hieroglyph, Db with the phonetic value of Db, the Egyptian word for hoopoe has not yet been identified with any certainty. The demotic qqpt on the other hand appears in a number of magical spells, where above all the bird's heart or blood are used. A love spell calls for a live hoopoe:
A method to put the heart of a woman after a man; done in one moment (?), and it comes to pass instantly.
You take a swallow (?) alive, together with a hoopoe, (both) alive. Ointment made for them: blood, of a male ass, blood of the tick (?) of a black cow; you anoint their heads with lotus ointment; you utter a cry before the sun in his moment of rising; you cut off the heads of the two; you take the heart out of the right ribs of both of them; you anoint it with the ass's blood and the blood of the tick (?) of a black cow, as aforesaid; you put them into an ass's skin you lay them in the sun until they are dry for four days; when the four days have passed, you pound them, you put them into a box; you lay it in your house.


Relief from Kaemnofret's chapel, 5th dynasty
W. S. Smith, Country Life in Ancient Egypt, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, plate 8
    Two species of kingfishers live along the lower Nile.The Dwarf kingfisher only hibernates in Egypt, unlike the perennial Lesser pied kingfisher (Egyptian anHb.t)[3] which is bigger, reaching about 25 cm. Both species catch fish by hovering above the water and suddenly diving, catching their prey in their beaks. [4] may be another Egyptian word meaning kingfisher.

Plovers and lapwings

Lapwing; Source: Jon Bodsworth
Source: Jon Bodsworth
Plover; Source:J. Bodsworth
Picture contrasts have been enhanced for better viewing
Source: Jon Bodsworth
    The lapwing, Vanellus vanellus, nests in Europe, and spends its winters in the wetlands of Lower Egypt. It generally symbolises a part of the people of Egypt (possibly of foreign origin, there are connections to the Nine Bows when the bird has its wings pinioned) and is often depicted in half-human shape with raised hands giving praise.[1]


Senegal Cougal; Source: Jon Bodsworth
Senegal Cougal
Picture contrasts have been enhanced for better viewing
Source: Jon Bodsworth
    Egypt is on the path of the migrating European cuckoo (Cuculus canorus). Two species of cuckoo are indigenous: the great spotted cuckoo (Clamator glandarius) and the slow-flying Senegal cougal (Centropus senegalensis) which lives in the reed thickets of the Delta marshes.


Red-rumped Wheatear female
Red-rumped Wheatear female
Mourning chat  female
Mourning chat female

    Chats and wheatears prefer to live in dry regions. A number of species of this family live in Egypt: the mourning chat (Oenante lugens), the red-rumped wheatear (Oenante moesta), the hooded wheatear, the white-crowned black wheatear (O.leucopyga) and the Blackstart (Cercomela melanura). A few pass through the country on their migration like Finsch's chat or the Pied wheatear.


Partridge; Source: J. Bodsworth
Picture contrasts have been enhanced for better viewing
Source: Jon Bodsworth
    The chukar (Alectoris chukar) lives in Asia minor, the Middle East and northern Egypt. It reaches a size of about 33 cm and lives in rocky regions with sparse vegetation.


[2] Ludwig Keimer, "Quelques remarques sur la huppe (Upupa epops) dans l'Egypte ancienne" in BIFAO 30, 1931, p.311
[3] Wb vol. 1, 193.1
[4] Wb vol. 3, 105.8
[5] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae web site: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Pyramidentexte => Pyramide Pepis I. => Ebener Eingang => nördl. der Fallsteine => Westwand => PT 519
[6] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae web site: Projekt "Digital-Heka" (Leipzig) => Texte DigitalHeka => Schlangenzauber Neues Reich => Cairo JE 69771 (Statue prophylactique) => Spruch 9 (Rückseite, 26-28)

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-[1] The Lapwing (rekhyt) from Ancient Egypt: the Mythology
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