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Ostriches from a large fan of Tutankhamen

Animals and the Gods: Sacred Creatures of Ancient Egypt

by Caroline Seawright

Updated: November 26, 2012


Egyptian towns usually had their own local sacred animal. It was thought that some gods and goddesses represented themselves on earth in the form of a single representative of a specific species, and honouring that species of animal would please the god or goddess associated with the animal. The animal believed to be the incarnation of the god or goddess lived a pampered life in and near the temples and religious centres. Predynastic turtle palette

Animals played a big part in the mythology and religion of ancient Egypt. Some animals were associated with or sacred to the gods, but animals themselves were not worshipped ... Some animals sacred to the gods were raised on farms specifically to be killed and mummified and sold to people who made pilgrimages to the temples ...

Some animals, however, were designated as the living embodiments of a god. The Egyptians believed a god could inhabit the body of a particular falcon, and that falcon would be considered a living cult image. As the living representation of the god, that falcon would be worshipped as if he were the actual god, Horus.

-- Pat Remler (2010), Egyptian Mythology, A to Z, pp. 14-15

Baboons in a posture of worship, from Medinet Habu

Baboon y`n baboon determinative y`n - The dog-headed baboon was one of the manifestations of both Thoth, god of writing, and Khonsu, the youthful moon god. Both deities were related to the moon. Hapy, the Son of Horus who guarded the canopic jar that held the lungs, had the head of a baboon. There was also a baboon god in the Early Dynastic period named Hedjwer, 'The Great White One', who became closely linked with Thoth. Sometimes Thoth was shown in baboon form, perched on top of the scales of judgement in the underworld.

The cat of Crown Prince Tuthmosis, Ta-miu

Image © Larazoni
Cat myywcat determinative myw - Many deities were depicted as cats, both domestic or wild, and so they were seen as benevolent, sacred animals. Bast, originally a desert cat, was later depicted as a domestic cat. Ra was shown as 'The Great Cat of Iunu (On, Heliopolis)' who defeated Apep in The Book of the Dead.

Cattle mnnmnntcattle determinative mnmnt - Hathor, Isis, Nut, Mehet-Weret and Bat were three goddesses who were often depicted as cows, with the horns of cows or with the ears of cows. Because of this, and because of the relationship of the pharaoh as a living god, the cow came to symbolise the mother of the pharaoh. The cow was also a solar icon, where Nut carried the sun across the sky on her back, when she was in cow form. The cow was linked to female fertility and to the mother of the pharaoh. Osiris was related to the bull - the Apis bull, after death, became Osiris-Apis. While it was still alive, the Apis bull was seen as the Ba of Ptah, mummified god of creation. The Mnevis bull was regarded as the Ba of Ra-Atem. The bull, therefor, was linked to masculinity and the pharaoh. Wadjet in her human-headed cobra form

Cobra djtcobra in a basket determinative djt - The cobra was sacred to Wadjet (Edjo), the cobra goddess of Per-Wadjet (Buto), who represented Lower Egypt and kingship. The cobra goddess Renenutet was a fertility goddess who was sometimes depicted as nursing children and as protector of pharaoh. Another cobra goddess was Meretseger, 'She Who Loves Silence', who could punish criminals with blindness or her venom.

Statue of Sobek, in full crocodile form, wearing the Sun Disk on his head Crocodile mshcrocodile determinative msh - Ammut, the demoness at the judgement hall, had the head of a crocodile along with other fearful creatures, and was known as 'the devourer of the dead' who punished evildoers by eating their hearts. The god of the Athribis region, the solar god Horus Khenty-Khenty, was sometimes shown as a crocodile. But the crocodile was also sacred to Sobek, who was portrayed as a human with the head of a crocodile, or as the crocodile itself. The temples of Sobek usually had sacred lakes where crocodiles were fed and cared for. The hippo goddess of childbirth, Taweret, was thought to have the back and tail of a crocodile, or was shown with a crocodile perched on her back.

A god with the head of a falcon Falcon / Hawk bykfalcon with a flagellum determinative byk - The sacred bird of the falcon-headed solar god Horus, it was also regarded as his Ba. The falcon was a bird that had protective powers, and was frequently linked with royalty, where it was depicted as hovering over the head of the pharaoh, with outstretched wings. The falcon was also sacred to Montu, god of war, and Sokar, god of the Memphite necropolis. The bird of prey was sometimes associated with Hathor, 'The House of Horus'. The Son of Horus, Qebehsenuef who guarded the canopic jar of the intestines, was a falcon-headed god. The human headed ba-bird was sometimes given the body of a falcon.

An amulet of Heqet, in her frog form Frog frog determinative qrr - The forg goddess Heqet was often shown as a frog-headed woman or as a frog. Because the Egyptians saw that there were many frogs, all appearing from the Nile, they associated the frog with fertility and resurrection, and so Heqet was a goddess of childbirth. The four male primeval gods of the Ogdoad - Nun (water), Amen (invisibility), Heh (infinity) and Kek (darkness) - were all frog gods.

Goose gbgoose determinative gb - The goose was the sacred animal of Geb, who was also known as 'The Great Cackler' when he was in goose form, and had the sign of the goose as his headress. Isis was sometimes described as 'The Egg of the Goose', being the daughter of Geb.

The Egyptian heron, known as the Benu Bird Heron bnnwwheron determinative bnw - The bnw-bird was represented as a heron, and was thought to be the original phoenix - it was a bird of the sun and rebirth, the sacred bird of Iunu, closely linked to the primeval mound. It was also thought to be the Ba of both Ra and Osiris.

Hippopotamus dbhippopotamus determinative db - Set was thought to have turned into a hippopotamus during his fight with Horus, where he was harpooned by the falcon god. The male hippopotamus was Set's animal, and an evil animal. Ammut, the female demon who ate the soul of the dead if they failed judgement against Ma'at, had the rear end of a hippoptamus, and was combined with the body parts of other fearsom Egyptian creatures. The female hippopotamus, on the other hand, was the manifestation of Taweret, the benevolent hippo goddess of fertility and childbirth. She was one of the most popular goddesses of the household, particularly among expectant mothers because of her protective powers.

The god Thoth as an ibis-headed man Ibis hbibis determinative hb - Regarded as the reincarnation of Thoth, the sacred ibis was sacred to the god of knowledge, who had the form of an ibis-headed man. The Akhu, part of the soul, was written with the sign of a crested ibis, known as the Akhu-bird.

Jackal or Wolf sabcanid determinative sab - Associated with Anubis, the god of embalming and mummification, who was depicted as a black coloured canid (jackal, wolf or dog) or a man with the head of a black canid. One of the four Sons of Horus, Duamutef, was a canid-headed god who guarded the canopic jar that held the stomach. Another wolf god was Wepwawet, the Opener of the Ways, who performed the Opening of the Mouth ceremony on the pharaoh so he would be able to speak in the afterlife. There was also a canid god named Sed (after whom the 'sed festival' or royal jubilee' was named) who was closely linked to Wepwawet. The early dynastic deity of the necropolis was Khentamentiu, Foremost of Westerners, god of the dead who helped the deceased go to the Land of the West, pilot of the solar barque during it's nocturnal travels. He was later associated with Osiris, as Osiris-Khentamentiu, and with the god Anubis. The wolf or jackal was thought to be a guide to the newly dead because they were often seen around the desert and mountains where the tombs were usually built.

Statue of Sekhmet Lion maaywalking lion determinative may - The lion was connected with the rising and the setting of the sun, and so were thought to be guardians of the horizon and were linked to solar deities. The earth god Aker was shown in the form of a 'double sphinx' - two lions seated back to back - and was thought to guard the sun as it entered and exited the underworld at the eastern and western horizons. Shu, god of dry air, and Tefnut, goddess of moist air, were lion-headed and lioness-headed deities respectively. Tefnut was given the title, the Eye of Ra. Many pharaohs associated themselves with lions, and so the lion came to symbolise rulership. Lions were also linked with ferocity and war-like deities. Sekhmet was either shown as a lioness, or a lioness-headed woman who came into being as the Eye of Ra to destroy mankind for Ra, who was also known for her healing powers. Hathor, goddess of love, was thought to have been sent out as the Eye of Ra, and so was also linked to lionesses. Even the cobra goddess, Wadjet, had a lioness form when she was identified as the Eye of Ra. Mut, too, had a lioness form when she was showing her more war-like side. The son of Bast, Maahes and the son of Sekhmet, Nefertem and Shesmu were all lion-headed deities who dealt with healing unguents, perfume and other beauty and healing-related oils. Nefertem was specifically a sun god of the water lily (lotus). Another lion god was Apedemak who was known as 'the splendid god at the head of Nubia, lion of the south, strong of arm'. Bes, dwarf god of sexuality and childbirth, was shown with either the ears and mane of a lion or as wearing a lion-skin cape.

Ostrich nywostrich determinative nyw - Ma'at, the personification of order, was shown as a seated woman wearing an ostrich feather as her headress or as the feather itself. Statuette of a sow with pigletts

Pig r rypig determinative rry - The pig was an animal sacred to Set, god of chaos. Set took the form of a pig and blinded Horus then disappeared. Eventually Horus regained his sight. The eyes of Horus was thought to represent the sun and the moon, and the legend of the blinding of the god was an explanation of solar and lunar eclipses. Plutarch says that, once a year, pigs were sacrificed to the moon. The sow, however, was identified with the goddess Nut. She was depicted having the teats of a sow, ready for her children to suckle.

Sheep-headed god from the tomb of Nefertari Ram basheep determinative ba - The ram was sacred to Banebdjedet, ram-god of Per-banebdjedet (Mendes), and Khnum the god who created men on his pottery wheel. Amen also had a ram form, though this was a different species of sheep. Rams were a symbol of fertility, and as such, the fertility god Heryshef took the form of a ram or a ram-headed man.

Scarab Beetle khpr rscarab beetle determinative khprr - The personification of the scarab god Khepri, a solar god of resurrection. As the scarab pushes its dung behind it in a ball, so the Egyptians thought that Khepri pushed the sun across the sky. Young scarabs emerged, born out of the dung, and so the scarab also came to symbolise new life and creation. The scarab was also linked to Amen, as was Khepri himself.

Fragment of a ring with the scorpion of Serqet Scorpion scorpion determinative srq - Serqet was a scorpion goddess and was usually depicted with a scoripon on her head and featured in spells to both avoid and cure venomous bites. Shed, a god known as 'the saviour', was linked with the scorpion and gave protection against its sting. Tabitjet was another scorpion goddess, relating to the bleeding caused by the loss of virginity. The scorpion was sacred to Isis, who was thought to have been protected by scorpions while Horus was young.

Snake djdftsnake determinative djdft - The snake had mixed popularity in Egypt because snakes caused the danger and the cure to the venom. Apep was a water snake-demon of the underworld, who tried to stop Ra on his nightly journey through the land of the west. The four primeval goddesses of the Ogdoad - Naunet (water), Amaunet (invisibility), Hauhet (infinity) and Kauket (darkness) - were also snake goddesses. There was a snake god called Nehebkau who was depicted as a man with the head and tail of a snake.

The vulture goddess, Nekhbet Turtle shtywturtle determinative shtyw - The turtle was associated with Set, and so with the enemies of Ra who tried to stop the solar barque as it travelled through the underworld. This was because the turtle was associated with night, and so came to symbolise darkness and evil.

Vulture n rtvulture determinative nrt - Sacred to Nekhbet, goddess of Upper Egypt and Mut, mother goddess. The vulture often holds the shen (shn) symbol of eternity in its talons, offering eternal protection to the pharaoh. As such, the vulture is closely linked to rulership.

Further Information about the Animal Gods of Egypt

Video about the Animal Gods of Egypt

Dr Salima Ikram Shares the Secrets of Egypt's Animal Cults, by heritagekeymedia:

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