Avatars of the Gods: The Animals of Ancient Egyptby Caroline Seawright
June 4, 2001
Updated: November 26, 2012
Animals have always been around in Egypt, however whilst some will be familiar to modern Egyptian people, other species have become extinct or moved further south, deeper into Africa. Both domesticated, such as cattle, cats and dogs, and wild animals, such as lions and hyenas, abounded in ancient Egyptian times. Animals were worshipped, feared and loved. This relationship even carried on in the underworld after death, as certain animals were mummified, including family pets as well as certain species sacred to the gods. Mummified remains, animal-related hieroglyphs, and detailed paintings, reliefs and sculptures of the animals of ancient Egypt clearly show the animals that were not only well known, but also very important, to the peoples of Egypt ever since predynastic times.
Since the domestication of animals in the Neolithic Period, the ancient Egyptians' relationship to animals has taken several forms. The most significant domesticates were cattle. Their energy was harnessed, they were used to work the land, as food, and a source of raw materials. Some animals, such as gazelles and birds were less useful, but had a more intimate relationship with their owners and were kept as pets. Animals also had a cultic function: they were worshipped as manifestations of gods.
-- Salima Ikram & Mamdouh Eldamaty (2006), Bloved Beasts: Animal Mummies from Ancient Egypt, p. 5
Along the Nile, some of the multitude of bird-life included the falcon, kite, goose, crane, heron, plover, pigeon, ibis, vulture and owl. It is possible that chickens were introduced during the New Kingdom from Africa.
Sacred to Horus, the falcon (or hawk) was thought to be the guardian of the ruler, and is frequently found as spreading its wings protectively behind the head of the pharaoh. At Saqqara during the Late Period, there was a catacomb build for mummified falcons. These birds, though, were shown to be of different types of birds of prey, not just the falcon. To the Egyptians, the Horus-falcon may have been regarded as interchangeable with a whole range of different birds of prey.
The ibis, sacred birth of Thoth, was relatively common throughout Egypt until the 19th Century, but now has almost disappeared. Sacred ibises were mummified during the Late Period and Ptolemaic times, and buried in large numbers in different catacombs through Egypt. There were three types of ibis in Egypt - the sacred ibis, the hermit ibis and the glossy ibis. The hermit ibis is not a waterside bird, so it is depicted less frequently than the other two birds that were common along the banks of the Nile.
The vulture was the manifestation of Nekhbet and Mut, who were depicted as the bird with their wings outstretched on the ceilings of temples as protection, or sitting on the ground in a symbol associated with kingship. The two main types of vulture depicted were the griffon vulture and the so-called Egyptian vulture. It was the griffon vulture that was usually related to the goddesses and to royalty.
In Ancient Egypt, the fish had both sacred and scorned species. Some were sacred in some places and not allowed to be eaten, whereas in other places, anyone could eat the fish. Some of the fish in Egypt included the carp, perch and catfish.
The goddess Hatmehit from the Delta city of Per-banebdjedet (Mendes), was known as the 'Chief of Fish', and was worshipped in the form of a fish, or as a woman with a fish emblem on her head.
Both the Rilapia or Chromis and the Abdju fish were thought to act as pilots for Ra on his solar barque as it travelled, warning of the approach of the enemy of Ra, the water snake Apep, as they travelled through the underworld.
The poor ate fish more often than meat, because of the availability of the fish. Richer people kept fish in ornamental ponds or as a source of food. The pharaoh, priests and the Akhu could not eat fish, because of the association with Set:
Supposedly, it was the Nile carp, the Oxyrynchus or the Phagrus fish that ate the phallus of Osiris, when he was chopped into pieces by Set. Despite this, the Oxyrynchus was thought to be sacred in the Faiyum area, where the people thought that this fish appeared out of the wounds of the god of the dead!
The Ancient Egyptians domesticated many different types of animals - sheep, cattle, goats, pigs, geese and later horses. Mostly they used the animals to supply milk, wool, meat, eggs, leather, skins, horns, fat, and manual labour. The cow was sacred to many goddesses, including Hathor, Bat, Isis and Nut. Bulls were sacred to Ra as they had a strong connection with solar imagery to the ancient Egyptians. Cattle were branded with red-hot irons by the great estates belonging to the pharaohs, the rich owners and the different temples.
The cattle in Egypt were, in the Predynastic Period, a long horned variety of cattle, but a thinner short-horned variety became the norm during the Old Kingdom onwards. The cattle were used for sacrificial purposes as well as being draft animals.
Herdsman tended to the cattle, and grazed them in the Nile valley during the winter months, but they generally moved the cattle to the Delta during the hotter, summer months. The cattle seemed to often be called names relating to the goddess Hathor - "Golden One", "Shining One" and "Beautiful" are some examples.
The song of a herdsman who has travelled over much of Egypt is preserved in a tomb at El Bersheh, 'You have driven oxen along every road. You have trodden the sands, and now your feet tread grass. You are eating tufted plants, and now you are well satisfied, and here is goodness to nourish you.'
-- Pierre Montet (1974), Everyday Life in Egypt in the Days of Ramesses The Great, p. 124
There were special farms for the fattening of oxen for slaughter. The long horned breed of oxen were fattened then adorned with ostrich feathers and displayed in processions with their owners before ritual sacrifice to the gods. Under Ramses III 16,000 cattle were sacrificed per year, just to the god Amen!
Although cattle were raised, beef was a luxury item because much of the meat of the cattle was used for religious ceremonies and offerings. Pork, on the other hand, was eaten regularly but was not used in the Egyptian religion. Goat meat, too, was eaten throughout Egypt, and even by upper class Egyptians. The skin of the goat was used as water containers and floating devices.
The Egyptian farmers, in their early experimental phase, also tried to domesticate other animals such as hyenas, gazelles and cranes, but abandoned these attempts after the Old Kingdom.
-- Lowell N. Lewis, Egypt's Future Depends on Agriculture and Wisdom
There is evidence of attempts to force-feed these animals during the 5th and 6th Dynasties, but these attempts were abandoned after the Old Kingdom.
Sheep and goats were considered by the Egyptians to be 'small cattle', and they were kept for their meat, milk, wool and hide. Goats were more common than sheep, as they were better suited to grazing on poor land. There was extensive pigs rearing throughout Mennefer (Hikuptah, Memphis), Abu (Elephantine), Tell el-Dab'a and Akhetaten (El-Amarna), indicating that though pork was never used as an offering, that it was eaten by the Egyptians. The pig was also listed among the assets of various temples.
Introduced by the Hyksos during the Second Intermediate Period on a large scale (along with the chariot), the horse did not become common until the New Kingdom. Donkeys were used for transportation and as pack animals, rather than the horses - they were used for ceremonial processions, hunting and war where they were harnessed to the chariot. The only evidence of horses being ridden were where individual soldiers were shown mounted on them during some battle scenes of the New Kingdom.
Only the wealthy could afford to keep horses, and as such, they were status symbols to the ancient Egyptians. Horses were also used as prestige gifts between the Egyptians and rulers in north Africa and the Near East.
A German-Egyptian archaeological team located the capital city of Ramses II, featuring a stunning horse stable, using high-tech equipment, known as cutting-edge imaging.
"This is the biggest and oldest horse stable ever found in the world," said Gaballa Ali Gaballa, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). It was found on the site of the 3,300-year-old city of Piramesse (Per Ramses or House of Ramses), 115kms northeast of Cairo at Qantir, a farming village in the Nile Delta province of Sharqiya.
The stable covers nearly two acres of land and is sub-divided into six rectangular areas, each with its own gate, connected to a vast courtyard. Each area has 12 compartments for horses, 12 metres long.
The stable was built by Ramses II to raise up to 460 horses.
-- Nevine El-Aref (1999), A Different Kind of Stable
The general height of the Egyptian horse was 1.35m tall, though some were as tall as 1.5m, the skeleton of one such tall horse was found in the tomb of Senmut, a favourite courtier of Hatshepsut (1473-1458 BC).
The ancient Egyptians had numerous different types of pets - monkeys, ducks, geese, pigeons, hoopoes, falcons, cats, dogs and even ferrets (to keep the granaries free of vermin).
Cats seem to have been domesticated during the Middle Kingdom from the wild cats in the Delta or the Western Desert. There were two main species indigenous to Egypt - the jungle cat and the African wild cat. Cats were both pets and symbols of cat deities, such as Bast. The earliest evidence of cats kept as pets was in a Predynatic tomb at Mostagedda. The Egyptian word for 'cat' was the sound that the cats made - myw - meow! Often, the cat accompanied the master to help with the hunting and fowling in the marshes. It was during the Late Period that sacred cats were mummified in large numbers, and placed in underground galleries such as at Per-Bast (Bubastis). The cat was also a personification of Ra, where the sun god, as a cat, battles the water serpent Apep.
Dogs, while often depicted as hunting with the master or as watch dogs, but they were never shown as an animal to be petted. Known to the Egyptians as the sound-word iw , the sound for barking, or as thsm , meaning 'hound', they were given individual names and were often buried with their masters. Some of their names were "Brave One", "Reliable" and "Good Herdsman" as well as naming them for their colour, just as some people do today. The types of dogs the Egyptians had were related to the basenji, the saluki, the greyhound and maybe even the mastiff and dachshunds. Unlike the cat, which was aloof and mysterious, the Egyptians thought of the dog as being subservient, and the dog was used as an insult - prisoners were sometimes known as "the pharaoh's dogs". But the dog, and the wolf or jackal, were regarded as sacred to Anubis, where they were buried as sacred animals to the god of embalming at the catacombs at Anubieion.
The Nile goose had often the run of the house and the garden in spite of its vile temper. The goose was the sacred animal of Geb, who was also known as 'The Great Cackler' when he was in goose form. There were sacred lakes around Egypt that were home to the sacred geese, where they were well looked after.
There were even some wild beasts that were used as pets - Ramses II had a tame lion, and the Sudanese cheetahs sometimes took the place of the house cat!
As for the animals out in the wild, the Egyptians knew of lions, cheetahs, wolves, antelope, wild bulls, hyenas, jackals, wolves, snakes, the mongoose and desert hares. The Nile was filled with crocodiles, hippos, turtles, frogs as well as the numerous fish and water birds. Bees, scarab beetles, locusts, flies, centipedes and scorpions were some of the insects that lived in ancient times.
Some wild animals, specifically the lion, the wild cattle and the cobra, came to represent royalty. The power and danger seen in the lion and the wild bull became synonymous with the pharaoh. Even from Predynastic times, images of the bull trampling the enemies of the king represented the pharaoh's triumph over his enemies. The bull implied strength and power. The pharaoh's mother was linked to the cow-goddess Hathor, and the pharaoh sometimes too the name 'Bull of his Mother'. The lion, too, was a symbol of the pharaoh's power and rulership. As the lions lived in the eastern and western deserts around the Nile, the lion also came to symbolise the rising and the setting sun and its journey through the heavens and the underworld. The lion, though, was hunted by the pharaoh in a show of courage. The cobra, being the dangerous snake of Lower Egypt, came to symbolise Lower Egypt itself. Though a female symbol, the cobra came to mean protection over the ruler.
The Egyptians kept bees for their honey and wax. They were kept in woven wicker hives that had been covered in clay. The main centre of bee keeping was Lower Egypt, where one of the symbols for that part of the country was the bee itself. Not only was the honey used for food and as offerings to the gods, but it was also used by the Egyptians to create makeup and medicine! (Honey has an antibacterial effect.) The wax was used for boat building, mummification and as a binding agent in some paints. The Egyptians didn't only keep domesticated bees - they also went out and hunted for the honey of wild bees.
All of these animals played a large part in the lives of the Egyptians, and many were deified or seen as the avatar of the god or goddess on earth. Reviled or loved, the animals each had their place in Ancient Egypt.
Further Information about the Animals of Ancient Egypt
- Ancient Egypt: Animals - Wikipedia
- Farmed and Domesticated Animals - André Dollinger
- Animals Divine, Wild, Domestic and Imaginary - André Dollinger
- Animal Mummies - National Geographic
- Sacred Animals of Ancient Egypt Gallery - BBC History
Video about the Animals of Ancient Egypt
Sacred Egyptian Animals: Documentary on the Important Creatures of Ancient Egypt, by videovidification:
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