Custom Search
Statue of Sobek and Amenhotep III at the Luxor Museum
Image © Mark T. Rigby

Sobek, God of Crocodiles, Power, Protection and Fertility

by Caroline Seawright

Updated: January 21, 2013

 

sb k crocodile on a shrine determinative

Sobek (Sobeq, Sebak, Sebek, Sochet, Suchos) was an ancient god of crocodiles, first mentioned in the Pyramid Texts. His worship lasted till Roman times, the people of Egypt worshiping him to gain his protection and strength, or reviling him and killing the crocodiles of the area because of the evil that they could do. To his worshipers, he was a god who created the Nile, a god of fertility and rebirth, and the symbolic strength of the ruler of Egypt.

Depicted either as a crocodile-headed man or as a full crocodile, Sobek was shown wearing a plumed headdress with a horned sun disk or the atef crown. In his hands he was shown to carry a was sceptre and the ankh sign of life. His sacred animal, the crocodile, was both revered and reviled by the people of Egypt - in some areas, a tame crocodile was worshipped as the god Sobek himself, while in other places the reptiles were killed. The Egyptians seemed to both respect and fear the power of the crocodile, and as the result of this, Sobek was seen as an ambivalent creature. Sobek, in crocodile form, laying on a shrine

During the 12th and 13th Dynasties, the cult of Sobek was given particular prominence, as the names of such rulers as Sobekhotep and Sobekneferu indicate. Sobekneferu (1799-1795 BC) was the sister (and maybe the wife) of Amenemnhat IV (1808-1799 BC), was the last ruler of the 12th Dynasty - the first definite female pharaoh of Egypt. There were eight rulers of the 13th Dynasty with the birth name of Sobekhotep, including Sobekhotep II Amenemhat (c. 1750 BC), Sobekhotep III Sekhemrasewadjtawy (c. 1745 BC) and Sobekhotep IV Khaneferra (c. 1730-1720 BC).

-- Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson (2003), The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, p. 273

The crocodile's power to snatch and destroy it's prey was thought to be symbolic of the might of the pharaoh - the strength and energy of the reptile was a manifestation of the pharaoh's own power. The word 'sovereign' was written as crocodile determinativecrocodile determinativehawk determinative yt. This way, the crocodile - and thus Sobek - was linked to the pharaoh, the sovereign of Egypt. Sobek, wearing a plumed headdress and holding the ankh and the sceptre, as depicted at the double temple of Sobek and Horus the Elder
Image © Mark Millmore

In times of need, he gives the pharaoh strength and fortitude so that he may overcome all obstacles. He also protects the pharaoh from all harm, especially evil magic.

-- Tour Egypt, Sobek

Originally, Sobek was probably a dark god who had to be appeased to give the people his protection against crocodiles. Sobek had a dark streak that stayed with him for the time he was worshipped. In The Book of the Dead, he was showed as four crocodiles who were believed to attack the deceased in the underworld. This dark side sometimes put him in the camp of Set. In one version of the tale of Osiris, Isis had to place Horus into a little boat of papyrus reeds to protect him from a menacing Sobek. His form of a crocodile - one of Set's creatures - linked him closely to the enemy of Horus. It was believed that Set turned himself into a crocodile to escape from Horus, and Sobek was punished for allowing this.

Several bynames of Set have the determinative of the crocodile*. Although crocodiles may be the b3ws1 of Sobek, they may also be regarded as the messengers of Set. Set may be called msha2 [crocodile]. On the other hand, msha, the crocodile, is sometimes called the son of Set. It would be a mistake to deduce from this that Set is the father of a particular mythical son, in the way Osiris is the father of Horus. The intention is merely to express that a dangerous crocodile is a Setian product.

-- H. Te Velde (1977), Seth, God of Confusion: A Study of his Role in Egyptian Mythology and Religion, p. 150

A depiction of Sobek wielding a knife * `hycrocodile determinative ahy {Snarer}; ytycrocodile determinative yty {Seizer}; ... `waaycrocodile determinative away {Robber}.
1 b3w b3w
2 mshcrocodile determinative msha

From the Old Kingdom onwards, the goddess Nit with her epitah, 'Nurse of Crocodiles', had been identified as the mother of Sobek. The little known god, Senuy snsnwy (Senouy, Pa-Senuy, Pa-Senouy, Psosnaus), meaning 'two brothers', was considered as the father of Sobek since New Kingdom times. Mofida el-Weshahy, in The Horizon Studies in Egyptology (2007), notes that the Greco-Roman temple of Euhemeria was dedicated to two crocodile gods: Sobek and Senuy. The Egyptian people of the Greco-Roman period, who called him Psosnaus, continued with this belief, but they considered Isis-Nepheros to be his mother.

Roger S. Bagnall, in Archaeological Work on Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, 1995-2000 (2001), indicates that a Graeco-Roman temple dedicated to Senuy was also discovered at Dja (Narmouthis), known as Temple C. It was discovered in 1999, and excavations revealed an adjacent crocodile nursery, complete with crocodile eggs. Archaeologists believe that the nursery was used to raise crocodile for mummification. The resulting mummies would be used as offerings to the Senuy. Crocodile eggs from Temple C at Dja

Image © Universita' di Pisa Egittologia

Happy day, O Sobek, Lord of the She, Son of Senuy, great one, overseer of the swampy lake, rich in fishes, great of offerings, beloved (?) ...... A happy day on which we give to everybody and our marsh goddess in propitious.

-- Ricardo Augusto Caminos (1956), Literary Fragments in the Hieratic Script, pp. 6-7

Sobek, as with many of the other protective gods, had a benign side. In a different version of the tale of Osiris, it was Sobek who carried the dead body of Osiris to the bank of the Nile on his back. The four mummiform Sons of Horus - Imsety, human headed protector of the liver, Hapy, baboon headed protector of the lungs, Duamutef, jackal- or wolf-headed protector of the stomach and Qebehsenuef, falcon headed protector of the intestines - were believed to have come out of a water lily that rose from the waters of Nun. Under the orders of Ra, the four gods were rescued by Sobek in a net, and brought them to land. A crocodile mummy, still in its wrappings

The Book of the Dead suggests that Sobek's closeness to Horus can be traced back to his participation in the birth of this god. Sobek was responsible for calling Isis and Nephthys to aid in the protection of the dead.

-- Catherine C. Harris, The Crocodile God, Sobek

Stela depicting the god Sobek or Sobek-Ra on a shrine, with crocodiles underneath
Image © Brooklyn Museum

Despite the different attitudes of people to the god, he was venerated as one who restored sight to the dead, who revived their senses and who protected them from Set who attacked those souls who travelled through the land of the dead.

Sobek was a god of the Nile (which was believed to have come from his sweat) who gave life to vegetation and fertility to the land. The 'Lord of the Waters' was believed to have risen from the primeval waters of Nun to create the world. One tale says that Sobek laid his eggs on the bank of the waters, starting the creation process. He was thus a fertility god, 'He Who Made the Herbage Green'. This explains his link to the rebirth of the deceased into the after life. The Temple of Renenutet at Medinet Maadi

On the western border of the Fayum... on the lake of Moeris was the temple of Sobek of the Island, Soknopaios as it is called by the Greeks. It had a high-priest who received a small stipend of 344 drachmæ, and all the other priests together received daily about one bushel of wheat as remuneration for their trouble. They were not even immune from the statutory labour on the embankments, and if this was lessened for them, it was owing to the good offices of their fellow citizens.

-- Lewis Spence (2010), Egypt, Myths and Legends, p. 55

Sobek's temples were found scattered throughout the land of Egypt, but the Faiyum area in Lower Egypt was his sacred area. The Greek-named the town of 'Crocodilopolis' (Shedyet) had a temple where a tame, sacred crocodile was kept by himself in a lake. The crocodile was hand fed by the priests, seemingly for the amusement of ancient tourists, according to Strabo. At some of the temples, crocodiles of all ages were mummified and placed in sarcophagi in tombs, along with some unborn foetuses, still in the eggs. The god Sobek, seated before offerings of papyrus

A temple at Medinet Maadi was dedicated to Sobek, the goddess Renenutet and Horus. In Upper Egypt he was worshipped in the Kom Ombo - there was a temple at Kom Ombo dedicated to Sobek, Hathor and Khonsu. Another temple at Kom Ombo venerates both Sobek and Horus the Elder. Legend had is that the 'Lord of Bakhu' had a temple made of carnelian at Bakhu - mountain of the horizon.

[THE CHAPTER OF] MAKING THE TRANSFORMATION INTO THE CROCODILE-GOD. The Osiris Ani, whose word is truth, saith:-
I am the Crocodile-god (Sobek) who dwelleth amid his terrors. I am the Crocodile-god and I seize [my prey] like a ravening beast. I am the great Fish which is in Kamui. I am the Lord to whom bowings and prostrations are made in Sekhem. And the Osiris Ani is the lord to whom bowings and prostrations are made in Sekhem.

-- Wallis Budge, E.A., The Egyptian Book of the Dead

Sobek first appeared in the Old Kingdom as the son of Nit, where he was known as adcrocodile determinative ad 'The Rager'. The two were mentioned as mother and son in the pyramid of Unas. Some tales suggested that Set was his father. He was given different wives in different areas - Hathor, Renenutet, Heqet to name a few. He was also thought to be husband of the goddess Taweret, who was somtimes depicted with a crocodile on her back. He was, likewise, given different children - Khonsu, Horus and Khnum were sometimes called his sons, again in different areas. Sobek, waaring the plumes and Sun Disk, as depicted on a temple wall

Those who do away utterly sins and offences, and who are in the following of the goddess Hetepsekhus, are the god Sobek and his associates who dwell in the water. The goddess Hetepsekhus is the Eye of Ra. Others, however, say that it is the flame which accompanieth Osiris to burn up the souls of his enemies.

-- Wallis Budge, E.A., The Egyptian Book of the Dead

During the Middle Kingdom, Sobek was linked to the god Amen, who seemed to have assimilated him to some degree. He was also connected to the sun god Ra, giving the form Sobek-Ra, who was worshipped as another omnipotent manifestation of the sun deity. Thus Sobek could be shown wearing either the headdress of Amen or the sun disk of Ra.

Statue of Sobek, in full crocodile form, wearing the Sun Disk on his head Having the form of a crocodile, the Egyptians believed that he also had the nature of a crocodile. He could be the strong, powerful symbol of the pharaoh, showing the ruler's might. He could use this force to protect the justified dead in their after life, and be the protector and rescuer of the other gods... yet he could also use that power to savage his enemies and the sinful deceased. He could bestow sight and senses to the dead, he could bring water and fertility to the land. Yet he was also closely linked to the enemy of Osiris. He was a god that was both feared and respected by the ancient Egyptians.


Further Information about Sobek


Video of Sobek

A video filled with images of Sobek (and other deities), by Egyptahotep:


© Caroline 'Kunoichi' Seawright 2002 - present


If you enjoyed this page, please join my Egyptology & Archaeology Essays Mailing List.

Or contact me on Twitter:

comments powered by Disqus