Animals played an important role in ancient Egypt, both in royal and ancient Egyptian life, whether they were deities, pets, symbols of fertility or objects of fear, protection and luck.
Animals often possessed charming qualities that ancient Egyptians may have admired and sought to emulate. These included strength, the ability to repel predators, a protective nature, nurturing qualities and links to rebirth. Therefore, the representation of the gods in the form of animals with specific characteristics indicated what they believed about the nature of each god or goddess.
Many animals played an important role. The most famous of these is probably the cat, a domestic animal dating back to ancient Egypt. Large cats, such as cheetahs and lions, were considered exotic pets and were the emblems of royalty. Other animals feared by the ancient Egyptians, such as crocodiles and hippos, were revered and worshipped to protect them from their wrath. The crocodile was said to be the god of water and could serve as a symbol of power and strength for the pharaohs, while the ibis was believed to be the protector of writing and scribes.
Cats were not only valued for their everyday use, but also on a divine level. The most famous of the cat figures was Bastet, usually depicted either in the theriomorphic (animal) form of a cat or in a hybrid form with a female body and a cat’s head. Bastet was sometimes depicted as a lioness (in earlier times) or as a woman with the head of a lioness (though this was more often associated with the goddess Sekhmet, who was associated with destruction). Bastet was seen as a gentler and calmer version of the ferocious lion. He was most commonly identified as the ‘protector of children’ and was associated with female fertility, sexuality and the protection of infants and pregnant women.
The boundaries between deities in ancient Egypt were often blurred – forms could overlap, and some animals were associated with more than one god or goddess and vice versa. Other goddesses, such as Mut, Hathor and Tefnut, sometimes took cat-like forms. Although the association was predominantly female, one male divine cat often appears in religious contexts as a manifestation of the sun god Ra. This cat is depicted slaying the serpent god Apophis, who was the embodiment of chaos.
Thousands of mummies of sacred cats from the Late Period, were found in the ‘cemetery of cats’ in Sakkara in northern Egypt. It was associated with the temple of Bastet. Ancient Egyptians left mummified animals (both real and fake) and statues as offerings to the cult of the god. They represented the species being offered (in this case, the cat) in an attempt to appease the god and seek his favour. Animals were also bred in large numbers specifically for these sacrifices. Interestingly, in the 19th century, cat mummies were widely exported to Europe, particularly to the United Kingdom, where they were used as fertiliser in the fields.
The domestic cat was not the only powerful feline animal in ancient Egypt, where large cats such as lions, leopards and cheetahs were also found. Lions were often associated with royalty, as they were a symbol of kingship. Their powerful appearance, strength and ferocity were certainly qualities that the pharaoh wanted to emulate. The pharaohs were known to have kept lions and other large cats as pets, perhaps not only as a status symbol, but also for their protective qualities that warded off ‘evil’. In royal hunting scenes, lions are also shown being hunted, showing the king’s power to defeat even the most powerful animals.
Our relationship with cats has certainly stood the test of time, and their popularity is evident even today.
Before the rise of Osiris, Anubis was the main funerary god. He was the god of the dead, associated with embalming and mummification. He was the chief god of Kynopolis (Greek for ‘city of dogs’), now el-Qeis (Upper Egypt), and a burial place for dogs was found on the opposite bank of the Nile.
Anubis was worshipped throughout Egypt, and images of the god were seen in temples, chapels and tombs throughout the Pharaonic period. He is usually depicted as a seated jackal, or as a human figure with the head and sometimes the tail of a jackal. The black colour of Anubis was symbolically linked to the colouring of the body after preparation for burial and to the fertile black soil of the Nile valley, symbolising renewal.
In ancient Egyptian, the ibis perched on a perch was the hieroglyphic sign of the god Thoth. Thoth was the god of writing and knowledge and was often depicted as a man with an ibis head. He was worshipped together with his little-known wife Nehmentaway in the ancient city of Khumnwi, near present-day El-Ashmunein on the west bank of the Nile. He is often referred to as the ‘Lord of Divine Words’ and is recognised as the god of writing, scribes and wisdom. Thoth was believed to be the inventor of the art of writing and the patron of all fields of knowledge, and was responsible for all kinds of accounts, records and written contracts, as well as being the custodian of the libraries and scriptoria attached to the temples. One of his most important tasks was the recording of the ceremony of weighing the heart.
Thoth was often depicted as an ibis, or a standing or seated ibis-headed man, usually holding a palette and pen or notched palm leaf, and making some kind of administrative record or count. It is possible that the long, curved beak of the ibis was identified with both the crescent moon and the reed pencil held by Thoth. He was also associated with the moon (the 2nd eye of Ra) when he was in the form of a baboon (which we will discuss later) and wore a lunar crown (a lunar sword or crescent). He appears on many temple walls, assisting the gods or recording important matters relating to the king.
In ancient Egypt, mummifying sacred animals such as cats, dogs, crocodiles and ibises after death was big business. More than 1.75 million ibis remains were found in the cemetery of Saqqara in the ancient Egyptian capital Memphis, thousands in the holy city of Abydos and more than four million in the catacombs of Tuna-el-Gebel in the Al Minya governorate in central Egypt.
During the New Kingdom, monkeys were usually imported from the south of Egypt (Nubia and Punt) for use in temples. Their life expectancy was probably limited due to the poor living conditions in the harsh desert environment, including insufficient food supply and lack of exercise and light. In later times, sacred temple baboons were kept for rituals and were mummified by the thousands and buried in coffins.
The baboon is probably the best known manifestation of the moon god Thoth. In this role, Thoth took on the role of ‘god of writers’ (as mentioned earlier) and was associated with various subjects such as writing, science, judgment, knowledge and the afterlife. The ancient Egyptians probably recognised the baboon’s human qualities, intelligence and ability to communicate, and considered it a suitable embodiment of this god. Thoth acted as a kind of intermediary between humans and gods. In iconography, the baboon Thoth is often seen in a crouching position with his hands on his knees and a crescent moon or moon disk on his head. In scenes from the Book of the Dead, baboons are depicted guarding a ‘lake of fire’ where the dead can be redeemed, and sometimes Thoth can be seen in his baboon form sitting on the doomscale during the weighing of the heart and recording the decision. Thus Thoth may have assisted the dead in their transition to the afterlife.
Baboons were associated not only with the moon god but also with the cult of the sun god. Baboons are known to greet the morning sun by barking – a theme often seen in ancient Egyptian art and sculpture, where baboons are depicted raising their hands to the sun in worship.
The baboon was also used to represent the god Hapy, one of the four sons of Horus, whose heads formed the lids of jars used to preserve vital organs after death. The baboon-headed, long-necked Hapy head was meant to protect the mummified lungs so that they could be returned to the deceased after death and thus be reborn. The lungs, liver, intestines and stomach were preserved during mummification and in the New Kingdom were placed in four jars of jugs with the heads of Horus’ four sons (baboon, man, hawk and jackal). Over time, the mummified organs were placed back inside the body. Sometimes the ‘doll jars’ were instead part of the funerary equipment, so that the deceased would continue to have the protection of the four sons of Horus.
The crocodile god Sobek, whose name simply means ‘crocodile’, was a powerful god worshipped from the Old Kingdom until the Roman period. The shrines to the god were large and widespread, but the two most important places of worship of Sobek were in the ancient city of Shedet (Greek: Crocodileopolis), in what is now Medinet-el Faiyum in the Faiyum region, and in the temple of Kom Ombo in Upper Egypt (the seat of several Twelfth Dynasty rulers). In temples dedicated to Sobek, it was common for the pools to be filled with sacred crocodiles, which were mummified after death and placed in temples, tombs and burials.
Sobek was a crocodile-headed god with several important meanings, including a connection to the colour green. The worship of Sobek reached its peak in the Middle Kingdom, and his name is borrowed from several Twelfth and Thirteenth Dynasty pharaohs, such as Sobeknefru and Sobekhotep I to IV.
In mythology, as recorded in the pyramid texts, Sobek is referred to as “the furious one” who “takes women from their husbands at will according to his desires”, but who was also responsible for making the grass in the fields and on the banks of the rivers green, thus tying him to both reproductive and vegetative fertility. Sobek was above all the god of water and other areas where crocodiles frequented, such as riverbanks and marshes, and it was believed that the Nile Sea was born from his sweating. He was associated with the cults of other gods such as Osiris and Amun, and in particular with the sun god Sobek-Ra, which is why he was identified with the Greek sun god Helios. Sobek was also closely associated with kings and could be a symbol of the power and might of the pharaohs.
Sobek was represented either as a reptile, often sitting in a shrine or on an altar, or as a man with a crocodile head. In either form, he usually wears a sun-disc headdress with horns and high feathers, and in human form he may also wear a wig. Another crocodile-headed deity was Ammit, known as the ‘eater of the dead’. She was a crocodile-headed demoness and goddess with a body that looked partly like a hippopotamus and partly like a lion, the three largest and most dangerous animals feared by the ancient Egyptians. She can most commonly be seen at a heart-weighing ceremony, waiting to devour the impure hearts of the deceased, thus condemning them to a safe passage to the afterlife.
This sense of protecting their offspring is the main characteristic of the most famous of the hippo goddesses, Taweret (meaning ‘great’). Taweret was known as the protector of ‘mothers and children’, especially pregnant women and newborns, and was strongly associated with childbirth and fertility. She is most often depicted standing on her hind legs, with the head and body of a hippopotamus, the tail of a crocodile and the paws of a lion, and has a round pregnant belly and heavy breasts. She usually carries a symbol of protection. Her image (or, more commonly, that of a hippopotamus) often appears on household objects, wands, amulets and figurines. The staffs were usually carved from the ivory of the hippopotamus and were curved. They are often depicted wielding a knife, giving them the power to ward off evil forces and provide protection for mother and child.
Hippopotami also appear in funerary images, with the pharaoh often hunting them in the marsh with a harpoon. This showed the king’s strength, power and courage, symbolising his ability to overcome chaotic forces and maintain the Maat (world order). Hippos were hunted not only for their food and ivory, but also for their destructive nature. Hippos have the ability to destroy fields due to their enormous appetite and often graze overnight – perhaps this explains the meaning of ‘hungry hippos’!
The hippopotamus also often appears on funerary monuments, in the form of a blue pheasant model decorated with river plants such as lotus. This promotes a connection with growth, new life and cosmogony, rather than an image of chaos and cruelty. Hippos have the ability to dive continuously underwater for several minutes before rising back to the surface – a great metaphor for rebirth and renewal. Sometimes, while underwater, only their backs are visible. This was reminiscent of the Egyptian creation myth, where the first primordial mound emerges from the chaotic waters of Nunna. The ancient Egyptians believed that placing hippopotamus models in their tombs would give them this regenerative power and guarantee their rebirth, as they would magically transmit these qualities. Interestingly, many hippopotamus statues have been found with broken legs – it is possible that this was a conscious effort by ancient people to avoid unpleasant events with the animal after death, as it was believed that the images in the tomb could magically resurrect. For them, it was certainly better to be safe than sorry.
Today, hippos are considered the deadliest land animal in the world – it is easy to understand why the ancient Egyptians felt so threatened by them and why they felt the need to appease them in every way possible.
The artistic depiction of the scarab beetle was also used as a hieroglyphic symbol in its own right. The verb ‘to be born’ was written with the scarab’s mark. The noun ‘skarabeus’ literally means ‘the one who is born’ or ‘the one who appears’.
It was precisely because of these metaphors that the scarab beetle assumed the personification of the god Khepri – the ‘god of the morning sun’, who could give birth to himself. Khepri was often depicted as a male figure with a whole beetle on his shoulders. This differed from other hybrid deities, who used only the head of an animal on top of a human body. Khepri was associated with creation and new life, as she was the daughter goddess of the chief creator and sun god Ra.
For the ancient Egyptians, scarab beetles had several functions and appeared in various forms. Scarab amulets were probably the most common, and their replicas are now very popular souvenirs in Egypt and in international museums. They are mostly small and usually pierced at both ends, indicating that their owner intended them to be used in rings, necklaces and bracelets. They could be made of a variety of stones, the most famous of which are the blue pheasant scarabs that were popular in the New Kingdom. The underside could be engraved with personal names, titles, the names of kings, patronymics or drawings. The compact size greatly facilitated large-scale distribution. The larger type of scarab was the heart scarab. They were engraved with a chapter from the Book of the Dead and placed on or near the mummy. The function of the heart scarab was to prevent the heart of the deceased person from speaking against its owner during the judgment in the afterlife – this was crucial to the person’s safe passage to the kingdom of Osiris. The heart scarab was believed to be able to control the memory and responsiveness of the deceased. The royal family also used large scarabs to make announcements – these scarabs were called memorial scarabs. This method allowed news of royal achievements to be spread among the people as a form of propaganda – there was no internet or television to do this for them!
Scarab beetles were clearly an important part of life and death for the ancient Egyptians, a symbol of protection, creation and renewal – not the carnivores portrayed in popular culture.
Mysterious and wondrous animals
The ancient Egyptians worshipped numerous gods and goddesses, and understanding this is crucial to unraveling the mysteries of Egyptian religion and mythology. Worshipping the gods often involved people regularly making sacrifices and invoking them to ensure their continued and beneficial presence in their lives. Animals were mummified by the thousands to appease the gods and win their favour. It was not the animals themselves that were worshipped, but the gods who took their form – animals acting as messengers between humans and gods.
We have only given a taste of the many sacred animals worshipped by the ancient Egyptians, chosen for their specific characteristics and behaviour, and reflected in the deity they embodied. The use of an animal head over a human body ensured that the gods could still interact with the world, while providing a visual metaphor through the animal’s characteristics.
Mythology and religion were central to the lives of the ancient Egyptians, and central to their religion were the deities they worshipped. Their physical form allowed for cultic or personal interaction with the deities, and whether in full animal form or a mixture of animal and human, the sacred animals of ancient Egypt still evoke a sense of mystery and wonder today.