Ancient Egypt’s animals hold the key to the proper understanding of ancient Egyptian society and culture. The animal had a larger place in Ancient Egypt than any other advanced civilization, evident in the fact that up to 176 of 777 known Egyptian hieroglyphs depict animals and that 1 out of every 4 hieroglyphs is connected to the animal kingdom.
Likewise, the Egyptian religion was closely related to animals, many of which were considered sacred and worshiped as divinities. Without understanding the all-important role of animals in ancient Egyptian society and religion, it is impossible to decipher the secrets of this great civilization and its unique way of life.
Ancient Egyptian Animals: Gods’ Gifts to Egypt
The ancient Egyptian kept many animals as pets. Just like us today, they had dogs and pets but also exotic animals such as baboons and other monkeys. Their pets were deeply cared for, as animals were considered gifts from the gods. Today, pictures and hieroglyphs of animals can be found everywhere across Egypt: on the wall reliefs at the ruins of ancient temples, tombs, obelisks, and palaces.
Wildlife in the Nile Valley
According to scientists, what is today Egypt enjoyed a wetter and cooler climate in prehistoric times. By the time Egypt became unified under the 1st dynasty, climatic conditions in the Nile Valley were harsher.
Desert covers over 90 percent of Egypt, which would be a barren and inhospitable land without the mighty Nile River that flows north from Ethiopia and Uganda on its way to the Mediterranean Sea. Both the desert and the fertile Nile Valley are rich in wildlife, including birds, mammals, and reptiles.
Among the most well-known animals native to Egypt are crocodiles, cobras, hippopotamus, ibises, and lionfish. Egypt’s desert areas, both now and in ancient times, were inhabited by desert foxes, hyenas, camels, and falcons. During the pharaonic times, a small number of lions inhabited the desert areas.
Popular Pets in Ancient Egypt
For a long time, scientists have thought that cats were first domesticated in Ancient Egypt. Today, new evidence suggests that cats were domesticated in the Near East as early as 7500 BCE. Regardless of whether it was the ancient Egyptians or other ancient people that domesticated cats, they were by far the most popular pets in ancient Egypt.
The Egyptians were very fond of their cats, who were not only their pets but were considered sacred animals and were closely associated with the goddess Bastet. Thousands of mummified remains of cats have been discovered by archeologists in ancient Egyptian tombs. It seems very likely that almost every Egyptian household had a pet cat. As pets, cats were more popular than dogs because they were self-sufficient and required less care than dogs.
– Dogs Were Very Important to the Egyptians
Despite the overwhelming popularity of cats as household pets and sacred animals, dogs in Ancient Egypt remained quite popular with the common people. Surprisingly, dogs were used in other roles as well, notably in hunting and police and military actions. The famous Greek historian Herodotus wrote that all the inhabitants of a house where a cat died a natural death shaved their eyebrows, and when a dog died, they would shave their whole body.
– Anubis, The Jackal-Headed God of Embalming and the Underworld
Dogs were closely associated with the jackal-headed god Anubis, whom the Egyptians respected and feared at the same time. Anubis escorted the souls of the deceased to the Hall of Truth, where they would be judged by Osiris. Anubis is frequently depicted on wall reliefs of tombs as presiding over the embalming process and accompanying the dead kings to the afterlife.
– It Was Not Only Cats and Dogs That the Egyptians Kept as Pets
Cats and dogs remain the most popular pets in the world. However, ancient Egyptians were fond of other animals and also kept them as pets.
When archeologists discovered the mummy of the high priestess Mutemhat in a necropolis near the ancient city of Thebes, they discovered another, smaller mummy at her feet. At first, they assumed that the mummified remains belonged to a very young child and that Mutemhat was its mother.
On the other hand, the inscriptions found in her tomb indicated Mutemhat had dedicated her life to Amun and practiced celibacy. The mystery of the smaller mummy was finally resolved when researchers examined the remains with x-rays back in 1968. To everyone’s surprise, the mummy did not belong to a human, but the priestesses’ pet monkey.
Monkeys and other exotic animals, it is believed, were kept as pets in ancient Egypt. As they were less common and more difficult to obtain, it is also probable that only the higher classes could afford them as pets.
Animals Occupied a Unique Place in Ancient Egyptian Religion
Ancient Egyptians did not subscribe to the latter Judeo-Christian notion that man was divinely ordained to act as the master of the natural world. Rather than being lord of the animals, the Egyptians saw man as their partner. Consequently, animals in Egyptian mythology occupy a place no less important than men.
In fact, a great majority of Egyptian deities were depicted as human-animal hybrids, while some of the most important gods were represented in the shape of animals. In the preserved ancient Egyptian texts, we can read that the creative force of Ptah is active: “in all gods, all people, all cattle, all crawling creatures, in all that lives.”
Crucially, unlike the later civilizations, the Egyptians did not regard the difference between humans and animals as absolute, and both were considered living beings that had a unique place in the divinely ordained hierarchy.
It is no wonder that specific gods in the Egyptian pantheon came to be associated with different animals very early on, likely already in the predynastic times. This did not mean, as it might be assumed, that these gods were themselves animals, but rather indicative of the aforementioned belief held by the Egyptians that animals were partners of humans and not their inferiors.
As both animals and humans were living beings, gods were represented in either human or animal shape or in hybrid human-animal form.
– Gods in the Guise of Animals
Animals in Egypt were considered sacred if they were associated with a specific god. It has led some people to believe that the Egyptians worshiped animals. Even though the Egyptians saw animals as living beings worthy of every respect, it would be a mistake to think they worshiped them as gods. The opposite is true: it was the gods who were worshiped in the form of animals.
Ever since the dawn of Egypt, animals were associated with deities. Thoth, the god of writing, wisdom, and scribes, appears on temple and tomb wall reliefs with the head of an ibis. Alternatively, he is sometimes shown in the form of a baboon.
Khonsu, the Theban god of the moon, is also shown in the form of a baboon. The powerful goddess, Bastet, initially depicted as a desert cat later assumed a tamer form and appeared as a cat. The goddesses Hathor, Isis, Nut, and Bat are frequently shown with the horns and ears of cows. Cows, along with other animals of the Nile in Ancient Egypt, were highly revered as they were associated with fertility, the sun, and life itself.
– Apis: Egypt’s Sacred Bull
Bulls were revered in ancient Egypt as symbols of strength and masculinity. Apis, the sacred bull, was worshiped throughout Egypt, but his cult center was in the old capital Memphis. Apis is often identified as the son of Hathor and associated with the ruler of the underworld, Osiris, who after death became Osiris-Apis.
Such great respect was accorded to Apis by the Egyptians that his animals, bulls, were often given ceremonious burials. Egyptologists have discovered over sixty mummified bulls at the Serapeum of Saqqara. Each bull had a separate tomb and a chapel built above it.
– ‘She Who Is Powerful’
Admired as a symbol of strength and authority, lions came to be associated with one of the fiercest deities in the ancient Egyptian pantheon: Sekhmet. The name of the lion-headed goddess means ‘She Who is Powerful,’ and she seems to have inspired both fear and respect.
Her role as a protector of dead pharaohs is evident from her depictions of the royal biers that were to carry deceased rulers to the afterlife.
Cobra: The Symbol of Pharaonic Authority
If you’re familiar with the depictions of pharaohs on wall reliefs, you’ve probably noticed a variety of different crowns they are shown wearing. These include the Deshret, the red crown of Lower Egypt, Hedjet, the white crown of Upper Egypt, the blue war crown known as Khepresh, and Pschent, the double crown that symbolized the political unity of Upper and Lower Egypt.
All have one component in common, the uraeus, or the ‘rearing cobra,’ a stylized representation of an Egyptian cobra with a flared hood. Over time, the uraeus came to be regarded as a symbol of pharaonic authority and Egypt’s sovereignty.
‘The Fiery Eye of Re’
Cobra, as the symbol for the goddess Wadjet, an early deity depicted as a cobra, is closely associated with the sun god. The uraeus is closely linked with the pharaoh’s right to rule; no monarch could be seen as legitimate until appearing with a uraeus on his crown.
Cobra was also called ‘The Fiery Eye of Re.’ In funerary works, we can often see a fire-spitting cobra as the guardian of the gates of the underworld. Cobras protected the pharaoh in the afterlife by warding off the forces of darkness.
Sobek’s Sacred Crocodiles
Crocodiles inhabited the marshy areas around the Nile for thousands of years and quickly became connected with several important gods and goddesses. Ordinary Egyptians feared and admired these magnificent beasts and were eager to placate them.
Killing a crocodile was not only considered sacrilege but also a criminal offense. Sobek, the deity portrayed with the body of a human and the head of a crocodile, was worshipped throughout Egypt. His cultic center was located at the Fayum Oasis.
During the Ptolemaic era, the Temple of Kom Ombo near Awsan in Upper Egypt had been built to honor Sobek and other Egyptian gods.
Live Crocodiles Were Cared for at Sobek’s Temples
No other sacred animal in ancient Egypt was given better treatment than the crocodile. Whether this respect was borne out of fear or as a result of religious worship is unclear. Archeological evidence suggests that crocodiles have been worshiped in temples in all parts of Egypt, indicating great popularity of crocodiles and deities associated with them.
In addition to Sobek, the goddess of childbirth Taweret was sometimes portrayed with the back and the tail of a crocodile. Egyptologists believe crocodile worship was closely linked with fertility, owing to the fact the Egyptians saw crocodiles as symbols of strength and vitality as well as being crucial to the fertility of the land itself.
Falcons: Powerful Birds Who Watched Over Egypt
Since the earliest times, falcons have been linked with one of Egypt’s most important deities, the solar god Horus. According to a well-known Egyptian myth, Horus, the son of Osiris, vanquished his uncle, the god Seth, who had slain his brother and usurped the throne.
The worship of Horus was particularly widespread during the Old and Middle Kingdom periods. The falcon had protective powers and was also a symbol of majesty. They are depicted on reliefs as hovering over the head of the pharaoh with their wings outstretched. Falcons were sacred to the god of war, Montu, a deity responsible for maintaining Egypt’s martial glory.
Jackals, the Guardians of the Dead
Although they are not considered the most popular or inspiring animals today, jackals and vultures had a special place in ancient Egyptian culture and religion. These fierce animals lived in the desert and roamed the places in the mountains where the Egyptians usually buried their kings and nobles.
As a result, the Egyptians believed jackals guided the newly dead to the afterlife and served Anubis, who was himself portrayed with the head of the jackal.
Another jackal-headed god was Duamutef, the son of Horus, the guardian of canopic jars that contained the stomach of the deceased. Wepwawet, ‘The Opener of Ways’ was yet another important jackal deity who performed the important funerary ceremony known as the ‘Opening of the Mouth.’
This ceremony was performed on the coffin of the pharaoh before the tomb was sealed and it had a goal of ensuring the pharaoh would be able to speak and defend himself before Osiris in the Hall of Judgements.
Scarabs: Small but Important Animals Found in the Tombs of the Pharaohs
Among the many sacred animals in ancient Egypt, the scarab beetle holds a special place. Thousands of scarab amulets were discovered on the mummies of pharaohs, for according to ancient Egyptian belief, these beetles were a symbol of new life. According to popular belief, just like the scarabs push their ball behind it in a ball, so does the solar god Khepri pushes the sun across the sky every day.
In addition to their role as amulets, scarabs were used as seals, as well as ornaments. Their primary role was still to guard the dead in the afterlife and were placed on the breast of the mummy in the place where the heart stood.
How the Hyksos Introduced Horses to Egypt
Horses remained unknown to Egyptians until the Hyksos, an Asiatic people of obscure origins, settled in the Delta region and toppled the ruling native dynasty to establish their own kingdom centered on the city of Avaris.
The Hyksos changed Egypt forever by introducing the horse and the chariot to Egypt, thereby ushering in a new era. Horses were highly valued in Egypt during the New Kingdom period, even though they remained a luxury that only the wealthy could afford.
There were many sacred animals in ancient Egypt. They were kept as pets and honored as a living with the gods they were associated with. Egyptians held a belief that the divine was manifest in all living things, including not only humans but animals as well.
Life was sacred in ancient Egypt, and to honor the gods meant to honor all living beings, from lions and crocodiles to ibises and scarab beetles. There were many reasons why animals were a subject of cultic worship in Pharaonic Egypt, and these include:
- Animals such as crocodiles, cats, dogs, lions, jackals, and falcons were regarded as sacred to the gods
- Horus, Anubis, Sekhmet, Hathor, Thoth, and many other gods were portrayed either as human-animal hybrids or in the animal form
- Cats, dogs, and even monkeys were kept as pets and companions of humans with whom they shared a special bond
Ancient Egyptian culture and religion are hard to imagine without animals who played a decisive role in the everyday lives of the people and shaped their values.