Ancient history

Sacred Animals:When Egypt's Fauna Becomes Religion

Statue representing Bastet, an Egyptian deity with the head of a cat • ISTOCKPHOTO

In ancient Egypt, the most diverse animals, both tiny insects and snakes, fish, birds or mammals such as the hippopotamus were likely to be divine manifestations. Observing with great acuity the very rich fauna that populated their daily lives, the ancient Egyptians integrated it into their religious beliefs. To properly appreciate the phenomenon, a fundamental distinction must be made between, on the one hand, the use of animals as symbols of the divine in the vision that ancient Egypt gave itself of the universe and, on the other hand, the worship of living animals and zoolatry.

The beetle, solar insect

For the ancient Egyptians, animals were capable of manifesting, in varying degrees, something of the divine powers because of a fundamental conception:like other beings, they had been created by the sun god by taking on his own substance, be it his saliva, his sperm, his sweat, his tears, etc. Consequently, their aspects, their behaviors and their mores partially reflect the fundamental principles thanks to which the creator and the divinities which emanate from him ensure the good functioning of the world:birth, growth, maturity, regeneration and potentialities of rebirth inscribed in biological death. itself, constructive energy and force, disorder necessary for the dynamism of being, etc.

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Take the example of the beetle:it pushes a ball of excrement containing its eggs and deposits it in a hole. After hatching, a new beetle will emerge from it to fly away. By this behavior - estimated the ancient Egyptians - the beetle carries within it even a tiny fraction of the power that animates the sun, whose disc, round like the ball containing the eggs, re-emerges each morning from the earth to ascend to heaven and complete his journey there. Hence the promotion of the insect among the symbols likely to represent the sun god. We still have to agree:if the power that allows the sun to repeat its cycle finds a receptacle in the beetle – it is a “hypostasis” of the deity –, it is only very partially. It greatly exceeds it, far from remaining entirely contained and compartmentalized there. In a general way, the divinity always remains beyond the animals which one recognizes in him as hypostases or as symbols.

The frenetic dance of the ostriches

The inventory of animals which by their characteristics were judged to manifest the activity of the divine powers ranges from the tiny to the enormous, from the beetle and insects such as the nepe or a variety of wireworm to the monstrous hippopotamus, passing through the centipedes. , snakes, fish, birds, shrews, hedgehogs and mammals of all sizes, not to mention fantastical beasts like the ram-headed lion (“criosphinx”).

That said, their relationship to the divine varies. Some are simply engaged spectators, quick to chant the cycles that punctuate the progress of the world. The fish called “fahaka tetrodons” inflate with air and let themselves be carried to the surface of the Nile when its flood begins. Ostriches engage in frantic dances to greet the sunrise, accompanied by the noisy bustle of baboons. Fish and birds spread the testimony of divine power through these two great vectors, air and water. Snakes, crocodiles, hippopotamuses are on occasion the executors of the one she has decided to punish.

To each god his favorite animal

But other animals have links with particular deities that are consecrated by theological traditions. The ram is a manifestation of Amon, of Chnum, of Harsaphes; the canine (dog, jackal or fox) is the manifestation of Anubis and Oupouaout; the cow, that of Hathor; the gazelle, that of Anoukis; the lioness that of Sakhmet, Mut and other goddesses; the lion, that of Nefertum; the hippopotamus, that of Seth. The goddesses Ouadjyt, Rénénoutet, Mertseger take on the appearance of a cobra, the gods Khentykhéty and Sobek, that of a crocodile. Others are associated with the falcon:Horus in various forms, Hémen, Montou, Sokar. Thoth has a predilection for the ibis. Neith readily recognizes herself in the lates and Isis, sometimes, in the scorpion.

Each deity of the Egyptian pantheon could manifest itself through one or more favorite animals:the ram, the goose and the bull for Amon, the cow for Hathor, the ibis or the baboon for Thoth, etc.

If the same animal can be the hypostasis of several divinities, the same divinity can have several animal hypostases. Thoth, besides the ibis, also becomes a baboon; Amon has affinities with the goose and the bull; Ouadjyt is basically a cobra, but secondarily a lioness. As for the sun god, we recognize him alternately in the beetle, the falcon, the monkey, the lion, the ram. In three or two dimensions, the deity is very often represented either by his whole animal, or by a hybrid figuration and, in this case, either with an animal body and a human head – thus the sphinx –, or with a human body and an animal head or a headdress reminiscent of it.

Thousands of animal mummies

The link between animal and divinity is tightened up to zoolatry in the worship rendered to living animals. If it was limited in the past, it developed to reach an extreme diffusion during the Ptolemaic and then Roman periods (III e century BC. J.-C.-IV e century AD. AD). In each sector where a god had a worshiped animal manifestation, a representative of the species was chosen according to the special marks he bore. From then on, he lived in a complex which was specially consecrated to him within the precincts of the temple, gratified by the care of the clergy and the piety of the faithful, to whom he delivered oracles. In the case of the Apis bull, the cow that gave birth to him also had a right to his own holy place. The congeners of the sacred animal were taboo in its sector of influence; they were not to be harmed in the slightest way, on pain of being lynched on the spot.

Also read:The Egyptian ibis, a sacred animal

The death of this animal was always a local event, sometimes of national dimension when it came to the Apis bull. Funerals involved a complex ritual. On this occasion, his followers showed their devotion by a strange practice:they offered to the deceased sacred animal a summarily mummified representative of its species, sometimes placed in a bronze reliquary, or, more often, in a conical jar whose opening was sealed. In return, they expected the sacred animal to favor them from beyond.

To satisfy the demand, we proceeded to the massacre of animals yet protected outside this occasion. After consecration, many of these mummies were stored for burial in gigantic catacombs, like bottles of champagne in the cellars of Épernay. The practice experienced an incredible extension. Several million ibis mummies are thus estimated in the network of long galleries dependent on a Saqqara sanctuary. It often happened that the number of animals available was insufficient:we were satisfied with one fragment of corpse per mummy or we drew from neighboring species, or we were content to swaddle an effigy of an animal roughly shaped, even a simple piece of wood!

Find out more
Bestiary of the pharaohs, P. Vernus, J. Yoyotte, Perrin, 2005.
Egyptian bestiary, P. Germond, J. Livet, Citadelles &Mazenod, 2001.
Animals and pharaohs. The animal kingdom in ancient Egypt (exhibition catalogue), H. Guichard (dir.), Somogy, 2014.