Ancient Egyptian Animals
The role of an animal in the modern age is primarily that of companionship or food. Older cultures, however, did not always behold animals in such a manner. In fact, cultures like that of ancient Egypt used some animals for survival purposes, and associated others with gods and goddesses, using them for sacrificial purposes. Certain animals were deified, according to their beliefs.
Sheep, goats, cattle, pigs and geese supplied milk, wool, eggs, meat, leather, skins, horns and fat. Some species had associations with certain gods and attributes too.
Cattle were an indispensable staple of agriculture in ancient Egypt. The cow was associated with female fertility and the following gods: Hathor, Isis, Nut, Mehet-Weret and Bat. The bull, on the other hand, was associated with power, masculinity, fertility and regeneration and the gods Ptah and Osiris. Consequently, the Egyptians often raised and slaughtered cows and bulls in the name of sacrificial offerings to the gods and goddesses.
Pigs were associated with Set, the God of Chaos. Ancient Egyptians viewed pigs as the source of chaos, sacrifice and light. They weren’t used in religious ceremonies like cattle were. Rather, there were primarily used for fat and oil in cooking.
Of the sheep and goat families, the ram received special recognition from the ancient Egyptians. This animal was associated with the gods Banebdjedet and Khnum, and the attributes of fertility, strength and birth.
The goose was associated with Geb, Isis and Amon, and its attribute was strength. Eggs were the primary use for geese.
Donkeys were present in processions, hunting and to pull their chariots. Horses were a rarity and a status symbol because they were much more expensive than donkeys.
Several types of wild animals had religious associations and were used for various ceremonial purposes.
Antelopes were associated with Sokar and carried his royal and overseer attributes. Antelope heads graced the prow of ceremonial boats that stood in temple sanctuaries; this decorative arrangement was considered sacred.
The baboon was associated with Thoth, Khonsu and Hapy, gods that possessed the qualities of eloquence, strength, fairness and responsibility. Thoth was the god who was responsible for the lunar-based calendar and was often depicted with the head of a baboon in ancient Egyptian pictographs.
All snakes in general were associated with justice, fertility, protection and royalty and were symbols of resurrection. However, the cobra in particular was associated with the god, Wadjet. Additionally, a giant snake named Methen guarded the sacred boat of Re as he sailed through the underworld and was a cobra, endearing the species to the Egyptians even more.
Crocodiles were associated with Amnut, Sobek and Taweret, the gods of justice, power and respect. Amnut was a demon that had the head of a crocodile and ate sinners’ hearts for punishment of their sins. Sobek was depicted as a human that had the head of crocodile, and temples of Sobek were set throughout ancient Egypt and features sacred lakes were crocodiles were fed and cared for.
Frogs were abundant in ancient Egypt. Because there were so many of them, the Egyptians associated them were fertility, resurrection and childbirth and the gods, Heget and the gods of the Ogdoad: Nun, god of water; Amen, god of invisibility; Heh, god of infinity; and Kek god of darkness.
Lions were associated with many gods and attributes, symbolizing strength, leadership, royalty, ferocity, war, healing and beauty. The earth god Aker was depicted as a double sphinx and was believed to guard the sun as it came and went from the underworld.
The monkey was revered as one of the most important animal forms into which the gods could transform, and they symbolized rebirth and renewal. As such, they were extremely important from a religious standpoint.
The scarab beetle was special, because it pushed its dung behind it in a ball, and then young scarabs were born out of the dung. This animal symbolized new life and creation to the ancient Egyptians.
Many species of birds were special to the ancient Egyptians and found their way into pictograph depictions, statues and other personifications.
Falcons and hawks were associated with Horus, Montu and Socar, the gods of royalty, protection and strength. Because of this, these gods were oftentimes depicted with the head of a falcon, and the pharaoh often had a falcon with outstretched wings hovering above his head on his throne.
The ibis was a particularly special bird in ancient Egypt, so much so that it was even mummified and buried in tombs and catacombs like cats. This animal was associated with the gods Thoth, Tehuty and Djehuty, and personified knowledge and the soul. This bird was associated with the gods who created magic, writing, were teachers of men and had the power of language.
Vultures were figures of protection, associated with Nekhbet and Mut, the gods of eternity, monarchy and leadership. Depictions of vultures were often found on temple ceilings as a symbol of eternity in the vulture’s outstretched talons, offering eternal protection to the pharaoh.
The ostrich personified order and the goddess Ma’at: she was depicted as a woman wearing an ostrich feather on her headdress, which is why many Egyptian women wore similar items.
Fish were sacred to the ancient Egyptians because they were believed to swim alongside Ra’s barge as it sailed through the underworld, serving as lookouts for Ra’s enemy, Apep, the water snake.
Rilapia and Abju fish were the most special.
Pharaohs and priests were not allowed to eat fish since fish were said to have consumed part of Osiris when Set chopped him into pieces and scattered those pieces across the world. In fact, fish were often viewed as only fit for consumption by the poorest and lowest people.
© Ashley Van Haeften - Fish Figurine
Of course, no history of animals in ancient Egypt would be complete without the mention of cats. The cat was an animal that was particularly esteemed among the ancient Egyptians.
© Doug - Bastet - Cat Sculpture
Not only were cats domestic companions, but there were also symbols of the goddess Bastet, and the god Ra. Egyptians believed that cats held some of the most divine powers. Because cats were seen as so tender and protective of their offspring, pregnant women would wear amulets of Bastet with kittens.
Because cats symbolized Bastet, one of the most important goddesses in ancient Egyptian religion, cats were given the rights of mummification, extending them the same respect after death that they were given in everyday life.
They were extremely protected and were so revered that even accidentally killing one would incur the death penalty. In the event of a fire, Egyptian men would even go so far as to guard the fire to make sure that no cats ran into the flames.
© SpeckledOwl - Cat Mummies
The Worship of Cats
Bastet was known as the Eye of Ra and represented fertility, motherhood, protection and aspects of the sun. The worship of cats became popular when Bubastis was erected to be the center of worship for the goddess Bastet.
Thousands of Egyptians would journey to Bubastis every year to pay homage to Bastet, who was personified by the cat. As such, when cats died, they were wrapped in fine linen and transported to Bubastis where they would be mummified and buried in the sacred cemetery.
Although dogs were not domesticated in ancient Egypt the way they are today, they had their place in Egyptian culture. They were mostly used for hunting purposes, and were considered much lower than the cat. Whereas cats exhibited mystery and aloofness, the utter loyalty of the dog set it lower in the eyes of the Egyptians, and being called a dog was one of the worst insults imaginable.
Still, the dog was sacred to the god Anubis, the god of embalming and mummified. Therefore, dogs were mummified in much the same fashion as other sacred animals.
© Ashley Van Haeften - Dog Figurine
Veterinary medicine dates back to ancient Egyptian times. Because the Egyptians held so many types of animals in spiritual esteem, they took precautions to care for them, serving as “horse-doctors” to prevent animal diseases.
Egyptians had knowledge of anatomy and dissection for both human and animal mummification. They were also able to diagnose and treat a variety of animal illnesses. Animal care flourished in Egypt where medical diviners tended to sacred animals, fattening them for slaughter for human consumption and sacrifices to the gods.
Facts about animals in Ancient Egypt
- Although many of the animals in Egypt were associated with certain gods, goddesses and characteristics, many of them were also used for practical purposes.
- The main animals found as pets in ancient Egypt were cats, monkeys and falcons.
- Some pharaohs even had lions and cheetahs as pets.
- Regardless of whether the animal was viewed as a sacred one or not, the Egyptians respected animals and their importance to their survival.