Animals were at the heart of everyday life and religion in Ancient Egypt. People believed many creatures were sacred. They thought animals were the embodiment of particular gods. Most Ancient Egyptian towns chose a particular god to worship. This meant the animal attached to that god was sacred. These animals were given both power and respect. Most of the Ancient Egyptian gods were represented by a mixture of human and animal form. Often, this was an animal head on a human body.
Egyptians believed the hawk had protective powers and links with royalty. Rulers of the skies, they protected the Earth with their wings. Hawks were often depicted hovering over the pharaoh’s head.• Horus, god of the sky, had a hawk or falcon’s head.
• Ra, the all-powerful sun god, also had a hawk’s head, with a sun-disc headdress, on a man’s body.
Wolves or jackals were often seen roaming around the tombs of the dead. So they became associated with death.
• Anubis, guardian of the dead, had what scientists now believe is a wolf’s head. His black head symbolises the fertile soil of the Nile. Anubis helped mummify Egyptians when they died and guided their souls in the afterlife. When a person died, Anubis weighed their heart against the Feather of Truth. If the heart weighed the same as the feather, the soul moved towards paradise. If it was heavier, the monster goddess Ammut ate the heart, and the soul would disappear forever.
Cats were seriously important to the Ancient Egyptians. They believed cats could bring good luck to the people who housed them. Wealthy Egyptians dressed these treasured pets in jewels and fed them royal treats.
•Bastet/Bast, goddess of childbirth, fertility and joy, had a lioness’s head; this was later changed to a domestic cat’s head.
Beasts from the River Nile were both respected and feared. Egyptians believed that if they could tame the crocodile, they could use its killing power to protect themselves from danger.
•Sebek was a male god with the head or entire body of a crocodile. Temples worshipping Sebek had lakes filled with crocodiles that were fed and cared for.
• Ammut was a female crocodile god. She was known as the devourer of the dead, who punished evildoers by eating their heart.
Cattle in Ancient Egypt were among the most important domesticated animals. They provided meat and milk, and served as working animals. A number of gods and goddesses were portrayed as sacred cows or bulls. The cow was connected to female fertility and to the mother of the pharaoh.
• Hathor, Isis and Nut were three goddesses with cows’ horns or ears.
There are ancient tombs and burial sites all over Egypt, and many of them contain the mummified remains of MILLIONS of animals. Mummification in Ancient Egypt was BIG BUSINESS… These creatures were packed into catacombs (tombs or underground cemeteries – nothing to do with cats). The range of preserved animals included cats, frogs, falcons, baboons, vultures, lizards, snakes, fish and even beetles!
Why did they do it?
1. Sacrifices to the gods. Animals associated with a particular god would be sacrificed to appease it. When visiting a temple, Ancient Egyptians would buy a small mummy offering (a bit like lighting a votive candle in a modern church).
2. Sacred animals and VIPs – Very Important Pets. Domestic cats, for example, would have been mummified like a beloved member of the family.
3. Unimportant animals would be preserved as food for humans (or sacred animals) for the afterlife.
Most mummies were preserved extremely well (they would have to be to have survived until now!). Animal VIPs were mummified in the same way as VIP humans.
Enjoyed reading this feature? Find out more about Ancient Egypt and the incredible river monsters in issue 55, The Nile River!