Human torsos with the heads of hawks, ibises and jackals. A beetle pushing the sun across the sky. An alphabet that looks like a menagerie. In the legacy that has come down to us through painted papyri and monument walls one thing stands out about the early Egyptian world: It was full of animals.
We know this from more than depictions. Not far from Cairo, beneath the sands of the Saqqara necropolis, underground tomb galleries run for kilometers and contain no less than several million animal mummies. Swaddled for eternity are an estimated four million ibises, as well as uncounted hawks, baboons, cats and more, and in other necropolises there are as many as a dozen more species. Also at Saqqara is the Serapeum, a vaulted underground avenue flanked by massive granite sarcophagi for the mummified remains of sacred cattle. And travelers' journals tell of priests propitiating sacred crocodiles with food and bedecking them with jewels.
In the fifth century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote, "The Egyptians have animals living with them, while all other men pass their lives separate from animals." Indeed, no other culture seems to have incorporated the natural world so richly into its writing, religions and art. But why did animals mean so much to the Egyptians of thousands of years ago, and what can we learn about the natural environment that humans and animals shared in those times?
From the decorated tombs of Saqqara, Bani Hassan and Luxor to the pages of The Book of the Dead and the galleries of world museums, the records show that, as one might expect, their natural setting profoundly influenced how Egyptians perceived both this world and the hereafter. But more surprisingly, they also show that—far from being dominated by nature—the Egyptians put their considerable energies to work reshaping and taming it in ways that seem quite familiar to us today.
A razor-thin, fertile river valley bisecting a vast and uncompromising desert was the land that the ancient Egyptians knew, but it had not always been so. The hyper-arid climate of today settled in around the turn of the third millennium BC; before that, conditions had been more like those of modern Kenya. The Mesolithic hunters and early food-producers of 10,000 to 5000 BC, as well as the Neolithic food producers who succeeded them, inhabited a savanna in what are now the Eastern and Western Deserts.
We know this because Neolithic artists depicted themselves in rock-carvings and rock-paintings as hunters armed with large, C-shaped bows: In the east, they hunted the African elephant; in the west, the giraffe. The annual rainfall needed to sustain giraffes—about 500 millimeters (20") a year—may have fallen in the Gilf Kebir and Uweinat uplands of the Western Desert until as recently as 4000 BC, as evidenced by the "Cave of the Swimmers," found there in 1932 by the Hungarian Laszlo Edward de Almasy. (It was reproduced for the film "The English Patient.") It contains paintings of the people of Gilf Kebir, who apparently tended cattle and kept company with giraffes between 6000 and 4000 BC.
The late Neolithic hunters developed an impressive armory of flint tools, snares, and traps, however, and their gradually improving hunting techniques apparently took an increasing toll on wildlife. At the same time, the area was growing more arid, making it harder for savanna animals to survive. As a result, the giraffe was gone from Egypt by 3600 BC, and the elephant by 3000 BC. Within a few hundred years, most of the people, too, had gone from the lands outside the Nile Valley. The desert had come.
Even before this great drying out, the Nile was the chief magnet for human activity. Around 5000 BC, Neolithic people of the Faiyum, a lush depression linked to the Nile Valley, hunted hippo, elephant, hartebeest and crocodile; they fished with harpoons, and trapped resident and migratory birds. Before the Egypt of the pharaohs, they also domesticated animals and plants, including sheep, goat, pig, cattle, emmer wheat and barley. They probably farmed only a small portion of the river's floodplain, most of which was a wilderness of savanna, wetlands and lagoons. Between 3600 and 3400 BC, the Middle Predynastic people of Maadi, now a southern suburb of Cairo, hunted ibex, hippo and turtles and gathered mollusks, and were the last Nile dwellers to have a diversified hunting-and-gathering component of their economy that supplemented their farming.
Egyptians from then on relied on irrigated crops and domesticated livestock. But despite people's advancing imprint on the land, pockets and ribbons of wilderness persisted along the Nile for thousands of years. The hippopotamus did not disappear from the Nile Delta until 1815.
Although they often look like an alphabet zoo, the meanings of many Egyptian hieroglyphs relate to what they depict in a way that seems quite sensible to our minds today. The sign following the verb "to be angry" is a baboon with teeth bared and tail arched in rage. The leopard's head means "strength." The tadpole stands for 100,000. (Have you ever seen just one tadpole?) The hippo sign means "heavy." The crocodile hieroglyph means "to be greedy, aggressive or angry"—and also "sovereign."
Poetry, prose and mortuary texts embellish these connections further. The crocodile, for example, appears frequently as both marauder and king. An inscription of the pharaoh Seti I at Karnak reads: "I have caused them to see thy majesty as a crocodile, terrible on the shore, unapproachable." The Tenth Dynasty instruction to King Merikare equates the crocodile with detested foreigners: "The Asian is a crocodile on its shore, it snatches from a lonely road, it cannot seize from a populous town." A Thirteenth Dynasty peasant is reproached: "Thou hast not reckoned how many of the beasts thou dost lose by the crocodile, that violator of places of refuge, who attacks the district of the Entire Land." Vulnerability to such natural catastrophe eventually became one measure of socio-economic status in Egypt. The lower classes lampooned in the second millennium BC Satire of the Trades were always having a bad day in the boondocks:
I'll speak of the fisherman also,
His is the worst of all the jobs;
He labors on the river,
Mingling with crocodiles.
When his time of reckoning comes,
He is full of lamentations;
He does not say, "There's a crocodile,"
Fear has made him blind.
Coming from the flowing water
He says, "Mighty god!"
Likewise the Egyptian pantheon is filled with deities whose attributes reflect the powers and personalities ascribed to animals—brave, noble, wise, strong, cruel and so on—and the gods were often depicted as animals or as animal-human hybrids. The most powerful lioness deity was Sekhmet, whose name came from the root meaning "to be strong, mighty, violent." Not surprisingly, the crocodile surfaces in The Book of the Dead as Sobek: "I am the owner of seed who takes women from their husbands whenever he wishes, according to his desire. I am Sobek, within whom terror of him dwells; I am Sobek, who carries off by violence."
We know from other writings that the early Egyptians took words quite literally, to the point that they could often substitute for the thing or action they represented. Thus people had to be very careful about how they referred to animals, especially fierce ones, in tomb inscriptions, where words would live forever. Although animal hieroglyphs are present in the earliest versions of the Pyramid Texts, a series of formulae for the resurrection of the deceased king which date from 2350 BC, they are later omitted entirely, or they are shown deprived of their dangerous portions: The scorpion is shown without its tail, and the lion is often truncated, with just the head and foreparts of the torso showing, lest the beast come alive and harm the deceased.
Despite such preventive measures, the afterlife was still filled with unsavory creatures. In The Book of the Dead, the New Kingdom successor of the Pyramid Text, there is a spell for driving off the crocodiles of the north, south, east and west who "eat the dead and live on magic," "live on the tireless stars," dine on "dung and choking smoke" and "eject fiery venom." Snakes posed no less a threat, and one king attempted to ward them off with this imprecation: "If you bite me, I will cause you to be alone; if you only look at me, I will permit you to have your companion....O you expectoration of a wall, you vomit of a brick, what comes from your mouth is turned back against yourself."
But the most fearsome animals of the afterlife were the humble decomposers and subterranean detritus feeders that, in sufficient numbers, could spoil a deceased's physical fitness for eternity. "Keep away from me, lips of crookedness," the deceased warns a cockroach. No matter how well preserved a body was, it was vulnerable to a beetle the Egyptians knew had a taste for mummies. Chapter 36 of The Book of the Dead mentions a kind of beetle called Apshait—likely a dermestid beetle—and in one vignette the deceased is shown threatening it with a knife. Dermestids have been found among the bandages of poorly made mummies, and papyri buried with the dead often contained spells to ward off such creepy-crawlies.
By 2500 BC, about the middle of the Old Kingdom, the bureaucracy included provincial officials who decorated their tombs with carved reliefs showing not supernatural landscapes but earthly ones, as well as the equally earthly pursuits they hoped to enjoy in the afterlife: shipbuilding, wrestling, hunting in the desert, and fishing and fowling in the marshes. It is from these desert and marsh scenes, especially those in the Fifth and Sixth Dynasty tombs at Saqqara, that we find the most skilled and naturalistic representations of animals in all of Egyptian art. In these paintings, almost every animal is recognizable as a particular species, and the artist often included a short text giving its name. The scenes are often good enough for a natural history museum, depicting the creatures' habitat, mating, nesting and predation. Even the environments are sometimes labeled on the murals: "papyrus lands" of delta lagoons, swamps and cutoff meanders; ta, or fertile floodplain; khaset, or desert mountains; and "land of gazelles," the flat desert.
In the desert, a lion is shown attacking an aurochs (a wild bull) which defecates in terror; leopards are mating, jerboas are jumping, hedgehogs are emerging from burrows to feed on grasshoppers and root in anthills; and white oryx and dorcas gazelles nurse their young. In the papyrus land a hippo gives birth while a crocodile advances to devour the infant; other crocodiles mate and lay eggs. Sacred ibis, little egret, hoopoe and turtledove nest peacefully while parent kingfishers and Egyptian geese ward off carnivorous relatives of the mongoose called genets.
Mostly these scenes are backdrops for human activity. A favorite theme is sport hunting, in which the hunter was said to have been protected by the goddess Sekhet ("Meadow"), to whom belonged the fishes and birds. The pharaohs of the Old Kingdom had their "master of the hunt," the district chief of the desert who organized the royal huntsman's retinue. Beaters and even a kitchen staff joined the king and the wealthy nobleman on hunting excursions. The quarry depicted at Saqqara are mainly hoofed animals; only occasionally, it seems, did people hunt predators such as striped hyena, lion and leopard. Hunting with bow and arrow was common, but ingenious trapping devices like palm wheel traps and nets were deployed in the narrows of wadis bordering the Nile. The saluki was the hunter's best friend, and many scenes show these dogs attacking ibexes and other game.
The sportsman's favorite habitat was not the desert, but the marshes of the Nile Valley and Delta. A nobleman of the Middle Kingdom dreams of plucking papyrus where "waterfowl will rise by the thousand as he passes by. When he directs his throw-stick against them a thousand will fall through the rush of air—geese, duck, and many other kinds of fowl." A New Kingdom description of a teacher's mansion boasts that "its west side is a pond for snaring geese of all kinds, a resort for hunters from the very beginning. One of its ponds has more fish than a lake. Its 'h-birds' are like marsh birds. Fish abound in their basins: bulti fish [probably Tilapia nilotica], sn-fish, dss-fish. The fish are more plentiful than the sands on the shore; one cannot reach the end of them."
The most productive season for both fishing and fowling was the Nile's flood season, from late summer into early fall, when migratory birds would have been on the wing. The sports fisherman, it appears, favored the spear, but fishermen catching for food used hook and line, bownet and dragnet. Most fish were considered palatable, and they were cooked fresh or dried and salted, but the names of some—such as bou ("disgusting") and shep ("regret") suggest exceptions.
The nobleman felled marsh birds with a throw-stick, often adorned with a serpent's head. New Kingdom paintings show a tame bird perched in the prow of the hunter's boat or carried in his hand to attract other waterfowl. Many of the resident and migratory fowl intended for the dinner table were actually netted, as some still are today in the northern reaches of the Nile Delta. More domestically, Saqqara reliefs also show gray and demoiselle cranes and white-fronted and greylag geese being force-fed specially prepared pellets to fatten them up for festival banquets. Geese were often salted and stored in pottery jars. Favorite ducks included pintail, tufted duck, Egyptian goose, teal, mallard, shelduck, pochard and wigeon. Naturally fatty quail were, eaten raw and pickled, a practice recalled in a second-century BC couplet by Hipparchus of Nicaea: "The Egyptian way of life I cannot follow: they pluck the chennia [quail], which they salt and swallow."
We learn further from the tombs of the uses animals had beyond food: gazelle leather for loincloths and water bags, hippo hide for whips, and ostrich feathers for fans. The fat and entrails of gazelle, ibex, snake, crocodile, hippo and goose all had medicinal value. For entertainment, the elite kept exotic animals in special enclosures, and royal women sometimes kept dorcas gazelles as pets.
The ancient Egyptians thus used animals much as we do: hunting and trapping them for food and sport, for clothing and other practical needs, and to keep as pets. But there are some great differences, too. For example, cats in the New Kingdom were trained to jump from a hunter's skiff into the marshy thicket to retrieve waterfowl struck down by a throw-stick. In the Saqqara reliefs and in Middle Kingdom scenes at Bani Hassan, the mongoose appears as the fowler's friend, sallying forth to retrieve birds from the marsh. Another Bani Hassan painting shows monkeys helping in the fig harvest. Saqqara murals suggest that lions may have been trained to hunt antelope and wild cattle in the desert, and New Kingdom pharaohs apparently took them into battle—surely fearful apparitions to an enemy.
Perhaps the most extraordinary partnership, though, was between people and hyenas, as depicted in Sixth Dynasty tombs in Saqqara. In one scene, men roll a hyena onto its back and stuff prepared strips of fish and waterfowl into the maw of the apparently compliant beast. In another, leashed hyenas are led to a desert hunting field and released in pursuit of oryx. Jean Phillipe Lauer, a French archeologist who excavated at Saqqara, puzzled over the force-feeding and concluded that this may have been an effort to suppress the animal's tendency to begin devouring its prey immediately after seizing it. In the fourth century BC, Aristotle related that "the wolves near Lake Mareotis cooperate with the fishermen by driving the fish into their nets; when, however, the fishermen do not share their catch with them, the wolves tear the nets, when those are on the land for drying."
Old Kingdom Egyptians also had very close associations with the wild ungulates they captured on the hunting field, especially ibex, addax and oryx, as well as gazelles. In the Saqqara reliefs, the animals are shown tethered and fed, often by hand, in the same paddocks as domestic cattle, sheep and goats, and in fact they are labeled "young cattle" in these murals. Next to each animal is written a name common to most members of its species, but females sometimes have a different title. Certain individuals have unique names, like the ibex in the Tomb of Ti called "the dancer."
Such intimate relationships between people and wild herd animals had come into being in the Middle East beginning about 6000 years before the Saqqara murals were made, and led to the domestication of cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and donkeys, changing their behavior and appearance almost beyond recognition. In the Saqqara reliefs we are offered a unique glimpse of that process—but, interestingly, only up to a point: Efforts to domesticate ungulates stopped, either by choice, because of characteristics of the animals themselves, or both, at a stage known as "proto-domestication," which involves captive management but not selective breeding.
The Egyptians did not go on to full domestication in part because they had other plans for those animals. Many were to be killed as mortuary and temple feast oblations. A deceased person was believed to possess a ka or "double," a spirit that could return to the tomb and take part in the earthly pursuits depicted there. At Saqqara, presumably for many years following a noble person's death, the servants of his ka tied up "young cattle," including gazelles, antelopes and ibex, slaughtered them ritually, and cooked and ate them with the deceased's relatives. The great rings on the floor of the tomb of Mereruka, son-in-law of King Teti (2340 BC), were likely used to tether the animals.
During annual and special ceremonial occasions, temple priests supervised the ritual slaying of domestic and wild captive beasts to propitiate the ba, or divine soul, of principal gods and the deceased pharaoh. Crowds of up to 100,000 people attended some of these celebrations. Ramses in endowed the temples of Thebes, Heliopolis and Memphis with a reported 500,386 "small cattle" and oxen and 426,395 waterfowl and small birds. He also donated 82 gazelles and 54 oryxes for the "new feast" at the Theban temple of Amon.
Yet at other tombs, the slaughter was likely rhetorical, for words were identical to the objects they symbolized. Some small tombs have copious but much more general listings, such as "Offerings: thousands of bread, of beer, of oxen, of geese, of yarn, and of cloth"—all made real by the depiction of one of each and the sign meaning "one thousand."
"I have given bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothing to the naked; I have given food to the ibis, the hawk, the cat and the jackal," reads a Fifth Dynasty stela. "I have buried them according to the ritual, anointing them with oil and wrapping them in cloth." Of all the Egyptians' relationships with nature, perhaps none intrigues us more than mummification. Entire birds, especially white-fronted and greylag geese, ducks and quail, and joints of meat of wild and domestic hoofed animals, were all mummified, placed in wooden coffins or pottery dishes, and interred in tombs as victuals. There were also pets mummified as companions for eternity, but by far the greatest number and widest range of animal mummies are attributable to the animal cults.
Animal cults existed prior to the arrival of a series of foreign conquerors beginning around 1000 BC, but were rather limited in number and influence. One of the largest and most enduring was the cult of Apis, whose adherents believed that a living bull was the abode of the ba of the god Osiris. The animal was merely the temple in which the spirit dwelled, and people worshipped the spirit. When the animal died, it was reverently mummified and interred in the Serapeum, and the ba went on to occupy another individual of the species.
Religious doctrines changed during the centuries of subjugation by Nubians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. No longer was the cult animal seen as the mere house of a god's spirit, but the animal was the god. Thus all-out animal worship began during the Saite Period, about 600 BC, and by Greek and Roman times it played a central role in religious beliefs. These belief systems were for the most part fragmented and localized, and they were managed by priests and political leaders to advance regional interests; they probably competed for adherents. At Crocodilopolis in the Faiyum, Sobek the crocodile reigned. In Bubastis it was the cat Bast; in Lycopolis the wolves or jackals Anubis and Wepwawet; in Hermopolis the ibis and baboon of Thoth. The improbable list of cult animals, all of them mummified, includes monkeys, baboons, wildcats, jackals, foxes, hyenas, mongooses, shrews, rats and hares; gazelles, hartebeests and ibexes; numerous birds of prey, including owls; vultures, quail, geese, ducks and ibises; cobras, vipers, skinks, crocodiles, fishes and scarab beetles. Yet to be found is the lion necropolis described by Greek travelers to Saqqara.
Priests lavished great care on their incarnate god-animals. Herodotus reported that Faiyum's sacred crocodile wore gold earrings and bracelets. Nearly 500 years later, the Greek geographer Strabo wrote that
the animal is kept by himself in a lake; it is tame, and gentle to the priests. It is fed with bread, flesh and wine, which strangers who come to see it always present. Our host, a distinguished person, who was our guide in examining what was curious, accompanied us to the lake, and brought from the supper table a small cake, dressed meat, and a small vessel containing a mixture of honey and milk. We found the animal lying at the edge of the lake. The priests went up to it; some of them opened its mouth, another put the cake into it, then the meat, and afterwards poured down the honey and milk. The animal then leaped into the lake, and crossed to the other side.
When the god-animal died, another of its species, known to be the god's reincarnation by virtue of certain distinguishing physical characteristics, was installed in the holy of holies of the temple compound—or, in the case of the crocodile, in the sacred lake.
The deceased animal was mummified and interred with all the rites suitable for a god. Although the Serapeum at Saqqara is the most breathtaking of the animal cemeteries, other nearby mummy galleries, including those of ibises and birds of prey, are far more extensive. Here are found animals of the same species as the deity animal, but which were themselves not divine.
Ordinary people, probably including large numbers of peasants, traveled to such cult centers and there purchased the mummies as votive offerings to be interred in the galleries. The intentions behind these literally millions of buried offerings are unclear: The supplicant may have been seeking a cure for some ailment, praying for the fulfillment of a wish or offering thanks. It has been suggested that animals were also mummified in reverence for the souls of deceased relatives, at the encouragement of a class of priests who specialized in announcing into which animal the soul of a deceased had entered. The priests charged for their services.
It is clear that animal cults were a big business. Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo who has had years of hands-on experience with animal mummies, sees assembly-line efficiency behind the operation. The staff of animal cult centers, she maintains, almost certainly bred ibises and other birds on the premises and harvested them expeditiously. After an animal's sale to a pilgrim, the staff waited for additional customers and put three or four birds in a jar before placing them together in the catacombs. More than 10,000 birds—and some clearly fake remains made of cloth, feathers and bone, which may have been passed off to unsuspecting pilgrims as birds—were thus interred each year.
As strange as this may seem to readers today, in some ways it's not entirely unfamiliar. A World Wide Web search under "pet mummification" yields quite similar modern-day services. One website, found under "pet cemetery," offers the following words of comfort: "You don't have to say goodbye! There is an alternative to burial or cremation. Preserving your pet in a restful and peaceful manner is coming of age. Let us help you keep that faithful friend in your presence." Perhaps some of us have more in common with those ancient Egyptians than we thought.
Joseph J. Hobbs is professor of geography at the University of Missouri Columbia. He is studying the human uses of caves worldwide, while continuing research on the Bedouin relationship to the natural environment of Egypt's deserts.