ANCIENT EGYPTIAN ANIMAL MUMMIES
The Egyptians not only mummified their rulers, they also made mummies of baboons, ibises, cats, dogs, rabbits, Nile perch, bulls, vultures, elephants, donkeys, lizards, shrews, scarab beetles, horses, gazelles, crocodiles, snakes, catfish, ducks and falcons. They were often elaborately wrapped in bandages printed with magical spells and carefully painted. John Taylor of the British Museum told AP, "The Egyptians mummified almost everything that moved, as they were considered representative of gods and goddesses."
The animal mummies were usually carefully wrapped and placed in a coffin or jar. Sometimes the animal mummies were placed in small limestone coffins. Some coffins were topped by golden shrews. Shrews were symbols of the sun’s renewal. They were sometimes given as offerings. Research has show that the animals were often prepared and embalmed with the same care as humans.
Millions of mummified animals have been found. It was long thought that animals were simply wrapped in coarse linen rags and immersed in preservative. Research by Richard Evershed, an expert on archaeological chemistry at the University of Bristol, found the same materials---including fine linen, beeswax, cedar resins, bitumen and pistacia---used in human mummies were also used in mummies of cats, ibises and hawks dated to between 9th and 4th centuries B.C.
Today animal mummies are among the most popular exhibits in the treasure-filled Egyptian Museum. A.R. Williams wrote in National Geographic, “Visitor is all ages, Egyptians and foreigners, press shoulder to shoulder to get a look. Behind glass panels lie cats wrapped in strips of linen that form diamonds, stripes, squares and crisscrosses. Shrews in boxes of carved limestone, rams covered with gilded and beaded casings. A gazelle wrapped in a tattered matt of papyrus...A 17-foot, knobby-backed crocodile, buried with baby croc mummies in its mouth. Ibises in bundles with intricate appliques. Hawks. Fish. Even tiny scarab beetles and the dung balls they ate. [Source: A.R. Williams, National Geographic, November 2009]
The oldest-known animal mummies, dated to 2950 B.C., are dogs, lions and donkeys buried with kings in the 1st dynasty in their funeral complexes at Abydos, Symbols of the god Troth, ibises were mummified in greater numbers than any other animal.
Source: The Animal Mummy Project at the France Museum
Ancient Egyptian Animal Mummies and Life
ibis mummy Some mummified animals were pets that their owners wanted with them in the afterlife. Most were offering that were left at temples as a meal for the gods, presumably by people who wanted some favor from these gods. The practice was so common that stalls were set up outside temples that sold mummified animals The animal mummification industry was big business. It employed hundreds of people. [Source: A.R. Williams, National Geographic, November 2009]
Egyptologist Salima Ikram of Cairo’s American University told National Geographic, “They’re really manifestation of daily life. Pets, food, death, religion. They cover everything the Egyptians were concerned with.” Ikram has adopted the Egyptian Museum’s neglected religion mummy collection, and X-rayed and unwrapped individual mummies, cataloguing her findings and creating a gallery for the collection. “You look at these animals, and suddenly you say Oh King So-and-So had a pet. And instead of being at a distance of 5,000-plus years, the ancient Egyptians become people,” she said. [Ibid]
Animal mummies basically fell into four categories: 1) pets such as cats, dogs, monkeys and even gazelles that were mummified in part to accompany their owners into the afterlife; 2) food offerings such as pieces of meat, fowl, and fish that were mummified to provide food for the afterlife journey; 3) animals with connections to specific deities such as baboons and ibises; and 4) votive mummies, that served the same purpose of votive candles burned in churches except they lasted much longer. [Ibid]
Meat mummies of an afterlife feast displayed at the Egyptian Museum include ducks, pigeons, legs of beef, roast and an oxtail for soup. They were all dried in natron, wrapped in linen and packed in a picnic basket. “Whether or not you got it regularly in life didn’t matter because you got it for eternity,” Ikram told National Geographic.
Animal Mummies, Religion and the Mummification Process
X-ray of a baboon mummy Votive animal mummies were offered during festivals at temples of animals cults to win favors from gods associated with each animal. They were usually buried with a prayer. Many were not what they seemed to be or were outright fakes. Some had nothing inside. Others had a different animal than the one claimed by the outside.. Others still contained only a few bones. Ikram said that the more attractive the packages the more likely it was to be a scam. [Source: A.R. Williams, National Geographic, November 2009]
Votive animal mummies became really big in the 7th century B.C. after ancient Egypt was reunited and foreign rulers were thrown out. Apparently happy to return to their traditional ways, the Egyptians embraced the animal mummies to such an extent a large industry grew up around them, consisting of specialized workers to make the mummies and people to breed or catch the animals. Materials had to be manufactured or imported. [Ibid]
When Ikram tried to mummify some rabbits her results were less than exemplary. Gas built up in her first rabbit, named Flopsy and he exploded, Thumper had his main organs removed and was filled with natron and did better. Fluffy had her organs removed and the first batch of natron, which had become gooey and smelly, was taken out and replaced with bags of natron, which were easy to work with and explained why so many similar bundles were found in embalming places. Peter Cottontail endured the treatment described by Herodotus. Instead of evisceration, he received a turpentine and cedar-oil enema before being placed in natron. The technique worked: all the organs dissolved except the heart---the one organ Egyptians always left in place. [Ibid]
Animal Mummy Cemeteries
Crocodile mummy Animals cemeteries with specific areas for each animal were often located outside cities. Near Saqqara a cemetery was found with 400 baboons. There were also large cemeteries for mummified cats. There were so many of these cats they were shipped to England by the boatload in the 19th century and crushed up into fertilizer. [Source: A.R. Williams, National Geographic, November 2009]
Cemeteries for ibises and falcons, associated with the gods Thoth and Horus, were even larger. To meet the demand for falcons, which were hard to catch and raise in captivity, fake mummies made of bones wrapped in rags were sold. Half a million mummified birds have been found at a single location. At Tuna el-Gebel at Hermpolis a huge underground gallery filled with ibises and baboon contains animal mummies arranged in figure-eights, symbolic of the eight creative gods of Hermopolis. [Ibid]
Animals found in cemetery in Hierakonpolis, dated to 3500 B.C., included elephants in elaborate tombs and baboon and wildcats. The elephants may have been manifestations of power. The were buried completely fleshed with grave goods including an ivory bracelet, green malachite cosmetics, alabaster jars and amethyst beads. No expenses seemed to have been spared. The baboons and wildcats may have been pets. [Ibid]
Ancient Egyptian Sacred Animals and Temples
Sarcophagus for cat mummy Animals were important in the religious life of ancient Egyptians in both their deified forms as half-animal Egyptian gods and as the animals themselves. A.R. Williams wrote National Geographic, “Different sacred animals were worshipped at their own cult centers---bulls at Armant and Heliopolis, fish at Esna, rams at Elephantine Island, crocodiles at Kom Ombo. Ikram believes the idea of such divine creatures was born ast the dawn of Egyptian civilization, a time when heavier rainfall than today made the land green and bountiful. Surrounded by animals, people began to connect them with specific gods according to their habits.” [Source: A.R. Williams, National Geographic, November 2009]
“Take crocodiles. They instinctively laid their eggs above the impending high-water line of the Nile’s annual flood, the pivotal event being that water enriched fields and allowed Egypt to be born again year after year.” Ikram said, “Crocodiles were magical because they had that ability to foretell.” [Ibid]
“The news of a good flood, or a bad one, was important to farmers. And so in time crocodiles became symbols of Sobek, a water god of fertility, and a temple arose at Kom Ombo, one of the places in southern Egypt where the swelling flood was first observed every year. In that sacred space, near the riverbank where wild crocodiles lay sunning themselves, captive crocodiles led an indulged life and were buried with due ceremony after death.” [Ibid]
“Some places were associated with just one god and its symbolic animal, but old venerated sites such as Abydos have yielded whole menageries of votive mummies, each species a link to a particular god...Excavations have uncovered ibis mummies likely representing Thoth, the god of wisdom and writing. Falcons likely evoked the sky-god Horus...And dogs had ties with jackal-headed Anubis, the guardian of the dead.” [Ibid]
Ancient Egyptian Dog and Lion Mummies
cat mummies Dog mummies were wrapped so they looked like jackals. They were sometimes left as offerings at the tombs of people. The Egyptians didn’t believe that dogs were sacred but they believed that jackals guided souls of the dead to the afterlife. One mummified queen was thought to have been pregnant when she died. When her body was X-rayed a baboon was revealed inside. [Source: A.R. Williams, National Geographic, November 2009]
In 2001 the first lion mummy was found was in the tomb of Maia, wet nurse of King Tutankhamun. It was found in an area of the tomb dedicated to Bastet, the cat goddess, which also contained the bones of humans and animals, including cats. The lion mummy was not wrapped in linen bandages like human mummies. Mineral deposits found on the bones indicated it was prepared like a cat mummy.
Archaeologists have uncovered an 18-foot-long crocodile mummy with a small crocodile in its mouth behind its jaws. Archaeologists have also found “corn mummies” with preserved grain inside. X-rays of these reveal that the grain grows inside a statue completely hidden in a mummy’s wrappings.
Ancient Egyptian Cat Mummies
dog mummies Cats were "mummified in the millions" and buried as offerings. In 1888, a farmer digging in the sand near the village of Istabl Antar found a huge mass grave of cat mummies. English Illustrated magazine reported: “Not one or two here and there but dozens, hundreds of thousands, a layer of them, a stratum thicker than most coal seams, ten to twenty cats deep.” Some were beautifully warped with linen and had gilded faces. The best ones were sold to tourists by village children. The rest were sold as fertilizer. More than 180,000 were hauled away on one ship to Liverpool and used to enrich the soils of England.
Some of the better-prepared kitten mummies found at Istabl Antar were wrapped in linen in a spiral patterns and given a painted mask. The mummies were then placed in a wooden coffin, shaped like an adult cat in a sphinx position that stood about 36 centimeters tall, dwarfing the mummy inside.
Bulls were among the most sacred of all animals. The sacred Buchis bull at Armant, the Apis bull of Memphis and the bull of Heliopolis were worshipped with a reverence usually reserved for the main gods. Even the Pharaoh made offerings to them. Black bulls in particular were honored. They were given harams and palaces because they were believed to be related to the bull-god Apis.
The Apis bull was one of the most revered animals in all of ancient Egypt. A.R. Williams wrote in National Geographic, “A symbol of strength and virility, the Apis was closely linked to the all-powerful king. He was part animal, part god and was chosen for veneration because of his unusual set of markings: a white triangle on his forehead, white winged patterns on his shoulders and rump, a scarab silhouette on his tongue, and double hairs at the end of his tail.” [Source: A.R. Williams, National Geographic, November 2009]
“During his lifetime he was kept in a special sanctuary and pampered by priests , adorned with gold and jewels, and worshipped by multitudes. When he died his divine essence was believed to move on to another bull, and so a search for the new one began. Meanwhile, the body of the deceased was transported to the temple and laid on a bed of finely carved travertine. Mummification took at least 70 days---40 to dry the enormous repository of flesh, and 30 to wrap it.” [Ibid]
“On the bull’s burial day, city residents surged into the streets to observe this occasion of national mourning. Wailing and tearing at their hair, they crowded the route at the catacomb now known as Serapeum in the desert necropolis of Saqqara. In a procession, priest temple, singers, and exalted officials delivered the mummy to the network of vaulted galleries carved into the bedrock of limestone. There among the long corridors of previous burials, they interred the mummy in a massive wooden or granite sarcophagus.” [Ibid]
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated January 2012