WILD ANIMALS AND SACRED ANIMALS IN ANCIENT EGYPT

ANIMALS IN ANCIENT EGYPT


Hippo relief

In Pharonic times, the Nile was home to hippos and crocodiles. Hippos were considered pests because they ruined crops. Many of the animals that we associate with the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania and Kenya like antelopes, hyenas, lions, cheetahs and jackals were found in Egypt and Mesopotamia 4000 years ago. Until maybe a hundred years ago leopards, cheetahs, oyrx aardwolves, striped hyenas and caracals could be found in the mountains and deserts.

Robert Partridge of the BBC wrote: “Animals of all kinds were important to the Ancient Egyptians, and featured in the daily secular and religious lives of farmers, craftsmen, priests and rulers. Animals were reared mainly for food, whilst others were kept as pets. The bodies of sacred animals and some pets were often mummified and given elaborate burials. The bodies of some rams were mummified and equipped with gilded masks and even jewellery. “ [Source: Robert Partridge, BBC, February 17, 2011]

Many animals were associated with religion and magic and divinity. Ibises, jackals, lions and many other animals were associated with specific gods and were worshipped as divinities. Hippos were warriors against Seth, the god of evil. Hedgehogs possessed magical powers in the grave. The ancient Egyptians used to wear hedgehog amulets to ward off snakebites. Hedgehogs have a resistance but are not immune to snake venom.

The aggressive and dog-faced hamadryas baboon was considered sacred. No longer found in Egypt, it was mummified and portrayed in images in temples and monoliths. Sacred ones were kept at temples and enshrined in death at catacombs, where priest prayed and made offerings to them.

Snakes were widely worshiped and associated with the Nile River and fertility. Cobras were symbols of divine rule and were prominently featured on the head dresses of the Pharaohs. The Egyptians revered crocodiles. Their river god Sobek is modeled after one. Entire crocodiles families were mummified and placed in sacred tombs with gold bracelets placed on their ankles. A Greek historian visiting an Egyptian Crocodileopolis saw priests feed them honey wine and cakes.

Lotus flowers are featured in ancient Egyptian art. They are now found in the Nile Delta. The papyrus reed is fairly uncommon now. It has been largely displaced by other kinds of grasses.

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Discovering Egypt discoveringegypt.com; BBC History: Egyptians bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt ancient.eu/egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt ancientegypt.co.uk; Egypt’s Golden Empire pbs.org/empires/egypt; Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris louvre.fr/en/departments/egyptian-antiquities; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt kmtjournal.com; Ancient Egypt Magazine ancientegyptmagazine.co.uk; Egypt Exploration Society ees.ac.uk ; Amarna Project amarnaproject.com; Egyptian Study Society, Denver egyptianstudysociety.com; The Ancient Egypt Site ancient-egypt.org; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East etana.org; Egyptology Resources fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

Wild Animals in Ancient Egypt


crocodile sculpture

Robert Partridge of the BBC wrote: “The hippopotamus (no longer found in Egypt) was a danger to boats on the river Nile, and to people working on or near the river banks. These animals were represented by the goddess Tauret, and offerings were made to her in the hope of placating her. She was also a goddess of fertility, represented as a pregnant hippopotamus. Many models of hippopotami were made of blue Egyptian faience, their bodies decorated with representations of the river plants that grew where the animals lived. [Source: Robert Partridge, BBC, February 17, 2011]

“The great cats of Africa were highly regarded by the Ancient Egyptians, and the king was often referred to as being as brave and fearless as a lion. Great cats were hunted, and their skins were greatly prized, but they were not always killed and the smaller cats, such as the cheetah, were often tamed and kept as pets. A gilded figure of a cheetah, with the distinctive 'tear' mark, was found on one of Tutankhamun's funerary beds. |::|

“Crocodiles were a real danger to the Egyptians and, like other dangerous animals, were given divine status (in their case as the god Sobek) in the hope that in return they would not attack humans. The Nile crocodile can grow to six metres in length, and there are many tales of Ancient Egyptians being killed by them. Crocodiles are no longer found in Egypt. |::|

“Jackals were often seen in the deserts close to the towns and villages, scavenging whatever food they could from their human neighbours. They were also often found in cemeteries, and for this reason jackals became associated with the dead-as represented by the god Anubis. This god was worshipped both as the guardian of cemeteries and as the god who presided over the embalming of the dead.” An image of a jackal made of carved wood was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. |::|

Insects, Frogs and Snakes in Ancient Egypt


grasshoper

Robert Partridge of the BBC wrote: “The small scarab or dung-beetle collects animal dung, rolls it into a ball, then lays its eggs in this ball. The Egyptians imagined a huge scarab beetle rolling the ball of the sun across the sky, which led to an association of the beetle with the sun god Ra. A representation of a scarab beetle can often be seen on amulets made to protect the wearer against evil. The Egyptian name for the scarab was Kheper, and it appears in many royal names, such as the Cartouche of King Kheperkare, Senuseret I. [Source: Robert Partridge, BBC, February 17, 2011]

“The banks of the river Nile provided a rich area for smaller forms of wildlife such as amphibians and insects. Frogs could be a particular nuisance if there were too many of them, but they served the useful purpose of keeping the insect population in check. Many tomb reliefs depicting activities such as fishing are brought to life by the addition of images of frogs and dragonflies. The images are remarkable for the attention to detail of the artists who created them. |::|

“The Ancient Egyptians were very wary of snakes, especially the poisonous Egyptian cobra and the black-necked spitting cobra, which could spit venom into the eyes of an aggressor. The cobra was adopted as protector of the king, and representations of the snake (referred to by Egyptologists as an uraeus), with its hood raised and ready to spit venom, sometimes adorn the brows of various kings. One example of solid gold inlaid with coloured stones, belonged to King Senuseret I. |::|

Pets and Wild Animals in Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians kept pets. Pet cats date back to ancient Egypt. Dogs go back thousands of years before that. The Egyptian may have succeeded in domesticating cranes, ibex, gazelles, oryx and baboons. Bas reliefs show men trying to tame hyenas by tying them up and force feeding them meat.


pet cheetah in Ancient Egypt

Robert Partridge of the BBC wrote: “'Man's best friend' was considered not just as a family pet, but was also used for hunting, or for guard duty, from the earliest periods of Egyptian history. Pet dogs were well looked after, given names such as 'Blackey' or 'Brave One', and often provided with elaborate leather collars. The mummy of a dog, probably a royal pet; was found in a royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings. [Source: Robert Partridge, BBC, February 17, 2011]

“Cats were kept to protect food stores from rats, mice and snakes, and were kept as pets. They are shown in paintings beneath their owners' chairs, or on their laps. Egyptian cats resembled modern tabby cats. The Egyptian name for cat is 'miw'. Cats also had a symbolic or religious meaning, as represented by the goddess Bastet, and in later periods of Egyptian history cat mummies were used as offerings to the gods.” |::|

The Egyptians were fond of cheetahs and kept herds of gazelles and antelopes. Oryxes and other kinds of antelope were kept as household pets. Even though the Egyptians may have tamed elephants there is no evidence they were domesticated like elephants in ancient Carthage.

Elephants in elaborate tombs were found in cemetery in Hierakonpolis, dated to 3500 B.C. One of the elephants was ten to eleven years old. That is the age when young males are expelled from the herd. Modern animals trainers say elephants at that age are young and inexperienced and can be captured and trained.

Ancient Egyptian Animal Mummies

20120215-Gazell des_Horemhab_004.jpg
pet gazelle
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, “Visitors of 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.

See Animal Mummies

Herodotus on Crocodiles

Herodotus wrote in Book 2 of “Histories”:“The nature of crocodiles is as follows. For the four winter months, it eats nothing. It has four feet, and lives both on land and in the water, for it lays eggs and hatches them out on land and spends the greater part of the day on dry ground, and the night in the river, the water being warmer than the air and dew. No mortal creature of all which we know grows from so small a beginning to such greatness; for its eggs are not much bigger than goose eggs, and the young crocodile is of a proportional size, but it grows to a length of twenty-eight feet and more. It has eyes like pigs' eyes, and long, protruding teeth. It is the only animal that has no tongue. It does not move the lower jaw, but brings the upper jaw down upon the lower, uniquely among beasts. It also has strong claws, and a scaly, impenetrable hide on its back. It is blind in the water, but very keen of sight in the air. Since it lives in the water, its mouth is all full of leeches. All birds and beasts flee from it, except the sandpiper33 , with which it is at peace because this bird does the crocodile a service; for whenever the crocodile comes ashore out of the water and then opens its mouth (and it does this mostly to catch the west wind), the sandpiper goes into its mouth and eats the leeches; the crocodile is pleased by this service and does the sandpiper no harm. 69.[Source: Herodotus, “The Histories”, Egypt after the Persian Invasion, Book 2, English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920, Tufts]

“Some of the Egyptians consider crocodiles sacred; others do not, but treat them as enemies. Those who live near Thebes and lake Moeris consider them very sacred. Every household raises one crocodile, trained to be tame; they put ornaments of glass and gold on its ears and bracelets on its forefeet, provide special food and offerings for it, and give the creatures the best of treatment while they live; after death, the crocodiles are embalmed and buried in sacred coffins. But around Elephantine they are not held sacred, and are even eaten. The Egyptians do not call them crocodiles, but khampsae. The Ionians named them crocodiles, from their resemblance to the lizards which they have in their walls34. 70.

“There are many different ways of crocodile hunting; I will write of the way that I think most worth mentioning. The hunter baits a hook with a hog's back, and lets it float into the midst of the river; he himself stays on the bank with a young live pig, which he beats. Hearing the squeals of the pig, the crocodile goes after the sound, and meets the bait, which it swallows; then the hunters pull the line. When the crocodile is drawn ashore, first of all the hunter smears its eyes over with mud; when this is done, the quarry is very easily mastered—no light matter, without that. 71.


hippos and crocodiles from the mastaba of Princess Idut


Herodotus on Hippos, Ibisies and Winged Snakes

Herodotus wrote in Book 2 of “Histories”:Hippopotamuses are sacred in the district of Papremis, but not elsewhere in Egypt. They present the following appearance: four-footed, with cloven hooves like cattle; blunt-nosed; with a horse's mane, visible tusks, a horse's tail and voice; big as the biggest bull. Their hide is so thick that, when it is dried, spearshafts are made of it. [Source: Herodotus, “The Histories”, Egypt after the Persian Invasion, Book 2, English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920, Tufts]

“Near Thebes there are sacred snakes, harmless to men, small in size, and bearing two horns on the top of their heads. These, when they die, are buried in the temple of Zeus, to whom they are said to be sacred. There is a place in Arabia not far from the town of Buto where I went to learn about the winged serpents. When I arrived there, I saw innumerable bones and backbones of serpents: many heaps of backbones, great and small and even smaller. This place, where the backbones lay scattered, is where a narrow mountain pass opens into a great plain, which adjoins the plain of Egypt. Winged serpents are said to fly from Arabia at the beginning of spring, making for Egypt; but the ibis birds encounter the invaders in this pass and kill them. The Arabians say that the ibis is greatly honored by the Egyptians for this service, and the Egyptians give the same reason for honoring these birds. 76.

“Now this is the appearance of the ibis. It is all quite black, with the legs of a crane, and a beak sharply hooked, and is as big as a landrail. Such is the appearance of the ibis which fights with the serpents. Those that most associate with men (for there are two kinds of ibis36 ) have the whole head and neck bare of feathers; their plumage is white, except the head and neck and wingtips and tail (these being quite black); the legs and beak of the bird are like those of the other ibis. The serpents are like water-snakes. Their wings are not feathered but very like the wings of a bat.

Herodotus and Strabo on Animals in Libya and Mauritania

Herodotus wrote in Book IV.42-43 The Histories (c. 430 B.C.): . For the eastern side of Libya, where the wanderers dwell, is low and sandy, as far as the river Triton; but westward of that the land of the husbandmen is very hilly, and abounds with forests and wild beasts. For this is the tract in which the huge serpents are found, and the lions, the elephants, the bears, the aspics, and the horned asses. Here too are the dog-faced creatures, and the creatures without heads, whom the Libyans declare to have their eyes in their breasts; and also the wild men, and wild women, and many other far less fabulous beasts.[Source: Herodotus, “The History,” trans. George Rawlinson (New York: Dutton & Co., 1862]

“Among the wanderers are none of these, but quite other animals; as antelopes, gazelles, buffaloes, and asses, not of the horned sort, but of a kind which does not need to drink; also oryxes, whose horns are used for the curved sides of citherns, and whose size is about that of the ox; foxes, hyaenas porcupines, wild rams, dictyes, jackals, panthers, boryes, land-crocodiles about three cubits in length, very like lizards, ostriches, and little snakes, each with a single horn. All these animals are found here, and likewise those belonging to other countries, except the stag and the wild boar; but neither stag nor wild-boar are found in any part of Libya. There are, however, three sorts of mice in these parts; the first are called two-footed; the next, zegeries, which is a Libyan word meaning "hills"; and the third, urchins. Weasels also are found in the Silphium region, much like the Tartessian. So many, therefore, are the animals belonging to the land of the wandering Libyans, in so far at least as my researches have been able to reach.


Elephant in Libyan cave art

Strabo wrote in “Geography,” XVII.iii.1-11 (A.D. c. 22): “Writers in general are agreed that Mauretania is a fertile country, except a small part which is desert, and is supplied with water by rivers and lakes. It has forests of trees of vast size, and the soil produces everything. It is this country which furnishes the Romans with tables formed of one piece of wood, of the largest dimensions, and most beautifully variegated. The rivers are said to contain crocodiles and other kinds of animals similar to those in the Nile. Some suppose that even the sources of the Nile are near the extremities of Mauretania. In a certain river leeches are bred seven cubits in length, with gills, pierced through with holes, through which they respire. This country is also said to produce a vine, the girth of which two men can scarcely compass, and bearing bunches of grapes of about a cubit in size. All plants and pot-herbs are tall, as the arum and dracontium [snake-weed]; the stalks of the staphylinus [parsnip?], the hippomarathum [fennel], and the scolymus [artichoke] are twelve cubits in height, and four palms in thickness. The country is the fruitful nurse of large serpents, elephants, antelopes, buffaloes, and similar animals; of lions also and panthers. It produces weasels (jerboas?) equal in size and similar to cats, except that their noses are more prominent, and multitudes of apes, of which Poseidonius relates that when he was sailing from Gades to Italy, and approached the coast of Africa, he saw a forest low upon the sea-shore full of these animals, some on the trees, others on the ground, and some giving suck to their young. He was amused also with seeing some with large dugs, some bald, others with ruptures and exhibiting to view various effects of disease.”[Source: Strabo, “The Geography of Strabo” translated by H. C. Hamilton, esq., & W. Falconer (London: H. G. Bohn, 1854-1857), pp. 279-284]

Strabo on Animals in the Horn of Africa

Strabo wrote in “Geography” (A.D. 22): “It produces also leopards of great strength and courage, and the rhinoceros. The rhinoceros is little inferior to the elephant; not, according to Artemidorus, in length to the crest, although he says he had seen one at Alexandria, but it is somewhat about a span less in height, judging at least from the one I saw. Nor is the color the pale yellow of boxwood, but like that of the elephant. It was of the size of a bull. Its shape approached very nearly to that of the wild boar, and particularly the forehead; except the front, which is furnished with a hooked horn, harder than any bone. It uses it as a weapon, like the wild boar its tusks. It has also two hard welts, like folds of serpents, encircling the body from the chin to the belly, one on the withers, the other on the loins. This description is taken from one I myself saw. Artemidorus adds to his account of this animal, that it is peculiarly inclined to dispute with the elephant for the place of pasture; thrusting its forehead under the belly of the elephant, and ripping it up, unless prevented by the trunk and tusks of his adversary. [Source: Strabo, “The Geography of Strabo:” XVI.iv.4-17; XVII.i.53-54, ii.1-3, iii.1-11, translated by H. C. Hamilton, esq., & W. Falconer (London: H. G. Bohn, 1854-1857), pp. 191-203, 266-272, 275-284]

“Camel-leopards are bred in these parts, but they do not in any respect resemble leopards, for their variegated skin is more like the streaked and spotted skin of fallow deer. The hinder quarters are so very much lower than the fore quarter that it seems as if the animal sat upon its rump, which is the height of an ox; the fore legs are as long as those of the camel. The neck rises high and straight up, but the head greatly exceeds in height that of the camel. From this want of proportion, the speed of the animal is not so great, I think as it is described by Artemidorus, according to whom it is not to be surpassed. It is not however a wild animal, but rather like a domesticated beast; for it shows no signs of savage disposition.

“This country, continues Artemidorus, produces also sphinxes, cynocephali, and cebi, which have the face of a lion, and the rest of the body like that of a panther; they are as large as deer. There are wild bulls also, which are carnivorous, and greatly exceed ours in size and swiftness. They are of a red color. The crocuttas [the spotted hyena] is, according to this author, of mixed progeny of a wolf and a dog. What Metrodorus the Scepsian relates, in his book "on Custom," is like fable, and to be disregarded. Artemidorus mentions serpents also of thirty cubits in length, which can master elephants and bulls: in this he does not exaggerate. But the Indian and African serpents are of a more fabulous size, and are said to have grass growing on their backs.

Strabo on the Elephant and Ostrich Eaters


ostrich egg from Ancient Egypt

Strabo wrote in “Geography” (A.D. 22): “Above is the city Darada, and a hunting-ground for elephants, called "At the Well." The district is inhabited by the Elephantophagi (or Elephant-eaters), who are occupied in hunting them. When they descry from the trees a herd of elephants directing their course through the forest, they do not then attack, but they approach by stealth and hamstring the hindmost stragglers from the herd. Some kill them with bows and arrows, the latter being dipped in the gall of serpents. The shooting with the bow is performed by three men, two, advancing in front, hold the bow, and one draws the string. Others remark the trees against which the elephant is accustomed to rest, and, approaching on the opposite side, cut the trunk of the tree low down. When the animal comes and leans against it, the tree and the elephant fall down together. The elephant is unable to rise, because its legs are formed of one piece of bone which is inflexible; the hunters leap down from the trees, kill it, and cut it in pieces. The nomads call the hunters Acatharti, or impure. [Source: Strabo, “The Geography of Strabo:” XVI.iv.4-17; XVII.i.53-54, ii.1-3, iii.1-11, translated by H. C. Hamilton, esq., & W. Falconer (London: H. G. Bohn, 1854-1857), pp. 191-203, 266-272, 275-284]

“Above this nation is situated a small tribe---the Struthophagi (or Bird-eaters), in whose country [about modern Lake Tana] are birds of the size of deer, which are unable to fly, but run with the swiftness of the ostrich. Some hunt them with bows and arrows, others covered with the skins of birds. They hide the right hand in the neck of the skin, and move it as the birds move their necks. With the left hand they scatter grain from a bag suspended to the side; they thus entice the birds, until they drive them into pits, where the hunters despatch them with cudgels. The skins are used both as clothes and as coverings for beds. The Ethiopians called Simi are at war with these people, and use as weapons the horns of antelopes.

“Bordering on this people is a nation blacker in complexion than the others, shorter in stature, and very short-lived. They rarely live beyond forty years; for the flesh of their bodies is eaten up with worms. Their food consists of locusts, which the south-west and west winds, when they blow violently in the spring-time, drive in bodies into the country. The inhabitants catch them by throwing into the ravines materials which cause a great deal of smoke, and light them gently. The locusts, as they fly across the smoke, are blinded and fall down. They are pounded with salt, made into cakes, and eaten as food. Above these people is situated a desert tract with extensive pastures. It was abandoned in consequence of the multitudes of scorpions and tarantulas, called tetragnathi (or four-jawed), which formerly abounded to so great a degree as to occasion a complete desertion of the place long since by its inhabitants.

“Next to the harbor of Eumenes, as far as Deire and the straits opposite the six islands, live the Ichthyophagi, Creophagi, and Colobi, who extend into the interior. Many hunting-grounds for elephants, and obscure cities and islands, lie in front of the coast. The greater part are nomads; husbandmen are few in number. In the country occupied by some of these nations styrax grows in large quantity. The Icthyophagi, on the ebbing of the tide, collect fish, which they cast upon the rocks and dry in the sun. When they have well-broiled them, the bones are piled in heaps, and the flesh trodden with the feet is made into cakes, which are again exposed to the sun and used as food. In bad weather, when fish cannot be procured, the bones of which they have made heaps are pounded, made into cakes and eaten, but they suck the fresh bones. Some also live upon shellfish, when they are fattened, which is done by throwing them into holes and standing pools of the sea, where they are supplied with small fish, and used as food when other fish are scarce. They have various kinds of places for preserving and feeding fish, from whence they derive their supply.

“Some of the inhabitants of that part of the coast which is without water go inland every five days, accompanied by all their families, with songs and rejoicings, to the watering places, where, throwing themselves on their faces, they drink as beasts until their stomachs are distended like a drum. They then return again to the sea-coast. They dwell in caves or cabins, with roofs consisting of beams and rafters made of the bones and spines of whales, and covered with branches of the olive tree. The Chelonophagi (or Turtle-eaters) live under the cover of shells (of turtles), which are large enough to be used as boats. Some make of the sea-weed, which is thrown up in large quantities, lofty and hill-like heaps, which are hollowed out, and underneath which they live. They cast out the dead, which are carried away by the tide, as food for fish.

In Ancient Egypt 38 Large Mammals; Today. Eight

20120215-tarde if giraffe.jpg
trading a giraffe
Virginia Gewin wrote in Nature: “Ancient Egyptian rock inscriptions and carvings on pharaonic tombs chronicle hartebeest and oryx — horned beasts that thrived in the region more than 6,000 years ago. Researchers have now shown that those mammal populations became unstable in concert with significant shifts in Egypt’s climate. [Source: Virginia Gewin, Nature, August 8, 2013 *~*]

“The finding is based on a fresh interpretation of an archaeological and palaeontological record of ancient Egyptian mammals pieced together more than a decade ago by the zoologist Dale Osborn. Thirty-eight large-bodied mammals existed in Egypt roughly six millennia ago, compared to just eight species today. “There are interesting stories buried in the data — at the congruence of the artistic and written record,” says Justin Yeakel, an ecologist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, who presented the research this week at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Minneapolis, Minnesota. For example, the philosopher Aristotle said 2,300 years ago that lions were present, though rare, in Greece; shortly thereafter, the beasts appeared in the local art record for the last time, Yeakel says. *~*

“Overlaying records of climate and species occurrences over time, his team found that three dramatic declines in Egypt’s ratio of predators to prey coincided with abrupt climate shifts to more arid conditions. The timing of these aridification events also corresponds to major shifts in human populations at the end of the African Humid Period, about 5,500 years ago; during the Akkadian collapse, about 4,140 years ago in what is now Iraq; and about 3,100 years ago, when the Ugaritic civilization collapsed in what is now Syria. *~*

“Once they found the climate correlation, Yeakel and Mathias Pires, an ecological modeller from the University of Sao Paolo in Brazil, examined the consequences of the ancient extinctions on food-web stability. The researchers adapted a method for modelling food-web interactions with limited data. They simulated millions of potential predator–prey interactions using data about species’ body sizes. Tests using data from modern Serengeti food webs suggest the model correctly predicts 70% of predator-prey interactions. *~*

“Normally, as food webs get smaller, they become more stable, says Yeakel. But his simulations showed that the proportion of stable food webs in Egypt declined over time, with the largest drop in stability occurring over the past 200 years. “Food webs are giant messy networks,” says Carl Boettiger, a computational ecologist at University of California, Santa Cruz, who was not involved with the work. “This approach is a powerful way to infer the stability of the food web without knowing specifically who eats who, much less the whole network structure,” he adds. *~*

“Yeakel and his colleagues confirmed that the extinction patterns in Egypt cannot be explained by random events. They also found that the presence or absence of any one species did not seem to have much impact on a food web — in sharp contrast to conditions today in many landscapes, possibly owing to rapid changes caused by human encroachment. “We’ve lost redundancy in ecosystems,” Yeakel says, “which is why the absence of any one species can alter the stability of the system.” *~*

Sacred Animals in Ancient Egypt

According to Minnesota State University, Mankato: “Ancient Egyptian towns usually possessed their own local sacred animal. However, the ancient Egyptians did not practice zoolatry (worship of animals). The animals they considered sacred represented one of their gods or goddesses. They believed that particular species were especially adored by each god/goddess, and that by honoring that animal, they would please the deity. The reason that animals appear regularly in ancient Egyptian religion is because they worshipped gods and goddesses which had an intimate relationship with the animal world, not because the animals by themselves were holy. [Source: Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com \+\]

“The belief that animals share the afterlife with humans resulted in the burial of many animals in family tombs. Some were buried at the time of their natural death because of their special significance, but many were killed and buried as part of funerary ritual or worship activities. \+\


ibis mummy


“It was thought that some deities represented themselves on earth in the form of a single representative of a specific species. The animal believed to be the incarnation of the god or goddess lived a pampered life in and near the temples and religious centers. Upon the animal's death, another young replacement was found to represent the deity. \+\

“The human race was not considered superior to the animal world. Both had been created by the gods to share the earth as partners. These attitudes toward animals are reflected not only in the Egyptian religious beliefs, but also in the general attitudes toward the animal kingdom at large.

These animals were considered especially sacred: 1) cat-The male cat had religious connections with Ra. Kittens were specifically reared for sacrificial/worship uses; cattle-Beef was often used as a sacrificial offering to various deities. 2) scarab beetle-The emblem of a specific goddess, the scarab beetle was associated with the daily birth of the sun, and credited with spontaneous generation of its young. Because of its sacred status, it was widely represented in art. Other animals with religious significance include: ibises, baboons, rams, dogs, shrews, mongooses snakes, fishes, beetles, gazelles, and lions

Herodotus on Sacred Animals

Herodotus wrote in Book 2 of “Histories”: “Although Egypt has Libya on its borders, it is not a country of many animals. All of them are held sacred; some of these are part of men's households and some not; but if I were to say why they are left alone as sacred, I should end up talking of matters of divinity, which I am especially averse to treating; I have never touched upon such except where necessity has compelled me. But I will indicate how it is customary to deal with the animals. Men and women are appointed guardians to provide nourishment for each kind respectively; a son inherits this office from his father. Townsfolk in each place, when they pay their vows, pray to the god to whom the animal is dedicated, shaving all or one half or one third of their children's heads, and weighing the hair in a balance against a sum of silver; then the weight in silver of the hair is given to the female guardian of the creatures, who buys fish with it and feeds them. Thus, food is provided for them. Whoever kills one of these creatures intentionally is punished with death; if he kills accidentally, he pays whatever penalty the priests appoint. Whoever kills an ibis or a hawk, intentionally or not, must die for it. 66. [Source: Herodotus, “The Histories”, Egypt after the Persian Invasion, Book 2, English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920, Tufts]

“There are many household animals; and there would be many more, were it not for what happens among the cats. When the females have a litter, they are no longer receptive to the males; those that seek to have intercourse with them cannot; so their recourse is to steal and carry off and kill the kittens (but they do not eat what they have killed). The mothers, deprived of their young and desiring to have more, will then approach the males; for they are creatures that love offspring. And when a fire breaks out, very strange things happen among the cats. The Egyptians stand around in a broken line, thinking more of the cats than of quenching the burning; but the cats slip through or leap over the men and spring into the fire. When this happens, there is great mourning in Egypt. The occupants of a house where a cat has died a natural death shave their eyebrows and no more; where a dog has died, the head and the whole body are shaven. 67.

20120216-falcon_mummy.jpg
falcon mummy
“Dead cats are taken away to sacred buildings in the town of Bubastis, where they are embalmed and buried; female dogs are buried by the townsfolk in their own towns in sacred coffins; and the like is done with mongooses. Shrewmice and hawks are taken away to Buto, ibises to the city of Hermes. There are few bears, and the wolves are little bigger than foxes; both these are buried wherever they are found lying. 68.

“Otters are found in the river, too, which the Egyptians consider sacred; and they consider sacred that fish, too, which is called the scale-fish, and the eel. These, and the fox-goose35 among birds, are said to be sacred to the god of the Nile. 73.

“There is another sacred bird, too, whose name is phoenix. I myself have never seen it, only pictures of it; for the bird seldom comes into Egypt: once in five hundred years, as the people of Heliopolis say. It is said that the phoenix comes when his father dies. If the picture truly shows his size and appearance, his plumage is partly golden and partly red. He is most like an eagle in shape and size. What they say this bird manages to do is incredible to me. Flying from Arabia to the temple of the sun, they say, he conveys his father encased in myrrh and buries him at the temple of the Sun. This is how he conveys him: he first molds an egg of myrrh as heavy as he can carry, then tries lifting it, and when he has tried it, he then hollows out the egg and puts his father into it, and plasters over with more myrrh the hollow of the egg into which he has put his father, which is the same in weight with his father lying in it, and he conveys him encased to the temple of the Sun in Egypt. This is what they say this bird does.I have now said enough concerning creatures that are sacred. 77.

Did the Ancient Egyptians Worship Animals

According to Minnesota State University, Mankato: “Some of the most interesting and misunderstood information about the Ancient Egyptians concerns their calendarical and astrological system. Of the greatest fallacy about Ancient Egypt and it's belief in astrology concerns the supposed worship of animals. The Egyptians did not worship animals, rather the Egyptians according to an animals astrological significance, behaved in certain ritualistic ways toward certain animals on certain days. For example, as is evidenced by the papyrus Cairo Calendar, during the season of Emergence, it was the advisement of the Seers (within the priestly caste), and the omens of certain animals they saw, which devised whether a specific date would be favorable or unfavorable. \+\ [Source: Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com \+\]

“The basis for deciding whether a date was favorable or unfavorable was based upon a belief in possession of good or evil spirits, and upon a mythological ascription to the gods. Simply, an animal was not ritually revered because it was an animal, but rather because it had the ability to become possessed, and therefore could cause harm or help to any individual near them. It was also conceived of that certain gods could on specific days take the form of specific animals. Hence on certain days, it was more likely for a specific type of animal to become possessed by a spirit or god than on other days. The rituals that the Egyptians partook of to keep away evil spirits from possessing an animal consisted of sacrifice to magic, however, it was the seers and the astrologers who guided many of the Egyptians and their daily routines. Hence, the origin of Egyptians worshipping animals, has more to do with the rituals to displace evil spirits, and their astrological system, more so than it does to actually worshipping animals.” \+\

Animal Cults in Ancient Egypt

20120215-Gazelle_mummy Egypt Late_Period.jpg
gazelle mummy
Two kinds of cult animal existed in ancient Egypt: 1) animals associated with a given deity that lived in a temple and were ceremonially interred; 2) creatures killed and mummified to act as votive offerings. The former existed in the earliest times, while the latter date from the Late Period and later. Aidan Dodson of the University of Bristol wrote: “While there continues to be debate over precise definitions, it seems broadly agreed that cult animals in Egypt fall into two distinct groups. The first are specific specimens of a given species that were held to be an earthly incarnation of a particular deity, or at least in whom the deity could become incarnate. Resident in the god’s temple, they would be the subject of a suite of rituals, and would often receive elaborate treatment at death. These will be referred to as “Sacred Animals.” The other group are representatives of a species whose embalmed remains could be offered by pilgrims coming to seek the favor of a deity (“Votive Animals”). There would normally only be one example of the first kind at a time; deposits of the second kind could run into the hundreds or even thousands within a short period of time. Animals were also, of course, employed in temples as sacrificial victims. [Source: Aidan Dodson, University of Bristol, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org <>]

“Many of the gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt had animal forms. Obvious examples are the cat of Bastet, the ram of Khnum, the cow of Hathor, and the falcon of Horus, which reflected the deities’ iconic theriomorphic forms. However, Amun could also appear in the form of a goose, while a considerable number of deities had a bovine form. It is from the latter that our best evidence for the ritual that might surround a sacred animal comes. On the other hand, while it seems that bulls were allowed to live out their natural lives (although cf. below), other creatures were more ephemeral, for example a new falcon of Horus was installed each year at Edfu. <>

“A multiple burial-place...has been uncovered for the rams of Khnum on Elephantine, and remains deriving from such an installation have been found for the rams of Banebdjed at Mendes. It is likely that the baboons buried in niches in the walls of the catacombs at Tuna el-Gebel represent a succession of sacred animals of Thoth. However, the latter also contain very large numbers of embalmed ibises, which are clearly representatives of the other variety of cult-animal, the votive creature. <>

“Judging by the uniformity of their age at death and standardized treatment, it seems clear that votive animals were bred specifically for the purpose on an industrial scale, killed when they reached a given size, and then mummified for sale to pilgrims at a number of sacred places around Egypt. The range of treatments and elaboration of wrappings suggests the production of something for every pocket. It seems that they were deposited in a temple by pilgrims – perhaps with a prayer to the god whispered in its ear – and when the temple became cluttered, they were taken to an appropriate burial place. At Abydos, ibis mummies were buried within the confines of the 2nd Dynasty Shunet el-Zebib enclosure, but subterranean arrangements are found at Tuna, Western Thebes, Tell Basta, and various other locations. Most important of all, however, are the series of catacombs at Saqqara. <>

“As elsewhere, the catacombs of the Sacred Animal Necropolis at Saqqara seem to have been begun during the Late Period, and adjoin the aforementioned burial of the Mothers of Apis. They form part of a complex of temples and shrines located some 700 meters northeast of the Serapeum, together with major enclosures on the desert edge, and an as-yet little known set of chapels north and south of the Serapeum. Separate catacombs exist of ibises, baboons, falcons, and dogs, while cats were interred in extensions of New Kingdom tomb chapels on the edge of the Saqqara escarpment. In addition to literally millions of mummified animals and birds, a number of deposits of bronze divine figures were also made in the Sacred Animal Necropolis, clearly also votives brought by pilgrims. <>

Northern Bald Ibis — the Akh Bird


northern bald ibis

Jírí Janák of Charles University in Prague wrote: “Three different kinds of ibis species are attested from ancient Egypt: the sacred ibis, the glossy ibis, and the northern bald ibis. Pictorial representations of the latter bird—easily recognizable by the shape of its body, the shorter legs, long curved beak, and the typical crest covering the back of the head—were used in writings of the noun akh and related words and notions (e.g., the blessed dead). We can deduce from modern observations that in ancient times this member of the ibis species used to dwell on rocky cliffs on the eastern bank of the Nile, that is, at the very place designated as the ideal rebirth and resurrection region (the akhet). Thus, the northern bald ibises might have been viewed as visitors and messengers from the other world—earthly manifestations of the blessed dead (the akhu). The material and pictorial evidence dealing with the northern bald ibis in ancient Egypt is accurate, precise, and elaborate in the early periods of Egyptian history (until the final phase of the third millennium B.C.). Later, the representations of this bird became schematized and do not correspond to nature. Thus, they do not present us with any direct and convincing evidence for the presence of the northern bald ibis in Egypt, and, moreover, they most probably witness both the bird’s decline and its disappearance from the country. [Source: Jírí Janák, Czech Institute of Egyptology, Charles University in Prague, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“As for the connection between the northern bald ibis and the akh, some scholars reached the conclusion that there was no (or only a phonetic) intrinsic relation between the two; others connected the root word akh with the term jakhu (“light, radiance or glow”) suggesting that the “glowing” purple and green feathers on the wings of the bird represented its link to the ideas of light, splendor, and brilliance. There are, however, scholars who have challenged the theory that the word akh was primarily connected with light and glare and suggested that the original meaning of the notions akh and akhu might have been linked, for example, to the idea of a mysterious, invisible force and to the efficacy of the sun at the horizon. <>

“Although there are many (probably secondary) aspects of the northern bald ibis’ nature that could have been important for the Egyptians such as, for example, the above- mentioned glittering colors on its wings, or its calling and greeting display, the main factor in holding the bird in particular esteem and connecting it with the akhu and the idea of resurrection was its habitat. This member of this ibis species used to dwell at the very place designated as the ideal rebirth and resurrection region (the eastern horizon as the akhet); moreover, its flocks might have very well represented the society of the “returning” dead. The ancient Egyptians saw migratory birds as the souls or spirits of the dead, and the fact that the northern bald ibis counts among the migratory birds might also have been very important. The arrival of these birds could have been a sign of the coming “spring” or the harvest season, as was the case at Bireçik. Thus, we find circumstantial evidence, which seems to support the theory that in ancient Egypt, the northern bald ibises were viewed as visitors and messengers from the other world and were earthly manifestations of the blessed dead.” <>

Characteristics of the Northern Bald Ibis


Jírí Janák of Charles University in Prague wrote: “The northern bald ibis is a middle-sized (height: 70 - 80 cm,weight: 1.3 kg, wingspan: 125 - 135 cm) gregarious bird that nests in colonies. These birds have a long curved red bill, red legs, and an unfeathered reddish head with the typical dark crest of neck plumes covering its back. The main color of the birds is black, with tints of blue, green, and copper. This iridescent purple and green “shoulder patch” on the wings of the bird is well visible in the sunlight. The northern bald ibises prefer to inhabit an arid or semi-arid environment, with cliffs for breeding and nesting. These birds feed during the day in adjacent dry fields and along rivers or streams by pecking on the ground. They live in areas with low level vegetation (arid, but preferably cultivated, places), where they can find worms, insects, lizards, and other small animals on which they feed. When the birds awake, or when they come together at sunset, this is always, but especially in the morning, marked by high activity. [Source: Jírí Janák, Czech Institute of Egyptology, Charles University in Prague, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“The northern bald ibis has been found in North Africa and Ethiopia, the Middle East, and throughout Central Europe. However, only a few colonies survive in the world today, totaling in all not more than about 400 individuals. Some of them nest in the Souss Massa Park in Morocco , a few breed in Central Syria, and many northern bald ibises are kept in zoos or raised in special projects. The northern bald ibis still counts among the most critically endangered species and is on the Red List. Causes of the decline are thought to be pesticides, human persecution, habitat loss, and global fluctuation in rainfall. <>

“These ibises are usually migratory, they spend about four months in a breeding area, and their wintering period lasts between five and six months. The Syrian colony was observed to migrate through Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen to the central highlands of Ethiopia. On their return journey, they followed the western shore of the Red Sea through Eritrea to Sudan before crossing the Red Sea. <>

“In ancient Egypt, the northern bald ibises most probably nested on rocks and cliffs to the east of the Nile, as suggested both by Egyptian religious texts that connect the akhu with the eastern horizon (akhet) and modern observations made in Bireçik, Turkey and Morocco. It may, thus, be conjectured that every morning part of the colony flew to the Nile in search of food, descending on fields, settlements, or even cemeteries. In the evening, the birds probably would have flocked together and returned to the horizon.” <>

Images and Material Evidence of the Northern Bald Ibises

Jírí Janák of Charles University in Prague wrote: “The only material evidence for the presence of the northern bald ibis in Egypt in the form of skeletal remains comes from Maadi where the so-called Maadi culture (c. 4000 - 3400 B.C.) had its settlements. This unique find represents both the earliest evidence for this bird in Egypt and its only confirmed preserved bodily remains. The northern bald ibis was not hunted or sacrificed in Egypt, nor was it kept in temples and mummified at death. This fact stands in striking contrast to the sacred ibis and the glossy ibis that are known to have been kept and mummified ; there are many thousand mummified examples of the sacred ibis. Thus to date only pictorial representations of the northern bald ibis are recorded from later periods of Egyptian history. [Source: Jírí Janák, Czech Institute of Egyptology, Charles University in Prague, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]


seated ibis from the 21st or 22nd dynasty

“The earliest Egyptian example of the bird’s depiction is probably attested on the so-called Ibis slate palette dated to the Naqada IIIa-b Period. Other examples of its early representation come from the Late Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods. Depictions of the northern bald ibis among other birds and animals are preserved on two ivory objects from Hierakonpolis. It was suggested that northern bald ibises also appear on small bone labels from the tomb U-j at Abydos, either by itself or together with an image of (desert) mountains. Although these carvings on six ivory labels are still considered to depict the northern bald ibis, this identification is questionable since several of these representations seem more likely to correspond to the secretary bird (Sagittarius serpentarius). A schematic representation of northern bald ibises also occurs on small cylinder seals and other objects dated to the Early Dynastic Period. There are, however, even more attestations of the akh sign from the Early Dynastic Period in different styles and accuracy. <>

“From the Old Kingdom onwards, a pictorial representation of this bird was constantly used as a hieroglyphic sign for the word root akh; thus, it is often to be found in texts, especially in those that deal with the blessed dead (akhu). Detailed hieroglyphs of Old Kingdom tombs reveal how precise the observations were that the Egyptians made about this bird. In the Dynasty 5 mastaba of Hetepherakhti from Saqqara, depictions of the northern bald ibis are shown in several styles and even with the remains of polychrome showing the dark blue and red colors, which match with the living species. Similar artistic accuracy of the akh sign was reached in the case of the Dynasty 5 mastabas of Akhet- hotep at Saqqara, and Seshathotep at Giza. On the other hand, depictions of this ibis attested in later tombs, as for example, the Dynasty 12 tomb of Hesu-wer , are not as detailed as earlier examples. It is noteworthy that in the famous Beni Hassan tomb of Khnumhotep II dated to Dynasty 12, the northern bald ibis is represented in a surprisingly incorrect manner: neither the shape nor the colors (white body and red wings) match those of the living bird. Other birds and animals in this tomb, on the other hand, are represented with unique accuracy and detail.” <>

Northern Bald Ibis Cult Ritual

Jírí Janák of Charles University in Prague wrote: “From the time of the New Kingdom onwards, a still mysterious ritual (nowadays called Vogellauf) is attested among cultic scenes depicted on temple walls. Seventeen representations of the ritual are preserved from temples, three from private coffins. The oldest evidence for this ritual activity dates back to the time of Hatshepsut; the latest is attested in the Temple of Dendera and comes from the first century B.C.. The Vogellauf (bird run) ritual was probably associated with two other ritual “runs” known as the Ruderlauf (paddle run) and the Vasenlauf . [Source: Jírí Janák, Czech Institute of Egyptology, Charles University in Prague, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“The representations of the ritual show the king running towards a deity with a northern bald ibis in his left hand and three rods or scepters of life, stability, and power in the right one. Among the recipients we mainly find female deities (Hathor, Bastet, Satet, Isis, or Weret-hekau) or the creator god (Amun or Ra-Harakhte). Unfortunately, the accompanying text does not specify the cultic activity that is being performed by the king: “running (or hurrying) to deity X so that he (the king) might perform the life-giving (ceremony?) forever.” The deity is also greeting the king (his/her son) in return and guaranteeing him his/her joy and favor. <>

“However, due to artistic inaccuracies and iconographical differences, it can be assumed that the Vogellauf ritual did not embrace any sacrifice of the bird. “Moreover, during the New Kingdom there were most probably no northern bald ibises at the king’s disposal. It is thus more likely that the northern bald ibis in the king’s hand is to be read symbolically. It either stood for the hieroglyph akh and referred to concepts linked to this word, or it represented a bird that was not present at the ritual (as a reminder or a representative: “hasting to the god with the first swallow”).” <>

Saddle-Billed Stork — the Ba-Bird


saddle-billed stork

Jírí Janák of Charles University in Prague wrote: “The ba (bA) is undoubtedly among the most important ancient Egyptian religious notions,although it usually lacks an accurate translation. All interpretations and verbal images that are commonly used to describe the concept of the ba (i.e., as the “soul”) should be considered incomplete, since the original notion encompassed several different but interconnected aspects, spanning from the divine to the manifestation (eidolon) of the divine, and from the super-human manifestation of the dead to the notion of the soul (psyche) or reputation. [Source: Jírí Janák, Czech Institute of Egyptology, Charles University in Prague, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2014, escholarship.org <>]

“The term ba and its hieroglyphic renderings are attested for all periods of ancient Egyptian history, from the beginnings of the Egyptian writing system until the very dusk of the hieroglyphic script. Over the course of time, the word ba was written variously with signs representing a stork, a ram, a human-headed falcon, and, in the Pyramid Texts, a leopard’s head. It remains, however, disputable whether the ba of this spell has the same meaning as it does in other contexts. The stork of the G 29-sign represents both the earliest and the most attested depiction connected to the religious concept of the ba. Fortunately, this ba-sign can easily be recognized as the saddle-billed stork, Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis, since it usually shows the bird’s most characteristic features: long legs, long neck, a strong and sharp bill, and most importantly, the presence of a wattle (under the bill) or a lappet (at its chest). This bird should not be mistaken for the (American) jabiru (Jabiru mycteria)—an error made by Gardiner in his Grammar

The saddle-billed stork is a tall and majestic bird that can grow to a height of 150 cm, attaining a wingspan of up to 270 cm. White and black dominate its striking coloration. Its wings are mainly black, tipped with white feathers. The head and neck are completely black and feature a large, pointed bill, which is mainly red with a black band. A yellow frontal shield (called the “saddle”) at the upper end of the bill represents one of the most characteristic features of this bird. At the base of the lower mandible, where it meets the neck, the saddle-billed stork has the diagnostic small yellow wattle. All these characteristics (together with its specific posture and long legs) are usually present in its ancient Egyptian representations, and thus the saddle-billed stork can usually be easily recognized among other bird-signs. The bird is, however, depicted with varying accuracy in different historical periods. These non- migratory birds prefer to breed in marshes and water-lands, where they feed on fish, frogs, small reptiles, or even small birds. Nowadays, the saddle-billed stork is a permanent resident in sub-Saharan Africa; there have been no attested observations of this bird in present- day Egypt. <>

“The impressive size and stately appearance of the saddle-billed stork, which was probably the largest flying bird of ancient Egypt, might have largely influenced its significance to the Egyptians. These characteristics might also have played a key role in connecting this particular bird with the ba-concept, since it seems only logical that such an impressive bird should represent an earthly manifestation of divine (i.e., heavenly) powers.” <>

Images of the Saddle-Billed Stork


ba bird

Jírí Janák of Charles University in Prague wrote: “The earliest depictions of the saddle-billed stork in Egypt are attested on several knife and mace handles dated to the Late Predynastic Period. These images were rendered with great accuracy and they probably represent the earliest pictorial representations of the saddle- billed stork in human history. The best depiction is preserved on the so-called Carnarvon knife handle made of ivory. On it a row of these birds can be observed together with two parallel rows of powerful wild animals (elephants, bulls, and lions). The first row or register encompasses eight saddle-billed storks with a giraffe between the first and second stork. A similar scene can be observed on earlier objects, such as the Davis comb, where images of elephants, lions, bulls, hyenas or dogs, and antelopes or gazelles were engraved in five parallel registers, both on the front and the rear of the comb. On both sides, there is a row of five birds with a giraffe in between the first and the second bird. Four birds can doubtlessly be identified as saddle- billed storks, according to the presence of the above-mentioned characteristic features (the saddle, wattle, etc.). The last bird in both rows can only be described as a tall, long-legged bird with a strong bill (the yellow-billed stork?), since both the wattle and the saddle are missing. [Source: Jírí Janák, Czech Institute of Egyptology, Charles University in Prague, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2014, escholarship.org <>]

“The handle of the so-called Brooklyn knife also bears several registers of animals, including elephants, lions, bulls, jackals, dogs, rams, and birds. The birds (mainly saddle-billed storks, identified by their main features) are depicted in the second register. As in the two above- mentioned cases, a giraffe occurs after the first stork. These storks also occur within a row of tall birds (below a row of elephants and above lions) on the Pitt-Rivers knife handle. A similar pattern appears on a mace handle from Sayala in Lower Nubia. This handle, dated to the Middle to Late A-Group, was embossed with the shapes of several wild animals. At the top, we can see an elephant, a giraffe, and a large stork. Identification of the latter bird is, however, doubtful, since it was depicted with neither a wattle nor saddle. On the other hand, other features (posture, huge bill, long neck, etc.) and the context would suggest that this image represents a depiction of the saddle-billed stork. <>

“The early representations of the saddle- billed stork among powerful animals in all the above-mentioned cases can by no means be regarded as coincidental. They suggest that this impressive bird made a significant impact on the mindset of the Egyptians, who consequently associated it with the idea of greatness and power. Moreover, we can assume that this association with power, greatness, and awe formed the basis of the relationship between the Egyptians’ concept of the ba as the earthly manifestation of heavenly (i.e., divine and otherwise unseen) power and its hieroglyphic representation. <>

“Early representations of the saddle-billed stork are also present on several of the famous bone labels from Tomb U-j at Abydos, where the bird can be recognized by its size, robust bill, and often by the “saddle” at the bill’s upper end. As for the Early Dynastic Period, saddle-billed stork depictions occur on several seals, and an accurate, though fragmentary, representation of this bird is attested on a fragment of a large porphyry jar from Hierakopolis. Fine images of the saddle-billed stork can also be encountered among hieroglyphs from the 3rd-Dynasty tomb of Khabausokar in Saqqara. In the latter case, however, the representations tend to be schematized: the upper wattle is in its standard place, but the bill is shortened, as it is in later periods. In the pyramid complex of the 4th- Dynasty king Sahura, the execution of the ba- sign remains similar to the ba-hieroglyph in Khabausokar’s tomb, though the position of the wattle differs slightly. An analogous depiction of this bird occurs on a slab stela from the tomb of Wepemnofret in Giza that was currently re- dated to the early phase of the 4th Dynasty. Representations of the saddle-billed stork become even more schematized during later phases of the Old Kingdom: its size and posture resemble those of a duck or goose rather than of a tall stork, its bill and neck are much shorter than on earlier representations, and the black (sic!) wattle “moves” from the base of the bill to the neck of the bird, and sometimes even to its chest. <>

“As for the artistic and hieroglyphic depictions of the saddle-billed stork, two facts are of particular importance. First, the best and the most elaborate depictions of the saddle- billed stork come from the earliest periods of Egyptian history. During the second phase of the Old Kingdom, the sign became schematized with the above-mentioned inaccuracies. From this period onwards, the schematized ba-sign remained almost unchanged. Second, there are no skeletal or other remains of the saddle-billed stork (e.g., mummified specimens) attested for any period of Egyptian history. Moreover, no artistic representations of this bird are present in any scene where other birds usually occur. These facts have led scholars to the conclusion that the bird disappeared from Egypt during the first half of the Old Kingdom, or its distribution area shrank to sub-Saharan regions, as happened to other animal species, such as the giraffe. This opinion can be supported by the lack of material, textual, and pictorial evidence for the presence of the saddle-billed stork in Egypt at least from the second half of the Old Kingdom and also by artistic and scribal inaccuracies in the writing of the ba-sign. <>

“In this context, it is especially significant that the earliest attestation of the notion of the ba in association with a non-royal person comes from the final phase of the Old Kingdom. According to some scholars, the concept of the ba had changed after the collapse of the Old Kingdom , in keeping with the often discussed and still questionable phenomenon of the “democratization of the afterlife”. Although the “democratization” theory has not been fully accepted and may even be abandoned in future, it is noteworthy that the shift in the characterization of the ba from “the manifestation of the divine” to the more general “manifestation of any super-human entity” occurred at the very end of the Old Kingdom and during the First Intermediate Period. This was the time when the original link between the notion/sign and its earthly model (the bird itself) got lost after centuries of the model’s absence and of the sign’s degradation and schematization. The new understanding and interpretation of the ba- notion subsequently found its expression in a new hieroglyph in the time of the Middle Kingdom. The iconographical value of this later sign stressed the new characteristics of the ba-notion (e.g., afterlife manifestation of the deceased, free movement, “migration” of the soul), which differed from the original aspects of greatness and power.” <>



Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com; Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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