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Editor: Michael Berger
Date: 2003
The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt
Publisher: Greenhaven Press
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1300L

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Page 44


Animals fulfilled important roles in ancient Egyptian life. They provided not only food but material goods and labor. Animals were the focus of various religious rituals, sometimes sacrificed to the gods and other times kept in lavish quarters and cared for by priests as physical manifestations of the gods.

The most important domesticated animals in daily life were goats, sheep, and oxen, which provided meat, milk, wool, and leather. (In addition, cattle, oxen, and donkeys were used as beasts of burden and transportation, pulling carts and wagons.) Beef, mutton, and goat meat might be served as part of festivals, rituals, and offerings, but otherwise they were not typically eaten. In fact, only the wealthiest people could afford to dine on beef, since cattle were expensive to feed and the government heavily taxed owners based on the size of their herd. Pigs were probably not eaten either (indeed, some Egyptologists believe that there was a religious taboo against their consumption), although they were used to trample seeds into the soil. Instead, the main source of protein in the ancient Egyptian diet came from birds, primarily pigeons and water-fowl such as cranes, geese, and ducks, all of which were either hunted or bred and fattened for slaughter. Birds were also used for sacrificial purposes, along with a variety of other animals such as gazelles, oryx, and goats.

Animals performed significant work in ancient Egypt as well. For example, the Egyptians sometimes hunted with dogs, although they kept these animals as pets as well. Egyptologists disagree on when horses were first introduced into ancient Egypt, but the earliest artwork they have found depicting the horse in battle dates from the Eighteenth Dynasty. By this time, however, horses were already being bred in great numbers, and most of them were Page 45  |  Top of Articledescended from animals captured in foreign wars. King Amenhotep II of the Eighteenth Dynasty was the first king to grow up with horses, and as an adult he became one of Egypt's most knowledgeable horse breeders, also expanding the animals' use in warfare. Still, Egyptologists believe that the ancient Egyptians had no cavalry. In fact, horses were not typically ridden in any context, except by messengers, and instead were used to pull carts and chariots. Moreover, they were owned only by royalty and the highest levels of the nobility and royal court. Other people used donkeys for transportation.

In addition to their connections to agriculture, animal husbandry, and warfare, certain animals were associated with certain deities. The ancient Egyptians worshiped not animals but rather the deities or truths they represented, considering animals to be possible manifestations of a deity's essential characteristics or aspects. In other words, the animals' images were viewed as symbols of something greater, but the animals themselves were not de-serving of veneration. Because they represented the gods, however, animal forms could be used as conduits for the gods' powers. For this reason, clay figurines fashioned to look like animals were used as amulets to confer certain benefits to their owners. Amulets shaped like frogs, for example, were believed to be connected to those aspects of the gods associated with fertility, so these amulets might be carried by women attempting to become pregnant or by farmers wanting to increase the yield of their fields. By the same reasoning, animals were sometimes mentioned in magical spells or featured in religious rituals.

In certain religious rituals, animals were seen as stand-ins for deities, because some gods were thought to take animal form on occasion. For example, the deities Shu, Bastet, and Sekhmet might manifest themselves as a lion or cat, while Horus might appear as a mouse (although he was more commonly associated with the hawk), Thoth as a baboon, and Seth as an oryx, hippo, or pig. The mongoose, or ichneumon, was often said to be Khaturi, a form of the solar deity Re.

The solar deity Amun, ancient Egypt's principal god during the New Kingdom, was often depicted as a ram; this animal was also considered a form that was sometimes taken by the creator god Khnum. The ram was therefore viewed as a symbol of both power and creation (i.e., fertility). To honor Amun, an ancient Egyptian cult center at Mendes (once the capital of the sixteenth nome of Lower Egypt, now the modern town of Tell el-Ruba) dedicated to the god kept a sacred ram, the Ram of Mendes.

Another animal commonly considered sacred was the bull. Bulls were not only viewed as manifestations of the gods' powers but were sometimes thought to be the form taken by deified kings. Such animals, including the Apis bull, A'a Nefer bull, and Mnevis bull, were worshiped at shrines along the Nile River, and upon death they were mummified and buried or entombed at special sites.

Archaeologists have found cemeteries with the remains of dogs, jackals, sheep, cows, and other animals associated with specific deities. For example, hundreds of mummified crocodiles have been found in areas where the god Sobek was venerated, because the reptile was thought to be a manifestation of the god and therefore sacred to him. Sobek was typically depicted in the form of a crocodile, and live crocodiles were featured in temple rituals dedicated to Sobek in the Faiyum and at Kom Ombo in Upper Egypt.

Similarly, live cobras were sometimes used in religious ceremonies dedicated to deified kings. The cobra (wadjet) was viewed as a manifestation of such kings and therefore became the symbol of royalty and of Upper Egypt, where most of Page 46  |  Top of ArticleEgypt's rulers had their capital cities. Consequently, the reptile's image often appeared on royal jewelry and other adornments. Other animals, such as the turtle (shetiu), were considered to be manifestations of harmful spirits rather than gods, and many people considered it to be unlucky to feature them on jewelry.

Because of their associations with the gods, many animals figured prominently in ancient Egyptian myths. Among the most significant were two serpents, Methen and Apophis. In a story explaining the cycles of day and night, Methen guarded one of the sacred boats of the sun god Re, and Apophis tried to swallow Re each night to keep the sun from rising the next morning. In other myths, the scorpion was featured as an assistant to the goddess Isis.

Ancient Egypt had entirely mythical animals as well, usually described as having parts of various existing animals. For example, Saget was a beast that had the head of a hawk and the body of a lion, with a lotus flower as a tail. Egyptologists do not know what role this beast played in the ancient Egyptian worldview because it was not mentioned in texts but only shown in artwork that gives no clue as to its purpose. However, Egyptologists do know the role of another beast, the Anemait. With the head of a crocodile, the body of a hippopotamus, and the paws of a lion, the Anemait sat beside the scales in the Judgment Hall of Osiris, ready to devour those whose hearts did not measure up to the standards of truth and honesty necessary to remain in the Afterlife.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2277500057