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When Animals Were the Visible and Tangible
Manifestation of the Invisible and The Intangible

Five thousand years ago, in lands inhabited by tribes Syrians, Mesopotamians, Palestinians and Libyans, an 800-mile stretch of the 4,100-mile-long Nile River spawned a remarkable civilization that endured for 3,000 years before the birth of Christ. We call this time and place Ancient Egypt.

The forceful uniter of these scattered tribes of Upper and Lower Egypt was Narmer (also Menes), the founder and ruler of the First Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Over the next 2,800 years, 29 more dynasties and countless kings would rise and fall until the Persians conquered Pharaonic Egypt in 525 BC and were themselves conquered in 332 BC by Alexander the Great. His general, Ptolemy, established a last great (albeit Hellenistic) dynasty that preserved Egypt for another 300 years. “Dynastic” Egypt ended with the most famous snakebite in history, for the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BC gave Egypt to the Caesars of Rome.

Through all those centuries, in palace after palace and burial chamber after burial chamber, generations of anonymous artists followed traditionally established artistic conventions, which included repeating symbol-charged animal themes in engravings, reliefs, frescoes, statuary, and everyday objects. In Egyptian art, the king is forever spearing hippopotami and hunting lion; banquet tables are laid for eternity with trussed ducks and roasted geese; cattle are always being tallied and butchered. And crocodiles, lions, jackals, baboons, cats, falcons, bulls, and cows, whether alone or on animal-headed human bodies, are forever representing their numerous gods.

Although spells and hymns of worship, as laid out in papyrus scrolls like the Egyptian Book of the Dead, were strictly observed, Ancient Egypt’s spiritual cosmology was actually quite fluid; unlike classical Greece and Rome, Egypt’s gods are confusingly inconsistent. For example, there is no dictionary definition for the falcon god Horus. He was variously identified with the sun, the sky, and pharaoh. He was the god of only Lower Egypt, then of all Egypt; sometimes he was the son of Osiris and other times of Re or Isis. The Gods had infinite names, family trees, and forms. And, like people, they thought, ate, pouted, had birthdays and hangovers, and grew old.

Different towns had different gods and even different creation myths. In Heliopolis, a mound of land emerges from primordial waters; upon it sits the sun-god Atun, who first begat himself then created the gods of the air, earth, and sky. In Memphis, the creator god was Ptah, who generated life through “utterance” or the power of his word. Towns had their own animal-incarnated protector gods: the falcon protected Edfu; the cat, Bubastis.

Egypt’s animal gods also protected time. Amenophis III had hundreds of giant statues made of the lioness-headed warrior goddess Sekhmet; each was baptized with a name to protect one day of the year. People wore small animal-shaped amulets, especially of cats, to protect themselves from the dangers of everyday life, like Saint Christopher medals.

Connecting humans with the “beyond” was the divine god-king pharaoh, who was responsible for holding back chaos and assuring the orderly and stable unfolding of the universe. (The association of the vulture and cobra in the royal insignia of the king’s crown signifies the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under pharaoh.) By scrupulously following religious rites, he and his priests caused the Nile floodwaters to arrive on time with the annual bounty: grain ripened, cows fattened. Animal gods, too, could act as mediators between the two worlds, serving as approachable oracles to answer worshipers’ questions.

Why so many gods appear as animals? Because, in Jungian terms, animals help transform an awesome and mysterious supreme force into an entity that mere humans can recognize and understand. Embodying gods as animals served as “a visible and tangible manifestation of the invisible and intangible,” said Dorothea Arnold, curator of the Egyptian Art Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Thus the Egyptians expressed the role of animals both on earth and in the afterlife through art.


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Ancient Egyptians lived closely with their animals, farming and herding domestic ones, hunting and capturing wild species. Their highly narrative art tells us that monkeys, lions, and hyenas were tamed and kept as pets; that oryx, ibex, ducks, and geese were captured, reared, and fattened for slaughter; that pelicans, egrets, and herons were domesticated and trained by fowlers as decoys for waterfowling. Interestingly, although ducks, goats, antelopes and the hippopotamus were never sacred, no animal, not even rats or hyenas (with the slight exception of the pig), was despised.

The Egyptians saw in animals the universe’s superhuman capacity for renewal and regeneration, which was of supreme importance to them. Sometimes the symbolism is obvious. The goddess of birth, Heket, was exemplified in the multiparous frog; the power to create life was expressed by the inseminating potency of the ram-headed god, Khnum; maternal nurturing was conveyed by the cow-goddess of the Milky Way, Hathor. And to assist in the rejuvenation of the dead, priests placed funerary votives in tombs of small faience animal figurines, like the drought-resistant jumping desert rodents called jerboas.

Gods also assumed animal forms to represent themselves physically on earth to man, providing them with a body to express the eternal soul, or ba, of the god in its “theriomorphic” (animal) form. Thus, Egyptians venerated the manifestation of the god and not the animal itself. For example, the ram was the soul of Amun-Re, the bull Spis that of Ptah, and the crocodile the ba of the water god, Suchos.

Nevertheless, animal cultism took hold at the end of the New Kingdom (approximately 1,000 BC), a period associated with spiritual decline. Belief in animals as the physical incarnations of gods increased in Ptolemic and Roman Egypt until many richly decorated temples became devoted to raising huge numbers of sacred species. At Crocodilopolis, in the temple consecrated to the cult of Suchos, hundreds of crocodiles were maintained in luxury and ritually mummified for burial. In worship of Thoth, ibis were bred on a massive scale in religious sanctuaries, their eggs incubated in huge ovens. Temples to the goddess Bastet became immense catteries crawling with thousands of felines cared for by priests.

Huge numbers of animals were prepared for eternity with the same care as important humans. Animal sacrifice and mummification reached its peak after 700 BC. At Saqqara, as many as 1.5 million ibises have been uncovered, as well as lions, baboons, mongooses, falcons, cattle, and dogs. At the end of the 19 th century, the British carted away some 19 tons of cat remains—corresponding to some 180,000 painstakingly mummified animals – and turned it into fertilizer.


In Egyptian art, animals are expressed with anatomical correctness, but with all “unnecessary” details eliminated. In reliefs depicting fishing scenes, the fins, gills, eyes, and lips (but not the scales) of mullet, carp, perch, and catfish are accurately differentiated, including their skeletons as they are skinned and prepared for salting. In scenes of desert antelope, artists distinguish between each species’ horns, ears, hooves, and sexual characteristics such as the muscularity of the neck.

This led to “frontalism,” in which the subject is seen from its most characteristic angle: the head is drawn in profile, but the eye and eyebrow from the front. The highest expression of this is in hieroglyphic script, in which some 30 species of birds can be identified in various symbols.

But overall harmony of composition outweighed anatomical accuracy, and the integrity of design that of physical reality. To emphasize symmetry, oryx and ibex, male and female, human and hare, are all the same size. This creates a pattern or motif that makes such works dynamic and alive, despite their rigid forms and static positions. This geometrical regularity gives a consistency and balance that makes this art immediately appealing.

Artistic conventions also gave precedence to colors that were expressive rather than real: red skin implied vigorous youth; yellow skin denoted women or middle-aged men who worked indoors; blue or gold indicated divinity, because of its unnatural appearance and its association with precious materials; black was used for royal figures to communicate the fertility of the Nile from which Egypt’s riches arose.

Today, we stand in museums in New York, Paris, Berlin, and London and can almost touch Ancient Egyptian life. Whether monumental statuary or combs, mirrors or drinking vessels, they reverberate with the spiritual connection between people and animals woven into the very fabric of their daily life.

Unfortunately, of the multitude of species of mammals, fishes, birds and insects over which the ultimate Lion King—the Sphinx—serenely presided, one third, including the sacred ibis, are now extinct in Egypt.

Thirty years ago, Brooke Chilvers traveled all the way to Cairo to see Tutankhamen’s mummy, guarded by a statue of the jackal god of embalmment, Anubis. But when she got there, the room was bare. The entire exhibit was on display—in New Orleans.



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