A spirit of religiosity dominated ancient Egypt since the beginning of the human presence in the country. Animals of all kinds shared the country’s spacious environment, and the ancient Egyptians realised that many animals had greater powers than their own.
This led to the reverence that the ancient Egyptians extended towards animals. Due to their powers, seen as greater than those of human beings, the ancient Egyptians tended to sanctify animals in order to pacify them and to take refuge in their powers as a form of self-protection. They admired the powers of supernatural animals that they themselves lacked.
Such animals were distinguished by their ability to provide many of the good things necessary for human life, such as the milk and meat the ancient Egyptians ate and drank and the skins that protected them from the cold in winter. A kind of unspoken intimacy arose between the ancient Egyptians and animals, owing to the gifts that animals gave to them.
The sanctification of animals in ancient Egypt has long been controversial and a source of astonishment for many people both ancient and modern. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus, sometimes called the “father of history” and sometimes called the “father of lies”, was astonished by this feature of ancient Egyptian religion. Some ancient scholars believed that the ancient Egyptians worshipped animals and made them deities, while others strongly rejected this view.
The reverence for animals in ancient Egypt was known about in ancient times, later becoming a kind of tradition inherited from ancient to historical times. The most important reason for sanctifying animals in ancient Egypt and the motive behind their worship was probably due to the fact that the ancient Egyptians sanctified the spirit inherent in animals, and not the animals themselves. They did not sanctify every kind of animal, as is the case with some religions in India today, but instead their choices rested on specific types.
Not all animals were sanctified. Instead, the selection of specific animals was done by a group of scholars in the “Per Ankh”, or “House of Life”, located in ancient Egyptian temples. When the required conditions were met, the choice of sacred animal was announced, and great celebrations were held in the temple. When the sacred animal died, it was embalmed and buried in a great ceremony.
The animal was believed to be a mediator between human beings and the deity symbolised by that type of animal. The power of the deity was reflected in the animal, becoming a kind of holiness that represented the spirit of the animal and not the animal itself. This explains the deity’s detachment from the physical state and elevation to a higher level from the material to the immaterial realm.
Domestic animals also received a great deal of care from the ancient Egyptians as they represented good spirits protecting the family home.
Some tended to consider animal worship alien to ancient Egyptian society, but this mostly occurred during periods of occupation and religious and political persecution, as well as in the later periods of the history of ancient Egypt, especially the Greek and Roman periods.
Sacred animals were depicted in forms that skillfully blended the animal and the human, and as a result they appear in semi-human forms with a human body and an animal head. The ancient Egyptians gave new divine names to the animals chosen to represent the deity, so the sanctified falcon was called Horus after the god and not bik, its name in the ancient Egyptian language. In the same way, the cow was called Hathor, not iht, and the crocodile Sobek, not meseh, the usual word for crocodile in the ancient Egypt language.
The ram took the name of the god Amun and not ba. The bull Apis was depicted in a pure animal form.
Why did the ancient Egyptians choose these animals? They chose the cow for her ability to take care of her offspring and the ram for his ability in childbearing. They chose the falcon because of the height it could attain in the sky. They saw divine spirits in these animals that resided within them.
Animals were also sanctified out of awe and a desire to benefit from them.
The ancient Egyptians did not sanctify or worship an animal for its own sake, but instead found within it a divine power representing a deity. They expressed their ideas in a way that brought them closer to the minds of ordinary people. When the ancient Greeks visited Egypt, they did not understand the worship of the ancient Egyptians or their particular philosophy.
They spread the rumour that the ancient Egyptians worshipped animals, even though this was not part of ancient Egyptian beliefs. Over time, the world learned the truth about the reverence accorded to animals in ancient Egypt.
The writer is director of the Antiquities Museum at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 17 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly