Why Did the Ancient Egyptians Mummify Animals

Statue of the Apis Bull

Most people are aware of the ancient Egyptian practice of mummification. The practice has inspired wonder and awe among people from all over the world in the millennia since pharaonic culture ceased to exist. Although there has yet to be a “mummy handbook” discovered that relates the precise details of the art, modern archaeology, art history, and the writings of the fifth century BC Greek historian, Herodotus, have allowed modern scholars the ability to reasonably determine how the ancient Egyptians mummified their dead. Despite having uncovered many of the mysteries of human mummification, modern scholars are still learning a lot about the art of animal mummification. Most people may not know that the ancient Egyptians mummified certain species of animals, some of which included the following: bovines, birds, cats, dogs, and even crocodiles. An investigation of animal worship and mummification in ancient Egypt reveals that it did not happen overnight and did not necessarily develop alongside human mummification, but was the end result of a long process whereby non-royal Egyptians began taking a more active role in their long-enduring country’s religion.

Mummification and Animal Worship in Ancient Egypt

Today, in terms of their religion, the ancient Egyptians are best known for the art of mummification and the many deities they worshipped, which were often depicted as animals with anthropomorphic features. The art of mummification can be traced back to the earliest periods of pharaonic history and was done so that the deceased’s ka, or spirit, could have a vessel to inhabit when it wished to come back to the world of the living. The ka needed a body, so the body had to be preserved. The process itself was quite intricate and is best described as part art and part science. From the time that the corpse was brought to the “House of Embalming,” until it was ready to go into its tomb, was an approximate seventy day period.[1] The body was first washed in a mineral called natron, which served as a preserving agent, and then the viscera, with the exception of the heart and kidneys, were removed and placed into four “canopic jars.” More natron was then applied to the outside of the body and after forty days packets of natron were placed inside the body cavity. The final step was to wrap the body in resin bandages, which gave it the typical mummy look. Once the embalmers, who were also priests, were satisfied with their work, they gave the mummy to the deceased’s family along with the canopic jars, to be placed in a tomb for eternity. [2] The art and science of mummification clearly played a central role in Egyptian religion, but almost important was the belief in divine animals.

The concept of divine animals is not unique to ancient Egypt, but, similar to their application of the mummification process, the Egyptians made animal worship into a science. Although it may seem a bit confusing to most modern people, the ancient Egyptians actually had two philosophies regarding divine animals that were not mutually exclusive. The priestly view was that only one particular animal was viewed as divine. The best example of this is the legendary Apis Bull, which will be discussed more thoroughly below. The belief held by the majority of ancient Egyptians, though, was that all animals of a specific species were divine. For instance, the peasants toiling in the fields would have viewed every ibis they saw as an earthly incarnation of the ibis headed god of wisdom and writing, Thoth. [3] The people would have applied the same concept to other animals with a divine counterpart as well: Bastet would have been seen in all cats; Anubis in all dogs and other canines; Sobek in every crocodile, etc. For most of pharaonic history, the two concepts remained apart, but never competing, until Egypt entered into what is today known as the “Late Period” at the beginning of the First Millennium BC. During that time, Egypt was the unfortunate recipient of wave after wave of foreign invaders who made cosmetic changes to the political structure, but affected little change in its religion. With that said, the popular concept of divine animals gradually began to replace the priestly view. By the third century BC, when the Greek Ptolemaic Dynasty ruled Egypt, not only were all animals of a specific species viewed as divine, but their worship became highly organized. .[4] And as mummification played a key role in ancient Egyptian religion in general, it would go on to be a vital aspect of animal worship in the Late Period.

The Apis Bull

Crocodile Mummies in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Among the most important animal cults in Late Period Egypt was that of the Apis Bull. Worship of the bull probably began in Egypt’s First Dynasty (ca. 3100-2900 BC)[5], but it did not gain in popularity until later periods. During the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt’s New Kingdom (ca. 1550-1075 BC), the so-called “Serapeum” was built near the modern town of Saqqara just south of Cairo, which became a focal point for worship of the Apis. The Serapeum included several underground chambers where the mummies of the deceased bulls were housed and above ground were a temple, embalming house, and plenty of room for the bulls to graze. The importance of Apis worship continued to grow until the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty (664-525 BC), when “the worship of the Apis reached unprecedented heights.” [6]

The worship of the Apis Bull followed the priestly pattern discussed above – there was only one Apis Bull alive at a time. Herodotus and the first century BC Greek historian/geographer, Strabo, both were fortunate enough to observe the bull first hand when they traveled throughout Egypt. After an Apis Bull died, it was mummified in the same manner as a human and then placed in its subterranean resting place in the Serapeum. The priests would then travel throughout the country to find its replacement, which had to have very specific markings. Herodotus wrote:

“The Apis-calf has distinctive marks: it is black, with a white diamond on its forehead, the image of an eagle on its back, the hairs on its tail double, and a scarab under its tongue.” [7]

Theologically speaking, the Egyptians believed that the Apis was the living incarnation of Osiris, as Strabo noted, “Apis, who is the same as Osiris.” [8] It is believed that Apis was associated with Osiris because both were associated with potency and strength and since Osiris was one of most important and popular gods, the Apis Bull also became extremely popular. [9] As the popularity of the Apis Bull increased during the Late Period, so too did involvement in its cult. One of the most telling aspects of the bull’s popularity are the over 1,000 votive stelae discovered by modern archaeologists in the subterranean chambers of the Serapeum. A votive stela is simply a small stone slab inscribed with the name of the dedicator and usually a short statement, similar to a prayer. What is most interesting about the votive stelae cache is that a wide stratum of ancient Egyptian society was represented: from the embalmers and other priests to peasants. [10]

The Animal Necropolises at Saqqara

A Pair of Cat Mummies in the British Museum

The salient features of Apis worship – popular involvement in the cult and mummification of the deified animal – continued throughout the remainder of pharaonic culture and influenced the course of Egyptian religion in the Late Period. The Serapeum proved to be ground zero for a new religious movement that began in in the early First Millennium, but grew exponentially during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods of rule (approximately the third century BC until sometime in the third century of the current era). Modern excavations conducted in north Saqqara by the British Egypt Exploration Society beginning in the mid-1960s has revealed that the Apis Bulls were not the only divine animals mummified and entombed in the Saqqara region. After decades of hard work, archaeologists with the Society have discovered the mummies of millions of sacred animals including some of the following: four million ibises, half a million hawks, five hundred baboons, and a score of sacred cows, which were the mothers of the Apis Bulls.[11] Just to the north of the Serapeum is where most of the falcon, ibis, and baboon mummies were discovered, but to the east is where the mummies of the more lovable animals, at least to modern sensibilities, were discovered.

Just to the east of the Serapeum are located what is today referred to as the Anubion and the Bubastion. The Anubion is named for Anubis, the jackal headed Egyptian god of mummification and embalming, while the Bubastion refers to Bastet, who was the feline Egyptian goddess of the home. The Anubion once held the remains of thousands of jackal and dog mummies and next door the Bubastion contained the mummies of a near equal number of mummified cats. Interestingly, recent research has revealed that many of the cat mummies were actually “faux” mummies and were only parts of cats and sometimes not cats at all. [12] Similar to the votive stelae donated to the Serapeum by members from all classes of Egyptian society, the millions of animal mummies in the Saqqara region were also donated by pious Egyptians, rich and poor and apparently some people lacking in resources had to make due with a “faux mummy.”

As the animal cults grew in popularity, so too did the importance of Saqqara. The mummification of animals became a public affair during the Late Period[13] and so attracted countless pilgrims and curiosity seekers interested to see how divine animals transitioned into the afterlife. By the fourth century BC, merchants arrived in Saqqara and soon the entire region became not just a focal point for animal worship, but a thriving economic center where people from all over Egypt, and outside of Egypt, came to sell goods to the pilgrims. [14]

Conclusion

The ancient Egyptian art of mummification is of one that culture’s most defining attributes in the modern world. The ancient Egyptians preserved the bodies of their kings, queens, and anyone else who could afford the process, through mummification, but they also mummified the animals they believed were divine in the latter centuries of their history. Animal mummification can be linked directly to the evolution that took place in ancient Egyptian religion whereby the majority of the population began to take a more active role in worship. Once more and more Egyptians became involved in the animal cults, then more and more animal mummies were donated by followers to the Saqqara animal necropolises. The animal cults and animal mummification continued to play a major role in Egypt until Christianity became the dominant religion.

References

  1. Shaw, Ian and Paul Nicholson. The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. (London: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), p. 191
  2. Shaw and Nicholson, pgs. 190-92.
  3. Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 137
  4. Sadek, Ashraf Iskander. Popular Religion in Egypt During the New Kingdom. (Hildesheim: Gerstenberg Verlag, 1988), p. 275
  5. Simpson, William Kelly. “A Running of the Apis in the Reign of ‘Aha and Passages in Manetho and Aelian.” Orientalia 26 (1957) p. 141
  6. Ray, J.D. “The World of North Saqqara.” World Archaeology 10 (1978) p. 151
  7. Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. (London: Penguin Books, 2003), Book II, 29
  8. Strabo. Geography. Translated by Horace Leonard Jones. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001), Book XVII.1, 31
  9. Otto, Eberhard. Beiträge zur Geschichte des Stierkulte in Ägypten. (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1964), p. 57
  10. Sadek, p. 271
  11. Ray, p. 151
  12. Zivie, Alain and Roger Lichtenberg. “Les chats du Bubasteion de Saqqâra: État de la question et perspectives.” In Egyptology at the Dawn of the 21st Century: Proceedings of the Eighth International Congress of Egyptologists, Cairo, 2000. Edited by Zahi Hawas and Lyla Pinch Brock. (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2004), p. 607
  13. Arnold, Dieter. Temples of the Last Pharaohs. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 65
  14. Ray, p. 153

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