By Joannah Otis for No Water No Life
This is the fourth in our blog series on The Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, sophomore at Georgetown University. This essay addresses the significance of the most prevalent species of fauna living along the Nile River Basin in Ancient Egypt. [NWNL has completed documentary expeditions to the White and Blue Nile Rivers, but due to current challenges for photojournalists visiting Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the availability, quality and usage of the main stem of the Nile.]
Animals played a significant role in Ancient Egyptian life as pets, hunting partners and religious embodiments of various gods. Wildlife in the Lower Nile River Basin served as physical manifestations of deities, allowing early Egyptians to foster a closer connection to their gods.1 Their importance is evident from the hundreds of animal mummies found in tombs of the pharaohs and officials. Hippos and crocodiles, due to their size and potential for harm to boats and laborers on the Nile River banks, were worshipped in the hopes that they would not bother humans.
Hippopotamus (“William”), ca. 1961-1878 B.C.
Ancient Egyptians attempted to placate hippos by giving offerings to the goddess Taurent, depicted as a pregnant hippo since she was believed to be the goddess of fertility.2 The most famous Egyptian hippopotamus today is found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and nicknamed “William.” Residing in the museum since 1917, William has become an endearing mascot of the institution. He was molded in faience, a ceramic material of ground quartz, during the Middle Kingdom circa 1961-1878 BCE in Middle Egypt. His blue-glazed body is decorated with river plants indigenous to Egypt.
Since hippos were thought to reside in the waterways along the journey to the afterlife, they were considered as an animal to be respected both in life and in death. This is evidenced by William’s three broken legs, which were purposely maimed to prevent him from harming the deceased.3
As well as wild animals, domesticated animals, such as sheep, cattle, horses, cats and dogs doubled as objects of religious worship. Sheep were employed to trample newly-sown seed into flooded plots of land, in addition to providing their owners with wool, skins, meat and milk. Thus rams, associated with Amun the god of Thebes and Khnum the creator god, were interpreted as signs of fertility. Cattle were similarly prized and imported as war spoils. Horses, introduced to Egypt around 1500 BCE, became symbols of wealth and prestige due to their rarity before breeding programs developed. Chariots pulled by a pair of horses were used for ceremonies, hunting, and battle.4
Ram amulet c. 664-630 BCE
Cats became perhaps the most popular pets and sacrificial objects for the Ancient Egyptians after their domestication between 4000 and 3500 BCE. They were closely associated with the fertility and child-rearing goddess Bastet. Many families would sacrifice female cats in the hopes of becoming pregnant. It is believed that some temples kept cats on their premises strictly for the purpose of providing worshippers with an easy offering. As well, cats were kept as pets to prevent mice, snakes and rats from ruining precious Nile River crops and food sources.4 Similarly, dogs were kept as pets, for hunting and for guard duty.5
Cat figurine, ca. 1981–1802 B.C.
Less friendly felines and other ferocious wildlife on the floodplains were given reverence for their ability to cause harm. Offerings were made and prayers were uttered in the hopes that dangerous wild animals would not cause trouble for their human neighbors sharing the same riverbanks. Cheetahs, as well as other large cats such as lions, were hunted for their prized furs, but also captured and kept as house pets. Such highly-regarded animals were aligned with the pharaoh, who was described as fearless and brave as a lion. Nile River crocodiles were given a divine status and associated with the god Sobek so as to give them an incentive to avoid humans. Given that these crocodiles could grow up to six meters long, it was important for the Egyptian people to feel that they had some sort of defense against them.
Crocodile Statue, Late 1st century B.C. – early 1st century A.D.
Snakes also were cause for caution as the poisonous Egyptian cobra and the black-necked spitting cobra had fatal venom. These snakes became protectors of the pharaoh and were often depicted poised on his brow.7 Although some animals were worshipped because they were feared, others were simply associated with important matters of life like fertility or bravery. All of these creatures, however, were vital to the religious livelihoods of the Ancient Egyptians, as well as to the Nile River Basin’s ecosystem.
1Partridge, Robert. “Sacred Animals of Ancient Egypt.” BBC. 17 February 2011. Web.
2Partridge, Robert. “Sacred Animals of Ancient Egypt.” BBC. 17 February 2011. Web.
3“Hippopotamus (‘William’).” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web.
4Partridge, Robert. “Sacred Animals of Ancient Egypt.” BBC. 17 February 2011. Web.
5Douglas, Ollie. “Animals and Belief.” Pitt Rivers Museum. Web.
6Partridge, Robert. “Sacred Animals of Ancient Egypt.” BBC. 17 February 2011. Web.
7Partridge, Robert. “Sacred Animals of Ancient Egypt.” BBC. 17 February 2011. Web.
All photos used based on Public Domain, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art