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Animals of Ancient Egypt

Egyptian hieroglyphic of a domesticated animal (cow being milked).

At the heart of the relationship between ancient Egyptians and animals were their religious beliefs. Ancient Egyptians believed their gods had intricate connections with the four elements of air, earth, water and fire, to nature and to animals. The ancient Egyptians believed in the universe’s infinite powers and respected these elements, as they believed the divine existed everywhere and in everything.

Respect and veneration for animals was a fundamental aspect of their traditions. Animals were accorded high status in the ancient Egyptians’ life, which extended into their afterlife. Hence, the interactions between animals and humans during their lives assumed religious importance. Egyptologists often find pets mummified and buried with their owners.

All ancient Egyptians were raised to be sensitive to an animal’s chief characteristics. Ancient Egyptians recognised cats protected their kittens. Bastet, their cat god, was an important and powerful deity throughout ancient Egypt.

She was the protector of their hearth and home and the goddess of fertility. Dogs were thought to see the true heart and intentions of a person. Anubis, the Egyptian jackal or wild black dog-headed deity weighed the heart of the dead for Osiris to gauge their deeds in life.

The Egyptians had almost 80 gods. Each was represented as humans, animals or as part-human and part-animal aspects. Ancient Egyptians also believed many of their gods and goddesses were reincarnated on earth as animals.

Hence, the Egyptians honoured these animals particularly in and around their temples, via daily rituals and annual festivals. They received offerings of food, drink and clothing. In temples, the high priests would supervise the statues as they were washed, perfumed and dressed in clothes and fine jewellery three times a day.

Facts About the Animals of Ancient Egypt

  • Respect and veneration for animals was a fundamental aspect of their traditions
  • Ancient Egyptians believed many of their gods and goddesses were reincarnated on earth as animals
  • Early domesticated species included sheep, cattle goats, pigs and geese
  • Egyptian farmers experimented with domesticating gazelles, hyaenas and cranes after the Old Kingdom
  • Horses only appeared after the 13th Dynasty. They were luxury items and were used to pull chariots. They were rarely ridden or used for ploughing
  • Camels were domesticated in Arabia and were barely known in Egypt until the Persian conquest
  • The most popular ancient Egyptian pet was the cat
  • Cats, dogs, ferrets, baboons, gazelles, Vervet monkeys, falcons, hoopoes, ibis and doves were the most common pets in ancient Egypt.
  • Some pharaohs kept lions and Sudanese cheetahs as household pets
  • Specific animals were closely associated with or sacred to individual deities
  • Individual animals were selected to represent a god on earth. However, the animals themselves were not worshipped as divine.

Domesticating Animals

The ancient Egyptians domesticated several species of household animals. Early domesticated species included sheep, cattle goats, pigs and geese. They were raised for their milk, meat, eggs, fat, wool, leather, skins and horn. Even the animal dung was dried and used as fuel and fertiliser. There is little evidence mutton was regularly eaten.

Pigs had been part of early Egyptian diets since the start of the 4th millennium BCE. However, pork was excluded from religious observances. Goat meat consumed by both Egypt’s upper and lower classes. Goatskins were turned into as water canteens and floatation devices.

Domestic chickens didn’t appear until Egypt’s New Kingdom. Initially, their distribution was quite restricted and they only became more common during the Late Period. Early Egyptian farmers, had experimented with domesticating a range of other animals including gazelles, hyaenas and cranes although these efforts appear to be have been after the Old Kingdom.

Domesticated Cattle Breeds

The ancient Egyptians farmed several cattle breeds. Their oxen, a heavily horned African species were prized as ceremonial offerings. They were fattened decorated with ostrich plumes and paraded in ceremonial processions before being slaughtered.

The Egyptians also had a smaller breed of hornless cattle, together with wild long-horned cattle. Zebu, a subspecies of domestic cattle with a distinctive humped back was introduced during the New Kingdom from the Levant. From Egypt, they subsequently spread throughout much of eastern Africa.

Horses In Ancient Egypt

Egyptian chariot.
Carlo Lasinio (Engraver), Giuseppe Angelelli , Salvador Cherubini, Gaetano Rosellini (Artists), Ippolito Rosellini (Author) / Public domain

The 13th Dynasty is the first evidence we have of horses appearing in Egypt. However, at first, they appeared in limited numbers and were only introduced on a wide scale from around the Second Intermediate Period onwards. The first surviving pictures of horses we have today date from the 18th Dynasty.

Initially, horses were luxury commodities. Only the very wealthy could afford to keep and care for them effectively. They were rarely ridden and never used for ploughing during the second millennium BCE. Horses were employed in chariots for both hunting and military campaigns.

Tutankhamen’s riding crop found in his tomb bears an inscription. He “came on his horse like the shining Re.” This seems to indicate Tutankhamen enjoyed riding on horseback. Based on rare depictions, such as an inscription found in Horemheb’s tomb, horses appear to have been ridden bareback and without the aid of stirrups.

Donkeys And Mules In Ancient Egypt

Donkeys were used in ancient Egypt and were frequently shown on tomb walls. Mules, the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse had been bred since the time of the New Kingdom in Egypt. Mules were more common during the Graeco-Roman period, as horses became cheaper.

Camels In Ancient Egypt

Camels were domesticated in Arabia and western Asia during the third or second millennium was barely known in Egypt until the Persian conquest. Camels came to be used for longer desert travel much as they are today.

Goats And Sheep In Ancient Egypt

Amongst settled Egyptians, goats had a limited economic value. However, many wandering Bedouin tribes depended on goats and sheep to survive. Wild goats lived in Egypt’s more mountainous regions and pharaohs such as Thutmose IV, enjoyed hunting them.

Ancient Egypt bred two forms of domesticated sheep. The oldest breed, (ovis longipes), featured horns which jutting out, while the newer fat-tailed sheep, (ovis platyra), had horns curled close to either side of its head. Fat-tailed sheep were first introduced to Egypt sometime during its Middle Kingdom.

As with goats, sheep were not as economically important to settled Egyptian farmers as they were to the nomadic Bedouin tribes, who relied on sheep for milk, meat and wool. Egyptians in the towns and cities generally preferred the cooler and less itchy linen and later the lighter cotton to wool for their clothing.

Ancient Egyptian Pets

Ancient Egyptian cat mummy.
Rama / CC BY-SA 3.0 FR

The Egyptians appear very fond of keeping pets. They often had cats, dogs, ferrets, baboons, gazelles, Vervet monkeys, hoopoes, ibis, falcons and doves. Some pharaohs even kept lions and Sudanese cheetahs as household pets.

The most popular ancient Egyptian pet was the cat. Domesticated during the Middle Kingdom the ancient Egyptians believed cats to be a divine or god-like entity and when they died, they mourned their death much as they would a human, including having them mummified.

‘Cat’ is derived from the North African word for the animal, quattah and, given the cat’s close association with Egypt, almost every European nation adopted a variation on this word.

The diminutive ‘puss’ or ‘pussy’ also comes from the Egyptian word Pasht, another name for the cat goddess Bastet. The Egyptian Goddess Bastet was originally conceived as a formidable wildcat, a lioness, but over time morphed into a housecat. Cats were so important to ancient Egyptians it became a crime to kill a cat.

Dogs served as hunting companions and watchdogs. Dogs even had their own spots in cemeteries. Ferrets were used to keep granaries free of rats and mice. Though cats were considered to be the most divine. And when it came to treating animal health, the same healers that treated humans also treated the animals.

Animals In Egyptian Religion

The nearly 80 gods occupying the Egyptian pantheon were seen as being manifestations of the Supreme Being in his different roles or as his agents. Certain animals were closely associated with or sacred to individual deities and an individual animal may be selected to represent a god on earth. However, animals themselves were not worshipped as being divine.

Egyptian gods were depicted either in their full animal attributes or with the body of a man or woman and the head of an animal. One of the most frequently depicted deities was Horus a falcon-headed solar god. Thoth the god of writing and knowledge was shown with an ibis head.

Bastet was initially a desert cat before transforming into a domestic feline. Khanum was a ram-headed god. Khonsu Egypt’s youthful moon god was depicted as a baboon as was Thoth in another manifestation. Hathor, Isis, Mehet-Weret and Nut were often shown either as cows, with cow horns of or with cow ears.

The divine cobra was sacred to Wadjet the cobra goddess of Per-Wadjet who represented Lower Egypt and kingship. Similarly, Renenutet the cobra goddess was a fertility goddess. She was depicted as the protector of the pharaoh occasionally shown nursing children. Meretseger was another cobra goddess, known as “She Who Loves Silence”, who punished criminals with blindness.

Set was believed to have transformed into a hippopotamus during his fight with Horus. This association with Set saw the male hippopotamus cast as an evil animal.

Taweret was the munificent hippo goddess of fertility and childbirth. Taweret was one of Egypt’s most popular household goddesses, particularly among expectant mothers because of her protective powers. Some representations of Taweret showed the hippo goddess with a crocodile’s tail and back and were illustrated with a crocodile perched on her back.

Crocodiles were also sacred to Sobek was the ancient Egyptian god of water unexpected death, medicine and surgery. Sobek was portrayed as a crocodile-headed human, or as a crocodile itself.

Sobek’s temples often featured sacred lakes where captive crocodiles were kept and pampered. Ancient Egypt’s judgement hall demoness Ammut had the head of a crocodile and rear of a hippopotamus was called “the devourer of the dead.” She punished evildoers by eating their hearts. The solar god Horus Khenty-Khenty from the Athribis region was occasionally depicted as a crocodile.

The solar god of resurrection Khepri was personified as a scarab god. Heqet their goddess of childbirth was a frog goddess frequently portrayed as a frog or as a frog-headed woman. The Egyptians associated frogs with fertility and resurrection.

Later Egyptians evolved religious ceremonies centred on specific animals. The legendary Apis Bull was a sacred animal from the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150 – 2613 BCE who represented the god Ptah.

Once Osiris merged with Ptah the Apis Bull was believed to host the god Osiris himself. Apis Bulls were bred specifically for sacrificial ceremonies. They symbolised power and strength. After an Apis bull died, the body was mummified and buried in the “Serapeum” in a massive stone sarcophagus typically weighing over 60 tons.

Wild Animals

Thanks to the nourishing waters of the Nile, ancient Egypt was home to numerous species of wild animals including jackals, lions, crocodiles, hippos and snakes. Bird-life included the ibis, heron, goose, kite, falcon, crane, plover, pigeon, owl and vulture. Native fish included the carp, perch and catfish.

Reflecting On The Past

Animals played an important role in ancient Egyptian society. They were both pets and the manifestation of the divine attributes of Egypt’s pantheon of gods here on earth.

Header image courtesy: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

David Rymer BA MBT

David is a freelance writer, non-fiction and fiction author and university lecturer in journalism, marketing and law. He has been based in the Middle East for over a decade travelling extensively in the region, including Egypt indulging in his passion for archaeology. He amuses himself in his down time by writing.

David can be found at @daviddoeswords and www.zaharablu.com

Cite this article

David Rymer BA MBT, "Animals of Ancient Egypt," Give Me History, March 14, 2019, https://givemehistory.com/animals-of-ancient-egypt.

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