In Ancient Egypt the bond between man and environment is really strong in every day life, in religion and in art.
Since the prehistory the Egyptian were devoted to the divinities that assumed animals’ shapes. Around 4000 BC they began to make utensils for cosmetic with animal’s shapes and to paint animals on the utensils.
The animals began to be used to represent some local divinities around 3500 BC. In that epoch the divinities were often represented in human shape, though many had animals’ head.
Consequently many amulets had animals’ shapes.
Some sacred animals were kept in the temples, as living representations of the gods.
An example is the ox Apis.
When these animals died they were mummified and buried in special tombs. It was believed that mummified animals could take messages and prayers to the gods. This concept allowed many temples to turn it into a source of profit. Many kinds of mummified animals have been found: from crocodiles. To cats, to ibis…. .
The hawk, that the Egyptians saw flying high in the sky watching all things on earth with its sharp sight became for these qualities the symbol of the sun. The hawk represented various shapes of the sun god, as Horus and Ra.
From the IV dynasty the pharaoh was called “Ra’s son” and was assimilated to the god that is considered the greatest protector of the pharaoh’s monarchy, that is Horus.
The hawk, symbol of these two divinities (Horus and Ra) became a way to identify the pharaoh’s sovereignty. Falcons and disks of the sun with falcon’s wings decorated almost all the temples in Egypt.
The snake, and particularly the female cobra, is a snake that, if threatened, can widen the back part of its head and stretch the skin of its neck until it resembles a racket, a position that lets it spit the poison against the aggressor.
According to the Egyptian mythological stories, the female cobra is the symbol of Wadjet, the sun god’s Ra eye, that had come off the father and then returned positioning itself on the pharaoh’s forehead, who represented the sun god Ra on earth. So the snake on the pharaoh’s crown symbolized the destructive power, that the pharaoh had to slaughter his enemies, that were also enemies for Egypt.
Wadjet protected the pharaoh (and the sun) spitting poison against their enemies.
Wadjet means “The Green”, “The one with the colour of the papyrus”, and became the symbol of protection for Lower Egypt, that protected the flood necessary to the survival of the country.
Wadjet was so considered a kind of “good snake”, that looked after the world, so it wouldn’t precipitate in chaos; generally instead the snakes were considered dangerous animals, independently from the fact that their species were poisonous or not. It was believed that the other world was full of snakes that represented the power of chaos, that threatened the good functioning of the world.
The main example of a “bad” snake was Apophis, the cosmic snake, wrapped around the world that continually threatened to destroy it.
The sun was continually fighting against Aphopis, trying to defeat it and restore the order in the world. In this battles, every night Apophis attacked the sun while it traveled on the boat that brought him in the other world. Aphopis, tried to swallow all the water in the sea so then he could surround it and every night the divinities that kept order in the world were able to defeat him. But this victory could not always been taken for granted.
The cow represented the goddess Hathor that was the main divinity of love and fertility and reigned on beauty and music. She was often represented by a woman with cow’s horns or by a cow that was one of the many symbols that represented the maternal divinities. For the Egyptians, milk had a particular ritual meaning of resurrection and purification.
The baboom was associated to the lunar god Thot, that was also the god of wisdom. Many statues or amulets of the god Thot show him as a baboom sitting, often with upraised hands and wearing a disk of the sun or with a scythe of the moon in hand. The Egyptians thought the babooms had the habit of sitting with the head towards east before the sunrise and agitated its legs when he saw the sun rising. That’s why the Egyptians thought the babooms could predict the sunrise and celebrate the event with devotion. This is why the baboom became the symbol of knowledge in the world and was considered the inventor of writing and patron of the scribes.
Regarding the monkeys instead, generally they were kept as domestic animals and it was believed that they represented love and fertility.
The horse made a late entrance in Ancient Egypt and probably that’s why no Egyptian divinity is represented in a horse shape. It was introduced in Egypt during the Middle Reign by the Hyksos, invaders that taught the Egyptians to ride on horseback and to drive a cart. From then the breeding of horses became a prestigious activity, reserved to the important dignitaries of the reign.
Maybe to remember the fly’s industry, the fly is never still, the pharaoh gave prizes in gold amulets with the fly’s shape to those soldiers that had fought with particular Value and self-abnegation in the war.
“The gold fly order”, was given only for particularly daring and brave actions.
Hooks that go back to the stone age have been found in Egypt , and this lets us know that the fish in the Nile has always been an important source of food for the people. But it wasn’t considered prestigious food, on the contrary it was considered rather vile and common, to the point that sometimes the priests or the dignitaries refused to eat fish. To fish was also a symbolic action, that kept order in the world and eliminated the chaos. The chaos was described as “the primitive waters” and the Egyptians were rather afraid of everything that was under the level of the sea.
The ancient Egyptian word for “duck” is “Geb” so the bird was associated with the god of the land of Geb. In the Egyptian conception of the world, Geb was married to the goddess of the sky Nut.
The duck was sacred also for Amon-Ra, besides the cat and the ram.
Animals from the sheep’s family as the ibex, the gazelle and the antelope were also sacred to the goddess of the Nile Anukis and were associated to fertility.
The cat that for us is a domestic animal was in origin a wild animal. The Egyptian began to tame it for his ability to keep away the little rodents from the horses and food supplies. A representation of the sun god Ra was “the great cat”, protector of the course of the sun from the snake Apopi’s threats. The cats, and particularly the female ones, from the Middle Reign were considered sacred animals to the goddess Bastet, a very popular divinity, Ra’s daughter, that reigned on love, fertility and celebration days. Bastet was represented by a cat or by a woman with a cat’s head. One of her attributes was a basket, an object that we still associate with kittens. Sacred cats lived in the temple dedicated Bastet and when they died they were mummified and wrapped in linen bandages . Their head was covered with a bronze mask with their image and the burial was a sarcophagus in the shape of a sitting cat, then put in the cemetery inside the temple.
The scarabs represented a form of the sun god Ra. In nature, the scarabs makes a ball of fresh excrement in which they lay the eggs and then roll it to a safe place. When the little ones are born, they depend on the excrement for their nutrition. The Egyptians, when they saw the scarabs come out of the ball of excrement that then it rolled, thought that the insect could create himself and could be compared to the sun-god that pushes in front of him the sun. So the scarabs was worshipped as “khepri”, he that comes out of the earth – a bit as the sun that rises every day- and also as Atum, a demiurgo god that created himself, the origin of the gods and of the whole universe.
The Egyptians thought in fact that both life and the order in the universe came from a state of chaos.
It was believed that the panther had the power to protect the sovereign. It was worshipped because associated to the sun-god and to the goddess of the sky.
The ram with the curved horns was one of the sacred animals to the sun-god Amon-Ra, but also to Khnum, the god that the Egyptian believed had, with his ceramist wheel, created all the mud in the Nile.