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Depictions of Animals in Egyptian Mythology
Animals played a large part in Ancient Egyptian culture and mythology. They appeared in many guises, ranging from simple house pets to deities that required worship. This meant that their roles varied from everyday activities to important positions in religious and formal ceremonies.
It is thought that the Ancient Egyptians believed animals had certain qualities that were to be admired by humans. Strength, protectiveness, the ability to conquer their rivals and their sheer intuitive nature led the Ancient Egyptians to revere animals to the point that they would portray their gods in animal form so that their qualities could be displayed through the common traits of the animal. These beliefs were held by both royalty and the everyday man, such was the widespread admiration for animals in this culture.
But what are the individual depictions of each animal within this rich and fascinating historical period? What did the animals stand for, and how did they fit into Ancient Egyptian life?
Cats are probably one of the most common animals to be associated within Ancient Egyptian mythology and are, in fact, thought to originate in their domestic form from this period. Cats were kept as pets for a number of reasons. The everyday man would find them useful as a form of pest control to keep mice at bay. Royalty kept bigger cats such as lions and cheetahs as pets, again for protection and as a representation of their own strength and ferocity. Although they were kept for practical reasons, cats were still valued and much-loved pets. Mummified cats are often found buried with their owners, and certain tomb statues feature a small cat lying at the feet of its owner in a clear display of affection for the domesticated animal.
One of the most well-known cat deities from this period is Bastet, usually represented either in full cat form or as a hybrid - half woman and half cat. She is thought to be a ferocious but nurturing god who represents protectiveness over children and pregnant women. For this reason, she is often linked to fertility and female sexuality. In Ancient Egyptian times, people would often leave mummified cats as an offering to Bastet. It is thought that this was to earn her favor. Years later, thousands of sacred cat remains were found at the site of her temple.
Monkeys and baboons played a big part in Egyptian mythology. They can often be found depicted in ancient documents and drawings as a humanlike species, carrying out tasks such as reading and writing. This led experts to conclude that the Egyptians viewed baboons as intellectual creatures and explains why the moon god Thoth - otherwise known as the god of the scribes - took on the form of a baboon. In ancient documents, Thoth can be seen mediating between humans and the gods - another indication of the human-like communication skills held by monkeys. He is thought to help with the smooth transition to the afterlife, which sometimes involved judgment calls on the potential redemption of a human.
Small monkeys were occasionally kept as pets by wealthier citizens of Ancient Egypt, but their strength, boisterousness and unpredictable nature were never taken for granted.
In Ancient Egypt, crocodiles were viewed as strong and dangerous animals who should be both feared and respected. In order to protect themselves from the wrath of the crocodile, Egyptians would worship the croc-god Sobek, a revered and ferocious deity whose sweat was believed to have created the vast River Nile. There was an element of fear surrounding Sobek, who was also known as "the raging one", but he was also thought to have connotations within growth and fertility of the land. This is another reason that he was worshipped with many temples in his name. Often these would be filled with pools that real crocodiles lived in until they died and were mummified in his honor.
Throughout both Greek and Egyptian mythology, dogs have had a notable association with the afterlife or the underworld. Cerberus is perhaps one of the best-known mythological dogs in Greek culture and was believed to be monstrous with three heads. In Egyptian mythology, Anubis is the primary dog-like god of the afterlife, although he is sometimes depicted as half dog and half jackal.
He is pictured in many tombs, temples and religious settings and is primarily black to represent the soil of the Nile and consequently the act of regeneration back into the earth after death.