September 12, 2013

Sacred Animals in Ancient Egypt

Sacred Animals
To our eyes the monotheism of the all Ancient Egyptian religion has all the appearances of fetishism. However it should be recognized that the innumerable gods of the Egyptian pantheon are nothing more than manifestations of the Supreme Being in his different roles, agents or representations of the eternal aspect of the divinity. This is the meaning which must be attached to the cult of the sun, of the earth, even of certain animals, which one finds in different provinces of Egypt. Indeed it was only at a relatively late period that the Egyptian gods assumed a human appearance, initially they incarnated plants and animals. The goddes Hathor lived in a sycamore tree, the goddess Neith who gave birth while remaining a virgin and whom the Greeks identified with Athena was worshipped in the shape of a shield with two crossed arrows. Nefertum (identified in Prometheus) went under the form of a lotus flower.

Sacred Animals in Ancient Egypt
But the Egyptian god appeared to the faithful predominantly in the form of an animal. A few examples will suffice: Horus is a sparrow-hawk, Thot an ibis, Bastet a cat, Khunm a ram. However apart from the gods who were personified by animals, there are the animals themselves who, when they had the right characteristics and bore certain special signs, were themselves worshipped. One of the most important examples of this behaviour was the elaborate cult of Apis, the sacred bull, at Memphis. In order to be recognized as sacred this animal had to possess certain characteristics known only to the priests. Following the death of an Apis the priests, after a long fast, set about finding a new Apis who had to have a white triangular mark on his forehead, a mark in the shape of an eagle on the neck and another mark like a crescent moon on its flank. At Memphis the animal lived in a stable in front of the world. There the animal received offerings from its worshippers and pronunced its oracles. Up until the XlXth dynasty each bull had its own burial place. However Ramses II created a common burial place for them, a special mausoleum called the Serapeum. This latter name arose because Apis once dead and deified became Osor-Apis which the Greeks made into Serphis. On the basis of certain precise indications contained in a passage of Strabonius, the French archeologist Auguste Mariette managed to find the mythical Serapeum at Sakkarah in 1851. It is a vast underground construction, essentially a long corridor off which ran the burial chambers which contained monolithic sarcophagi of red granite, limestone or basalt which measured up to seventy tonnes and contained the mummies of the sacred bulls.

Sacred Birds in Ancient Egypt
It was in recognition of the value of certain birds to agriculture that the Ancient Egyptians counted them among the sacred animals. At Sakkarah there is a necropolis for the ibis, the sacred bird par excellence, today a disappearing species. The denuded head and neck of the ibis should be blue-black feathers on the wings. Whilst alive it was dedicated to the god Thot whom the Greeks called Hermes, whilst once dead it was mummified and placed in a clay vase.

Sacred Animals in Ancient Egypt
At Thebes there was a very special cult of the crocodile which lived there quite tame with ear-rings in its ears and gold rings on its toes. This was not so in all towns and Herodotus reports that the inhabitants of Elephantine and its surroundings did not at all consider the crocodile sacred and had no scruples about eating it!

Sacred Animals in Ancient Egypt
The cat also played a big role in Egyptian religion. The female cat was dedicated to the goddess Bast and personified the beneficial heat of the sun. Its cult .was practised particularly in Lower Egypt and the city of Bubaste, today Zigazag, owed its name to a temple dedicated to this goddess. The cat was considered so sacred than anyone killing one, even accidentally, was put to death. A great number of embalmed cats were found at Beni Hassan.

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