Birds and Beast in the Daily Lives of Ancient Egyptians

Mr. Patrick Houlihan, author of the recently published The Animal World of the Pharaohs, presented a most interesting lecture to the Northern California Chapter in September, 1997. He opened his comments with a slide of the proverbial camel and advised his audience that most people believe that camels were routinely used in ancient times in Egypt, which is not the case. Only with the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great did the camel become common.

Mr. Houlihan stated that we know of the animals and birds which populated the lives of the ancients through tomb paintings, written records and their remains which have survived to the present. Animals were important in both the daily lives as well as the religious lives of Ancient Egyptians. A wide variety of both domestic and non-domestic images of animals and birds are portrayed. Many Egyptian gods and goddesses had animal counterparts. For example, cats were associated with the goddess Bastet; the ibis and the baboon were both associated with the god Thoth. Geese, or perhaps a large breed of duck were sacred to the god Amun and were kept as pets. Ibis, cats, falcons, and other animals were mummified as votive offerings and buried in vast catacombs located at Saqqara. Food offerings such as mummified ducks and geese, as well as joints of meat were placed within tombs as sustenance for the deceased in the next world. Roosters were first depicted in Egypt in the 19th Dynasty and were likely exotic wonders, and did not become food birds until the Late Period. One of the most well know depictions of animals in Ancient Egypt are the beautiful "Meidum Geese" which originally decorated the wall of the tomb of NefermaÕat and Idut. Pictured are red-breasted geese which have not been seen in Egypt in 150 years. An endangered species, they are now found only in the Arctic. Egyptian art abounds with representation of raptorial species - peregrine falcons, vultures, and kites. Egypt's kings were frequently portrayed with a falcon perched protectively behind or near the king, symbolic of the god Horus. The barn owl which depicts the Egyptian hieroglyph for the letter "M", is often rendered with exceptional detail and beauty.

The most common domestic animals in Ancient Egypt were cattle. The goddess, Hathor, was manifested as a cow. Cattle were used for tillage, sledging, plowing and a variety of other farm chores, as well as a source of milk and meat. Numerous representations of cattle survive from ancient times. Egypt's eternal beast of burden is the donkey. It's stubbornness was well known to the ancients and is frequently illustrated on tomb walls. Pigs were used as food animals but were apparently not considered appropriate for funerary representations or offerings, though during the Late Period they were associated with the goddess, Isis. Fish, like pigs were an important element in the diet of the Ancient Egyptians, particularly of the common people. Many representations of fishing have survived. Hippopotamus lived in large herds in the Nile and foraged along the shores at night. A full grown hippo can consume 170 kilos of grain in a single night and a large herd could easily decimate a grain field. Thus hippos were not only dangerous, but undesirable, so were hunted regularly. Very dramatic records survive of such hunts. Crocodiles can be crushed by an adult hippo, although they are known to prey on young hippos. Female hippos are very devoted mothers. As a result, the goddess, Taweret, came to be represented as a pregnant hippo. Many representations of blue faience hippos decorated with lotus blossoms and papyrus umbels have survived and served an amuletic function in Middle Kingdom burials.

The earliest evidence of horses in Ancient Egypt is during Dynasty 13. The earliest pictorial records come from Dynasty 18. Horses were generally used to pull light, two-wheeled chariots and are only infrequently represented with a rider. Desert hunts with a pair of horses pulling a chariot picture gazelles, rabbits, red foxes, hyenas and various other animals being hunted and captured. The tomb of the Vizier, Mereruka, at Saqqara abound with animals both in hunting scenes and domestic scenes. Dogs are often shown as beloved pets and are frequently referenced by a name. Monkeys were common household pets and many have had a erotic association for the ancients. Gazelles were kept as pets by the wealthy and birds were often made into pets. The date of domestication of cats is uncertain but the appear in scenes as old a Dynasty 12, and my also have had an erotic significance. Animals are sometimes portrayed humorously, though they probably relate to mythology when depicted in this manner.

Mr. Houlihan closed his presentation by noting that the Ancient Egyptians were fascinated with exotic animals; thus tribute bearers are frequently represented bring giraffes, cheetahs, leopards and even a young Asian elephant.

  • Nancy Corbin
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