Far from superstitiously worshipping animals, the ancient Egyptians had perhaps surprisingly sophisticated attitudes to the natural world, writes David Tresilian

Ancient Egyptian attitudes towards animals have sometimes received a bad press, in part because of the prejudice or carelessness of those observing them. According to the early Christian writer Clement of Alexandria, for example, active in the Egyptian port city in the second century CE, the ancient Egyptians not only spent an inordinate amount of time capturing and mummifying animals, time, he implied, that would have been better spent elsewhere, but they also exhibited the height of superstition by worshipping animals, setting them up as gods or goddesses and building elaborate temples for them.

“The halls and entrances of Egyptian temples are magnificently built. The courtyards are ringed with columns, and precious multi-coloured marble panels decorate the walls,” Clement wrote. “The sanctuaries are concealed behind veils of gold, but when you go into the depths of the temples, seeking the god to whom they are dedicated, what do you find? A cat, a crocodile, a snake, or an animal of that kind! The gods of the Egyptians are just so many wild beasts disporting themselves on purple carpets.”

As Hélène Guichard, curator of the exhibition the Animals and the Pharaohs that has recently opened at the Louvre Lens, the Louvre Museum’s new satellite institution in northern France, points out, Clement’s words could hardly have been further from the truth. While Clement, born in Greece and eager to proselytise, could hardly have been expected to be sympathetic towards a competing religion, he badly missed the mark.

As this stimulating and sometimes enchanting exhibition makes clear, the ancient Egyptians may not have been any more superstitious when it came to the animal world than the American Walt Disney, who after all made a fortune out of a talking mouse. In fact their attitudes may have been closer to those of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, being based on the careful observation of the natural world.

The exhibition, occupying the Louvre Lens’s magnificent temporary exhibition spaces before it moves to the Caixa Foundation in Madrid and Barcelona later this year, begins by looking at the animal species known to have existed in ancient Egypt before examining the practical uses that were made of them. In the second part of the exhibition, spread out over a total of nine rooms, the symbolic and religious aspects of animals in ancient Egypt are considered, what the exhibition calls the “intellectualisation of animal forms” and including their presence in hieroglyphics and religious beliefs and rituals.

The aim has been to explain the “omnipresence of animals in ancient Egyptian iconography” and the meanings that were attached to animal representations – fundamental, Guichard says, to the way the ancient Egyptians understood the world and communicated its meanings. In order to do so, the exhibition has brought together ancient Egyptian animal treasures from the Louvre Museum in Paris, as well as from museums in Lille, Madrid and Barcelona, for a presentation that cannot fail to stimulate fresh thinking about the place of animals in one of the world’s most important ancient civilisations.

ANIMALS AND ECOSYSTEMS: like modern Egypt, ancient Egypt covered a range of ecosystems or ecological spaces, from the lush environment of the Delta and Nile Valley to the desert environments of the eastern and western deserts and the footholds provided by the oases.

However, ancient Egypt, though it shared most of the climatic features of the modern country, still contained memories of older animal distributions. Lions still roamed the desert margins well into the New Kingdom, though in declining numbers, and hippopotamuses and crocodiles were a constant presence in the Nile Delta until the Ptolemaic period.

Gazelles roamed the western desert, wild boar had the run of the Delta, and baboons were a constant hazard. Vultures and ibex flew overhead, and horses, making their appearance during the New Kingdom, were brought into service to pull chariots though they were not used in agriculture. It seems that horses were also rarely used for military purposes, at least before the Late Period, breaking with the ancient Mediterranean habit, presented in Hollywood films, of using teams of horses to pull war chariots.

In the Ptolemaic period camels made their appearance in Egypt, as did elephants in what was a reintroduction following their earlier extinction as a result of climate change. Ptolemy II Philadelphus (reigned 283-246 BCE) is on record as having hunted elephants in Sudan in a tradition continued by his son Ptolemy III Euergetes. Ptolemy IV Philopator used African war elephants against his rival the Seleucid king Antiochus III.  

Dogs and cats were kept as pets, particularly during the New Kingdom, and cats were also the focus of a notable religious cult during the Late Period. The most popular breed of dog was the greyhound, depicted in paintings with floppy ears, a slim body and a long tail. The ancient Egyptians called their dogs by names indicating shapes or colours (“blacky”), faults (“rascal”) or qualities (“fido”). Cats they tended simply to call “cat.” Prince Thutmosis, brother of the pharaoh Amenhotep IV (reigned 1353-1337 BCE), was so attached to his pet cat that when it died he had it mummified according to procedures usually reserved for royalty and interred in a specially made sarcophagus.

Monkeys also made popular pets, and many depictions of the two species of primate known in ancient Egypt, African monkeys and baboons, have survived. Small African monkeys, imported from Nubia, were popular because of their cheeky habits, and they are often shown hiding under chairs, stealing food from under people’s noses, or imitating human behaviour, sometimes in images that recall illustrations by the English author Beatrix Potter to her animal stories Peter Rabbit. The New Kingdom Turin Papyrus, for example, a reconstructed version of which is on show in the exhibition, shows animals performing human tasks.

Diets included beef, pork, and, from the New Kingdom onwards, chicken, stratified by social standing. The pharaohs never ate fish despite the availability of abundant tilapia, mullet and Nile perch, considering it to be impure, though grilled or salted fish seems to have been a regular part of the diets of ordinary people. Fish are also often represented on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs, possibly indicating the Nile’s fecundity. They were used as models for domestic implements and even religious items, with fish-shaped dishes being common, along with fish illustrations on plates and ceramics.

Pigs, despite what the exhibition describes as their ubiquity in ancient Egypt where they served as an important source of food, are rarely represented in tomb paintings or domestic decoration and they were never eaten by the higher social strata. Poorer people would have eaten goats or mutton, with beef being reserved for the pharaohs.

Illustrated by a range of objects and images, the first part of the exhibition provides a survey of the animal species that would have been familiar to the ancient Egyptians, both wild and domesticated and from across the country’s climatic zones. Used in agriculture, farmed or hunted, kept as pets or in the precincts of palaces or temples, animals were carefully observed and their characteristic forms of behaviour noted.

ANIMALS IN RELIGION: for the ancient Egyptians, animals were part of a vast religious conception of the world, their habits understood as the visible expression of otherwise hidden divine attributes or forces.

French academic Pascal Vernus, writing in the exhibition catalogue, gives the example of a tiny beetle that makes a sudden jump to escape from water or to set itself aright if it falls. The ancient Egyptians saw in this an expression of the power, incarnated by the goddess Neith, that had set creation aright at the birth of the world.

On a different scale, the behaviour of the hippopotamus, its apparently placid nature punctuated by sudden fits of rage, was taken as a manifestation of a force often represented by the god Seth. The animal’s semi-aquatic nature, living both above and below water level, also meant that it could be seen as representing the concept of rebirth. In general, the idea was that animal habits and behaviour could represent attributes of the gods or divine forces, and this led the ancient Egyptians to represent the gods themselves in animal form or as composites of different animals.

Their representations were based on observation and an often ingenious process of symbolic extrapolation. Sometimes the latter makes a kind of ready sense – frogs, for example, since they bred in water but were found on land were associated with the idea of birth as they emerged out of a kind of amniotic fluid. But sometimes the symbolism can be difficult to grasp, reminding visitors of how alien ancient Egyptian thought processes can often be. The cries of baboons were thought to symbolise something important about language, for example, meaning that baboons became expressions of the god Thoth, himself a kind of patron god of words.

In some ways ancient Egyptian animal symbolism was not so very far removed from more modern versions, with lions, for example, being associated with kingship and therefore the king often being represented by a lion. But sometimes the ancient Egyptians took things to extremes. Wild dogs or jackals, for example, discussed in the exhibition catalogue, were observed to be able to cover long distances without tiring, causing them to be associated with a similar divine capacity. Because they poked around in carrion they were seen as manifestations of the god Anubis, associated with mummification and the underworld. Their habit of burying their food gave rise to a hieroglyph of a dog sitting on a box, meaning the keeping of a secret.

As Vernus notes, an animal could be invested with various and sometimes even contradictory meanings. Whereas for modern observers vultures are often seen as obnoxious because of their habit of feeding on carrion, “what impressed the ancient Egyptians most were their immense wings and their habit of using these to fight off attackers and protect their young from the sun. As a result, vultures signified protection, with the vulture hieroglyph meki meaning ‘protection’ and the vulture hieroglyph mout meaning ‘mother’. The vulture’s ability to detect carrion from afar also meant that it was seen as incarnating the idea of destiny” in the sense of being far-seeing.

One of the most interesting aspects of this understanding of animals was its use to create composite forms. Some of these are well-known, such as the sphinx, a creature having a lion’s body and the pharaoh’s head and designed to express the association of lions with royalty. Such forms are also familiar in other cultures if one thinks of griffins or even centaurs. But ancient Egyptian animal composites generally require the kind of symbolic keys that the exhibition provides before they yield to modern understanding, including the many depictions of gods with human bodies and animal heads with the animal signifying an attribute of the god.

Others are even more complicated, including composites of crocodiles and scarab beetles, rams and crocodiles, snakes and falcons, lions and rams, and so on. Writing in the catalogue, French scholar Florence Gombert-Meurice says that it is the head of the composite that expresses its fundamental identity, the body expressing a secondary quality. For this reason the Great Sphinx at Giza represents the pharaoh in the guise of a lion and not vice versa.

However, it is not always easy to identify which gods are being represented, since a crocodile with the head of a ram could just as easily be a combination of the god Sobek with the god Khnoum as of Sobek with Amon, for example, depending on how one reads it. In fact, Gombert-Meurice says, it may be wrong to look for rigid one-to-one correspondences between gods and animals in such representations, since composites of this kind could be “free productions of hieroglyphic thinking,” a kind of creative bricolage.

The ancient Egyptians also used animals for ritual purposes, notably in the Late Period. It seems to have been at this time that popular cults emerged that saw the mummification of vast numbers of animals, often specially bred, in dedicated temple necropolises. These animals, votive offerings to the god with which they were associated, included cats, manifestations of the goddess Bastet, ibex, manifestations (like baboons) of the god Thoth, and crocodiles, manifestations of the god Sobek. According to French scholar Alain Charron writing in the catalogue, millions of such mummies were interred over hundreds of years.

“Animals mummified on an industrial scale in necropolises like those at Saqqara (cats, dogs, ibex, monkeys and rams), Touna al-Gebel (ibex, monkeys and raptors), Bubastis (cats) or Kom Ombo (crocodiles) came from many different sources,” Charron comments. “Some of them were hunted (crocodiles, lions, even a few hippopotamuses, some mummies of which have been discovered at Matmar), others were raised in conditions of semi-liberty (ibex), but most were specially raised on farms in temple precincts (cats, dogs, crocodiles and cows). The ancient Egyptians even set up special incubators to hatch the eggs of crocodiles.”

But it seems that animals were rarely worshipped in themselves, being seen either as manifestations of qualities of the gods with which they were associated, or used as votive offerings particularly in the Late Period. An important exception to this rule was the cult of Apis at Memphis, however, a sacred bull thought to incarnate the god Ptah and worshipped during its lifetime.

GREEN THINKING: while the ancient Egyptians did not usually worship animals, they did not always treat them well, and the breeding of votive animals in the Late Period had some of the features of factory-farming.

They could be remarkably observant with regard to animal habits, felt in the paintings of animals on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs, and they developed an intriguing religious conception of the fluidity of natural species, crossing crocodiles with scarab beetles, lions with humans, and rams with crocodiles. They felt affection for pets, and they attributed human feelings to animals, noting the loyalty of dogs and the cheekiness of monkeys.

They were not like the European philosophers who thought animals were machines and therefore not worthy of moral consideration, or who argued that animals should be treated well not for their sakes but for ours. But they don’t seem to have had much to say about the proper stewardship of the animal or natural world. They were not necessarily green thinkers.

Nevertheless, French academic Juan Carlos Moreno Garcia, writing on agriculture in the exhibition catalogue, says that the ancient Egyptians saw humanity, animals and plants as being interconnected, notably in the versions of pastoral – images of idealised rural life – that they painted on the walls of tombs. Such scenes were extrapolations of the natural equilibrium that the gods maintained on earth for the benefit of humans, proven by the way in which the earth and Nile seemed to conspire together to bring forth food to feed them.

Perhaps the ancient Egyptians did not see this system in hierarchical terms, since a god could be manifested just as readily in a scarab beetle or a frog as in a cat, a wild dog, or a baboon.

Des animaux et des pharaons, le règne animal dans l’Egypte ancienne, Louvre Lens, 5 December to 9 March 2015


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