Egyptian animal mummies were an integral part of ancient life. But why?
Sometime around 1500 BC the Egyptians began mummifying animals extensively. Thus, over the years, archaeologists have uncovered millions of Egyptian animal mummies at sacred sites. It is common knowledge that Egyptians worshipped and mummified their cats. However, they also preserved a variety of other creatures including gazelles, baboons, dogs, cows, lions, bulls, falcons, and even hippos. Someone had carefully embalmed and crafted them; some had gilded faces and elaborately decorated tombs. Woven linens, sometimes of different colors, encased the cherished animal like bundled babies. But why did the Egyptians go through such painstaking efforts and even pay the expense to preserve their animals?
Why Did Egyptians Mummify Animals?
Scholars believe there were four main reasons for mummification of animals:
1) They became idols that were worshipped as physical manifestations of gods.
2) They were used as votive offerings to the gods at temples
3) They allowed beloved pets to go on to the afterlife for companionship with their owners.
4) The animal served as food in the afterlife.
As an animistic culture, Egyptians believed that gods could dwell anyplace and in anything. Their belief that animals were the manifestation of gods and goddesses led them to create idols, such as statuary and mummies. Sometimes the mummified animal was entombed in a statue. The Egyptians worshipped the gods within the animals as well as within their idols.
Worship often occurred at Egyptian temples that priests dedicated to specific gods. The animal mummies may have been given to a priest at the temple or simply left there as a votive, like Catholics leave candles. Either way, massive burials of animal mummies have been discovered at many sacred temple sites. Perhaps the mummy was offered as thanks for some blessing received or, alternatively, the animal was offered up as a sacrifice for a favor being asked.
Companionship in the Afterlife
In addition to being used as idols, animals were so loved and relied upon for companionship that when an owner died, his pets would also be mummified. This idea is in alignment with the Egyptian belief that life is everlasting as long as certain conditions existed, such as proper mummification and a tomb that contained everything necessary in the next world. The care given toward mummification of the human was also extended to his animals, and together they could continue in the afterworld.
Food in the Afterlife
Then there is the need for food in afterlife. Thus, undertakers added mummified food sources into the tombs of the wealthy.
Examples of Egyptian Animal Mummies
Crocodiles in Honor of Sobek
At the Egyptian temple and cemetery, Kom Ombu, north of Aswan, Egypt, archaeologists discovered more than 300 crocodiles mummies. This is not surprising, as Egyptians revered the crocodile for its fearsome strength and for it’s association with the Nile and, thus, fertility. Actually, the Kom Ombu temple was the worship site of both the falcon god Horus and the crocodile god Sobek. The crocodile mummy below came from Kom Ombu and researchers scanned her using modern CT. “The ancient Egyptians believed this mummy was [the] incarnation of the crocodile god, Sobek. Nearly 4 metres long, it is coated with resin and has over 25 mummified crocodile hatchlings attached to its back.” It dates to 650-550 BC. (British Museum).
Cats in Honor of Bastet
Bastet or Bast was the cat goddess. In the ancient religion of Egypt, worship for Bastet dates as far back as 2890 BC as the goddess of warfare in Lower Egypt. During the 22nd Dynasty, worshippers transformed her from a warrior deity in the form of a lioness to a protector deity in the shape of a cat.
Falcons in Honor of Horus
As noted above, Egyptians also worshipped a falcon god, Horus. The following falcon mummy resides in a private collection and dates to the Ptolemaic Period, 332-3o BC. The intricate details include two tones of linen woven into a geometric design, a stucco mask with painted falcon features, and a tripartite wig that drapes to its shoulders.
The Industry of Mummification
Mummification was an expensive process. Mummification was an art and a science practiced by a special group of priests who were able to recite the prayers and conduct the necessary rituals. Because there was widespread demand for animal mummies, an entire industry arose that offered them for sale or barter at special sacred sites. Scholars estimate that the number of Egyptian animal mummies were more than 70 million from around 380 BC to AD 400. In one site alone, they found 8 million preserved dogs. Additionally, archaeologists discovered around 30 animal mummy catacombs with millions of mummies piled from top to bottom.
Most of the mummies examined by experts contained whole or partial animals. However, about 1/3 of the animal mummies that experts scanned were actually empty. Instead of containing real animal parts, they only contained sticks or perhaps feathers. Although some sources are quick to sensationally cry “fraud!,” other highly credible research teams, such as the University of Pennsylvania Department of Anthropology, indicate that the empty “mummies” may not have been the result of dishonesty at all. There may be different reasons for purchasing an empty animal idol. Some scholars theorize that demand for animal offerings exceeded supply. Hence, to take the pressure off the embalmers and animal farms, priests sold stuffed ones as worthy replacements. Additionally, a very real possibility may be that commoners couldn’t afford real animal mummies.
Uncovering Animal Graves
One intriguing story surfaced in the “English Illustrated Magazine”. It told about a local farmer in 1888 who was simply digging in the sand near the village of Istabl Antar. Apparently, he discovered a large grave containing a staggering number of ancient mummified cats. Subsequently, many more such graves surfaced over the years.
Early archaeologists who dug through the sands of Egypt placed great value on the treasure-filled tombs of the wealthy and noble. But unfortunately, there was little interest in the large number of Egyptian animal mummies. Perhaps this was because archaeologists did not recognize their importance. However, in the following century, archaeology became more of a science and less of a treasure hunting hobby. Researchers became deeply interested in what they could learn about cultures, and thus, the preservation of history became paramount. The Egyptian animal mummies became a hot topic of Egyptian archaeology because of the things they reveal about the human-animal-god relationship in ancient Egypt.
Researcher Salima Ikram
Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist and a professor at Cairo’s American University, is an expert in zooarchaeology. She has dedicated a tremendous amount of time and passion in studying Egyptian animal mummies, and catalogued her detailed findings in the process. She presented her gallery of mummified animals to the public for educational purposes. Not surprisingly, Ikram’s Egyptian exhibit received high acclaim.
The preserved animals rest behind special glass panels. They proudly display their linen strips and painted faces, their beaded and gilded casings, and carved limestone boxes. Some have simple wrappings of papyrus mats. But all of them now, instead of being buried in mass graves or cast aside as useless items, are attracting the attention and adoration as should the gods that supposedly dwell in them.