Animal Mummies: Ancient Egypt’s Reverence for Beasts
Thousands of years ago Egyptians mummified millions of animals because they thought animals were as good as people, if not better
The ancient Egyptians had a different need for animals than the people of today, who make pets of animals, place them zoos or wildlife preserves, or send them to slaughterhouses. In contrast, the Egyptians thought animals were godlike or at least representatives of gods. Indeed, they thought animals had souls, just like people.
And since the Egyptians believed this life on earth would be continued in an afterlife, they did what they could to preserve what was left of the physical body so it could continue its existence. Thus, they mummified people and animals – in great numbers.
Let’s explore why the people of ancient Egypt mummified animals and reflect on how these beliefs may conflict with our own.
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In the Early Days
Although humans were mummified earlier, the ancient Egyptians began mummifying animals about 7,500 years ago, during the Badarian Predynastic Period. (For comparison, the famous Pyramids of Giza were built about 4,500 years ago.) In general, animal mummies weren’t given the same care as that of human mummies – their bodies were simply dipped in resin, wrapped in coarse linen rags and then sold as offerings to the public.
However, studies show that going back thousands of years some animals were mummified using the best embalming techniques and wrapped in the finest linen. The best substances used for mummification were fats, oils, beeswax, sugar gum, petroleum bitumen and coniferous cedar resins. Whatever a person could afford to pay for mummification seemed to be the determining factor.
Animals as Gods
Why did ancient Egyptians bother to mummify animals? Well, the ancient Egyptians had great respect for animals, perhaps more than any other culture which has existed on earth. Evidence of this is that about 50 per cent of Egyptian hieroglyphs depict animals in some way, though never in a negative fashion.
According to the Egyptian religion, a person’s well being seemed to depend upon how well he treated animals. Moreover, their priests theorized that before a person could be admitted into the afterlife, the gods would ask him how well he had treated animals during his life on earth.
In fact, it was a crime to mistreat animals. In 60 B.C.E. the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote that he had witnessed the lynching of a Roman who had accidentally killed a cat! Moreover, when people came upon a dead animal, they would often flee rather than be accused of killing it.
Animals were also considered incarnations of various gods and/or as intermediaries between people and entities of the spirit world. Also, Egyptians gods, such as Horus and Thoth, were often depicted with the heads of animals.
Gifts to the Gods
Most animal mummies were made so they could be used as votive offerings. Many thousands of years ago, a bronze statue would be made of the animal that would then be left in a temple representing a particular god. But for a cheaper alternative in more recent times, a person could have an animal mummified and then offered to a god for whom he wanted to gain favor.
Interestingly, many animals were bred so they could one day be used as religious offerings. These creatures were sacrificed, that is, by having their necks broken. Actually, this seemed the most acceptable way of sacrificing animals. And, as time went by, these offerings could be rather cheap, little more than bundles of cloth containing a few animal bones or other body parts.
Nevertheless, modern scholars have estimated that at one time the 31 known animal necropolises in Egypt held at least 20 million animal mummies!
In those bygone days, many animals were kept as pets, of course. In fact, there may have been more cats kept as pets than any other animal in ancient Egypt. Cats represented the war goddess Bastet, whose worship began during the Second Dynastic period around 2,800 B.C.E. Of course, many of these pet cats were mummified. So many cats were mummified that by the nineteenth century the British shipped tons of them home so they could be used as fertilizer!
Other Animal Mummies
Just about all animals were considered for mummification by the ancient Egyptians. Ibises, baboons and crocodiles were commonly mummified, as were fish of all sorts, shrews, dogs, antelopes, jackals, birds of all types, as well as snakes and beetles.
Perhaps the greatest animal cult to develop in ancient Egypt was that of the Apis Bull, which began about 800 B.C.E. The practice went something like this: A specific bull would be bred in captivity, treated as well as possible and then after death mummified in the best manner possible. Keep in the mind, the bull wasn’t the god; it represented a particular god such as Ptah or Osiris, the two major gods of creation. While living, the bull was considered a medium of communication with these gods.
When this Apis bull died or reached the age of 28, at which point it was sacrificed, the entire country went into mourning, and then the bull was buried using the most elaborate ceremonies available. Of course, this creature, and its organs, required a great deal of mummification, though no expense was spared, including replacing its eyes with artificial ones.
Animals as Food in the Afterlife
As the afterlife was considered a continuation of life on earth, animal mummies were often placed in tombs with human mummies. The animal mummies would be meant as pets for the deceased people, while others would be used as food, though these would be prepared in a way that meant they would be used for this purpose alone, that is, providing food for what the ancient Egyptians called the Ka (spirit) as it journeyed to the land beyond death.
For example, about 1400 B.C.E., pharaoh Amenhotep II went to his reward accompanied by mummies of his beloved hunting dogs, while his heir Thutmose IV, was interred with his royal pet cat.
Animal Mummies and Modern Archaeology
According to an article in the March/April 2014 issue of Archaeology magazine, the animal mummies of ancient Egypt didn’t come under close scientific examination until the twentieth century when they were subjected to X-ray radiography and CT scans. Since then, scientists have discovered that many animal mummies contain little if any animal matter. These were, in fact, fake mummies!
Regarding this discovery, Egyptologists found a document written on potsherds that tells a tale of corruption by priests at the Temple of Thoth in the necropolis of Saqqara. These priests were supposed to include one whole animal in each mummy, but they often didn’t deliver the goods and many were eventually sent to prison. Be that as it may, at one time the Temple of Thoth had 60,000 living ibises that were being prepared for mummification, and archaeologists have estimated that as many as four million ibises were eventually buried there.
Some of these mummies were found with papyri asking the gods for help in resolving disputes or provide assistance in curing an illness. Some researchers have suggested that people may have spoken to the mummies before burial, hoping they would pass on the request to the gods.
Although religious groups such as the Hindus have their sacred cows and Native Americans seem to have great respect for beasts of all sorts, animals are for the most part treated differently these days. Herded into abattoirs, humans devour animals and/or their various parts by the millions and billions. Of course, vegetarians and vegans beg to differ. Animal species are also going extinct at a great rate because of overpopulation and industrialization. Literally millions of species are disappearing before science can catalog them.
Maybe we would all be better off both physically and mentally, if we treated animals as if they were as good as people. The very fate of the world may be at stake.
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© 2014 Kelley