Animals of Egypt.

The November 2009 issue of National Geographic has a cover article on animal mummies of Egypt. I think anyone who’s even a little familiar with Egypt knows that cats were often mummified, getting the same reverential treatment as humans because of their importance to the goddess Bast. The diversity of animals preserved as mummies, though, is really amazing:

Behind glass panels lie cats wrapped in strips of linen that form diamonds, stripes, squares, and crisscrosses. Shrews in boxes of carved limestone. Rams covered with gilded and beaded casings. A gazelle wrapped in a tattered mat of papyrus, so thoroughly flattened by mummification that Ikram named it Roadkill. A 17-foot, knobby-backed crocodile, buried with baby croc mummies in its mouth. Ibises in bundles with intricate appliqués. Hawks. Fish. Even tiny scarab beetles and the dung balls they ate.

Amazing diversity, but not surprising. Crocodiles were sacred to the god Sobek, scarab beetles were symbols of eternal life (because they were believed to come from dung), and many gods are pictured either as animals or with animal heads–Thoth with the head of an ibis, Horus with the head of a falcon, Hathor the cow, and so on.

What’s really surprising, given the Egyptian love of animals, is how little role animals seem to play in mythology and literature. There is an old dialogue between a cat and a jackal, but these are apparently metaphorical, with the cat taking the position that everything has a divine design and the jackal arguing that the universe is random and chaotic.

In Egyptian mythology too the animal forms of gods seems to be symbolic, or incidental. Anubis guides to the dead because jackals are associated with carrion, and in the battle between Horus and Set, Set takes the form of both a scorpion and a black boar. The only Egyptian god I know of who’s really animalistic is Sekhmet, who takes the form of a giant lioness. In one story Sekhmet is created to punish humanity for not respecting the gods, but the gods lose control of her and she goes on a rampage. Humanity is only saved when the people get Sekhmet drunk by offering her a large amount of red-colored beer which she drinks thinking it’s blood. Snakes, which were revered but also feared, weren’t mummified, but they play a pretty prominent role in mythology. When Amun-Ra refuses to give up the throne Isis makes a poisonous snake which bites him. She holds the cure but only gives it to him on the condition that Horus is allowed to become pharaoh. And in some stories Osiris and Set are allies in the afterlife and travel with Amun-Ra in his boat at night and defend him against a giant snake.

In another Egyptian story, the Tale of Two Brothers, two brothers are driven apart by the unfaithful wife of one of them. The unmarried brother is killed and eventually his ka or soul goes into a bull and he gets his revenge against the wife. Bulls were revered–and mummified–but this is the only story I know in which an animal gets a really prominent part.

Then again maybe there were Egyptian animal tales that were strictly oral and never written down. It should be noted too that a lot of the animal parts that were mummified were food for the dead, with the “best cuts of beef, succulent ducks, geese, and pigeons” being “salted, dried, and wrapped in linen.” This gets to what most people think of as the Egyptian obsession with death, since they went to such great lengths to prepare and store their dead and give them a proper send-off into the afterlife.

I think the idea that the Egyptians were obsessed with death is a misinterpretation. It’s true that life wasn’t easy. The Egyptians depended on the Nile’s annual floods, and if it flooded too much or not enough their crops would be ruined and they’d be in danger of famine. And yet their intense preparations for the afterlife reveal a deep love of life because they wanted to carry over everything they enjoyed in this life–and that included pets. Preserving the memory of the dead was a way of keeping them alive–although there was a dark side to that too. The names of Hatshepsut and Akhenaton were scratched out after their deaths in an attempt to wipe out their existence. And the preservation techniques of the Egyptians worked, too. We’re still talking about them. We still remember them. We keep them alive.