In ancient Egypt, animals were highly respected. This can be seen, in part, through the frequent depictions of animals in Egyptian artwork. It is generally estimated that 1 out of every 4 or 5 hieroglyphs relates to animals. For the Egyptians, animals were crucial to both physical and spiritual survival. With regard to physical survival, animals were a major source of food. With regard to spiritual survival, how well a person treated animals was taken into account in the afterlife.
The ancient Egyptians mummified animals for four basic reasons: (1) as preservation of a god, (2) as pets for eternity, (3) as offerings to the gods, and (4) as food for the dead.
Preservation of a God:
There was only one animal which was actually worshiped by the Egyptians: the Apis bull. According to Egyptian tradition, lightning came from the heavens and struck a cow. In this way the Apis bull was conceived. Thus the Apis bull was part god and part terrestrial beast. The Apis bull had special markings: it had a diamond on its forehead, a scarab shape under its tongue, and wings on its back.
The Apis bull cult originated about 800 BCE. The bull was considered to be a symbol of strength and fertility, representing the creator gods Ptah and Osiris. The key part of worshipping the Apis bull involved mummification. The living bull was housed in a special temple and pampered for its entire life. The bull was felt to be a channel of communication with the two creator gods and so its movements were carefully observed and were consulted as an oracle. The bulls were allowed to die a natural life. However, if they lived 28 years, they were then killed.
All of Egypt would go into mourning with the death of an Apis bull. Since the Apis bull was not an ordinary bull, but one conceived from the heavens, it was mummified like a god. The process of mummification was lengthy and complicated. As a part of this mummification process, the bull’s internal organs would be destroyed and the body dried out using natron salts. The body would then be packed with sand and wrapped in linens. Artificial eyes and a plaster head would be added so that the bull still looked like a bull.
There was only one Apis bull at a time. While Egyptian theology was based on resurrection rather than reincarnation, beliefs regarding the Apis bull are close to reincarnation. Following the death of the Apis bull, the search for a new Apis bull, looking for the special markings, would begin.
Pets for Eternity:
Animals were sometimes mummified for personal reasons: beloved pets were to keep the deceased company in the afterlife. Most commonly these pets included cats, dogs, mongooses, monkeys, gazelles, and birds. It was not uncommon for the ancient Egyptians to give their pets names: Egyptologists have identified more than 70 names in the inscriptions identifying pet dog mummies.
Offerings to the Gods:
Most of the Egyptian animal mummies were religious offerings: literally millions of animal mummies originally prepared as offerings have been uncovered by archaeologists. When someone sought a favor from a particular god, an offering would be placed at the appropriate temple. While bronze statues representing the animals were used as offerings, the use of mummified animals was less expensive and therefore more popular.
As pilgrims approached the temples, there would be stands which sold the animal mummies. Thus, the pilgrims could purchase an animal mummy which would then be given to a temple priest (only the priests were allowed inside the temples) who would place the offering in a niche within the temple or tomb.
Cats were often mummified as religious offerings to the war goddess Bastet whose cult was centered at Thebes. Originally, Bastet was the protector goddess of Lower Egypt, but by the first millennium BCE, at a time when domesticated cats were popularly kept as pets, Bastet began to be represented as a woman with the head of a cat. By the Middle Kingdom, the domestic cat was considered to be Bastet’s sacred animal.
During the Ptolemaic and Roman periods of Egyptian history many ibis mummies were offered to Thoth, the god of wisdom. It is estimated that 500,000 ibis mummies are contained at Saqqara. Mummification of the ibis included desiccation and evisceration. In most cases the head and neck of the bird would be bent backwards and pressed against the body. The body would then be dipped in tar and wrapped tightly with linen.
There were ibis farms where the ibises were raised, killed, mummified, and then sold to pilgrims. The sale of the animal mummies was big business at the time.
Baboons were also offered to Thoth. Baboons were kept in mass quantities at the temples. At the tombs of Saqqara, about 400 baboon mummies have been discovered. Baboons were mummified with the use of plaster and were buried in wooden chests.
Crocodiles were regarded as extremely fierce animals and their mummies were offered to Sebek (the god of fertility) and Re (the sun god). Some crocodiles were lavishly mummified.
The archaeological examination of the animal mummies suggest that some animals were bred for the sole purpose of offerings. This was most frequent from 332 BCE to 30 BCE. The animals were raised on the temple grounds and then sold to pilgrims who wished to make offerings.
The use of CT scans has also shown that many of the mummies were “fakes”: their wrappings contained only a few bones, feathers, reeds, wood, or pieces of pottery.
Food for the Dead:
Since the afterlife was viewed as being a continuation of the present life, it was necessary to provide the dead with food. Animals intended to serve as food were not as meticulously mummified as pets. They were, however, carefully preserved through the use of natron and other salts. Following dehydration the animals would be wrapped in linen.
At the tomb of Tutankhamen there were stacks of small mummies which contained pressed ducks, one of his favorite meals. There were also mummies of parts of other animals which were to be used as food in the afterlife.
This essay was originally posted on Street Prophets