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AnimalsandDivinity
in
AncientEgyptianMyth

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Bastet.Sekhmet.Horus.Thoth.TheyareperhapsthemostcompellingaspectsofancientEgyptian
myth:animalheadeddeitieswhosestatelyandmysteriousfiguresadorntheancienttemplesandtombs
clusteredalongthebanksoftheNile.LearnmoreabouttheancientEgyptianmythologicaltraditionin
thisarticleoriginallypublishedbyMichelleinPanGaiamagazine.
Thedeities,drawnwithformulaicsymmetry,offeramutetestimonytotherichmythictraditionthat
onceblossomedinKhemet1theancientsnameforwhatwemodernsknowasEgypt.Thesefantastic
beingsbothfascinatedandrepulsedthestaidEuropeanarchaeologistswhowereexcavatingtheancient
sitesinthefirsthalfofthenineteenthcentury.Drawninaccordancetoanartisticformulathat
dominatedEgyptianartforaperiodofnearlythreethousandyears,theirproud,inhumanimages
fascinateusstill.
AComplexTradition
TheancientEgyptianswereacomplexpeoplewithanequallycomplicatedvisionofdivinity.Judging
fromthemythsthathavesurvivedthejourneyofmillennia,theyseemedtohaveagodorgoddessfor
everything.Manyofthedeitiesfunctionsoverlapped.Othershadfunctionsinapparentconflict.Seth,
forexample,wasagodwhobothcalledstormsandcalmedthem.Hewasknowntoprotectdesert
caravansbutsimultaneously,itwashewhocommandedthefiercedesertwindwhichposedthegreatest
threattosuchtravelers.
Otherdeitieshavehadtheiraspectsblendedandmergedwithothergodsoverthecourseofages.Horus,
frequentlydepictedastheadversaryofSeth,hasanelderandayoungerform,bothhawkheaded.The
youngerHorusisHorustheAvenger,sonofIsisandOsiris.HeisusuallySethsnephew,butsometimes
Sethsbrother.TheElderHorusseemstobetheremnantofamucholdercultwhosequalitiesasasun
godallowedhimtobesubsumedintotheyoungerHorusoftheOsirianmyth.
ThesyncretismofancientEgyptianmythhasgreatlycontributedtoitsrichnessanddiversity.However,
thissamesyncretismmakesthemythsdifficulttoapproachfromamodernperspective,becauseoften
therolesofmanydeitiesdonotseemtobefixed.ThegoddessesBastet,Sekhmet,andHathorall
appeartobeindividualdeities,andyetinsomemythstheirrolesarefreelyinterchanged,andinothers,
theyaredepictedasmerelybeingaspectsofasinglegoddess.
WhenapproachingtheancientEgyptianpantheon,itsimportanttorememberthatthecivilizationthat
shapedthesemythslastedforoverthreethousandyears.Incontrast,ourownAmericancivilizationhas
beenaroundforaboutthreehundredonetenthofthetimethatEgyptgrew,developed,evolvedand
changed.Culturally,theancientEgyptiansweresomethinglikeintellectualpackratstheydidntlike
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lettinggoofideasjustbecausetheywereold.Instead,oldideaswereintegratedwithnewonesandthus
infusedwithavisionmoreappropriatetothechangingtimes.Thisisaprimaryreasonforthedepthand
complexityoftheancientEgyptiandeitiesandtheircorrespondingmyths.Whenanewcultrosein
placeofanoldone,thepreviousdeitywassimplyassimilatedintotheaspectofhissuccessor,andboth
divinitieswereenrichedbythisprocess.
GodsandAnimals
ThisrichhistoryofsyncretismmeansthatnoneoftheancientEgyptiandeitiesareeasilyreducibleto
oneformorfunctionorevenonecycleofmyths.Butifanything,theirinherentcomplexityhasadded
totheirmodernappeal.ThereisanundeniablemysteryinfigureslikefierceSekhmet,thegoddesswith
theheadofalioness,orwiseThoth,theibisheadedgod.Theirappealasarchetypaltotemsisobvious,
especiallyconsideringhowseriouslytheancientEgyptianstooktheirapproachtoanimals.
Inaprecursortomodernzoology,theancientEgyptianskeptgardensofanimalstostudyandobserve.
Thehabitsofthespecieswerecarefullynotedandimagesoftheanimalswerepainstakingly
reproduced.Theseimages,someofwhichmakeuphieroglyphicletters,aresoexactthatmodern
biologistscanaccuratelyidentifyeachspeciestheydepict.Theyareevenabletorecognizespeciesthat
clearlyonceexisted,butnowhavebecomeextinctamongthese,severalspeciesoffishandatleast
onespeciesofcat.
FortheancientEgyptians,thispracticewasablendofscienceandreligion,forthehabitsofanimals
wereseenasbeingintrinsicallyinterconnectedwiththeinnerworkingsoftheuniverse.Thus,whenit
wasnotedthatmalebaboonstendedtourinateeveryhouronthehouronthedayoftheEquinox,the
baboonbecameassociatedwithtimekeeping.Aspartofthisassociation,thebaboonwasthe
traditionalfiguredepictedontheEgyptianwaterclock.Additionally,itwasoneoftheanimalssacredto
Thoth,whowascreditedwithinventingthemeasurementofyears.
Manyofthedeitieswhowearthefaceofanimalsdosothroughassociationsthatarenotnearlyso
obscure.Asmentionedabove,manyofthetotemsarearchetypal,andwhiletheancientEgyptianswere
drawinguponanimalsuniquetotheirenvironment,manyofthesearchetypalassociationsarevalidstill.
BelowareafewofthemorecompellinganimalheadeddeitiestobefoundinancientEgyptianmyth.
TotemicDeities
Anubis:Anubisisthejackalheadedgodofdeath.JackalsaredoglikecreaturesnativetoEgyptand
muchofNorthernAfrica.Ascarrioneaters,itistheirassociationwithcorpsesthatmakesjackalsthe
idealanimalsforagodofdeathandthedead.Themorticianofthegods,Anubisisoftendepictedin
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theactofwrappingamummyforitsjourneyintotheafterlife.Inlateryears,aftertheHellenizationof
Egypt,Anubisbecameakeyfigureinmagickalspellsthatcalluponspirits.Inhisguiseasguideand
guardianofthedead,AnubisissometimesassociatedwiththeGreekHermes,alsoapsychopompwho
leadsthedeadbetweenworlds.2
Bastet:Muchlovedbymodernpractitioners,Bastetisthegoddesswiththeheadofahousecat.Sheis
sometimesalsodepictedwhollyasacat,regalandbejeweled,withkohlaroundhereyesandanearring
inoneear.Thefirstpeopletodomesticateourfelinecompanions,theancientEgyptiansheldcatsin
veryhighesteem.Countlessfelineswereaccordedtheritesofmummificationandstoredincatacombs
underthetemplesofBubastis,Bastetssacredcity.Clearly,theancientEgyptiansunderstoodthecats
lovingandsensuousnature,forBastetwasagoddessoffertilitywhoalsowatchedoverpregnant
women.Shepunishesthosewhowrongthegodsand,inatleastonemyth,doesthisbyseducingthe
wrongdoer.
Hathor:Depictedvariouslyasacowbearingthesolardiscbetweenherhorns,awomanwithcows
ears,orawomanwithhornsandasolardisc,Hathorembodiesthefertile,motheringqualitiesofthe
cow.CowswereanimportanticonicfigureinancientEgypt,andasthecelestialcow,Hathorisoften
shownnurturingthePharaohwithmilkdirectlyfromherteats.HernamemeansHouseofHorus3
andasthePharaohwasthelivingembodimentofHorus,Hathorwasanimportantdeityoftheroyal
house.HathorscultcitywasDendera,andherpriestswereallcreatorsintheirownright:musicians,
artists,dancers,andsingers.Indeferencetoheridentityasanurturingmother,Hathorspriestswere
midwivesaswell.
Horus:Thegodwhobearstheheadofaperegrinefalcon,Horusseyesaresaidtobethesunandthe
moon.InhisaspectofHorustheElder,heisHorusoftheHorizon,apredynasticsolardeity.Asthe
sonofIsisandOsiris,heisHorustheAvenger,thegoodsonwhohuntsdownhisfathersmurderer.
Manycultureshaverecognizedthefalconasthebirdofkings,andancientEgyptwasnodifferent.
HoruswasthegodwhoreplacedtheagingRainhisroleasrulerofgodsandmen.AllPharaohswere
viewedastheearthlyincarnationofHorus,justastheybecameassociatedwithhisfatherOsirisafter
death.
Nekhbet:Nekhbetisagoddesswhosetotemicassociationsdonotreadilytranslateintomodernterms.
Asaresult,sheisnotadeityoftenassimilatedintomodernneoPaganpractice.Depictedasavulture,
NekhbetwasagoddesswhowatchedoverthePharaoh.Shewasanurturingdeitycertainlynota
qualitymostmodernswouldreadilyassociatewithacarrionbird.Andyet,totheancientEgyptians,
thisbirdhadaverydifferentsignificance.Thehieroglyphforvulturewasalsothehieroglyphfor
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mother4,forthevulturewasseenasamodelparentnurturingandprotectiveofitsyoung,oftenat
itsownexpense.Thus,Nekhbet,asadivinevulture,madetheperfectprotectressforthePharaoh.
Sekhmet:Thelionheadedgoddessknownasthepowerfulone5,Sekhmethasassociationswithboth
HathorandBastet.Sometimes,SekhmetissupposedtobeHathorsdarksidethefurysheunleashes
uponthosewhowouldharmherlovedones.Amonglionprides,thefemalesgooutandhuntwhilethe
malesremainandloungewiththeyoung.ThusSekhmetisendowedwiththecunningandferocityofa
huntinglioness.Agoddessofwar,Sekhmethasafiercethirstforblood.Inonemyth,shenearly
destroyshumanityandisonlystoppedwhensheistrickedintodrinkingacopiousamountofbeer,dyed
redsoshewouldmistakeitforblood.Fromthisincident,Sekhmetisalsothegoddessofbeerandof
brewing,showingthatevenshehasalighterside.
Seth:OfallEgyptiandeities,Sethisthemostcomplexandperhapsthemostmisunderstood.
Appropriatelyenough,thoughSethisdepictedasbeinganimalheaded,Egyptologistshavenoclear
ideawhatexactlythisanimalis.TheSethanimalhassquaredears,acurvedsnout,andalongtail
tippedwithafork.Thisanimalhasvariouslybeenpostulatedtobeadonkey,anextinctvarietyofpig,
somemannerofdog,orevenanaardvark.TheanswertotheriddlemaylieinSethstraditional
associations.Knownasgreatofstrength6,Sethisoftenmisrepresentedasthegodofevilandchaos,
butismoreappropriatelythegodofthingsthatlieoutsidetheboundsofnormativespace.Sethisthe
godofforeignersandoftheRedLandtheuninhabitabledesert.Heisalsogodofstorms,of
earthquakes,andmetalshiddenbelowtheground.Asthegodofthingsunseen,unknown,or
uncontrollable,Sethsanimalmayhavenorealcounterpart.InkeepingwithSethsoutlyingnature,his
totemissomethingwhichneverexistedinthenaturalworld,forhehimselfexistsonthatworldsedge.
Thoth:Thothistheibisheadedgodofwisdom,writing,andthemoon.Heisattributedwithinventing
thehieroglyphsaswellasthemeasurementofthe365dayyear.Astheinventorofthehieroglyphs,
Thothisoftendepictedasascribe.TotheEgyptians,hieroglyphicwritingwasamagickalprocess,for
wordswerefilledwithpower,andtonamesomethingwastomakeitreal.Forthisreason,Thothwas
alsoagodofmagick.Thothsmainanimalwastheibis,agracefulwaterbirdthatlookssomethinglike
aheronbuthasalong,curvedbeak.TheibismayhavebeenchosenasThothsbirdbecauseitscurving
beakresemblesthecrescentmoon.Occasionally,Thothisalsodepictedasababoon,ananimalthe
Egyptiansassociatedwithbothwisdomandthemeasurementoftime.
TherearemanymoreEgyptiandeitieswithtotemicassociations.Someofthemanyanimalsassociated
withtheseothergodsincludecobras,scorpions,crocodiles,andfrogs.Ifyouhavebecomecurious
aboutthecolorfulgodsandgoddessesoftheancientEgyptiansandwishtolearnmore,startyour
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explorationwiththefollowingbooks:
Endnotes
1.Khemetcanbetranslatedasthe"BlackLand".Thisisthoughttorefertothecoloroftherich,fertile
siltleftbehindaftertheNile'sannualflood.FormoreonthelanguageofancientEgypt,seeChristian
Jacq'sworkFascinatingHieroglyphs:Discovering,Decoding&UnderstandingtheAncientArt,
SterlingPublishingCo.Inc.,NewYork,1996.
2.ThisdistinctionismostoftenaccordedtothemoongodThothwhowasdirectlylinkedtotheGreek
HermesthroughthefigureofHermesTrismegistus.ButbecauseofAnubis'sidentityasapsychopomp,
thereareafewinstanceswhereThothandAnubisareinterchanged,andHermesisequatedwitheachof
them.SeeHansDeiterBetzsTheGreekMagicalPapyriinTranslation.
3.GeraldinePinch,HandbookofEgyptianMythology,ABCCLIOInc.,SantaBarbara,CA,2002,p.
80.Inherdiscussionontheentomologyofhername,GeraldinePinchsuggeststhatHathorwasthe
motheroftheElderHorusandlateractsaswetnursetoHorustheChild.
4.ChristianJacq,FascinatingHieroglyphs:Discovering,Decoding&UnderstandingtheAncientArt,
SterlingPublishingCo.Inc.,NewYork,1996,p.106.
5.DavidP.Silverman,DivinityandDeitiesinAncientEgyptinReligioninAncientEgypt,editedby
ByronE.Shafer,CornellUniversityPress,Ithaca,NY,1991.
6.GeraldinePinch,HandbookofEgyptianMythology,ABCCLIOInc.,SantaBarbara,CA,2002,p.
193.
References
ByronE.Shafer,ReligioninAncientEgypt:Gods,Myths,andPersonalPractice,CornellUniversity
Press,Ithaca,NY,1991
ChristianJacq,FascinatingHieroglyphs:Discovering,Decoding&UnderstandingtheAncientArt,
SterlingPublishingCo.Inc.,NewYork,1996
GeraldinePinch,HandbookofEgyptianMythology,ABCCLIOInc.,SantaBarbara,CA,2002
JohnAnthonyWest,SerpentintheSky:theHighWisdomofAncientEgypt,QuestBooks,Wheaton,
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IL,1993.
LucyLamy,EgyptianMysteries:NewLightonAncientKnowledge,ThamesandHudson,London,
1981.

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