Ancient Egyptian Art: linking us to the Prehistoric World through Nature and Animals
The Ancient Egyptians lived in a world that was filled with animals. They hunted them, they domesticated them, they feared them, and they revered them. Many of the animals that thrived in Ancient Egypt worked their way into the Egyptian cosmology and fundamental culture. The physical and spiritual preoccupation with animals that many prehistoric people expressed in cave paintings can also be seen manifest in many aspects of ancient Egyptian life and art, as evidenced in their tomb paintings, their sculptures, their mummification practices, and in the representation of their deities as revealed in works like the Book of the Dead.
When Egypt first emerged as a civilization, the terrain around the Nile was teaming with wildlife. According to Irmgard Woldering’s book The Art of Egypt, the ancient Nile region had an abundance of “big game” as well as “lions, leopards, antelopes, gazelles, ibexes, jackals, giraffes, [and] ostriches” (15). Even today the Nile is filled with snakes, hippopotami, and crocodiles, as well as beetles, birds, and frogs; all of which play a significant part in Egyptian art and cosmology. Like in Europe in 25,000 BCE, most early human cave dwellers were small and nearly powerless in the face of nature. Thus the creatures of nature took on an ominous and spiritual significance, especially in the form of cave art. Those early Homo Sapien rock painters often used animal imagry, representational human stick figures, and depictions of the hunt in their artwork.
As humans emerged from the caves and began settling in river vallies like the Nile, those natural cave-shelters were replaced by man-made dwellings and the wild forces of nature that had once surrounded our ancient ancestors became somewhat under control. However the many creatures that lived side by side with the early Egyptians still inspired a certain awe, even as animals were being domesticated. Woldering’s book describes some domesticated animals like oxen, cows, sheep, goats, donkeys, and poultry. According to the British Museum’s website, the ancient Egyptians liked eating meat, with one of the most desirable cuts being ox leg, especially for banquets, and one of the most abundant being ducks (British Museum WS/Egyptian Life/Nebamun’s tomb).Below are two color plates, one of a cooked duck and the other of fish (Figure 1). Fish were eaten occasionally but often avoided because, after having devoured the god-phallus of Osiris, some fish were believed to be sacred (British Museum WS/Egyptian Life). Note how similar much of the ancient Egyptian art is that follows in this paper, to the prehistoric cave art shown above; especially in subject matter, treatment, and materials used.
Hunting scenes along the Nile as well as animals being used as beasts of burden can be seen in the colorful New Kingdom wall paintings from Nebamun’s Tomb, which was shown in Prof. Heikkinen’s PowerPoint on Egyptian Art. Below is the hunting scene with two detail plates of a wild duck and a poisonous puffer fish (Figure 2). According to Heikkinen, the size of a figure denotes status. Note how the duck, the fish, and the cat are all as large as or larger than Nebamun’s own daughter who is under his legs.
Also from the wall painting in Nebamun’s tomb are depictions of horses (upper box), which were not easy to come by in ancient Egypt and were mostly owned by the rich or by elite solders and used to pull chariots – below them is the far more common yet similar animal called the onagar (lower box), a kind of mule that was often used to haul carts and ploughs (Figure 3) (British Museum site/Egyptian Life/Nebamun’s tomb).
Another common animal considered sacred to the ancient Egyptians were domesticated cats. Aside from pets and temple dwellers, cats were often used to assist hunters by catching and retrieving birds (BritishMuseum site/Egyptian Life/Nebamun’s tomb). Many statues and drawings of cats have been discovered in tombs and other archeological sites, nearly all of them showing the feline in a sitting position, the cat’s head held high with dignity and strength (Woldering, pg 201). According to the late Harvard professor and Orientalist Annemarie Schimmel, in an abridged version of her story from the book Cairo Cats; the specialness of cats still exists in Egyptian attitudes today where “countless cats walk the streets” and people still regard the cat as “a bearer of good luck” (Saudi Amarco World, Schimmel pg1). The ancient Egyptians’ special relationship to cats can be seen in the three pictures below (Figure 4). The first shows a cat hunting a bird, taken from the wall of Nebamun’s Tomb, New Kingdom. The second picture is an image from the Papyrus of Hunifer version of the Book of the Dead showing Ra as the cat Mau overpowering Abep, a snake god. The third is a bronze cast of the goddess Bast, or Baset in a common pose, which is now in the Detroit Institute of Art.
Many other animals were sacred to the ancient Egyptians besides cats. The falcon and the hawk were sacred representatives of the God Horus. Hippopotamus statues, especially lapis colored faience ones, were used for protection in the underworld as well as for pregnant women (British Museum Online, miniatures). Hedgehogs were also rendered in faience and considered good luck (CairoMuseum website). Below are pictures of a faience hippo, a faience hedgehog, and a statue of Ramesses II as a child with Hurun, a Canaanite falcon god protecting him (Figure 5).
Some animals were so revered, or feared, that they were given similar mummification and burial rites as a human being. Below are some examples of mummified animals (Figure 6). Here we see a mummified gazelle that was once the queen’s pet and was given a lavish burial with a custom made wooden coffin; 950 BC (Nat Geo website & Egyptian Museum). Next are two mummified cats from the BritishMuseum with a full length detail of the second cat next to it. Below these is a mummified dog and a mummified baboon which were found buried together in a special tomb in the Valley of the Kings and now reside at the Egyptian Museum (Figure 7) (Nat Geo website).
It is not uncommon for people even today to bury their beloved pets or other special animals. But the ancient Egyptians buried hundreds of them from one end of Egypt to another, as can be seen on the animal burial map from the National Geographic website on Animal Mummies (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/11/animal-mummies/mummies-map). The map shows where the Egyptians mummified and entombed bulls, snakes, raptors, fish, horses, crocodiles, monkeys, lizards, and even an elephant. The ritual of mummification and the subsequent afterlife it may provide to an animal is not out of line with the ancient Egyptian spiritual beliefs. According to the Memphite creation myth in James Prichard collection of the Annets; the KA, or soul, was given not only to the gods but to man and to animals as well. This connection between animals, sacredness, the afterlife, and gods is evident in the how the ancient Egyptians co-mingled some of their most sacred creatures directly with human deities to form semi-human like god-animal hybrids, the most famous of which is the Sphinx. Below is a picture of the Great Sphinx at Giza, followed by an artist’s rendition of the creature, and finally a row of statues from the Avenue of the Sphinxes at Luxor.
The Sphinx is just the beginning of the story. Three of the most iconic Egyptian gods are also part animal. The god Horus, son of Osiris and Isis, has the head of a hawk, as does Osiris sometimes. The scribe god Thoth, one of the oldest deities of Egypt, has the head of an ibis with a long narrow beak. And then there is Anubis, god of embalming and guardian of the dead, he sports the large, black head of a jackal, presumably because jackals were often seen at gravesites (British Museum/Egypt site/Gods). Here are two pictures of Anubis with the statue of a jackal in between them (Figure 9).
Together with Osiris and Isis, the above mentioned gods helped to spearhead a pantheon of other Egyptian deities many of whom have animal heads and comingled human-beast body parts that can be unsettling to say the least. Here are a few of them with illustrations, all taken from the website of British Museum’s Egyptian Collection.
Horus (Hawk): Protector Thoth (Ibis): Scribe god Sobek (Croc): Nile god
Khepri (Beatle): Creation god Baset (Cat): Protector Khunum (Ram): Creator
There are many more gods and goddess with various animal and bird heads like Ra, Tefnut, and Sekhmet. But there were also other more horrific and bizarre co-mingling of the bodies of the gods. For instance, Seth (or Set), who murdered his brother Osiris and so became the god of Chaos. According to the Encyclopedia Mythica, Seth has the head of an undetermined animal with a long downward curved snout sometimes associated with an aardvark – he has squared off ears, a lengthy tail with a forked tip, and his body is similar to a greyhound’s at times (Seth entry) (Figure 10).
Another figure most foul and yet somehow benign is Tawaret, goddess protector of women during childbirth. Tawaret has the head of a hippo, the arms and legs of a lion, a long crocodile tail, and a big pregnant human belly, sagging milky breast and all (Figure 11 – BritishMuseum). And yet, for one of the foulest of these multi-animal mixtures we must travel into the underworld and explore what is in The Book of the Dead, by viewing the Papyrus of Ani (Figure 12).
The “Papyrus of Ani” version of the Book of the Dead, is a magical instruction manual composed of illustrations and hieroglyphs, revealing what every Egyptian must know in order for their soul to pass the god’s tests and be accepted into the afterlife. In the reproduction of the scroll at the beginning of Wallis Budge’s translation from 1895, the gods are depicted watching two new souls, Ani and his wife, enter the underworld. Some of the gods are humanoid-animal hybrids, like the gatekeeper, Anubis, who has the head of a jackal, and Osiris, with the head of a hawk, who sits in the gallery as one of the twelve great gods that watch. The soul is at the stage of the Psychostasia, or weighing of the heart against the feather of Law. Nearby is the tiny soul of Ani, who is portrayed as a human headed hawk. The image of Ani is reminiscent of another human headed creature, the human-lion hybrid, the Sphinx; a far more imposing figure than little Ani (Budge; intro plates). Waiting at the end of the test is Thoth, the ibis-headed scribe god, and behind him, the most horrendous creature-god of them all, Amemit, the Devourer (Budge; intro plates). Amemit has the head of a crocodile, the mane of a lion, the torso of a leopard, and the bottom half of a hippopotamus (Budge; intro). Amemit waits hungrily to gobble up the souls of those whose heart is heavier than Law’s feather (Figure 13).
The long road from sacred cat to the foul and frightening Amemit, a soul gobbling Frankenstein, was not a difficult leap for the ancient Egyptians. They lived in a world that was dominated by nature, floods, seasons, and animals, both in the world of the living and the spirit world of the dead. Even their Hieroglyphic writing was filled with animal symbols and references to nature. Woven into part of every written name were birds or reeds, or other pieces of nature. And the gods that ruled the Egyptians and protected them were also formed from part natural-beast, part man, as Pharaoh their king, was part man and part god. The Egyptians blended these worlds together and bound them with a KA, the soul. All living things to them came from and go to the same place, which is part of the beauty and the humanity of the Egyptian civilization and culture. This is one reason why they touch us so deeply and why their creations and concepts endure in our hearts. Theirs was the beginning of a human dominated world and the ending of an animal dominated one: and the ancient Egyptians seemed clearly to have one foot in each.
BritishMuseum; web portal to ancient Egyptian collection; 3/29/2012; website http://www.britishmuseum.org/search_results.aspx?searchText=egypt
Budge, E A Wallis; the Book of the Dead: The Hieroglyphic Transcript and English Translation of the Papyrus of Ani; Gramercy Books, New York/Avnel; Random House; 1895/1960/1995, Text
Egyptian Collection Educational Webpage; the BritishMuseum; ancientegypt.co.uk; Gods and Goddesses; 3/23/12; Website; http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/menu.html
Ellis, Normand; Awakening Osiris: The Egyptian Book of the Dead; Phanes Press; 1988; Text
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Middle East Collection, March 2012, art & text
Pritchard, James B; the Ancient Near-East: An Anthology of Texts & Pictures; PrincetonUniversity Press; 2011; Text
Robins, Gay; the Art of Ancient Egypt; HarvardUniversity Press, 1997
Schimmel, Annmarie; Cairo Cats: adapted; Saudi Aramco World; Young Readers World; http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/young.readers.world/cairo.cats/default.htm
Williams, A R; Animals Everlasting: Animal Mummies; National Geographic; photos by Richard Barnes and from the British Museum and the Egyptian Museum; nationalgeographic.com; published Nov 2009; 3/29/2012; website; http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/11/animal-mummies/williams-text
Woldering, Imrgard, The Art of Egypt: The Time of the Pharaohs; Greystone Press; New York; first published Holle Verglag; 1963; Text
Figure 1: Cooked Duck and Swimming Fish; Nebamun’s Tomb wall painting; a-secco paint & plaster; New Kingdom, reign of Amenhotep III (1390-1352 BC); BritishMuseum; Website gallery; Egyptian Life; http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/life/explore/main.html
Figure 2: Nebamun hunting Scene on the Nile with detail plates of a Duck and a poisonous Puffer Fish; Nebamun’s Tomb wall painting; a-secco paint & plaster; New Kingdom, reign of Amenhotep III (1390-1352 BC); British Museum; Website gallery; Egyptian Life; http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/life/explore/main.html
Figure 3: Horses and Onagar mules; Nebamun’s Tomb wall painting; a-secco paint & plaster; New Kingdom, reign of Amenhotep III (1390-1352 BC); BritishMuseum; Website gallery; Egyptian Life; http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/life/explore/main.html
Figure 4: A Cat Hunting a Bird; Nebamun’s Tomb wall painting; a-secco paint & plaster; New Kingdom, reign of Amenhotep III (1390-1352 BC); British Museum; Website gallery; Egyptian Life; http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/life/explore/main.html
Mau defeats Abep, Papyrus of Hunefer – paint on papyrus; 19th Dynasty; British Museum; http://www.timetrips.co.uk/papyrus_of_hunefer.htm
Statue of sacred cat Bas (or Baset); cast bronze; Late Period, Dynasty 26, 7th century BC; Detroit Institute of Art; Egyptian Collection; dia.org; http://www.dia.org/object-info/d8a3ad90-27dc-4f1f-9a42-31e0cb7da2ab.aspx?position=10
Figure 5: Hippo (naience), Hedgehog (naience); Statue of Ramessis II with Huran; CairoMuseum
Figure 6: Mummies –
Figure 7: Dog and Baboon mummies – http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/11/animal-mummies/williams-text
Figure 8: Sphinxes – the Great Sphinx at Giza, an artist’s rendition of a Sphinx, and the Avenue of the Sphinxes in Luxor (webpics)
Figure 9: Anubis – http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/gods/explore/main.html
Figure 10: Seth – http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/gods/explore/main.html
Figure 11: Tawaret – http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/gods/explore/main.html
Figure 12: The Papyrus of Ani
Figure 13: Amemit from the Papyrus of Ani and the Papyrus of Hunefer. http://heritage-key.com/egypt/papyrus-hunefer