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The Role of Animals of Ancient Egypt

by Melanie Light

To the ancient Egyptians, animals were created by the gods and given rights equal to that of mankind. They saw animals not as their subjects, but rather as independent beings, and treated them with respect. [A]

The Nile served as a source of food and was the most important factor to the agriculture of the region. Fish were plentiful and could be eaten roasted, boiled, salted, preserved, or simply dried in the sun. Because the Nile would flood annually, it revitalized the land with water and fertile silt, enriching the soil to grow wheat, fruits, and vegetables. Additionally, it provided thick grasses on which animals would graze.

The people of ancient Egypt were mainly pescarian, meaning they would often eat fish. The Nile supplied many types of fish, including: catfish, mullet, tilapia, sturgeon, eel, carp, and perch, which were all an important source of nourishment. Along the Nile, there were restrictions on the types of fish that could be eaten because of their connections with the gods. The Pharaoh and other priests would abstain from eating fish altogether because it was forbidden by one of their deities as a food reserved for peasants.

Bread was their main staple, made from wheat and barley. From time to time, they supplemented their diet with antelope, which they hunted. Occasionally they ate pork and goat, which were raised on farms.

The Egyptians also raised sheep, cattle, geese and ducks. These animals not only provided them with food, drink, leather and skins, but also helped with their daily lives. Oxen and cattle were used for plowing the fields, and other animals were used for trampling seeds into the soil, and eating unwanted grain.

Birds were of extreme importance to the ancient Egyptians as well. Along the Nile, the bird-life included the falcon, kite, goose, crane, heron, pigeon, ibis, vulture and owl. Numerous birds were actually kept in sacred flocks and some were elevated in status to become temple animals. From the vast collection of ancient Egyptian artwork, evidence exists of several species of birds that are now extinct.

Beekeeping began in Egypt around 2500 BC in the Fifth Dynasty. Egyptians loved honey and they would take great pains to cultivate it. They not only kept bees, but they also actively went out and searched for the honey of wild bees. They would use bee wax for embalming, offerings to the gods, medicines, makeup, and as a bonding agent. They named the honeybee after the bull-like god named Apis because they believed it had similar characteristics. (The historian Herodotus described this bull as being black, with a white diamond on its forehead and two white hairs on its tail.)

Horses were introduced much later into Egyptian society around 1500 BC. They were a status symbol for the owners and were mainly used to carry chariots into battle and for ceremonial occasions. Horses were rarely ridden and if so, only by royalty. They were well cared for and given individual names. Donkeys were the main beasts of burden. They were used as pack animals and for carrying heavy bundles of grain from the field to the threshing floor. Female donkeys, which produced higher-protein and sweeter milk than cows, were kept as dairy animals.

Hunting was seen as a symbol of mastery over animal forces. Egyptians believed it was their role to conquer the land. Dogs, resembling greyhounds, would help them while hunting. There is evidence from the tomb paintings that the ancient Egyptians sometimes took along cheetahs they had tamed.

The hunters knew their animals well. They studied their characteristics, including their diet and mating habits. This knowledge brought about a great respect for the animals and aided them in the hunt. Oftentimes, they would hunt great cats, which were not always killed. [C] Smaller jungle mammals and wild cats, such as the cheetah, were often kept as family pets. Ramses the Great is said to have had a pet lion.

Dog, cats, monkeys, and birds were also a part of the nuclear family. So devoted were these ancient people to their pets, that upon the pet's passing, they would often carry out the same rites and rituals as they would for any other family member. Pets and sacred animals were mummified and put in special cemeteries. Animals that belonged to the Pharaoh's royal family were mummified and buried with them so they could continue in the afterlife together. The following inscription for a well-loved dog was found in a tomb dating from the 5th or 6th dynasty:

"The dog which was the guard of His Majesty. Abuwtiyuw is his name. His Majesty ordered that he be buried, that he be given a coffin from the royal treasury, fine linen in great quantity, incense. His Majesty gave perfumed ointment and [ordered] that a tomb be built for him by the gang of masons. His Majesty did this for him in order that he might be honored". [1]

For many years, animal mummies have been overlooked while research went on regarding human mummies and other treasures found in the tombs. The study of this previously neglected area of Egyptology has finally changed, thanks to the work of Dr. Salima Ikram, one of the leading experts in Egyptian funerary archaeology. Dr. Ikram is the founder and co-director of the Animal Mummy Project at the Cairo Museum. This project has shed new light on the past, revealing the techniques of mummification and the reasons for it. Regarding the latter, Dr. Ikram tells us four reasons why animals were mummified.

1. They were mummified because they were sacred.
2. They were mummified to please the animal deities (i.e. as offerings to the gods).
3. The ancient Egyptians believed that the afterlife included animals. Therefore, they wanted their pets to continue with them in the afterlife.
4. A certain number of animals were mummified in order to provide food for eternity.

These ancient tombs are time capsules filled with ancient treasures, many of which we are still deciphering and trying to understand. Some of the tomb findings have been items made of animal products, which were used in many ways. Bone was plentiful and the ancient Egyptians fashioned it into Jewelry and arrowheads. Glue was made from animal hide and from sinews. Feathers were used as ornaments. Twisted animal gut and sinews were used in the making of stringed instruments. Ivory usually came from Nile hippos and were used for carving combs and jewelry.

Egyptian burials often included sculpted clay and carved wooden figures, tools, and utensils in hopes they would service the dead in the afterlife. These were often part of a larger diorama or miniature three-dimensional scene. Because so many of these elaborate models have been found in the tombs of the royal families, we've learned a great deal about the customs of these people. For example, there are miniature models of butcher shops, scenes of counting and inspecting cattle, and scenes of plowing the fields. There are wonderfully detailed wall paintings and reliefs decorating the tombs, giving us further information about daily life in Ancient Egypt. It is interesting to note that much of this remained hidden for 4,000 to 5,000 years.

As Robert Fulford has written, "...Because the tombs were hidden so well, many of them remained intact until about 200 years ago, when the modern world began discovering them and prying them open, one after another, in wonderment and excitement and gratitude. And so our own civilization, through the collaboration of grave-robbers, scholars and art lovers, has come to know far more about Egypt than would otherwise be possible". [2]

[A] http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/MUS/ED/TRC/EGYPT/animals.html
[B] http://members.tripod.com/~ib205/apis_2.html
[C] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians

[1] Giza Digital Library: Giza Bibliography of George A. Reisner (1867-1942) Reisner, George A. "The Dog Which was Honored by the King of Upper and Lower Egypt." Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 34, No. 206 (December 1936), pp. 96-99.

[2] "Eternal optimists: The Royal Ontario Museum's exhibition of Egyptian art reminds us of a civilization that believed you can take it with you" The National Post Toronto, Canada 2 March 2004

Copyright 2006 Melanie Light

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