In the early years of civilization, the people and animals were living much more closely together than we are in our times. People were fascinated by the animals and it is no wonder then that may myths and legends born in the ancient times were often related to the animals. In ancient Egypt animals were considered sacred to particular Gods. During the Dynastic Period, when the government became strong and centralized, the most popular cult animals became national deities. Cult animals were raised in the temple precincts during the New Kingdom, 1500 BC, and were pampered with special attention as the living representatives of Gods. Upon their demise, they were mummified with due diligence and given spectacular funerary celebrations. Later, it became the practice to raise large numbers of animals at cult centers for sacrifice and mummification as offerings to their various deities. Modern finds bear testimony to the mummification of large quantities of cats and dogs, while the tombs and huge sarcophagi of Apis bulls, whose embalming called for a most elaborate ritual, are a familiar sight in Egypt. Ibises, falcons, owls and other birds have been found, as have the preserved remains of various reptiles, especially crocodiles and fishes.
Birds: The falcon (or hawk) was considered to be the guardian of the ruler. Frequently regarded as Horus, the hawk-headed god and son of Osiris. The Horus-Falcon was the guardian deity of the ruler and is on the frequently depicted with its wings outstretched protectively behind the head of the king. The Horus-Falcon image may have been regarded as interchangeable with a whole range of other birds of prey. The bird was also sacred to the gods Montu and Sokar, and occasionally associated with the Goddess Hathor. The vulture was the manifestation of Nekhbet and Mut, and were associated with kingship and protection. The Egyptians viewed the vultures’ strong maternal nature in protecting their young, and thus they also came to be related to various goddesses as well. The ibis was a sacred bird to God Toth, the god of writing and knowledge. It is possible that the long curved beak of the Ibis was identified both with the crescent moon and with the reed pen. The Nile Goose was considered to be the creator of the world, as mythology tells that it laid the Cosmic Egg from which Ra, the sun God, was hatched. The goose was the sacred animal of God Geb, the God of the earth, whose massive laughter was related to geese’s cackling.
Cattles: Bull was the symbol of strength, masculinity and fertility, and an embodiment of royal might. Bulls were also associated with solar imagery. A number of bulls enjoyed special status as sacred animals, notably the Apis and Buchis bulls that were interred in catacombs at Saqqara and Armant, respectively. The Egyptians admired many qualities in cows, besides their economic benefits. The cow’s careful tending of her calf was a model for motherhood, and its big, gentle brown eyes set a standard for beauty. As such, cow was sacred to Hathor, who was the goddess of love, motherhood, loyalty, protection, and the wife of Horus. Cow was also associated with Bat, Isis and Nat.
Horses: The horse did not become common until the New Kingdom, and instead of horses, donkeys were used for labor and transportation. Horses were mainly used for ceremonial processions, prestige gifts, hunting and war. As such, only the wealthy could afford to keep horses and thus they became a symbol of status.
Cats: Important both as a domestic pet and as a symbol of deities such as Bastet and Ra. Because of its connection with the Sun God, the cat was depicted on a number of Rames-side steles found in the Theban region. From the Late Period onwards, large numbers of sacred cats were mummified as sacred offerings. Numerous bronze votive statuettes of cats were created as well.
Dogs: The ancient Egyptians domesticated dogs, but they were not considered to be animals to be petted as pets. Rather, they were often depicted to be guard dogs or hunting dogs. The Egyptians thought of the dog as being subservient, and the dog was used as an insult, unlike the cats who were generally respected for their independent nature. On the other hand, some dogs and jackals were related by the Egyptians and were regarded as sacred to Anubis, where they were buried as sacred animals to the god of embalming .
Reptiles and Amphibians: Cobra was an emblem of Lower Egypt and is associated with the King and kingdom of Lower Egypt. It is also associated with the sun and with many deities. The cobra represented the “fiery eye of Ra”. It is used as a protective symbol; the Egyptians believed that the cobra would spit fire at any approaching enemies. Crocodile was associated with the Egyptian God, Sobek, who was considered a fourfold deity who represented the four elemental Gods: Ra of fire, Shu of air, Geb of earth and Osiris of water. In the book of the dead, Sobek assists in the birth of Horus, he fetches Isis and Nephthys to protect the deceased and he aids in the destruction of Set. The Goddess Heket was represented in the form of a frog or with a frog’s head. Heket assisted in fashioning the child in the womb and presided over the birth in her capacity of midwife. Amulets and scarabs worn by women to protect them during childbirth often bear the image of the frog Goddess, Heket.
Wild Animals: For Egyptians, the herds of Hippopotamus in the river showed great dangers, as they revealed to be extremely aggressive when they were angered. To provide physical protection, and to guard against their supernatural powers, these wild animals were propitiated with offerings or rendered harmless by charms. Yet, because they were the denizens of the fertile Nile mud, Egyptians also saw them as symbols of rebirth and rejuvenation. The hippopotamuses themselves also served as models for small amulets that were placed in graves to empower the deceased against monsters in the next world. Hippopotamus was also associated with Taweret, the hippopotamus-headed Goddess who was thought to be the protector of pregnancy and childbirth. The hares were closely associated with the cycles of the moon, which was viewed as masculine when waxing and feminine when waning. Hares were likewise believed to be androgynous, shifting back and forth between the genders–not only in ancient Egypt but also in European folklore right up to the 18th century. A hare-headed god and goddess can be seen on the Egyptian temple walls of Dendera, where the female is believed to be the goddess Unut, while the male is most likely a representation of Osiris (also called Wepuat or Un-nefer), who was sacrificed to the Nile annually in the form of a hare. The lions were considered to be the symbols of strength, courage and protection, and held in high esteem by the pharaohs. It is said that Ramses II, one of Egypt’s most powerful rulers, had kept a tame lion. In ancient Egypt the lioness was associated with the solar deity, Sekhmet, a female deity who was also the fierce war deity and protector of the pharaohs. Sekhmet was depicted as a woman with the head of a lion.
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