Animal or God: The Cults of Ancient Egypt

Throughout history animals have played a significant role in religious rituals. From sacrificial offerings to manifestations of gods, the roots of animal worship are complex.  One of the most well documented cases of humans worshiping animals takes place in Ancient Egypt. Sculptures and drawings dating as far back as the fourth millennium BC provide clues to the relationship between Egyptians and their fellow creatures

There were several animal cults throughout Egyptian history. The most widely recognized are those of bulls and cats. Followers of these cults believed certain gods or goddesses took the shape of a particular animal in order to show themselves to followers.  The specific markings on the fur helped some priests determine if an animal was a manifestation of a god.  For example a black bull with a crescent moon on its chest was said to be Ptah, the chief god of the city of Memphis.

Gods and goddesses did not always adhere to an individual animal, at times they were thought to have manifested themselves as a group of animals. As a result herds and flocks of scared animals were kept outside of the cult temples of the deity they represented. When archaeologists excavated Saqqara, the remains of millions of ibises were discovered. The Egyptians believed these birds represented Thoth, the god of wisdom and scribes.

Though the animals worshiped throughout the animal cults of Egypt varied, many of the rituals surrounding them were similar. During the Twenty Sixth Dynasty animal cults began mummifying the sacred animals on behalf of their gods.  Throughout Egypt archeologists have uncovered millions of mummified animals ranging from crocodiles to monkeys buried in the cemeteries of cult temples. In the temple of goddess Bastet alone, over 300,000 mummified cats and kittens were revealed.

There is sizable information on Ancient Egypt that has helped shed light on the relationship between humans and animals. However, the role of animals in the household is still unclear and often debated.  Mummified animals such as cats and monkeys have been found in the tombs of what is perceived to be their owners. This discovery led to speculation that Egyptians owned pets, yet zoologists debate the time frame of when this transition took place. Even so, it is believed that perhaps Egyptians kept an individual animal at home for private worship.

Today mummification and/or sacrifice are not routinely practiced. They are even looked down upon and illegal in certain places.  Yet for the Ancient Egyptians these rituals were a way of life that brought them closer to their gods and in a way created a spiritual connect between them and the animals.

For more on relationships between animals and people, tune in to Animal Underworld: Beast Worship, as part of a three-part event


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