Animals of Ancient Egypt

Animals of Ancient Egypt

For ancient Egyptians, animals were a significant part of their lives, either as pets, food supply or worshipped as gods.

Suzette HartwellNov 9, 2022, 2:54 AM

As the hunter stood still in the shade of a huge boulder, he closely observed the bovid, which he hoped to overcome to provide food for his family and community. He hesitated as he held the spear, closely scrutinising the 

Later that night, after recalling the day’s successful hunt, his meal consumed, the hunter reflected more about the animal. Wanting to record what he had observed led him back to the same boulder where he took the time to carve the image of the animal, giving great attention to detail as he chiselled and chipped the surface.

It might well be that his petroglyph was among the first that a hunter or member of that community ever etched. But we’ll never know. The earliest petroglyphs in Egypt depict a now extinct wild cow called aurochs (Bos primigenius) and are found at the site of Qurta, about 640 km (400 miles) south of Cairo. The horns of these 

But was there a purpose for representing such images? Was it in an attempt to preserve their visual existence? It may have been simply to signify good hunting territory by indicating the variety of animals located in the region. The depictions may also have been created out of a sense of awe, spirituality or in gratitude for a successful hunt; after all, animals were the primary source of food and means of survival. Animals had many valuable uses: their pelts providing warmth and protection from the elements, their bones and horns could be fashioned into tools and were ornately carved into adornments such as combs for personal care, craftwork and even inventory tags.

As an invaluable asset to a community, cattle could be used as draught animals, with their meat and milk also being vital. In addition, poultry, donkeys, sheep, pigs and goats were also farmed. Oxen are depicted on tombs and 

For their playful antics and ability to be domesticated, many animals such as cats, dogs, monkeys, baboons, birds and geese became domestic pets. The ancient Egyptians adored cats, so much so that when a pet cat died the owner would shave off their eyebrows as a sign of mourning! And similarly for dogs, with their natural guarding ability, as Herodotus noted:

The tale of a dog known as Abuwtiyuw is quite extraordinary. Although no picture or body remains, this particular dog is identified from an inscribed stone tablet discovered in 1936. Abuwtiyuw was so special that he had gifts be- stowed upon him from the pharaoh! The tablet dates to the Sixth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom (c. 2345–2181 b.c.) 

The inscribed text typifies Abuwtiyuw’s breed to be comparable to a greyhound or sight hound, with its curly tail and erect ears. Ancient Egyptians identified the breed as Tesem and a drawing of this dog appears very early in the Egyptian archaeological record, back in the Predynastic period of Egypt in Naqada.

The Egyptian museum in Cairo houses an incredibly well preserved, mummified saluki dog, with the hairs of the pelt of the magnificent animal still visible! Many other mummified animals are on display, including cats,


Many of the gods of ancient Egypt took the guise of animals and birds, whereby the animal was both the representation and also the repository of the god. Their appearance might be personified, with an animal head on a human body, or as the complete animal itself. The gods that were half-animal and half-human such as the jackal-headed god Anubis (who presided over embalming and the dead) are known as theriomorphic or hybrid, while 

All gods had to be appeased in order to benefit from their protection, blessings, assistance, fertility, love, guidance in the afterlife and in understanding creation itself. In one version of the creation, it was the ram-headed god Khnum sitting at his potter’s wheel who formed humans—something akin to the biblical creation story of the formation of Adam—from clay; he was also linked with the Nile, controlling the inundation. Such was his importance, that he was still being “consulted” in Ptolemaic times (c. 305–30 b.c.). This is evidenced by prayers inscribed on a rock called the Famine Stela, located near Aswan on the island of Sehel. Here the prayers acknowledge him as ending the famine that was triggered by low Nile floods.

Gods in their animal appearance could be represented in a human form as well, the images were not static and changed as the situation necessitated. Hathor, the goddess of love, happiness, joy, music, turquoise, motherhood, women, mother or wife of the king, foreign lands and their produce, also took on different guises; she even identified  

But not all was beauty and sublime with divinities in animal representa- tions. There could be dual sides to their personality, one as protector and healer, and yet when angry they could be treacherous and destructive. Taking the icon of a lioness-headed woman, Sekhmet was a protector of the king in a motherly fashion. How- ever, when angered, as in the myth of The Destruction of Mankind, she almost slaughters all of humankind.

The impact of animals upon the lives of the ancient Egyptians went beyond that of food, pets and divine icons. It also delved into the area of architecture and furniture embellishments. Consider the feet of many stools, tables and chairs of this time, you will see lions paws with claws unsheathed, or the legs of bulls and hoofs. These are symbols of power, strength and majesty. On the golden throne of Tutankhamen, itself a symbol of authority, a leonine form has been used that features lion-shaped legs and apotropaic lion heads guarding from the front. On the so-called Painted Box of Tutankhamen, the pharaoh is depicted on both ends with a sphinx body, confidently trampling his enemies underfoot. The divine power of the animal gods continued in the symbolism employed in the furniture in Tutankha- men’s tomb with three ritual couches taking the form of Ammut “the devourer,” another as a lion or leopard and also as the cow-goddess Hathor. Many animals depicted with the vulture wings of protection wrapped around the shoulders of a pharaoh—a common theme—were employed across Egypt. The nemes striped crown of Tutankhamen features a cobra and vulture on his brow, ready to strike.

Another aspect of animals extended into Egyptian 

Numerous gods with animal guises were worshipped in ancient Egypt. Whether they were adored at pets and faithful companions or worshipped in temples as gods, animals both wild and domestic have always been a significant part of the lives of ancient Egyptians, whether living or dead, as indeed, they still are today the world over. 

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