Messengers to the Gods

Why did the ancient Egyptians invest so much in the afterlife of creatures? Unlike Greeks and Romans, ancient Egyptians believed animals possess a soul, or ba, just as humans do. “We forget how significant it is to ascribe a soul to an animal,” says Bleiberg. “For ancient Egyptians, animals were both physical and spiritual beings.” In fact, the ancient Egyptian language had no word for “animal” as a separate category until the spread of Christianity. Animal cults flourished outside the established state temples for much of Egyptian history and animals played a critical role in Egypt’s spiritual life.

The gods themselves sometimes took animal form. Horus, the patron god of Egypt, was often portrayed with the head of a hawk; Thoth, the scribe god, was represented as an ibis or a baboon; and the fertility goddess Hathor was depicted as a cow. Even the pharaohs revered animals, and at least a few royal pets were mummified. In 1400 B.C., the pharaoh Amenhotep II went to the afterlife accompanied by his hunting dog, and a decade later his heir Thutmose IV was buried with a royal cat.

However, large numbers of mummies in dedicated animal necropolises did not appear until after the fall of the New Kingdom, around 1075 B.C. During the subsequent chaotic 400-year span known as the Third Intermediate Period, the central Egyptian state collapsed and a series of local dynasties and foreign kings rose and fell in rapid succession. Without the pharaoh, people needed to approach the gods on their own. Against this backdrop, pilgrims visiting temples began to purchase animal mummies from priests to bury as votive offerings.

Some wealthier pilgrims bought bronze statuettes of divinities that were also wrapped as mummies and placed in animal cemeteries. But real animal mummies would have been a much cheaper option, and they were soon a pervasive presence in Egyptian life. A few mummies have been found with papyri petitioning the gods for help to resolve a family matter or cure an illness. However, that the majority of animal mummies were not accompanied by written petitions and that it’s possible most were intended to carry oral messages.

Perhaps pilgrims whispered their requests in the ears of the mummies, which then delivered their messages to the gods.

Kemo D. 7
Source: Archaeology Magazine

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