Animals and Divinity in Ancient Egyptian Myth
Written by: Michelle Belanger
Bastet. Sekhmet. Horus. Thoth. They are perhaps the most compelling aspects of ancient Egyptian myth: animal-headed deities whose stately and mysterious figures adorn the ancient temples and tombs clustered along the banks of the Nile. Learn more about the ancient Egyptian mythological tradition in this article originally published by Michelle in PanGaia magazine.
The deities, drawn with formulaic symmetry, offer a mute testimony to the rich mythic tradition that once blossomed in Khemet1 -- the ancients’ name for what we moderns know as Egypt. These fantastic beings both fascinated and repulsed the staid European archaeologists who were excavating the ancient sites in the first half of the nineteenth century. Drawn in accordance to an artistic formula that dominated Egyptian art for a period of nearly three thousand years, their proud, inhuman images fascinate us still.
A Complex Tradition
The ancient Egyptians were a complex people with an equally complicated vision of divinity. Judging from the myths that have survived the journey of millennia, they seemed to have a god or goddess for everything. Many of the deities’ functions overlapped. Others had functions in apparent conflict. Seth, for example, was a god who both called storms and calmed them. He was known to protect desert caravans but simultaneously, it was he who commanded the fierce desert wind which posed the greatest threat to such travelers.
Other deities have had their aspects blended and merged with other gods over the course of ages. Horus, frequently depicted as the adversary of Seth, has an elder and a younger form, both hawk-headed. The younger Horus is Horus the Avenger, son of Isis and Osiris. He is usually Seth’s nephew, but sometimes Seth’s brother. The Elder Horus seems to be the remnant of a much older cult whose qualities as a sun god allowed him to be subsumed into the younger Horus of the Osirian myth.
The syncretism of ancient Egyptian myth has greatly contributed to its richness and diversity. However, this same syncretism makes the myths difficult to approach from a modern perspective, because often the roles of many deities do not seem to be fixed. The goddesses Bastet, Sekhmet, and Hathor all appear to be individual deities, and yet in some myths their roles are freely interchanged, and in others, they are depicted as merely being aspects of a single goddess.
When approaching the ancient Egyptian pantheon, it’s important to remember that the civilization that shaped these myths lasted for over three thousand years. In contrast, our own American civilization has been around for about three hundred – one tenth of the time that Egypt grew, developed, evolved and changed. Culturally, the ancient Egyptians were something like intellectual pack-rats – they didn’t like letting go of ideas just because they were old. Instead, old ideas were integrated with new ones and thus infused with a vision more appropriate to the changing times. This is a primary reason for the depth and complexity of the ancient Egyptian deities and their corresponding myths. When a new cult rose in place of an old one, the previous deity was simply assimilated into the aspect of his successor, and both divinities were enriched by this process.
Gods and Animals
This rich history of syncretism means that none of the ancient Egyptian deities are easily reducible to one form or function – or even one cycle of myths. But if anything, their inherent complexity has added to their modern appeal. There is an undeniable mystery in figures like fierce Sekhmet, the goddess with the head of a lioness, or wise Thoth, the ibis-headed god. Their appeal as archetypal totems is obvious, especially considering how seriously the ancient Egyptians took their approach to animals.
In a precursor to modern zoology, the ancient Egyptians kept gardens of animals to study and observe. The habits of the species were carefully noted and images of the animals were painstakingly reproduced. These images, some of which make up hieroglyphic letters, are so exact that modern biologists can accurately identify each species they depict. They are even able to recognize species that clearly once existed, but now have become extinct – among these, several species of fish and at least one species of cat.
For the ancient Egyptians, this practice was a blend of science and religion, for the habits of animals were seen as being intrinsically interconnected with the inner workings of the universe. Thus, when it was noted that male baboons tended to urinate every hour on the hour on the day of the Equinox, the baboon became associated with time-keeping. As part of this association, the baboon was the traditional figure depicted on the Egyptian waterclock. Additionally, it was one of the animals sacred to Thoth, who was credited with inventing the measurement of years.
Many of the deities who wear the face of animals do so through associations that are not nearly so obscure. As mentioned above, many of the totems are archetypal, and while the ancient Egyptians were drawing upon animals unique to their environment, many of these archetypal associations are valid still. Below are a few of the more compelling animal-headed deities to be found in ancient Egyptian myth.
Anubis: Anubis is the jackal-headed god of death. Jackals are dog-like creatures native to Egypt and much of Northern Africa. As carrion-eaters, it is their association with corpses that makes jackals the ideal animals for a god of death and the dead. The mortician of the gods, Anubis is often depicted in the act of wrapping a mummy for its journey into the afterlife. In later years, after the Hellenization of Egypt, Anubis became a key figure in magickal spells that call upon spirits. In his guise as guide and guardian of the dead, Anubis is sometimes associated with the Greek Hermes, also a psychopomp who leads the dead between worlds.2
Bastet: Much loved by modern practitioners, Bastet is the goddess with the head of a housecat. She is sometimes also depicted wholly as a cat, regal and bejeweled, with kohl around her eyes and an earring in one ear. The first people to domesticate our feline companions, the ancient Egyptians held cats in very high esteem. Countless felines were accorded the rites of mummification and stored in catacombs under the temples of Bubastis, Bastet’s sacred city. Clearly, the ancient Egyptians understood the cat’s loving and sensuous nature, for Bastet was a goddess of fertility who also watched over pregnant women. She punishes those who wrong the gods and, in at least one myth, does this by seducing the wrong-doer.
Hathor: Depicted variously as a cow bearing the solar disc between her horns, a woman with cow’s ears, or a woman with horns and a solar disc, Hathor embodies the fertile, mothering qualities of the cow. Cows were an important iconic figure in ancient Egypt, and as the celestial cow, Hathor is often shown nurturing the Pharaoh with milk directly from her teats. Her name means “House of Horus”3 and as the Pharaoh was the living embodiment of Horus, Hathor was an important deity of the royal house. Hathor’s cult-city was Dendera, and her priests were all creators in their own right: musicians, artists, dancers, and singers. In deference to her identity as a nurturing mother, Hathor’s priests were midwives as well.
Horus: The god who bears the head of a peregrine falcon, Horus’s eyes are said to be the sun and the moon. In his aspect of Horus the Elder, he is Horus of the Horizon, a pre-dynastic solar deity. As the son of Isis and Osiris, he is Horus the Avenger, the good son who hunts down his father’s murderer. Many cultures have recognized the falcon as the bird of kings, and ancient Egypt was no different. Horus was the god who replaced the aging Ra in his role as ruler of gods and men. All Pharaohs were viewed as the earthly incarnation of Horus, just as they became associated with his father Osiris after death.
Nekhbet: Nekhbet is a goddess whose totemic associations do not readily translate into modern terms. As a result, she is not a deity often assimilated into modern neo-Pagan practice. Depicted as a vulture, Nekhbet was a goddess who watched over the Pharaoh. She was a nurturing deity – certainly not a quality most moderns would readily associate with a carrion bird. And yet, to the ancient Egyptians, this bird had a very different significance. The hieroglyph for “vulture” was also the hieroglyph for “mother”4, for the vulture was seen as a model parent – nurturing and protective of its young, often at its own expense. Thus, Nekhbet, as a divine vulture, made the perfect protectress for the Pharaoh.
Sekhmet: The lion-headed goddess known as “the powerful one”5, Sekhmet has associations with both Hathor and Bastet. Sometimes, Sekhmet is supposed to be Hathor’s dark side -- the fury she unleashes upon those who would harm her loved ones. Among lion prides, the females go out and hunt while the males remain and lounge with the young. Thus Sekhmet is endowed with the cunning and ferocity of a hunting lioness. A goddess of war, Sekhmet has a fierce thirst for blood. In one myth, she nearly destroys humanity and is only stopped when she is tricked into drinking a copious amount of beer, dyed red so she would mistake it for blood. From this incident, Sekhmet is also the goddess of beer and of brewing, showing that even she has a lighter side.
Seth: Of all Egyptian deities, Seth is the most complex and perhaps the most misunderstood. Appropriately enough, though Seth is depicted as being animal-headed, Egyptologists have no clear idea what exactly this animal is. The Seth animal has squared ears, a curved snout, and a long tail tipped with a fork. This animal has variously been postulated to be a donkey, an extinct variety of pig, some manner of dog, or even an aardvark. The answer to the riddle may lie in Seth’s traditional associations. Known as “great of strength”6, Seth is often misrepresented as the god of evil and chaos, but is more appropriately the god of things that lie outside the bounds of normative space. Seth is the god of foreigners and of the Red Land – the uninhabitable desert. He is also god of storms, of earthquakes, and metals hidden below the ground. As the god of things unseen, unknown, or uncontrollable, Seth’s animal may have no real counterpart. In keeping with Seth’s outlying nature, his totem is something which never existed in the natural world, for he himself exists on that world’s edge.
Thoth: Thoth is the ibis-headed god of wisdom, writing, and the moon. He is attributed with inventing the hieroglyphs as well as the measurement of the 365 day year. As the inventor of the hieroglyphs, Thoth is often depicted as a scribe. To the Egyptians, hieroglyphic writing was a magickal process, for words were filled with power, and to name something was to make it real. For this reason, Thoth was also a god of magick. Thoth’s main animal was the ibis, a graceful water-bird that looks something like a heron but has a long, curved beak. The ibis may have been chosen as Thoth’s bird because its curving beak resembles the crescent moon. Occasionally, Thoth is also depicted as a baboon, an animal the Egyptians associated with both wisdom and the measurement of time.
There are many more Egyptian deities with totemic associations. Some of the many animals associated with these other gods include cobras, scorpions, crocodiles, and frogs. If you have become curious about the colorful gods and goddesses of the ancient Egyptians and wish to learn more, start your exploration with the following books:
1. Khemet can be translated as the “Black Land”. This is thought to refer to the color of the rich, fertile silt left behind after the Nile's annual flood. For more on the language of ancient Egypt, see Christian Jacq's work Fascinating Hieroglyphs: Discovering, Decoding & Understanding the Ancient Art, Sterling Publishing Co. Inc., New York, 1996.
2. This distinction is most often accorded to the moon-god Thoth who was directly linked to the Greek Hermes through the figure of Hermes Trismegistus. But because of Anubis's identity as a psychopomp, there are a few instances where Thoth and Anubis are interchanged, and Hermes is equated with each of them. See Hans Deiter Betz’s The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation.
3. Geraldine Pinch, Handbook of Egyptian Mythology, ABC-CLIO Inc., Santa Barbara, CA, 2002, p. 80. In her discussion on the entomology of her name, Geraldine Pinch suggests that Hathor was the mother of the Elder Horus and later acts as wet-nurse to Horus the Child.
4. Christian Jacq, Fascinating Hieroglyphs: Discovering, Decoding & Understanding the Ancient Art, Sterling Publishing Co. Inc., New York, 1996, p. 106.
5. David P. Silverman, “Divinity and Deities in Ancient Egypt” in Religion in Ancient Egypt, edited by Byron E. Shafer, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1991.
6. Geraldine Pinch, Handbook of Egyptian Mythology, ABC-CLIO Inc., Santa Barbara, CA, 2002, p. 193.
Byron E. Shafer, Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1991
Christian Jacq, Fascinating Hieroglyphs: Discovering, Decoding & Understanding the Ancient Art, Sterling Publishing Co. Inc., New York, 1996
Geraldine Pinch, Handbook of Egyptian Mythology, ABC-CLIO Inc., Santa Barbara, CA, 2002
John Anthony West, Serpent in the Sky: the High Wisdom of Ancient Egypt, Quest Books, Wheaton, IL, 1993.
Lucy Lamy, Egyptian Mysteries: New Light on Ancient Knowledge, Thames and Hudson, London,