Animal Mummification in Ancient Egypt



Image: A bronze coffin of a mummified Ibis

Credit: The Brooklyn Museum

Archaeology magazine has an interesting article on animal mummification in ancient Egypt. In his preview of the article, Eric A. Powell explains why animals were mummified and the reason these mummified animals were offered to the gods.

The preview contains several pictures of coffins containing mummified animals. The pictures also show how many of the Egyptian gods were portrayed in animal forms. The picture shown above, courtesy of The Brooklyn Museum, is a bronze coffin containing the mummified body of an ibis which, according to the article, was “the most common type of animal mummy in ancient Egypt.”

The coffins shown in the preview are part of a traveling exhibit of The Brooklyn Museum titled “Soulful Creatures: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt.” The exhibit contains 30 coffins of mummified animals representing various Egyptian gods.

The March/April issue of Archaeology magazine contains a detailed article on animal mummification in ancient Egypt. The article, “Messengers to the Gods” is also available free online. Below is an excerpt from the article:

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.

This time is often depicted as calamitous in official accounts, but Bleiberg notes that during the First Intermediate Period, a similarly chaotic era without central authority that lasted from 2181 to 2055 B.C., life for the average Egyptian went on as normal. In fact, University of Cambridge Egyptologist Barry Kemp has shown that villagers were relatively prosperous during this time, perhaps because they paid taxes only to local authorities, and not to the central state. If life in the Third Intermediate Period was similar, then the average Egyptian may have had more disposable income. With no pharaoh to mediate Egypt’s relationship to the gods, and with foreigners undermining religious traditions, there was also a turn to personal piety among the general public. “Without the pharaoh, people needed to approach the gods on their own,” says Bleiberg.

You can see the pictures of the coffins and read Eric A. Powell’s explanation of animal mummification in Egypt by visiting Archaeology magazine online (click here).

You can also read the full article in Archaeology magazine, “Messengers to the Gods” online by clicking here.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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