Animal Mummies

Cat mummies

The Egyptians mummified animals as well as people, some beloved pets and others animals held sacred to various deities. Sacred animals found include vultures, lizards, cattle, crocodiles, ibises, falcons, snakes, sheep, frogs, scarabs, baboons, shrews, jackals, pelicans, mongooses, jackals, herons, and fish.

Pet mummies that have been found include cats, dogs, goats, donkeys, cheetahs, gazelles, horses, ducks, geese, monkeys, and lions. Some mummies were found in astonishing numbers - for instance, over four million mummified ibises alone have been uncovered in a single graveyard. The most unusual animal mummies discovered include elephants, praying mantises, hippopotamuses, the mummified eggs of birds and reptiles, and mummified scarab dung balls.

Mummy of a sacred ram

A simple visual analysis of animal mummies suggests that most animal mummies were treated with the same complexity as those of humans. Typically, the body of the animal was slit down the belly and all the internal organs removed, then it was dried in natron. Sometimes the animal was given an enema of cedar or pine oil to liquefy the viscera. The dried-out animal was then filled with mud, rolls of linen, or sand to hold the shape, treated with spices and oils, and painted with resin. Lengths of palm-rib were often used to make the mummies rigid, as was done with some human mummies of the period. Sometimes the body was wrapped in a papyrus mat, to provide extra protection. Lastly, the animal was bandaged with linen and placed in a pottery container or its own wood, stone, or bronze coffin, sometimes shaped like the animal inside.
Mummy of a cow

In the Roman Period animal mummies were wrapped in elaborate patterns, such as diamonds and squares, using overlapping bandages of different colors and widths. One cat in the Cairo Museum has bandages that are cunningly painted to give the impression of a brindled cat. Some animal mummies were adorned with features drawn in black paint and given colored glass, obsidian, or quartz eyes. Cats, rams, falcons, and dogs have been found wearing masks made of ceramic, gold, or bronze. Entire falcon mummies were sometimes gilded with gold, to underscore their association with the sun gods Horus and Ra.

X-ray of a baboon mummy

In the early days of archaeology animal mummies were regarded as mere curiosities, often ignored or even thrown away after evacuation. Some were misidentified as the mummies of children. The most famous example of this is Queen Maatkare’s pet baboon. When her tomb was discovered, there was a small, mummified bundle present at her feet, which was initially believed to be her child. This puzzled archaeologists because Queen Makare was a high priestess who had taken a serious vow of celibacy. If this had been her child, it would have meant that she had, at some point, broken the oath she had taken as high priestess, raising a slew of other questions regarding her life. Whole stories, even a novel, have been woven around what seemed to imply an illicit relationship. Finally, in 1968, an X-ray was done on the small mummy, and it was determined to be her pet female baboon, not a child.

The ancient Egyptians loved animals and preserved their beloved pets in hopes that they would accompany their owners into the afterlife. When a pet died before its owner, the animal was often mummified and placed into the owner's tomb to await them so that they could be buried together. One woman was buried with the remains of the seventeen cats that she had owned during her lifetime. Pets often had their own mummified food buried with them and, in the case of cats, milk bowls.

Some pets enjoyed quite splendid burials with their own decorated sarcophagi and their belongings buried with them, such as collars, jewelry, and favorite toys. In fact, it has been revealed that many families would beggar themselves in order to assure their pets received the very best embalming and burial. The family would cut their hair and shave their eyebrows and body in mourning when a beloved pet passed away.

Mummified dog

Sacred or cult animals are generally identified as special animals that were chosen on account of a set of specific or unusual markings to represent the physical presence of a god, and worshiped as a living incarnation of that god throughout their lifetime. The god's divine essence, or Ba, was thought to have entered into the animal, transforming it into a divinity. During its lifetime, this animal was worshiped and treated as if it were a god, and upon its death it was buried with great ceremony. The Ba of the god would then find its way into another similarly marked animal, which would then be worshiped until its death.

This can be compared to the Tibetan beliefs concerning the Dalai Lama and or the current Nepalese practice of the Living Goddess. Thus the Apis bull was revered as the spirit of Ptah, the Petsuchos crocodile as an incarnation of Sobek, the sacred falcon as an embodiment of Horus, and the white ram as the personification of Khnum. The animals were not worshiped for their own sakes - they were living avatars of the gods. It is a gross oversimplification of the complexities of Egyptian religion to say that the ancient Egyptians worshiped animals.

In later times entire species of animals were thought to be sacred, not just a specially marked one. Thus all cats, ibises, baboons, crocodiles, etc. were held to be avatars of the deities. The Egyptians believed that part of an animal symbolized the whole. Single bones, feathers, bits of fur, and dried reeds or grass from a bird's nest have been found mummified as if these fragments were an entire animal. Many scholars explain these away as deliberate fakes, suggesting that they were mocked up whenever the demand for votive offerings outpaced the supply.

Ibis mummy

In reality, it is likely that parts or feathers of the animal became detached during the mummification process, and were preserved separately instead of being thrown away. Natron and the extreme heat of mummification sometimes caused bones to disintegrate, so it is unsurprising that the only remains of the fragile mummies of small animals, such as cats, shrews, and falcons, were the wrappings.

"Dummy mummies" are also evidence for the careful collection of all animal remains, even fragments. There are records of pilgrims bringing in the remains of dead ibises that they had found in the wild so that they could be mummified and buried on the temple land, so holy were they held to be. Even animals that had died accidentally were treated respectfully - stillborn kittens were mummified and buried inside the stomach of a cat statue that represented their still-living mother.

Egyptian animal cults clearly offended against the Graeco-Roman worldview, which placed animals low in the hierarchy of being. Roman authors in particular described Egyptian "animal worship" with competent and scorn. The general antagonism against Egyptian animal worship is seen, for instance, by Juvenal. He opens his fifteenth satire with the question: "Who knows not, O Bithynian Volusius, what monsters demented Egypt worships?" Clement of Alexandria makes fun of "the wallowing animal" one finds in the holiest part of Egyptian temples.

Not only was animal worship considered ridiculous, but those who worshiped animals were considered no better than animals themselves. Despite loud condemnations of Egyptian animal worship, however, the Greeks and Romans were nonetheless fascinated by the Egyptian religion, and often continued the worship of sacred animals themselves, such as the cults of the Apis Bull and the Ram of Mendes.

Mummy of a falcon

The question of Egyptian animal cults has also vexed modern researchers. P.F. Houlihan concluded that much of the significance of animal worship is still imperfectly understood. One obvious obstacle has been the tendency to see the phenomenon as a sign of decadence and religious perversion. Animal worship contrasts sharply with the Christian notion that the human body is a fit vehicle for divinity, while the animal body is not. There is also a general (although not always conscious) evolutionary attitude to religion according to which totemism and the cult of animals belong to a primitive past.

Erik Hornung has pointed out that the ancient Egyptians did not establish the kind of division between humans and animals that the ancient Israelites did - the distinction between human and animal in Egypt was much more blurred. Humans simply did not have the same superior position in relation to the animal world in Egypt that they had in other parts of the region. Hornung has also stressed that a belief in a partnership between humans and animals existed in ancient Egypt, rather than a belief in man's supposed mastery over the beasts. To the Egyptians, both humans and animals were created by the gods, and both were bearers of life. Therefore, animals were entitled to respect and care.

From the country's earliest days, the Egyptian people lived in close proximity to animals, keeping them not only in pens and cages but also in their homes. "They live with their animals," wrote Herodotus, "unlike people in the rest of the world, who live apart from them." Scholar Eugen Strouhal points out that "Those who kept animals knew them well, including their mating habits, their diet and growth, their ailments, and all their characteristics. They took pleasure in breeding them successfully, but did not see them merely as utilities. We know from many illustrations what good care they took of them. We can see animal caretakers stroking an animal's muzzle while feeding it . . . "

In ancient Egypt, there were veterinarians employed to look after animals that were sick. A papyrus found at Kahun relates to the treatment of eye complaints suffered by a bull, a fish, a bird, and a dog. The treatment for a bull suffering from a "bad wind" (a cold) told to "lay him on his side, and let him be sprinkled with cold water, and then all his body be rubbed with melons, let him be fumigated with melons. . ." The deceased had to be able to swear: "I have not slaughtered the cattle divine, nor caused harm to any of the beasts which are sacred to the gods. I returned the goslings to their nests. I have given food to the ibis, falcon, jackal, and cat (the sacred animals of Thoth, Horus, Anubis, and Bast.) I did not beat the donkey and call myself beloved of the gods." In fact, though they were meat eaters, the ancient Egyptians developed a sort of moral code about the humane and ethical treatment of animals. This consideration remained largely unknown in many parts of the world until the appearance of organizations like the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) in modern times.

Unfortunately, the mummies of animals were treated just as badly as, if not worse than, the mummies of humans. The cat cemetery at Tell-Basta was pillaged and completely destroyed in the second half of the 19th century, before it could be investigated by archeologists. E. Naville, who excavated there on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund in the late 1880's, described traveling there to find the "heaps of white bones and torn bandages" littering the site, thousands of cat mummies destroyed in a search for loot.

When the Suez Canal was being dug, workmen had to stop for weeks at time to clear away the millions of cat mummies that they accidentally uncovered. In an act that would have horrified the ancient Egyptians, nineteen tons of cat mummies were sold for 3 pounds, 13 shillings, and 9 pence per ton (about $18) and shipped to England to be ground up for fertilizer.

In 1888 an entire necropolis of sacred baboons was emptied and sent to Germany to be ground up and used as fertilizer for beet fields. In 1890, thousands upon thousands of mummified Apis bulls from the Apis cemetery at Abusir were transported to Europe to be ground up and used as fertilizer. Animal mummies were also used as ballast for ships, burned for fuel, and, like human mummies, ground up to be used as medicine.