The Cattle of Ancient Egypt

Short-horned cattle

Egyptian Name:

Yewa or Iwa


039bullheiro.jpg (bull)
039_-_Copycowww.jpg (cow)

Long-horned cattle

Farmstead cattle, descended from aurochs, were domesticated in Egypt in Predynastic times. Wild cattle still occurred in the New Kingdom and were hunted for sport by royalty and noblemen. Cattle hunts were recorded by a number of pharaohs, most notably Amenhotep III, who slaughtered wild bulls by the dozens with the support of his army and commemorated it proudly by issuing scarabs bearing a description of the occasion.

Egyptian cattle came in a wide variety of colors, such as black, red, brown, white, dappled, piebald, tan, and brindled. Three types of cattle were distinguished. The first was the Ng'w, or long-horned cattle. It was a tall, lean breed with a large muzzle and crescent or lyre-shaped horns. The short-horned cattle, or Wndw, slowly replaced the long-horned cattle and became the dominant breed during the Second Intermediate Period. The third type was a hornless breed known as Hred'eb'a. Valued as "fancy" cattle, they are never shown engaged as draft animals, were sometimes decorated with jewelry and colorful cloths. The humped zebu was introduced from Syria during the 18th Dynasty.

"Fancy" hornless cattle

Bulls were fattened for the table with a diet of grain, bread dough soaked in oil and wine, and fresh green produce, or were castrated and used for plowing. In rare cases they were employed to pull wagons. Cows were kept to thresh grain, and for their milk. Cow milk was used to make butter, cheese, and yogurt. Aged cattle were slaughtered for their meat, leather, horns, and bones. Hooves and gristle were used to make glue. Because of the lack of trees and bushes in the Nile valley, the dried dung of cattle was essential for fuel. Beef was the meat of royalty and the very wealthy, and formed the prime offering for gods and the dead.

Ushabti model of cattle

Cattle were slain by cutting the throat with knives; they were then bled, disemboweled, and skinned. Select pieces were presented as offerings or exhibited as "fillets" or joints suspended from ropes in butcher's shops. The choicest cut was considered to be the foreleg, Khepesh. Beef was boiled or roasted, and the meat was sometimes steeped in wine or beer prior to cooking. Beef was also used to make sausage and stews, and the blood was used to make a type of "blood pudding." Beef fat was used for frying and as a condiment. Beef was reserved for the very rich - the less wealthy ate mutton, goat meat, or pork, while the poor subsisted on fish and fowl.

Owning cattle represented high social status and economic value and owners were proud to display their herds on the walls of their tombs. Sometimes small wooden models of cattle were buried with the dead, to ensure their wealth and bounty for eternity. Calves cost about as much as donkeys, a cow twice that and a bull four or five times as much, depended on the age and quality of the animal. The animals were so valuable that taxes were sometimes paid with cattle.

Cow weeping as her calf goes hungry

In the winter, the herds stayed in the Nile valley, while during the hot summer months they were moved to the cool waters of the Delta marshlands. Herds of cattle were watched over by cowherds, and in order to prevent theft cattle were branded on their foreheads or flanks, or their horns were marked or intentionally deformed.

Helping a cow give birth

Herdsmen were fond of their animals and often gave them names, such as "Fine Inundation," "Golden One," Nefer ("Beautiful,") "Pigeon," "Shining One," and "Good Counsel." They took great care in providing the animals with proper food, sometimes feeding them by hand, and preparing for them medicine or whatever else they required.

Herdsmen were often expert livestock breeders and skilled in the veterinary arts, and are sometimes depicted assisting cows as they calved. Cows being milked and calves nursing are frequently depicted in tombs, and artists often showed regard for cow's feelings. In some scenes the cow is depicted looking back or even shedding tears at the theft of her milk while the calf is denied its meal. In another scene, a cow is pictured shedding tears as her mate is slaughtered.

The bull was a fertility symbol, and linked to the pharaoh. This animal was chosen because it symbolized the king’s courageous heart, great strength, virility, and fighting spirit. Even from Predynastic times, images of a bull trampling the enemies of the king represented the pharaoh's triumph over his enemies.

Sacred bulls were considered to be related to the royal family and were thought to be manifestations of the pharaoh, as bulls were symbols of strength and fertility, qualities which are closely linked with kingship (“strong bull” was a common title for gods and pharaohs). In the 1st Dynasty the heads of bulls were used in architecture, and clay heads furnished with real bulls' horns decorated the walls of tombs.

Beds and chairs often rested on protective lion or bull's feet. Symbolic of fertility and regeneration, many bull-headed amulets have been found buried with the dead, often made of faience, serpentine, carnelian, alabaster, limestone, and amethyst. Bull horns were placed in graves as early as 10,000 B.C.E. Several bull cults were present in Egypt, such as those of the Apis, Mnevis, and Buchis. In these cults an actual, living bull was selected from the herds and worshiped as a god, then mummified and buried like a pharaoh when it died. Bulls were also associated with many gods, such as Ptah, Osiris, Atum, Min, Ra, and Montu.

Milking a cow

Several Egyptian goddesses were depicted as a cow, such as Hesat, Hathor, and Isis. The goddess Hesat was believed to be the source of nursing milk, and was thought to have nursed the pharaohs themselves, and well as several bull gods. The ancient Egyptians referred to milk as the “Beer of Hesat.” In a time when many women died in childbirth, the ability of cow’s milk to sustain a human baby was deeply appreciated. Cow cults seem to have existed in many parts of Egypt dating back to the Predynastic Period, and cows may have been the focus of reverence and veneration even earlier.

As a provider of milk, the cow is a universal symbol of motherhood, nourishment, and abundance. The cow’s large eyes with long lashes and her generally quiet demeanor suggest a gentle aspect of feminine beauty. There are still cultures in the world where to say that a girl is “as pretty as a heifer” is a great compliment. The cow’s careful tending of her calf was also a model for motherhood. Interestingly, the Egyptian hieroglyphic of the head of the cow was the symbol for wisdom.

The Egyptians considered cow’s milk to be healing and a key element which helped the dead to be reborn. On the wall of tombs the dead are portrayed drinking from bowls of milk, if not nursing from the Great Cow herself, Hathor. Vessels of milk were buried with the dead, and in Predynastic times skulls of cows were displayed at temple entrances, fastened to poles.

As the motherly cow, Hathor gave the king her divine milk, and protected him as a cow protects her calf. The image of Hathor the Divine Cow suckling the pharaoh was quite common in ancient Egyptian art - however, it was not confined to Egypt. Similar motifs have been found on a wide variety of objects throughout the ancient Near East - in Crete, Syria, Mesopotamia, Greece, and on Phoenician objects as well. This image was thought to express the joyous tenderness, warmth, and contentment that sustains the flow of life. The Egyptian hieroglyphic for “to be joyful” was represented by a cow turning round to a young calf nestling at her side.

The goddess Isis also takes the form of a cow. Ploutarchos describes a mourning ceremony that took place after the recession of the Nile in which Egyptian priests wrapped a gilded image of a cow in black linen as a symbol of the mourning of Isis. The cow was called Shentayet, “The Widow.” In texts from Denderah, the Isis Cow is called Remenet, “The Bearer.” There, the hollow image of a cow was carved from sycamore wood and the mummy of Osiris was carried within it – a reference to Osiris’ coming rebirth from Isis, the Divine Cow.

In another part of the ceremony, a live cow played the role of Isis. Ploutarchos says that at the Winter Solstice, the priests led a cow around the Temple of the Sun seven times and called this journey the “Search for Osiris.” A letter from the Ptolemaic Period discusses the burial of an Isis cow. Herodotus noted that the Egyptians sacrificed only bulls, never cows, “for these are sacred to Isis . . . and for that reason all Egyptians are alike in treating cows far more holy than other beasts.”

Ramses III offered 514,698 cattle to various temples. According to Herodotus, the selection of sacrificial cattle was carefully conducted: "One of the priests appointed for this purpose searches to see if there is a single black or white hair on the whole body, since in that case the animal is unclean. He takes the tongue out of the animal's mouth to see if it is clean in respect of the prescribed marks - he checks the hairs of the tail to observe if they grow naturally - he checks the whole of the body for any blemish - they also reject any cattle that has a twin, or is speckled. After passing the examination of the priest they certify the victim pure for sacrifice . . . the priest marks him by twisting a piece of papyrus round his horns and attaching thereto some sealing-clay, which he then stamps with his own signet-ring - it is forbidden, under penalty of death, to sacrifice an animal that has not been marked in this way."

Herodotus describes what happens next: "The priests, prior to the sacrificial rite, fast and cleanse themselves . . . they take the bull to the altar and light a fire. They pour a libation of wine on the altar in front of the victim, and at the same time invoke the gods. Then they slay the animal by cutting off its head, and proceed to flay the body . . . a priest examines the kill and smells the blood on the tips of his fingers, and declares 'It is pure' . . . When they have flayed the steer they pray, and when their prayer is ended they take the paunch of the animal out entire, leaving the intestines and fat inside the body; then they cut off the legs, the ends of the loins, the shoulders, and the neck; having done so, they fill the body of the steer with clean bread, honey, raisins, figs, frankincense, myrrh, and other aromatics. Thus filled they burn the body, pouring over it great quantities of oil . . . while the altar fire consumes the offering, the priests scourge themselves . . . at the end of the ceremony the remaining portions of meat are served to the priests and temple attendants."

Livestock of Ancient Egypt

The Meat of Ancient Egypt

The Song of the Herdsmen