The Sheep in Ancient Egypt

Egyptian Name:




Ovis platyra sheep

The ancient Egyptians referred to both goats and sheep by a single term, "small cattle," thereby ignoring their considerable differences. Sheep were not common in ancient Egypt, as wool was not of great economic importance to the Egyptians - they preferred the less hot and itchy linen and later, the lighter cotton to wool. Sheep were kept for their meat, milk, and skins, and the flocks were used to tread seed into the fields after sowing. Sheep tail fat - alya - was used in cooking.

Sheep amulet made of faience

Ancient Egypt possessed in succession two different species of domesticated sheep, both descended from the Iranian Red Sheep. The first was the hairy, fleeceless sheep Ovis longipes palaeoaegyptiacus, which had lop ears and long, twisting horns that grew outwards from its head. This species became extinct during the Middle Kingdom. The second species of sheep was the woolly, fat-tailed sheep Ovis platyra aegyptiaca, which had short horns that curved inwards towards its face. Both species were brown, black, white, or piebald.

Ovis longipes sheep

The ram was associated with the generative forces that drive all living things, and sacred rams were considered to be related to the royal family. The hieroglyphic for ram, together with a whip, conferred royal status.

In historic times, ram horns were included in the composition of royal crowns, such as the Two Feathers Crown and the Hemhem Crown. The ram was the animal symbolic of the ba, a major aspect of the Egyptian notion of the soul; the Egyptian word for “ram” was “ba.” Turquoise and faience ram amulets were buried with the dead to help with regeneration.

Statue made of faience

The Ovis platyra ram was associated with the god Amun, and prayers have been found addressed to the "Beautiful Ram of Amun." The processional routes which led to Amun’s chief temple were flanked with prone rams or ram-headed lions symbolizing the god, and the great festival barque of Amun “Lord of the Two Horns” was decorated with ram's heads at its prow and stern. A sacred ram was kept at Thebes and worshiped as an incarnation of the god; when it died, the image of Amun was then clothed in its skin.

The Ovis longipes ram was associated with the gods Heryshaf, Banebdjedet, and Khnum. A living, sacred ram was kept at Mendes and worshiped as the incarnation of Banebdjedet. The ram was distinguished by certain special markings like the Apis Bull, and when found it was led to its temple by priests and enthroned with great honor. Upon death, the ram was mummified and buried in a ram-specific necropolis. To scholars this animal is known as the “Mendesian Ram.” A Persian king of the 4th century B.C.E. is alleged to have gone mad after sacking Banebdjedet’s temple and killing and eating the sacred ram.

Rams with double horns

Sacred pure white rams were kept in temples dedicated to Khnum, worshiped as incarnations of the god, and mummified when they died. The mummified rams were elaborately wrapped and decorated with gilded masks, faience beaded necklaces, and sacred amulets, and were placed in limestone, rose quartz, and black granite sarcophagi. It was revealed by X-rays that one of the sacred rams lived to a very old age - its teeth were extremely worn and it must have been fed on mashed food, as it would have had difficultly chewing.

Ram mummy

It is interesting to note that in early depictions, Khnum was shown with the horns of the first breed of domesticated ram, Ovis longipes - however, in later depictions, he was shown with the horns of Ovis platyra. In some depictions Khnum is shown with both sets of horns.

Because sheep's milk and meat were considered to be middle-class foods, they did not figure among offerings to the dead. Priests were forbidden by taboo, especially during the Late Period, to eat mutton or wear wool.

Livestock of Ancient Egypt

The Meat of Ancient Egypt