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There were many animal gods in ancient Egypt, and often, the only thing they had in common was their appearance. Some were protective, some were harmful, but most of them were both at the same time.
The Greek Historian Herodotus was the first Westerner to write about the animal gods of Egypt:
Although Egypt has Libya on its borders, it is not a country of many animals. All of them are held sacred; some of these are part of men’s households and some not; but if I were to say why they are left alone as sacred, I should end up talking of matters of divinity, which I am especially averse to treating; I have never touched upon such except where necessity has compelled me (II, 65.2).
He was scared and awed at their intimidating pantheon of anthropomorphic deities with animal heads and preferred not to comment on it.
Now, we know exactly why.
In this article, we will be exploring a list of the most important animal gods and goddesses in ancient Egyptian mythology. Our selection is based on how relevant they were to the creation and maintenance of the world the Egyptians lived in.
Jackal – Anubis
Most people are familiar with Anubis, the jackal god who weighs the heart of the deceased against a feather when they die. If the heart is heavier than a feather, tough luck, the owner dies a permanent death, and is eaten by a gruesome god known simply as ‘The Devourer’ or ‘Eater of Hearts’.
Anubis was known as the Foremost of the Westerners because most Egyptians’ cemeteries were placed on the western bank of the river Nile. This, incidentally, is the direction in which the sun sets, thus signaling the entrance to the Underworld. It is easy to see why he was the ultimate God of the Dead, who also embalmed the deceased and cared for them in their journey to the Underworld, where they would live forever as long as their body was correctly preserved.
Bull – Apis
Egyptians were the first people to domesticate bovines. It doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that cows and bulls were among the first deities they worshipped. There are records dating as early as the 1st Dynasty (ca. 3,000BC) that document the worship of the Apis bull.
Later myths tell that the Apis bull was born of a virgin cow, which had been impregnated by the god Ptah. Apis was strongly associated with procreative power and male potence, and also carried mummies on his back to the Underworld.
According to Herodotus, the Apis bull was always black, and sported a sun disk between its horns. Sometimes, he would wear the uraeus, a cobra sitting on the forehead, and other times he would be seen with two feathers as well as the sun disk.
Serpent – Apophis
Eternal enemy to the sun god Ra, Apophis was a dangerous, giant serpent which embodied the powers of dissolution, darkness, and non-being.
The Heliopolitan myth of creation states that in the beginning there was nothing but an endless sea. Apophis existed since the beginning of time, and spent an eternity swimming in the chaotic, primeval waters of the Ocean known as Nun. Then, earth arose from the sea, and the Sun and the Moon were created, along with humans and animals.
Ever since that time, and every day, the serpent Apophis attacks the solar barge which crosses the sky during daytime, threatening to capsize it and bringing eternal darkness to the land of Egypt. And so, Apophis must be fought and defeated every single day, a fight carried out by the powerful Ra. When Apophis is killed, he emits a terrifying roar that echoes through the Underworld.
Cat – Bastet
Who hasn’t heard about the Egyptians’ passion for cats? Sure enough, one of the most important goddesses was a cat-headed anthropomorph called Bastet. Originally a lioness, Bastet became a cat some time during the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2,000-1,700BC).
More mild-natured, she became associated with protecting the deceased and the living. She was the daughter of the sun god Ra and helped him regularly in his combat against Apophis. She was also important during the ‘Demon Days’, a week or so at the end of the Egyptian year.
Egyptians were the first people to invent the calendar, and to divide the year in 12 months of 30 days. As the astronomical year is around 365 days long, the last five days before Wepet-Renpet, or the New Year, were regarded as threatening and disastrous. Bastet helped counter the darker forces during this time of the year.
Falcon – Horus
The kingly Horus appeared in many forms throughout Egyptian history, but the most common was as the falcon. He had a complex personality, and took part in many myths, the most important of them being the one known as The Contendings of Horus and Seth.
In this tale, a jury of gods is assembled to assess who would inherit the kingly status of Osiris after his death: his son, Horus, or his brother, Seth. The fact that Seth was the one who killed and dismembered Osiris in the first place wasn’t relevant during the trial, and the two gods competed in different games. One of these games consisted of turning themselves into hippopotami and holding their breath under the water. The one who would surface later would win.
Isis, Horus’ mother, cheated and speared Seth to make him surface earlier, but despite this violation, Horus won in the end and was ever since regarded as the godly form of the pharaoh.
Scarab – Khepri
An insect god of the Egyptian pantheon, Khepri was a scarab or a dung beetle. As these invertebrates roll balls of feces around the desert, in which they plant their eggs, and where later their offspring surface, they were regarded as the embodiment of rebirth and creation out of nothing (or at least, out of manure).
Khepri was shown in iconography pushing the solar disk ahead of it. He was also depicted as small figurines, which were considered protective and were placed inside the wrappings of mummies, and probably wore around the neck by the living.
Lioness – Sekhmet
The vindictive Sekhmet was the most important leonine deity in Egypt. As a lioness, she had a split personality. On the one hand, she was protective of her cubs, and on the other a destructive, terrifying force. She was the older sister of Bastet, and as such a daughter to Re. Her name means ‘the female powerful’ and suits her well.
Close to the kings, Sekhmet protected and healed the pharaoh, almost motherly, but she would also unleash her endless destructive power when the king was threatened. One time, when Ra was too old to effectively steer the solar barge on their daily journey, mankind started plotting to overthrow the god. But Sekhmet stepped in and ferociously killed the offenders. This tale is known as The Destruction of Mankind.
Crocodile – Sobek
Sobek, the crocodile god, is one of the oldest in the Egyptian pantheon. He was venerated at least since the Old Kingdom (ca. 3,000-2800BC), and is responsible for all the life in Egypt, as he created the Nile.
According to the myth, he sweated so much during the creation of the world, that his sweat ended up forming the Nile. Ever since then, he became responsible for the growing of fields in the riverbanks, and for the rising of the river each year. With his crocodile features, he may look threatening, but he was instrumental in securing nourishment for all the people who lived near the river Nile.
These animal gods were responsible for the creation of the world and everything in it, but also for the maintenance of cosmic order and the subjugation and containment of disorder. They accompanied people since their conception (like the Apis bull), through their birth (such as Bastet), during their life (Sobek), and after they died (such as Anubis and Apis).
Egypt’s was a world filled with magical, animal powers, one in dire contrast with the disdain we sometimes show for our non-human partners. There are lessons to be learned from the ancient Egyptians, because we may need to rethink some of our behaviors before meeting Anubis for the weighing of our hearts.