Sobek: Ancient Egyptian Crocodile God in the Greek and Roman periods

Over 17 cubits long, muscular and armoured, the crocodile was a fearsome beast, but when it devoured their children, the Egyptians would rejoice. Or so Herodotus said.

The crocodile was synonymous with the Nile: the majestic river which brought life to the sun baked land of Keme. It could hide just below the muddy water surface, almost invisible, until suddenly it would attack with its massive jaws wide open. The river brought life to Egypt. The yearly flood brought nutriments to the soil and allowed the thin ribbon of the Nile Valley to develop a rich and vibrant culture which was sustained for millenia. But just as the Nile brought the blessings of life, it brought also the otherside: thanatos, death.

The floods supported not just agriculture but also the fauna of Egypt. The water destroyed the habitats of the animals who lived on the banks. Rats would swarm to higher lands, the villages, and scavenge for food. The rats brought cobras, but the cobras destroyed the rats and were revered by the Egyptians. They were placed on the crowns of the kings of Egypt. The crocodile was too great a creature to attack the rats, but they were revered nonetheless.

These were powerful animals, impervious to attack and vulnerable only to the well trained dwarves of Denedra who would jump on their back and ride them. The crocodiles were top of the food chain, except for the Egyptian mongooses which would prey on their Eggs purposely trampling them purely in order to destroy them before they grew in size. If they were faced by crocodiles, the Egyptian mongoose would roll itself in the mud and filth of the river banks and to disguise their scent and they would jump into the crocodile’s yawning mouths and they would tear themselves out through the crocodiles soft underbelly from within. Diodorus described this.

Sobek: From the beginnings until the Greco-Roman period

The crocodile god par was Sobek.  Sobek was an ancient god, first attested in Naqada III period. Naqada III is notable in the archaeological record for stylised ceramics, some of which depict nets and crocodiles. These were the first portrayals of crocodiles.

Sobek’s name could mean “he is who is put together” – linking him to the Osiriac myth – or it could mean “he who causes to be pregnant”.  He was a physical god, veracious with a huge sexual appetite and irresistible, especially to the female falcon godesses. Yet he is also known as beautiful of face  and Sobek of shining appearance.

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Bowl with crocodile and net pattern

 

Fayum: home of the crocodile cults

Sobek is associated with the Fayum from the start. The Fayum is a large inland lake south of the Delta and to the west of the Nile. The major city of the Fayum was Shedet, known as Crocodilopolis to the Greeks, and Arsinoë to the Romans. The Fayum is unique in that it is the only place except for the Mediterranean Sea into which the Nile water flows. It was revered for this uniqueness and the crocodiles thrived there.

In the beginning, the crocodile god was known as Sobek of Shedet,  although on the Coffin Texts (from the First Intermediate Period) Shedet was associated with the falcon god Horus not with Sobek.

His cult developed further during the reign of Amenemhat III. He became a funerary god.  In the New Kingdom he began to receive personal dedications.

 

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Sobek statue from outside the funerary complex for Amenemhet III in Hawara

 

The crocodile god in the Greek and Roman periods

The Greek (or Ptolemaic) and Roman periods (approximately 305 BCE to approximately 640s CE) witnessed a religious development of crocodile worship in the Fayum. The Italian Egyptologist Marco Zecchi argued that this period saw a “splintering” of ‘Sobek of Shedet’. Several new and local forms of crocodile deities in the Fayum are attested,  although Sobek remained, the best known, if not pre-eminent, crocodile god. Coptos worshipped a violent but protective crocodile. Hawara revered two main gods are Souchus and dieifed Amenemhet III.

In the Ptolemaic period more than a seventh of the inhabitants had names linked to a crocodile god, according to evidence from papyri,. Such evidence must be treated carefully but it does suggest Sobek was popular in the Fayum. Votive offerings to Sobek, in Greek, are also common during the Ptolemaic period.

 

The temples of the crocodile gods in the Greek period

During the Greek period Egyptian temples were supported by the Ptolemaic dynasty. They also received some economic privileges.  At the same time the temples (in general) saw a growing reliance on private and semi-public sponsorship, including soldiers.

These temples could be quite extensive. Soknopaiou had about 20 buildings in temenos and was renovated works during the Greek period.

An intriguing trend seems to be that a number of Fayum town revered two gods. At Bakchias Soknobkonneus and Soknobraisis were worshipped. Although Italian Egyptolologist Pernigotti says that later belong to an indistinct group of theoi synnaoi, he also argues these gods became associated with the twin Disoscuri. At Shedet Pnepheros is attested alongside Sobek.

The best surviving temple in the Fayum is Medinet Madi. It was built in the Middle Kingdom but renovated in the Greek period by Ptolemy XI Soter II. A temple to Cobra goddess Renentuet, identified with Isis-Thermouthis in the Greek and Roman periods, Sobek was also honoured here.

The famous Greek Isiac hymns of Isidorus, inscribed on a column in the temple at Medinet Madi, dating to no later than 80 BCE,  praised all these gods.

Sobek is also identified with Soknopis and the Agathos Daimon in the second and fourth hymns. The second hymn even ascribes to him creative powers,  elsewhere ascribed to Isis.

How truly the Agathosdaimon, mighty Sokonopis
dwells as your temple mater, that goodly Bestower of wealth
Creator of both earth and the starry heaven

[Vanderlip’s translation]

The hymns of Isidorus demonstrate that a religiously vibrant cult flourished in the Greek period supported by Greek (speaking) elite individuals. This site also gives evidence for a continuous cult of a living crocodile into the Greek period.

 

The temples of the crocodile gods in the Roman period

State support of Egyptian temples changed under Roman rule. Augustus curbed temples’ power, numbers and made landholdings subject to a regular tax audit.

The impact of this on temples is hard to measure, and is an area of major debate in the field. Kockelmann argued that the temple of Sobek suffered significantly under the new regime.  Gilliam, examining papyrus evidence argued that the Soknobraisis Temple was impacted but survived. By 171 CE Soknobraisis’ priests were expected to work on state land, but the number of priests did not substantially decrease. The Papyrologist Roger Bagnall has argued that the temples slowly withered in power and prestige until they disappeared by the third century.

During the Roman period, Roman interest in Egypt increased. Egypt became a stop on the tourist trail. Hadrian famously visited down the Nile and travelled down the Nile seeing his sites. You can still read graffiti left by companions of Hadrian graffitied the colossus of Memnon. Tragically his partner Antinous drowned in the Nile. Hadrian had him deified by the Egyptian priests.

The crocodile lakes of the Fayum were highly popular. This had began before the Roman assumption of power.  A papyrus from 112 BCE urges the local magistrate of the Fayum to put on a good show for the visit of Lucius Memmius, a Roman dignitary.

Strabo describes a firsthand visit to the Fayum in his Geography

for the people in this Nome hold in very great honour the crocodile, and there is a sacred one there which is kept and fed by itself in a lake, and is tame to the priests. It is called Suchus; and it is fed on grain and pieces of meat and on wine, which are always being fed to it by the foreigners who go to see it. 812 At any rate, our host, one of the officials, who was introducing us into the mysteries there, went with us to the lake, carrying from the dinner a kind of cooky and some roasted meat and a pitcher of wine mixed with honey. We found the animal lying on the edge of the lake; and when the priests went up to it, some of them opened its mouth and another put in the cake, and again the meat, and then poured down the honey mixture. The animal then leaped into the lake and rushed across to the far side; but when another foreigner arrived, likewise carrying an offering of first-fruits, the priests took it, went around the lake in a run, took hold of the animal, and in the same manner fed it what had been brought.

According to the Historia Augustae, Septimus Severus visited the nearby Labyrinth, amonsgt other Egyptian sites, examining them all “with great care”. He may have visited the crocodiles as well, although this is not reported.

Such visits would financially support the temples. The cult continued to survive in different centres until the third and fourth century.

 

Living crocodile gods

The Egyptians revered the live crocodile. Egyptologists have differentiated between three forms of cult animal:

  • the holy or temple animal which was regarded as the incarnation of the god;
  • the sacred animal which was the same species as the temple animal and may have acted as a court or family to the temple animal;
  • the Fetish Animal which were domestic animals accorded some religious veneration.

When writing about Egypt, Greeks and Roman authors didn’t differentiate between the different types of religious animal. The crocodiles visited by Strabo are likely to have been temple animals. Herodotus claims that  every household raises one crocodile.

Egyptian temples reared animals. An Italian archaeological team, led by Edda Bresciani, recently discovered the remains of a crocodile nursery at Madinet Madi. Another team found a complex for feeding crocodiles Sumenu of similar to one described by Herodotus.  Such centres may have a less pleasant purpose however.

As well as revering live crocodiles, the Egyptians also revered mummified animal remains. Many museums contain cat, falcon and fish mummies. The killing and mummification of animals was performed on a vast scale. Mortuaries in Saqqara reveal millions of animal mummies of different breeds. Recently eight million canine mummies have been found here.

Possibly because of the vast numbers involved, not all mummies contain animal remains. One large crocodile shaped mummy when scanned revealed only eight baby crocodiles inside . More commonly mummies contain pottery and only a few bits of bone.

 

Crocodile god imagery in Greek and Roman Egypt

 

Symbolism in the Book of the Fayum

As well as revering live crocodiles, the crocodile was a symbol of divinity. We see this in the Book of the Fayum. A highly popular book of which several examples survive from Greco-Roman period. The Book of the Fayum is a religious text. It was written in hieratic and hieroglyphics. Its likely place of origin is the Fayum.

Crocodiles are the main creature in the Book of the Fayum. There are several images of them, but they are not all Sobek. In this book, Nekhbet is named ‘Lord of Kem-ur’ (Fayum), not Sobek.

Sobek still has a key role in the text, but he borrows attributes from Horus. In the Book of the Fayum, the relationship between Osiris and Sobek corresponds with the father/son relationship of Horus and Osiris. Here it is Sobek who struggles against enemies of Osiris.  During the Greco-Roman period, Sobek and Horus were routinely linked.

 

Egyptian art used animal attributes to suggest powers, either literal or symbolic. The crocodile was a symbol of both power and also the sun. Like the sun, the crocodile would sink into the waters and would rise from the waters.  One of the crocodiles in the Book of the Fayum may be the Fayumic version of Re.

Even more intriguing are depictions of creatures made up of many animals. In the Book of the Fayum, there is an image of an animal with the head of a ram, crowned with the uraeus cobra and lion mane, a body which is half snake and half crocodile and a shoulder possibly drawn to resemble a phallus.

 

buchvonfayum

Photoreference: Das Buch von Fauym, 106

The falcon headed crocodile Sobek-Re, first seen in the Late Period, is a neat example of this.

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Photo reference: Labrique, F., 2013. Le regard d’Hérodote sur le phénix (II, 73). In: Herodote et L’Egypte: Regards croisés sur le Livre II de l’Enquête d’Hérodote. 127 Fig 13

Other examples of such crocodilian creatures can be found elsewhere in artefacts from Greek and Roman Egypt. A similar type of creature can be seen in the Liturgical Tunic from Saqqara  (Fig. 2). This dates from the Greek period. The French Egyptologist Labrique has interpreted as a symbol of the daily birth in the middle of the seas.

 

Greek and Roman depictions of the crocodile god

If the Egyptian artists loved images of animal gods, then Greek and Roman artists did not. Greek and Romans gods were rarely portrayed as animals, but they sometimes held animals as attributes of their power. Images survive from Greek and Roman Egypt of humanoid gods holding crocodiles.

Tallet and Zivie‐Coche identify an image of anthropomorphic deity in terracotta with solar rays projecting from his head and holding a crocodile as a Hellenised Sobek-Re (sometimes portrayed as a falcon crocodile).

Another image found on a painted wooden panel shows two gods, whom the French Egyptologist Rondot has identified as Sobnebtynis (left) and Min (right).  In the image, Sobnebtynis bears the attributes of Cronus, the beard and staff, and a small crocodile.  Rondot even argues the image follows Graeco-Roman iconography: Sobnebtynis holds his crocodile just as Zeus holds his lightning.  Rondot argues that Sobnebtynis (or Sobek Geb Cronos) is a Hellenised form of Sobek Geb. This panel is the only visual evidence we have for this god, but  there is epigraphical evidence of his cult in the Fayum.

Min is an ithyphallic Egyptian god. If you look carefully you can see the god on the right holding his attribute.

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Photo reference: Rondot, V., 1998. Min Maître de Tebtynis. In: W. Clarysse, A. Schoors & H. Willems, eds. Egyptian religion : the last thousand years : studies dedicated to the memory of Jan Quaegebeur. P. 254

Such terms as Egyptian and Greek as used above ignore the difficulties of ascribing cultural backgrounds to the artefacts. The crocodile’s symbolism transfers across the cultural divisions.

In the words of the American Egyptologist David Frankfurter Hellenistic forms and titles “did not obliterate the local character of a deity in religious life [but] served to convey, in new media, the particular features and powers of the deity in her local world”.  Egyptian symbolism retained its values within a different set of symbolic frameworks.

 

Horus and Seth in Greco-Roman Egypt

In Egypt however, the crocodile did not just have one set of symbolic meanings. Images of Horus defeating Seth in the form of a serpent or crocodile, from the Roman period, show both a specific event (in the Isis myth) and a symbolic battle of good and evil. At the Horus temple in Edfu, in the far south of Egypt, crocodiles were hunted at Edfu, killed and eaten. This was likely as a symbolic defeat of Seth and of evil.

Another set of images that has been seen to depict this enmity are the ‘Horus on crocodile’ images. It is sometimes believed that standing on the crocodiles shows Horus’ defeat of them. The French Egyptologist Quaegebeur argued that the images are a symbolic representation of the transcendental power of the god, rather than good overcoming evil.

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Horus on crocodiles

These images are quite famous, but they are  not the only images of Horus and Seth to survive. In the Book of the Fayum a crocodile-headed Horus defeats a flamingo headed Seth. Here the symbolism of Egyptian art makes oblique that the crocodile is good and the falcon is evil  The flamingo’s red plumage is the colour of evil, and its small stature a pictorial topos of defeat.

Sobek Seth

Beinlich, H., 1991. Das Buch vom Fayum : zum religiösen Eigenverständnis einer ägyptischen Landschaft. , 76

 

 

Augustus and Egypt

Another important symbolic use of the crocodile was depictions of Egypt as a conquered nation. Augustus issued “Aegypto Capta” coins which show a crocodile chained to the side of a palm tree.

IMG_3989

 

IMG_3977

Photo Reference: Simon Bralee, 2018 taken in British Museum

A more salacious image from a lamp shows a crocodile performing an act of physical intimacy with a young lady. This image has been variously interpreted as a political satire on Cleopatra or Anthony, or the sexual intensity of Egypt or even as a apotropaic image.

 

IMG_3985

Photo Reference: Simon Bralee, 2018 taken in British Museum

 

Images of the Crocodile outside of Egypt

There is not room to discuss images of Egypt around the Roman world. Several pictures of the Nile survive. They often show the flora and fauna of Egypt (in varying degrees of accuracy), including crocodiles. I will discuss these another time, but perhaps this image will give a hint of some of the themes these scenes show.

 

nilotica

Photo Reference: Simon Bralee, 2018 taken in British Museum

Conclusion

The crocodile was a powerful creature and was revered for this reason but the meanings he evoked for Egyptians during the Ptolemaic and Roman times were complex.

If you want any citations or references to any of the comments above please let me.

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Further reading

Four hymns to Isis (tr) Vanderlip

 

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