The priest of the temple of Khnum in Elephantine was a rogue who broke the heart of the local ladies. He also had a tasty side hustle, selling off the young calves of the sacred bull which was in his charge. He sold some to other priests in the south and one to a commander of a fortress. This was not just a bit of light embezzlement, but a fairly serious crime: the bull may have been a god.
This story is one of many collected in Angelo Colonna’s study of animal worship in Egypt.
Animal worship has fascinated people for millennia. The most famous account comes from the Old Testament. Moses on Sinai communing with the almighty and Aaron on the ground, fashioning it out of gold earrings in the form of a calf. The Bible is full of calls against traditional Egyptian religion. St Paul condemned those who “changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things” (Romans 1).
Other Greek and Roman authors discussed Egyptian animal religion. Some are very dismissive. In his fifteenth satire, Juvenal asks ‘Who knows not to what monstrous gods, my friend, The mad inhabitants of Egypt bend?’
Texts like these paint a compelling image of ancient Egyptians.
Not all Greek and Roman writers were negative about sacred animals. Yet they never delved into the theologies of their contemporaries. Herodotus was the first classical author to describe the phenomenon. He said that all animals are held sacred in Egypt adding “but were I to declare the reason why they are dedicated, I should be brought to speak of matters of divinity, of which I am especially unwilling to treat”.
Strabo in his Geography of the Roman Empire describes the animals in Egypt:
These animals are regarded as gods, but there are other places, and these are numerous, both in the Delta and beyond it, in which a bull or a cow is maintained, which are not regarded as gods, but only as sacred.Strabo 17.1.22
This passage has long been treated as an important source for historians. How far can we use Greek or Roman historians as sources for analyzing millennium old forms of religion they did not always hold themselves. The issue is made more problematic when we consider that the Greek and Latin words likely had different meanings and the language we use today is similarly different.
Egyptian sources do not use a ‘rigorous vocabulary’. Three terms are used: ba, whm and ntr. Ba means something like manifestation or power. An animal or object could be understood as a ba form of a particular god. Whm means intermediary and was used for the Apis and Mnevius bulls as intermediaries of Ptah and Re respectively. It can also be used in the sense of herald. Ntr means something like god or divine. Colonna argues that we must read this differently to the western concept. The animals are god ntr in the sense that they are ritualized objects.
Colonna argues that Animal worship is directed to animals that are “‘made’ into sacr(alis)ed animals” through rituals.
Sacrality is not a static quality inherent to the animal per se but a dynamic condition that is produced and induced through ritual actions performed with restricted contexts and specific situations.P. 167
The animal becomes a ‘ritually empowered instrument’ to which individuals and communities can pray. For Calonna, the animal serves a function, it is not a ‘fetish’ or a symbol.
Action is directed toward them, and, as religious agents, they are capable of exerting power and producing effects.P. 176
Colonna creates a new model for ancient Egyptian animal worship, arguing that although the evidence is sporadic we can see a continuous veneration of ‘selected animals’ back to 3rd millennium BE animals for millennia.
In the Early Dynastic Period, there is evidence for cults to Sobek, the mighty crocodilian, god of Shedet, to the bulls Apis and Mnevis and to the Ra of Mendis.
Although animal religion is not usually considered part of Old Kingdom Egypt, Calonna closely analyses the evidence, finding evidence for the ritual for four calves at Sehure and possible veneration directed to pelicans in the sun temple at Niuserra.
There is another dearth of evidence in the First Intermediate Period to the Middle Kingdom, but again Calonna painstakingly reviews the evidence. In the ‘autobiography’ found on his tomb in Deir el Gebrawi, Henqu II, a local leader, said:
I satisfied the jackals of the mountain and the kites of the sky with the carrion / of small cattle for I loved the ba of the strong one that is within them.
The meaning is allusive. Colonna writes that this passage ‘apparently’ extends the traditional pieties of feeding the hungry from animals to humans. Bernard Mathieu argues it evokes both a specific landscape where the tomb was found and a specific set of deities (Anubis, Isis and Nephthys). It is the nevertheless a rare example of wild animals mentioned as religious beings and attempts to explain this power- “the ba within”. This makes it an important source.
It is in the New Kingdom that the ‘scattered evidence coalesces’, but it also reveals a change of practice or prominence. The cult of Apis subtly changed during the 18th dynasty. He became more associated with the god Ptah and a funerary cult was also established during the reign of Amenhotep III. We also see an extension in the social groups connected to the Apis bull on stelae found in Memphis. No longer just the palace elite.
Using the model of the anthropologist Alfred Gell, Colonna argues that the fact we suddenly see so much evidence for animal gods in the New Kingdom might reflect artistic styles and conventions rather than the history of animal gods themselves.
The book ends before the late dynastic period, so we do not see the flowering of animal religion in the Greek and Roman period. It has been argued that animal worship was a reaction against foreign rule. As Colonna shows, Egyptians worshiped the animals for many a year. In these final centuries there was a flowering of animal worship. In the Fayum, where there was once one crocodile god, soon there were many. The cemeteries of Saqqara bear witness to this belief with their millions of animal mummies.
It is telling then that one of the final temples still operating in Egypt, in a suburb of Alexandria, was closed in 481 CE by an extremist Christian paramilitary organization led by a coalition of monks and students. As they smashed the doors down, they entered a room full of statues. The main ‘idol’ was a statue to the goddess Isis in the form of a snake. Here was the antithesis of that Christianity: the divine embodied as female, animal and yet all powerful. Their only possible response was destruction.