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Take crocodiles. They instinctively laid their eggs above the impending high-water line of the Nile's annual flood, the pivotal event that watered and enriched fields and allowed Egypt to be born again year after year. "Crocodiles were magical," Ikram says, "because they had that ability to foretell."

The news of a good flood, or a bad one, was important to a land of farmers. And so, in time, crocodiles became symbols of Sobek, a water god of fertility, and a temple arose at Kom Ombo, one of the places in southern Egypt where the swelling flood was first observed every year. In that sacred space, near the riverbank where wild crocodiles lay sunning themselves, captive crocodiles led an indulged life and were buried with due ceremony after death.

THE MOST NUMEROUS mummies, buried by the millions as at Istabl Antar, were votive objects offered up during yearly festivals at the temples of animal cults. Like county fairs, these great gatherings enlivened religious centers up and down the Nile. Pilgrims arrived by the hundreds of thousands and set up camp. Music and dancing filled the processional route. Merchants sold food, drink, and souvenirs. Priests became salesmen, offering simply wrapped mummies as well as more elaborate ones for people who could spend more—or thought they should. With incense swirling all around, the faithful ended their journey by delivering their chosen mummy to the temple with a prayer.

Some places were associated with just one god and its symbolic animal, but old, venerated sites such as Abydos have yielded whole menageries of votive mummies, each species a link to a particular god. At Abydos, the burial ground of Egypt's first rulers, excavations have uncovered ibis mummies likely representing Thoth, the god of wisdom and writing. Falcons probably evoked the sky-god Horus, protector of the living king. And dogs had ties to the jackal-headed Anubis, the guardian of the dead. By donating one of these mummies to the temple, a pilgrim could win favor with its god. "The creature was always whispering in the god's ear, saying, 'Here he is, here comes your devotee, be nice,' " explains Ikram.

Beginning in the 26th dynasty, in about 664 B.C., votive mummies became wildly popular. The country had just ousted its foreign rulers, and Egyptians were relieved to return to their own traditions. The mummy business boomed, employing legions of specialized workers. Animals had to be bred, cared for, dispatched, and mummified. Resins had to be imported, wrappings prepared, tombs dug.

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