From cats to cows to crocodiles, ancient Egyptians worshipped many animal gods

As 3,000 years of art and sculpture reveal, the divine menagerie of ancient Egypt reflects the rich and varied creatures of the Nile Valley.

The goddess Bastet is represented by a cat statue from the seventh century B.C. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen
PRISMA/ALBUM

Sobek, crocodile-headed god of the Nile; Sekhmet, leonine goddess of war; Anubis, jackal god of the underworld; and Hathor, mother goddess with a cow’s horns: The ancient Egyptian pantheon of gods was filled with divine animals. Egyptian animal cults had extremely deep roots, going back through Egypt’s remarkably long history. Living in the lands of the fertile Nile Valley, ancient Egyptians acquired in-depth knowledge of the animals that lived there. They later transferred these animals and their characteristics to the divine realm, so by the dawn of dynastic Egypt in 3100 B.C., the gods were taking animal forms.

Ancient Egyptian belief generated such exuberant creations as the scorpion goddess Selket; the baboon-headed (or sometimes ibis-headed) god of learning, Thoth; and Bes, a deity of the household and everyday pleasures, often depicted as comically ugly, with wings, and attributes of a lion or other beasts. The Egyptian pantheon can appear bewildering, but it’s important to keep in mind that Egyptian cosmology lasted for millennia. As the kingdoms of Egypt changed over time, so too would its deities shift, evolve, and sometimes blend. The falcon-headed Horus’s very early role as a solar deity would be merged into Re, who was also often depicted as a falcon. Re then merges with other gods, including Horus himself, to create a Re-Horus composite god, Re-Harakhty, who is also falcon-headed.

By the time the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza was built in the mid-third millennium B.C., gods and goddesses were taking on an array of animal forms. One of the most ancient was Horus the Elder. Horus was represented as a man’s body with a falcon’s head. Although he became associated with the sky, in very early iconography he is also shown in a solar bark. This vessel, sailing across the sky and down into the underworld to rise again at dawn, was a central tenet of Egyptian theology; it affirmed cosmic order, sustained by the gods, and their representative on earth, the pharaoh. Horus is known to have emerged from numerous ancient avian and falcon gods: The name Horus means “the distant one,” with the sense of the one who flies high, and so establishing the link between birds, flight, and religious awe. (Egypt's pharaohs could deliver divine justice from beyond the grave.)

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