This circa 1878-1749 B.C. golden pendant depicting an upside-down catfish is housed at the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Egypt's first pharaohs loved catfish—and worshipped them

This humble Nile River resident may not leap to mind as one of ancient Egypt's sacred animals, but the catfish's stubborn resilience and illusive power over death were once cherished.

Crafted around 1878-1749 B.C., an exquisite golden pendant depicting an upside-down catfish was a popular charm in ancient Egypt. Believed to ward off drowning, it is now housed at the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Bridgeman/ACI

Cobras, cats, and vultures are among the most popular animals depicted in ancient Egyptian art, but the humble catfish once dominated the iconography of the civilization by the Nile. Common to every continent except Antarctica, catfish are the most diverse group of fish on earth. The 2,000 to 3,000 species have some remarkable characteristics, so it is little wonder they attracted the attention of the Egyptians, one of the most animal-conscious ancient cultures.

(Felines reigned supreme in Bubastis, the ancient Egypt city sacred to cats.)

Named for its feline-like whiskers, called barbels, a catfish has finely honed senses that allow it to survive and find food in murky, muddy waters. One family of catfish has a respiratory system that allows it to use atmospheric oxygen. This is most spectacularly employed by the walking catfish (Clarias batrachus), familiar today as an invasive species in Florida, which uses its fins to waddle over land. 

Read This Next

Game birds are surprisingly beautiful—and endangered
This stunning national park is set in a dormant volcano
The legend of the ‘demon cat’ that roams the U.S. Capitol

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet