Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt
Mummied Cats—In the British Museum
Dogs were held in great honour by the Egyptians, as in the city of Cynopolis, yet strangely enough, they were never looked upon as a possible incarnation of a god, though there seems to have been some confusion of the dog with the jackal, sacred to Anubis, who ministered to Osiris and acted as guide to the souls of the dead. Another animal so confounded was the wolf, which was specially venerated at Lycopolis. The fact that the jackal was to be found chiefly in the deserts and mountains where tombs were usually located led to its early association with the dead and the underworld in Egyptian mythology, the character ascribed to it being beneficent and that of a guide.
Another cult probably founded on fear was that of the hippopotamus. Ta-urt, the hippopotamus-goddess, came in time to be identified with nearly every goddess in the Egyptian pantheon, and though her attributes are those of benevolence and protectiveness, the original traits of ferocious destructiveness were not wholly obliterated, for we find these personified in the monster, half-hippopotamus, called Amemt, who attends the Judgment Scene. In this same scene is the dog-headed ape, who sits and watches the pointer of the scales and reports the results to Thoth. This animal was greatly revered by the Egyptians. The cult is probably extremely ancient. Apes were kept in many temples, mostly those of the lunar deities, as that of Khensu at Thebes.
Two animals, the ass and the pig, attained a peculiar reputation for evil, though in some aspects looked upon as sacrosanct. They were always connected with the powers of darkness and evil. In the case of the ass opinion seems to have fluctuated, for in some instances this animal figures as a personification of the sun-god Ra. Many smaller animals are to be found in the mythology of Egypt, among which may be mentioned the hare, which was worshipped as a deity, the shrew-mouse, sacred to the goddess Buto, the ichneumon, and the bat, whilst reptiles were represented by the tortoise, associated with night, therefore with darkness and evil; and the serpent, clearly propitiated through fear at first, though afterward credited with beneficent motives. The uræus became the symbol of divinity and royalty, a symbol worn by the gods and the kings. But the evil side was undoubtedly prominent in the mind of the Egyptian, for all the terrors of death and the Unknown were personified in the monster serpent Apep, who led his broods of serpents against both gods and men in the gloom of the underworld. Others were the scorpion, associated sometimes with evil, but also sacred to Isis; and the frog, worshipped in pre-dynastic times as the symbol of generation, birth, and fecundity. This cult was the most ancient in Egypt and is connected with the creation myth. The goddess Heqt, identified with Hathor, is depicted with the head of a frog.
Amongst birds worshipped by the Egyptians, one of the most important was the ibis. It was associated with Thoth and the moon, and in the earliest period[Pg 296] the city of Hermopolis was the centre of this cult. A passage in Herodotus gives many interesting details concerning the ideas held regarding the bird. He tells us that he went to a certain place in Arabia, near the city of Buto, to learn about the winged serpents, brought into Egypt by the west wind, which the ibis was believed to destroy along with the ordinary reptiles common to the country. Arriving there, he "saw the backbones and ribs of serpents in such numbers as it was impossible to describe; of the ribs there were a multitude of heaps, some great, some small, some of medium size. The place where the bones lie is at the entrance of a narrow gorge between steep mountains, which there opens upon a wide plain communicating with the great plain of Egypt. The story goes that, with the spring, the winged snakes come flying from Arabia toward Egypt, but are met in this gorge by the birds called ibises, who bar their entrance and destroy them. The Arabians assert, and the Egyptians admit, that it is on account of this service that the Egyptians hold the ibis in so much reverence. The ibis is a bird of a deep black colour, with legs like a crane; its beak is strongly hooked, and its size that of the landrail. This is a description of the black ibis which contends with the serpents."