The Sha Picture

In ancient Egypt, many of the gods were depicted in the form of a particular animal. Thoth, for instance, the god of writing and wisdom, was usually depicted as a human with the head of an ibis. Anubis, god of mummification rites, appeared in the form of a jackal. The goddess Bastet bore the head of a domesticated cat. Whether this was meant to be interpreted literally or symbolically must be left to one's own speculation. In each case though, these were real, living animals that the Egyptians associated with their deities, and we can clearly identify them today. The only exception seems to be the animal associated with the god Set. Depicted with a slender body, curved snout, large rectangular ears, and erect, forked tail, this animal sometimes known as a 'sha' defies identification. Some argue that it is a conglomeration of animals such as donkey, jackal, and aardvark, and some have even dismissed it as being mythological. However, neither of these explanations fit the model of how the Egyptians portrayed their gods. The sha must have been a living, observable animal in order to become associated with the god Set. By combining mythology and biology, we can speculate as to what kind of animal this might have been.

Set was a major deity to the ancient Egyptians. Osiris and Isis, arguably the primary god and goddess of the culture for much of its history, were his brother and sister. He was a dark god, bringing chaos, violence, and emotional and environmental upheaval. The Egyptians worshipped many beings that they associated with the life-giving sun and the fertile soil of the Nile valley, but to them Set represented the dry, harsh desert and foreign lands that balanced this. And while his parents and siblings were all depicted with human heads and faces, Set alone was given the form of the sha. This animal must have been very significant to the ancient Egyptians to be so uniquely identified with a major deity. It may have been rare and therefore majestic to behold, but a creature whose presence for whatever reason represented strife. So it was revered and yet avoided, in the same way that the Egyptians revered Set yet sought to avoid the things that he stood for. Above all the deadly crocodiles, hippopotamuses, and lions that inhabited this region, it was the sha that Set came in the form of. So this animal can't have been meek by any measure. As an avatar of disorder, this creature was probably very clever, and uniquely difficult to predict or control for the ancient Egyptians. It might have been very fast and agile due to its slender body. Most likely it had very capable, possibly unique weapons at its disposal. Since its snout is depicted as narrow and curved, it probably did not have large teeth or a powerful jaw. It is possible that the sha carried diseases or was even venomous. It may also have been a burrowing animal with formidable claws, like the aardvark it resembles. Living underground during the day is a common survival technique for desert animals, and it allows them to hunt or forage at night. This nocturnal nature would have contributed to the sha's mystique and danger for the ancient Egyptians. Its snout shape could have allowed it to penetrate the burrows of smaller animals like snakes and shrews. The sha's ears were famously depicted as upright and oddly rectangular, which suggests that they may have been heat ventilators, similarly to a hare's ears, but with folds that gave them a slightly squared-off, widened tip. If the sha was a social animal, its erect tail could have been used for individuals to signal or locate each other. Alternatively, the tail could have contained fused vertebrae so that it could be swung as a weapon. In Egyptian art the sha's tail forks into two or three sections at the end, which might have signified the presence of spikes, or simply a tuft of fur. While it is certainly possible that the sha was reptilian, the shape of the back legs does suggest mammalian-style locomotion. It could be that it was a remnant of a now-extinct branch of evolution that falls somewhere between, like the warm-blooded four-legged dinosaurs.

With only archaeological records to go on, we cannot say much for certain about this creature. But without doubt, the “Set-animal,” as some call it, did exist thousands of years ago. That span of time is too short to have produced fossils, and yet too long for remains to have been preserved well enough for identification, especially if the sha had any predators. So for now, it may simply have to remain a mystery.

(text copyright 2014 Laurabeth Clark)

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