Animals were an integral part of Ancient Egyptian culture. Wild animals, domesticated animals for farming and pets all played substantial roles in the life of people at all levels of society. As such, they were also essential for the afterlife; pets were valued as part of the family and mummified and entombed with ceremony. Animals were also mummified, although with less care, to provide food in the next world.
The characteristics of animals were of symbolic importance, and it is thought that the zoomorphic depictions of gods developed from observation of the natural world, where the ‘otherness’ of animals implied a link to the divine. The religious symbolism of animals is evoked throughout visual and material culture. Sacred animals act as embodiments of a god whose characteristics can be expressed in that animals’ form, as can be seen in the display looking at Gods in Ancient Egypt. For example, the lion manifests the aggression of the goddess Sakhmet.
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This tile represents the fusion of Egyptian gods with the visual culture of the Roman Empire. The rider depicted here is Horus, and the oryx he has defeated is the god Seth. Seth embodied chaos and violence and was a god of the deserts, storms, disorder and warfare. He murdered his brother Osiris, the King of Egypt, and then battled with Osiris’ son Horus over the succession of the throne. The mythology was recounted in The Contending of Horus and Seth, a Ramesside text from the 12th Dynasty. There are no other known versions depicting Horus and Seth in this way.
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Seth (also known as Set), often shown in a canine form, is also depicted as an oryx as seen in the large faience tile and the small cosmetic dish, or spoon. The Scimitar oryx, Oryx dammah, was a type of antelope that is now extinct in the wild. They lived in arid and desert climates and so became associated with Seth, god of deserts. When shown bound and trussed the oryx becomes a symbol of control of chaos, with the oryx an acceptable offering of the enemy of Horus.
Gods in animal form were worshipped using amulets and votive statues. In temples, they were additionally venerated in a carefully selected live animal as the embodiment of the god. These sacred animals lived in the temple grounds and when they died they were mummified and interred in dedicated crypts and cemeteries called Animal Necropolises. This custom demonstrates the value placed on the symbolic relationship between animals and gods, but some believe it may have contributed to the disappearance of native species from Egypt. For example, there are four million ibises, representing the wisdom and magic of Thoth, buried in the necropolis at Saqqara.
The African Sacred Ibis (Threskionis aethiopicus) is a manifestation of the god Thoth. God of wisdom, writing, justice and divine knowledge, Thoth’s other animal form was a baboon, as seen in GODS. The ibis on a perch commonly formed part of the hieroglyph for Thoth.
The Tilapia fish, Oreochromis niloticus (also known as the Nile Tilapia, Tilapia Nilotica), was a symbol of rebirth. As a mouth-breeding species of fish, where the eggs and young are carried in the mouth, it appeared as spontaneous birth and rebirth. The themes of rebirth and fertility also link the tilapia to the goddess Hathor. Fish were believed to be sacred as they accompanied Ra, swimming beside his barque through the underworld.
Scarabs symbolised new life and creation, and from the Middle Kingdom scarabs were commonly used as amulets. The Scarabaeus sacer, a dung beetle, was believed to symbolise the sun god Ra’s heavenly cycle in rolling their dung for food and for laying eggs. They were soon popular as jewellery or seals for securing and authenticating documents.
Gold wire ring with amethyst carved to form a scarab and a seal on the base. The underneath is carved to create a seal with a decorative spiral pattern and the hieroglyphs for ‘wsr nfr’ (power/wealth and good/beautiful).
The deep purple of this amethyst suggests that it came from the ancient quarries at Wadi el-Hudi, known for its darker stone that was mined predominantly in the 12th Dynasty.
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As well as being open on Sunday afternoons to the public and for tutor groups, the exhibition has been part of a number of events: