In ancient Egypt, mummification was a central part of religious life. But animals also played a role in the Egyptian religion, and most of the mummies that have been found are not humans.
Crocodile mummy, Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh PA
Egyptian religious practices and rituals varied greatly over thousands of years. But always there was the belief that the afterlife would be similar to this one, and that to enjoy the next world, the deceased needed to be provided with a body to inhabit (leading to the practice of mummification) and with all the material goods he would want. These grave goods varied according to wealth and social position. Priests and government officials had elaborate burials with furniture, food, and symbolic figurines of servants (known as shabti). Poor tradesmen would be buried with their tools and some bread. In the afterlife, it was believed, these offerings would be magically transformed to provide all the things needed for eternity.
And, often, among these grave goods would be a pet. The Egyptians were one of the first human societies to keep various species as personal pets and companions rather than as simple work animals. Although the process of mummification was, in early times, long and expensive, those who could afford it often had their beloved pets mummified alongside them, to accompany them into the afterlife. In the tomb of Queen Makare, the mummified body of her pet Green Monkey was found at her feet; in the tomb of her half-sister Esemkhet, her pet Gazelle had been placed in a nearby stone sarcophagus. In later centuries, as the process of mummification became simpler and less expensive, even the lower social classes could afford to take their pets along with them to eternity. One simple burial tomb, identified from its inscriptions as a commoner named Hapimen, had a linen-wrapped bundle placed next to him, containing his favorite dog.
Various animals in Egypt also had religious symbolism and became identified with different members of the Egyptian pantheon, who were often depicted as humans with animal heads. The falcon was associated with the god Horus, the ram with the god Amun, and the crocodile with Sobek. Ancient Egypt had a much wetter climate than it does today and the wetland areas were inhabited by the Sacred Ibis, a species of bird which is no longer found in Egypt but which was at the time associated with Thoth, the god of wisdom. The cat was domesticated early in Egyptian history, and in a society that was completely dependent upon agriculture and grain stores, the rodent-hunting feline was seen as having magical protective qualities and became associated with the goddess Bastet, protector of expectant mothers and young children. To kill a holy animal such as a cat or ibis was an offense punishable by death.
During the time of the first dynasties, Egyptian temples often had collections of animals that were sacred to each particular god. The best-known of these was the Apis temple, which kept a sacred bull. The Apis bull was treated as the living symbol of the creator-god Ptah, and when the bull died it was carefully mummified, given an elaborate funeral procession, and buried in a tomb that was richly provided with magical gold ornaments. And at Kom Ombo, now known as Crocodilopolis, sacred Nile Crocodiles were kept in the temple of Sobek.
Around the 7th century BC, people began to seek the favor of a particular god or goddess by offering a sacred animal, often mummified, at the temple. To seek a revelation about the future, for instance, one would present a mummified ibis at the temple of Thoth; to seek the protection of Bastet for a mother and child, one would bring a mummified cat.
By the time of the Roman conquest, various Egyptian temples had begun to hold multi-day religious festivals, where devotees could purchase ready-made “votive mummies” as offerings. These would be buried in mass graves or placed in large underground catacombs. The numbers were immense: it was not uncommon for tens of thousands of votive mummies to be offered each year, and the mass burials grew to contain millions of animals. An entire industry appeared which bred and raised thousands of cats, ibis, crocodiles, falcons and other animals, then mummified the bodies for sale to religious pilgrims. With supply unable to fill the demand, many of the votive offerings did not even contain an actual mummy, but only a few bones or feathers, or perhaps only a symbolic mud figurine. Species used as votive offerings ran the gamut from lions and donkeys to shrews and scarab beetles.
When British adventurers began to swarm into Egypt in the 1800’s, they were mostly interested in treasure-hunting and grave-robbing, plundering tombs for sculptures, wall paintings and ornaments that they could sell to English museums and manor houses. While the elaborate painted coffins and stone sarcophagi were highly valued and commanded high prices, the human mummies themselves, which could be found in large numbers, were less valuable. The immense numbers of animal mummies, meanwhile, were worthless: many of the large mass burials were literally strip-mined, dug up by the ton and ground into powder for sale as fertilizer.
It wasn’t until later that “archaeology” became a serious science, and steps were taken to both prevent the looting and destruction of archaeological sites and to keep the artifacts within Egypt. But even then, the large numbers of votive mummies were pretty much ignored and it wasn’t until the 1990’s that really serious study began. Today, the animal remains have given us information about the evolution of Egyptian religious practices over time, about the early history of domestic pets, and even about changes in Africa’s climate over time.
A number of animal votive mummies is on display in the Carnegie Museum, in Pittsburgh.