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National Museum of Animals & Society Blog
Throughout history, people of various cultures have practiced animal worship (or zoolatry). There are many theories as to why certain cultures find certain animals to be sacred.
In Greco-Roman myths, the gods would often disguise themselves as various creatures. Zeus, for example, famously seduced women in the guises of both a swan and a cow. Thus, in these cultures, the respect and elevation of animals came from the belief that animals were of use to a god, or that an animal could in fact be a god in disguise.
In religions with the belief in incarnation, the idea of treating animals fairly comes from the belief that anyone could be an animal in the next life, or had been one in the past.
In classical Egyptian myth, animals were often intermediates to the gods, and many deities had animals sacred to them which they had special communion with. Cats were especially sacred to ancient Egyptian culture, which in turn actually influenced their perception of the goddess Bastet, who transformed from a lioness to a cat goddess during her worship.
The cultural question becomes, why were certain animals viewed as sacred to certain people? While cats were significant to the Egyptians, they had little to do with the ancient Indians, who were more concerned with, say, elephants. Sociologically, it makes sense why different animals were fixated on in different cultures. In Egypt, cats were acknowledged and esteemed for their ability to catch vermin. In India, elephants were mysterious, gigantic beasts that could not be easily tamed or understood.
Due to the usefulness of a creature, or the mystery or danger of it, the perception of certain animals differed from culture to culture. While a cat’s use was not much known to other cultures at the time, it was well known to the Egyptians, who are among the first people to keep cats as pets, and thus, among the first to understand their function as vermin hunters. Outside of India, an elephant was not much known, and so could not be regarded as mysterious or awe-inspiring, a quality that the Indians were well aware of. These are but a few examples.
Animal deities and reverence are found in every area of the world, from Japan, where the owl is an omen, to North America, where ravens were thought to embody departed human souls.
While some religions, the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) in particular, did not worship animals, animal imagery is still heavy in their holy books, with their God being compared to various creatures such as lions, lambs and doves, and other animals, such as ants and eagles, used to emphasize moral lessons.
Even today, the awe and respect one feels before certain magnificent animals is not diminished. The sense that certain animals embody certain human traits has also not lessened: we still perceive foxes as clever, cats as aloof, dogs as loyal. The truth is, humans sense both the differences and similarities between themselves and animals and seek to close that gap. In ancient cultures, this took the form of holy reverence. Today, it takes the form of friendship.
Maybe you’ve heard (perhaps even on our Facebook page) about a popular new experiment, combining both science and history, that’s sweeping the nation’s museums and schools. The activity, designed for elementary school-aged kids, involves the do-it-yourself mummification of a chicken, fish, or other small animal as a means to allow children to travel back in time and get a feel for one aspect of the elaborate cultural practices of the ancient Egyptians. Although this approach is primarily designed to give kids a hands-on feel of what was involved in the mummification of Egyptian pharaohs, the ancient Egyptians themselves mummified millions of non-human animals – including cats, dogs, monkeys, ibises, hawks, crocodiles, even hippos – for several different purposes.
Current theory holds that Egyptian animal mummies fall into three different categories: companion animals, sacred animals, and votive offerings. It is clear from wall carvings and sarcophagi that companion animals were an important part of ancient Egyptian life. While it is possible that some were deliberately killed and mummified when their human caretakers died, there is also evidence that the preservation and internment of companion animals alongside their human guardians took place after the animal’s own natural death. Around 900 BCE, Egypt’s religious beliefs changed; some species of animal were now thought to be the living embodiment of certain gods and goddesses, and therefore came to be worshiped as holy symbols. Cats in particular were associated with the goddess Bastet; they were raised in and around her temples, and when they died, they were mummified and buried by the thousands in mass graves. Gradually, between 300 and 30 BCE, animals began being raised for the express purpose of mummification as a form of sacrifice to the gods and goddesses. Mummified cats – many of them young kittens, who were smaller and therefore easier to prepare – were sold to pilgrims on their way to the temple of Bastet to be left as votive offerings to appease the goddess.
Although modern technologies such as radiography have been used for several decades to see inside the layers of cloth and resin covering ancient human mummies without disturbing their delicate contents, because of the sheer volume and variety of specimens and the expense of performing such research, ancient animal mummies have received much less scientific scrutiny. Therefore, less is known about what these non-human specimens may contain. Recently, curators at the Brooklyn Museum teamed up with the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan to perform x-ray computed tomography (CT) scans on 32 animal mummy specimens which had been sitting in the museum’s collection, unopened and unexplored, for over 70 years. While regular x-rays allow researchers to see the contents of a mummified specimen from a single angle, a CT scan combines multiple x-rays from multiple angles, building a 3D picture of what the mummy holds. You can read more about the Brooklyn Museum’s project here, and even see video of some of the process and the curators talking about this important undertaking.
But why, exactly, is it important to know what’s inside these ancient animal mummies? Just as examining the contents of human mummies can tell us more about who that individual was, examining the contents of animal mummies can tell us more about what role animals played in ancient Egyptian daily life, culture, and religion. For example, we know canine mummies were left as votive offerings to the god Anubis – but what kind of canines? Are they dogs, jackals, wolves, or foxes? Examining these mummies can give us a more exact answer as to which species the Egyptians associated with Anubis. Furthermore, CT scans can reveal an animal’s cause of death – if there is a visible cause of death. Did these specimens die of old age, or were they killed for sacrificial purposes? If so, how were they killed? We can also learn about ancient Egyptian practices of veterinary medicine by examining the specimens for signs of disease or broken (and mended) bones. Finally, pinpointing the species of mummified animals can help paint a more clear picture of ancient Egypt’s natural environment. Some mummified species are extinct in modern Egypt; mummies can tell us what animals used to live there, or who the Egyptians traded with to get them.
For more information on ancient Egyptian animal mummies, check out their page on James M. Deem’s Mummy Tombs, or learn more about the dire need to preserve these precious specimens from the Cairo Museum’s Animal Mummy Project. Or you can check out the results of the Brooklyn Museum’s research into its own collection of animal mummies in what is sure to be a fascinating and enlightening exhibition, currently scheduled for 2013.