November 14, 2009 by korshi
Did Egyptian Gods have Animal Heads? Of course they did, you might be saying. If you were anything like me, as a kid you may have loved the distinctively weird depictions in Egyptian art of their gods, jackal-headed Anubis, cat-headed Bastet, ibis-headed Thoth and all the rest, much more exciting (in my opinion) than the Greek gods, who were pretty much just naked people. On the other hand, if you’ve read a bit about Ancient Egypt (the Wikipedia page on the Egyptian Religion, for instance) you might answer that no, they didn’t believe their gods had animal heads; these crazy half-man, half-beast images were just symbolic: Anubis was shown with a jackal head because the jackal was associated with the necropolis and Anubis was a god of the dead, he didn’t really look like that. Well, in this post I thought I’d do a bit of digging, and do my best to find out what the truth actually is.
To start off with, yes, Egyptian gods were often depicted in therianthrophic – part human, part animal form. There are the well known gods with animal heads, the sphinxes with human heads and lion bodies, and hybrids like Hathor, who is shown with cow’s ears and horns, but is otherwise human. Other gods are anthropomorphic – human in form – Isis, Osiris, Ptah and Atum are usually shown in this way. Then there are theriomorphic depictions , where gods are shown entirely in animal form. These are quite common, and in fact were the most common representations of gods in the very earliest periods of Egyptian history. So, for instance, Anubis could be a black jackal, and Thoth as either an ibis or a white baboon. (Depictions could get a bit weirder than this, some gods could have plant heads, Hathor could be depicted as a pillar with a human head, Taweret was a hybrid of hippo, crocodile and lioness, and one god was shown with two thongs used to bind the damned in place of a head, but these are a quite a bit rarer…)
Now, this has caused problems for some people. Way back when the Romans encountered Egypt, they found it unbelievable that such an ancient and sophisticated culture could worship barking dogs and scavenging ibises. As the satirist Juvenal asked “Who knows not…what monsters demented Egypt worships? “ Modern writers have often had a similar opinion; the great nineteenth century scholar Adolf Erman is said to have ended a speech on Egyptian religion by remarking “Aber Quatsch ist es doch, meine Herren!” –“But it is nonsense, gentlemen!”  The solution has been to argue that the gods of Egypt weren’t really animals at all. As Zeus puts it in Lucian’s Council of the Gods “Certainly, it is disgraceful the way these Egyptians go on. At the same time, Momus, there is an occult significance in most of these things; and it ill becomes you, who are not of the initiated, to ridicule them.”  The modern solution has been to say that the depictions of the gods are like hieroglyphs: Sekhmet’s lion head indicates that she is a supernatural being, that she is powerful and dangerous like a lioness, but they didn’t depict what the gods would look like if we would see them. By way of comparison we could point to Christian images of Jesus as a lion or a lamb, or the Holy Spirit as a dove, or angels with wings. All these things are symbolic- Christians don’t really believe Jesus has four legs and a fluffy coat of wool (well, Christian furries might…). But this is a position with I have to respectfully disagree.
To start with, how did Ancient Egyptians understand their gods? There is good evidence that they believed the gods to be fundamentally mysterious, and were every bit as aware as a modern Hindu, Jew, Muslim or Christian that the divine could never be fully known. In a twelfth century hymn from the time of Ramesses III a god is described as “divine power with hidden faces and mighty majesty, who has hidden his name and keeps his image secret, whose being was not known at the beginning of time.” But like modern believers Egyptians felt they could know their gods in various, indirect ways. A modern Christian might know God from reading about Him in the Bible, from looking at the world around them, and from personal experience, which might range from a vague sense of God’s presence to the descriptions of full-on visions of blazing angels you can find on Christian fundamentalist forums without too much digging. In the same way, the Egyptian text known as Papyrus Leiden (dating from the thirteenth century) has this mysterious verse:
All gods are three: Amun, Re and Ptah, who have no equal.
He hides his name as Amun, he appears as Re, his body is Ptah.
Jan Assmann, a German scholar and leading expert in Egyptian religion, has seen this as describing the three main ways of knowing the divine in Ancient Egypt: name, cosmic manifestation and body, or image.
The name of gods often tells you something about them; ‘Amun’ means ‘hidden’, referring to his nature as the invisible, life-giving wind. More broadly, ‘name’ can refer to myths about the gods, equivalent to the Bible stories which tell Christians and Jews about Yahweh.
The ‘cosmic manifestation’ refers to the action of the divine in nature. At their core, gods are always of understanding the forces at work in the world, something that it’s easy for moderns, who think of the world in terms of impersonal, scientific forces, to forget. Ra was the sun god, and was manifest in the world through the sun. Shu was the atmosphere, specifically air saturated with light. Hathor was love, and Seth was at once the force behind warfare, the wild, foreign deserts and thunderstorms. For most Egyptians, the cosmic manifestation was not the same as the god. The god of the heretic, ‘monotheist’ king Akhenaten is best known as the Aten, but his full title was ‘Ankh-re-heqa-akheti-hai-em-akhet Em-ren-ef-em-hait’ – ‘The Living one, the sun, ruler of the horizon, who becomes active in the Lightland in his identity of the light that comes from the sun disk’ – the light of the sun is the way in which we know the god, but it is not the totality of the god.
The third way of knowing gods, the ‘image’, is the one that interests us here. The most common form of the image were the ‘idols’, the cult statues that represented their gods in their traditional iconography, theriomorphic, therianthropic or anthropomorphic. The most sacred of these were kept in the holy of holies in temples, locked in their shrines and seen only by priests who had first purified themselves, and entered the shrines reverently in order to carry out the daily ritual of feeding, cleaning and dressing the gods. When the gods left their temples for festivals, they were usually borne on carry-chairs in the form of boats, something along the lines of the Ark of the Covenant or the modern portable shrines found in Japanese Shinto. But lesser cult statues with more-or-less the same depictions could be found more commonly, as amulets, in people’s houses, and carved or painted on temple walls. All of these were images of the gods. But Egyptian priests did not understand the gods as literally being the statues. Several texts tell us that the gods were thought of as descending from on high to dwell in their images, so that their worshippers could interact with them. An excellent example of this is found carved on the walls of the temple of Horus at Edfu:
He comes down from heaven day by day
in order to see his image upon his great throne.
He descends upon his image
and unites himself with his cult image
So even if the gods were fundamentally mysterious, they could live in their statues, those half-man, half-beast depictions the Romans found so shocking. But statues and carvings weren’t the only images the gods could inhabit; living beings could also serve as vessels for their divine essence. The best known of these is the Pharaoh, and in the Kuban Stela to Ramesses II we read:
For you are the embodiment of Re,
Khepre in his true form.
You are the living image on earth
of your father Atum in Heliopolis.
But the gods could also inhabit the forms of animals. At Memphis, the best known of these was the Apis bull, treated as a living image of a god, pampered and groomed and consulted for oracles, his mother revered as an embodiment of Isis, and when they died they were mummified and spoken of as having become ‘an Osiris’, just as dead Pharaohs and commoners were. In fact, the worship and mummification of animals as diverse as baboons, cats, dogs, crocodiles, fish and even beetles strongly suggests that showing gods as animals was not just symbolic; in some real way the gods had a special relationship with certain animals. Writers like Herodotus record that in many Egyptian villages animals, birds or fish considered sacred to their local god were not eaten. Remember that the animals here are images of the gods, in which part of the god’s essence might live, rather than full gods, but the same caveat applies to Pharaohs and cult statues.
As you can see, Egyptians had a higher opinion of animals than most contemporary Romans, and than many moderns. Many Egyptian texts talk about the love the gods had for animals. In a hymn to Amun we read:
Thou art the only one, the creator of all that is. From whose eye men came forth. From whose mouth the gods originated. Who creates the herbs which the cattle live on…Who creates that which the fish in the river life on. And the birds in the air. Who gives breath to the chicken in the egg. Who maintains the young of the snake. Who creates the nourishment of the gnat. And also of the worms and the fleas. Who cares for the mice in their hole and keeps alive the insects in every tree.
Looking after animals was an ethical duty for Egyptians, along the same lines as looking after the poor and needy:
I have given bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothing to the naked. I have given food to the ibis, the falcon, the cat and the jackal.
The image of baboons holding their arms up to warm them in the rays of the morning sun was the interpreted by Egyptians as a gesture of worshipping the sun god, and many texts describe animals as worshipping the gods alongside humans. In the Stela of Huy the writer promises to preach about the gods to animals: “I proclaim your power to the fish in the river, to the birds in the sky.” 
It’s worth remembering, though, that Ancient Egyptians were not animal loving hippies. If some peasants had a largely vegetarian diet, it was because they had little access to meat, not for ethical reasons. Throughout Egyptian history animals were used for their labour, eaten, hunted and sacrificed to the gods, and some sacred animals were deliberately killed to make mummies that would serve as messengers to the gods. But human beings too could be killed in warfare as enemies of the Pharaoh. It seems that to the Egyptians, the boundary between human and animal life was not rigid, and the gods were neither human nor animal, but had a relationship to both.
But we still haven’t really answered the question; fine, a god might live in a statue, or a person or an animal, but what did they really look like: if an Egyptian god appeared in the room to you right now, what would it look like? Well, you might point out that they aren’t real, so they wouldn’t look like anything, but that’s not really the point. No doubt at this very instant, people are having very real (to them) visions of aliens, Jesus, Hindu gods, angels and a host of other supernatural beings that cannot all exist. Google ‘visions of Mary’ and you will find perhaps hundreds of cases where the Mother of God has appeared to individuals or crowds, and I personally know people who tell me they’ve seen Jesus, or heard the voice of the Buddhist demon Mara.
And this has been going on for a long time. The historian Herodian reports that at the siege of Aquileia in Northern Italy in 238 the god Apollo appeared frequently above the city to defend it. Zosimos tells us that in the fifth century, when Alaric the Goth began his siege of Athens, the goddess Athena appeared to patrol the walls, looking just like her statue and ready for war; he was so terrified he sent heralds to arrange a peace treaty.  Pagans in the Roman world often saw their gods in dreams, generally appearing as they did in their statues and images, but one young Graeco-Roman Egyptian writes that he saw “not in a dream, or in sleep… a very large figure with a book in his hand, dressed in white.” This was the typical description of a non-specific god: a large, beautiful figure dressed in white.
I’ll point out briefly that I don’t believe these appearances of gods were real: they were probably the result of rumours grown out of proportion, or the experiences of people in exotic mental states like hypnagogia, in which they experience dreamlike visions but are awake and otherwise lucid. Reality aside, the point is that people believed that the gods could be and were seen by human beings.
Now, for Egypt, the evidence isn’t so clear, and we have far fewer descriptions of men and women meeting gods. In many religious texts from the New Kingdom onwards, we have gods appearing on earth, or in the dreams of kings: they are accompanied by a sweet fragrance, the earth or stars might tremble as they come, or a bright light or darkness might steal over the scene. But there are fewer descriptions of what the gods actually look like in these instances. Sometimes there is an oblique reference to “secret forms”, as when the magician Setna visits the underworld and sees the “secret form of Osiris” in a text from the early first century AD.  Interestingly, “secret image” in at least some instances refers to the cult statue, which is secret because it is hidden in the holy of holies, where normal people cannot see it.
There are two texts where a god is more-or-less described: in the stela in which Tuthmosis IV (ruled c. 1401 – 1391 BC) describes his restoration of the Sphinx, he tells how he fell asleep under it, and heard “this noble god speaking with his own mouth” - he saw the sphinx itself speaking to him!
A more dramatic encounter is found in the tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor from around the twentieth century BC. A sailor has his ship destroyed in a storm, and clinging to a mast is carried to an island bursting with an abundance of fruit and vegetables. Then, as he makes a sacrifice, he hears the sound of thunder, the earth quakes and he is confronted by a god in the form of a human-headed serpent, its skin gold, its eyebrows lapis lazuli and its body thirty cubits long (44.4 feet or 13.5 metres). 
From all this, it seems pretty clear to me that if the Egyptians saw their gods in dreams or visions, they expected them to be as they were in their images: human, animal or combination of both. They weren’t literally human or animal, although they had something in common with both; they were something other, and their true nature was hidden and mysterious. But to dismiss their (perhaps weird) depictions as merely symbolic is to miss an important part of Egyptian belief.
A Couple of Notes
I should point out that even though many Ancient Egyptian texts survive, most of the religious ones are either hymns or collections of funerary spells along the lines of the Book of the Dead. While these make constant references to theology, they very rarely actually explain anything. The upshot of this is that there are numerous disagreements on what the Egyptians actually believed, even, for example, if they were really polytheistic or basically monotheistic. So it’s best to bear this in mind, and remember that everything I (or anyone else) says about Egyptian religion is an opinion, which may or may not be supported by the evidence. And like every civilisation, remember that there were probably dozens of different opinions about religion, and a great deal of change over its three-thousand year history.
Maybe later I’ll write a post about the Ancient Egyptian language, but in the meantime I should also say that Egyptian Hieroglyphs (like Hebrew) only recorded consonants. So, for instance, the name we write “Akhenaten” was actually written 3x-n-jtn (where the ‘3’ represents ‘aleph’, a glottal stop, and the ‘x’ represents a sound like the ‘ch’ in ‘loch’). From various bits of evidence (Coptic- the modern form of Egyptian – as well as renderings of names and phrases into Akkadian and Greek, which did record vowels) we can reconstruct how the words were probably pronounced: 3x-n-jtn was probably vocalised as *Akhanyati. But reconstructing dead languages is a messy and controversial business, and different people come up with different results. So as a compromise, I (and most scholars) use the ‘Egyptological pronunciation’, a convenient compromise where you take the bare consonants, replacing ‘3’ with ‘a’ and adding ‘e’s where necessary EXCEPT where a different form of the name is much better known – Aten instead of Iten, Anubis instead of Inpu, Isis instead of Uset and so on. Whew.
 Juvenal, Satires, Satire 15, G G Ramsay (translator), 1918, http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/juvenal_satires_15.htm
 H te Velde, ‘A Few Remarks upon the Religious Significance of Animals in Ancient Egypt’ in Numen, Vol. 27, Fasc. 1, Jun., BRILL, 1980, pp. 76-82
 Lucian, The Gods in Council, http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/luc/wl4/wl430.htm
 James P Allen, Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p.44
 Hymn of Ramesses III, Text 68 in B G Ockinga, Ancient Egyptian Religion: An Anthology of Primary Sources (produced for the Macquarie University Egyptian Religion course, Sydney, 2009), p. 43 (available by email on request)
 Papyrus Leiden I, 350 (IV, 21–22), Text 66 in B G Ockinga, Ancient Egyptian Religion: An Anthology of Primary Sources, p. 43
 Allen, Middle Egyptian, p.197
 The Temple of Horus at Edfu, Text 46A in B G Ockinga, Ancient Egyptian Religion: An Anthology of Primary Sources, p. 37
 Kuban Stela: Eulogy to Ramesses II, Text 23 in B G Ockinga, Ancient Egyptian Religion: An Anthology of Primary Sources, p. 23
 te Velde, A Few Remarks upon the Religious Significance of Animals in Ancient Egypt, pp.77-78
 Ibid, pp. 77-78
 Stele of Huy (Turin 50044), Text 19 in B G Ockinga, Ancient Egyptian Religion: An Anthology of Primary Sources, p. 19
 Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1989, p.121
 Zosimos, New History 5.6, Ronald T Ridley (translator), Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, Sydney 2006
 Fox, Pagans and Christians, p.142
 William Kelly Simpson, The Literature of Ancient Egypt, Yale University Press, Newhaven & London, 2003, p. 474
 Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many, John Baines (translator), Cornell University Press, New York, 1982, p 130
 Simpson, The Literature of Ancient Egypt, p. 49