Divine Cults of the Sacred Bulls
by Anita Stratos
The deification of animals in ancient Egypt existed even before the countrys unification around 3100 BC. Communities worshipped their own deities, many of which were represented in animal form. In some villages animals wrapped with linen and matting, such as cows, dogs, and sheep, were buried right along with humans. Animal statuettes as well as amulets and slate palettes shaped like animals have been found in the graves of many ancient Egyptians.
Although there is no clear-cut reason for the deification of animals, it has been surmised that some animals may have achieved their godly status because they helped humans, whereas the more dangerous and feared animals, such as jackals, may have been worshipped as a way to appease them. In any case, it is believed that deities needed to be given a recognizable form so that the divine force would not seem so abstract to the masses. A familiar image, such as that of an animal, gave people a more concrete concept of the powers of that specific deity, which is why one deity could be represented by several different images. In essence, the powers and traits of the god were conveyed by the form or forms that it took. In this way, it was more easily understood.
During the early dynastic period animal gods were gradually anthropomorphed, being portrayed with animal or bird heads on human bodies. Over the course of time these animal deities appeared many different ways, including in full animal form, animal heads with human bodies, and completely human. In all of these various forms, animal deities were drawn performing human activities, such as engaging in battle and conquering enemies.
Among the most important animal cults were the bull cults, which appeared in Egyptian writings as far back as the First Dynasty. The ancients believed that the powerful bull represented the personality of the king; slate palettes dating back as far as 3100 BC even show kings as bulls. This animal was chosen because it symbolized the kings courageous heart, great strength, virility, and fighting spirit. Bulls horns even embellish some of the tombs of courtiers who served the first Saqqara kings.
Priests of the bull cults identified a sacred bull by its very specific markings (described below). Once the bull was proclaimed to be a god incarnate, it was taken to the temple compound where it was purified, stabled in majestic quarters, fed the best foods, and given a herd of the finest cows.
The Apis bull cult is probably the best known of the three most prominent and divine bull cults, and it is considered to be the most sacred. Herodotus wrote that the Apis was the "calf of a cow which is never afterwards able to have another. The Egyptian belief is that a flash of lightning descends upon the cow from heaven, and this causes her to receive Apis."
The Apis bull was originally considered to be the incarnation of the god Ptah, the creator of the universe and master of destiny, but this was a lesser-known association. Later the Apis became widely known as the incarnation of Osiris, god of embalming and cemeteries, when Ptah himself took on funerary characteristics and became associated with Osiris. Plutarch wrote that the "Apis was a fair and beautiful image of the soul of Osiris". At any rate, only one bull was considered to be the sacred Apis at a time; a replacement could be sought upon the death of the bull. The new Apis was transported to Memphis on a boat with a specially built golden cabin.
An Apis calf could be identified by certain distinct markings: the black calf had a white diamond on its forehead, an image of an eagle on its back, double the number of hairs on its tail, and a scarab mark under its tongue. Since the Apis was so sacred, it stands to reason that its mother (referred to as the "Isis cow") was revered as well.
The birth of an Apis calf was a time for celebration among ancient Egyptians, since this meant that a living god had been born into their midst. But according to Herodotus, this religious belief was desecrated in 525 BC by Persian King Cambyses when he overtook the holy city of Memphis. Herodotus states that the day after Cambysess bloody battle, he awoke to discover the Egyptians in Memphis celebrating. Upon asking why a defeated people would rejoice after being so brutally beaten, he was told that a living god had just been born. Cambyses demanded that this god be brought before him, and when he was presented with the Apis calf, he laughed with disgust and called the Egyptians pagans and fools. He then stabbed the calf in its hindquarters, which eventually caused the calf to die, at which point Cambyses had it cooked and served at a banquet. Horrified Egyptians considered this blasphemy to be the reason for all of Egypts future tragedies.
Herodotuss account differs greatly from Egyptian records, which appear to take an opposing view. These records state that between 525 and 522 BC, Cambyses partook in a religious ceremony in which he dedicated the sarcophagus of a mummified Apis bull as part of his pharaonic obligations.
Egyptians celebrated the Festival of the Apis Bull, which lasted for seven days. Throngs of people gathered in Memphis to watch priests lead the sacred bull in a hallowed procession through the welcoming crowds. It was thought that any child who smelled the breath of the Apis had the ability to predict the future. In fact, the Apis itself was often consulted as an oracle. Egyptians asked the bull a question and then offered it food: if the bull ate the food it was a good omen, but a rejection of the food was a bad omen.
When Egypt fell under the rule of the Ptolemies, a new god was created by Ptolemy I in an effort to unify Greeks and Egyptians by establishing a deity that would be familiar to both cultures. The new god was named Serapis, which combined components of the Greek gods Zeus, Asklepios, and Dionysys as well as the Egyptian deity Osiris and the sacred Apis bull cult. Although the god had a Greek appearance, it also had some of the features of an Apis bull as well as an Egyptian name. Serapis was declared a god of fertility and the underworld, but even though Egyptians tolerated this new deity, they never truly accepted it. On the other hand, because Greek leadership supported the new Serapis cult, many Greeks did accept and follow it, but the artificially created cult never achieved its goal of religious unity between Greeks and Egyptians.
When an Apis bull died, the body was embalmed and entombed with the great ceremony that would be afforded royalty. A Memphis temple housing large alabaster slabs was the place in which the bulls were embalmed. After preparation of the body and internal organs, the crouching bull was intricately bandaged, artificial eyes were inserted, its horns and face were either gilded or covered with a gold leaf mask, and it was covered with a shroud. The Apis mummy was carried to the Serapeum (a catacomb preceded by an avenue of sphinxes), amid the formalities due a deity, for burial in a massive stone sarcophagus weighing over 60 tons. A
papyrus from the 26th Dynasty explains the technique used to embalm an Apis bull.
Another bull cult was the Buchis cult, which lasted until about 362 AD. The Buchis bull was the representation of the gods Re and Osiris, but it was also linked with the god of war, Montu. A bull had to have the specific colorings of a black face with a white body in order to be considered Buchis.
The center of the Buchis cult was the town of Armant. Many generations of mummified Buchis bulls and their mothers were laid to rest in a designated cemetery, called the Bucheum, where the bulls were fastened to wooden boards with metal staples that held the forelegs and hindlegs in place.
There is far less information about the Mnevis cult than the other two bull cults. Mnevis was the sacred bull of Heliopolis, and although it was associated with the sun god Re, it has been suggested that it was also identified with Min, the fertility god of Coptos. When Akhenaten (originally Amenhotep IV) raised the cult of the sun to new heights, he established a new city, now known as Tell el Amarna, and dedicated it to the worship of the god Aten. Akhenaten swore he would bury Mnevis bulls in this new city, but thus far archaeologists have not found any bull burials there. However, two Mnevis burials were found in Heliopolis, both belonging to the Ramesses dynasty. The bulls were found in individual tombs that were cut into the ground and sealed with a granite slab.
Many of the animal mummies in museums today were donated over a century ago by various collectors who purchased them during their travels, therefore the mummies have no associated provenience information. Unless the animals are wrapped in a specific style, such as the diamond pattern used during the Greco-Roman period, the remains cannot be dated. Animal mummies with plain linen wrappings could belong to any era, from ancient to modern times. It is possible that radiocarbon dating performed on animal mummies in good condition could yield information about the age of some animal cults, providing some long-awaited answers.