Strange (Fantastic) Animals of Ancient Egypt

Beasts of Ancient Egypt

By Jimmy Dunn

The very ancient

No one would accuse the ancient Egyptians of not having very well honed imaginations. Statuary of gods often depicted half animal, half human forms, but the Egyptians also found in their creativity fantastic animals of a different sort. Essentially, they took parts of various animals in order to create a whole not found in nature. Hence, here we will consider only creatures without human parts, even though both such creatures, for example, appear in the same context at times such as on magic wands. Usually, such animals were considered demonic according to our modern concepts, though in fact the Egyptians seem not to have made nearly so specific distinctions between demons and gods.

The composite animal body was usually only the tentative representation of a divine, supernatural power. The Egyptians seem to have considered these animals to be real, since they were often represented as living in the wild, among antelopes and lions, in the deserts surrounding the Nile River Valley. This is perhaps not as strange as it might seem, for even today, many believe in bigfoot and the lock ness monster. In Egypt, at a time when folks must be considered as very superstitious, hunters were said to have supposedly caught sight of such animals at times in the distance, though of course they never captured one (It should also be remembered that the Egyptians developed alcoholic beverages at an early date).

Even as early as the Predynastic period, we find carved on luxury objects probably of royal origin, scenes depicting fantastic animals mingling with wild, real world animals. These may be found on ceremonial slate palettes, ivory plaques and ivory knife handles, particularly found at Hierakonpolis or from nearby Naqada in Upper Egypt. Most of these early depictions were of winged, falcon headed griffins, leopards with long, winding necks and other accompanying animals that are usually considered to be inspired indirectly from models found in Mesopotamia.

A griffin from the very ancient

Later during the Middle Kingdom, these animals were depicted on the walls of tombs belonging to some high officials at Beni Hasan and Bersheh in Middle Egypt. Also during the Middle Kingdom, the name of the capital city of the Mier nome (province), el-Kusiyeh, when written in hieroglyphs had two serpopards back to back, their necks held by a man.

It should be noted that Beni Hasan and el-Kusiyeh were about 65 miles apart and thus had some frequent contact. Bersheh and Beni Hasan were the starting points for the desert road that led to the Red Sea coast, the Sinai peninsula and to Nubia. Hence, the officials at Beni Hasan were charged with inspecting the these roads and were therefore doubtless in contact with the nomads from the Eastern Desert. It is likely that their interest in these animals derived from their contacts with these Eastern Desert dwellers and their beliefs of curious desert animals much like early sailors and their sea monsters.

A serpopard attacks another animal from the very early

These same officials also ventured into the eastern desert to hunt, and were very proud of their knowledge of the desert. One nomarch (governor) had, on the walls of his tomb at Beni Hasan, a detailed hunting scene depicting fantastic animals, though they were apparently not hunted like the real world variety. On these very walls were also an inventory of real birds, produced in color, with their names, so this official probably thought of himself as somewhat of an expert on zoological knowledge. However, within this list were also fantastic animals indicating that he perceived them to be a part of the natural environment.

From the beginning of Egyptian history, there was a religious significance to hunting beyond the Nile valley. Hunting in the desert became symbolic of subduing and taming the hostile forces that threatened the fertile Nile and thus Egyptian civilization. These fantastic animals became actors in this protective hunt for the benefit of Egypt.

However, fantastic animals were not always depicted in scenes of hunting. At Beni Hasan and Bersheh in at least three tombs, they appear in a context of daily life and in the company of domestic animals such as monkeys and dogs. There is one scene in which a winged griffin is portrayed as so similar to the dogs playing nearby that it can be distinguished only because of the wings on its back. In another scene at Beni Hasan, a colorful griffin, accompanying a man and a dog, bears a collar and what seems to be a leash. The text in this scene, as well as another describing a griffin at Bersheh, refer to it as a sgt (saget). This was probably not the name of the animal but rather a designation for the so-called domesticated griffin. It has been suggested that these griffins were in fact dogs that were disguised to look like griffins. Those who make this suggestion also think that the purpose may have been to transform an ordinary hunting dog into a ferocious, ceremonial or legendary hunter, as well as enhancing the prestige of its owner.

An early magic wand with a fairly crude depiction of a serpopard

Also during the Middle Kingdom, composite animals were also illustrated on what are called magical wands. These wands were made from hippopotamus ivory (tooth), and reworked into simple curved blades. In at least one scene, the fantastic animals are included in a procession of demons. Text accompanying these images indicate that the animals were thought to have magical and protective powers. Most of these objects belonged to the elite, many of whom came from Thebes or Lisht, the two most prominent power centers of that time. However, some were also found in locations such as Naqada, Hierakonpolis and other cities of Middle and Upper Egypt. Both the demons and the fantastic animals were associated with religious and mythological beliefs that had their origins in the areas around Beni Hsan However, magic wands were also found in Palestine (at Gaza and Megiddo) and in Nubia (at Kuban and Kerma), so it has been suggested that those people shared an interest in the same demons and fantastic animals. In fact, at Kerma during the Middle Kingdom, animals and demons, including winged giraffes, which were very similar to those depicted on magic wands, were also used as inlay motifs in local artifacts. A study of these items has shown that the Egyptian wands and the Nubian inlays were related both on historical and mythological grounds.

A magic wand from ancient Egypt, with a Serpopards (shown inset)

A magic wand from ancient Egypt, with a Serpopards (shown inset)

In ancient Egypt, what we call demons were not necessarily evil, nor were the fantastic animals portrayed in their midst. Many demons had protective qualities and by their strange appearance, frightened any kind of malevolent beings. Magic wands were frequently offered to women, and particularly to young mothers, in order to protect them and their children against other demons bearing sickness. However, those fantastic animals found depicted in tombs probably served a similar purpose of protecting the owner during the afterlife when the he or she had to cross border zones guarded by dangerous beings.

After the Middle Kingdom, such animals were more scarcely illustrated. Only the winged griffin appears during the New Kingdom, during a period when Egypt was in close contact with Near Eastern populations and borrowed some religious features from them. During the New Kingdom, griffins were also associated with hunting scenes, but in some cases, they hauled the chariot in which there was a young god, particularly Shed, whose task was to chase and kill dangerous desert animals.

Even though we have gaps where extant documentation does not record fantastic animals, they were probably present throughout Egyptian history, and there images remained in use during Roman times as hieroglyphs, examples of which can be found in the inscriptions on the temple of Esna (in Upper Egypt and dating from the second century AD). Fantastic animals continued to be thought of as beneficial powers up until the Christian period in the Roman era. Then, their silhouettes were used in hieroglyphic script to write the sacred name of Osiris, which further demonstrates their benevolent rather than evil nature.


The Narmer palette showing serpopards with entwined necks

The serpopard had a feline body, a very long neck and the head of a leopard. It alone was thought to attack other animals. At times when this animal was depicted in pairs, there necks were intertwined (but not always). An obvious example of such can e found on the Narmer Palette. Pairs of Serpopards in Mesopotamia were also depicted with interwoven necks. When depicted on magic wands, this animal frequently has a serpent in its mouth, and rarely also wears a collar. We know of no other representations of this animal other than those on the Narmer Palette, magic wands and in some hieroglyphs (such as the name of Kusiyeh).

A variation in the appearance of the Serpopard occurs at Beni Hasan and at Bersheh, where they are depicted with a feline body but its head and neck are that of a snake. These were called sedja, which probably means "one who travels afar".


A New Kingdom griffin trampling the enimies of Egypt

Griffins had a stout feline body and the head of a falcon on a short neck. They were most often winged, but not always. On the early monuments, they are depicted with wings that are horizontal and parallel to the back of the animal in a very similar manner to those represented in Mesopotamia. However, at Beni Hasan in the tomb of Khnumhotep II, a variant occurs with V-shaped wings, a slender and speckled body and a longer neck. Here, the beak of the falcon is less pronounced. Between the wings is the head of a human. This particular variant, wearing a collar and occasionally shown with a leash, was very common on magic wands. However, this type of griffin is not found after this later in Egyptian history.

The variety of griffin that is stout does reappear occasionally as an image of the war god Montu or as a hieroglyph in texts at the temple of Esna. As Montu, it is wingless, while as a hieroglyph, it has wings. The ancient Egyptian word, srf or sfrr, which may be borrowed from a foreign language, was used to label figures of the animal in Beni Hasan. The term also appears in text of various periods, including a Middle Kingdom religious spell in the Coffin Texts. Another term for the griffin was "one who tears to pieces", which was used in the Coffin Texts and in Bersheh. However, this griffin had a short neck, a stout body and what looks like a feather crown.

Another griffin, but this time with the head of Tutankhamun

Beginning in the New Kingdom, we find a new winged type of griffin with a slender canine body and a vulture's or eagle's beak. It seems to have originated in a particular form of griffin with a Seth-animal head which was depicted once during the Middle Kingdom on a toilet artifact. The New Kingdom variety sometimes continued to be represented with a Seth-animal head. This was the animal that pulled the chariot of Shed, the young savior god, and the term for this creature meant "the swift one", stressing its capability to haul Shed's chariot at a great speed.

As an artistic emblem for the display of royal power, as with the sphinx, the king sometimes assumed the appearance of a huge terrifying griffin, and is rendered trampling underfoot the traditional enemies of the country. In fact, during the New Kingdom pendants and other works showed both the normal griffin and the griffin with the head of a man as in the case of a chest belonging to Tutankhamun.

Other Fantastic Animals

Another fantastic animal of ancient Egypt was a double-headed bull, which was pictured once on both a palette and a magic wand. However, several other animals remain somewhat fuzzy in their classification. One animal among those illustrated at Beni Hasan was almost identical in all respects to the canine that was usually considered to be the manifestation of the god Seth. However, while its general stance was that of a dog or other canine animal, it had triangular ears and an elongated snout, together with an arrow in the guise of a tail. This animal was also represented on magic wands where it wore a collar. The collar is also evident from carefully engraved hieroglyphic examples of the Seth-animal inscribed during the Old Kingdom. In texts related to this animal, it is not known called Seth, and was known as a desert dweller. A group of these Seth-animals (a modern term) was also supposed to haul the solar bark.

An unknown creature from the

Occasionally, we do find other fantastic animals, though their representations seem to be very limited and we have very little if any texts that provide us much information on their nature. A good example of an object that contains a few additional fantastic animals, though also griffins and Serpopards is the ancient "Two Dog Palette" discovered at Hierakonpolis.

Other composite animals may have belonged to this group of fantastic animals, but grew into a higher form of gods. For example, a hippopotamus with a crocodile back and tail, Taweret, though represented on magic wands, was beginning in the New Kingdom, a great goddess, worshiped in temples with her own cult.






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