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Divine CreaturesAnimal Mummies in Ancient Egypt$

Salima Ikram

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9789774248580

Published to Cairo Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.5743/cairo/9789774248580.001.0001

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Sobek, Lord of the Land of the Lake

Sobek, Lord of the Land of the Lake

Chapter:
(p.199) 8 Sobek, Lord of the Land of the Lake
Source:
Divine Creatures
Author(s):

Edda Bresciani

Publisher:
American University in Cairo Press
DOI:10.5743/cairo/9789774248580.003.0008

Abstract and Keywords

The primeval power of Sobek is already acknowledged in a hymn from the Pyramid Texts (PT 317), where the dead pharaoh identifies himself with the god, who here appears as son of the Great Neith-Meher-Weret, the celestial cow of the inundation: “Sobek, green of feathers, alert-looking, broad-chested, sparkling, coming out from the legs and the tail of the Great One, who is in splendour.” This very ancient description of the divine reptile, who in the same “Pyramid Texts” bears also the epithet of Shedite (“that of Shedet,” the capital town of the swampy region of the Fayum lake), incorporates his basic characteristics. The deification and the cult of the crocodile belong to the religious phenomenon of the ancient Egyptian animal cult. The animal specimen which embodied the god was always unique, as a new one took the place of the dead one, who was mummified and buried with solemn rituals.

Keywords:   Sobek, Neith-Meher-Weret, reptile, Shedite, Egyptian animal cult

The primeval power of Sobek is already acknowledged in a hymn from the Pyramid Texts (PT 317), where the dead pharaoh identifies himself with the god, who here appears as son of the Great Neith-Meher-Weret, the celestial cow of the inundation: “Sobek, green of feathers, alert-looking, broad-chested, sparkling, coming out from the legs and the tail of the Great One, who is in splendour.”1 This very ancient description of the divine reptile, who in the same “Pyramid Texts” bears also the epithet of Shedite (“that of Shedet,” the capital town of the swampy region of the Fayum lake), incorporates his basic characteristics, which we also find in later descriptions: the green feathers on the head which additionally might be interpreted as a tuft of aquatic plants, the muzzle with pointed teeth and shrewd look, the breadth of the scaled chest that emerges from the water, the large body that, while moving, raises waves of foam. A god who has, and will always have, the character of an animal, an aggressive and powerful animal, who only from the Middle Kingdom onward accepted the solar association with Horus and Ra, and who only from the Middle Kingdom onward was represented also with a feline head set on a human body.

The epithets that often describe his physical features are very revealing: “pointed of teeth,” “who is standing still on his paws,” as are those that refer to his avid and rapacious nature (“who loves robbing,” “who lives on robbery”). He is a male animated by sexual appetites that are violent (he is called “lord of the semen,” PT 510) and unrestrained (“who eats also while he mates,” “who impregnates females,” CT IV, (p.200) 1–2). After all, is it not true that the etymology of the name Sbk is traced back by scholars (as an alternative to a possible form s3q/sbq, “he who unites” Osiris' limbs) to a causative form S-b3k, “he who impregnates” (Murray 1963: 107)?

The deification and the cult of the crocodile belong to the religious phenomenon of the ancient Egyptian animal cult. Created by the demiurge together with the human beings, animals were living hypostases of divine powers (Roveri et al. 2000); in order to manifest themselves on earth, ancient Egyptian gods could take the form of an animal but also of many animals (Amun had the ram and the goose as his hypostases, and the god Thoth a baboon and the ibis bird). Deities could be represented totally zoomorphically, or as a combination: a human with an animal head.

The animal specimen which embodied the god was always unique, as a new one took the place of the dead one, who was mummified and buried with special and solemn rituals; the animals of the sacred species could be, and in fact were, numerous, and in the Late Period one encounters the impressive habit of mummifying and burying in the local necropoleis animals of the sacred species in the thousands.2 One must consider this practice essentially as an economical issue, since animals were reared and fed in order to be killed, and, once mummified, sold as cruel ex-votos to pilgrims.

I do not know of any mythological tales from the pharaonic period where the crocodile has a role, a family, or feelings. However, he can absorb reflected characters, thanks to the assimilation of Sobek with the solar demiurge deity, to the Nile and Osiris. Such an example is found in the Late Period hymn engraved on the wall of a corridor in the Kom Ombo temple, dedicated to Sobek and to Hor-Haroeris (Horus the Elder):

Great god from whose eyes came out the two starts (the sun and the moon),

his right eye that shines during the day, and his left eye during the night,

he, whose two venerable Udjat-eyes illuminate the darkness.

The wind comes out from his mouth, and the northern wind from his nose.

(p.201) The Nile flows as his living sweat and impregnates the fields.

He acts with his phallus to inundate the Two Lands with what he created.

Scares the evil ones with his appearance

in his name of Sobek-Ra that is in his lake.

His mightiness is strong as the one of His Majesty Ra

when he exterminates his enemy with his strength.

He is the noble divine of Maat,

who judged the right of the two gods (Horus and Seth) in front of Geb,

the old one who takes care of his children, who causes the aridity [to vanish],

the mighty god who protects the weak.

How sweet it is to pray to him,

he who listens and comes to the one who calls him,

perfect of sight, reach of ears, who exists in the words of the one who needs him, strong, winner, to whom nobody is similar.

He is the most prestigious god for his strength, Sobek-Ra lord of Kom Ombo,

who loves clemency after rage.

Not far from the Ptolemaic temple of Per-Sobek, “the precinct of Sobek” of Kom Ombo, lies the animal necropolis that yielded innumerable mummies of crocodiles of all periods (Lortet and Gaillard 1909: 295–299); necropoleis of crocodiles have been also found at Esna (Lortet and Gaillard 1903: 181–183), while the Samun caves at Maabad, dating to the Roman Period, yielded thousands of mummies stacked to a height of nine meters (de Gorostarzu 1901: 182–184).

But the region where the cult of Sobek was widespread, since the earliest periods, was the Fayum, the “Land of the Lake.” Here, the presence of the great amphibious reptile—let us remember the amphibious state of the primeval beings, expressed by the crocodile—was favored by the nature of the landscape, terrestrial and aquatic, dominated by the Lake of Sobek, the modern Lake Qarun.

The geographic configuration of the Fayum region, the presence of the lake and of the great branch of the Nile (the Bahr Yusuf) with its (p.202) canals and its swamps, must have strongly influenced the local religious beliefs, suggesting the identification of the large liquid surfaces with the mythical primeval ocean, the Nun, whence all the living beings originally came. In this landscape the crocodile, lord of the Fayum lake and denizen of the swamp, could acquire the identity and the veneration fit for a god of the primeval waters, the Nile, in his guise as the son of the great annual inundation.

The Greek writer Diodorus Siculus (I, 89) attributed the foundation of the crocodile cult at Shedet-Crocodilopolis in the Fayum to Menes, Egypt's first king. The veneration of these creatures, hitherto known as “disgusting and men-eaters” was based on an act of gratitude toward the animal. The king had been chased by a pack of wild dogs to the edge of the lake. There, a crocodile rescued Menes by transporting the king on his own back to the other shore of the Lake Moeris.

Sobek often is said to be “beautiful of face” (a little excessive, if not ironic!). Beauty is an attribute that is used to describe many manifestations of Sobek, and the epithet “the beautiful” (Pneferos) is borne by one of the various Sobeks who were endowed with a temple and a cult in the Fayum. Others variations in the names of the local crocodile deities who are attested in the Greco-Roman Period include: Stotoes, Penebtunis, Petesuchos, Soknopaios, Soknebtunis, Soknobraisis, Soknobkonnis, Sokonopis, Sometis, Soknemunis, Soxis, and Sokonieus. In the Fayum village of Euhemeria, a pair of crocodiles called Psosnaus, “the two brothers,” were venerated, while at Karanis the local pair was made of Pneferos and Petesuchos.

At Medinet Madi (a village founded with the name of Dja by Amenemhat III of the XII Dynasty), Sobek held a very stable position next to the titular of the Middle Kingdom temple, Renenut, the cobra-goddess mistress of the harvest. The new Ptolemaic temple that has been recently discovered at Medinet Madi by the mission of the University of Pisa was also dedicated to a pair of divine crocodiles, as yet unnamed.

The crocodile was worshiped throughout the Fayum, and reared—at least in the main temple of Crocodilopolis—in a special space provided with a large basin for water. After its death, the reptile that had embodied the god was mummified, displayed in the naos of the temple and carried in procession on an elongated carrying chair. Several priests (p.203) had specific duties associated with Sobek, some of whose titles were “prophets of the crocodile-gods” and a “burier of the bodies of the crocodile-gods of the Land of the Lake.”

Several crocodile necropoleis have been found in the Fayum, as well as those in Upper Egypt (see above). These include the sites of Magdola, Kom al-Khamsin, Tell Maharaqa, Theadelphia, and Tebtynis. In many instances the buried animals were not the embodiment of the god, but rather were gathered up and buried either because they were regarded as worthy of reverence as they belonged to the same species as Sobek, or were votive offerings, or because they might have held other religious significance (see Chapter 1). The mummified and buried reptiles were of various ages, often newborns. Ancient fakes also were quite common as the trade in relics was very active.

Often eggs of crocodiles have been found in connection with the mummies. A particularly interesting deposit was found at al-Lahun (de Gorostarzu 1901: 182–184, fig. 1). There, in a hole, about one meter underground, crocodile eggshells were found arranged in a circle around the outline of the hole. Several mummies were also found. These included two adult crocodiles that were in two separate graves. One animal was surrounded by about fifty tiny crocodiles that had just left the egg (between 35 and 40 cm long, some still attached to the yolk). They were arranged as a little army marching toward the head of the mummy. In the other hole, which only contained a single mummy, the eggs were located inside a bag half a meter long and wide, with the majority of the shells broken.

Also at Hawara (Petrie 1889: 6, 10, pl. 25; Gaillard and Daressay 1905: 119) the necropolis of the sacred animals yielded eggs and crocodiles of all sizes. The necropolis of the sacred crocodiles at Tebtunis,3 south of the temple, has been explored several times since 1899 by Grenfell and Hunt (Grenfell and Hunt 1900: 376–378; Grenfell and Hunt 1902). They discovered thousands of mummified crocodiles, approximately twenty of which were wrapped in papyri or had their bodies stuffed with papyri. The animals were buried in holes rarely deeper than one meter. Later, a few crocodiles were found in that necropolis by Otto Rubensohn (1902) and by Evaristo Breccia (1929–1930). Achille Vogliano (1934), who joined the Mission of Carlo Anti with whom G. Bagnani collaborated (1934: 3–13; 1952: 76–78, (p.204) Turner 1982: 171, pl. 78),4 found in a hole in the necropolis some carefully embalmed crocodiles wrapped in layers of papyri dating to the Ptolemaic Period. Two rolls of papyri bearing demotic inscriptions containing the statutes of the local religious association of Sobek (indicated by means of the profane name of Meseh, “Crocodile” [Bresciani 1994: 49–67]), who was buried in the local “place of rest,” were found under the jaws of one of the crocodiles. Bagnani has estimated that during about six centuries approximately ten thousand crocodiles were buried there (1952: 76–78). The location of the hatchery for these crocodiles is unknown; perhaps it lay near the canal at al-Lahun, or, as Bagnani suggested, probably with some good reasons, at Kerkeosiris near the Gharaq depression. The ‘sauretai’ mentioned in the Magdola papyri might have been their guardians. The cemetery also included packages containing cats and kittens.

The recent discoveries at Medinet Madi (1995, 1998–1999) by the mission of Pisa University directed by the writer (since a few years ago in collaboration with the chair of Papyrology of the University of Messina and the University of Trieste for the geo-radar investigation) revealed new details about the cult of the crocodile. Excavations showed that the eggs of the sacred reptiles were kept and allowed to hatch in a special building next to the temple. The newborn reptiles were reared in this area, named Temple C5 of Medinet Madi by the University of Pisa's archaeologists. This new temple must be added to the Middle Kingdom temple (Temple A) and the Ptolemaic temple (Temple B), discovered by Achille Vogliano in the years 1934–1939 at this site.

The greatest novelty of this find concerns the history of the local religion. About ninety crocodile eggs, buried to be nursed under the sand, were found in two structures. Many contained foeti in different stages of development. The best-preserved egg hatchery or nursery had been organized in order to control the hatching of the eggs and to rear the little amphibians. The building was covered with a perfectly preserved vault, and located adjacent to the Temple C along the north side. Inside, a shallow square basin (30 cm) complete with two very low steps, was destined to receive the small Sobeks, who were prevented by a wall from freely circulating outside the sector that had been prepared for them. The newborn reptiles could spend some time in the water of (p.205) the basin before being sacrificed, mummified, and sold to the pilgrims, who could then dedicate them in the chapel of the local necropolis of the sacred animals.

This practice of sacrificing votive offerings and maintaining sacred animals (Charron 1990: 209–213) is well-known in Egypt for all sorts of divine animals, cats, dogs, ibises, etc. However, the discovery of the hatchery at Medinet Madi casts a new light on these practices. Unfortunately so far the necropolis of Medinet Madi has not yet been located; let us hope that future discoveries will reveal the whereabouts of the sacred crocodile cemetery.

Fig. 8.1 Temple C, the area where the nursery for crocodile eggs was located. Drawing courtesy of Edda Bresciani.

Fig. 8.1 Temple C, the area where the nursery for crocodile eggs was located. Drawing courtesy of Edda Bresciani.

(p.206) Notes

(1) All translations are by the author unless otherwise indicated.

(2) For the identification of the Demotic title tj n3 nt̲rw Sbk with the Greek title theagos, see Bresciani 1986: 50.

(3) At Tebtunis there was also a cemetery of hawks and ibises linked to a chapel of Thoth.

(4) Pictures of the mummified crocodiles found by Vogliano may be found in Gallazzi 2003: 195, fig. 9.

(5) On the discoveries, beside the excavation reports annually published regularly in Egitto e Vicino Oriente, see Bresciani 2001: 51–54. The closest parallel to the new temple of Medinet Madi is the temple, also Ptolemaic, for the crocodile Pneferos at Theadelphia, discovered by Evaristo Breccia in 1912–1913; see Breccia 1926.

Pl. 8.1 Clutch of crocodile eggs with one egg partially hatched. Photograph by Edda Bresciani.

Pl. 8.1 Clutch of crocodile eggs with one egg partially hatched. Photograph by Edda Bresciani.

Pl. 9.1 A baboon (P. hamadryas) found in KV50, and an x-ray showing the opaque internal packets (CG 29837). Photograph by Anna-Marie Kellen.

Pl. 9.1 A baboon (P. hamadryas) found in KV50, and an x-ray showing the opaque internal packets (CG 29837). Photograph by Anna-Marie Kellen.

Pl. 9.2 During the cleaning of this crocodile, some baby crocodiles were found inside its mouth. Photograph by Nicholas Warner.

Pl. 9.2 During the cleaning of this crocodile, some baby crocodiles were found inside its mouth. Photograph by Nicholas Warner.

Pl. 1.1 This goose was prepared for eating, with its liver and gizzards returned to the body for possible consumption and use (CG 51092). Photograph by Anna-Marie Kellen.

Pl. 1.1 This goose was prepared for eating, with its liver and gizzards returned to the body for possible consumption and use (CG 51092). Photograph by Anna-Marie Kellen.

Pl. 1.2 Thia mother of Apis was first thought to be made of cartonnage over a wooden frame, but actually contains portions of a bovid (CG 29860). Photograph by Anna-Marie Kellen.

Pl. 1.2 Thia mother of Apis was first thought to be made of cartonnage over a wooden frame, but actually contains portions of a bovid (CG 29860). Photograph by Anna-Marie Kellen.

Notes:

(1) All translations are by the author unless otherwise indicated.

(2) For the identification of the Demotic title tj n3 nt̲rw Sbk with the Greek title theagos, see Bresciani 1986: 50.

(3) At Tebtunis there was also a cemetery of hawks and ibises linked to a chapel of Thoth.

(4) Pictures of the mummified crocodiles found by Vogliano may be found in Gallazzi 2003: 195, fig. 9.

(5) On the discoveries, beside the excavation reports annually published regularly in Egitto e Vicino Oriente, see Bresciani 2001: 51–54. The closest parallel to the new temple of Medinet Madi is the temple, also Ptolemaic, for the crocodile Pneferos at Theadelphia, discovered by Evaristo Breccia in 1912–1913; see Breccia 1926.