Graeco-Roman accounts of Egypt, from the history of Herodotus to the satires of Juvenal, emphasize the Egyptian fascination with zoomorphic deities. Archaeological finds of animal mummies—often in large underground galleries containing tens of thousands of individually wrapped specimens—provide physical evidence for all aspects of this interesting practice. Animal mummies, like their human counterparts, are one part of the “exoticism” of Egypt, but modern scientific analysis along with the translation of ancient documents can reveal more mundane aspects of these small bundles.
The practice of burying animal mummies in large numbers is a phenomenon most closely associated with the later phases of Egyptian history, particularly Late Period through the Roman Period (664 BCE – 300 CE). A visitor to an Egyptian temple could purchase a mummified animal that represented that deity, for example, an ibis for the god Thoth. By financing the proper rituals for the deceased animal and its burial, the visitor was participating in a core practice of Egyptian religion: Horus burying his father Osiris, the archetype for Egyptian mummification. However, the industrial scale of animal mummy production led predictably to types of economic exploitation seen with human (and animal) mummies in the Nineteenth Century. A text from the reign of Ptolemy VI (ca. 150 BCE) written by a priest of Thoth named Hor records a scandal involving ibis mummies at Saqqara. Hor discovered that a single ibis body was being divided among multiple mummy packets and placed in separate jars, enabling the temple staff to sell a single bird several times over. Hor uncovers this corrupt scheme and enforces a new rule: “one god (i.e. ibis bird), one pot”! Evidence from animal mummies, including the examples illustrated here, show that Hor’s experience was not isolated—elaborately wrapped animal mummy packets sometimes include nothing more than a collection of random bones, pieces of woods, and filler.
L. 34.1 cm
Yale Peabody Museum
K.A.D. Smelik and E.A. Hemelrijk, “Who knows what monsters demented Egypt worships?’ Opinions on Egyptian Animal Worship as Part of the Ancient Conception of Egypt,” in Aufstieg und Nidergang der römischen Welt, vol. 2, pt. 4, pp. 1852-2000.
A. D. Wade, et al., “Foodstuff placement in ibis mummies and the role of viscera in embalming,” Journal of Archaeological Science 39 (2012): 1642-1647.