Soulful Creatures: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt
Bowers Museum, Santa Ana, California
Date Visited: March 30, 2014
I started seeing the street lamp posters for Soulful Creatures: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt, and I immediately told J we had to visit.
This exhibition, curated by the Brooklyn Museum of Art and currently on display at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, focuses on one of the most enduring mysteries of Ancient Egypt: the practice of animal mummification. As the gallery labels themselves explain, millions of mummified animal remains have been uncovered in excavations all up and down the Nile Valley.
The exhibit consisted mostly of votive mummy offerings – which are small figurines that represent mummified animals – and animal remains, in all stages of decoration and elaboration.
So why did the Egyptians apply a practice that could last as long as 70 days to animals like cats, dogs, birds, baboons, and lizards? Questions of mythology and religion are fascinating to me, and I am especially “in tune” with the cultures that have a spiritual respect for the natural world. Egyptians didn’t view animals as subordinate to humans (as is the common Judeo-Christian theology) but rather as equals. They watched their animal neighbors and observed how they survived, especially in a harsh environment like Egypt, and marveled at animals’ abilities to take care of themselves.
In fact, in some cases, the Egyptians viewed certain animals as their gods incarnate. I know many people are familiar with the stereotypical ancient Egyptian practice of worshiping cats, but the Egyptians didn’t just “worship cats.” They revered all animal life and respected it. And they respected it so much, they incorporated animals into their pantheon of deities. Most Egyptian gods and goddesses had an animal counterpart, or were depicted as part animal / part human. The Egyptians associated the living versions of these animals with that deity. For example, the ram was associated with Amun; the cat with Bastet; the lioness with Sekhmet, the crocodile with Sobek; the ibis with Thoth; and the hawk with Horus. To appeal to these gods and goddesses, these animals were sometimes mummified and offered up as gifts. There are large cemeteries associated with cats, crocodiles, and ibises in Egypt, to name just a few, and it is probably easiest (although not entirely accurate) to think of a mummified cat offering to Bastet like a Catholic lighting a candle in church. Here is my prayer – will you answer it?
Another aspect, which I found particularly interesting in this exhibit, was the observation of animal behaviors and explaining them through religion. For example, the jackal is often associated with Anubis, the god of death and mummification. Egyptians observed jackals skirting around cemeteries (as scavengers) and “explained” this behavior by associating the animal with the rituals of death. The lion, which can be both docile and violent, is associated with the equally docile / violent goddess, Sekhmet. Religion is far more complex than that, of course, but I was struck by this idea of animal behaviors being associated with the personality traits of deities.
It was also interesting to note that, according to the exhibition anyway, the practice of mummifying pets was not common. Rather, pets were depicted in stelae or painted on tomb walls. Animals that were mummified were selected based on certain traits they possessed. The most striking of this practice is the Apis bull. The Apis Bull was the animal associated with the gods Ptah and Atum, and was an individual animal selected by the cults of those particular deities based on physical characteristics, including specific coloring and markings. When an Apis bull was selected, he was worshiped in the temples of Ptah / Atum until his death, and then he was mummified and buried in a special Apis bull cemetery. The Apis bull – the one worshiped in the temple and later mummified – was considered to be Ptah or Atum incarnate. He manifested himself in that coloring / marking scheme the Egyptians used to identify the bull.
Now this is just a cursory overview based on my fragmented recollections of the exhibit. But I also remember that, with any practice, there comes those who want to take advantage of the faithful and gullible. Today, hawkers try to pawn off pieces of the “True Cross” to devout Catholics or the relics of beloved saints. In Ancient Egypt, it was the sale of faux animal mummies. If you wanted to offer up an ibis to Thoth, rather than cart yourself off to the marshes to find, kill, and mummify your own ibis, you could purchase one from a store … basically. You could get a nice fancy one, complete with elaborate wrappings and bronze fixtures, but that came with a higher price tag naturally. Or you could just pick out the simply wrapped, no embellishment mummy, and be on your way to the temple of Thoth to present your offering.
What you had to watch out for, however, were mummies that looked like mummies, but didn’t actually have anything inside the wrapping. It was easy for an animal mummifier to wrap linens around some soil and rocks and pass it off as an ibis. And you could even get your own animal-shaped coffin to go with it. But you weren’t offering anything up to your beloved god or goddess.
People. Some things really never do change.
But all that said, I loved this exhibit. I love that the Bowers is a smaller museum, and their exhibits tend to only encompass 3 or 4 galleries. Much more do-able than some of these larger institutions that could take you 3 weeks to walk through, and you still won’t see everything.
I also thoroughly enjoyed learning more about how the Egyptians viewed their animal companions, and the prominent role they played in their theology and daily beliefs.