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New in the Galleries Sacred Animals of Ancient Egypt

Sacred Animals of Ancient Egypt
Curator: Daphna Ben-Tor


Animals appear everywhere in Egyptian art - in hieroglyphic script, in sculpture, in painting, and in the minor arts - all demonstrating the close association of animals with every aspect of the ancient Egyptian world. The Egyptians used animals for their most basic needs: they hunted them, domesticated them, and even enjoyed them as household pets, but their special relationship to animals was essentially religious. Apart from representing the recurring cycle of renewal in nature, animals inspired in the Egyptians awe for their superhuman powers, which led to the association of animals with the divine sphere and thus to the manifestation of many deities in animal form. Images of animals, though frequently used to depict the gods they represented, were not meant to convey the actual form of the gods, but rather to express their most distinctive qualities.
The mummification of sacred animals and their burial within the temple precincts were originally performed to provide the animals with eternal life by means of the same rituals used for humans. In the late periods, however, the sacred animals, which were bred for cultic use, did not live out their lives peacefully in the temple precinct, but were killed, usually at a young age. They were then crudely embalmed, but carefully wrapped in linen bandages and placed in coffins, some of which were quite costly. The mummified animals were sold to pilgrims, who presented them at the temples as votive offerings to the gods. These mummies, which would accumulate in vast numbers in the temples, were periodically collected by priests and buried en masse in special sacred animal cemeteries adjoining the temple precincts.

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