Animals in life and religion in the land of the Pharaohs

Frogs, popping up everywhere, symbolized rebirth

In ancient Egypt, the unpredictable and dangerous aspect of animal life fed the collective imagination and magico-religious belief. But so also did the gentle and protective characteristics of animals. Thus the goddess Sekhmet might appear as a wild lioness, threatening and fearsome, while the amiable Basket could be symbolized as a maternal, domesticated she-cat.

In any case, animals - and Egyptian artists represented an astonishing range of types and species, as well as fictional chimeras based on known creatures - were not just the subjects of hunting and farming, sport or table. They were the "manifestations of the origins of the world" and "the earthly and immediate sign of divine forces."

Philippe Germond's finely illustrated book looks at the secular and the sacred sides of Egyptian animal depiction. The sides were not mutually exclusive. Fish were a main source of food, for instance, but certain fish were crucially implicated in funerary beliefs. The oxyrynchus fish was considered "guardian of the deceased and guarantor of his rebirth."

Rather more enchantingly, frogs, which Egyptian art represented with telling familiarity, were thought to have the ability "to spring spontaneously into life from the mire of the marshlands" (a rather reasonable assumption given this creature's tendency to make startlingly unexpected appearances). The marshlands, where frogs proliferated, were the setting for the Egyptian myth of creation. Frogs came to represent the "eternal rebirth" hoped for by a people who believed death was not the end of life, but a rite of passage to a new life.

You learn much about animal life in ancient Egypt from this book. Humans did not think of themselves as separate from or necessarily superior to the animals around them, though they did use them. Sheep and goats helped to trample the ground after seed-sowing. Dogs were seen as companions. Some 80 from the Pharaonic period are today known by name. Cats, surprisingly, were domesticated much later. Horses were a late arrival, and the Egyptians (except for grooms and the like) didn't ride them. Nor were they haulers of plows or vehicles other than archers' chariots. And the horse, exceptionally, played no role in religious beliefs. On the other hand, the baboon most certainly did. And so did the ram and the goose and the mongoose and the scarab beetle, to name a few.

• Christopher Andreae writes for the Monitor from Glasgow, Scotland.

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