‘Of all the civilizations of the ancient world, none enjoyed such a close and significant relationship with the animal realm as that of the ancient Egyptians.’ So Philippe Germond, an Egyptologist at the University of Geneva, plunges into his subject in An Egyptian Bestiary (2001). But already he is outflanked on the facing page by the regal profile of a leopard’s head carved in sunken relief, the sharply incised contour framing it with a powerful line of shadow. Which is fitting, for this is above all a picture book, led by 280 spectacular photographs (mostly credited to his co-author Jacques Livet) of artworks that speak across the millennia and challenge the imagination.
The book is subtitled Animals in Life and Religion in the Land of the Pharaohs. Gazing at the familiar, fabulous and mythical beasts haunting its pages – painted, engraved, sculpted and written as hieroglyphs – feels like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole or peering through a long telescope that carries you far back in time. These beings were worshipped, feared, hunted, tamed, herded, fed, eaten and pampered by our distant ancestors when the pharaohs came to rule over the world’s first nation state.
What the text explains, the images reveal: their numinous beauty stems from the nature of the ancient Egyptians’ relationship with the world around them. Unlike the cosmology of the Bible, in the Egyptian cosmos the birds and beasts of this world and the next all find their place alongside human beings: equal if not superior in status to their human counterparts. At the dawn of the world there was no hierarchy within the universe: ‘Humankind was not the final crowning achievement of creation, but was simply one of its elements, on a par with stones, plants and animals.’
I found this credo strangely comforting during the long months of lockdown, when the non-human world acquired extra significance. In the city bursts of birdsong, foxes patrolling
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‘Of all the civilizations of the ancient world, none enjoyed such a close and significant relationship with the animal realm as that of the ancient Egyptians.’ So Philippe Germond, an Egyptologist at the University of Geneva, plunges into his subject in An Egyptian Bestiary (2001). But already he is outflanked on the facing page by the regal profile of a leopard’s head carved in sunken relief, the sharply incised contour framing it with a powerful line of shadow. Which is fitting, for this is above all a picture book, led by 280 spectacular photographs (mostly credited to his co-author Jacques Livet) of artworks that speak across the millennia and challenge the imagination.The book is subtitled Animals in Life and Religion in the Land of the Pharaohs. Gazing at the familiar, fabulous and mythical beasts haunting its pages – painted, engraved, sculpted and written as hieroglyphs – feels like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole or peering through a long telescope that carries you far back in time. These beings were worshipped, feared, hunted, tamed, herded, fed, eaten and pampered by our distant ancestors when the pharaohs came to rule over the world’s first nation state. What the text explains, the images reveal: their numinous beauty stems from the nature of the ancient Egyptians’ relationship with the world around them. Unlike the cosmology of the Bible, in the Egyptian cosmos the birds and beasts of this world and the next all find their place alongside human beings: equal if not superior in status to their human counterparts. At the dawn of the world there was no hierarchy within the universe: ‘Humankind was not the final crowning achievement of creation, but was simply one of its elements, on a par with stones, plants and animals.’ I found this credo strangely comforting during the long months of lockdown, when the non-human world acquired extra significance. In the city bursts of birdsong, foxes patrolling darkened streets, seeds sprouting on windowsills were proof of the natural world’s turning seasons regardless of human crisis. More crucially, clean air and clear skies brought pressing issues of climate change, pollution and destruction of wild habitats into sharper focus. All this would have been recognized by the people of ancient Egypt, who believed that the natural balance must be preserved at all costs to fend off drought, flood, famine and plague. Ancient Egypt didn’t impinge on my childhood; it wasn’t even in my sights as I dawdled in a local second-hand bookshop one Sunday a couple of years ago. I was interested in the country’s colonial and post-colonial history, for purely personal reasons: I wanted to learn more about Egypt at the turn of the twentieth century when my maternal grandfather, about whom I knew almost nothing, was posted to Cairo to teach in the new veterinary college. He stayed in Egypt for twenty years until his sudden death, rising to become Chief Veterinary Inspector of Lower Egypt and being awarded medals by the Khedive and the Protectorate’s Sultan for his pioneering work deploying a vaccine against the cattle plague then ravaging Africa. Why did he choose to make his life in that sweltering land of river and sand so far from his native Derbyshire? Somewhere in the literature I thought I might find clues. Instead, I came face to face with a black-muzzled jackal god wearing a striped headdress, gazing out from a dustjacket. Enthralled, I paid up and struggled home with my prize – An Egyptian Bestiary weighs in at 2.25 kilos. Well, here were Egypt’s animals – a glorious menagerie: tangential, yet oddly familiar. As I turned the pages the dreamlike succession of images recalled that matchless passage in Penelope Lively’s novel Moon Tiger:
Like anyone else, I knew Egypt before ever I went there. And when I think of it now . . . I have to think of it as a continuous phenomenon, the kilted pharaonic population spilling out into the Nile valley of the twentieth century, the chariots and lotus, Horus and Ra and Isis alongside the Mameluke mosques, the babbling streets of Cairo, Nasser’s High Dam . . . Past and present do not so much co-exist in the Nile valley as cease to have any meaning. What is buried under the sand is reflected above, not just in the souvenirs hawked by the descendants of the tomb robbers but in the eternal, deliberate cycle of the landscape – the sun rising from the desert of the east to sink into the desert of the west, the spring surge of the river, the regeneration of creatures – the egrets and herons and wildfowl, the beasts of burden, the enduring peasantry.So many aspects of that ancient civilization defy comprehension today – not least the unchanging form of these artworks over the course of a mindboggling timespan. Compare the transformation in our own visual arts lexicon over the past century and a half with the formulae reproduced on the walls of sealed tombs buried under sand over 3,000 pharaonic years. For millennia, the familiar sideways profile of human face and body with forward-facing eye and torso endured, likewise the colours of sun and desert and water – ochre, sand, rust, black; turquoise, green, lapis, gold – and the mysterious imposing figures of animal- and bird-headed gods. So too did the columns of hieroglyphics, studded with owls, ibis, scarabs, snakes – of some 700 signs in the Middle Kingdom’s written language, one in four use images of living creatures . . . Another thought to try to get one’s head around: ancient Egyptians had no word for art in their language. These exquisite images, created by skilled craftsmen using the finest materials, appeared only in underground tombs and those flat-roofed burial plots called mastabas, rarely seen by the living. Their purpose was to keep the deceased’s memory alive for their survivors, and for their resurrection and eternal survival. To render a subject visually was to give it permanent existence: texts and images not only symbolized the rich life awaiting the mummified deceased but became the things themselves in an ideal everlasting present. Death was a rite of passage at the start of a long underground journey strewn with obstacles towards the eternal afterlife, which was, as Germond writes, ‘a comforting extension of life on earth, played out in the same natural habitat populated by the same animals, and featuring the same activities, joys and woes’. Here we are pitched into the mythical cosmos of a people living thousands of years ago, who used images to express themselves in a symbolic language that constantly shifted between the real and the imagined. A century ago, European Egyptologists confidently explain-ed the symbols and beliefs behind the decorated tombs then being unearthed to feverish worldwide interest. Today’s experts hesitate to assume anything, speculating that even the ancient Egyptians’ concept of time was radically different from our own present-day historical perspective. Germond, careful not to over-interpret, describes rather than explains, dividing his subject matter into two parts: the secular and sacred worlds. Thus arranged, the sequence of images in Part I, ‘Animals in Association with Man’, offers an astonishingly realistic record of the Nile region from ancient times. The fabled ‘land of papyrus’ – a marshy hinterland of lakes and swamps, dangerous, mysterious yet revered as a place of birth and rebirth, ‘the image of the world’s very origins’ – no longer exists, lost to desertification and urban development, except in the images painted and carved by the ancient Egyptians in their tombs. Early pre-Dynastic potsherds show the Nile valley rich in game – gazelle, ibex, hare; later bas-reliefs and wall paintings trace with cartoon-strip clarity farming and stockbreeding as well as hunting and fishing. We see farmers of the Old and Middle Kingdoms domesticating cattle, dogs, asses and pigs (force-fed hyenas and antelopes didn’t catch on). Horses, imported from Asia in the seventeenth century BC, were not ridden but harnessed in pairs to chariots carrying driver and archer. Dogs, cats, monkeys, baboons were immortalized as faithful compan-ions in the afterlife. (Camels and water buffalo arrived only with the Arab conquest in the seventh century AD.) No Edenic pastoral where lion lies down with lamb, this paradise is life itself with all its dramas: a calf snatched by the cowherd from a crocodile’s jaws, tongue stuck out in terror, head turned back to its fearful mother; a flurry of wildfowl flushed from a papyrus thicket in a hunt; villagers harvesting figs while baboons on the branches above plunder the fruit. The images are so vivid, so real, it’s hard to hold on to the dual narrative, the funerary context: ‘Ploughing and harvesting in the afterlife’, the caption to Fig. 54 insists, and ‘Symbolic hunting expedition in the marshes’ (Fig. 115). In Part II, ‘The Sacred World’, the pantheon of gods and goddesses, magic, myths and legends attest to the seething world of the Egyptian imagination – the shapeshifting gods in wondrous combinations of human, animal and monstrous hybrid, balancing the sun between their ears or horns, and/or the rearing cobra, crowns of the two kingdoms and all manner of other carefully coded headgear. How to interpret scenes so resistant to definition yet so vivid, so imbued with conviction? In prehistoric times, Germond hypothesizes, Egyptians viewed animals – lion, crocodile, hippopotamus – as frightening manifestations of the uncontrollable forces governing their world. Later, in more settled times, they added human attributes to their gods but ‘any tendency to favour only the human form of any given divinity, at the expense of the original animal form, would have been fundamentally at odds with the basic tenets of Egyptian thinking’. Hence the fusion of both in their pantheon, and the dual role . . . It’s a theory: take it or leave it. Sacred animals are a rich source of confusion. ‘The distinction between animal god and sacred animal is not a neat and orderly one,’ Germond warns. Ritual burial of individual animals had taken place from early times, as the living ba (essence) of a god, though this was not the same as animal worship. Greeks and Romans, whose deities (usually) took human form, were bemused by the Egyptians’ veneration of animals – Greek to Egyptian in a fourth-century BC Athenian play:
I couldn’t bring myself to make an alliance with you; neither our manners nor our customs agree . . . You worship the cow, whereas I sacrifice it to the gods. You hold the eel as a great divinity, we regard it as by far the greatest delicacy . . . If you see a cat in any trouble, you cry, but I am perfectly happy to kill and skin it . . .But Greeks after Alexander did adopt the cult of the sacred Apis bull, chosen by priests for its special markings, stabled in Memphis and buried in a huge stone coffin in Saqqara. Colossal stone statues of this figure, worshipped by Egyptians as Osiris/Apis and by Greeks and Romans in Alexandria as Serapis, testify to its awesome potency. Ptolemaic incomers also favoured the popular cat cult around Bastet, the purring homely alter ego of the fearsome lioness-headed goddess Sekhmet who symbolized the sun’s merciless heat when the Nile’s waters were lowest. Thousands of miniature votive statues – and once, millions of mummified cats, ibis and falcons bred and killed for the purpose – bear witness to widespread belief in objects imbued with magic; Germond concedes that by then priestly interpretations had given way to outright animal worship. The wall paintings, reliefs and statues that appear in An Egyptian Bestiary’s pages were photographed on site, many in mastabas and tombs at Saqqara; images of amulets, scrolls and smaller treasures come from the Louvre and other European museums. Beside the magnificent photographs, the translated academic text, dense with deciphering the multi-layered imagery, assumes the reader knows more than a novice like me, while the lack of an index (regrettably normal in French publishing) and list of illustrations are drawbacks. But helpful captions interpret baffling images; and useful appendices include a chronology and an illustrated table of Principal Gods and their Animal Associations (though Osiris – Osiris! – is missing). The jackal-headed being shown on the book’s dustjacket is Anubis, the Embalmer. This attentive god, sometimes seen leading the de-ceased into the afterworld, drew me likewise into the labyrinth. I read more . . . Eventually I visited Cairo. I found no trace of my grandfather except indirectly, meeting a last peasant family farming in the built-over Delta, and visiting an equine hospital in the city. But flying in as thick brown dusk fell over the green-bordered silver Nile snaking across the sea of sand, I glimpsed what kept him there.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 73 © Anne Boston 2022
About the contributor
Anne Boston’s anthology Wave Me Goodbye: Stories of the Second World War was recently reissued as a Virago Modern Classic.