Egypt is renowned for its mummies. However, did you know that the ancient Egyptians didn’t just preserve human corpses, they also mummified animals—dogs, cats, snakes, birds, crocodiles, baboons … you name it.
Mummified cats placed in a large wooden cat figurine container, and a mummified ibis contained in a lavish gilded ibis coffin—these are some examples from the eye-opening collections displayed at the “Soulful Creatures: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt” exhibition in Brooklyn Museum, New York.
These animal mummies—produced between 800 B.C. and 400 A.D.—are just a few out of the more than 70 million mummified creatures excavated in at least 31 different animal cemeteries across Egypt during the 19th and 20th centuries.
“These mummies were made in a carefully controlled process that resembled human mummification,” Senior Curator Edward Bleiberg said in the exhibition’s press release.
To the ancient Egyptians, animals were not only regarded as house pets; they were also viewed as manifestations of gods. For instance, cats were seen as the manifestation of the goddess Bastet, and dogs or jackals were associated with the god Anubis.
Dr. Campbell Price, curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum, explained to BBC News, “We know the Egyptians worshiped gods in animal forms, and an animal mummy allowed you some connection with the world of the gods.”
Hence, other than burying pets alongside their deceased owners and preserving some animals as food offerings to the deceased in the afterlife, many animals were mummified as sacred offerings to honor deities in temples.
Speaking of the ancient Egyptians’ gifts for the gods, John Taylor, assistant keeper (curator) of the British Museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, told National Geographic, “If a sacred animal was mummified and formally presented to a god, that was a sign of devotion on the part of someone making a pilgrimage to a temple.
“You could come along and pay to have an animal dedicated in your name, and then the priests would bury them in a large cemetery,” he added.
The ancient Egyptians also believed the soul of the mummified animals could help them carry messages to their deities.
“We think that if you had a particular request, you would arrange with the priests to have an animal mummy made of the proper type to approach the god you wanted to approach,” said Bleiberg, in an interview with New York Times.
“These messages were often sent through accompanying handwritten letters that frequently requested good health for a sick relative,” the Brooklyn Museum stated.
These animal mummies were so highly coveted by the ancient Egyptians that many sacred animals were specifically bred and later killed to meet the huge demand.
“In terms of how many animals were reared and killed, it would have been on an industrial scale. The animals were young and killed when they were quite small. To achieve those numbers you had to have a very specific breeding program,” Dr. Price said.
To satisfy the nation’s obsession with mummified animals, some experts believe “fake” animal mummies, which contained empty wrappings, were being sold.
According to the BBC, of the over 800 animal mummies scanned by researchers at Manchester Museum and the University of Manchester, a third contained no skeletal remains.
What are your thoughts on the mummification of animals? Do you find these ancient Egyptian animal mummies fascinating or creepy?