If you meet a time-traveling ancient Egyptian, talk about birds

The next time you come across an ancient Egyptian mummy in a museum, rather than thinking of looming pyramids and cursed tomb robbers, consider this: that mummy was probably a better birder than you are.

Okay, I don’t know if the ancient Egyptians would have considered it “birding” – I doubt they maintained life lists. But they certainly knew their birds to a degree that I doubt many in the modern era could equal. The Oriental Institute’s exhibit “Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt”¬†showcases just how thoroughly birds permeated every aspect of ancient Egyptian life. They painted birds and sculpted them, drew them in their writing as hieroglyphs, raised and shepherded and ate them, and saw their gods embodied in their forms.

Barn Owl sculpture. Owls were unusual in Egyptian art for being depicted face-on instead of in profile.Photo Anna Ressman. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Barn Owl sculpture. Owls were unusual in Egyptian art for being depicted face-on instead of in profile, as most animals (including humans) were.
Photo by Anna Ressman. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

I used to associate ancient Egyptian art with an almost modern stylization, all the subjects flattened and stiffly posed; not so for birds. Egyptian artists painted wild shrikes and hoopoes (small image here) with every field mark carefully delineated, the birds identifiable even now to the species, the egrets’ necks perfectly curved. The paintings betray real expertise. They must have spent many hours watching birds.

Other paintings show people herding flocks of ducks and geese, or stacking them individually in basket-like cages for sale. They minded the birds, protecting them from predators, then slaughtered and ate them. That is an intimacy with the animals at least as genuine as birdwatching.

Egyptian hieroglyphics abound with birds. I consider myself fairly bird-immersed, since birds are my job and my passion – but even I don’t write in birds. For ancient Egyptians, birds were part of the very shape of their written language. Admittedly, the meanings of the hieroglyphs don’t always seem grounded in the nature of the animal. The tiny House Martin means “great.” Perhaps they were thinking of large flocks of martins?

House Martin sculpted hieroglyph.Photo by Anna Ressman. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

House Martin sculpted hieroglyph.
Photo by Anna Ressman. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Birds were food, communication – and the representatives of gods. Several gods had the forms of birds, and their shape-sake birds were respected for the likeness. Horus was falcon-headed, Thoth ibis-headed, Nekhbet a vulture.

Wood falcon (Horus) sculpture, circa 945 B.C.E.Photo by M. LaBarbera.

Wood falcon sculpture representing Horus, circa 945 B.C.E.
OIM 108. Photo by M. LaBarbera.

Ibis amulet.Photo by M. LaBarbera.

Ibis amulet, representing Thoth.
OIM 9559. Photo by M. LaBarbera.

Vulture amulet, representing Nekhbet.OIM 11109. Photo by M. LaBarbera.

Vulture amulet, representing Nekhbet.
OIM 11109. Photo by M. LaBarbera.

Let me repeat that: Nekhbet was a vulture. She was not the goddess of death or evil or rot or baldness; she was patron goddess of a city, then eventually all of ancient Egypt, as well as patron of the pharaoh. She was good, and she was depicted as a vulture.

Any culture that sees vultures in a good light knows its birds really well!

Nekhbet again, with the goddess Wadjet, a cobra.Photo by Anna Ressman. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Nekhbet again, with the goddess Wadjet, a cobra.
Photo by Anna Ressman. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

In some cases the sacred animals came to be worshipped in their own right. Ibises were raised by staff of the temple of Thoth, mummified at death, and buried in dedicated catacombs. Catacombs containing many thousands of ibis and falcon mummies have been found – and remind me more than a bit of our museum collections, the carefully preserved avian bodies arrayed neatly in rows.

I’ve focused on birds, as the exhibit does, but other animals were worshipped and mummified too.

Mummified crocodile, for Sobek.OIM 701. Photo by M. LaBarbera

Mummified crocodile, for Sobek.
OIM 701. Photo by M. LaBarbera

Coffin for a small snake.OIM 11189. Photo by M. LaBarbera.

Coffin for a small snake.
OIM 11189. Photo by M. LaBarbera.

Even shrews were mummified and placed in little coffins – to serve as food for Horus in the afterlife.

This exhibit gave me a feeling similar to that I get from looking at ancient cave paintings of animals. Historical people are almost unimaginably alien to us in every way – but they too observed animals, and their art betrays the same fascination with, and care for, animals that we feel today, all our antibiotics and smartphones notwithstanding. When we stop to admire an egret, we are doing something that humans have done for thousands of years.

Many thanks to the Oriental Institute for sharing photographs of specimens and allowing other photographs to be taken, and for putting on a great exhibit! If you’re in Chicago before July 28, 2013 (when the exhibit closes), definitely check it out. The photos here are just the tip of the iceberg, and of course the items are more impressive in person. Especially this guy:

Mummified and gilded eagle.Photo by Anna Ressman. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Mummified and gilded eagle.
Photo by Anna Ressman. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

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7 thoughts on “If you meet a time-traveling ancient Egyptian, talk about birds

  1. What a wonderful post! This always fascinated me, and I spent most of my time at the Met in this area. :) Wrote about it much. The barn owl is just GORGEOUS. You can tell there was much love and respect for such detail…. The front profile is truly stunning.

  2. What an informative and fun post! The artwork is so beautiful, like the owl and the artwork used as the cover of “Between Heaven and Earth”. The ancients definitely paid a lot more attention than most of us do.

    About the martin being used for the word “great”…It may be that they used the martin for that word because of the flocks, but it could also be because the word for “martin” and the word for “great” could have sounded similar. I don’t know Middle Egyptian, so I couldn’t tell you whether or not this is specifically the case, but I do know that some signs in hieroglyphs worked on the rebus principle. The English analog I see over and over is the word “belief” written using a picture of a bee and a picture of a leaf. Bees and leaves aren’t particularly symbolic of the concept of belief, but together they do sound like it, and that’s what matters. :)

  3. I am the curator of this exhibit at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago – thank you so much for posting on it. I am glad it has inspired you to look more into birds and animals in general in Egyptian art. Ancient Egyptians were incredible when it comes to the representation of wildlife, and birds in particular.

  4. Pingback: Beauty and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt | My View Your Review

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