Animal-Headed Deities (Pagan Blog Project 2012 #2)

Khnum, the Baaa of Ra

“… you dog-faced Egyptian swathed in linens, who are you my excellent fellow? How do you claim to be a god, you with your barking? And what’s the meaning of this spotted bull from Memphis being worshiped, giving oracles and having prophets? For I’m ashamed to mention the ibises, apes, goats, and other creatures much more ludicrous, which have somehow been stuffed into heaven from Egypt.” Lucian, The Assembly of the Gods

“There is no god within, whom we were so anxiously looking for, there is only a cat, or a crocodile, or a snake native to the land, or some other similar animal suited for life in a cave or den or in the mud, but certainly not in a temple. The god of the Egyptians, then, turns out to be only a beast curled up on a rich purple pillow.” Clement of Alexandria – Paidagogos

One of the most distinctive and misunderstood aspects of ancient Egyptian religion is the existence of animal-headed gods and goddesses. The ancient Greeks and Romans were often confused and offended that grand temples with armies of priests were dedicated to them.

Nineteenth-century writers were equally critical. They could scarcely believe that a civilization that lasted so long, so advanced and capable of building huge structures, could have such ‘childish’ ideas about gods, or to have had such a confusing array of them.  Many went so far as to insist that there was a secret monotheism known only to upper-level priests and initiates, and the many gods and goddesses were for the ignorant masses.

However, the Egyptians were pretty clear about saying that the true forms of the gods could not be known by the living,  and that was mentioned in the Coffin Texts.The animal forms are meant to tell us something about the gods. Bast isn’t literally a cat, Djehuty isn’t a baboon or ibis, and Khnum isn’t a ram. Osiris isn’t a green mummiform human either! The way they’re shown is meant to give us clues to who they are. The poses, gestures, depictions, and style of Egyptian art was established for magical (Heka) purposes, which is why the art remained relatively consistent for thousands of years.

For us, that can present some problems. Many of the animals aren’t that familiar to us, and we have different cultural perceptions of others. Flocks of small birds represented destructive ‘chaos,’ turtles were also an embodiment of evil. Gazelles were shown as dangerous animals to be defeated by Horus on Cippus stelae.

If you don’t take the time to look into how they viewed certain animals, it can completely misinform you about the nature of the Netjer. Anubis/Yinepu is an obvious example. In modern popular culture he’s shown as the threatening God of Death with the head of a terrible jackal. Strangely, many people today seem to mix up jackals and hyenas. Anubis was also identified as a dog occasionally as well.

I’ve also seen discussions in which people couldn’t bear the thought that Wepwawet was a jackal, and decided that he always must have been a wolf. A wolf, of course, has a positive and noble reputation with pagans these days.

What was the image the Egyptians had of jackals? Fast. Graceful. Beautiful. Sexy. That puts quite a different spin on things! (If you’re interested in any of the jackal deities, Per-Sabu is your best source!)

It’s worth trying to do some digging to find out the Egyptian view of any of the related animals if you’re trying to connect to one of the gods or goddesses who have an animal aspect. Hathor isn’t the placid, stupid cow of modern commercials, Thoth/Djehuty isn’t a silly baboon or birdbrain ibis.

Another related subject I wonder about is some of the modern depictions of the Egyptian gods. Especially the ones that are very ‘off model’- looking like comic-book characters, truck drivers, etc. Of course people can buy whatever statues and pictures they like, and use them in a way that’s meaningful to them. But I really wonder about the practice of forcing one of the Netjer, an eternal powerful god, into some pop-culture mold. Shouldn’t we be putting some effort into reaching out to them, discovering their nature instead?

And for people who don’t care a whit about the information built up about Sekhmet, Bast, or Set over thousands of years, why invoke the name of a historical deity at all?

This year I’m participating in the Pagan Blog Project 2012. The object is to write a post every week for it, two for each letter of the alphabet.

Pagan Blog Project 2012

Lovely Blog Award by Aubs Tea
Thanks Aubs! Challenge accepted!

  • Jasmeine Moonsong

    Merry Meet :)) Great post! I work with the Goddess Isis and have been wanting to learn more about the Egyptian Gods and Goddesses so definitely peaked my interest. Thank you for the wonderful post 🙂 Blessings, Jasmeine Moonsong

  • Susana Aguilar

    Good!!!! I agree we must respect the original art, al religious iconography evolved with time, but we are not related to ancient egyptians in the same way that maybe modern artists are related to Miguelangelo.

  • Aubs Tea

    You’ve been awarded the Lovely Blog Award by ME!I’ll give you the rules (because aren’t there always rules?)1. You must thank the person in your blog entry that awarded you the award.2. You have to list seven things that make you happy.3. You then tag seven blogs that you think qualify for this award (friendly, happy, informative) and let them know.Obviously, you don’t have to do this little chore, but you should at least know that I think your blog qualifies as lovely.And the picture-thing that goes with the award thing…… (I can't seem to figure out how to get it to post in my comment, so, you get the direct link!)

  • RaasAlHayya

    "And for people who don't care a whit about the information built up about Sekhmet, Bast, or Set over thousands of years, why invoke the name of a historical deity at all?"YES!!!!!

  • Seshathotep

    The main point is that it seems like many of the artists don't try to think of who the gods are before designing something. I think of it like this: Let's say Joe decides he wants to be your friend. But instead of talking with you and figuring out what you like and how you think, maybe reading your blog or fb, he decides that you're Summer Glau. Everything he does is related to her instead of you. Maybe it's flattering to get some attention, but I would guess it might get old pretty quickly. Interestingly, my favorite modern picture of the god Sutekh is this one:'s a whole host of reasons why this works, where the comic-book Set-as-demon ones don't.

  • Seshathotep

    Em hotep, Jasmeine!Isis has to be one of the most complex. You have Aset-the-Mistress-of-Heka ultra magician, Aset-the-Queen, Aset-the-Mother, blending into all the aspects of Isis when the Greeks and Romans show up. There's probably even some 'leakage' into the early Virgin Mary. I know someone who's been told by the Queen: "You don't get Isis the Mother, you get ME instead!"

  • Seshathotep

    Accepted! My thanks are listed above.In no particular order:1- The purr and affection of a cat who used to be feral.2- Playing music with people where things 'click' and go all zen. 3- That 'aha!' moment when you've been researching something, and it finally clicks.4- Helping someone else to figure out how to do something- finding a creative solution to their problem.5- Watching buzzards glide effortlessly through the air.6- Creating a miniature ecosystem in an aquarium, and seeing it thrive.7- Making fictional characters come to life!I'll tag each worthwhile blog as I see it.