The Nature Mysticism of Ancient Egypt
SECTION 1 Egyptian Religion & Art
SECTION 2 Animal Gods
SECTION 3 Sacred Plants & Landscapes
SECTION 5 Nature's Heart
SECTION 6 Honoring Nature
Egyptian Religion and Art
Nowhere in history do we find a religion more oriented around nature than in ancient Egypt. In Egyptian art one finds remarkably precise observations flora and fauna. They are easily identified by contemporary biologists. But Egyptian art also shows the way nature affects the soul, and reveals a spiritual light deep inside all natural phenomena. This was accomplished with subtle exaggeration and distortion. Thus, Egyptian artists were equally precise when depicting the details of either the inner and outer world, and they were remarkably adept at revealing that these logically incompatible worlds constitute a single seamless reality.
The peregrine falcon was known to the Egyptians as a bird that lived in the celestial realm of the sky. It was identified with the god, Horus, who was an image of the divine descended into the terrestrial. Horus was usually depicted with the body of a man and the head of hawk.
Many other gods and goddesses had animal or half-animal forms. Isis, for example, took the form of a swallow while she was lamenting the death of her husband, Osiris.
Other gods were only known in their animal form. A heron, called the bennu, was a symbol of the rising and setting sun. It incarnated the divine principle of resurrection, and it remains in mythology today as the Phoenix.
The vulture was a Mother-Nature goddess, called Mut or Nekhbet. Egyptian legends said vultures were all virgins, fertilized by the wind or Holy Spirit. The vulture goddess gave life and later took it back by eating carrion. She was sometimes depicted with breasts, suckling the kings.
While the vulture was the symbol of upper Egypt, the uraeus, a sacred snake, was the symbol of lower Egypt. She was known for carefully protecting her eggs. Both these beasts were used in the ornamental headdresses of kings. When the two Egypts united, the pharaoh wore images of both these animals side by side atop his head.
Ibises were sacred because they had secret knowledge: They showed up shortly before the annual floods. The ibis-headed god, Thoth, was a scribe, whose pen repeatedly dipped in ink in a manner that the long beaks of the ibises dipped into the mud. Egyptians also saw a mysterious connection between the sickle-bills of the ibises and the crescent moon.
The crocodile was the water god. Early worship of this awesome beast may have been a propitiation, for in the dry season crocodiles wandered on land, where they occasionally ate human beings. In its evil aspect the crocodile was associated with Set, murderer of Osiris. In The Book of the Dead four crocodiles represent powers of the darkness.
Later the crocodile was seen as having beneficent attributes. Some Egyptian texts actually suggest it is a stroke of good fortune to be eaten by a crocodile. A crocodile god named Sebet was a guard of the pharaoh. Sebet also helped the newly deceased in the neterworld, restoring faculties such as sight. The crocodile god taught the deceased how to live in the world beyond life, and protected them from Set, the evil one. Sebet also was protector of the infant Horus, who was the Egyptian equivalent of the Christ-child.
A hippopotamus god, named Ta-urt, was a goddess of protection and benevolence. As a Great Mother she had both destructive and ferocious attributes.
The frog was a symbol of generation, fecundity, and birth, and the goddess Hekt had the head of a frog.
Dogs or jackals were taken by the Egyptians to be guardians of the dead, perhaps because they were found in desert areas, were corpses were taken. Anubis, a jackal-headed god was the guide of the souls of the dead as they went to the neterworld. He also taught human beings the art of embalming.
Lions were worshipped by the Egyptians for their great strength and courage. They were associated with the solar deities, Horus and Ra. The lion was believed to be a protector of the sun. In some temples a lion statue guarded the gate through which the sun rose each morning. Lion statues were often given heads of men. The Sphinx of Gizeh was a lion with a human head; she faced the rising sun and protected the sleeping dead. Rameses II and III kept lions as mascots; they also used them in battle.
The cat was such a sacred animal to the Egyptians that some people were actually given death penalties for killing them. The cat was a personification of the sun. It helped destroy the foes of Osiris, and it cut off the head of the serpent of destruction.
The Egyptians had one more well-known god who took the form of the scarab, or dung beetle. The scarab filled a ball of dung with eggs and pushed it across the desert. It was a symbol of resurrection, and it's most sacred duty was to push the sun up over the horizon.
SACRED PLANTS AND LANDSCAPES
It was not just animals that were sacred to the Egyptians, but the entire biosphere: plants, landscape, and wetlands.
Thoth, the ibis god, presided at a sacred tree. He wrote the names of every person on one of the leaves. Another sacred tree was associated with Osiris. When the chest carrying the body of this murdered god landed on a beach, a tamarisk tree wound its stem and branches around it, then grew to a magnificent size. It was a perfect image for the idea that there is a divinity trapped in nature, hidden and seemingly dead until we awaken it with our imagination.
The sycamore, also, was sacred. Peasants gather around them in rituals. In the Land of the Dead there was a sycamore in whose branches the goddess Hathor lived; she leaned out of it giving sustenance and water to deceased souls. In Memphis Hathor's epithet was Lady of the Sycamore.
The Lotus was important, too, as a sacred flower and a symbol of resurrection. From its cup, the savior-god Horus was born.
THE SUN AND THE NILE
To the Egyptians there were two sources of nature's powers: the sun and the Nile. These were the springs of life for gods, people, animals, and plants.
Dawn was seen as a re-enactment of original moment of creation. All creatures deferred to the sun as it began its journey into the heavens. Baboons gathered on the rocks above the river at daybreak; they faced the newborn sun, while raising their hands in an act of adoration.
Another belief was that the soul of the sun-god, Ra emerges in the material world as a luminous image: a redolent flower. The god is the force inside each and every flower; it pushes them up out of the earth and causes them to unfold; the force of this god rises up through men and women as well. It is the actualizing force of nature.
Another Egyptian belief was that the soul of Ra, the sun-god, is the force inside each and every flower; it pushes the flowers up out of the earth and causes them to unfold; it gives them their redolence. The force of the sun rises up through men and women as well. It is the actualizing force in all of nature.
When vulture spread their wings to soak up the warmth of the new sun, it seemed an act of prayer. Even the massive crocodiles oriented themselves towards the sun as they opened their sharp-toothed jaws.
The Nile was a sacred river; it's annual rise was a seen as a supreme act of grace. At different times and places, the Nile was personified as either Osiris, the green faced god of fertility or Hapi, an old, somewhat androgynous man with sagging breasts.
Egyptian mythology suggests that all life comes from the One and returns to the One: Forms pass away then are transformed into other living forms. At death Osiris goes back to the heart of Atum, the god who was all that existed before the universe came into being. Atum had dreamed up the universe to cure himself of loneliness while he was standing on the primordial pyramid C a mound of earth that had push up our of the waters of the primordial chaos. Atum become many. Someday that multiplicity will collapse again into the One.
Atum's body is scattered throughout the universe as photons, as matter, as energy; it is the seed of all natural forms. Human beings and all other aspects of nature are composed of gods; these gods are fragments of Atum. Spirit infuses all things, and all things secretly long to return to the perfect spirit-body of Atum.
To the Egyptians the beasts were not mere resources to be harvested without feeling or respect. They were numinous beings, like angels. When sacred animals died, they were mourned; great care was taken in disposing of their remains. Dead cows were reverently placed in sacred water of the Nile. Bulls were buried outside towns with horns poking out of ground as markers. At Thebes tame alligators were adorned with jewels and bracelets, fed the finest foods. After their death they were embalmed, then kept in sacred subterranean labyrinths. The mysterious powers of animals were awesome, holy, and strange. They deserved our attention and respect. They opened us to the world of spirit.
© 1998 Larry Gates
Sacred Animals of Ancient Egypt
Sacred Animals of Ancient
Animals of Ancient Egypt