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Why Did the Egyptians Have Animal-Headed Deities?

Detail of the frieze of the wells in the tomb ...

Lisa asks: Why Did the Egyptians only have animal-headed deities? Were they unimaginative? Take Anubis for example. “Let’s give him a jackal’s head cause that’ll be really scary and awesome.” What were they thinking?

Animal Deities answers:

First of all, ancient Egyptians did not only have animal-headed deities, as the picture on the right shows. Osiris was not an animal-headed deity, because he was/represented the crops that died (were harvested) and lived again (grew again the next year.

Egyptian deities derived from the surrounding environment and cultures of the Nile Valley and the Sudan. Many of the Egyptian religious practices resemble those of other parts of Northeast Africa more than those of Mesopotamia, Europe or the Middle East. These NE African religions also show a large number of animal deities. Quote from Encyclopedia Britannica:

Encyclopedia Britannica, 1984. Macropedia Article, Vol 6: “Egyptian Religion” , pg 506-508:

“A large number of gods go back to prehistoric times. The images of a cow and star goddess (Hathor), the falcon (Horus), and the human-shaped figures of the fertility god (Min) can be traced back to that period. Some rites, such as the “running of the Apil-bull,” the “hoeing of the ground,” and other fertility and hunting rites (e.g., the hippopotamus hunt) presumably date from early times.. Connections with the religions in southwest Asia cannot be traced with certainty.”

“It is doubtful whether Osiris can be regarded as equal to Tammuz or Adonis, or whether Hathor is related to the “Great Mother.”

There are closer relations with northeast African religions. The numerous animal cults (especially bovine cults and panther gods) and details of ritual dresses (animal tails, masks, grass aprons, etc) probably are of African origin.

The kinship in particular shows some African elements, such as the king as the head ritualist, the limitations and renewal of the reign (jubilees, regicide), and the position of the king‘s mother (a matriarchal element). Some of them can be found among the Ethiopians in Napata and Meroe, others among the Prenilotic tribes (Shilluk).”

The truth is that the oldest religious belief systems are animistic. That is, originally people believed that all things have spirit and some degree of consciousness. They did not have gods and goddesses.

As society changed, so did beliefs. Certain animal spirits became more important; they became deities. So did certain other natural spirits, such as storms, rivers, mountains, sun, moon, stars, and so on.

Then as humans came to see themselves as separate from and superior to other animals and nature, the animal deities began to be reimagined as humans with animal heads to represent the animal powers and traits that the new humanoid goddesses and gods represented.

Unlike some cultures, which fairly quickly evolved to human pantheons of entirely human-looking gods and goddesses, the ancient Egyptians retained their connections to nature and for a long time kept their animal-human deities and other nature-related deities.

Showing deities with animal heads was also a way of representing such deities so that people who could not read and write (almost everyone) could recognize them.

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  1. Why Did the Egyptians Have Animal-Headed Deities? « White Cranes linked to this post on July 23, 2011

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