November 8th, 2010

never there

Sacred Animals of Saqqara

Yesterday we went to Witham to go to a meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group, which is possibly the closest one to us. This month they had a talk by Aidan Dodson, who we own a couple of books by, about Saqqara. He was supposed to be speaking about the Egypt Exploration Society at Saqqara, but he'd had some sort of computer failure and didn't have the slides available for that, so instead he talked to us about the Sacred Animals of Saqqara. Which actually was probably more interesting from my point of view than the original subject - although Dodson was a good enough speaker that he would probably have made it interesting anyway.

Saqqara is the necropolis near the site of ancient Memphis, which was capital of Egypt in ancient times. It is probably best known for being the site of the earliest pyramids - for instance the Step Pyramid of Djoser. As well as tombs for Pharaohs and high officials throughout a large portion of Egyptian history, there are also large numbers of burials of animal mummies & it was this side of Saqqara that Dodson was telling us about.

The first half of the talk was about the Apis bull, which is a sacred animal that there are records of throughout the whole of ancient Egyptian history. Dodson divided the Egyptian concept of sacred animals into three categories (of which I've forgotten one) - the Apis is an example of what he was saying were 'actual sacred animals', animals that were (or could be) an incarnation of a god. In this case the Apis is an incarnation of the god Ptah, who was the local god for the city of Memphis. There was only ever one Apis at a time, and when it died the priests searched for a new one, finding a newborn (I think) bull with the right markings. Over time it seems the "right" markings may have changed, as did other facets of the cult - this does cover a few millenia, so it would be surprising if it didn't change. At first there's no record of what happened to the bull after it died, but then during the 18th Dynasty they started to bury the bulls in proper, decorated tombs. The first tomb found is from Amenhotop III's reign (Tutankhamun's grandfather), and at first what was buried was not a mummified bull - it was a slab of resin & bits of bone, with a de-fleshed bull's head on top, then under the ground were jars of ash and burnt bone bits. Dodson speculated that might indicate that the bull was actually consumed in a ritual feast (by the Pharaoh & priests?), possibly as a way of taking on some of the attributes of the god Ptah. He called this the "beef dinner approach" which made me giggle a bit :) He also speculated that that might also be why for the first couple of thousand years the bulls weren't buried, they were eaten and then the remains weren't considered enough for a ritual burial. From the 19th Dynasty onwards the Apis was buried in the Serapeum, which was a large tomb with many chambers carved off it, each for an individual bull. And as time went by the bull started to be properly mummified (unfortunately none of the mummies have survived as they were all either robbed in antiquity (a phrase one hears a lot in Egyptology) or destroyed by Christian iconoclasts (another one of those phrases ... )). There were some amusing parts to the architecture of the Serapeum - a new entrance was created at one point as the sarcophagus lid for the previous burial had been dumped in the entrance way blocking it. And Darius I used this as an excuse to remodel the tomb entrance, or maybe it was in fact easier to do that than to shift a two-ton block of granite? Unfortunately, things like this were never recorded, Egyptologists have to extrapolate from the material that's left behind after all the robberies & vandalism & early (less well recorded) excavations.

The second half of the talk was about the other animals buried at Saqqara. Towards the end of the time that the Apis bulls were buried (the cult carried on through Roman times, but the last bull is buried in Cleopatra's reign) the name of the mother of the bull is listed in the inscriptions, and these cows are buried in a different part of the necropolis. There are also catacombs for Thoth's sacred animal & bird - two ibis catacombs and a baboon catacomb. Dodson said that the baboons were probably actual sacred animals, but the ibises (I think) fell into his third category of sacred animal - votive offerings. Pilgrims to Saqqara could buy these ibis mummies to present as proof of their piety at the temple. There were also complexes devoted to Bast and to Anubis with cat & dog catacombs respectively. He said this was probably much like medieval pilgrimages in Western Europe (such as to Canterbury) - part piety & religious, part tourist & local cash generation. So your medieval pilgrim could buy his badges, your ancient Egyptian would buy a mummified animal for his offerings.

Whilst there was a cult of the Apis bull throughout the whole of ancient Egyptian history, and other sacred animal cults too, it wasn't until the Third Intermediate period & later that the burial of animal mummies seems to have really taken off. Dodson speculated that this might be partly a reaction of the Egyptian culture to being conquered (which happened a few times during that era) - becoming almost more Egyptian as a way of showing you weren't just a part of the Persian Empire or Greek.

It was an interesting talk, well worth the drive. I think we might join up with the group properly next year (the next two monthly meetings seem to be the Christmas party then something else members-only so we'll skip them for now) and go to more of the talks :)
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