Santa Ana’s Bowers Museum presents Soulful Creatures: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt until June 15, 2014. The exhibition focuses on ancient Egyptian culture and religion, and the ancient mummification of animals excavated in the 19th and 20th century. Ancient Egyptians mummified more than just their loved ones. Animals, to Egyptians, were regarded as incarnations of deities.
In today’s culture, cats and dogs are often cherished, but in ancient Egypt society, they also held a prominent place in both life and the next world. Tens of millions of creatures were mummified, some animals placed within a pharaohs’ tombs to rest forever in the companionship of their kings.
Cats, for example, were considered the embodiment of Bastet, the goddess of joy and of music, in addition to being the protector of women. Hawks, to ancient Egyptians, were connected to the god of light, Horus, and the Apis bull was known as the god of Osiris. If a sacred animal, such as the Apis bull was mummified, and ceremoniously presented to a god, it was a gesture of devotion.
An individual could purchase and bury an animal. And, as a virtuous act to a particular deity, representational of the animal, have it dedicated in their name. X-rays have shown that many of the interred and mummified animals were deliberately slain; some having their necks broken while still young. Animals not buried with their owner had their own cemeteries, where they were often entombed in coffins as ornately carved as those of the royal family did.
The precise significance of animal mummification has mostly remained a mystery, however, the Bower Museum exhibit surveys the many proposed hypotheses to offer more details on the practice, with insight to its origin, practices, ceremonies, and the function that animals and their gods played in the natural world and the afterlife.
The museum also illustrates the latest scientific analyses that have studied and discovered vital data about the techniques used to create the mummies. The exhibit draws on cultural history, archaeology and medical imaging – x-rays and CT scans.
According to the exhibition’s curator, Edward Bleiberg, ancient Egyptians were so close to their animals that they believed them to have souls. However, only kings and queens could afford to have a dog or cat for companionship during ancient times, said Bleiberg.
In life, the sacred animals were often held in the district of their associated deity’s temple where they lived their existence in luxury. In death, ancient Egyptians are said to have buried millions of animals, including cats, dogs, lizards, gazelles, birds and even beetles to name a few.
The animals that were kept had a greater responsibility in death, as they were expected to employ their souls to convey messages to the gods they represented during their lifespan.
For example, the dog was considered the messenger of the god Anubis, portrayed in ancient Egypt as a man with a dog head. The god, Ibis, communicated directly with the god Thoth, who possessed the body of a man but the head of a bird, and it was said to be good at resolving human disagreements.
In ancient Egypt, animal mummifying was a prosperous business, and to prepare the animal mummies was meticulous and costly. CT scans have revealed that on occasion, even if the owner paid for mummification, they may have only received linen wrapped rocks, or bird feathers minus the bird.
Just like the ancient Pharaohs, an immeasurable amount of animals were revered and mummified as messengers to the afterlife. The mummified animal remains were often wrapped up as elaborate as those of humans, such as in intricately patterned linens. Several animals on display had been placed in sarcophagus carved to resemble how the animal appeared in life.
Throughout the Bower Museum exhibit, visitors can appreciate how Egyptians worshiped their animals similarly as in modern society, but until scientists and Egyptianologists unravel more about the ancient Egyptian culture and beliefs, it seems that they have many more mysteries wrapped within.
By: Dawn Levesque
The British Museum