Millions of animals were ritually slaughtered in ancient Egypt to foster a huge mummification industry that even drove some species extinct. As an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. shows, almost no animals escaped the carnage.
Although pets died of natural causes before their mummification, and sacred beasts were pampered by adoring priests, most animals in ancient Egypt had miserable, short lives. Many were simply bred to become votive mummies - offered to the gods in the same way that people light up candles in churches today.
"Various gods had different animal totems or avatars. Priests who maintained temples for these different gods offered a service whereby people could have an associated animal mummified and placed in a catacomb in their name," exhibition curator Melinda Zeder, director of the archeobiology program at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, told Discovery News.
NEWS: Mummified Dogs Unearthed in Peru
Began as early as 3,000 BC, the practice reached its zenith from about 650 BC to 200 AD. "Literally millions of animals like dogs and cats were raised by temple priests and mummified. This practice extended to wild animals like the sacred and glossy ibis and the baboon – and may have contributed to the extinction of these animals in Egypt," Zeder said.
The sacred ibis and baboons were mummified in the millions because they were sacred to Thoth, the god of wisdom and writing. Raptors were associated with Horus, the falcon god, while cats were sacrificed to the protective goddess Bastet.
Kittens were the preferred choice as they could fit into mummy containers easily.
Researchers estimate that millions of cat mummies were produced when animal mummification was at its peak in Egypt.
Image: Left: kittens were sacrificed in millions as they accomodated into mummy containers better. Right: CT scan of a mummified cat. (Credit: courtesy of National Museum of Natural History).
In the late 1800s these cat mummies were even sold for agricultural purposes. Indeed, a company bought about 180,000 cat mummies, weighing some 38,000 pounds. Once pulverized, they were used to fertilize the fields of England.
Ibis and baboons were also very popular for mummification, so popular that they went extinct. This gave rise to a market of fake mummies, revealed only recently by modern CT scans.
While looking like ibis and baboons on the outside, these mummies were made instead from other animals.
Among some of the lucky animals were pigs and male hippos. As far as researchers know, there are no mummies of these animals.
"Pigs and male hippos were associated more closely with the god Seth. In the later periods of Egyptian history, when animal mummification was increasingly popular, Seth was less well regarded than other deities," Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo who helped curate the Smithsonian's exhibition, told Discovery News.
BLOG: Temple to Cat Goddess Discovered in Egypt
A leading expert on animal mummies, Ikram is currently carrying out work to see how animals in ancient Egypt might have been raised, farmed, kept, tended to and fed as well as dispatched in order to turn them into mummies.
The exhibition also features a rare bull mummy, complete with horns and papier maché eyes. Dating between 300 BC to 400 AD, it tells the story of the luckiest animal in Egypt.
Identified as god incarnates, bulls were indeed worshipped as deities themselves. Those identified as Apis bulls were viewed as the embodiment of the god Ptah and later of the god Osiris.
They received the most special treatments and lived in the lap of luxury, pampered with daily massages and stuffed with the best food until their death at the end of a rather long life (about 20 years).
"The original provenience of our bull is unclear and he may not have been a true Apis bull. But we are pretty certain he was an animal raised and venerated by priests and then mummified after death," Zeder said.