Animals of Ancient Egypt

Egyptians domesticated animals for a wide variety of uses. Much like today, they had animals of work and play, plus many sacred animals. Considering we have only mentioned that basics of domesticated animals, and being a huge animal fan, I thought I would look more into it.

Many animals were used for subsistence means such as sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, and geese that supplied milk, wool, meat, eggs, leather, skins, horns, and fat, respectively. And of course, even dung had it’s uses. Farmers did attempt to domesticate hyaenas, gazelles, and cranes but eventually gave up. Sheep were not eaten often, but pigs were largely consumed since the beginning of the fourth millennium BCE. Of the animals, goats were very useful. Their meat was the most consumed by all classes of Egyptians and their skin made great water containers and floating devices. Chickens did eventually become domesticated in the New Kingdom, but not popularly until after Egyptians developed artificial incubation in the Late Period.

Much like today, Egyptians practiced cattle fattening, but of Oxen breeds. They were able to control horn growth, through burning and scraping, and they even practiced branding. Though farmers tended cattle, they did so much differently than today. Oxen were overly fattened and then adorned with ostrich feathers and paraded to slaughter. Cowherds also had to sleep near their animals at night as to prevent theft, as well. Cattle were also counted in biennial censuses since the second dynasty and taxes were put on them. And apart from being consumed, a lot of cattle was sacrificed to the gods. Ramses III had 16,000 cattle and 22,000 geese sacrificed per year. Behind Oxen, sheep and goats were the second most important economically.

Egyptians also had horses, but as luxury animals. They did not appear until the thirteenth dynasty and only to the very wealthy. Horses were treated very well since they were considered of high worth. They were never used for plowing and rarely ridden during the second millennium BCE. Though they were attached to chariots for hunting and war. King Tutankhamen was a big fan of riding horses and Ramses II built a stable big enough to house 460 horses. Ramses III even deemed the prince Namlot “evil” for not feeding his horses correctly after the siege of Shamumu. Unlike horses, Donkeys were used for transportation and work because they were not deemed as worthy as horses. And surprisingly, camels were not domesticated in Egypt until the Persian Conquest.

On the smaller end of the spectrum, Egyptians were familiar with ferrets, monkeys, dogs, and cats. Ferrets were used to keep granaries free of rats and mice. As for pets, Vervet monkeys, dogs, cats, duck and geese were kept.  Some exotic birds such as hoopoes, doves and falcons were also kept as pets. And on the extreme end, Ramses II had a tamed lion as a pet and Sudanese cheetahs frequented the king’s household in place of the typical house cat. The house cat was domesticated during the Middle Kingdom and was one of the most common house hold pets, next to dogs. Though cats were considered to be the most divine. Dogs were just as much man’s best friend in ancient Egypt as they are today. They served as hunting companions and watch dogs.  Dogs even had their own spots in cemeteries. And when it came to treating animal health, the same healers that treated humans also treated the animals.

I think the treatment of animals in ancient Egypt is fascinating in how a lot of modern day practices are the same. Seeing how they treated mentally “inferior” beings as sacred and useful gives more insight into the personal life and priorities of ancient Egyptians. A view that cannot necessarily come from studying government or architecture.


2 thoughts on “Animals of Ancient Egypt

  1. Wow, it’s really interesting to read about how well and how similarly animals way back in ancient Egypt were being treated to the way animals are treated today (discounting all of the sacrifice, of course). It’s a little bit heartwarming to hear that the ancient Egyptians had pets and other domesticated animals and, as you mentioned, actual animal medical care that wouldn’t exist in a lot of places for thousands of years more.

    Additionally, I took a class last year in which we discussed the great menagerie built at Hierakonpolis slowly over time by Egypt’s ancient rulers. This menagerie held numerous kinds of plants and foreign animals, and it served as a sort of private zoo for the pharaoh and his important guests. Private collections like these were often used as a show of power; not only could the ruler house such a large exhibit of wild animals, but it was like they could control them or hold dominion over them.

    Excavations in Hierakonpolis have revealed 112 individual animals in this Predynastic period zoo, including dogs, hippos, cows, hartebeest, elephants, baboons, and wildcats. The animals were exhumed in the city’s elite cemetery and had received similar mortuary treatment as humans, suggesting that they were perhaps sacrificed upon the death of a ruler. There was some archaeological evidence to show that these animals had been well taken care of, including a few bone fractures that only could have healed under medical care and food that suggested the animals must have been fed it.

  2. What a very interesting blog post and article you linked. I think it is easy for us to forget that at one time, animals had more purposes and that domestication was not always a given with animals. I think it is very interesting that the Egyptians tried to domesticate hyenas and cranes. I wonder what the purpose for attempting domestication on these animals was? I was also stricken by the fact that they did not consume sheep but ate a plethora of pork. When I think of the mediterranean area, I think of the consumption of sheep, so I wonder why this was not a delicacy for the Egyptians? Was it merely taste or was there other reasons why?

    Vervet monkeys, dogs, cats, duck and geese, some exotic birds such as hoopoes, doves and falcons being kept as pets seems quite interesting, and not too far of from the pets that are kept today. I like that you linked the fact that “man’s best friend”, the dog, was just as important to the Egyptians and were used for companionship and for hunting/protection purposes.

    Egyptians have always seemed to have quite a bit of reverence towards animals, even mummifying them and bring them to the afterlife. Birds and cats especially have been found in numerous tombs, which speaks to how important animals must have been during this time period.

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