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There and Back Again 7: Animals in Egypt

The ancient  Egyptians were into animal representations of the divine. It wasn’t that they actually believed that Thoth had the head of an ibis. The various gods (so we were assured) are actually different angles to approach a central divine power —  not a dozen gods, but different facets of one deity. Every time we see an animal rendered in ancient art we have to consider: is this a god, or just something cool — or maybe both?

The hawk here in this first statue is easy. Hawks almost always represent Horus, the god of protection and power, specifically guarding the king. This hawk is right on the job, depicted sitting on the nape of the Pharaoh’s neck and spreading wings out to protect him. And, incidentally, adding a chunky detail to the back of the neck reinforces a weak point in the statue. Any place where the stone or bronze gets narrow is a break point in a statue. When statues get broken, they nearly always snap off at a joint (wrist or ankle) or at the neck.

The geese here, on the other hand, are purely delightful. These images were painted at least 3000 years ago, and they look like the artist set down his brush yesterday. The artists were good enough, and precise enough observers, that species can often be identified from the image. An entire line of geese might be decorative, or maybe aspirational — I am painting these geese in hopes of having good hunting tomorrow. Both these images are from the old Egyptian Museum on Tahir Square in Cairo.

This final image is of a working animal. Horses, donkeys, oxen and camels still do a lot of essential work in Egypt, which is a developing nation. This is an ordinary Cairo city street, and the horse carriage is nothing unusual in town. We saw donkeys drawing cards laden with huge heaps of cane or straw or bananas.

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