THE ROLE OF BIRDS WITHIN THE RELIGIOUS LANDSCAPE OF ANCIENT EGYPT
Avian elements in the divine
iconography of ancient Egypt
The proliferative variety of animal imagery
within ancient Egyptian religion continues to
remain a source of astonishment and bewil-
derment to many viewers (Pearce 2007, pp. 242–64).
Crowned beasts, human bodies with animal heads,
and fantastic deities depicted with the commingled
limbs of numerous creatures — what Virgil called
“monstrous shapes of every species and Anubis the
barker” — are commonly found in the Egyptian artis-
tic repertoire (Smelik and Hemelrijk 1984, p. 1854).
What, however, did such representations mean? For
some Greco-Roman authors seeing and hearing of
Egyptian practices, animal veneration was a source
of ridicule, hypocritically invoked as Greeks and
Romans had their own forms of animal worship, some
of which were imported from Egypt.
1 Others, such as
Plutarch, Diodorus, and Horapollo, while often not
approving of the practice, had at least a partial un-
derstanding of the complex symbolic web woven by
Egyptian philosophers. Despite the potential confu-
sion a glance at an Egyptian religious work of art can
cause, the visual metaphors employed actually have
an internal consistency and logic. If it were not the
case, what power would the images have either to
influence people or explain their ideologies.
A primary impediment to understanding a figure
such as the bimorphic Horus, shown with a human
body and a falcon’s head, is adopting a literal inter-
pretation of the scene (fig. 2.1). The iconography of
divine beings was a human invention, an intellectual
construct developed to provide a means to express,
discuss, manipulate, and understand the various
physical forces within the cosmos inhabited by the
people of ancient Egypt. It should be remembered
that the ancient Egyptians still had intimate contact
with and reliance upon the natural forces of their en-
vironment. Such forces had an assortment of traits
that could be used metaphorically to embody abstract
concepts or provide iconic vessels for the physical
manifestation of cosmic and social characteristics.
Features of flora and fauna derived from the natural
world were chosen in order to communicate concepts
such as ferocity, protection, or motherhood. In this
view, literal readings must be abandoned. Like any ar-
tistic expression, “these are communicative devices,
metaphors, in a system of formal art that aims not
at realist reproduction but at the essence of being”
(Quirke 2008, p. 74).
Diodorus Siculus, a historian from first-century
Sicily, had already grasped the basic metaphorical
concept. Concerning the symbolism of the falcon, he
Now the falcon signifies to them everything which
happens swiftly, hence this animal is practically
the swiftest of winged creatures. And the concept
portrayed is then transferred, by the appropriate
metaphorical transfer, to all swift things and to
everything to which swiftness is appropriate, very
much as if they had been named.
It is this metaphorical transfer which underpins
the “imagistic” system of ancient Egypt.
Horus, a god whose name literally means “the one who is far away."