Ancient Egyptians had close ties to the natural world, and their belief system embraced duality and balance. The North African landscape informed this worldview, the lush Nile Valley symbolizing abundance and order while the barren desert embodied harshness and chaos. The ancient Egyptians saw a physical reflection of the divine in nature, and animals played a distinct role in their art, religion, and culture.
Amulets are small charms worn to bring protection, health, and good luck. Worn by the living and dead, amulets helped to ensure the wearer’s well-being in life and the afterlife by invoking aspects of the animals and deities they represented. While ancient texts give us insight into the specific significance of some animals to the ancient Egyptians, their exact meaning often remains ambiguous, provoking scholarly research and educated guesses.
From over 500 ancient Egyptian amulets in the Art Institute’s collection, I have selected five examples that highlight both detailed craftsmanship and the biodiversity of ancient North Africa.
This amulet gives a clear image of what people may have seen as they looked out upon the Nile River.
The crocodile, its long, scaled tail extending out from its body, tilts its head and long jaws to survey what passes before it. One of the more well-known creatures associated with North Africa, the Nile crocodile, crocodylus niloticus, inhabited the Nile river and its surrounding marshlands, posing serious risks to nearby livestock and the many people who utilized the river for travel across Egypt. With its stealth and ability to destroy boats, crocodiles posed a huge danger.
Ancient Egyptians recognized the influence held by dangerous forces of nature and sought to harness it. By wearing an amulet of a crocodile in life, the wearer hoped to repel danger.
Crocodiles were also worshiped as manifestations of the god Sobek, and could be revered as much as they were feared.
Sobek, sometimes depicted as a crocodile headed-god with an atef crown, acted as a god of the primeval waters from which the world was created. In worshiping the crocodile deity, ancient Egyptians hoped to appease him and protect themselves.
While animals with fearsome reputations made popular subjects, so did humble creatures like this small hedgehog.
Two species of hedgehog were native to the ancient North African landscape: the desert hedgehog, paraechinus aethiopicus, and the long-eared hedgehog, hemiechinus auritus. The large, alert ears on the piece suggest that this amulet represents hemiechinus auritus. As desert dwellers, hedgehogs were known for their resilience to natural threats. Curling into a ball and exposing their spines acted as an effective defensive tactic against predators. Hedgehogs also possessed an immunity to venom, allowing them to withstand, and even consume, dangerous snakes and scorpions.
Although their exact significance amongst ancient Egyptians remains ambiguous, these defensive adaptations may have imbued hedgehogs with protective powers. They might also have been associated with cycles of rebirth, given that hedgehogs were known to hibernate underground during periods of scarcity, returning to the world above when resources returned.
The duck in this amulet seems to be sleeping, its long bill resting upon the intricate carvings of feathers along his body.
From the early periods of ancient Egyptian history, people hunted ducks as food. The marshlands of the Nile acted as a natural home for waterfowl.
Over time, ducks were domesticated because they reproduced and fattened easily. Serving as a popular food source, their remains have been found in tombs as offerings. This scaraboid may depict a duck asleep, perhaps symbolizing the awakening tied to rebirth; another possibility is that this represents a duck prepared for feasting to sustain the dead.
One of my favorites in the collection, this little bulbous-eyed frog, its body dotted with delicate speckles of white and brown, seems like it just crawled out from a marsh.
Though today we may view frogs as unassuming, ancient Egyptians associated these beings with the oldest forces of creation. In one of many creation stories, the gods and the world itself emerged from a watery, swamp-like abyss known as Nun. As such, the Egyptians viewed the animals who inhabited water and mud as creatures of this life-generating force, which would have been corroborated in what people observed in their daily lives: frogs seemed to emerge out of the mud from nothing, and countless tadpoles populated the banks of the Nile.
This abundance was even captured in the hieroglyphic system, the tadpole hieroglyph being used to write the number 100,000. One of the goddesses of childbirth, Heqet, was also shown as a frog. Women likely wore frog amulets like this one to assist with fertility and childbirth. Frog amulets also were worn by the dead to help with rebirth into the afterlife.
Dating to the Predynastic Period, approximately 5000 years ago, this hippopotamus amulet is one of the oldest items in the Art Institute’s collection.
Carved from limestone, this amulet utilizes six suspension loops to support its heft. The curvature of its form visible in the rounded belly and sloping head and snout resemble other Predynastic depictions of hippopotami on ceramic vessels.
Similar to crocodiles, hippos posed a danger in the Nile, holding a notorious reputation for aggressive behavior. Yet, the ancient Egyptians admired hippopotami for their ferocity. Individuals in later periods worshiped Taweret, a popular hippopotamus goddess, associated with fertility and protection for pregnant and laboring women.
Perhaps these associations with childbirth and pregnancy developed from observations of the female hippopotamus’s fierce protection of her own young, or their swollen bellies resembling that of a pregnant woman. While later hippopotamus amulets intended to invoke the protections of Taweret, we cannot be sure of the meaning of these Predynastic pieces. This amulet may have been intended to avert the dangers hippos posed, or it could have been an early form of the powers that would come to be associated with Taweret.
These five amulets make up only a selection of the vast array of animals that ancient Egyptians experienced in their daily lives and incorporated into their art and religious practice. To learn more about the animals, religious practice, and art in ancient Egypt, I hope you’ll visit Life and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt in Gallery 50.
—Hannah Fuller, McMullan Arts Leadership Intern in ancient Egyptian art, Arts of Africa