Religious Practice and Cultural Construction of Animal Worship in Egypt from the Early Dynastic to the New Kingdom: ritual forms, material display, historical development

Review by Salima Ikram.

This book, based on a PhD thesis, focuses on Egyptian ‘animal worship’ from the 3rd to the 2nd millennium BC. In the introduction, the author states that the work aims to use multiple theoretical perspectives and concepts, including Egyptology, history of religions, and anthropology in order to explore the origins and history of the role of animals in Egyptian religion until the end of the New Kingdom. Colonna excludes the later manifestations (Late Period to early Roman) of animal worship, as these already have been the subject of intensive inquiry, although he believes that these ‘have many shortcomings in terms of methodological approach and historical understanding’, which he will attempt to avoid in his work. Although not explicitly stated, the volume excludes the role of animal sacrifice in the daily temple cult, animals as a measure of temple wealth, and the use of sacrificed animals in augury.

The volume is separated into six subdivided main chapters. The first chapter serves as the introduction to the subject and sets up the theoretical and methodological framework. The subsequent chapters present the evidence from each period: the Early Dynastic; the Old Kingdom; the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom; and the New Kingdom. The sixth and final chapter comprises a discussion and conclusions. For each period, insofar as the evidence exists, Colonna presents textual, artefactual, architectural, archaeological, and pictorial data relevant to animal worship. The author displays the breadth of his research and his impressive knowledge of different languages by the use of extensive quotes in the original tongue, as well as providing translations for conceptual terms that are not easily understood in translation (such as ‘sacramental explanation’ for sakramentale Ausdeutung). Given this, it seems slightly odd that, when translating the names of the various sacred bulls, the author does not include the actual Egyptian versions of the names as well.

Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The monograph is extremely useful in collating material from the different periods, with the inclusion of titles relating to animal cults, as well as theophoric names (names that embed the name of a god), extending the body of evidence. As one might expect, the New Kingdom portion of the work has the greatest amount of evidence, although one or two actual examples of canine burials from Abydos in cultic contexts are omitted from the discussion. (For examples of probable 20th Dynasty animal burials, see my chapter ‘A Curious Case of Canine Burials from Abydos’, in M C Flossmann-Schütze et al. Kleine Götter – Grosse Götter: Festschrift für Dieter Kessler zum 65. Geburtstag, Vaterstetten: Patrick Brose, 2013, pp.265-271.)

The work would perhaps have benefited from some additional editorial oversight for greater clarity and brevity, as it still reads like a thesis rather than a book. Additionally, this reviewer would have liked to have seen more application of the use of different models and theories touched on in the introduction, but not seemingly applied in the main body of the work. Likewise, the use of ethnographic data and the theology of currently practised polytheistic religions that have elements of animal veneration. Examination of the reverence for cattle in India and parts of Africa, and of the crocodile cults of West Africa, could have provided models towards a better understanding of the role of animals in ancient Egyptian cult practices.

Overall, however, Colonna has provided readers with an authoritative compilation of data pertaining to animals in cult practice from the Early Dynastic through the New Kingdom and, given the limited nature of the evidence, has made a heroic effort to explore the role(s) of animals in the cults of the ancient Egyptians.

Religious Practice and Cultural Construction of Animal Worship in Egypt from the Early Dynastic to the New Kingdom: ritual forms, material display, historical development, Angelo Colonna, Archaeopress, £35, ISBN 978-1789698213.