A few years ago I did some intense research into the prehistoric cultures of the world and in the process I ran across some interesting stuff. Since I had no topic suggestions this week I thought I might share some of those findings pertaining to the unique habit of the ancient Egyptians to give animal masks to their gods.
As modern civilizations do, prehistoric cultures commonly linked animals with aspects of humanity. So for instance the hawk, as a bird of prey, dominated the air and for this reason was a perfect symbol for the sun. So was the lion, because its mane had the color and texture of solar rays. As with a bull, the ram’s power was a symbol of virility, while the spirals of its horns represented the waxing of the sun’s strength. The serpent was considered a symbol of immortality and regeneration because of its ability to shed its skin and retain its youth. It was also considered a symbol of wisdom. Oddly enough, all of these animals, but particularly the hawk and the ram, were closely tied with the sun-god Ra. And of course he was typically represented with the head of a hawk.
The pattern continues as one looks at the masks that are associated with each Egyptian god. Nut is the mother of many gods and is represented as a cow – whose milk and meat gave humans fertility and life. The sun- and death-god Horus was normally given a falcon’s head, and falcon’s generally symbolized both aspects in prehistoric cultures. Isis was the ideal mother and had the power of life, and her symbols were the cow (symbol of fertility) and the sun (life, vulva, cycles). Hathor is often depicted as a cow and her symbols were a cow’s horns, the sun, and a snake. She was a mother goddess, so the symbols for fertility, the moon, life and the vulva, and immortality, respectively, make good sense in association with her.
The list can go on and on. Every Egyptian god is either given an animal’s head or represented as an animal and associated with symbols displaying their particular abilities. What is truly fascinating about the connections, however, is that some of the symbols make little sense in the context of Pharaonic Egypt. Serpents have been tied to evil of various sorts since the dawn of civilization, so while it makes little sense to see a serpent associated with a mother goddess, it is downright confusing to see it tied to the most important god of the Egyptian pantheon. Hathor and Isis are both connected with the sun, which is traditionally associated with youth and inspiration, not motherhood.
It is curious that some of the most significant icons of Egyptian culture would be connected to symbols not associated with their roles in Egyptian culture. However, it should be remembered that the Egyptians did not simply appear in 5000 B.C.E. Even then the region was the product of centuries, if not millennia, of history.
Deity God of Headpiece Symbol
Geb World Snake Wisdom/Youth
Osiris Death/Afterlife Green Rebirth
Bast Protector of Lower Egypt Lioness Protects cubs, excellent hunter
Set Chaos Set Animal Unknown
Thoth Wisdom Baboon Intelligence
It should be noted that Set’s name seems to have no origins and no meaning, implying it was either invented or taken from a now extinct language family.