King Tut’s Menagerie: Animal Gods in Ancient Egypt

The magnificent Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs exhibit at San Francisco’s de Young Museum provides a glimpse into the beliefs of ancient Egyptians, whose religion permeated daily life. A fundamental principle was that of maat, variously defined as truth, justice, order, balance, morality, or the preordained way everything in the created world was supposed to be.

In order to preserve maat, humans were responsible for identifying and appeasing the divinities—represented as human, animal, or combinations of both—that lay behind the forces of nature. Ritual objects depicting many of these deities were placed in royal tombs to protect the deceased and aid them on their journeys to the Afterlife, and are among the most fascinating pieces in the exhibition. The Canopic Stopper at left, for example, wears a traditional headdress featuring a protective vulture and cobra.

Here are some of the animal deity representations you’ll see at the exhibit:


Serpent Goddess: This beautifully painted piece is a winged, human-headed cobra, probably representing the goddess Meret-Hekau, the One of Great Magic.

The still-vibrant sculpture has a base of green for fertility, and a face of yellow, the color traditionally used to depict female skin. The figure’s outspread blue wings suggest a shielding embrace; Meret-Hekau would have aided the deceased king in his heavenly ascent.


Statuette of a Leonine Goddess: This figure of a human female with a head of a lioness was found in sarcophagus of Amenhotep II’s tomb.

It is believed to be a representation of Sekhmet, a fierce warrior goddess of Upper Egypt who would have protected the deceased king as he traveled through the underworld. Like the Serpent Goddess and many others, the Leonine Goddess is an example of a dangerous animal acting as a protective deity.


Head of a Bovine Goddess: This imagery probably refers to the myth of The Celestial Cow, which carried the sun god, Re, into the sky.

The cow represents the heavens; its use in the tomb was likely intended as a magical aid for daily rebirth, just as the sun is “reborn” every morning. This piece was found in the tomb of Amenhotep II; a similar gilded example was part of Tutankhamun’s burial.


Head of a Cow: This is almost certainly another reference to the myth of The Celestial Cow, and could have magically helped the deceased king join the sun god on his daily journey across the sky. This piece was found in the tomb of Amenhotep II.

A mane runs down the animal’s back, and hairs are painted on top of the head and around its muzzle. The short horns, carved separately and attached to the head, indicate that this was a calf. Both this piece and the one above were intended to stand alone, rather than being attached to larger statues.


Panther Base for a Statuette of Amenhotep II: Possibly representing the fierce goddess Mafdet, a protector of the dead, who killed the snakes and scorpions that may have hindered the deceased’s journey. The graceful form of this animal is a testament to the skill of ancient Egyptian sculptors.

This panther was one of two found in the tomb of Amenhotep II, and served as the base for a royal statuette. Tutankhamun’s tomb housed a similar example with a gilded figure of the king.


Cosmetic Jar: This jar once contained an unguent consisting of a mixture of plant and animal fats; traces of the original contents were still in the jar when it was discovered. A recumbent lion relaxes on the lid; across its shoulder are the words “The good god, Nebkheprure.” (Nebkheprure was Tutankhamun’s throne name.)

Images of Bes, a protective household deity, top two lotus pillars; notice that the tongues of both Bes figures and the lion are painted pink. Four small stone heads representing defeated enemies protrude from the base of the jar, depicting the triumph of order over chaos.


Cosmetic Container in the Shape of a Duck: If they could afford it, Egyptians of both genders used cosmetics for esthetic and religious purposes.

This small ivory container has a lid that swivels to reveal a hollowed-out space, and was probably used to hold a cosmetic. Since it has the graceful form of a trussed fowl, it may also have contained a symbolic food offering.


Statue of Horus the Elder: This figure represents the god Herwer, or Horus the Elder, one of the many gods Tutankhamun restored when he reinstated traditional religion after the revolutionary Amarna period. Herwer, a funerary sky god who would have helped the deceased ascend to the stars, is shown as a mummy with the head of a falcon. His eyes, inlaid with black glass, are surrounded with cosmetic markings mimicking those of a real falcon.


For more information: Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs runs from today, June 27, through March 28, 2010. It is open Monday through Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. until the end of September; beginning in October, it is open from Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and until 8:45 on Fridays.

Click here for the official exhibition website, and here for a KQED audio interview with Dr. Renee Dreyfus, curator of ancient art and interpretation for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Mark Lach, senior vice president of Arts and Exhibitions International, which designed the exhibition.

Detailed ticket information is here, and tickets are available online through Ticketmaster.

© 2009 Laurie McAndish King. This article was originally published on on June 27, 2009. Reprint rights to this article are available for purchase. Photos are also available.

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