sacred-ibis

 

INTRODUCTION

The Sacred Ibis (Threskionis aethiopicus) once lived in Egypt and is depicted in many ancient Egyptian wall murals and sculptures. It is also found as mummified specimens at many burial sites and played a significant religious role, in particular during the Late and Ptolemaic periods. The ibis represented the god Thoth, god of wisdom, knowledge and writing, and was considered the herald of the flood[1]. It was of practical use to villagers as it helped to rid fish ponds of water snails that contained dangerous liver parasites[2]. However, it is now extinct throughout Egypt because of gradual aridification through swamp drainage and land reclamation[3].

SPECIES INFORMATION

Ibises are waterfowl found in swamps, marshes, riverbanks and coastal lagoons on almost all the continents. They eat grasshoppers, locusts, crickets and water beetles. They also eat worms, molluscs, crustaceans, fish, eggs, carrion and refuse[4]. They are large birds measuring up to 76cm in length with long legs and a thin downward-curved beak which is used by the bird to look for food in mud and shallow water. It has white feathers covering most of its body and black plumes on its lower back. The head and neck are featherless but covered in a black scaly skin. They are generally silent other than making a harsh croaking sound. Ibises have a gregarious nature and build colonies of up to 300, along with other species such as spoonbills, in trees and bushes[5]. Both parents attend a clutch of 2-4 eggs for about 3 weeks and then take turns feeding the nestlings. The young leave the nest at 14-21 days old but continue to be fed until they grow flight feathers at about 35- 48 days old[6]. However breeding success is generally very low, with an average of 0.01 young fledged per nest.

ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE

At the archaeological site at Saqqara, about 1.75 million ibis remains were interred and at Abydos there are thousands more. Another four million were found in the catacombs of Tuna-el-Gebel[7]. Organs were not removed from the mummies however, in 2006, an excavation of a Late Period tomb discovered a mummified ibis with snails in its bill. Other mummies with similar foodstuffs placed within them were also found within the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Peabody and Redpath Museums[8]. This suggests that food was placed there during the mummification process as a source of food in the afterlife[9]. Various radiographic findings of these collections have described the head and the bill being placed between the tail feathers. A layer of resin-impregnated linen surrounds the birds followed by further layers of plain linen[10]. Some of the birds have their body cavities emptied of organs but have small packets of rocks with perhaps some fish and a feather within them and some grains of wheat[11]. The ibises vary in age-at-death, and their position, resin treatment and ornamentation, with one hatchling being stuffed with grain. However, they all contain foodstuffs placed in the body cavity. It is suggested that the original contents were returned to the body[12].

A radiographic study from the Peabody Museum of the Abydos Sacred Ibis mummies showed that there were variations on positions, similar death (spinal fracture), and a similar mummification process, such as complete evisceration and replacement of gizzard and contents[13]. Other studies have shown that some birds were prepared for mummification by dessication through natron without evisceration[14]. These studies also show that the birds were covered in linen decorated with appliquéd images of Thoth, the god whom the ibis represented, painted features and appliquéd eyes, sometimes with the pupils made of glass[15]. Although a blue faience wadjet-eye amulet was found in an ibis from Abydos most birds were buried without funerary jewellery[16]. Radiographic analysis of mummified ibises from the Ancient Egyptian Tissue Bank found a frequency of skeletal pathologies that showed that the birds were mummified at a young age. Research is now being done into soft-tissue samples to see if there are any pathological disease markers because it is considered that diseases would have been prevalent in the ibiotropheia (the ibis feeding places) due to overcrowding, in-breeding and dietary factors[17].

ROLE IN DAILY LIFE

The use of birds in cultic activities reached its zenith from the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty (664-525 BCE) to the Roman Period when the sanctuaries dedicated to the cult of the ibis were scattered throughout Egypt[18]. Birds for the cult were both raised in captivity and found in the wild. Royal subsidies of fields allowed the cultic administrations to feed the birds and raise capital by leasing land for cultivation[19]. It is not known how the expenses were covered for the operation of such an exhorbitant proposition as the processing of 10000 birds per year but some suggest that it could have been funded by a pilgrimage industry that used the votive offering of the mummified birds[20]. The cost of the cult would have been enormous in feeding and caring for the birds, with a separate pottery industry attached for making the vessels within which the birds were interred. However, it is considered that the royal subsidies showed that the royal house was particularly interested in the sacred animals[21].

Although ibises have a low breeding success in the wild, it is said that the sacred ibis is easy to rear if the eggs are removed and incubated[22]. The archaeologist, Sami Gabra, discovered not far from the Great Temple a garden excavated with a large reservoir which may have been a place to rear house birds. It is described in the Tebtunis Papyri[23]. Priests were to care for the flocks and incubate the eggs, and eggs have been found at ibis burial sites in Egypt[24]. Individuals may also have played a part in raising a large amount of birds as inscriptions on some bird mummy vessels show that not all of them were locally produced[25].

REFERENCES IN TEXTS

In Ancient Egyptian the ibis on a perch was the heiroglyphic for the god Thoth. Thoth is often referred to as ‘Lord of the Divine Words’ and recognised as the god of writing, scribes and wisdom. The Egyptians ascribe to him the invention of letters with the first letter of the Greek alphabet being hb or an ibis[26]. In the “Contendings of Horus and Seth”, Horus-Re emerges victorious to claim the throne but, in the process, loses an eye. Thoth reassembles the eye and accounts for it in The Eye of Horus: “I came seeking the eye of Horus,/ that I may bring it back and count it./ I found it [and now it is] complete, counted and sound, /so that it can flame up to the sky and/ blow above and below…”[27]. Thus the Eye of Horus becomes a counting tool used by scribes in their accounting calculations and known as the Horus Eye fractions[28]. An interesting inscription revealed scribal students and their life of continual study: “So he says namely, The one-who praises-knowledge, he says, “The ibises who are here, difficult is their food, painful is their mode of life.”[29].

The Book of Thoth is a modern title for a text from the Greco-Roman period which dealt with initiation into the House of Life[30]. It was used for training scribes and is structured as a dialogue between a Master, perhaps Thoth or a priest playing the role, and a Disciple[31]. At line 420 Jasnow suggests that it describes Thoth destroying an enemy of the sun-god: ‘I shall raise my hand to the great, great, great one [Thoth], and jubilate to the ibis who tramples the turtle’[32]. At line 412 Jasnow suggests it describes the weighing of the dead’s heart against the feather of Maat, a symbol of truth: “Let me hurry to the ibis who is at the top of his brush, he who has ordered the earth with his scale plates”[33]. A letter, preserved on papyrus known as IM E19422 and rolled and stored within the necropolis of Tuna el-Gebel during the time of the Persian rule of Egypt in the period of Darius I (522-486BCE), was written by an administrator of the cult of the ibis at Hermopolis. The letter was a plea to Thoth listing injustices committed against the man[34]. These texts characterise Thoth in his form as an ibis being an administrator and minister of justice.

 

 

REPRESENTATIONS IN ART

Because of its importance in its representation of the god Thoth, the ibis is depicted in many forms of Egyptian art, from appliqué to large three-dimensional sculpture. In the earliest times it was depicted as an ensign of the provinces and later became the hieroglyphic sign[35]. In the Middle Kingdom it featured on gold amulet necklaces and later frequently as faience, finely glazed ceramic beads or decorated wooden inlays. In the Late Period it was frequently found as a votive figure in ibis burial grounds. It is also rendered many times as a life-size figure in painted wood or bronze[36]. Ibises are also featured as an ibis-headed human on stone reliefs at the Temple of Luxor and the Temple of Horus at Edfu, the Philae Temple of Isis[37] and on wall paintings at Beni Hasa and Thebes[38]. In 2010, archaeologists unearthed two large four metre granite statues of the god Thoth as an ibis-headed human from the New Kingdom Period in the city of Luxor at the temple of Amenhotep III[39].

Ashmunei has revealed a faience ibis which was put in a group of inlays decorating a wooden shrine. The multicoloured glaze of these inlays are produced by inlaying pastes of colours into hollows cut into the base before firing and polishing the surface. They are also found on the appliqués sewn onto linen-covered mummified bird remains[40]. The Thoth Rebus is a post New Kingdom amulet made of carnelian. It depicts a striding ibis crowned with a moon. The hieroglyph of Thoth is inscribed where it holds the feather of Maat in its beak. The amulet can be interpreted as ‘Thoth, Lord of Truth’ and highlights the primary aspects of Thoth as a moon deity and the healer of the eye of Horus, and also in his position as scribe in the underworld court of Osiris[41]. An ibis coffin made of gessoed wood, silver, gold leaf, rock crystal and pigment from the Ptolomaic period is a manifestation of Thoth and depicted with its silver legs bent as if brooding[42]. The coffin was found at Hermopolis which was the chief sanctuary of Thoth where the Temple was used for ceremonies and festivals[43]. The coffin itself retains the remains of an ibis within a cavity made from a covered hole in its back. It is also covered in such details as a necklace incised at the base of the neck, carefully rendered scaly skin and creases on the legs, with rock crystals outlined in gold inserted for the eyes[44].

ROLE IN RELIGION

Animals played a significant role in ancient Egyptian religion. In hieroglyphic script animals signify a quarter of the hieroglyphs. Humans did not play the central role in life as they did in other near East and Mediterranean religions. Hornung contends that humans were not considered the lord of the animals but more like partners[45]. Animals were seen as living beings like humans and gods. In the Shabaka text it states that creative forces are in ‘all gods, all people, all cattle, all crawling creatures, all that lives[46].

In Egyptian ethics it was necessary to morally consider animals in much the same way as humans. In a text of the first millennium BCE it reads: “I have given bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothing to the naked. I have given food to the ibis, the falcon, the cat and the jackal’[47]. As humans and other animals were considered living beings, gods could be represented in human and animal form as well as hybrid form[48]. Thoth was seen as the moon-god and the healer of the sacred eye of Horus-Re between whom there was a close connection[49]. Thoth prepares the way for Re to travel. Consequently Thoth is seen standing in the prow of the sun-boat and, in the Book of the Dead, it relates Thoth saying of himself: “ I have knotted the rope of the ship, I let the ferry sail, I bring the East nearer to the West”[50].

Thoth is also known as the god of wisdom who is capable of reconciling demoniacal and unpredictable gods such as Seth and Tefnet with more rational and ordered mortals[51]. In the Pyramid Texts it is Thoth that the other gods turn to for assistance. Thoth is the dreaded avenger of injustice (pyr. 2213)[52]. In two funerary texts Thoth acts as legislator and judge: “I, Thoth, am the eminent writer, pure of hands…the writer of the truth (maat) whose horror is the lie…the lord of the law…I am the lord of maat, I teach maat to the gods, I test (each) word for its veracity…I am the leader of the sky, the earth and the netherworld”. “I, Thoth, am protector of the weak and of him whose property is violated”[53]. Thoth is the word of the creator in the Shabaka Text and through this is the guardian of the regulations of creation[54].

CONCLUSION

The Sacred Ibis held a significant role in ancient Egypt in its representation of Thoth, god of writing, scribes, wisdom, time, justice and deputy of the sun-god Horus-Re. It was bred, nurtured, and mummified with the same attention to ritual given to many humans of that time. There is a large amount of archaeological evidence for the birds in Egypt, being the burial grounds at Saqqara, Abydos, Tuna el-Gebel and Hermopolis. The use of ibises in cultic activities meant that they played a major role in daily life helping to keep water clean and cleaning up refuse. The ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs featured the ibis as the first letter because of Thoth’s association with writing and scribes. The ibis, as the human hybrid form of Thoth and in its own form, occurs across art forms in Egypt, especially due to its  significance from the New Kingdom period onwards.   Although it is extinct in modern Egypt because of aridification, it is now found throughout the world where it successfully cohabits with humans in places such as parklands and wetlands.

 

REFERENCES:

  1. Bailleul-Le Seur, R., (2012), “From Kitchen to Temple: The Practical Role of Birds in Ancient Egypt”, in Rozenne Bailleul Le-Suer (ed), Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, pp. 23-32
  2. Bailleul Le-Suer, R. (2012), “Birds as Protection in Life (Catalogue No.7)”, in Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt,p.143-146
  3. Bailleul Le-Suer, R., (2012), “Demotic Letter to ‘The Ibis, Thoth’: (Catalogue 29)”, in Rozenne Bailleul Le-Suer (ed.) Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, pp. 189-200
  4. Bailleul Le-Suer, R. (2012), “Coffin for an Ibis (Catalogue no.28)”, in Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt, p.189-200
  5. BBC, (2012), “Sacred Ibis”, Science and Nature: Animals, viewed 4 February, 2013 http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/wildfacts/factfiles/3106.shtml
  6. Bleeker, C.J. (1973), Hathor and Thoth: Two Key Figures of the Ancient Egyptian Religion,Volume 26, E.J. Brill, Leiden
  7. Christian Science Monitor, Archaeologists unearth statue of Egyptian god “Thoth”, 16 March 2010, viewed on 15 February 2013, http://www.csmonitor.com/From-the-news-wires/2010/0316/Archaeologists-unearth-statue-of-Egyptian-god-Thoth
  8. Clark, R. & Rundle, T., (1978), Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt , Thames and Hudson, 1991
  9. Eichorn, G., (n.d.), Thoth: God of Wisdom and the Scribes- Travel Pictures from Egypt, viewed on 15 February 2013, http://gei.aerobaticsweb.org/egypt_thoth.html
  10. Ezzamel, M., (2009), Order and accounting as a performative ritual: Evidence from Ancient Egypt, Accounting, Organisations and Society, Vol 34, Iss.3-4,  (2009), Cardiff University pp. 348-380
  11. Gabra, S., (1971), Chez les derniers adorateurs tu Trismégist. Biblioteque Arabe 119. Cairo: al-Hai’a al-Misrîya li’t-Ta’lîf wa’n-Našr
  12. Ikram, S., (2012), “An Eternal Aviary, Bird Mummies from Ancient Egypt”, in Rozenne Bailleul Le-Suer (ed), Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, pp. 41-48
  13. Jasnow, R. & Zauzich, K., (2005), The Ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth, 2 volumes, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz
  14. Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens, (2013), Animal Facts: Sacred Ibis, viewed 4 February 2013,  http://www.lazoo.org/animals/birds/ibis_sacred/index.html
  15. McKnight L.M., (2012), “Studying Avian Mummies at the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology: Past, Present, and Future”, in Rozenne Bailleul Le-Suer (ed), Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, pp.99-106
  16. Scalf, F., (2012), “The Role of Birds Within the Religious Landscape of Egypt”, in Rozenne Bailleul Le-Suer (ed), Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago,p.33-40
  17. te Velde, H. (1980): ‘A few remarks on the religious significance of animals in ancient Egypt’, Numen 27 (1980), 76-82
  18. Wade et al., (2011), “Food placement in ibis mummies and the role of viscera in embalming”, Journal of Archaeological Science 39, (2012) 1642-1647
  19. Wade et al., n.d., Backroom treasures: CT scanning of two ibis mummies from the Peabody Museum Collection, viewed on 7 February 2013, http://www.academia.edu/1689776/Backroom_Treasures_CT_Scanning_of_Two_Ibis_Mummies_from_the_Peabody_Museum_Collection


[1] BBC, (2012), “Sacred Ibis”, Science and Nature: Animals

[2] ibid.

[3] Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens (2013), Animal Facts: Sacred Ibis

[4] BBC, (2012), “Sacred Ibis”, Science and Nature: Animals

[5] Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens (2013), Animal Facts: Sacred Ibis

[6] ibid.

[7] Wade et al., (2011), “Food placement in ibis mummies and the role of viscera in embalming”, Journal of Archaeological Science 39, (2012) p.1642

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid., p.1643

[10] ibid., p.1644

[11] ibid., p.1645

[12] Wade et al., (2011), p.1646

[13] Wade et al., n.d., Backroom treasures: CT scanning of two ibis mummies from the Peabody Museum Collection

[14] Ikram, S., (2012), “An Eternal Aviary, Bird Mummies from Ancient Egypt”, in Rozenne Bailleul Le-Suer (ed), Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, p. 45

[15] Ikram, S., (2012), p.46

[16] ibid., p.47

[17] McKnight L.M., (2012), “Studying Avian Mummies at the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology: Past, Present, and Future”, in Rozenne Bailleul Le-Suer (ed), Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt, p.105

[18] Bailleul-Le Seur, R., (2012), “From Kitchen to Temple: The Practical Role of Birds in Ancient Egypt”, in Rozenne Bailleul Le-Suer (ed), Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt,p.30

[19] ibid., p.37

[20] ibid., p.39

[21] Bailleul-Le Seur, R., (2012), “From Kitchen to Temple: The Practical Role of Birds in Ancient Egypt”, p.39

[22] Ikram, S., (2012), p.43

[23] Gabra, S., (1971), Chez les derniers adorateurs tu Trismégist. Biblioteque Arabe 119. Cairo: al-Hai’a al-Misrîya li’t-Ta’lîf wa’n-Našr pp. 59, 156-58

[24] Scalf, F., (2012), “The Role of Birds Within the Religious Landscape of Egypt”, in Rozenne Bailleul Le-Suer (ed), Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt,p.33

[25] Ikram, S., (2012), p.43

[26] Gaudard, F. (2012), “Birds in the Ancient Egyptian and Coptic Alphabets”, in Rozenne Bailleul Le-Suer (ed), Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt, p. 65

[27]Clark, R. & Rundle, T., (1978), Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt , Thames and Hudson, p.225

[28] Ezzamel, M., (2009), Order and accounting as a performative ritual: Evidence from Ancient Egypt, Accounting, Organisations and Society, Vol 34, Iss.3-4,  (2009), Cardiff University, p.356

[29] Jasnow, R., (2012), Birds and Bird Imagery in the Book of Thoth, in Rozenne Bailleul Le-Suer (ed), Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt,p.73

[30] Jasnow, R., (2012), p.71

[31] ibid.

[32] ibid. p.72

[33] ibid.

[34] Rozenne Bailleul Le-Suer (2012), “Demotic Letter to ‘The Ibis, Thoth’: (Catalogue 29)”, in Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt,p.192

[35] Clark, C.R. (n.d.), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Sacred Ibis, viewed on 12 February 2013, http://www.metmuseum.org/pubs/bulletins/1/pdf/3257674.pdf.bannered.pdf p.181

[36] Clark, C.R. (n.d.), p.181

[37] Eichorn, G., (n.d.), Thoth: God of Wisdom and the Scribes- Travel Pictures from Egypt

[38] Clark, C.R. (n.d.), p.184

[39] Christian Science Monitor, (2010) Archaeologists unearth statue of Egyptian god “Thoth”

[40] Clark, C.R. (n.d.), p.184

[41] Rozenne Bailleul Le-Suer (2012), “Birds as Protection in Life (Catalogue No.7)”, in Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt,p.143

[42] Rozenne Bailleul Le-Suer (2012), “Coffin for an Ibis (Catalogue no.28)”, in Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt, p.189

[43] ibid.

[44] Rozenne Bailleul Le-Suer (2012), “Coffin for an Ibis (Catalogue no.28)”, p. 189

[45] te Velde, H. (1980): ‘A few remarks on the religious significance of animals in ancient Egypt’, Numen 27 (1980), p.76

[46] ibid., p.77

[47] ibid., p.78

[48] ibid., p.79

[49] Bleeker, C.J. (1973), Hathor and Thoth: Two Key Figures of the Ancient Egyptian Religion,Volume 26, E.J. Brill, Leiden, p.121

[50] Bleeker, C.J. (1973), p.121

[51]ibid., p.130

[52] ibid., p.134

[53] ibid., p.136

[54] ibid., p.137