Archives for the month of: March, 2013

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How an adherence to dogma led to Spartan decline

Conservatism appeals to those who do not like to be unsettled. It is an appeal where custom is preferred over reason, and where things are so because they have always been so. Inherited customs that reinforce privileges and benefits on a few consecutive generations within a population are difficult to explain through rational means. So an appeal to tradition is one which demands a static lack of thought, and a state that relies upon such an appeal is liable to fall due to its lack of movement or change[1]. For the Spartans, the Lycurgan reforms of the 8th century BCE were the only reforms that they were ever likely to need and they conformed religiously to them even after their defeat at Leuctra.

The Lycurgan reforms are attributed to Lycurgus, an obscure figure of around the eighth century who is known more through his works than his life. In about 800 BCE the Spartans, or Lacedaimonoi, were the inhabitants of about four villages in Lacedaimon ruled by two kings. Beneath the kings was an aristocracy whose role was to be the generals in war, the priests, judges and advisors, and to run a pyramidal household supported by lesser households. This was a common social dynamic throughout Greece at that time. In Sparta, this was termed the phratry. However, although the primitive elements of phratry were kept, the Lacedaimonoi practiced them with an aspect of communal education for children and communal life for adults which was unique amongst the Greek states[2]. Lycurgus was considered the lawmaker for the Lacedaimonoi and his laws were the basis for the constitution which Xenophon wrote about in the 4th century BCE.

Xenophon begins his Constitutions of the Lacedaimonians with an account of the way Lycurgus thought women should uphold their primary duty that of bearing ‘fine children’. In order to produce ‘vigorous offspring’. Lycurgus thought that physical training through competitive games was as important for women as it was for men. Sexual intercourse between a man and a wife was to be kept to a bare minimum in order for desire to be increased, an element that Lycurgus also thought necessary for optimum reproduction. For the same reason, men were only allowed to take a wife whilst in their prime, and if an elderly man had a young wife he had to take into his house a suitable younger man to assist in reproduction. A man without a wife could also find an aristocratic married woman with whom he could father children with her husband’s consent. This was done in order that inheritance could be legitimately conferred through families and also so that the Lacedaimonoi would breed a premium race of people[3]. In comparison to the other Greek states these seemed like fairly radical reforms but they were conservative in the sense that the purpose of them was to reinforce and uphold the status quo within these tribal communities.

The sons of the Lacedaimonoi were taken from their households at six years and educated by older boys under the supervision of a warden until they were twenty. The purpose of their education was to make them as hardy as possible. Modesty, obedience, endurance, chastity and strategy were the chief characteristics that the Lacedaimonoi wished to imbue in their offspring[4]. As young men they graduated to a class of eirenes, not full citizens but liable for military service and engaged in training the next generation[5]. This emphasis on military training allowed the Lacedaimonoi to become renowned as an army and by the eighth century they had subjugated much of the people around them with the annexation of Laconia and Messenia. This produced increased state wealth and the development of an effective army which no longer relied upon the aristocracy for a military monopoly[6]. However, it was also reliant on a large slave population (helots) as its economy, unlike the rest of the Greek states, was largely agrarian-based. This new land needed a large non-Lacedaimonoi labour force which was difficult to control and seen as a constant threat[7].

While Xenophon points out the role of cooperation and sharing in the life of the Lacedaimonoi[8], and the subsequent corruption of this ideal in the Spartan society of his time[9], he neglects to mention that this was only practiced to a certain extent. The reforms of Lycurgus had implied a constitutional guarantee of equal political rights and equal allotments of public land (kleros) to all citizens. However, these so-called equalities were illusions with only a few being eligible to be part of the governing Gerousia, or senate, and the concurrent existence of private lots of land[10]. This situation was exacerbated in the period before the Spartan defeat at Leuctra in 371 BCE by subsequent gross inequalities in wealth of land after periods of Spartan military success. The kleros had to be sufficient to support the family and the helots that worked it, and also provide a contribution to the state. In the period after the 7th century BCE the Lacedaimonoi had raised their standard of living as did their perioikoi, the citizens of the largely autonomous surrounding communities that provided the bulk of Spartan troops. The kleros was not conceived for luxury living and contributed to a decline in the birth-rate amongst the Lacedaimonoi[11].

So, while obedience to the state was a virtue which Spartans appeared to practice even after Leuctra, it was this unquestioning obedience that led to the eventual ‘sclerification’ of Sparta itself. Xenophon berates the latter generations of Lacedaimonoi of his time for their corruption through the accumulation of wealth, yet it was reliance upon a militaristic life underpinned by a static agricultural society dependent upon a large slave population that contributed to Spartan decline. The conservative appeal to persist with societal values that may no longer function was apparent in the decline of the Spartan birth-rate and the danger of revolt from a large underclass upon which the society was dependent for its success. Therefore, Xenophon’s history may be coloured with his concept of a golden Lacedaimon past, and his despondent view of contemporary Spartan society.


  1. Forrest, W.C. (1969), A History of Sparta, Norton Library, N.Y
  2. Scruton, R. (2006), Political Philosophy, Continuum International Publishing Group
  3. Xenophon, The Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, in Xenophon. Xenophon in Seven Volumes, 7. E. C. Marchant, G. W. Bowersock, tr. Constitution of the Athenians. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; William Heinemann, Ltd., London. 1925. , viewed on 25 February 2013

[1] Scruton, R. (2006), Political Philosophy, Continuum International Publishing Group, pp. vii-viii

[2] Forrest, W.C. (1969), A History of Sparta: 950-192 B.C., Norton Library, p.40

[3] Xen. Const. Lac. 1

[4] Xen. Const. Lac. 2

[5] Forrest, (1969), p.53

[6] ibid. pp.58-62

[7] Forrest, (1969), pp.33-38

[8] Xen. Const. Lac. 6

[9] Xen. Const. Lac. 14

[10] Forrest, (1969), p.51

[11] ibid., p.136


“Whatever may be the age of these paintings, it is scarcely probable that they could have been executed by a self-taught savage.”
Sir George Grey, 1837
(Morphy, 1998:20)

Until recently, European history of Aboriginal art has given little to which one could reference as few art objects were collected and most were relegated to ethnographic novelty. Being the first European to document the Wandjina rock paintings in the Kimberley, Sir George Grey was quick to dismiss the idea that they were done by the local people because of the works’ apparent technical skill and startling aesthetics (Morphy, 1998:20). However, these paintings are an integral cultural element of the people of the coastal country of the Kimberley. This essay will explore how the Dreaming encompasses the past, present and future, and how the Wandjina figures have been used by Aboriginal artists in the past and the present to reaffirm their connection…

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Neuroscience is making advances in mapping our brain. In doing so, it questions our fundamental beliefs about our autonomy within the law. However, to date, it still has not been successful in undermining principles of justice that have underpinned Western legal systems and international treaties for the past centuries. This essay provides a study upon what difference neuroscience makes, or not, to the law.


Neuroscience is an advancement in cognitive studies which has up until a few decades ago relied mostly upon behavioural studies. Presently there are claims made by corporations involved in neuro-technologies that claim to be able to detect deception accurately, and also to assess whether people have tendencies towards criminality. To study the issue of whether neuroscience in this capacity will not make a difference to the law, this essay will study the history of the cognitive sciences in the law, the claims of Greene and Cohen (2004) that state neuroscience makes no difference to the law, the philosophical and ethical issues that are fundamental to society and the law, and the claims and criticisms made about neuro-technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This analysis concludes that for the foreseeable future neuroscience will make little difference to the law.

To assess whether neuroscience will not make a difference to the law it is necessary to look at the contributions that the cognitive sciences have made and whether they have helped to ascertain the responsibility of people under the law. The justice system relies upon defining the intentions of the defendant to judge whether they are guilty of breaching the law. To achieve this aim, often the cognitive sciences, such as psychology and psychiatry, are called upon for assistance. Eigen (2003, p.x) suggests that in the mid-nineteenth century it was not psychiatrists or legal professionals who identified the difference between insanity and the anomalous behaviour of unconsciousness, such as acts done whilst sleepwalking or from some other automatic reflex, it was the jury. It became necessary to have scientists ascertain the culpability of someone if there was a question of any mental disability, rather than have a non-professional jury assess this.

However, Eigen (2003, p.5) contends that during the nineteenth century, with more novel diagnoses becoming apparent at the courts, expert medical witnesses were at risk of twisting courtroom evidence and framing it within their own contexts. This threatened to displace the function of the jury and served as a critical point between the law and the emerging specialties and technologies of cognitive science.  According to Eigen (2003, p.6), there was an increasing judicial anxiety about insanity acquittals because of the growing diagnoses of different derangements that came before the courts explaining a person’s lack of accountability and moral agency. This is much like the contemporary dilemma with the use of new neuro-technologies and techniques that confront the law today in making assessments about people’s responsibility.  The question that arises is how much neuroscience should be included in the tools of the law for the aims of justice to be achieved.

Greene and Cohen (2004, p.1775) argue that neuroscience’s transformative effect on the law will come about by changing people’s understanding of the notion of ‘free will’. Free will is a problem because of our modern concept of the physical universe. They quote ( p.1777) Peter van Inwagen: “Determinism is true if the world is such that its current state is completely determined by i) the laws of physics, and ii) past states of the world. Therefore, if all is predetermined by physics then the idea of free will is an illusion.  However, although most philosophers and legal theorists accept determinism, many also find it compatible with free will. According to Greene and Cohen ( p.1777), compatibilists claim that free will is a persistent notion that is undeniable and that it is up to science to establish how it works. Greene and Cohen (p.1778) state that the standard legal account of punishment is compatibilist in order to allow for retribution. For Greene and Cohen (p.1779), neuroscience will not change the law because the law assumes a level of minimal rationality for people’s behaviour, rather than notions of free will. They go on to state that if neuroscience supports minimal rationality then there is no reason to think that it poses a threat to the determination of criminal responsibility (p.1779). Although new syndromes are announced as an excuse for criminal behaviour they will only have validity if they undermine one’s rationality in a significant way. Greene and Cohen (p. 1780) argue that neuroscience can be helpful in this way through being able to correlate behaviour with rationality and also helping people understand the mechanical nature of human action. Neuroscience promises to show the ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ of the mechanical process to be able to assess if someone truly deserves to be punished or if they are just a victim of their neuronal circumstances (p.1780). However, this type of technology may have profound impacts upon the ethical concepts that humans have formed over time in their societies, especially ones that pertain to the autonomy of the individual.

Philosophical and ethical thinking can help to align the law with the sciences through providing the tools with which to develop theories of responsibility and also assessing the ethics of new technologies (Tovino, 2007). Through the use of such studies, legislative, regulatory and judicial bodies can correlate legal processes with technological processes in an ethical manner, in particular when functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is combined with philosophical ethics (2007, p.44). This technology localizes changes in blood oxygenation in the brain and is used in neuroscience to map sensory, motor and cognitive function, and also physical and mental health conditions, behaviours and characteristics (p.44). The legal issues of fMRI extend beyond patient-physician relationships to confidentiality, privacy and research ethics (p.44).

Some have referred to fMRI as being too reliant upon interpretation to be reliable as evidence (Bizzi et al., 2009). As is noted by Tovino (2007, p.47), ‘Sometimes the difference between seeing higher activity in the parietal lobe compared to the occipital lobe is akin to deciding whether Van Gogh or Matisse is the more colourful artist’.  Tovino (p. 47) also includes a quote from Donaldson: ‘What constitutes a “significantly greater” activation is in a way in the eye of the beholder’. With commercial fMRI companies claiming up to 99% infallibility and areas of use to include risk reduction in dating, insurance verification and employee screening, privacy and confidentiality also become issues, especially if these claims are misleading (p.47). Tovino (p.48) quotes Greely and the U.S. Committee on Science and Law in stating that advances in fMRI threaten ‘to invade the last inviolate area of “self” and have been coined as ‘neuroprivacy’ issues.  Therefore, the questions that Tovino poses are: Is it deceptive to say that an fMRI test is objective, fully automated and infallible? (p.47), and: Will future fMRI tests require heightened confidentiality and privacy protections? (p.48).

These are important questions because of expressions of rights of freedom constructed in international treaties. In Stacy v Georgia, the seminal ‘privacy of thought’ case, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that, ‘also fundamental is the right to be free, expect on very limited circumstances, from unwanted governmental intrusions into one’s privacy’ (Glenn, 2005, p.61). That Court also states in Lawrence v Texas: ‘Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, expression and certain intimate conduct’ (2005, p.61). A fundamental principle of democracy is our accusatory system of criminal justice, which demands that the government in seeking to establish the guilt of an individual produce evidence against him/her by their own independent labours, rather than by compelling it from his/her own mouth (Miranda v Arizona, 1966 at 460) (Tovino, 2007, p.50).

However, some objections to fMRI being argued against on these self-incrimination grounds are that DNA, blood tests, mental examinations, urinalysis, fingerprints are all means of admissible evidence that are used in courts today, so why not fMRI (Tovino, 2007, p.51)? Some questions for counterarguments could be: Does this address the implications involved in seizing an individual’s ‘privacy of thought’? Is fMRI reliable and accurate in identifying or diagnosing physical and mental conditions, behaviours or characteristics? Are such tests as effective as DNA or blood and alcohol tests, or are there more effective methods of identifying target condition? Also, who would be the authority that could gather such data from a brain scan and what precautions and protocols should be followed (p.51)? Although neuro-imaging has been effective in showing courts the diminished responsibility of adolescents on death row (p.52), and discovering brain tumors that may affect responsibility (Burns, 2003, p.48), many lawyers still argue that data gathered from fMRI should not be legally admissible evidence (Tovino, 2007, p.53).

For some philosophers, the citation of neuro-technologies, such as fMRI, as evidence in law is problematic. Fine (2010, 281) states that the problem with advances in neurosciences is that ‘we still have minimal understanding of how neural structures contribute to complex psychological phenomena’. The complex nature of brain structure makes it difficult to attribute behavioural conditions or characteristics to it.  Statistics and data gathered from procedures that involve neuro-technologies may be inadequate or inappropriate (p.281), especially for making assumptions with which to convict someone. Too many assumptions are made about a structure that is extremely complex and massively interconnected to imply a psychological construct that leads to an individual’s imprisonment.

Fine (2010, p.281) contends that inferring a mental process from a significant oxygenation of a particular area of the brain is a reverse inference and fraught with too many difficulties to attribute specific brain functions to various brain regions. For Fine (p.281), the entire brain may not be involved in a particular function and ‘there is no one-to-one mapping between brain regions and psychological processes. Cognition arises through complex interaction of brain areas, with any single region being involved in a number of processes (p.281). This makes it ambiguous as to the amount of psychological implications that can be derived from the amount of activity in particular regions of the brain. Also data acquisition from fMRI is slow which limits psychological interpretations that can be inferred from brain events (p.282). Weisberg et al. (2008, p.20) states that neuroscience has an appeal that relies upon assumptions of infallibility which allows people to find circular explanations of psychological phenomena from information about brain responses acceptable. This is problematic in a courtroom where a judge or jury might accept such scientific evidence without further validation.

Deception detection is one of the areas hailed by those who use fMRI commercially as able to revolutionize testimony in court. However, there is some doubt as to the veracity of such claims. Kanwisher (2009, p.11) points to three exceptionally successful individual subject studies that have been conducted. These three studies analysed two sets of fMRI data that were used to distinguish lies form truth (p.11). However, according to Kanwisher (p.11) in two of the studies lies were not examined but target deception events. From the successful outcomes of these studies, with correct response rates of 90%, 76% and 89% respectively, it appears that classification and imaging methods are rapidly improving (p.11). However, Kanwisher (p.12) points out that this success rate may not be able to be reflected in the real world, and argues that lie detection within a laboratory environment is completely different to lie detection in the real world. Firstly, the subjects are making an instructed false response not a lie. Secondly, real life situations differ in that the stakes are much higher for the subjects. This could cause anxiety whether a subject was guilty or not (p.12). Also, a subject could be uncooperative and fMRI is useless if a subject moves at all (p.12). It would be impossible for such studies to even remotely mimic real life situations as they would need a subject population of defendants suspected of serious crimes. Also, the experimenter would need to know whether the subject was lying for verification of the test (p.12). Therefore it seems impossible to conduct studies to mimic real life situations for ethical and practical reasons.

As neuro-technologies become more advanced they could indeed show us, as Greene and Cohen assert, that our actions are predetermined. However, for an ordered society the law requires us to be responsible for our actions and for this it requires minimal rationality. Behavioural psychologists and psychiatrists are already able to assess people’s minimal, rational psychological states. Neuro-technologies, such as fMRI can also show physical disabilities within the brain. However, for the foreseeable future, to use fMRI  for such purposes as deception detection or to assess whether people have a tendency towards criminal behaviour is spurious. Therefore, neuroscience makes little difference to the law.







  1. Eigen, J.P., (2003) Unconscious crime: Mental absence and criminal responsibility in Victorian London, John Hopkins University Press, Maryland
  2. Green and Cohen, (2004), For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything, Princeton University, Princeton
  3. Tovino, S. A., (2007), “Functional neuroimaging and the law: Trends and directions for future scholarship”, American Journal of Bioethics , 7:9 , 2007 , pp.44-56
  4. Glenn, L. M. (2005), Keeping an open mind: What legal safeguards are needed? American Journal of Bioethics 5(2), p.60-61
  5. Burns, Jeffrey M; Swerdlow, Russell H. (2003), “Right orbitofrontal tumor with pedophilia symptom and constructional apraxia sign” Archives of Neurology , 60:3 , 2003 , 437-440
  6. Fine, C. (2010) “From scanner to sound bite: Issues in interpreting and reporting sex differences in the brain” Current Directions in Psychological Science , 19:5 , 2010 , 280-283
  7. Weisberg, D.S., Keil, F.C., Goodstein, J., Rawson, E., & Gray, J.R. (2008), “The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20, 470–477.
  8. Kanwisher, N.  (2009), “The Use of fMRI in Lie Detection: What Has Been Shown and What Has Not”, Bizzi et al., 2009, Using Imaging to Detect Deceit: Scientific and Ethical Questions, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Cambridge MA




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].


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.


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].


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].


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.




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].


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].


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.



  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
  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,
  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,
  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,
  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,

[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, 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

[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