Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Religious and funerary beliefs
© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps
Religious and funerary beliefs
This solid bronze crocodile, which seems to be slowly walking forward, represents much more than the simple saurian that has now disappeared from Egypt. It is actually an image of the god Sobek-Re, crowned with the attributes of a sun god: the solar disk and uraeus.
A swamp dweller
This sturdy creature is clearly a Nile crocodile. Its long jaws are snapped shut but its eyes are wide open: it is not asleep. Its head is raised, and its pointed tail curves slightly to the right. Many details are incised: small lines behind the eyes, rectangles with rounded ends for the horny plates of the back and tail, crisscross pattern for the scales covering the flanks, belly and legs. This crocodile was famous for its strength and voracity; it lived in the waters and on the banks of the Nile, of irrigation canals, swamps, and lakes such as that of Faiyum. It measured up to six meters in length and weighed up to 900 kilos. It was a feature of the aquatic landscape, together with the fish, frogs, and birds on which it fed - and the hippopotamus, the only animal that dared to confront it. The Egyptians might therefore cross its path when they went down to the river or forded it with their flocks, and scenes such as this adorn the funerary chapels of the Old Kingdom.
Sobek-Re, fearsome "lord of the waters"
The crocodile was both feared (magical spells were recited when fording rivers, to keep it at bay) and identified with several gods including Geb and, above all, Sobek. The latter was portrayed either as a crocodile (as is the case here) or as a crocodile-headed human. His main centers of worship were the Faiyum and Kom Ombo. He was the primordial god of water and fertility, the creator of the world. Classical authors such as Plutarch (1st century AD) observed the habits of this great reptile, which comes out of the water in the morning, spends the day practically immobile on the bank, and plunges back into the water at night. This lifestyle evokes the daily cycle of the sun, which explains why this animal was identified with Ra and became a symbol of rebirth.
According to Herodotus (mid 5th century AD) and Strabo (c.30 BC), crocodiles were bred in the temples dedicated to the god Sobek where they were fed by the priests and sometimes adorned with finery. Strabo describes his excursion to Crocodilopolis (Medinet el-Faiyum) where he saw a crocodile being fed with cakes and wine. Such accounts have been confirmed by archaeological discoveries. In 1999, in the Ptolemaic temple dedicated to two crocodile gods at Medinet Madi (in the Faiyum region), an Italian archaeological mission discovered a crocodile nursery, with a number of fossilized eggs.
Bibliography- Coptos, L'Egypte antique aux portes du désert, Lyon, 2000, notice 79.
- La vie au bord du Nil au temps des Pharaons, Calais, 1980, notice 6.
- Les animaux dans l'Egypte ancienne, Lyon, 1977, notice 112.
H. : 10 cm. ; l. : 29 cm.
Don L., I. et A. Curtis
Vitrine 2 : le Nil
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