Ancient Egyptian Animal Customs from Herodotus’ Histories

In his 'Histories,' Herodotus speaks of animals in an attempt to reveal the thinking and customs of the ancient Egyptians.

Sep 14, 2021By Dr. Eugenia Russell, Professor of History, History of Art, and Political Philosophy
ancient egyptian customs herodotus histories
The procession of the sacred bull Apis, Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1879, Sotheby’s; with Herodotus, 1893, The New York Public Library


Herodotus (c. 485 – c. 425 BC) is loved for his attractive storytelling and the many fabulous tales that he weaves into his stories. His descriptions of far-away places still fascinate readers. Within these descriptions, prominent are the sections on ancient Egypt. Egyptian customs are given in juxtaposition to Greek customs in Herodotus’ Histories. The Egyptians used animals as symbols of their gods and imbued them with sanctity. They depicted them in their art and mourned their death prominently. Herodotus’ recording of these details gives valuable insights into their civilization.


Herodotus’ Histories

herodotus bust
Herodotus, 1908, The New York Public Library


Herodotus is the first writer to compose history in the sense that we understand it today. He had a great talent for telling a good story and a love of other cultures. He was, we could say, the perfect entertainer. Herodotus’ Histories are filled with intriguing details about exotic people, far-away places, moral tales and unfamiliar beasts. In their ease of pace and variety they rival the best tales ever told.


His Histories, written in 430 BC, were divided most probably by himself into 28 sections called logoi. Later the Alexandrian philologists divided them into nine books, each bearing the name of one of the Muses. The second book, dealing with Egyptian custom, is named after the Muse Euterpe, goddess of lyric poetry whose name means ‘giver of delight or joy.’ Herodotus had a great interest in religious practice and has a lot to say about the Egyptian gods. In the same book, he relates the legend of Helen and Paris spending some time in Egypt after having fled the royal palace of Sparta and before the commencement of the Trojan War (Hdt. 2.112–120).


How Much Truth is There in Herodotus’ Histories?

herodotus histories book
Herodotus Histories, 1584, The New York Public Library


The veracity of Herodotus’ stories has been disputed since antiquity. Ancient writers have frequently offered sharp and unrelenting criticism; Plutarch went as far as to compose a work in his ‘honour’: On the Malignity of Herodotus. He explains in his opening why he needs to urge caution when reading the Histories:

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“King Philip told the Greeks who revolted from him to Titus Quinctius, that they had got a more polished, but a longer-lasting yoke. So the malice of Herodotus is indeed more polite and delicate than that of Theopompus, yet it pinches closer, and makes a more severe impression.”


herodotus coin
Medallion of Herodotus, 1893, The New York Public Library


Later scholars are divided. Herodotus is hugely important as the main source of the Greco-Persian Wars. His narration of all the main battles and his portrayals of the Persian kings are invaluable for our understanding of that major ancient conflict. As a pioneer, Herodotus is recognized as the Father of several humanities disciplines, including history and anthropology. The modern commentator known as ‘Livius’ in his discussion of Egyptian customs points out that, “Herodotus’ description tells a lot more about ancient Greece than about the Egyptians.” Indeed his method is one of comparison by which he views Egyptian activities in relation to other customs. For instance, Herodotus says about Egyptian animals: “The Egyptians are the only people who keep their animals with them in the house,” (Hdt. 2.36).


Herodotus was the second historian to call Egypt the ‘gift of the Nile’ following Hecateus. The statement was known to Arrian and mentioned in his Anabasis Alexandri.


Ancient Egyptian Animal Customs 

marsh scene egypt
Marsh Scene with Cat and Birds, c. 667-647 BCE, Cleveland Museum of Art


Numerous animals appear in the Histories: cats, dogs, ants, hippopotami, oxen/cattle, ibis, phoenix, falcon, crocodiles, snakes, winged serpents. Here we will focus on those animals which also reveal something about the way of life in ancient Egypt.


Bulls & Cows 

hathor egyptian goddess
Hathor, LJJ Dubois, 1823-1825, The New York Public Library


Herodotus provides copious detail on the sacrificial customs surrounding bulls as well as burial customs in Ancient Egypt. Burial customs for a wide range of sacred animals were city-specific, i.e. each designated city was a burial destination for a particular animal. The name of the city Atarbekhis was derived from the goddess Hathor, which the Greeks associated with Aphrodite, hence the comment by Herodotus that, “a temple of Aphrodite stands in it of great sanctity.” Though mostly represented as a woman, Hathor was also associated with the cow. So from her sacred city boats would come out to search and collect the bones of dead bulls.


“Cattle that die are dealt with in the following way. Cows are cast into the river, bulls are buried by each city in its suburbs, with one or both horns uncovered for a sign; then, when the carcass is decomposed, and the time appointed is at hand, a boat comes to each city from the island called Prosopitis, an island in the Delta, nine schoeni in circumference. There are many other towns on Prosopitis; the one from which the boats come to gather the bones of the bulls is called Atarbekhis; a temple of Aphrodite stands in it of great sanctity.”
(Hdt, 2.41)


apis bull ancient egypt sculpture
Apis Bull, 400-100 BCE, Cleveland Museum of Art


Cows were not sacrificial animals. Herodotus tells us that, “these are sacred to Isis. For the images of Isis are in woman’s form, horned like a cow, exactly as the Greeks picture Io, and cows are held by far the most sacred of all beasts of the herd by all Egyptians alike.” On the other hand, “All Egyptians sacrifice unblemished bulls and bull-calves.” Apis, the Egyptian sacred bull, was an intermediary between men and gods. Seen as a son of Hathor, as a sacrificial animal it could also be associated with a deified king after death.


In later practice, Apis became a god in his own right. According to Arrian, after conquering Egypt, Alexander the Great adopted the worship of Apis and honored him with sacrifices in Memphis after defeating the Persians. Rule of Egypt fell to his general, Ptolemy I Soter, who continued the worship of Apis. He is mentioned by Diodorus Siculus as having given a large amount of money towards the funeral of a sacred Apis Bull, namely fifty talents of silver (Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica, 1.84).


In Ptolemaic ancient Egypt (305-30 BCE) Hathor, Isis, and Aphrodite merged and their worship gave rise to the cult of the divine Ptolemaic queen exemplified by the last Ptolemy, Cleopatra. According to Pausanias, the Greek goddess Io, whom Herodotus associated with Isis, was thought to have been transformed into a heifer by Zeus (Paus. 1.25).



cat ancient egypt sculpture
Bronze figure of Bastet as a seated cat, Late Period, British Museum, London


In ancient Egypt, cats were highly regarded for their ability to kill poisonous snakes and venerated for their protective qualities The city of Bubastis was sacred to the cat goddess Bastet and for that reason dead cats were taken to the city for embalmment and burial. The name of Bubastis meant House of Bastet. The feline goddess Bastet increasingly became the milder version of the goddess Sekhmet, a lion-headed deity of ferocity and war.


The popularity of Bastet coincided with the increasing domestication of cats in Egyptian society. The death of the family cat put the household into mourning and the family would shave their eyebrows and by Herodotus’ time, the catacombs of the necropolis at Bubastis were being filled with mummified cats. He describes the annual festival there as the largest in Egypt, with several thousand pilgrims visiting the temple of Bastet. Bastet became associated with the goddess Artemis, who Herodotus tells us that to avoid being molested by giants, turned herself into a cat. Along with the Egyptian custom of cat burial, he tells us:


“…female dogs are buried by the townsfolk in their own towns in sacred coffins; and the like is done with mongooses. Shrewmice and hawks are taken away to Buto, ibises to the city of Hermes.”
(Hdt, 2.67)


Hawks & Ibises 

ibis ancient egypt sculpture
Ibis, 664-30 BCE, Cleveland Museum


Herodotus describes the sanctity of two particular birds, the hawk and the ibis. These two birds that alone were so sacred, that their killing could not be repaid by any other means except the death sentence. This was because of the majesty of the gods with whom the birds were associated: the hawk with Horus and the ibis with Thoth.


“Thus, food is provided for them. Whoever kills one of these creatures intentionally is punished with death; if he kills accidentally, he pays whatever penalty the priests appoint. Whoever kills an ibis or a hawk, intentionally or not, must die for it.”
(Hdt. 2.65.5)


god thoth sculpture
Thoth, c. 644 BC-30 CE, Minneapolis Institute of Art


The ancient Egyptian city of Buto had a shrine to Horus, the powerful hawk-headed god of kingship and the sky who was associated with two animals: the hawk and the shrew, and these animals were taken from all over Egypt for burial there. The city of Khemenu was the main cult center of Thoth, god of wisdom and the moon. Because the Greeks related Thoth to Hermes, Herodotus calls it Hermopolis (city of Hermes). Herodotus may be the first person to make this association. The ultimate fusion of Hermes and Thoth gave us the Hellenistic Hermes Trismegistus whose legendary teachings led to a religious philosophy and medieval Hermeticism that included the art of alchemy. The idea of Hermes being ‘thrice great,’ trismegistos, is based on an attribute of Thoth. The etymology of Thoth’s name according to Egyptologists includes an early form of the word ibis, his sacred bird. It follows, therefore, that dead ibises were taken to Hermopolis for burial.

Author Image

By Dr. Eugenia RussellProfessor of History, History of Art, and Political PhilosophyHistorian and publisher Dr Eugenia Russell has written and edited several academic books and articles. She has strong research interests in early modern cultural history and especially the literature, art and culture of Byzantium and early modern Greece. She also has co-authored three books on the history of Watford and South West Hertfordshire. Her shorter pieces have appeared in BBC History Magazine, the British Library website, Oxford Bibliographies Online, Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Ancient World Magazine and many other publications. In 2021 she co-founded Book Publishers Lone Fox Publishing.