Animal Mummies Reveal the Spirit of a Culture

Text by Mary Gregory,  Photos by Adel Gorgy

When considering the art of the afterlife, the embrace of metaphor usually aids in understanding. Yet, in the art of ancient Egypt, some things are just as they seem.  In the land of pyramids and pharaohs, the afterlife was believed to mirror life on Earth. Food, drink, clothes, furniture and servants, sometimes real, sometimes in effigy, were packed into tombs, to provide for all the eternal needs of the deceased. Beloved pets were often buried in the family tombs of owners, giving new meaning to the concept of “forever homes.”

Recent excavations in Egypt have uncovered massive ancient cemeteries for animals. Both domestic and wild animals were buried with respect and consideration, reflecting the important roles they played in society. Through January 21st, 30 rare examples of mummified animals dating back to 3,000 B.C., along with some 65 related objects, are on view in the Brooklyn Museum’s thoughtful and thought-provoking “Soulful Creatures,” curated by Edward Bleiberg, Yekaterina Barbash and Lisa Bruno. 

A corn mummy from the Ptolemaic period, made in the form of Osiris, symbolized renewal and rejuvenation.

 Mystery, dignity and emotion fill the exhibit’s galleries. It’s touching to see the way a long-past society readily accepted the concept that animals possessed souls, just as people do. It was the exception; the curators point out that contemporary societies in Greece and Rome didn’t share this belief, even though, in the ancient world, animal life and human life were inseparable. Ancient Egyptians had thriving societies and comfortable homes, while, just outside, animals were farmed, the Nile was filled with fish and waterfowl, and the fields were plowed by creatures more powerful than men. It was natural for them to see animals as helpers and to acknowledge that harmonious co-existence was beneficial. 

Cats were beloved pets and goddesses in ancient Egypt, worthy of mummification to ensure eternal life.

Animals were also allies in interceding with the ancient Egyptian gods. Some of the mummified creatures in the exhibition were meant as offerings to deities, or to carry messages to powerful supernatural beings like Thoth, who took the form of an ibis, or Horus, the falcon-headed god. Working with New York’s Animal Medical Center, X-rays and CT scans were performed on several of the mummies revealing hidden secrets and surprises. Sometimes, just a single bone would be wrapped to stand in for a particular animal. Sometimes just feathers. One oblong package contains an entire ibis, folded like an umbrella, its enormous beaked skull bent down against its skeleton. 

Hawks represented the sun god, Re, Horus, and the king, all of whom were elevated in Egyptian society. A hawk-headed handle from the Middle Kingdom (1938-1759 B.C.)

One object on view is a long, skinny box, almost like a pencil case. It’s surprising to see that it was a coffin for a snake. Crocodiles, baboons, lions, rodents, fish, hippos and birds, including a spectacularly cased ibis mummy from the city of Abydos (one of the oldest on Earth) give a sense of the regard in which creatures were held. 

An ibis coffin in wood, silver, gold and rock crystal on view in “Soulful Creatures.”

The exhibition offers several stunning feline depictions, mummified and wrapped or upright and regal, donned with painted jewelry and protective spells. Anubis, the jackal-headed god who ushered souls to the afterlife, sits imperious, impassive and regal in a painted wooden sculpture from Saqqara about 640 B.C. 

A coffin to commemorate Horus, here wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Comprised of works from the extraordinary collections of the Brooklyn Museum, the show is complemented by a lavishly illustrated book filled with science, art, animals and Egyptian history. It presents probing essays by Bleiberg, Barbash and Bruno.

A painted mummy case from The Brooklyn Museum, which houses one of the finest collections of Egyptian art in the world.

Two antelopes sprint in an image so fresh and lively that looks like it was made today.

Ancient Egyptian society introduced countless advancements to human knowledge including some of the earliest forms of writing and monotheism, the first 24 hour day and the first 365 day calendar, early medical practices, astronomical calculations and maps, soil and farm engineering, and unparalleled architectural wonders. It’s never too late to learn something new, and sometimes the most surprising sources reveal treasures. “Soulful Creatures” reminds us at a time we sorely need it that all creation is imbued with dignity and divinity, that we are part of a large and mysterious world, and that every soul, no matter how small, how weak, how different, or how easily overlooked, deserves respect. 

Top Photo: A figurine of Anubis, who guarded the spirit of mummies.

About Mary Gregory (42 Articles)
Mary Gregory is an award-winning art critic and journalist whose work with museums, galleries, and auction houses led her to writing about art for publications like Newsday, Long Island Pulse, Afterimage, Art Week, Our Town, and the Chelsea News. A member of the International Association of Art Critics, she has degrees in both English and art history, and her fiction has been anthologized by the Georgia Museum of Art. ------------------Adel Gorgy's photojournalist work, which focuses specifically on art news and exhibitions, has been widely published in New York area magazines, newspapers and journals both online and in print. His fine art photography has been seen around the world in solo and group exhibitions in museums and galleries.