The Nile River, the Nile Valley, and the surrounding deserts were filled with a variety of amphibians and reptiles—crocodiles, snakes, lizards, and frogs—which inspired a mixture of awe and dread among the ancient Egyptians.
The ancient Egyptian word for crocodile, msḥ (Crocodilus niloticus), has survived in the Egyptian Arabic timsāḥ. Its distribution and frequency today are not as great as in ancient times. They are frequently depicted in Nilotic scenes in tombs, laying eggs, as prey of hunters, or lying in wait to devour baby hippopotami. The crocodile posed a particular threat to young children and people who worked in the water—boatmen, water-carriers, fishermen, washermen, and boatbuilders—as well as to the cattle in charge of herdsmen, who used a special apotropaic gesture against the animals and recited magical formulas to keep them at bay. The ibis and ichneumon were considered threats to crocodiles because these animals reputedly ate their eggs.
In a religious context, crocodiles played an ambivalent role. The crocodile was worshipped as the god Sobek, particularly at Kom Ombo and in the Faiyum, and crocodile mummies have been unearthed at cult sites all over Egypt. The crocodile could be identified with the good god Osiris or with his evil brother, Seth. While Egyptians expressed the wish to be transformed into crocodiles after death, a crocodile-headed demon consumed the souls of the dead who had not lived virtuous lives, and they needed spells to protect themselves from crocodiles in the afterlife. Crocodile statuettes were worn as amulets and the animal was often depicted on scarabs. A magic spell against headache was recited over a mud crocodile figurine. In the story of King Khufu and the Magicians, a man exacts revenge on the adulterer engaged in an affair with his wife by having a magician form a wax crocodile which turns into a full-sized animal that carries off the adulterer. Crocodile dung, fat, and eyes were used in medical prescriptions, but there is limited evidence for their consumption as food.
Snakes (ḥfʒw was the most common Egyptian term for the members of the suborder Ophidia) were found throughout Egypt in the desert, fields, pastures, and houses, and around the Nile. Poisonous snakes posed a serious threat. A papyrus manual for the treatment of snakebite lists the names of thirty-seven types of snake distinguished by the ancient Egyptians. It gives a physical description of each snake and its habitat, along with precise descriptions of symptoms, whether or not the wound is mortal, and the name of the god or goddess of which the snake is considered to be a manifestation. Following the list of snakes is a list of remedies. One of the snakes the Egyptians had to contend with was the horned viper (Cerastes cornutus), whose rasping coils make a sound like the letter f; hence, its image was used as the hieroglyph to write this letter (fy was the Egyptian word for “viper”).
The snake god Apophis was considered the enemy of order, and images of Apophis were subjected to various tortures during special rituals designed to ensure the triumph of Re and Maat over chaos. Other snake deities had positive aspects. The goddess Renenutet was associated with the fertility of crops and had close ties with weaving and linen. She was worshipped throughout Egypt, but her cult was of particular significance in the Faiyum. The snake goddess Meretseger may have been an object of a domestic cult in the village of the royal tomb-builders and their families at Deir el-Medina. Certainly, nonpoisonous snakes would have been considered beneficial to the house, as they are sometimes regarded today in Egypt, because they ate rodents.
The uraeus worn at the front of the king's headdress depicts the Egyptian cobra (Naja haje). It represented the snake goddess Wadjet, associated with the Lower Egyptian sanctuary of Buto. The uraeus came to be considered a protector of kingship.
Snakes appear in several Egyptian literary works. The central character in the Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor is a cobra who saves the shipwrecked sailor, and the eponymous character of the Story of the Doomed Prince escapes one of the fates that had been decreed for him at birth after his wife puts out some beer to attract the threatening snake out of its hole. The snake drinks it, passes out, and is hacked up by the woman.
Several dozen species of lizards (ḥntʒsw) are still found in Egypt today. Geckos were common, and the hieroglyph which means “many” (ʿšʒ) probably represented the fan-footed gecko (Ptyodactylus hasselquistii) or the white-spotted gecko (Tarentola annularis). Members of the genus Uromastyx are also depicted in art. All Egyptian lizards, including geckos, are harmless, and are found outdoors and in houses. The ancient Egyptians, however, regarded them with dread, as do modern Egyptians, who commonly consider them capable of poisoning food and causing skin diseases. Religious texts and coffins, including the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead), contain vignettes in which protective deities are depicted holding geckos, along with other harmful objects such as knives and snakes. The gecko was also said to be the enemy of the sun god Re and was associated with the god Anubis. A medical text contains prescriptions to keep lizards out of the house, while cooked lizards were used in a magic potion meant to cause skin disease. The final entry in the aforementioned manual is a “poisonous” legged reptile, which its publisher identifies as a chameleon, but which may actually be a gecko.
The most famous association of frogs with Egypt is as the second plague recounted in the Old Testament. Egyptian frogs and toads (ʿbḫn or qrr) are of the species Rana mascareniensis and various Bufo species. This ubiquitous resident of the Nile marshes probably inspired the Egyptians to use a hieroglyph of the tadpole (ḥfn) to designate the number 100,000. The birth goddess Heqat is depicted as a frog, or frog-headed. Frogs also appear frequently on amulets and as figurines.
- Anderson, John. Zoology of Egypt, vol. 1: Reptilia and Batrachia. London, 1898. Contains systematic descriptions of a number of reptile and amphibian species.
- Broekhuis, Jan. De Godin Renenwetet. Bibliotheca Classica Vangorcumiana, 19. Assen, 1971. Publication of a dissertation, in Dutch, on the snake goddess Renenutet, with English summary, pp. 149–152.
- Brunner-Traut, Emma. “Eidechse.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 1: 1204–1205. Wiesbaden, 1975. Short article on lizards contains fair bibliography.
- Brunner-Traut, Emma. “Krokodil.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 3: 791–801. Wiesbaden, 1980. Overview of crocodiles in Egypt, with extensive bibliography.
- Dolzani, Claudia. Il dio Sobk. Memorie della Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Classe di Scienze Morali, Storiche e Filologiche, ser. 8, v. 10, fasc. 4. Rome, 1961. On the crocodile god Sobek.
- Houlihan, Patrick F. The Animal World of the Pharaohs. Cairo, 1996. This easily accessible, richly illustrated book has an excellent bibliography.
- Johnson, Sally B. The Cobra Goddess of Ancient Egypt. London and New York, 1990. An overview of the uraeus and a typological study of uraei during the Predynastic through Old Kingdom periods.
- Kákosy, László. “Frosch.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 2: 334–336. Wiesbaden, 1977. Brief article on frogs.
- Keimer, Ludwig. “Sur quelques représentations de caméléon de l'ancienne Égypte.” Bulletin de l'Institut français d'archéologie Orientale 35 (1936–1937), 85–95. On the few representations of chameleons in Egyptian art.
- Keimer, Ludwig. Histoire de serpents dans l'Égypte ancienne et moderne. Memoires de l'Institut de l'Égypte, 50. Cairo, 1947. About snake charming and worship in ancient and modern Egypt.
- Leitz, Christian. Die Schlangennamen in den ägyptischen und griechischen Giftbüchern. Mainz, 1997. Lexicographic study of names of Egyptian snakes in Egyptian and Greek.
- Marx, Hymen. Checklist of the Reptiles and Amphibians of Egypt. Cairo, 1968. The most complete list published to date.
- Sauneron, Serge. “Une description égyptienne du caméléon.” Revue d'Égyptologie 24 (1972), 160–164. Identifies the legged reptile in the Brooklyn Papyrus as a chameleon.
- Sauneron, Serge. Un traité égyptien d'ophiologie. Cairo, 1989. Publication of the Brooklyn Papyrus, identifying snakes and the treatment of their bites.
Nicole B. Hansen