The prehistoric Egyptians of the fourth millennium BCE were familiar with monkeys, including the imposing and dangerous baboons and the African long-tailed monkey. Both animals were linked with the rejuvenation rituals and festivals of the Upper Egyptian chieftain, at the Predynastic stage, then later to those of the Early Dynastic Egyptian Horus-King. Since that time, they had a permanent place in ancient Egyptian religion as one of the more important animal forms into which the gods might be transformed. The word “baboon” may be derived from ancient Egyptian, probably from a linguistic root that characterized its sexual activity.

During early Old Kingdom times, baboons and monkeys may still have lived in the southern part of Upper Egypt. Nowadays, their range is limited to southern Arabia (hamadryas), Ethiopia (monkeys), and the steppes of the Sudan (baboon). Whether it is possible to conclude from tomb paintings that there were still indigenous monkey populations during the Middle Kingdom is doubtful. During the New Kingdom, monkeys were usually imported from Nubia and the land of Punt (roughly present-day Eritrea). In the Late period, the monkeys for the sacred temple troops were usually brought by ship for the temple of Ptah at Memphis, from Alexandria or from the South. Others were born in Egypt, but in the temple troops the rearing was probably only partially successful. The following types of monkeys were found in the Late period animal necropolises: hamadryas or sacred baboon (Papio hamadryas), baboon (Papio cynocephalus anubis), green monkey (Cercopithecus aethiops), red monkey (Cercopithecus patas), and the barbary ape (Macaca sylvanus).

Investigations into the animal necropolises of Saqqara and, above all, Tuna el-Gebel have revealed that because of the unfavorable living conditions, the life expectancy of the animals was very limited. Hardly any of some two hundred specimens examined reached their sixth to tenth years. Undernourishment, limited freedom of movement, and lack of light led to rickets, degenerative bone diseases, and probably tuberculosis. Even when trouble was taken to mend the broken bones of baboons or to feed them when they had jaw ailments, knowledge and care concerning the keeping of animals seems to have been limited. In Tuna el-Gebel there is no definite proof of hamadryas baboons. Yet in Western Thebes, eight out of eighteen specimens appear to have been hamadryas. Attempts have been made to extract reproducible DNA sequences from monkey mummies, to get genetic information, as has been done with human mummies. One problem with this technique is the widespread contamination of samples from human interference in ancient times, which had occurred during the mummification process.

A symbiosis of human and monkey has often been inferred from the many Egyptian wall paintings, going as far back as the early Old Kingdom, which show monkeys engaged in various human activities. Care must be taken when drawing conclusions about daily life from such variable and traditional images. In one tomb scene, from the fourth dynasty royal cemetery at Meidum, a boy is shown with a baboon and a green monkey on leashes, which is probably impossible. Scenes in which similar monkey keepers have four or more baboons and monkeys on leads are thematically related, and they often include a dog. The scene showing monkeys (who actually cause destruction and chaos) at markets cannot be accurate; neither is the monkey biting a thief in the leg—even if it is assumed that monkeys fulfilled a kind of policing function at markets. Trained monkeys are shown to perform dances and music there. In scenes of the fig harvest, baboons are shown climbing dom palms and throwing the fruit down, but only for themselves. There were no trained monkeys in Egypt, let alone baboons involved in the date and fig harvests. Monkeys were not present at winepresses or beer making, nor were they “guardians of the clothes bag” or helping with the morning toilet in the women's chambers. Both monkeys and baboons appear unrealistically in the rigging of sea-going boats and boat-building scenes. Egyptian wall paintings are not accurate scenes of everyday life, but artificially arranged images in accordance with the expectations of the tomb owners, for whom the monkeys in the pictures may have originally had a completely different religio-theological function. The scenes of the reversed world on ostraca and papyri, particularly common during the New Kingdom, with monkeys portrayed in playful human poses, must have been derived from mythical scenes, and were not there just to entertain. Little monkeys were readily used as decorative elements on the handles of toilet articles and as toys. They also appear on scarabs and as statuettes. Occasionally they are depicted holding the nut of a dom palm. The common combination “monkey–dom palm” had its own religious foundations; this is shown, for example, by a small stone object from an animal necropolis on which four monkeys holding dom palm nuts are grouped around a column.

Young monkeys were certainly kept as pets in the houses of the upper class, but they were unlikely to have been kept in the immediate living areas, despite the depiction of green monkeys (as well as cats, geese, and ducks) under the chair of the wife of a tomb owner. Green monkeys are dangerous animals, and they must have been kept firmly on leads, as is usually the case in tribute scenes. What is debatable, but quite possible, is that the green monkeys under the chair represent male sexuality, a symbolism that may be inferred from the analogous portrayal of the tomb owner's wife in the role of the sun god's consort.

Green monkeys and hamadryas baboons were imported from the land of Punt, as was shown in the New Kingdom representations and texts of the expedition of Queen Hatshepsut or in the (Middle Kingdom) Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor. Baboons also appear unrealistically in the pictures of Nubian tribute, either on the heads of the Nubians or around the necks of giraffes. At first they must have come via central African trade routes; baboons and green monkeys were later exported from Egypt to the Assyrian court and to Syria, or taken as booty by the Assyrian king Assurbanipal after the sacking of Thebes. A few Egyptian monkey keepers even appear in the Assyrian city of Nineveh.

Since ancient times monkeys have been employed as ritual animals in religious proceedings. The “humanness” of the baboons may have contributed to the early identification of the deceased ruler with the baboon. It is possible that mummified baboons were used to represent the deceased royal ancestors of the Predynastic chieftain. On the occasion of the rites to renew the physical world and the person of the chieftain, the individual ancestors were ritually deified in the form of baboons and received cultic offerings; the erection of wooden kiosks containing ancestor baboons at the great sed-festival of royal rejuvenation may have developed from this. A figure of a baboon as the image of King Narmer, erected by an official, implicitly suggests the transformation of the king into a baboon, no doubt as part of a rejuvenation festival. The king was identified with a baboon god, known as the “Great White One.” Some scholars think that the title “Great White One” derives from the silver-gray mane of a dominant hamadryas. Yet statuettes of baboons and green monkeys, deposited in front of Early Dynastic sanctuaries, have been interpreted as votive offerings to the cult.

Small Early Dynastic plaques show the king or priests (Iwenmutef priests) performing the Opening of the Mouth ceremony and transfiguration before monkeys. The king walks in front of a baboon with a vessel; the baboons receive wine jars. Rites involving monkeys are documented by illustrations, as well as by later religious texts that describe the danger of monkeys “who cut off heads.” The image of a baboon with raised tail serves as the hieroglyph for “enraged”; the baboon's wildness made it into a dangerous, apotropaic intercessory, being the primordial creation in a mythical landscape.

As primeval animals, baboons and green monkeys were an (essential) part of the Egyptian cosmogony. The earliest gods are sometimes depicted with baboon's heads. Hapy, one of the Four Sons of Horus, who was connected with mummification, was a baboon-headed canopic god. Baboonlike creatures guarded the mythical “Lake of Fire” and were then transferred to the newly created cosmic space. The baboon became an aspect of the sun god Re and of the moon god Thoth-Khonsu, as well as a stellar constellation. The green monkey was an aspect of the invisible primeval god Atum, particularly in the form of a monkey shooting with bow and arrow. The observation that baboons greet the rising sun in the morning by barking gave rise to a favorite theme in sculpture, painting, and relief—of the baboon worshiping the sun with raised hands. As companions to the sun god, monkey demons appeared in the royal netherworld texts. Alongside the helping role was the dangerous aspect of the baboon, whose form could be assumed by the enemy of the gods (Apophis, Seth). Sexual potency and prowess were the characteristics of the baboon god Bebon; he was closely related to the baboon god Baba, who had red ears, blue hindquarters, and the features of Seth. As a god with equal rights in the council of the gods, Baba was ridiculed there.

Monkeys and Baboons

Monkeys and Baboons. The god Thoth is represented by these baboons on the early Ptolemaic tomb of Petosiris, a priest of Thoth, at Tuna el-Gebel. (Courtesy of David P. Silverman)

The squatting baboon, under whose image the scribes of the royal residence did their writing, became an early, visible, protective form of the important Egyptian god Thoth. The baboon of the god Thoth (also called Isdes) became the assisting god in the judgment hall in the here-after. Thoth's representative cult locations were the towns of Hermopolis in Upper and Lower Egypt. In the temple forecourts of these towns stood images of the protective (city) god Thoth-baboon. The cosmic role of the baboon as the animal of the moon god Thoth eventually resulted in his identification with the moon god Khonsu. Statues of Khonsu in the shape of a baboon stood in front of the Theban Khonsu temple. In the Late period, the god Thoth-Khonsu became an important nocturnal oracle god. This baboon god statue, to whom written petitions for the priests were submitted, was called Metasythmis, Greek for the “hearing ear.”

From the New Kingdom onward, temple statues of baboons appear in the cult—usually a maned baboon. The baboons squat on a raised platform, often accessed by a flight of stairs; they are often holding wḏʒt-eyes. In the Hermopolis of Middle Egypt, giant quartzite baboons belonging to Amenhotpe III were found, possibly once grouped around a sacred lake. Sacred temple monkeys were kept for the rejuvenation of the baboon gods connected with the annual festival. Late period titles, such as “Priest of the Living Baboon” or “Priest of the Osiris-Baboon,” were held by people who served gods in the court of the sanctuaries that had the form of baboon statues. The group responsible for the god also looked after the sacred temple monkeys. A temple of the god Osiris-Baboon, from the time of Alexander IV, son of Alexander the Great, lies at the entrance to the underground ibis and monkey cemeteries at Tuna el-Gebel (called in Egyptian a “resting place for the ibis and the baboon”). The well-preserved sanctuary in front of the monkey necropolis at Saqqara near Memphis was probably dedicated to the same god. Other large statues of monkeys stood in the entrance area to the animal cemeteries. Numerous figurines were recovered depicting baboons and, more rarely, green monkeys. In the temple of Babylon in Old Cairo, a statue of a green monkey once stood in the forecourt as the town god. The two ensign gods “Baboon on the Standard” and “Green Monkey on the Standard” formed part of the processions at the great Egyptian festivals.

There was no personal worship of monkeys in Egypt. The ritual interment of sacred monkeys, which were deified only after they had died and which had been kept exclusively as ritual animals in the temples, may well have begun with the monkeys buried in a tomb from the time of Amenhotpe III in the Valley of the Kings in Thebes. The animals had probably been used during the sed-festival of that ruler. Not until the twenty-sixth dynasty were sacred baboons buried in the ibis necropolis near Tuna el-Gebel. In the early Ptolemaic period, monkey mummies are found alongside those of ibises and falcons in almost every animal necropolis. The highest quality burials are those in the well-documented baboon galleries of Memphis at Saqqara, as well as those at Tuna el-Gebel, Abydos, and the Valley of the Monkeys (Wadi Gabbanet el-Girud in southwestern Thebes), all probably from the late Ptolemaic and early Roman periods.

Sacred temple baboons bore individual names; there is no evidence for that with regard to green monkeys. The sacred temple baboons of the Ptolemaic period at Saqqara have their genealogies inscribed on their coffins, and often their dates of birth, installation, and death. At Tuna el-Gebel, the well-known spell to the sky goddess Nut from the Pyramid Texts is regularly found on pre-Ptolemaic coffin lids. The deified baboon first appeared there as “Osiris-Baboon, justified,” with no individual name; the first time a personal name appeared was on a piece of linen from the twenty-sixth or twenty-seventh dynasty. A painted Ptolemaic linen shroud is the only proof that in Tuna el-Gebel the name of the animal's mother was recorded. Otherwise, the names of the sacred baboons of the Ptolemaic period there are known from the stone false-door slabs of the coffin niches, from ritual scenes in the cult chambers of the sacred baboons, and from papyri that mention the cultic places of specific sacred baboons in the galleries. According to these texts, the Hermopolitan baboons were often named “Thoth-has-come,” “Thoth-is-the-one-who-has-given-him,” “Thoth-has-been-found,” or “the-strong-featured-one-has-come.”

From the twenty-sixth dynasty onward, mummified baboons were buried in wooden coffins. Under the first two Ptolemies, the coffins of baboons buried in special rooms were then placed into costly limestone sarcophagi. Later, the practice of simple wooden coffins returned. Only in Tuna el-Gebel, and during the reigns of Ptolemy I and Ptolemy II, were there individual baboon cult areas in fairly large rock-cut chambers. One special room at the foot of the entrance steps served a statue cult of the gods Thoth-Baboon and Thoth-Ibis. Nocturnal petitions would also have been presented here. The rock-cut chambers were lined with stone blocks and decorated with ritual scenes. They belonged to deified baboons separately identified by names in the form “Osiris-Baboon-Name-justified.” In front of the (often several) chambers' cult areas, was a four-step staircase, with offering stands and libation slabs. The cult areas had been sold to priestly families who lived off the income from petitioners and the donations from the state on the occasion of religious festivals. The baboons were probably the sacred animals of the town god of Hermopolis, Thoth-Baboon. Deified, they became Osiris, divine company for the town god Thoth-Baboon on the occasion of the Osiris festival. Then, transformed into Osiris-Baboon, they were subsequently reborn. Like the god, the baboons partook of the resurrection of the god Osiris.

The majority of the baboons buried in the wall and floor niches of the animal necropolises were probably members of the monkey colony kept in the temple precincts. In late Ptolemaic times, new cult areas were no longer created, so new monkeys were buried in the old baboon cult chambers. Sacred monkeys continued to be present in Egyptian temples, but lavish monkey burials seem to have ceased in the first century CE.

See also THOTH.


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  • Keimer, Ludwig. “Pavian und Dum-Palme” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts Kairo 8 (1938), 42–45.
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Dieter Kessler; Translated from German by Julia Harvey and Martha Goldstein