The Baboons and Monkeys of Ancient Egypt

The Baboons and Monkeys of Ancient Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Royce Hiller

A Hamadryas Baboon

In ancient Egypt, baboons and monkeys often play a significant and mysterious role in religion and elsewhere. This somehow seems strange, as there are certainly no native monkeys or baboons to Egypt, nor have there been for some time stretching back to antiquity. However, it is clear that prehistoric Egyptians of the fourth millennium BC were familiar with monkeys, including the imposing and dangerous baboons and the African long-tailed monkey. Since that time, they have held a permanent place in ancient Egyptian religion as one of the more important animal forms into which the gods might be transformed. Also the very word "baboon" may be derived from ancient Egypt, perhaps from a linguistic root that characterized its sexual activities.

The Green monkey

It seems likely that various types of monkeys inhabited the landscape of Egypt in the earliest of times. Prehistory saw a much wetter region with a landscape considerably greener than today, and the process of its drying out into mostly desert with only the fertile Nile ribbon cutting through the country, together with a few scattered oasis, may have been taking place even into Egypt's Old Kingdom. It is very possible that even during the Old Kingdom times, baboons and monkeys may still have lived in the southern part of Upper Egypt, though today their range is limited to southern Arabia (hamadryas), Ethiopia (monkeys), and the steppes of the Sudan (baboon). However, irregardless of tomb paintings depicting monkeys during the Middle Kingdom, it is doubtful that there remained indigenous populations of these animals by that late date.

By the New Kingdom, monkeys were being imported to Egypt, usually from Nubia or the land of Punt. Apparently they were kept in various capacities, perhaps even as pets, but they also were held in colonies by the temples, as were other animals that were associated with the gods. Within these sacred troops, there were probably births, though the rearing of these animals was probably only partially successful. By the Late Period, we find buried in the necropolises various such animals including hamadryas or the sacred baboon (papio hamadryas), baboons (Papio cynocephalus anubis), green monkeys (Cercopithecus aethiops), red monkeys (Cercopithecus pata), and the barbary ape (Macaca sylvanus).

A ring with a solar barque together with too baboons from the tomb of Tutunkhamun

Though many of these animals were considered to be a vessel that could be inhabited by the gods, and must have been given considerable care, investigations into the animal necropolises of Saqqara and particularly Tuna el-Gebel have revealed that their life expectancy in Egypt was very limited. Of the two hundred or so specimens that have been examined, hardly any lived into their sixth through tenth years. Unfavorable living conditions resulted in undernourishment and the lack of freedom of movement and sunlight led to rickets, degenerative bone diseases and probably tuberculosis. While the knowledge of the ancient Egyptians may even today be impressive to us, they seem to have lacked the ability to provide the proper care for these animals.

Baboons representing Thoth in the Greek Period tomb of Petosiris at Tuna el-Gevel

Beyond religious uses, monkeys were also certainly kept as pets in the houses of the upper class, though they were unlikely to have been allowed to roam the house, 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 actually dangerous animals, and they must have been kept firmly on leashes, as they are usually depicted in tribute scenes.

Monkeys and baboons were also later exported from, or at least through Egypt to various locales such as to the Assyrian court and to Syria. A few monkey keepers even appear in the Assyrian city of Nineveh.

The mysteriousness of the monkey in Egyptian art comes from an inference of symbiosis involving humans and monkeys. As early as the Old Kingdom, we find scenes depicting monkeys engaged in various human activities, many of which were questionable while some were impossible. Various scenes depict these creatures performing dances and playing music, participating in fig harvests or climbing dom palms and throwing the fruit down. They are present at winepresses or beer making, and even helping with the morning toilet in the women's chamber. They appear unrealistically rigging sea going boats and in boat building scenes. During the New Kingdom, on ostraca and papyri, there are particularly common depictions of monkeys portrayed in various playful human poses. However, scholars such as Deiter Kessler believe that there were no trained monkeys in ancient Egypt, and that most such scenes have some sort of "religio-theological function", though particularly on New Kingdom ostraca there may have also been an element of humor.

Baboons from the tomb of Tutankhamun

We probably do not completely comprehend the significance of monkeys and baboons in Egyptian religious symbolism, but there is no doubt that they were kept as ritual animals since the earliest periods of Egyptian history. The fact that baboons displayed human characteristics may have contributed to the early identification of the deceased ruler with the animal. It is even possible that mummified baboons were used to represent the deceased royal ancestors of the Predynastic chieftains. During the ceremony to renew the physical world and the person of the ruler, 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 sed-festival of royal rejuvenation may have developed from this earlier practice. An image of a baboon representing King Narmer, erected by an official, implicitly suggest 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 believe that the title of this god is derived from the silver-gray mane of a dominant hamadryas. There are also small, Early Dynastic plaques that show the king or priests performing the Opening of the Mouth ceremony and transfiguration before monkeys.

Baboons worshipping the sun god with Ramesses III at Medinet Habu

Baboons worshipping the sun god with Ramesses III at Medinet Habu

However, monkeys were not necessarily considered benevolent creatures. There were rites involving monkeys that are documented by early illustrations and alter by religious texts that describe the danger of monkeys "who cut off heads". In fact, 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. For example, four baboon-like creatures guarded the mythical "Lake of Fire" in the Egyptian underworld.

A conopic jar with the head of Hapy in the form of a baboon

Monkeys and baboons played an essential role in Egyptian cosmogony. Various gods were portrayed as these creatures, and some of the earliest deities were sometimes depicted with baboon heads. One of the Four Sons of Horus, Hapy, who was associated with mummification, was represented as a baboon-headed canopic god. The green monkey, particularly when depicted shooting with bow and arrows, was an aspect of the invisible primeval god, Atum.

The baboon also became an aspect of the sun god Re, as well as of the moon god Thoth-Khonsu. The ancient Egyptians who observed the baboon barking at the rising sun gave rise to a favorite theme in sculpture, paintings and reliefs of a baboon worshiping the sun with raised hands. Monkey demons as the companion of the sun god appear in the royal netherworld texts, though along side their positive role was the dangerous aspect of the baboon, whose form could also be assumed by the enemy of the gods such as Apophis and Seth.

Shrieking baboons at sunrise was perceived as a hymn to the sun god

Sexual potency and prowess were associated with the baboon god Bebon, who was closely related to another baboon god named Baba (Babi). The latter god had red ears, blue hindquarters and the features of Seth.

Of course, the squatting baboon became an early, visible and protective form of Thoth, one of Egypt's most notable gods associated with knowledge and scribes. The baboon of Thoth (also called Isdes) became an assistant in the judgment hall in the underworld.

Statue of a scribe writing at the feet of Thoth as a lunar baboon

Thoth was also a moon god and the identification of the baboon with him eventually resulted in the baboon's association with the moon god, Khonsu. At the Temple of Khonsu in Thebes, statues of Khonsu in the form of a baboon fronted the complex. In the Late Period, we know from a baboon tomb at Saqqara that the god Thoth-Khonsu became an important nocturnal oracle god, to whom written petitions for the priests were submitted. In this form, during the Greek Period, he was called Metasythmis, meaning "hearing ear".

By the Late Period, titles such as "Priest of the Living Baboon" or "Priest of the Osiris-Baboon" were held by individuals who served gods in the court of the sanctuaries that had the form of baboon statues. They also looked after the sacred temple monkeys. The sacred troops of baboons functioned in small groups. The best known example are those from Memphis, and Ptolemaic texts from the Necropolis at Saqqara confirm that a colony of these animals was kept in the temple of Ptah "under his Moringa-tree" in the valley. There may have been a dozen or so in the colony at any one time. One of these would have been singled out as an oracular and given the name, "the face of the baboon has spoken".

Unlike baboons, there was no personal worship of monkeys in Egypt. They were deified only after they died, and were kept exclusively as ritual animals in the temples prior to this. The ritual interment of these monkeys may very well have begun with those buried in a tomb during the reign of Amenhotep III in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes. The animals may have been used during the sed-festival of that king.

Not until the the 26th Dynasty were sacred baboons buried in the ibis necropolis near Tuna el-Gebel. However, by the Ptolemaic Period, monkey mummies are found alongside those of ibises and falcons in almost every animal necropolis. The highest quality burials of monkeys are found in the well documented baboon galleries of Memphis at Saqqara, but also in the animal cemeteries of Tuna el-Gebel, Abydos and the Valley of the Monkeys at Wadi Gabbanet el-Girud in southern Thebes. These burials all probably date to the late Greek and early Roman Periods.

At first, baboons were buried in simple wooden coffins. From the 26th Dynasty, mummified baboons were buried in wooden coffins. At the very beginning of the Greek Period under its first two rulers, the baboons were buried in special rooms where they were placed in costly limestone sarcophagi. During this period, they were sometimes interred in fairly large rock-cut chambers at Tuna el-Gebel. There, a special room at the foot of the entrance steps provided statues of Thoth in the form of a baboon and that of an Ibis. The rock cut chambers were lined with stone blocks and decorated with ritual scenes. In front of the (often several) chambers' cult areas was a four-step staircase with offering stands and libation slabs. These cult areas of the early Greek Period had been sold to priestly families, who doubtless lived off the income from petitioners and the donations from the state on the occasion of religious festivals. After Ptolemy I and Ptolemy II, the practice of using wooden coffins returned.

Much of what we know of baboons and monkeys in ancient Egypt is derived from these burials. For example, we know from that sacred temple baboons had individual names, but there is no evidence for that with regard to green monkeys. In fact, the temple baboons of the Ptolemaic Period buried at Saqqara have their genealogies inscribed on their coffins, often along with their dates of birth and death. This was not always the case. The deified baboon first appears at Tuna el-Gevel as "Osiris-Baboon, justified", with no individual name. The first time a personal name appears for a baboon was on a piece of linen from the 26th or 27th Dynasty. During the Ptolemaic period the names of baboons are known from the stone false door slabs of their 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. The Hermopolitan baboons often had names such as "Thoth-has-come", "Thoth-is-the-one-who-has-given-him", "Thoth-has-been-found", or "the-strong-featured-one-has-come".

A representation of Thoth as a baboon at Hermopolis

It should also be noted that monkeys were readily used as decorative elements on three dimensional objects, such as toilet articles and toys. They also appear on scarabs and as statuettes. From the New Kingdom onward, temple statues of baboons are somewhat common. They frequently appear to be squatting on a raised platform, often accessed by a flight of stairs. In the Hermopolis of Middle Egypt, giant quartzite baboons belonging to the reign of Amenhotep III were found. These may have originally been grouped around a sacred lake. Other large statues of monkeys once stood in the entrance areas to the animal cemeteries. In the temple of Babylon in Old Cairo, a statue of a green monkey once stood in the forecourt as the town god.

Hence, from the beginning of Egyptian history through at least the beginning of the Christian period, baboons held a very consistent and important role in ancient Egyptian religion, in many different aspects, from demon to protector. They became associated with a number of the most important Egyptian gods, as well as the king, even though through most of the period, they would have had to be imported from abroad.






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