Egypt: Sobek, God of Crocodiles, Power, Protection and Fertility

Sobek, God of Crocodiles, Power, Protection and Fertility

by Caroline Seawright

sb k crocodile on a shrine determinative

Sobek (Sobeq, Sebek, Sochet, Suchos) was an ancient god of crocodiles, first mentioned in the Pyramid Texts. His worship lasted till Roman times, the people of Egypt worshiping him to gain his protection and strength, or reviling him and killing the crocodiles of the area because of the evil that they could do. To his worshipers, he was a god who created the Nile, a god of fertility and rebirth, and the symbolic strength of the ruler of Egypt.

Depicted either as a crocodile-headed man or as a full crocodile, Sobek was shown wearing a plumed headdress with a horned sun disk or the atef crown. In his hands he was shown to carry a was sceptre and the ankh sign of life. His sacred animal, the crocodile, was both revered and reviled by the people of Egypt - in some areas, a tame crocodile was worshiped as the god Sobek himself, while in other places the reptiles were killed. The Egyptians seemed to both respect and fear the power of the crocodile, and as the result of this, Sobek was seen as an ambivalent creature.

Statue of Sobek and Amenhotep III at the Luxor Museum

Image Mark T. Rigby

During the 12th and 13th Dynasties, the cult of Sobek was given particular prominence, as the names of such rulers as Sobekhotep and Sobekneferu indicate. Sobekneferu (1799-1795 BC) was the sister (and maybe the wife) of Amenemnhat IV (1808-1799 BC), was the last ruler of the 12th Dynasty - the first definite female pharaoh of Egypt. There were eight rulers of the 13th Dynasty with the birth name of Sobekhotep, including Sobekhotep II Amenemhat (c. 1750 BC), Sobekhotep III Sekhemrasewadjtawy (c. 1745 BC) and Sobekhotep IV Khaneferra (c. 1730-1720 BC).

-- British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson

The crocodile's power to snatch and destroy it's prey was thought to be symbolic of the might of the pharaoh - the strength and energy of the reptile was a manifestation of the pharaoh's own power. The word 'sovereign' was written as crocodile determinativecrocodile determinativehawk determinative yt. This way, the crocodile - and thus Sobek - was linked to the pharaoh, the sovereign of Egypt.

In times of need, he gives the pharaoh strength and fortitude so that he may overcome all obstacles

In times of need, he gives the pharaoh strength and fortitude so that he may overcome all obstacles. He also protects the pharaoh from all harm, especially evil magic.

-- Sobek, TourEgypt

Originally, Sobek was probably a dark god who had to be appeased to give the people his protection against crocodiles. Sobek had a dark streak that stayed with him for the time he was worshiped. In The Book of the Dead, he was showed as four crocodiles who were believed to attack the deceased in the underworld. This dark side sometimes put him in the camp of Set. In one version of the tale of Osiris, Isis had to place Horus into a little boat of papyrus reeds to protect him from a menacing Sobek. His form of a crocodile - one of Set's creatures - linked him closely to the enemy of Horus. It was believed that Set turned himself into a crocodile to escape from Horus, and Sobek was punished for allowing this.

Several bynames of Set have the determinative of the crocodile*. Although crocodiles may be the baw bas of Sobek, they may also be regarded as the messengers of Set. Set may be called mshcrocodile determinative msha [crocodile]. On the other hand, msha, the crocodile, is sometimes called the son of Set. It would be a mistake to deduce from this that Set is the father of a particular mythical son, in the way Osiris is the father of Horus. The intention is merely to express that a dangerous crocodile is a Setian product.

* `hycrocodile determinative ahy {Snarer; ytycrocodile determinative yty {Seizer; ... `waaycrocodile determinative away {Robber.

-- Set, God of Confusion: A Study of his Role in Egyptian Mythology and Religion, H. te Velde

Sobek, as with many of the other protective gods, also had a benign side. In a different version of the tale of Osiris, it was Sobek who carried the dead body of Osiris to the bank of the Nile on his back. The four mummiform sons of Horus - Imsety, human headed protector of the liver, Hapy, baboon headed protector of the lungs, Duamutef, jackal headed protector of the stomach and Qebehsenuef, falcon headed protector of the intestines - were believed to have come out of a water lily that rose from the waters of Nun. Under the orders of Ra, the four gods were rescued by Sobek in a net, and brought them to land.

The Book of the Dead suggests that Sobek's closeness to Horus can be traced back to his participation in the birth of this god. Sobek was responsible for calling Isis and Nephthys to aid in the protection of the dead.

-- The Crocodile God, Sobek, Catherine C. Harris

Sobek, in Crocodile Form,  Seated on a Shrine

Despite the different attitudes of people to the god, he was venerated as one who restored sight to the dead, who revived their senses and who protected them from Set who attacked those souls who traveled through the land of the dead.

A Crocodile Mummy, Still in it's Wrappings

Sobek was a god of the Nile (which was believed to have come from his sweat) who gave life to vegetation and fertility to the land. The 'Lord of the Waters' was believed to have risen from the primeval waters of Nun to create the world. One tale says that Sobek laid his eggs on the bank of the waters, starting the creation process. He was thus a fertility god, 'He Who Made the Herbage Green'. This explains his link to the rebirth of the deceased into the after life.

On the western border of the Fayum... on the lake of Moeris was the temple of Sobek of the Island, Soknopaios as it is called by the Greeks. It had a high-priest who received a small stipend of 344 drachm, and all the other priests together received daily about one bushel of wheat as remuneration for their trouble. They were not even immune from the statutory labor on the embankments, and if this was lessened for them, it was owing to the good offices of their fellow citizens.

-- Egypt, Myths and Legends, Lewis Spence

The Temple of Renenutet at Medinet Maadi

Sobek's temples were found scattered throughout the land of Egypt, but the Faiyum area in Lower Egypt was his sacred area. The Greek-named the town of 'Crocodilopolis' (Shedyet) had a temple where a tame, sacred crocodile was kept by himself in a lake. The crocodile was hand fed by the priests, seemingly for the amusement of ancient tourists, according to Strabo. At some of the temples, crocodiles of all ages were mummified and placed in sarcophagi in tombs, along with some unborn fetuses, still in the eggs. A temple at Medinet Madi was dedicated to Sobek, the goddess Renenutet and Horus. In Upper Egypt he was worshiped in the Kom Ombo - there was a temple at Kom Ombo dedicated to Sobek, Hathor and Khonsu. Another temple at Kom Ombo venerates both Sobek and Horus the Elder. Legend had is that the 'Lord of Bakhu' had a temple made of carnelian at Bakhu - mountain of the horizon.

I am Sobek, who dwelleth amid his terrors. I am Sobek, and I seize [my prey] like a ravening beast. I am the great Fish which is in Kamui. I am the Lord to whom bowings and prostrations are made in Sekhem. And the Osiris Ani is the lord to whom bowings and prostrations are made in Sekhem.

-- The Book of the Dead, The Chapter of Making the Transformation into the Crocodile God (Sobek)

Sobek first appeared in the Old Kingdom as the son of Nit, where he was known as adcrocodile determinative ad 'The Rager'. The two were mentioned as mother and son in the pyramid of Unas. Some tales suggested that Set was his father. He was given different wives in different areas - Hathor, Renenutet, Heqet to name a few. He was also thought to be husband of the goddess Taweret, who was sometimes depicted with a crocodile on her back. He was, likewise, given different children - Khonsu, Horus and Khnum were sometimes called his sons, again in different areas.

Those who do away utterly sins and offences, and who are in the following of the goddess Hetepsekhus, are the god Sobek and his associates who dwell in the water. The goddess Hetepsekhus is the Eye of Ra.

-- The Book of the Dead, Texts Relating to the Weighing of the Heart of Ani

Sobek, Wearing the Plumes, and Sun Disk, on a Temple Wall

During the Middle Kingdom, Sobek was linked to the god Amen, who seemed to have assimilated him to some degree. He was also connected to the sun god Ra, giving the form Sobek-Ra, who was worshipped as another omnipotent manifestation of the sun deity. Thus Sobek could be shown wearing either the headdress of Amen or the sun disk of Ra.

Having the form of a crocodile, the Egyptians believed that he also had the nature of a crocodile. He could be the strong, powerful symbol of the pharaoh, showing the ruler's might. He could use this force to protect the justified dead in their after life, and be the protector and rescuer of the other gods... yet he could also use that power to savage his enemies and the sinful deceased. He could bestow sight and senses to the dead, he could bring water and fertility to the land. Yet he was also closely linked to the enemy of Osiris. He was a god that was both feared and respected by the ancient Egyptians.

See Also:

The Nile Crocodile by Jimmy Dunn

Last Updated: August 21st, 2011