Herodotus – the Animals of Ancient Egypt

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Crocodile and Egyptian Plover birds

Herodotus The Animals of ancient Egypt

Read by Bertie.
Proofed and audio edited by Jana.

Hello this is Bertie, and in a moment I’m going to be telling you all about the fascinating animals of Ancient Egypt as reported on by Herodotus two and a half thousand years ago.

But first I’d like to say a very special thank you to Abigail in New Zealand, whose family support us generously on Patreon. Abigail is five years old and her favourite stories are Astropup and Lapis. And she calls them the ancient stories. She loves learning about new things, reading and has an active imagination. So I very much hope Abigail that you will enjoy hearing about the animals of ancient Egypt.
In ancient times, crocodiles were common in Egypt. These days, Egypt does not have many crocodiles, as they can’t swim past the great concrete Aswan dam that now blocks the River Nile.

But Herodotus saw these fierce reptiles snoozing with their mouths open on the banks of the Nile, and he noted that small birds sometimes hopped inside the crocs’ mouths and picked up bits of food from between their teeth. This type of bird is called The Egyptian Plover, and it still cleans crocodile’s teeth for them. Herodotus describes how the crocodile grows into an enormous animal after hatching out of a tiny egg. He says it has eyes like a pig’s, and its huge teeth stick out of its mouth. Well he gets some of his facts almost but not quite correct. For instance, he says the crocodile does not eat anything during four months of winter - actually, it does eat, but not very much during that time. He also says that the crocodile does not have a tongue - in fact it does one but it’s rather small.

He tells us that some Egyptians held crocodiles to be scared, which means they worshiped them like gods. Those who celebrated crocodiles brought them up at home, presumably in something like a bathtub. They decorated their pet crocs with earrings and bracelets for their feet. Other Egyptians, in my view, the more sensible ones, saw crocodiles as dangerous enemies, and even ate them when they got the chance. They used pigs as bait to hunt crocodiles.

Some Egyptians also thought that Hippopotamuses were sacred. Herodotus probably did not see these creatures for himself. He claimed that hippos had mains and tails like horses, and neighed like them too. He also thought that their hooves were cloven - or split - like a bull’s. It’s not hard to see where he got these mistaken ideas from. The word “Hippopotamus” comes from two Greek words - “hippos” meaning “horse” and “potamus” meaning “river” - so a hippopotamus means river-horse.

He also told us that otters lived in the Nile in those days - and in fact ancient Egyptians made statues of otters standing up as if they were praying.

Then he tells us that there is a sacred bird which he had not seen with his own eyes, but only in paintings. The feathers of this remarkable bird were red, and speckled with gold. It was shaped something like an eagle. This was called the phoenix. The phoenix lived most of the time in Arabia, and was a very rare visitor to Egypt. Once about every 500 years, when its father died, the phoenix made an egg out of myrrh - which is a perfumed gum or resin from the trunk of a tree. He hollowed out the egg and put its father inside it, before carrying him to the temple of the sun in Heliopolis in Egypt, where it buried him. Even Herodotus can’t bring himself actually to believe this tall tale. In truth, the phoenix is a mythical bird that does not exist at all.

He also tells us about a harmless Egyptian snake with two horns on its head. These snakes were sacred to the Egyptians and when they died they were buried in the temple of Zeus whose Egyptian name was Ra or Atum, the sun god. He also tells us about tiny snakes which flew every spring from Arabia to Egypt. He is surely thinking of locusts which are like grasshoppers. They are described in the bible as coming to plague the Egyptians.

According to Herodotus, a sacred type of bird called the Ibis defends Egypt from the flying snakes. He describes the ibis as having the legs of a crane, and a long, hooked beak. The Egyptians particularly revered the Ibis because it fought off the flying snakes.

Well those are some of the wild animals that ancient Egyptians considered to be sacred. But the most sacred animal of all for ancient Egyptians was the cow or bull, and next time, I will be telling you how the Ancient Egyptians worshiped them.
But for now, this is Bertie sending our best wishes to all Storynory’s listeners and their families. And especially on this occasion to Abigail in New Zealand.
For now, from me Bertie, goodbye!