Ancient Egypt is the gift that keeps on giving. Not just for historians and Egyptologists who learn more with each new find, but also for the animal enthusiasts keen on understanding the role they played in history. Few ancient civilizations embraced animals with such fervor, symbolism, and ceremony. A recent dig near the Saqqara necropolis delighted even salted experts.
Why? The excavations unearthed five rare mummified lion cubs. Beautifully decorated with hieroglyphics, the cubs were found near a bandaged-wrapped adult lion. This mummified “pride” was not the whole treasure. When Egyptologists opened this particular site, they eventually hauled off countless preserved cats and birds, 75 feline statues made of bronze and wood, and a freakishly large beetle.
Yes, the beetle was also mummified for some reason. The preservation process was done in such a way to enlarge the scarab almost three times its normal size. For now, nobody knows why. It’s just another delightful mystery from ancient Egypt. Additionally, for reptile lovers, the cache also included crocodiles and cobras.
Interestingly, the Saqqara necropolis is close to the famous pyramids of Giza, in Cairo. The trove, which a spokesperson described as “a whole museum by itself,” was created sometime during the seventh century BC. Egypt’s Supreme Council for Antiquities found the mummified zoo in 2004 but only released the information to the public a few days ago on their Facebook page. They also unveiled the artifacts during a ceremony that was attended by the public and journalists.
The hope is that the newly identified lion cubs might give Egyptologist a good clue about the complex manner in which Egyptians worshiped animals. Indeed, the cubs might one day reveal why they were used in the ceremony, why they were buried at that exact spot, how they died and if sacrificed; in what manner and for what reason. Experts already know that animals were sacrificed to appease the gods, who themselves were depicted as human-animal hybrids at times. Indeed, several gods were present at the burial. There were statues of Anubis in his animal form, Osiris, Ptah-Soker, and Sekhmet.
That last one, Sekhmet, shares a solid trait with the lion cubs. Not only was she a warrior goddess with a gift of healing, but Sekhmet was also portrayed in images as a woman with the head of a lioness. Her husband was Ptah, a god whose statues were also found at the Saqqara necropolis. In Egyptian mythology, she’s also linked to another lioness-like goddess called Bastet. Sekhmet was important enough to be associated with the Pharaohs. Blood sacrifices were often made in her honor.
Perhaps the impressive collection was part of a massive sacrifice to Sekhmet. If so, then the inclusion of the adult lion and five cubs starts to make more sense. But why kill so many animals, including the other cats, birds, and reptiles? Sekhmet was respected but she was also feared. The size of the offering might have been a hearty attempt by the Egyptians to please their goddess, who could also unleash plagues.