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Dispelling the myth – Herodotus, Cambyses, and Egyptian religion #2

During the Late Period, animal cults became exceedingly popular, ‘one of the distinctive religious features’ of the time, and the practice of making votive offerings of animals developed. The Sacred Animal Necropolis at Saqqara comprises a series of catacombs, commenced during the Late Period, which contain mummified animal offerings such as ibises, baboons, cows and bulls, and a number of bronze votive figurines have also been found, brought by worshippers visiting the site on pilgrimage. The placing of votive objects at shrines and temples is known from the Early Dynastic period and Old Kingdom, with evidence found at state temples and shrines at Hierakonpolis, Abydos and Elephantine. During the Middle Kingdom, this practice appears to have diminished, possibly due to the king, or priests acting on behalf of the king, taking over the role of offering to the state deities, but the custom of votive offerings returned in the Second Intermediate Period and New Kingdom with the introduction of ‘personal piety’ enabling the ‘ordinary’ people to worship the deities directly. However, it was not until the Late Period that the practice proliferated once more with figurines of the divinities, often cast in bronze.

W101 Bronze figure of Apis Bull (Swansea Egypt Centre online collection).

Bronze figurines of the Apis bull, such as W101 from the Swansea Egypt Centre collection, are a particularly characteristic find from the Late Period, and the bull itself has been described as a ‘national mascot’ by this time. The cult of the Apis, the embodiment of Ptah at his cult centre of Memphis and associated with Osiris upon its death, has provided the foundations for much of the controversy surrounding the treatment of the religious beliefs and practices by the kings of the first Persian period. In Histories, Herodotus claims that Cambyses stabbed the Apis bull in an act of defiance against worshipping animals as gods, and that the bull was buried without his knowledge, however two Apis bulls were interred with the complete burial honours in the Serapeum at Saqqara during his reign, including the ‘murdered’ bull, which was laid to rest in a sarcophagus bearing an inscription which included Cambyses name. This would appear to indicate that the Achaemenid king, rather than committing such a sacrilegious act, actually supported and sustained this cult practice. There is also evidence that displays Darius I in support of the cult and the associated rituals – a stele from the fourth year of his reign pertaining to the burial of the Apis bull bears an inscription testifying to the bull receiving the full burial honours, and states that ‘His Majesty loved the living Apis more than any king’. An inscription relaying that Darius sent the general Amasis throughout Egypt to collect finance for the burial of the deceased Apis bull and an alabaster basin dedicated as a royal offering to the Living Apis from Year 34 of Darius’ reign further endorse his support of the cult.

While much of the evidence for the religion of the Persian period pertains to Cambyses and Darius I, the burial of the mother of the Apis bull in the reign of the third Achaemenid king of the dynasty, Xerxes, is recorded in a Demotic document. It would appear that the cult of the Apis remained of great importance during the first Persian period, to the king and to the people, as demonstrated by the votive bronze figurines. The cult even retained its status during the reign of Xerxes, the king credited with ‘impious disregard to temple privileges’.

The cults of Neith at Sais and Apis at Memphis indicate that the Achaemenid kings were keen to sustain the existing religious beliefs and practices at the levels already established in the Saite Period. However, evidence pertaining to the cult of the goddess Isis indicates that her cult was able to grow in popularity during the first Persian period.

Next week: the statuette of the goddess Isis nursing the child Horus  (MMA 04.2.443) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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