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According to archaeologists, it looks like worshipers of
the croc deity Sobek bred the Nile’s most famous reptile for mummification.
Nobody loved animals in quite the way the ancient
Not only did they incorporate animals into their pantheons, they
also honored them as gods by breeding the animals, then sacrificing and
Look no further than the Egyptians’ complex relationship with
the Nile’s crocodiles.
After all, they both worshiped the crocodile god Sobek
and bred, raised, and mummified tons of baby crocs.
Sobek and affiliated reptilian deities had their
headquarters in the Faiyum, an oasis in Upper Egypt; their popularity peaked in
the Greco-Roman period (332 BCE–395 CE).
According to scholar Michal Molcho, a
crocodile cemetery in the Faiyum, especially the town of Tebtunis, contained
thousands of mummies.
The sheer scale suggests that “the young reptiles may
have been bred commercially”
Greek and Roman primary sources, like Herodotus and
Strabo, place great emphasis on the care Egyptians paid their crocs.
posits that the sheer number of crocodile mummies meant that people would have
had to capture or breed them by the thousands; breeding might have been easier
after several generations of taming the animals, rather than trapping dozens of
reptiles or stealing eggs.
The written evidence for croc keepers is scarce, but the evidence for breeding programs of other sacred animals is abundant.
suggests, scholars can extrapolate from this knowledge to understand more about
what went on in the Faiyum.
Contemporaneous evidence for the cult of the ibis
(sacred to Thoth) and the cult of the hawk (sacred to Horus) mention formal
positions for bird “attendants.” These sacred animals and their offspring even
had their own bodyguards, as well as their own feeding grounds, leased by
shrines for the birds’ exclusive use. Temples to Sobek owned quite a bit of
land in their own right, so it’s likely some was set aside for crocs to devour
goodies as they pleased.
Molcho notes a fascinating discovery in the Faiyum town
of Narmouthis. There, archaeologists have singled out two buildings as “a
crocodile nursery and hatchery,” suggesting an institutional breeding program
was, indeed, present in at least one town.
About ninety crocodile eggs were
discovered, buried in deep holes, being incubated. Once hatched, the baby
crocodiles would reside in shallow basins before being “sacrificed, mummified
and then sold to worshipers as votive dedications.”
The fact that Narmouthis provides the only extant
evidence for crocodile hatcheries might be a bit of a fluke, however. If the
Egyptians utilized the marshy conditions near the Faiyum canals to create
crocodile-breeding havens, then physical evidence from many nurseries has
likely been drowned or destroyed.
Molcho also suggests a regional trade network in the
Perhaps the animals were bred in one place and exported to another for
mummification, which allowed the whole region, rather than one town, to profit
from the business.
Thus, the Egyptians worshiped and commodified the croc: a
truly complex inter-species bond.