The Ibis’ Symbolism in Ancient Egypt

Perched on a tree stump in the pond, a magnificent red bird cleans itself with its long curved beak. There was something just so captivating about its head that drew my eyes to it. I whipped out my camera immediately, looking through my viewfinder for a good shot. In that moment, this red bird spread its wings as though posing for me. Under the sunrays, its outer feathers turned into shades of orange. The fiery palette of colours and black-tipped wings made it feel like I was witnessing a mythical phoenix, just like the one in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Of course Birds of Eden does not have a resident phoenix because it does not exist. The red bird was a scarlet ibis (Eudocimus ruber). The scarlet ibis itself is native to South America and the Caribbean islands, but ibis species exist across the world. Although the ibis falls short of being a phoenix, it has found itself being assigned symbolic meanings in various cultures and literature. One of the ibis’ major symbolisms can be found in ancient Egyptian religion and mythology. While the scarlet ibis was not the subject of symbolic representation in this part of the world, its distant cousins – the sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) and the northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita) – had religious and mythological significance in ancient Egypt.

Birds and Ancient Egyptian Society

Avian species in general had had significance in the functions and culture of ancient Egyptian societies. Beyond ibises, domesticated birds such as pigeons, ducks, and geese have “provided nourishment, employment to fowlers and herdsmen, and appeasement to the gods and the dead in their afterlife” (Bailleul-LeSuer, 2012, p. 31). These birds played essential practical roles in everyday lives of the average Egyptian.

Avian species also influenced the ancient Egyptian language. Various birds including the ibis, heron, and dove, have been extensively represented in ancient Egyptian and Coptic letters (see Gaudard, 2012, p. 66). The older hieroglyphics – origins of the Coptic manuscripts – are considered as visual records of the ancient history of Egypt. As such, for avian species to be incorporated into the ancient Egyptian language for thousands of years as characters and letters, that would mean not only were numerous birds observed in the geographical landscape, but also these birds had had deep, cultural meanings assigned to them.

The Spiritual Ibis

The cultural significance of birds can be explained from the religious perspective. In relation to ancient Egyptian language, a major reason why birds were extensively incorporated into the alphabetical system and iconography is because the very “Lord of the divine words”, Thoth, was commonly depicted as a sacred ibis (Gaudard, 2012, p. 65). The sacred ibis represented the moon, while Thoth was the moon-god, hence the connection between the two entities.

Richard Jasnow (2012) further analyses the ancient Egyptian word for ‘ibis’, hb, in religious texts such as the Book of Thoth (p. 73). Hb has been used as a stylistic device to narrate theological tales because of its phonetic resemblances with other words. One way this was done is in the tale or statement about the ibis (Thoth) trampling the turtle (Apopis). The word for ‘to trample’ is hbhb. Thus, this makes the statement essentially wordplay. Jasnow argues that the simplicity of hb “hides within itself a whole constellation of ideas and cultural references” (p. 73). As such, the word hb represented the complex significance and divinity of the ibis.

The ibis has also been related to the spiritual and the afterlife. Some scholars have argued about the connection between the northern bald ibis and the concepts of akh, meaning ‘spirit’ or ‘blessed dead’, and akhu, meaning ‘living’ or ‘the resurrected’ (Janák, 2010, p. 19). Archaeological findings have shown that images of the northern bald ibis were carved on various ivory items such as plaquettes, rods, and tomb labels (pp. 22-23). These seem to suggest that the northern bald ibis had some role in the spiritual realm. The presence of ibis imagery on funerary items could hint to a ritualistic significance of the northern bald ibis for the dead.

A more intriguing study has to do with the mummification of sacred ibises. Radiographic examinations of ibis mummies have found bird foodstuffs being placed in the body cavity (Wade et al., 2012, pp. 1644-1646) after the evisceration process. In other words, the internal organs related to digestion were returned to the body, along with the original contents. The embalming and preservation of the viscera suggest that internal organs had an important role in ensuring “a functional and enjoyable afterlife” for the ibises (p. 1646). The mummification of ibises had similar significance to that of humans. Ibises essentially had substantial symbolic value in the spiritual realm.

It is eye opening to know how wildlife has had deep influence in the development of a society’s culture and functions. It is not uncommon across ancient civilisations and tribal groups to draw spirituality from nature and animals. An important lesson would be that ancient societies had in some respects peaceful coexistence with nature. Perhaps it is apt to review lessons from these ancient groups, and to strive to apply some of them in today’s modernised context.

References:

Bailleul-LeSuer, R. (2012). From Kitchen to Temple: The Practical Role of Birds in Ancient Egypt. Between heaven and earth: Birds in ancient Egypt. Bailleul-LeSuer, R. (Ed.). Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 23-32

Gaudard, F. (2012). Birds in the Ancient Egyptian and Coptic Alphabets. Between heaven and earth: Birds in ancient Egypt. Bailleul-LeSuer, R. (Ed.). Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 65-70

Janák, J. (2010). Spotting the akh. the presence of the northern bald ibis in ancient egypt and its early decline. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, 46, 17-31

Jasnow, R. (2012). Birds and Bird Imagery in the Book of Thoth. Between heaven and earth: Birds in ancient Egypt. Bailleul-LeSuer, R. (Ed.). Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 71-76

Wade, A. D., Ikram, S., Conlogue, G., Beckett, R., Nelson, A. J., Colten, R., . . . Tampieri, D. (2012). Foodstuff placement in ibis mummies and the role of viscera in embalming. Journal of Archaeological Science, 39(5), 1642-1647. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2012.01.003

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