The ancient Egyptians’ sacralisation of other-than-human animals puzzled or offended both the Greeks and Romans -who tended to explain it in terms of the animals’ allegorical, symbolic, or ‘totemic’ importance, or their usefulness- and later commentators, coming from a vantage point of Christian and/or Cartesian anthropocentricism. There’s been some debate about whether the Egyptians regarded animals as vehicles for, or living images of, their gods, or as inherently divine beings within a cosmology that revered the natural world. They certainly had a pragmatic and complex relationship with birds, some asepcts of which -notably the sacrificing and mummification of sacred Ibises on an industrial scale- are difficult to comprehend from a postmodern ecological perspective. That said, the fauna of ancient Egypt was abundantly and often accurately represented in wall paintings, statutes, papyri, and heiroglyphs over a period of four thousand years'(1), and incorporated into iconic theriomorphic figures, including winged vulture goddesses, that retain considerable evocative power.
In his commentary on the Egyptian Book of the Dead (the Spells for Coming Forth by Day), John Taylor reminds us that most ancient Egyptians became parents in their teens, and were dead by the age of thirty five. ‘More than perhaps any other society they directed a vast amount of their material culture to counteracting death’. Their literature on death and immortality is ‘the oldest comprehensive expression of human thought about the survival of the individual’.(2)
For the ancient Egyptians the vulture was a scavenger of carrion on the battlefield, but also, and predominantly, a maternal figure. Perhaps becasue there’s very little sexual dimorphism in vultures, they were seen as entirely female birds. The heiroglyph for vulture came to mean ‘mother’, or ‘compassionate person’. Vulture charms, such as ‘the spell for a golden vulture’ were invoked in order to protect the deceased in their journey into the afterlife. The vulture goddess Nekhbet has been described as ‘both nursing mother of the dead and the womb from which they re-emerged into new life’.(3)
A rare image of an Egyptian Vulture, Neophron percnopterus, on a fragment of IV dynasty wall painting ‘displays a brilliant freshness after forty five centuries’. According to Patrick Houlihan, the bird’s plumage colour and morphological characteristics are reproduced with great accuracy. Houlihan describes the Egyptian Vulture as ‘perhaps the most loathsome of all scavenging birds’, because it often relies on human excrement and refuse, but then immediately acknowledges the species’ ecological importance.
The Griffon Vulture, Gyps fulvus, and the Lappet-faced Vulture, Aegypius tracheliotus, are depicted more frequently, though the former often appears in a conventionalised form representing Nekhbet. One particularly vivid painted relief shows a Griffon Vulture (with unrealistic red, blue, and green plumage) grasping the hierogyph shen (infinity) in her talons. A solid gold necklace recovered from the bandages of the mummy of a young Pharoah, features an intricate rendering of this huge raptor, again ‘representing’ Nekhbet. The gold figure has a lapis lazuli bill, and obsidian eye, and fine chasing denoting the layered feathers on the vulture’s underside. Another golden image of a Lappet-faced vulture, inlaid with coloured glass, on the innermost coffin of Yuaia (XVIII Dynasty), represents Nut, protecting the deceased with outstretched wings .(4)
After writing the first part of this post, I was dreamily contemplating an image of Nut with outstretched wings (above), and the notion of compassionately maternal vulture goddesses presiding over the transition we call death. I Knew there was more to say, but wasn’t sure what it was going to be. Then, less than two minutes after publishing the post, the imagery suddenly came alive, in a divinatory sense, when an e-mail arrived from an old friend I no longer see much, telling me that his mother had died.
Artist’s impression of Pluto based on images from the Hubble Space Telescope. C.M.handler, Creative Commons.
Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, the astrology of that moment proved beautifully apposite.* Pluto, ‘planet’ of the underworld, was setting, just 22 minutes of arc from the descendant -the Western angle of the horoscope, which in general terms indicates the business of intimate connection and relationship, but also has mythical associations with death (this being the symbolic point at which the sun sets). A waning Moon was in close attendance, conjunct Pluto -signifying both the death of a mother, and the protective vulture-mother imagery. The Moon and Pluto are both associated with Goddesses of Fate, who spin, weave, and cut, the threads of destiny on earth. There was much more to this astrological picture, of course, but the fine detail can’t be shared here.
My conclusion, based on contemplating evidence from astrological practice over the past thirty years or so, is that occurances such as this, where the unfolding of earthly circumstance appears to be closely mirrored, described, and to some extent impelled, by the configuration of the ‘planets’, show that the material world is suffused and shaped by meaning. If divination is grounded in a sense of the possiblity of meaningful dialogue with more-than-human worlds, divinatory moments, whether bidden or, as in this case, unbidden, re-connect us with a presence that feels both infinite and intimate.
* My astrology programme was out of action at the time, but in any case it wouldn’t have felt appropriate to rush from the emotional response of the moment to the cooler, more transpersonal, beauty of astrology. For many reasons, I’m cautious about using astrology, not least given that we live amongst something of a pandemic of anxiety and ‘paranoia’.
(1) Ingvild Saelid Gilhus, Animals, Gods, and Humans; changing attitudes to animals in Greek, Roman, and early Christian ideas, Routledge, 2006.
(2) John H. Taylor, ed. Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, Journey through the Afterlife, The British Museum, 2010.
(3) Thom van Dooren, Vulture, Reaktion Books 2o11, and Akkadia Ford, Isis, Afrikan Queen, Capall Bann, 1999.
(4) Patrick F. Houlihan, The Birds of Ancient Egypt, Aris and Philips, 1986.
Jules Cashford, The Moon, Myth and Image, Cassell, 2003.
Patrick Curry, ed. Divination, Perspectives for a New Millenium. Ashgate, 2010.
Brian Taylor, The Discovery of Pluto, An Unbidden Omen, pp249-330 in Suzi Harvey, ed. Orpheus, Voices in Contemporary Astrology, Consider, 2000. Written c1995, and in need of updating, but includes the sequence of ‘co-incidences’ surrounding the ‘planet’s’ discovery.