Egyptians: Aelian on Egyptian views and customs about animals and animal-worship (late second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptians: Aelian on Egyptian views and customs about animals and animal-worship (late second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 11, 2024,

Ancient authors: Aelian (second-third century CE), On Characteristics of Animals, various entries (link).

Comments: Claudius Aelianus, known as Aelian, was a Roman author of the late second and early third centuries who wrote primarily in Greek. Aelian’s favourite approach in both of his substantially surviving works, including On Characteristics of Animals in this post, is to collect together a variety of (to him) interesting anecdotes and other things which are often presented in a somewhat random or disorganized manner. Often ethnographic material interests him considerably, which is why he is here. What I have done in this post is gather together all of Aelian’s Egyptian-related entries from On Characteristics of Animals, and there are subsequent posts on Indians (link) and Libyans (link). For ethnographic material from his work on Various Historical Items, where he draws on Nikolaos of Damaskos, go to this link.

The selections presented here do not merely involve Aelian discussing Egyptian animals (some of those have been left out here) but rather involve him giving a prominent place for Egyptians themselves, either as the ostensible reporters of the information shared (in which case I have bolded Egyptians as an instance of a source or author) or as those who engaged in customs relating to these animals. This collected material amounts to one of the most substantial surviving works by a Roman on Egyptian customs, it turns out. Although Aelian does not often identify specific authors of the works he cites (and instead speaks of drawing on “Egyptian accounts” or hearing from Egyptians), he does incidentally mention both the Egyptian Manetho (link) and the Alexandrian Apion (link) among his sources. He also clearly draws on Greek authors’ accounts of Egyptian matters, including Herodotos (Inquiries) and Aristagoras (author of the now largely lost fourth-century BCE work Egyptian Matters).

One of the most notable things here is that Aelian deals extensively (though in a scattered manner) with so-called Egyptian animal-worship. Yet Aelian is unlike many other Romans who denigrated this practice and viewed it as a sign of inferiority (with the notion being that Egyptians are lower on a hierarchy than animals). Instead, Aelian merely reports numerous cases of animal worship without passing judgment and, on one occasion below, appears to anticipate and refute negative Greek or Roman perceptions by pointing out cases where Greeks engaged in apparent animal worship. There is also an entry for the so-called Dog-faces, presented as though they are a paradoxical human group with animalistic features.

Works consulted: S.D. Smith, “Egypt and India,” in Man and Animal in Severan Rome: The Literary Imagination of Claudius Aelianus (Cambridge: CUP, 2014), 147–78.


(2.35) The Egyptians assert that a knowledge of enemas and intestinal purges is not a human discovery. Instead, they commonly affirm that it was the ibis [as a deity] that taught them this remedy. How it instructed those who were the first to see it, someone else can tell. I have also heard that it knows when the moon is waxing and when it is waning. I cannot deny that I have learned from some source that it diminishes or increases its food according as the goddess herself diminishes or increases.

(2.38) Here is another story relating to the Egyptian ibis [as a deity] which I have heard. The bird is sacred to the moon. At any rate it hatches its eggs in the same number of days that the goddess takes to wax and to wane, and never leaves Egypt. The reason for this is that Egypt is the moistest of all countries and the moon is believed to be the moistest of all planets. The ibis would never leave Egypt of its own free will. If some person would trap it and forcibly export it, it will defend itself against its assailant and bring all his labour to nothing, because it will starve itself to death and render its captor’s exertions pointless. It walks quietly like a maiden, and one would never see it moving at anything faster than a foot’s pace. The Black ibis does not permit the winged serpents from Arabia to cross into Egypt, but fights to protect the land it loves, while the other kind encounters the serpents that come down the Nile when in flood and destroys them. Otherwise there would have been nothing to prevent the Egyptians from being killed by their coming.

(4.54) The Egyptians assert – and scholars pay attention to what they say – that in a certain district of Egypt which they name after Herakles the son of Zeus, a good-looking boy (as Egyptian boys go) who herded geese was beloved and even admired by a female asp. It would keep company with its favourite and warn him in a dream as he slept of the plots that another savage creature, its fellow you might say, was hatching against him: the male asp was attempting to kill him, being as it were jealous of the boy on account of its wedded bride. And the boy would listen and obey and be on his guard. Now Homer [Iliad 19.404] allowed a horse to speak, and Nature, who according to Euripides “takes no account of laws” [fragment 920N], did the same to an asp.

(5.39) Demokritos asserts that the lion alone among animals is born with its eyes open and from the hour of birth is already to some extent angry and ready to perform some spirited action. And others have observed that even when asleep the lion moves his tail, showing, as you might expect, that he is not altogether quiescent, and that, although sleep has enveloped and enfolded him, it has not subdued him as it does all other animals. The Egyptians, they say, claim to have observed in him something of this kind, asserting that the lion is superior to sleep and for ever awake. And I have ascertained that it is for this reason that they assign him to the sun because, as you know, the sun is the most hard-working of the gods, being visible above the earth or pursuing his course beneath it without pause. And the Egyptians cite Homer as a witness when he speaks of the “untiring sun” [Iliad 18. 239]. And in addition to his strength the lion shows intelligence. . . [omitted remainder of entry].

(6.7) In Egypt near the lake Moeris as it is called, where Crocodilopolis is located, the tomb of a crow is pointed out. The Egyptians give the following reason: The king of Egypt (Mares was his name) possessed a remarkable crow which was quite tame. Any dispatches that he wished to have delivered anywhere this crow would speedily carry, and it was the swiftest of messengers. After hearing its destination, it knew where it must direct its flight to, which spot it must pass, and where it must pause on arrival. In reward for these services Mares honoured it when dead with a monument and a tomb.

(6.33) I am informed that the Egyptians bring birds down from the sky by some Magian skill (mageia) peculiar to them. And they have certain chants to trick snakes and draw them without any difficulty from their hiding-places.

(6.38) Among all those who have been bitten by an asp there is no record of a single man having escaped disaster. That is why (I am told) the kings of Egypt wear asps embroidered upon their crowns, hinting through the figure of this creature at the invincibility of their rule. There are asps as much as five forearms long. The majority are black or of an ashy hue, and one may even see a red one. Those who have been bitten by an asp do not live for more than four hours and are overtaken by choking, convulsions, and retching, so they say. But I am told that the Ichneumon destroys the eggs of the asp with intent to do away with the future enemies of its own young. And there is a story that the Libyan asp even blinds men with its breath.

(6.41) This is what commonly happens in Egypt: When it rains in Egypt (the raindrops are tiny) mice are produced immediately. Now they roam the ploughlands and damage the standing crops by cutting away and nibbling the ears of corn from below, and actually ravage the stacked sheaves and cause the Egyptians much trouble. On that account the people try to trap them, to exclude them by building walls, to keep them off by digging trenches in which they light fires. Now the mice go nowhere near the traps but allow them to remain useless. Even though the walls have been rendered smooth with a wash of mortar, they climb up them and then, being exceedingly nimble, jump over the trenches. And so the Egyptians abandon their traps and schemes as ineffective and turn from them to prayers and supplications to the gods. At that point the mice, I fancy, are afraid of the gods’ revenge and retreat in the formation of a hollow square to some mountain. Now the youngest go in front and the oldest bring up the rear and, if any are left behind, the latter turn and force them to follow. If however the youngest ones stop from exhaustion, the entire lot behind them stop also, as is customary for an armed force. And when the front rank begins to move, then the remainder follow. The inhabitants of Pontos say that the mice there do the same. And it is believed that whenever a house is threatening to fall, all the mice will change house as fast as their legs can carry them. Now here is another peculiar trait of mice: whenever they hear the squeak of a marten or the hiss of a viper they transfer their young from one hole to a number of different holes.

(6.58) The Phoenix knows how to reckon five hundred years without the help of math, for it is a pupil of all-wise Nature, so that it has no need of fingers or anything else to aid it in the understanding of numbers. The purpose of this knowledge and the need for it are matters of common report. But hardly a soul among the Egyptians knows when the five-hundred-year period is completed. Only a very few know, and they belong to the priestly order. But in fact the priests have difficulty in agreeing on these points, and banter one another and maintain that it is not now but at some date later than when it was due that the divine bird will arrive. Meantime while they are pointlessly squabbling, the bird miraculously guesses the period by signs and appears. And the priests are obliged to give way and confess that they devote their time “to putting the sun to rest with their talk”; but they do not know as much as birds. But, by the gods, is it not wise to know where Egypt is situated; to know where Heliopolis is, the place where the bird is destined to come; and, to know where it must bury its father and in what kind of coffin? But if there is nothing amazing in all this, are we really to pronounce as “wise” affairs relating to the market, to weapons, and men’s other schemes for their mutual undoing? I think not, you men who rival Sisyphos and the Kerkopes and the Telchines. I address myself to those who perfect themselves in these matters, but not to those who have not been initiated into the abominations mentioned above.

(7.8) I have heard that the Egyptians assert that the antelope is the first creature to know when the Dog-star rises, and testifies to the fact by sneezing. The Libyans are equally bold in stoutly maintaining that in their country the goats also know in advance; they also give clear signs of impending rain. For when they emerge from their pens they rush at full speed to their fodder. Later, when satisfied, they turn towards home, and facing in that direction remain still and wait for the herdsman to gather them in as quickly as possible. . . [omitted remainder of entry].

(7.9) Here are further facts which I have heard about hawks. The servants (therapeutai) of Apollo [i.e. Horos] in Egypt say that there are certain men called “hawk-keepers” for this reason: they feed and tend the hawks belonging to the god. Now the whole race of hawks is consecrated to this god, but there are certain sacred birds which feed upon carefully prepared food and which seem in no way different from offerings made to the god. Now the men who have been charged with the care of these birds tell the uninformed that each of them (they are tended in a sacred grove) lays eggs in its nest. They have, it is true, the care of all hawks, but these sacred ones are their special charge. They take out the brains of birds which have been caught and throw them to the newly born hawks: soft food for tender chicks. But to those that are full-grown the keepers serve flesh and sinews, which supply strengthening nourishment for birds of prey. Those however that are in the intermediate stage between chicks and full-grown birds are served with the hearts, and one may see the remains of them. So the previously mentioned difference between foods concedes the point that hawks know what is appropriate and agreeable to each age, and they are particular about it and would never touch food unsuited to their age. At a certain season quails visit their country and other birds arrive in flocks, and these sacred hawks feast on them also.

(7.18) The Egyptians who live in the region called Koptos assert that no more than a pair of ravens is seen there. And even those Romans who guard the mountain district because of the emerald mine, they also maintain that the same number of this species live there. And in that place there is a temple in honour of Apollo to whom, they say, the birds are sacred.

(7.20) Wolves are exceedingly fierce, and the Egyptians assert that they even eat one another, and that the way in which they plot against each other is, they say, as follows: They gather around in a circle and then start to run. And when any of their number is overcome with dizziness from running round and round and collapses, the rest fall upon him as he lies, tear him to pieces, and eat him. They do this whenever their hunting is unsuccessful. For with them, provided they do not go hungry, nothing else counts; just as with evil men nothing counts but money.

(7.45, part 1). The priests of Egypt do not purify themselves with water of every kind, nor even with such water as they may chance upon, but only with that from which they believe an ibis has drunk. For they know full well that this bird would never drink water that was dirty or that had been tainted with any drugs. This is because they believe that the bird possesses a certain prophetic faculty, seeing that it is sacred. . . [omitted remainder of entry].

(8.4, part 2). . . I have heard that the Egyptians assert that the sacred crocodiles are tame, and if their keepers at any rate touch and handle them they submit and do not object. They keep their jaws open when the keepers insert their hands and cleanse their teeth and pick out bits of flesh that have got between them. Further, the Egyptians assert that these crocodiles are endowed with prophecy, and adduce the following evidence: Ptolemy (which of the line it was, you must ask them) was calling to the tamest of the crocodiles, but it paid no attention and would not accept the food he offered. And the priests realized that the crocodile knew that Ptolemy’s end was approaching and consequently declined to take food from him.

(9.18) By the Nile there grows a herb, and it goes by the name of “Wolf’s-bane”, and it is truly named. For when a wolf treads upon it he dies in convulsions. That, you see, is why those Egyptians who worship this animal prevent this herb from being introduced into their country.

(9.21) What I am about to tell you is reported by the Egyptians: The island of Pharos was once infested with a great variety of snakes. But when Thonis the Egyptian king took under his charge Helen the daughter of Zeus (because Menelaus entrusted her to him while he was wandering through Upper Egypt and Ethiopia), he fell in love with her, and when he attempted to force her to lie with him, the story goes that the daughter of Zeus repeated the whole tale to the wife of Thonis (Polydamna was her name). She, being anxious in case this foreigner should prove more beautiful than she, removed Helen to the safety of Pharos and gave her a herb disliked by the snakes there. So as soon as they were aware of this, the snakes went underground. But Helen planted the herb and in time it flourished and produced seed disagreeable to the snakes, and in Pharos such creatures have never recurred. Experts in these matters say that this herb is called Helenion.

(10.14) The Egyptians appear to regard the hawk as sacred to Apollo, calling the god “Horos” in their own language, and they regard the birds with wonder and are right in saying that they belong to this god. For hawks are the only birds that can face with ease and without pain the rays of the sun and are not the least dazzled. While they fly at an immense height, the divine fire does not trouble them at all. Moreover observers say that the hawk flies upside down, like a man swimming on his back, and in this way, you see, it looks at the sky and the all-surveying sun with complete freedom and without flinching. It is the bitter enemy of snakes and venomous creatures. At any rate no snake, no scorpion, nor indeed any other product of noxious matter would escape its notice. It will not eat fruits and seeds. It delights to feed on flesh and drinks blood, and on these it feeds its young; it is also passionate in excessive sexual desire. If the bone from its tibia is put beside gold it attracts and draws it to itself by some inexplicable fascination, persuading it to follow even as, they say, the stone of Heraklea somehow bewitches iron. The Egyptians assert that the hawk’s life extends to as much as five hundred years. They do not convince me; I merely report what I have heard. Homer, they say, seems to hint that the hawk is beloved of the child of Zeus and Leto when he says [Iliad 15.237]: “And down the hills of Ida he went, like unto a swift hawk, the slayer of doves.”

(10.15) The Scarab is a creature of which there is no female, but it pours its semen into the heap which it rolls up. After doing this and keeping the heap warm for eight-and-twenty days, on the following day it brings forth its young. Among the Egyptians the fighting class wore a scarab engraved on their finger-rings, their ruler intimating thereby that those who fight for their country must at all costs and in every way be men, because the scarab has in it nothing of the feminine element.

(10.16) The pig in sheer gluttony does not spare even its own young; moreover if it comes across a man’s body it does not refrain from eating it. That is why the Egyptians detest the animal as polluted and omnivorous. And sober men are accustomed to prefer those animals which are of a gentler nature and have some sense of restraint and reverence.

At any rate the Egyptians actually worship storks, because they tend and respect their parents in old age; and these same Egyptians pay honour to vulpansers and hoopoes, because the former are fond of their offspring, and the latter show reverence to their parents.

I learn that Manetho the Egyptian, a man who attained the highest level of knowledge, says that one who has tasted of female pig’s milk becomes covered with leprosy and scaly eruptions. All the peoples of Asia loathe these diseases. The Egyptians are convinced that the female pig is an abomination to the sun and the moon. Accordingly when they hold the festival of the moon they sacrifice pigs to her once a year, but at no other seasons are they willing to sacrifice them either to her or to any other god. But the Athenians sacrifice female pigs at the mysteries and very properly, for they ruin the crops and frequently by trampling upon the new ears of corn break some before they are ripe and uproot others. But Eudoxos asserts that the Egyptians refrain from sacrificing female pigs, because when the corn has been sown they drive in herds of them, and they tread and press the seed into the soil when moist so that it may remain fertile and not be consumed by the birds.

(10.19) The inhabitants of Syene regard the Phagros as sacred, and those who dwell in Elephantine, as it is called, the Maiotes (this also is a species of fish). And the reverence which both peoples pay to either kind has its origin in this: when the Nile is about to rise and overflow, these fish come swimming in advance, as though heralding the coming water and gladden the anxious hearts of the Egyptians with fair hopes, being the first to realise the advent of the flood and foretelling it by some marvellous natural faculty. Moreover these peoples are accustomed to add, concerning their respect for the fish, that they never eat one another.

(10.21) In Egypt there are some, like the people of Ombos, who venerate crocodiles, and just as we regard the Olympian gods with awe, so do they these animals. And when, as often happens, their children are carried off by them, the people are overjoyed, while the mothers of the unfortunates are glad and go about in pride at having, I suppose, borne food and a meal for a god. But the people of Apollonopolis, a district of Tentyra, net the crocodiles, hang them up on persea-trees (these are indigenous), flog them severely, mangling them with all the blows in the world, while the creatures whimper and shed tears. Finally they cut them up and eat them.

The crocodile, it seems, is pregnant for sixty days, and produces sixty eggs which it broods for as many days: it has that number of vertebrae in its spine, and they say that sixty sinews girdle its body, and it bears young ones the same number of times, and it lives for sixty years. I am reporting what the people of Egypt say and believe. One may reckon the teeth of this creature as sixty in number; during sixty days of every year it remains quiet in its lair and abstains from food. The crocodiles are accustomed to the people of Ombos, and those that are kept in the lakes made by these people are obedient to their summons. And the people bring them the heads of the animals which they sacrifice – they themselves will never touch that part – and throw them in, and the crocodiles come leaping around them.

The inhabitants of Apollonopolis, on the contrary, hate the crocodile, for they say that this was the shape assumed by Typhon. Others however say that this is not the reason, but that a crocodile carried off the daughter of king Psammyntos, a supremely good and righteous man, and therefore in memory of that disaster even subsequent people hate the whole species of crocodiles.

(10.22) The Bakkaians (Bakkaioi) – they are a western descent group (genos) [in Iberia / Spain] – insult the corpses of such as die from disease as having died a cowardly and effeminate death, and dispose of them by burning. Whereas those who laid down their lives in war they regard as noble, heroic, and full of courage, and them they cast to the vultures, believing this bird to be sacred. And when Romulus on the Palatine Hill, divining by the flight of twelve vultures, had received a favourable augury, following the number of the birds he decreed that the rulers of Rome should be preceded by a number of rods equal to that of the birds seen on that occasion. And the Egyptians believe that the vulture is sacred to Hera, and deck the head of Isis with vultures’ feathers, and on the roofs of the entrances to their temples they carve the wings of vultures in relief. I have earlier on said much concerning this bird, but not to the same effect.

(10.23) At Koptos in Egypt the natives revere Isis in a variety of rituals but especially in the service and ministry rendered by women who are mourning either a husband or a son or a brother. And at Koptos there are scorpions of immense size, possessing very sharp stings, and most dangerous in their attack (for when they strike they kill instantly), and the Egyptians contrive innumerable devices for self-protection. But although the women in mourning at the temple of the goddess sleep on the floor, walk around with bare feet, and all but tread on these scorpions, they still remain unharmed. And these same people of Koptos worship and deify the female gazelle, though they sacrifice the male. They say that the females are the pets of Isis.

(10.24) The crocodile (I may say that I have learned these facts in addition to what has already been recounted of this animal) is naturally timid, of an evil disposition, and thoroughly villainous. It is alert to seize and plan against its victims, but it dreads all noises and is afraid even of loud shouts of men and has a violent fear of those who boldly attack it. Now the people of Egypt called Tentyritians know the best way to master the beast: the most effective way of wounding it is to strike it in the eyes or the armpits and even in the belly. However, its back and tail are impenetrable because it is fortified and, so to say, armed with scaly plates which resemble hard earthenware or shells. Now these people are so persistent in pursuit of these creatures that the river in their district is left in profound peace by the crocodiles. So there they boldly swim and have fun in their swimming. Whereas among the people of Ombos or Koptos or Arsinoe it is not easy even to wash one’s feet, nor can one draw water in security. Actually, one cannot even walk along the river banks freely and off one’s guard. But the people of Tentyra worship hawks. For that reason those who live in Koptos, wishing to annoy the Tentyritians as enemies of the crocodiles, often crucify hawks. The crocodile the people of Koptos liken to water and that is why they worship it. Whereas the Tentyritians liken the hawk to fire, hence their adoration. And they adduce as evidence the fact that fire and water cannot mingle. Such are the amazing tales told by the Egyptians.

(10.25) After traversing the Egyptian oasis one is confronted for seven whole days with utter desert. Beyond this live the human Kynoprosopians (Kynoprosōpoi; “Dog-faces”) along the road that leads to Ethiopia. It seems that these creatures live by hunting gazelles and antelopes. Also, they are black in appearance and they have the head and teeth of a dog. And since they resemble this animal, it is very natural that I should mention them here. However, they are not endowed with speech, but utter a shrill squeal. Beneath their chin hangs down a beard. We may compare it with the beards of dragons, and strong and very sharp nails give an edge to their hands. Their whole body is covered with hair, which is another way in which they resemble dogs. They are very swift runners and know the regions that are inaccessible: that is why they appear so hard to capture.

(10.27) There is a district in Egypt called Chousai (it is reckoned as belonging to the province of Hermopolis, and though small in extent it possesses charm) and there they worship Aphrodite under the epithet of Ourania (“Heavenly”). They also pay homage to a cow, and this, they say, is the reason: they believe that cows are related to this goddess, because the cow feels a strong incitement to love and is more passionate than the bull. At any rate at the sound of his bellow the cow becomes excited and inflamed with a burning desire to couple. And those who are expert in these matters maintain that a cow hears a bull as much as thirty stadia away when it is bellowing as a signal to love and mate. And in Egypt sculptors and painters represent Isis herself with the horns of a cow.

(10.28) The people of Bousiris and of Abydos in Egypt and of Lykopolis dislike the blare of a trumpet on the ground that it resembles the braying of an donkey. And those who attend to the cult of Sarapis also hate the donkey. Because he knew about this, Ochos the Persian [future Artaxerxes III, reigning ca. 359-338 BCE] killed Apis and deified the donkey from a wish to upset the Egyptians to the utmost. And so he too paid a penalty, which all applauded, to the sacred bull, no less than Cambyses who was the first that dared commit this sacrilege. The same servants (therapeutai) of this Zeus [i.e. Sarapis] detest the antelope as well, and for this reason: the Egyptians maintain that it empties its excrement after turning its back towards the rising sun. And the followers of Pythagoras also say this touching the donkey, that it alone among animals was not born in tune, and that this accounts for its being completely deaf to the sound of the lyre. Some moreover say that it was beloved of Typhon. And in addition to the foregoing charges they would blame the donkey for this also: fertility in all kinds is respected, but this animal is by nature opposed to it. At any rate it is not easy to recall any account of a she-donkey giving birth to twins.

(10.29) Here is another peculiarity of the ibis which I have learned from Egyptian accounts. When it buries its neck and head beneath its breast-feathers, it imitates the shape of the heart. I think I have already spoken earlier on about its special hostility to creatures injurious to man and to crops. The birds mate with their mouth and beget offspring in that way. And the Egyptians say – though I am not easily convinced – that those who see to the embalming of animals and who are experts at it, agree that the entrails of the ibis measure ninety-six forearms. I have heard further that its stride when walking measures a forearm. And when the moon is in eclipse it closes its eyes until the goddess shines out again. It is said to be beloved of Hermes the father of speech because its appearance resembles the nature of speech: thus, the black wing-feathers might be compared to speech suppressed and turned inwards, the white to speech brought out, now audible, the servant and the messenger of what is within, so to say. Now I have already mentioned that the bird lives to a very great age. Apion states that it is immortal and adduces the priests of Hermopolis as witnesses to prove it. Yet even he considers that this is very far from the truth, and to me it would seem to be an absolute falsehood. The ibis is a very hot-blooded creature, at any rate it is an exceedingly voracious and foul feeder if it really does eat snakes and scorpions. And yet some things it digests without difficulty, while others it easily expels in its excrement. Very rarely would one see a sick ibis, yet it thrusts its beak down in every place, caring nothing for any filth and treading upon it in the hope of tracking down something even there. But when it turns to rest it first of all washes itself and purges. It makes its nest in the top of date-palms in order to escape the cats, for this animal cannot easily clamber and crawl up a date-palm as it is constantly impeded and thrown off by the protuberances on the stem.

(10.31) They say that the asp to which the Egyptians have given the name Thermouthis is sacred, and the people of the country worship it, and bind it, as though it was a royal headdress, about the statues of Isis. And they deny that it was born to destroy or injure man, but when they maintain that it does not touch good people but kills impious people, they are telling marvels. If however this is so, then Justice would value this asp beyond all things, for taking vengeance on her behalf and for its piercing sight. Others add that Isis sends it against the worst transgressors. The Egyptians assert that the Thermouthis alone among asps is immortal, and they reckon sixteen different species and varieties. In their temples, as they say, they build dens and burrows like shrines in every corner and make homes for the Thermouthis, and at intervals they provide them with the fat of calves to eat.

(10.43) All through the hottest summer the Nile in flood gives the fields of Egypt the appearance of a calm stretch of open sea, and over what was till then farmland there the Egyptians fish and sail in boats manufactured against that season and against this visitation by the river. Later the river retreats and returns to within its naturally proper limits, while the fish bereft of their means of life and abandoned by the flood-water are left behind, nurtured in the thick slime to provide a meal for the farmers. This then, though the expression is somewhat violent, is the Egyptian fish-harvest.

(10.45) Here are further facts relating to dogs which I have heard. Puppies are born blind, and when they emerge from their mother’s womb they cannot see. For the first fortnight they are afflicted in this way, that is for as many nights as the moon does not appear, but after that the dog has the sharpest sight of any animal. And it is held in honour by the Egyptians, for they have named a district after it, and they assert that the reason for this is twofold: first, when Isis was seeking everywhere for Osiris, dogs led the way and tried both to help her to trace his son and also to keep off the wild beasts. And the second reason is this: at the same time that the Dog-star rises (the story goes that it was the dog of Orion), the Nile also in a sense rises, coming up to water the land of Egypt, and pours over the farmlands. And so the Egyptians pay honour to the dog for bringing and summoning this fertilizing water.

(10.46) There is a fish that goes by the name of Oxyrhynchos, and it appears to derive its name from its face and from the shape of it. The Nile breeds this fish. A district is named after it; there, I believe, this same fish is held in veneration. If the inhabitants catch a fish on a hook, they will never eat it for fear that this fish, which they regard as sacred and to be worshipped, may have accidentally impaled itself on the hook. Whenever fish are netted, they search the nets in case this famous fish has fallen in without their noticing it. And they would rather catch nothing at all than have the largest catch which included this fish. The people who live around this area maintain that it was born from the wounds of Osiris. They identify Osiris with the Nile.

(11.10) And now, when I have mentioned the swans from the Rhipaean mountains in the country of the Hyperboreans on account of their daily and assiduous service of the son of Zeus and Leto, shall I refrain from telling of the special characteristics of the sacred bull which the Egyptians deify ? How then could I avoid being censured by history and by Nature, who made and gave this gift also to man? But no one shall accuse me of negligence on this point (?), and I will describe also, as is reasonable, this account about the god (theologia):

Among the Egyptians Apis is believed to be the god whose presence is most manifest. He is born of a cow on which a flash of light from heaven has fallen and caused his birth. The Greeks call him Epaphos and trace his descent from his mother the Argive Io, daughter of Inachos. The Egyptians however reject the story as false, and appeal to time as their witness. They maintain that Epaphos was born late down the ages, whereas the first Apis visited humankind many, many thousands of years earlier. Herodotos [Inquiries 11.3.28] and Aristagoras [Egyptian Matters = FGrHist 608 F7; ca. 375-325 BCE] adduce evidence and tokens of this. However, the Egyptians do not acknowledge them, for they assert that there are twenty-nine marks clearly to be seen on this sacred bull. But what these marks are, and how they are distributed over the body of the animal, and in what fashion the bull is, as it were, adorned with them, you may learn from another source. The Egyptians are able to explain which of the stars each mark symbolises, and they say further that the marks indicate when the Nile will rise and the shape of the universe. But you will also see a mark (so the Egyptians assert) which suggests that darkness is older than light. And another mark explains the shape of the crescent moon to him who understands. There are also other mysterious signs of different import which to the eyes of the profane and those uninstructed in divine history are hard to interpret. Whenever the report gets abroad which tells the Egyptians that the god has been born, some of the sacred scribes to whom there has been handed down from father to son the knowledge whereby they verify these marks, come to the spot where the calf has been born to the heifer beloved of god. In accordance with the immemorial precepts of Hermes, they erect a house where the calf will live at any rate for the time being. It faces the rising sun and is quite large enough to take in the nurses of the calf, for it is essential that the calf should be at the udder for four months. And when it has been weaned, then at the rising of the new moon the sacred scribes and priests go out to meet it and moreover year by year make ready a sacred vessel for this god and transport him on board to Memphis, where he finds abodes after his heart and delightful spots to linger in and places where he may amuse himself, where he may run and roll in the dust and exercise himself, find the homes of beautiful cows, and find a well and a spring that yield water for drinking, for his servants and priests say that it is not good for him always to drink of the Nile. Moreover he is said to grow fat on this sweet water which helps to build up a mass of flesh.

As for the processions which they hold and the sacred offices which they perform when the Egyptians celebrate the revelation of the new god, the dances which they execute, the feasts and the assemblies which they organise, and how every town and village is filled with joy – all this would make a long story. But the man in whose herd this divine animal was born is counted fortunate and is so, and the Egyptians regard him with admiration.

Apis, it seems, is in effect a good prophet: yet he never establishes girls or elderly women on tripods, never fills them with some sanctified drink. Rather, a man prays to this god. Children outside, who are playing and dancing to the music of pipes, become inspired and proclaim in time with the music the actual response of the god, so that what they say is more true than what occurred by the Sagras.

The Egyptians liken Apis to Horos whom they believe to be the prime cause of the fertility of their crops and of every good season. That is how they come to reason about his varied colouring, seeing in it a hidden symbolical reference to the variety of the crops. And there is a story of the priests not known to all, that Menis the king of Egypt, thinking of some living animal that he might worship, elected a bull, believing it to be the finest of all animals, and at any rate following Homer in his judgment on these matters, so they say. For Homer too in his Iliad [11.2.480] says: “Even as a bull stands out far foremost in the herd, for he is conspicuous amid the pasturing cattle.” But the facts which Egyptian writers on animals distort into legends about this animal are not to my taste.

(11.11) “No, but change the theme” [Homer, Odyssey 8.492], as the phrase might go, and sing not of the horse nor yet of the ambush within [i.e. the Trojan war], but of the bull Mneuis. The Egyptians, say that Mneuis is sacred to the Sun, whereas Apis, they say, is dedicated to the Moon. According to the Egyptians, he also bears a special mark to show that he is no counterfeit, no bastard, but beloved of the above mentioned god. On these topics another will speak, but what I wish to tell is the Egyptians’ account of the test and the proof to which they put this bull to see whether he is of superior birth or not: I don’t know how he did it, but Bocchoris the king of Egypt acquired a false and fictitious reputation in that he appeared to be just in his judgments and to have his heart set on righteousness. But by nature, it seems, he was the reverse. Most of his actions I pass over at present, but this is how, from a desire to cause pain to the people of Egypt, he treated Mneuis. He set a wild bull against him. So Mneuis began to bellow and the newcomer bellowed in answer. And then the stranger rushed forward in anger intending to fall upon the bull beloved of the god, but tripped and falling against the stem of a persea-tree, broke his horn, and at that point Mneuis wounded him in the flank and killed him. Bocchoris was put to shame and the Egyptians hated him.

But if anyone considers it highly undignified to drop from natural history into legend, he is a fool. For I am stating what the practice is with these bulls, and what then occurred, and what I hear Egyptians say. To Egyptians, lying is an abomination.

(11.17) Now Homer says “but gods are hard to endure when seen clear to view” [Iliad 20.131] And so even a serpent which is honoured by the most sacred rites has in it something of the divine, and to look upon it is not profitable. And what I mean is this: In Metelis, a town of Egypt, there is a sacred serpent in a tower, and it receives honours and it has ministers and servants. Before the sacred serpent are set a table and a bowl. So every day they pour barley into this bowl and soak it in honey and milk. Then they depart, returning on the following day to find the bowl empty. Now the eldest servant felt an eager desire to see the serpent, and coming by himself performed the usual duties and withdrew. And the serpent mounted on the table and feasted. And this busybody in opening the doors (he had closed them as was the custom) made a loud noise. The serpent was indignant and left, while the man who had seen the creature whom he wished to see, to his own undoing, went out of his mind, told what he had witnessed, and confessed his impious deed, became dumb, and shortly afterwards fell down dead.

(11.18) Here are further peculiarities of animals. The peacock in order to escape the influence of the evil eye seeks out a root of flax as a kind of natural amulet and carries it about packed under one wing. And it is said that if a horse suffers from a retention of urine, and a maiden strikes him across the face with the girdle she is wearing, he immediately urinates copiously and is relieved of his pain. And when a mare shows an altogether frenzied desire to go a-horsing it is easy to arrest her, according to Aristotle [11.HA 572 b 7 ( 6.18 )] , if one clips the mane on her neck. For she feels shame and is no longer skittish and drops her wantonness and her constant frisking and is downcast at her disgrace. And Sophocles, you remember, in his drama of Tyro hints at this. Tyro is represented as speaking, and this is what she says [ 659 P] :

“But it is my lot to grieve for my hair, even as a filly which seized by cowherds in the stables has had the yellow harvest reaped from her neck with ruthless hand; and haled to the meadow to drink of the stream, beholds the mirrored image of her reflexion with the hair cropped beneath the shears to her dishonour. Alas! even a pitiless heart would pity her, cowering in her shame, to see how wild are her grief and her tears for her lost hair.”

(11.33) The king of Egypt was presented with a peacock from India, the largest and most magnificent of its kind. He was unwilling to keep it along with the common flock as a household pet or for eating, but attached it to the temple of Zeus of the City, judging this type of bird to be an offering worthy of the god. An immoral youth of considerable wealth longed to capture a peacock and to make it a meal, because he habitually indulged his appetite for any and every reason. In his extravagant gluttony and depravity, he regarded a variety of food, what had been acquired by dangerous means, and what had been purchased at the cost of immense trouble as a satisfaction for his pleasure. Accordingly he offered one of the attendants of the god a substantial bribe to commit sacrilege, and promised him a further sum besides. And the man elated by a false hope went to the spot where he knew the bird lodged and tried to lay hands on it and bring it to his rich patron. But the bird he did not see: what he did see was a huge asp reared up in anger against him. At first he was afraid and made off, but when the immoral man insisted and urged him on, the attendant went to get the peacock. But the bird sprang up out of reach and raising itself lightly through the air on its wings, settled not upon one of the sacred trees nor upon any other lofty and high spot but upon the centre of the temple, and surveyed them with an unflinching eye as though to show that it was too clever for their designs and that it was not to be caught. Accordingly since the attendant had accomplished nothing, the dissolute man demanded the bribe-money back again. However, the other refused, saying that he had carried out his orders but was unable to steal what belonged to the gods. As was natural, a quarrel arose over the affair and then there was shouting, and many people heard the noise. Next, the chief priest arrived and inquired what was the reason of this wrangling in the temple, and the men began to accuse one another. And the rich man, outraged by threats, blasphemy, and abuse, left. After swallowing the bone of another bird the rich man was in pain and died in agonies, while the wicked attendant was punished by the governor of the city for sacrilege. As for the bird, it was not seen either alive or dead, but the story goes that, after living for a hundred years, it disappeared.

(11.34) The following story too is like the above and fits with it. One Kissos by name, a devoted servant of Sarapis, was the victim of a plot on the part of a woman whom he had once loved and later married. He ate some eggs of a snake, which caused him pain; he was in a grievous state and in danger of death. But he prayed to the god, who commanded him buy a live moray and thrust his hand into the creature’s tank. Kissos obeyed and thrust in his hand. And the moray fastened on and clung to him, but when it was pulled off it pulled away the sickness from the young man at the same time. It was because this moray was a minister of the god’s healing power that the tale reached my hearing.

(11.35) And this same god in the days of Nero cured Chrysermos who was vomiting blood and already beginning to waste away, by means of a drink of bull’s blood. And I mention these facts because animals are so dearly beloved by the gods that their lives are saved by them, and when the gods desire, they save others. It was this god [Sarapis] who when Basilis the Cretan fell into a wasting disease, rid him of this terrible complaint by causing him to eat the flesh of a donkey. And the result was in accordance with the name of the beast, for the god said that this treatment and remedy would be of assistance to him. On these topics enough has been said.

(11.39) The Egyptians say that the hawk while alive and active is beloved of the gods, and when it has departed this life and shed its body and become a disembodied spirit, it prophesies and sends dreams. And the Egyptians say that a hawk with three legs once appeared among them, and believers accept the statement as sound.

(12.3) The Egyptians assert (though they are far from convincing me), they assert, I say, that in the days of the far-famed Bocchoris a lamb was born with eight feet and two tails, and that it spoke. They say also that this lamb had two heads and four horns. It is right to forgive Homer [Iliad 19.404] who attributes speech to Xanthos the horse, for Homer is a poet. And Alkman could not be censured for imitating Homer in such matters, for the first venture of Homer is a plea sufficient to justify forgiveness. But how can one pay any regard to Egyptians who exaggerate like this? However, fabulous though they be, I have related the peculiarities of this lamb.

[Animal worship]

(12.5) The Egyptians incur the derision at any rate of most people for worshipping and deifying various kinds of animals. But the inhabitants of Thebes, although Greeks, worship a marten, so I hear, and allege that it was the nurse of Herakles. Or, if it was not the nurse, yet when Alkmene was in labour and unable to bring her child to birth, the marten ran by her and loosed the bonds of her womb, so that Herakles was delivered and at once began to crawl. . . [omitted remainder of entry].

(12.7) In Egypt they worship lions, and there is a city named after lions [Leontopolis]. It is worth recording the peculiarities of the lions there. They have temples and very many spaces in which to roam. The flesh of oxen is supplied to them daily and it lies, stripped of bones and sinews, scattered here and there, and the lions eat to the accompaniment of song in the Egyptian language. And the theme of the song is “Do not enchant any of the viewers.” This singing appears, as you might say, to be a substitute for amulets. Many of the lions are deified in Egypt, and there are chambers face to face consecrated to their use. The windows of some open to the east, others to the west, making life more pleasant for them. And to preserve their health they have places for exercise, and wrestling-grounds nearby, and their adversary is a well-nourished calf. And if, after practising his skill against the calf, the lion brings it down (this takes time for he is lazy and unused to hunting), he eats his fill and goes back to his own stall.

The lion is a very fiery animal, and this is why the Egyptians connect him with Hephaistos. But, they say, he dislikes and shuns the fire from without because of the great fire within himself. And since he is of a very fiery nature, they say the lion is the house of the Sun, and when the sun is at its hottest and at the height of summer, they say it is approaching the lion. Moreover the inhabitants of the great city of Heliopolis keep these lions in the entrance to the temples of the god as sharing (so the Egyptians say) to some extent the lot of the gods. And further, they appear in dreams to those whom the god regards with favour and utter prophecies, and those who have committed perjury they punish not after some delay but immediately, for the god inspires them with a righteous indignation. And Empedokles maintains that if his lot translates a man into an animal, then it is best for him to transmigrate into a lion; if into a plant, then into a sweet-bay. Empedokles’ words are: “Among wild beasts they become lions that couch upon the mountains and sleep on the earth, and among trees with fair foliage sweet-bay-trees.”

But if (as we should) we are to take into consideration the wisdom of the Egyptians who refer such manifestations to natural causes, they assign the fore-parts of this animal to fire, and the hinder parts to water. Again, Egyptian artificers in their sculpture, and the overly vain legends of Thebes attempt, to represent the Sphinx, with her two-fold nature, as of two-fold shape, making her awe-inspiring by fusing the body of a maiden with that of a lion. And Euripides suggests this when he says [fragment 540 N]: “And drawing her tail in beneath her lion’s feet she sat down.” And moreover they say that the lion of Nemea fell from the moon. At any rate Epimenides also has these words: “For I am sprung from the fair-tressed Moon, who in a fearful shudder shook off the savage lion in Nemea, and brought him forth at the bidding of Queen Hera.” Let us however relegate these matters to the region of myth. Now the peculiarities of lions have been sufficiently dealt with both earlier on and in the present chapter.

(12.11) The Egyptians also worship a black bull which they call Onouphis. And the name of the place where it is reared let the Egyptian accounts tell us, for it is a hard name. Its hair grows the opposite way to that on other bulls; that is another of its peculiarities. It is larger, it seems, than all other bulls, even than those of Chaonia which the inhabitants of Thesprotia and Epiros call “fatted,” tracing their descent from the oxen of Geryones. This Onouphis is fed upon lucerne.

(12.13) The Physa is an Egyptian fish that fills one with astonishment, for it knows, they say, when the Moon is waning and when it is waxing. Moreover its liver grows or dwindles as that goddess does: at one time it is well-nourished, at another it is more shrunken.

(12.29) At Boubastos in Egypt there is a pool and it fosters an immense multitude of Nile perch, and these are tame and the gentlest of fish. People throw in morsels of bread to them, and they leap up, each trying to jump quicker than the other, and pick out the food that is being thrown in.

(16.39) Onesikritos of Astypalaia says that at the time of the expedition of Alexander, the son of Philip, there were in India two snakes kept by Abisares the Indian, and that one of them measured a hundred and forty forearms, the other eighty. He says also that Alexander had a great desire to see them.

Egyptian accounts relate that in the time of Ptolemy Philadelphos [reigning ca. 284-246 BCE] there were brought from Ethiopia to Alexandria two live snakes and that one of them was fourteen forearms long, the other thirteen. Also, in the time of Ptolemy Euergetes [reigning ca. 246-222 BCE] three snakes were brought, one was nine forearms long, the second seven, and the third snake one forearm less. The Egyptians assert that they were tended with great care in the temple of Asklepios. And the same people maintain that asps four forearms in length frequently occur. And so I have mentioned these facts in the course of discussing animal characteristics from a wish to demonstrate the length to which by nature they attain. . . [omitted remainder of entry].

(16.41) In Pammenes’ work On Wild Animals,he says that in Egypt there are scorpions with wings and a double sting (this, he says, is not mere hearsay, but professes that it is his personal observation): there are also two-headed snakes which have two feet in the region of the tail.

(16.5) In Phylarchos’ twelfth book [third century BCE], he gives the following account of the asps of Egypt: He says that they are treated with great respect, and as a result of this respect they become extremely gentle and tame. And so, being fed along with the children, they do no harm, but creep out of their lairs when called and come to the spot. And the way to call them is to snap one’s fingers. Then the Egyptians give them presents in the way of friendship, for when they have finished their meal they soak barley in wine and honey and place it on the table off which they happen to have dined. Then they snap their fingers and summon “the guests,” so to call them. And the asps as at a signal assemble, creeping out from different quarters, and as they encircle the table, while the rest of their coils remain on the floor, they rear their heads up and lick the food. Gently and by degrees they take their fill of the barley and eat it up. And if some need causes the Egyptians to rise during the night, they again snap their fingers: this is a signal for the asps to make way for them and to withdraw. So the snakes realize the difference between this sound and the other and the reason for it, and promptly leave and disappear, creeping into their holes and lairs. Accordingly the man who has got out of bed neither steps upon nor encounters any of the asps.


Source of the translations: A.F. Scholfield, Aelian: On the Characteristics of Animals, 3 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1958), public domain in Canada (passed away in 1969), adapted by Harland.

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