Ancient Egyptian religion finally makes sense. With a couple of decapitations every year, some enterprising animals (somehow gifted with the power of speech?) could do very well for themselves.

The ancient Egyptians are fascinating for a number of reasons. Modern people tend to focus on the monuments and amazing structures that they left behind, but their religion is also intriguing, as it is partially responsible for the creation of these architectural wonders.

The depictions of gods in Egyptian art were not meant to be seen as the actual forms these deities would appear in. They were, rather, intended to be symbolic images rife with alternate meanings pertaining to their functions within the pantheon. Thus, Sobek, the crocodile headed god featured in today’s strip, was the deification of crocodiles (creatures much feared by the Egyptians) and the Nile itself. As perceptions changed, he also came to symbolize the fertility of the River Nile and the protection of soldiers (with his crocodillian ferocity). Other gods, like Anubis, are even more obvious in their symbolism. Anubis’s black skin is representative of the color of mummified remains and the fertile soil of the Nile. Jackals, scavengers that threaten corpses, had long been associated with the dead by early Egyptians, thus the god of the dead is shown with the head of a jackal.

Much of the artwork from the ancient Egyptians (sculptures, and the like) depict the gods simply as animals, rather than the animal-human hybrids we think of today. This is likely due to the religion’s prehistoric roots in animism, the belief that all objects have some spirit, soul, or spiritual power, whether they be animals, humans, trees, or even rocks. Where other animist traditions, like Japanese Shinto, may draw heavily from both the animate (animals, humans) and the inanimate (rocks, trees, etc), it’s clear the prehistoric Egyptians focused more heavily on the animate world, taking many of their gods from the animals in their environment. Though the documented religion of the kingdoms isn’t, strictly speaking, animist, the influence of these roots is obvious. Most of the gods are personifications of natural phenomena and their forms are those of the animals that surrounded the Egyptian people, there is a clear progression from animal forms to more humanized elements, and there is a documented history of Egyptian beliefs evolving over the three thousand year course of their existence.

Take, for instance, the crocodile god Sobek. In the early days of his cult, he was worshiped by those that traversed the river Nile frequently. He was prayed to for protection from crocodiles and all the dangers of the river. As time went on and the people changed, so did Sobek. Though he still retained his powers of protection for the river faring people, he also came to represent the Nile itself and the benefits that it brought to the Egyptians, the fertility of the land and the produce it helped to sustain. Sobek became associated with the military (as so many gods did) and the ferocity and strength of the crocodile god was called upon by soldiers.

I’ve found that it is often hard for textbooks to convey this progression in history and religion. We, being the short-lived creatures that we are, find it difficult to look at history and see it as being alive, always changing. This tendency doesn’t stop at ancient history, either. Even more recent history, like the changes in modern religions or important historical events are murky and simplified. We look on the past as though it somehow sprang up out of the ground without thinking about the events that lead up to them. Picturing the web of cause and effect that leads to the rise and fall of civilizations and mythologies may be difficult, but it is startling and intriguing as well.

Life is about change and so is the history of life.

Even Sobek could tell you that.