Why did the ancient Egyptians mummify millions of sacred birds?

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Ancient Egyptians mummified everything from humans to crocodiles to cats. They mummified one thing more than anything else though, birds. Millions of birds. They did not just mummify any bird though. They mummified Threskiornis aethiopicus, or African sacred ibis in the common tongue.

They mummified so many of them that archaeologists have often wondered how they even caught so many of them without causing an ecological disaster. In parts of the catacombs underneath Egypt, there are miles of the creatures stacked from the floor to the ceiling. At Saqqara, there are 500,000 mummified ibises. In the catacombs of Tune el-Gebel, there are four million of them. At one point, they were sacrificing at least 10,000 of the birds a year and mummifying them in Saqqara alone.

This is an ornate Ibis coffin.

Scientists may have discovered the answer by analyzing over a dozen of the sacred birds. Presumably, if the Egyptians were breeding them at a truly massive scale, there would be less genetic diversity than if they were caught from the wild. This is due not only to inbreeding but from having a small population that continually produces a larger population. The sample size is just lower than taking a few birds from the wild.

However, scientists found that the genetic diversity of the mummified ibises were about the same as the wild population. In an interview with Newsweek, the lead author of the study suggested that priests were probably taming wild populations when necessary rather than breeding them.

But why sacrifice so many birds?

Archaeologists believe the Egyptians were sacrificing the birds to the god Thoth mostly surrounding the Roman and Greek period from 665 BC to 250 AD. Thoth is the God with the bird head, the head of an ibis to be precise.

A typical depiction of Thoth.

Thoth is the Egyptian god of wisdom, hieroglyphs, science, magic, judgment, art and the dead. As Egypt moved into the axial age with the rest of the world, Thoth became more and more associated with the Greek god Hermes and with the myth of Hermes Trismegistus and Moses. A cult formed around Thoth with its center being Hermopolis, a temple devoted mostly to Thoth but named Hermopolis by the Greeks because of this connection.

According to Wikipedia:

Thoth was inserted in many tales as the wise counselor and persuader, and his association with learning and measurement led him to be connected with Seshat, the earlier deification of wisdom, who was said to be his daughter, or variably his wife. Thoth’s qualities also led to him being identified by the Greeks with their closest matching god Hermes, with whom Thoth was eventually combined as Hermes Trismegistus, also leading to the Greeks’ naming Thoth’s cult centre as Hermopolis, meaning city of Hermes.

Thoth – Wikipedia

Hermes Trismegistus became profoundly influential until the modern period. In fact, most of the work in the Renaissance at reclaiming ancient texts was trying to find the lost works of the legendary figure, thought to know the secrets to magic and alchemy. So influential was Thoth and Hermes Trismegistus on the modern world, that it forms the basis of The Kybalion, a mysterious book written in 1908 claiming to be the thoughts of the legendary figure. That book became the basis of much of the New Age thinking we know today like positive thinking, the law of attraction, personal power, etc.

We will be covering Hermes Trismegistus in a series of new posts so stay tuned.

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