Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt
Edited by Rozenn Bailleul-LeSuer
(Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2012), 232 pp., $29.95 (paperback)
Reviewed by Megan Sauter
The Nile river, the lifeblood of ancient Egypt, turned a strip of the Sahara into an oasis, enabling agriculture to thrive and creating a habitat for birds. Bird imagery, overflowing with symbolism, permeated all levels of society in Egypt. With colorful illustrations of Egyptian paintings, pottery and wall carvings depicting birds—as well as photographs of birds and bird mummies—Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt, edited by Rozenn Bailleul-LeSuer, brings this avifauna of ancient Egypt to life.
Bridging the worlds of this life and the next—earth and heaven—birds were viewed as special beings that could transverse between these realms. Not only were they regarded as messengers of the divine, but it was believed that they also housed the souls of the blessed dead, thus becoming a symbol of hope for the afterlife. The Pharaoh himself was depicted as Horus, the falcon god. Other gods were portrayed as birds, too—like Thoth represented with the head of an ibis.
Birds even made it into the hieroglyphic writing system.
On a more pragmatic level, birds were a valuable food source. There are many scenes of fowling on tomb walls, such as the image from Menna’s tomb (above) that shows Menna and his family hunting birds with throwsticks.
In addition to Egyptian iconography, this catalog examines bird mummies using CT scanning and Terahertz pulse imaging, which give new insight into the role of birds in Egyptian society. Finally, the catalog addresses the avian population in Egypt today and environmental changes to the landscape.
Summarizing the beautiful exhibit that appeared last year at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, this detailed catalog gives an excellent picture of how birds functioned and were viewed in ancient Egypt.