Friday, July 9, 2021

The transformative shrew in Greco-Roman-Egyptian mythology

When I saw this carefully detailed bronze sculpture of a common shrew from Egypt's Greco-Roman Period, I wondered why the ancients thought this creature worthy of such expense. Although this sculpture is part of the collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art also has a similar, though less detailed example from the same period as does the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.  

According to The Met, the ancient Egyptians named the shrew, "the voracious", because of its feeding habits. In ancient Egyptian mythology, the shrew represented the blind aspect of the solar deity, “the one with no eyes in his face” (Mechenti-n-irti in old Egyptian) that was complemented by the ichneumon, “the one whose eyes (the Sun and the Moon) are in his face” (Mechenti-irti in old Egyptian), a creature with very keen eyesight. This god with the dual nature was revered in Letopolis as one of the aspects of Horus, who, as myth has it, was blind at birth. 

According to Egyptians, this Horus of Letopolis assists the Sun god during his nocturnal journey on the solar bark which lasted until the sixth hour of the night.

"The shrew assumed the form of the god Horus to enter the afterlife and descended into the darkness of the afterlife to revive the deceased/Osiris. In this phase of the journey, he helped to navigate the solar bark through the dark, while his reforming power accelerated the regeneration of the deceased. The more combative functions in the ascending phase of the Sun god’s journey, after the sixth hour of the night, were given to the companion animal: the ichneumon (mongoose)." - The Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary.

The process of transformation from the blind shrew into a seeing being  and from a being of the afterlife/inactive being into a perfectly reborn being able to act dynamically in the light of daytime was therefore viewed as having the ability to grant life in the afterlife. In fact, the hieroglyphic inscription on the front and right side of the plinth on which the shrew sculpture in Budapest stands, asks this temporarily blind aspect of Horus of Letopolis to grant such life to an individual named Imhotep.

As for the shrew's complementary creature, although I am familiar with a mongoose I had never heard it called an ichneumon so did a little research and discovered it was a name used not only for a mongoose but a creature called the pharaoh's rat. Sometimes the name was also used for an otter. It's name in Greek means "tracker" and it was said to be the enemy of the dragon.

According to Pliny the Elder (Natural History, Book 8, 88), "The ichneumon is known for its willingness to fight to the death with the snake. To do this, it first covers itself with several coats of mud, drying each coat in the sun to form a kind of armor. When ready it attacks, turning away from the blows it receives until it sees an opportunity, then with its head held sideways it goes for its enemy's throat. The ichneumon also attacks the crocodile in a similar manner."  

I was aware of the snake-killing reputation of the mongoose but wondered how such a relatively small creature could kill a Nile crocodile.  However, the 1st century CE geographer, Strabo backs up the claim by Pliny saying "The ichneumon [is] most destructive both to crocodiles and asps. The ichneumons destroy not only the eggs of the latter, but the animals themselves. The ichneumons are protected by a covering of mud, in which they roll, and then dry themselves in the sun. They then seize the asps by the head or tail, and dragging them into the river, so kill them. They lie in wait for the crocodiles, when the latter are basking in the sun with their mouths open. They then drop into their jaws, and eating through their intestines and belly, issue out of the dead body."

As late as the 3rd century CE, Marcus Aurelius Olympius Nemesianus, a poet at the court of the Roman emperor Carus, refers to hunting the Ichneumon on river banks among the rushes in his poem Cynegetica. Sadly, the poem is fragmentary and any longer passage describing such a hunt has been lost. If the creature could take on a crocodile, it would seem to me that hunting the beast would be a very dangerous endeavor!

Read more about the cult of the shrew:

Image: Solid cast bronze sculpture of a shrew, Egypt, Greco-Roman Period, 305-30 BCE, now in the collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art, image courtesy of the museum. 

If you enjoyed this post, never miss out on future posts by following me by email!

No comments: