The role of an animal in the modern age is
primarily that of companionship or food. Older
cultures, however, did not always behold animals
in such a manner. In fact, cultures like the one of
ancient Egypt naturally consumed certain animals
for survival purposes but also associated plenty
of other animals with gods and goddesses of
their pantheon, also using certain among them
for sacrificial purposes. Last but not least, some
animals were also deified.
Many different types of fish were found in the
Nile, such as the Nile Puffer, sturgeon, Gilt-head
Bream, Nile Carp, catfish, mullet, Nile Bichir,
Moon Fish, shark, Nile Barb, Tigerfish, Cornish
Jack, and Nile Labeo. Permanent fishing fleets
were maintained in the Delta and Fayum, which
brought in their catch using nets, fish traps,
trawls, harpoons, spears, dragnets, seines, and
the line and hook.
Fish were enjoyed by all classes of Egyptian
society and were part of most Egyptians' daily
diet. Fish was often the first food a child ate after
weaning. Fish were fried, smoked, broiled, salted,
sun-dried, boiled, pickled, or used in soups.
Fish-bones were made into beads, needles, and
awls. Wages and taxes were sometimes paid in
baskets of fish. Fish were also used as payment
in international trade - in the report of
Wenamun, 35 baskets of dried fish were destined
as partial payment for a shipment of Syrian
Mullet was particularly favored, and the roe was
considered to be a delicacy. Favorite recipes
called for the meat to be shredded and mixed
with bread and spices into a fishcake, or
marinating the fish in wine, beer, or oil with
onions, then sprinkling it with pepper or
coriander. A condiment made of preserved fish in
brine was similar to the Chinese forerunner of
soy sauce. The Israelites, who had become
accustomed to the standard Egyptian diet of
bread, fish and vegetables, complained when
they were wandering in the desert: "We
remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt
freely . . ." (Numbers 11)
The Bolti fish was regarded as a symbol of rebirth
because it carries its eggs in its mouth. The
Tilapia was believed to have multiple lives, and to
be self-created. The image of a fish with lotus
flowers issuing from its mouth was a symbol of
resurrection. Amulets of both were buried with
the dead. The heart was likened to a "red fish
swimming in a pond."
During the harrowing journey through the Duat
(underworld), the deceased at one point changed
into a fish. The possession of a fish amulet was
believed to help with this transformation.
Sometimes an actual mummified fish was
included in the mummy wrappings. On one
Egyptian coffin dating to 330 B.C.E., a fish takes
the place of the Ba-bird hovering protectively
over the mummy.
Fish were also placed in tombs to serve as food
for the dead. According to the Coffin Texts, the
deceased wishes to become like the crocodile
god Sobek, who "lives on fish." Considered a food
pleasing to the gods, Ramses III gave to the
Temple of Amun some 474,640 fish, both fresh
and dried. Fishing scenes were popular in tomb
paintings. The wealthy had pools stocked with
fish for pleasure. Fish were also purchased as
gifts to feed sacred animals, especially cats.
The ancient Egyptian people wore fish amulets to
prevent drowning. Fish amulets were also
exchanged during the New Year for good luck.
Sacred fish swimming in temple pools had
golden ornaments attached to their fins, well fed
and marveled at by onlookers.
At a fish cemetery in Mendes, hundreds of cups,
jars, and tiny sarcophagi were uncovered, each
containing a mummified sacred fish. These fish
had been slit open at the belly, cleaned, stuffed
with fine grass ash, and wrapped with linen. This
practice is illustrated in a tomb at Deir el-Medina
depicting the god Anubis embalming a large fish.
Some fish were sacred in some particular places
and thus their consumption was strictly
prohibited, whereas in other areas fish were
among the standard daily most common items of
Although usually only priests and royalty were
prohibited by taboo from eating fish, in some
districts of Egypt fish could not be eaten. A war
was reputed to have broken out between a city
that forbade fish as food and a city whose
residents enjoyed eating fish.
The goddess Hatmehit from the Delta city of
Mendes, was known as the 'Ruler of Fish', and
was worshipped in the form of a fish or as a
woman with an emblematic fish on her head.
In Ancient Egypt, the fish had both sacred and
scorned species, certain species of fish were
associated with various deities and therefore
considered to be sacred.
The symbol of the patron goddess of fishermen,
Hat-Mehit, was the Lepidotus Fish. The goddess
Neith was associated with the Nile Perch, the Nile
Carp was associated with Osiris, and the gods Ra
and Atum with the eel. The Nile Mormyrid was a
symbol of the evil god Set, and therefore reviled
(in some instances it was held as sacred because
it was thought to carry some of Osiris' own
The Nile Tilapia and Abdju fish were sacred
because they were believed to swim alongside
Ra’s solar barge as it sailed through the
underworld, acting as pilots and serving as
lookouts for Ra’s enemy, Apep or Apophis, the
Pharaohs and priests were not allowed to eat fish
since fish were said to have consumed part of
Osiris when Set chopped him into pieces and
scattered those pieces across the world.
Supposedly, it was the Nile carp, the Oxyrynchus
or the Phagrus fish that ate the phallus of Osiris.
Despite this, the Oxyrynchus was thought to be
sacred in the Fayum area, where the people
thought that this fish appeared out of the
wounds of the god of the dead.