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The Animal World of the Pharaohs.

By PATRICK F. HOULIHAN. New York: THAMES AND HUDSON, 1996. Pp. xv + 245, map, 153 figures. $39.95.

Animals figured in almost every aspect of ancient Egyptian life. Practically, they provided food and transport, served various roles in different stages of the agricultural cycle, were used in hunting, kept as pets, and slaughtered as ritual offerings for deities and the dead. In addition, the ancient Egyptians used experiences drawn from everyday life and the environment to help them picture cosmic forces and the parts of the universe (the heavens and the netherworld) that were unknowable to living human beings. Animals played a part in giving form to the divine, and many deities were associated with or represented by an animal or shown as a human figure with an animal head. Wild animals living in the marshes and the desert outside the ordered area of fields and habitations represented the forces of chaos. The powers of animals that inspired terror, such as the cobra, hippopotamus, and lion, were harnessed for protection against enemies and hostile forces. The wild bull, with which the king was identified, embodied the concepts of strength and male potency.

The Animal World of the Pharaohs and Choice Cuts: Meat Production in Ancient Egypt both focus on animals but are otherwise very different. The first is intended for the general reader and gives a broad overview of the role of animals in Egyptian life and thought. It is lavishly illustrated with photographs and line drawings of the reliefs, paintings, and sculptures, taken mainly from temple and funerary contexts, that provide most of the author's source material. The material is divided into nine chapters that cover animals with religious significance; those used in agriculture and to provide food; those that were hunted; domestic pets; denizens of the Nile; birds (more fully treated in the author's Birds of Ancient Egypt); a group of largely noxious creatures, although it includes the harmless scarab beetle; exotic animals collected by or for the king; and finally examples of animals subjected to possibly humorous treatment.

The wide range of the book makes it a good introduction to the topic of animals in ancient Egypt but also inevitably prevents individual creatures from being treated in depth. The scarab beetle, one of the most important and widely used cosmic and funerary symbols that occurs in a range of contexts, rates less than a page. (Incidentally, I have often wondered why, if the scarab beetle actually pushes its ball of dung backwards, the Egyptians always showed it pushing the sun forwards.) At the worst, parts of the book read like a descriptive catalogue of selected examples with little interpretation.

As a teacher, I am constantly correcting students' use of words such as "aristocracy" and "noblemen" that have no place in the structure of Egyptian society as we understand it. It is disconcerting, then, to see these words appearing here (pp. 33, 129). I was also surprised to find "uraeuses" instead of "uraei" (p. 173), and to learn that the cobra and vulture were depicted "typically protruding from the front of the monarch's crown or headdress." In fact, the latter phenomenon would seem to be restricted to the New Kingdom and found only in a funerary context, rather than on images representing the living king. It is worth noting the likely view recently put forward by Edna R. Russmann that the vulture and cobra do not here represent the goddesses Nekhbet and Wadjit but rather Isis and Nephthys, who would be more appropriate to a funerary context.

In contrast to Houlihan's book, Choice Cuts: Meat Production in Ancient Egypt is a narrowly focused, in-depth study of one aspect of the animal world of the ancient Egyptians. The author has drawn on archaeological, representational, and textual sources from ancient Egypt, the practical experience of modern British and Egyptian butchers, and her own experiments relating to processing and preserving food to produce a clear, well-written, and readable book. The results of her research cover what animals were considered to be edible; how they were slaughtered; what tools were used to do this; how the carcasses were stored; the status of butchers, poulterers and fishermen; and the methods of jointing and processing, including drying, smoking, and steeping in brine and other substances. In the insightful last chapter, the author considers "the sociology of meat," the amounts and the different types of meat eaten by different social groups, the evidence from mummified joints of meat and whole birds, and the redistribution of meat from offerings to temple personnel.

The author's careful research has provided an important study of a major phenomenon in Egyptian society central to the secular and religious lives of the elite and the king. It is especially valuable because in modern Western societies most people, including scholars, are far removed from any experience of the processes in meat production that lead to the final product bought at the butcher's or, more likely, the supermarket. Choice Cuts remedies our lack of experience and initiates us into the practicalities of meat production and the role it played in ancient Egyptian life. Although it is written for a specialist rather than a lay readership, it makes fascinating and informative reading and is thoroughly to be recommended.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Robins, Gay
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1999
Previous Article:Ancient Egyptian Literature: History and Forms.
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