Birds in Art: Walk Like An Egyptian...
"All the old paintings on the tombs
They do the sand dance don't you know
If they move too quick (oh whey oh)
They're falling down like a domino"
First Verse, Walk Like an Egyptian - The Bangles, 1986
Egypt. A land at the heart of civilization's history, where humans accomplished awe inspiring feats of art, architecture and engineering that are not fully understood, even to this day. One of six historic civilizations to arise independently, Ancient Egypt has transfixed humankind and historians have studied the incredibly diverse and symbolic art created there over the course of 3,500 years.
One such symbol that shows up time and time again are birds. And since art in Ancient Egypt largely served functional purposes, it can be inferred that these birds served a real purpose to the people of Ancient Egypt. Now, we LOVE birds at Sydney Bird Club and we make art about them all the time (see our sister company Outer Island), but what were the motives of Egyptians creating these symbols thousands of years ago if only for utilitarian reasons and what can we learn from them about the birds that might have lived in Egypt all those years ago?
One thing that historians know for sure is that Ancient Egyptians were keen observers of the world around them, often incorporating the plants and animals of Egypt into their artwork. Most built their homes along the Nile River, one of the most fertile basins in the world, so there would have been lots of plants, animals and birds for the Egyptians to choose from at the time.
Since we have a soft spot for Australian birds, lets talk about the Sacred Ibis, sister to one of Sydney's most common birds, the Australian Ibis. Back in the day, the Sacred Ibis represented the god Thoth, which was the god of wisdom, knowledge and writing. He also brought rain, and with it the cleansing of ponds that contained parasites. Not too shabby for the sister bird of what Sydneysiders affectionately dub 'bin chickens.'
Sacred Ibises are found in many artworks, statues, murals and jewelry throughout Ancient Egypt. Since animals were treated with the utmost moral regard in Ancient Egypt, many ibises were mummified and even buried with funerary jewelry or had their eyes replaced with glass. They were highly regarded and revered. One of the main roles they played then is similar to the role that the Australian Ibis plays today - cleaning up refuse. In fact, Sacred Ibises were so revered they were often part of cultic activities!
It should be mentioned that Sacred Ibises are no longer found in Egypt today, but based on the large amount of art in which they are represented, archeological sites and mummified Ibises, scientists can be certain of their physical existence in Ancient Egypt. Over time, gradual aridification led to their extinction within Egypt. They currently still exist in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Eastern Iraq.
Some other birds seen repeatedly in Ancient Egyptian art are: falcons, vultures and ducks.
Birds in art serve much more than what their original creators intended. In a world readying itself to deal with the effects of climate change, birds in art tell us about where and when certain birds would have lived. They are part of important historical references and whatever the reason they were originally created, they always serve to inform us of the world in which they were made.