Culture Vultures

Our program of new Adventure Activity Days for children took place last Saturday. The day - entitled “Egyptian Mummy Madness” - has been devised to teach youngsters all about falconry and birds of prey within an ANCIENT EGYPTIAN context.  

Clearly, raptors played a very significant role within the culture of Ancient Egypt, especially vultures & falcons - birds native to the region with which the Egyptians would have been familiar with on a day-to-day basis. With this in mind our group of young enthusiasts set out to examine just how important these birds were in relation to the religious and cultural beliefs of the anccient dynesties, beginning with the Legend of Horus, the famous Egyptian god with a man’s body and the head of a falcon.

Horus was the God of the Sky, bearing a name which literally translates as “The One Far Above”.  I can’t think of a creature more appropriate than the Falcon to embody this sentiment and clearly the ancient Egyptians thought so too - falcons are capable of flying higher than most other birds. On this basis it was believed Horus was physically able to get closer to the most important and powerful of all the Egyptian deities, Ra, the Sun God - and therefore became one of the most important Egyptian spirits.  

Horus was usually depicted as either a man with a falcon’s head or as a pure falcon, and as a consequence, Egyptians also firmly believed that their Pharaoh of the day (a divine king) was the earthly incarnation of the God of The Sky.

The ancient Egyptians had many different beliefs about Horus, the most common being that he was the son of Isis and Osiris, the Gods of Fertility. Legend has it that after Osiris was murdered by his brother Seth, Horus fought with Seth (his uncle) for the throne of Egypt.  During the course of their 80-year battle, Horus lost an eye but the Gods later collectively judged Horus to be the winner and restored his sight.  As a mark of respect and remembrance, Horus then offered the eye to the Gods in memory of his late father, Osiris.

After the battle, Horus was chosen to be the ruler of the world of the living, so becoming Pharaoh and vice-versa.  From that moment, the “Eye of Horus”, otherwise known as Udjat, was considered a very powerful symbol of life and protection in Ancient Egypt and is represented in iconology as the combination of a human eye and the cheek markings of a falcon.

In order for our young adventurers to see the close resemblance between the Udjat and these avian markings, we took a close look at two of the falcon species at S.O.S. with which the ancient Egyptians would have been very familiar. So Flint, our Lanner Falcon and Nell, our Saker Falcon stepped up for inspection of the dark streaks of feathers just beneath their eyes, called ‘Malar’ stripes. Rather like athletes putting blacking under their eyes to prevent glare (cricketers and American Footballers spring to mind), the biological theory is that these stripes prevent glare when flying directly towards the sun as the falcons prepare to ambush prey. The picture above shows a Lanner falcon with a red arrow marking the position of the Malar stripes.

As mentioned previously, Horus’ parents were called Osiris & Isis and here at S.O.S. we have a female Pharaoh’s Eagle Owl called - yes, you’ve guessed it - Isis. This species is also known as Savigny’s Eagle Owl or Desert Eagle Owl, the latter being particularly appropriate as it is found throughout North West Africa from Morocco to Egypt, across most of the Sahara, Sinai, Syria, Israel to Palestine and from Western Iraq to the East Arabian Peninsula - very dry stuff! 

The Pharaoh's Eagle Owl inhabits the rockier desert regions within its range, particularly the gorges, cliffs and rocky mountain slopes which provide the bird with good hunting opportunities and suitable nest sites.  It has also been said that these owls have been known to nest amongst Egypt's most famous (man-made) mountains, the Pyramids. I am afraid that I can neither confirm nor deny this fact, but nesting on a Pharaoh’s tomb would certainly explain how this bird got its more commonly used name!

All this led our Activity Adventure group on nicely to ancient Egyptian pictorial writing, or “hieroglyphics.”  How so? you say!  The answer is simple as the Owl is used in the hieroglyphic alphabet to represent the letter ‘M’.  I say that the answer is simple, but in fact it took several noted Egyptologists many years to decipher the hidden meaning of the hieroglyphs, with the code eventually being cracked in 1822 by
Jean-François Champollion using the now famous Rosetta Stone to help with translation.

Studying this amazing alphabet inspired us to use dough to fashion some traditional Egyptian writing tablets of our own, onto which we inscribed our names in true hieroglypgical fashion.  This gave us the opportunity to take a look at Verdi’s operatic masterpiece AIDA, an Egyptian ‘soap’ on the grandest scale and for which a recent marketing campaign used hieroglyphics as part of its advertising campaign.  Still in creative mood, our group then carved a copy of the Pharaohs Eagle Owl, inspired by a photograph I took in the British Museum. Meanwhile one of our older adventurers made a Falcon pectoral - a piece of funeral jewellery.  

To round off this culturally stimulating day, we decided to have a look at the Egyptian Goddess Nekhbet, who was represented in the form of a vulture.  There are several vultures native to the Middle East, but the two we chose to study were the Griffon and Egyptian vulture. 

Due to her vulture form, Nekhbet was linked to the goddess Mut, the mother goddess and second wife of the ancient Egyptian god, Amen. Both Mut and Nekhbet were iconised as a particular type of vulture, the Griffon, usually associated with goddesses and royalty.

Due to vultures’ immense size, power and ability to soar high in the sky, they - like the falcons - were considered to be nearer to the Gods than mere mortals. Their wide wingspan was regarded as all-encompassing, providing both a gentle and protective covering to their infants whilst being forcefully capable of defending them.  So as well as being famed for her maternal instinct, in common with many Egyptian protective deities Nekhbet also had a fierce side, too - she was linked to war and combat and in many war scenes she is depicted hovering above the Pharaoh, protecting him from his enemies.

All these qualities inspired the imagination of the Ancient Egyptians. They adopted the vulture as a powerful symbol of maternalism, and so Nekhbet was worshipped as the protector of the king and the common man, revered as the Goddess of childbirth and esteemed as the Goddess of the Sun and the Moon.

Due to her high ranking status, Nekhbet was also charged with holding the symbol of Eternity in her talons and in her honour, those on our Activity Adventure decided to re-create a piece of ancient Egyptian artwork based on many of the tomb paintings we had investigated as we uncovered her story.  

We hope she would have approved and possibly afford us some protection as we travel through life to our next Activity Adventure Day, which is called PIRATES of the SKIES and takes place on the 14th July 2007 here at SOS.  We hope to see you there! For more details, please follow
this link.