Tracing the Origins of the Ancient Egyptian Cattle Cult

Tracing the Origins of the Ancient Egyptian Cattle Cult

Studies of ancient Egyptian religion have examined texts for evidence of cattle worship, but the picture given by the texts is incomplete. Mortuary patterns, ceremonial buildings, grave goods, ceramics and other remains also contain evidence of cattle worship and underline its importance to early Egypt. The recently discovered cattle tumuli at Nabta Playa in the Western Desert are identified here as a potential source of evidence on the origins of cattle worship in the ancient Egyptian belief system.

A bookmarked pdf. The author shares my lack of belief in Fred Wendorf’s proposal of a very early (11,000 BP) domestication of Saharan cattle, although for different reasons; mine being distribution of African cattle. It’s over much to limited an area. If it were that early we’d have seen Afrcian Bos derived cattle in South West Asia and not the Anatolian stock they have now. As it is, cattle seem to have arrived with the rest of the Neolithic package from Anatolia, into Egypt about 7,700 years ago.


Bos primigenius, originally only hunted, became domesticated in order to protect a valuable source of fat in the hunter-gatherer diet and to enhance chances of survival during changing environmental conditions. At Nabta Playa in the Western Desert, evidence of the domestication of cattle dates from the Middle Neolithic. This brought about socio-economic changes within the desert communities, which is later reflected in the Late Neolithic cattle tumuli and megalithic constructions at Nabta Playa. The Bos tumuli are indicative of cattle worship, and the Late Neolithic site as a whole displays evidence of a community with greater social complexity than its contemporaries in the Nile Valley. Prolonged contact with desert pastoralists led to the first socially complex society in the Nile Valley, the Badarian. It introduced a new religious and socio-economic element into the life of the Upper Egyptians, namely ownership and burial of domestic cattle. Bos burials are found in Nagada period
settlements, in clearly ceremonial contexts. As pastoralism became increasingly fused in the Nile Valley economy with agriculture, religious associations evolved between the cow goddess and the king. These aspects became codified in the artefactual representations dating from the time of Unification.

It’s more readable than many of these kinds of text. It makes the observation that Badarian culture was hierarchical, from observations of the graves. It also describes the ceremonial burial of a cow at Nabta Playa, not something I’d seen before.

4 responses to “Tracing the Origins of the Ancient Egyptian Cattle Cult

  1. Is this somehow related to the later cult of the Apis bull?

  2. Pingback: Nibbles: Funding — Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog

  3. I’m not sure. The neolithic Anatolian culture that spread out across North Africa bringing farming had a bull cult, as seen at Catal Hoyuk, and in later religions in the near East.

    But the Egyptian religion seems local… so it’s hard to tell.

    The cow ceremonial burial mentioned was of a wild cow at 5,400 BC, but this seemed to be a cow-goddess not a bull-god. It may be a combination of both, but personally I’d put the Apis bull cult as more likely to be caused by the Anatolian cultural influence. But I’m only very slightly in favour of that scenario.

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