Categorizing reptiles in Ancient Egypt: an overview of methods


en Anthropozoologica 55 (9) - Pages 129-144

Published on 26 June 2020

This article is a part of the thematic issue Appréhender les catégories zoologiques dans les sociétés du passé

This work aims to present an overview of the methods that can be used to understand the categorization of reptiles in ancient Egyptian culture. Firstly, the widespread practice of using determinatives (classifiers) is here applied to the case of a fragment from the temple of Djedkara, where the word ḥfȝ.w is written with the classifier of the lizard. It is suggested that ḥfȝ.w has been not be used to indicate a snake here, but rather a similar reptile. The second part makes comparison between lists, which were a way to organize and summarize knowledge. Two texts are here presented in order to better understand the possible clusters and hierarchization of snakes: the Brooklyn papyrus 47.218.48 and .85 (Traité d’ophiologie) edited by Sauneron, which contained in its first part a list of snakes with their description, and the section about snakes in the Theriaká of Nicander of Colophone, which permits a cultural comparison with the Greek world regarding the organizing principles of the reptile world. Finally, a statistical study then presented which analyses Egyptian words meaning “snakes” (jm.j-tȝ, fnṯ, sȝ-tȝ, ḥfȝ.w, ḏdf.t), as found across different time periods and genres of text, which attempts to establish the specific field of use of each word.


Reptiles, snakes, categories, lists, Djedkara Isesi, Egyptian Treaty of ophiology, Nicander of Colophone, basilisk.

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