I visited the British Museum a while ago with my daughter and was struck by some of the animal imagery in the loot on display– particularly, as an archosaurophile, the crocodiles (Crocodylia, crocodylians, etc.; no alligatoroids to show in this post). So I decided to go back and photograph some of them for a blog post about the more obscure and rare animals that sometimes appear in human art and design.
It’s easy to think of horses, lions, dogs, eagles and other familiar, domestic or prized beasts in human decorations. Yet what roles do less common animals play? This post is the first of two on the unsung beasties of human artwork, as represented in the British Museum.
Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10. Tame art and a dried crocodile skin.
Wherever humans and crocodiles coexist, the primeval appearance and dangerous potential of crocodiles are sure to impress themselves upon our psyche. Hence they will manifest themselves in art. This should especially apply in the early days of a civilization, before we extirpate local crocodiles or exclude them to the hinterlands, or in cases in which crocodylians become revered and protected.
Much of Western culture lacks such an emphasis, because it developed in more temperate climes where crocodiles were long since absent. It’s fun to think about what our culture would be like if it had developed with crocodiles as a prominent aspect, as in Egypt, which is the natural place to begin our tour, featuring mummies of course!
All images can be clicked to emcroccen them.
Small Nile crocodile mummy from >30 B.C, El Hiba, Egypt
Second small Nile crocodile mummy from >30 B.C, El Hiba, Egypt
Those mummies remind me of a recent scientific study that used such mummies to reveal the history of the “cryptic” species Crocodylus suchus, a close relative of the Nile croc C. niloticus, and one that seems to be more threatened.
We proceed on our tour with a box showing an example of shabti, or doll-like funeral offerings of “enchanted” mummified figurines:
This shabti box was for a noble daughter, Neskshons, in Thebes, from around 650 B.C.
A crocodile deity receives the shabti from the departed soul, accompanied by serpent god as well as a more human, ankh-bearing divinity.
Next, some amazingly preserved papyrus scrolls:
This papyrus is from around 900 B.C., with short blurbs about the woman Tentosorkon, part of a new style of funeral provisions in the 22nd Dynasty of Egypt.
Crocodile featured in the story of Tentosorkon. What’s it doing? Why is a feathered snake-thing touching its butt? I wish I knew.
The “Litany of Ra”, from around 1000 B.C., which is a style like that of the previous 22nd Dynasty papyrus and would have decorated a tomb’s wall, dedicated to the lady Mutemwia. Ra, the sun god, is shown in his different manifestations, including a crocodile form, called Sobek-ra (AKA Sebek); a protector and comforter of the dead:
But crocodiles also feature prominently in other cultures around the world– I was hoping to find some in Thai, South American, or other cultures’ art (especially east/western Africa). However, the museum didn’t exhibit any I could find. I did find these, though, starting with this fantastic Roman armour with a great backstory (and hard to take photos of; argh!):
Roman soldiers in a Sobek cult, running around Egypt while wearing badass armour and getting into all kinds of Bronze Age trouble: I DEMAND TO SEE A SWORD-AND-SANDALS MOVIE FEATURING THIS!
I searched for this next one but did not see it:
There were more tenuous links to crocodiles– surely some dragon images throughout the world relate at least partly to crocodiles, such as this one which seems very crocodylian to me:
A water spirit figure called a belum, from Sarawak, Malaysia, 18/1900s. Belief among the Melanau people was that these dragons would wrap their tails around someone’s body to protect or drown them. Possibly inspired by saltwater or Phillipine crocs that they lived near.
And that’s it- all I managed to find, but not a bad haul from this huge museum. I looked for the Aztec croc-god Cipactli to no avail. If you have £850 to spare you might like to walk away with this one from the museum. I gladly accept donations of such things to my, err, research.
That’s just one museum’s view of crocodylians’ role in our culture. What crocodile imagery from human art around the world do you fancy?
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