Did you know that today is International Vulture Awareness Day? Many of these beautiful birds are now threatened or facing extinction, and population numbers are declining the world over. The Egyptian Vulture, which was known in Ancient Egypt, is on the endangered list. The Griffon Vulture, also known in Ancient Egypt, is the only one on the list that is of ‘least concern’.
The first Saturday of September every year is International Vulture Awareness Day (IVAD). Started in 2006 by the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Birds of Prey Programme and the Hawk Conservancy Trust, plus a range of partners and associates, IVAD has become a global event supported by the IUCN SSC Vulture Specialist Group; in 2016, 164 organisations from 47 countries participated. IVAD aims to create awareness about vultures as a whole, garner support among the public about the plight of vultures globally and highlight the work done by conservationists to protect these birds and their habitats.
Vultures are a characteristic, distinctive and spectacular component of the biodiversity of the environments they inhabit. They also provide critically important ecosystem services by cleaning up carcasses and other organic waste in the environment; they are nature’s garbage collectors and this translates into significant economic benefits. Studies have shown that in areas where there are no vultures, carcasses take up to three or four times longer to decompose. This has huge implications for the spread of diseases in both wild and domestic animals, as well as elevating pathogenic risks to humans.
You can find more information on the International Vulture Awareness Day website
They have kids activities and also colouring pages of different vultures on their downloads page, and you can also download this cute ‘Vultures of the World’ PDF
Two species of vulture were known in Ancient Egypt – the Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) and the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus). The Griffon vulture is the one most commonly depicted. On its own it represents the phonetic value of A, and was used to write the word mut, meaning ‘mother’. With the largest wingspan of any bird in Ancient Egypt the outspread wings of the vulture were seen as offering protection¹, and became a popular motif in Egytian art and jewellery. As vulture Goddesses Nekhbet and Mut became symbols of maternal love and protection. In the Late Period the vulture was: ‘…a symbol of the female principle and stood in juxtaposition to the beetle as the embodiment of the male principle.’²
The vulture headdress was seen as a ‘symbol and ideogram of motherhood’³ and also associated any Queen who wore it with Mut as consort of the state God, Amun, and also with Nekhbet as protectress of Upper Egypt¹.
In Religion of Ancient Egypt Byron E. Schafer tells of two myths where bird imagery was used to relate to the sky, one of them the vulture. He suggests that they were a remnant from before the more unified mythological system of later times – ‘The other mythological description represents the sky as a vulture. Perhaps this image goes back to the iconography of Nekhbet, the Predynastic goddess of Upper Egypt… or perhaps it is linked with the Theban Mut (written with the vulture hieroglyph) “the Mother”, consort of Amun-Re…’4
Nekhbet is the patron Deity of Upper Egypt, her centre of worship being Nekheb/ Nekhen (modern El Kab), the capital of the 3rd nome (state). She is known as She of Nekheb, and The White One of Nekhen. Nekhbet is associated with the white crown of Upper Egypt, and alongside her Lower Egypt counterpart, Wadjet, is part of the Two Ladies, who represent the unification of the Two Lands of Egypt. She is usually depicted as a vulture but can also appear as a cobra, like Wadjet. Occasionally Nekhbet was shown as a woman wearing a vulture cap, or sometimes the white crown of Upper Egypt.
She is often shown carrying a shen hieroglyph – ‘Whenever Nekhbet… held in her claws the hieroglyphic sign… which reads shen, ‘to encircle’, [it] denotes that Nekhbet offers a king sovereignty over all that the sun encircles.’¹ She is believed to have a role in nursing the king, and is seen as a mythological mother of the ruler. In the New Kingdom and the Late Period Nekhbet was known as a protector and Goddess of childbirth. The Greeks associated her with their own Goddess of childbirth, Eileithya.5 In her role as protectress Nekhbet as a vulture is often shown on Egyptian jewellery, usually on pectorals and broad collars. A famous example comes from the tomb of Tutankhamun.
As the Two Ladies Nekhbet and Wadjet were called nebty – ‘The ‘nebti’ hieroglyph was the sign for the vulture goddess Nekhbet of Upper Egypt… and the cobra goddess Wadjet of Lower Egypt… It became a standard element of a pharaoh’s name from dynasty 12, although it was used as early as dynasty 1.’6 The nebty amulet itself afforded the highest protection to its wearer.7
Mut replaced Aumnet as consort of Amun, and became the mother of Khonsu. She is often depicted as a woman with the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt resting atop a vulture headdress – the only Goddess to be shown with this specific combination. The double crown ties in with the link to kingship, as the unification of the Two Lands of Egypt, and a representation of nebti, the Two Ladies. The vulture is said to be her sacred animal, but there is some debate about whether Mut was originally represented as a vulture. Richard H. Wilkinson does not believe this to be the case. In reference to the use of the Griffon vulture, used in the hieroglyphic depiction of her name, as being evidence for an earlier vulture form he says: ‘this is doubtful and the word mut and the vulture used to write it means ‘mother’ and this deity was regarded both generally as a mother goddess and as the mother of the king in particular.’5 Herman te Velde also agrees, stating: ‘…she was not a vulture goddess like Nekhbet, as is often suggested in older literature’³. Barbara Watterson, however, disagrees: ‘…she was probably worshipped in predynastic times in the form of a griffin vulture (Gyps fulvus). The word mut, which is written using the hieroglyph depicting this vulture, is thought to have been old Egyptian for ‘vulture’, but was replaced in the Egyptian language of later times by another, neret, also meaning vulture. Thus the hieroglyph of the griffin vulture was reserved for writing the name of the goddess Mut.’¹
Mut is very much a Mother Goddess, and is even depicted in amuletic form like Isis, suckling a child at her breast. It is thought the child could be Khonsu, but could also represent the King, as Mut takes on a protective, and also nurturing role, as the King’s Divine Mother.
She is closely linked with Sekhmet, and even has a leonine form herself. As such she is also an Eye of Ra, adding to her protective elements. She is also linked with Bast, and had a joint form as Mut-Bastet. She does not appear much in funerary texts, but does appear in the Book of the Dead in Chapter 164 ‘as a composite deity with outstretched wings, an erect phallus and three heads – those of a vulture, lion and human.’5
Spell 164 follows on from spell 163, which was used ‘for preventing a man’s corpse from putrefying in the realm of the dead in order to rescue him from the eater of souls who imprisons in the Netherworld and to prevent accusations of his crimes upon earth being imputed to him… to allow him to come and go as he wants and to do everything which is in his heart without being restrained.’9
SPELL 164: ‘To be said over (a figure of) Mut having three heads: one being the head of Pakhet wearing plumes, a second being a human head wearing the Double Crown, the third being the head of a vulture wearing double plumes. She also has a phallus, wings and the claws of a lion. Drawn in dried myrrh with fresh incense, repeated in ink upon a red bandage. A dwarf stands before her, another behind her, each facing her and wearing plumes. Each has a raised arm and two heads, one is the head of a falcon, the other a human head.
‘Wrap the breast therewith: he shall be a god among gods in the realm of the dead. He shall not be repulsed forever. His flesh and bones shall be sound like one who does not die. He shall drink water from the river; land shall be given to him in the Field of Rushes; a star of the sky shall be given to him. He shall be preserved from the serpent, the hot-tempered one who is in the Netherworld. His soul shall not be imprisoned. The djeriu-bird shall rescue him from the one at his side and no maggot shall eat him.’9
On the aegis collar Mut sometimes appears beside a select few other Goddesses: ‘All the goddesses… represented on the counterpoise had connections of fertility but in addition were powerful deities who could afford protection. Moreover, the position of the counterpoise between the shoulder blades meant that it could guard this most vulnerable area.’ 7
She was worshipped by both men and women, having both priests and priestesses. The most important of her priestesses were called God’s Wives of Amun, and were regarded as Mut’s earthly incarnation.8 Mut is said to be: ‘the female compassion man meets in his mother, sister, daughter and – to a certain extent – in his wife…’ ³
One of Mut’s epithets is The Great One, Mistress of Isheru.
Bibliography – those quoted from:
¹ Gods of Ancient Egypt – Barbara Watterson, pages 148-9 (Mut), and page 132 (Nekhbet).
² An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Egypt – Manfred Lurker, page 127
³ The Oxford Essential Guide to Egyptian Mythology, entry for Mut written by Herman te Velde.
4 Religion in Ancient Egypt – Byron E. Schafer, page 121.
5 The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt – Richard H. Wilkinson, pages 153 & 155.
6 The Little Book of Egyptian Hieroglyphs – Lesley and Roy Adkins , page 96
7 Amulets of Ancient Egypt – Carol Andrews, pages 42 & 76.
8 Dictionary of Ancient Egypt – Toby Wilkinson, entries for Mut, Nekhbet and Vulture.
9 The Egyptian Book of the Dead – R. O. Faulkner , pages 159-60