Many years ago I went to a talk about the birds of Ancient Egypt and about identifying their species from hieroglyphs & art. Sadly I can’t remember the name of the speaker for sure but I think it must’ve been John Wyatt. What I do remember is that he showed us a picture of a Predynastic object decorated with rows of animals, each row a different type of animal. And he pointed out the row with the long-legged long-necked birds, and told us that in every example of this motif the second from the front is the “four legged bird”! So now when I see a comb or knife handle with rows of animals I make a point of looking for the four legged bird – and I’ve always found one.
The four legged bird is, of course, a giraffe. Which doesn’t, at first blush, make it seem less of an oddity to find in Predynastic Egyptian art. Giraffes in the modern era are found in sub-Saharan Africa, not in the Nile Valley. But the Sahara has not always been so arid, and once supported vegetation and animals that we now associate with more southerly regions of Africa including giraffes. As the climate changed and the desert became inhospitable both animals & people were pushed towards the south and towards the Nile Valley. It’s this concentration of people in the valley and the shift from nomadic pastoral life to settled agriculture that kickstarted Egyptian civilisation. During the period from c. 5000 BCE through to c. 3250 BCE the Prehistoric Egyptians would still have had giraffes living alongside them, perhaps even large herds of them. But the giraffes disappeared during the Early Dynastic Period and were gone from Egypt by the early Old Kingdom at the latest. Partly this is down to the continuing aridification of the climate pushing the giraffes’ range south. And partly because of increasing competition with domestic animals as the Egyptian civilisation flourished. Interestingly their disappearance doesn’t seem to’ve involved over-hunting, which is my normal assumption when mega-fauna vanishes from a region in correlation with increased human presence! Giraffe bones are not often found in the Nile Valley, and certainly not in the sort of quantity that would imply hunting them was a significant part of the economy.
So perhaps not surprising after all that giraffes feature in Prehistoric and Predynastic Egyptian art. Giraffes are seen in lot of rock art throughout the period but in terms of more portable objects there seem to be two phases. During the Naqada I period (c. 3900-3650 BCE) giraffes are seen incised on pots and cosmetic palettes. There are also finds of long-toothed combs with the handles sculpted into giraffes. Then during the Naqada II period (c.3650-3300 BCE) depictions of giraffes become less common – a find at Hierakonpolis in 1998 of a pot with a giraffe incised on it is a rare example. And then there is a resurgence in giraffe imagery during the Naqada III period (3300-3150 BCE), including in the motif of rows of animals that I opened this article with. The rows of sorted animals might represent an imposition of order onto chaos, a frequent Egyptian theme, and an assertion of control over these animals by grouping them into types (with the mix of giraffes and birds being “things with long necks and long legs”). Giraffes are also depicted facing palm trees, often a pair of giraffes flanking a palm tree. There’s an example of this on the back of the Battlefield Palette (now in the British Museum) and one on the back of the Four Dog Palette (now in the Louvre). The meaning of this motif is unclear.
Art representing giraffes does not really outlive the presence of giraffes in the Nile Valley – they are rare in Pharaonic art, mostly showing up on seals. They don’t become associated with any of the mythological underpinnings of Egyptian culture – no god is personified as a giraffe. During the New Kingdom there are more representations, but most of these (like the rather fine example in TT100, the tomb of Rekhmire) are in contexts where they are exotic animals brought as tribute to Pharaoh by African vassals.
But giraffes do live on in Egyptian writing – there is a giraffe hieroglyph (sign E27 in Gardiner’s Sign List). This can be used for the word for giraffe (as a single sign or ideogram for the word) and is otherwise used in only two words. In both of those cases it is used as a determinative (which is a symbol that doesn’t represent a sound but instead indicates what sort of word is being spelt out). These two words are sr (which means “foretell”) and mmj (which means “giraffe”). Neither book I looked at had any speculation on why a giraffe might be used in the word “foretell”, but I like the idea that it’s because the long necked giraffe can see further ahead.
There seems to be tantalisingly little known about giraffes in early Egyptian culture, looking through my book collection I found very few that even mention giraffes. As they show up in well defined motifs on elite objects like large ceremonial palettes it’s definitely tempting to assume that they meant something to the people of the time, rather than just being decorative. But what that is is unknown and I suspect is always going to be an unanswered question – except for the intriguing hint of an association with foretelling the future.
“Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs” James P. Allen
“Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs” Alan Gardiner
“Giraffes in Ancient Egypt” Dirk Huyge (In Nekhen News Vol. 10 1998)
“Dawn of Egyptian Art” Diana Craig Patch