I love the grace and elegance of this vase. Both the physical form of it, and the line of crocodiles spiralling up the side while the hippos sit more chaotically next to them interspersed with zigzag lines that are presumably representing the water these creatures live in.
I say “vase” because if something like this was in my house that’s what it’d be used as – a decorative centrepiece with some flowers in it. But that’s probably not what the person it was made for did with it. Maybe it contained drink, or some food stuff?
I don’t have much information about this object, but I think it’s from the Naqada I or early Naqada II periods – so some 500 to 1000 years before Egypt was unified in 3000BCE. A beautiful survivor of what was clearly a sophisticated and rich culture in the deep past.
It’s in the Cairo Museum (or at least it was in 2016 when I visited) but I don’t know the accession number or the provenance.
Sobek, or Sebek (or even Suchos if you insist on being Greek about it), is closely associated with the crocodile. Of the books I read only two gave me a meaning for the name, but they did provide me with three different possibilities between them! One possibility is that the name just means crocodile – despite there also being another completely different word for crocodile (meseh). Another possibility ties Sobek into the Osiris story – his name may derive from a word meaning “he who unites” which would be referring to the limbs of Osiris. And the third possibility is that it derives from s-bꜣk, which means “he who impregnates”. This last meaning ties in quite well with various of the epithets of Sobek (from the Pyramid Texts and other sources) which portray a violent and sexual deity – things like “pointed of teeth,” “who lives on robbery,” “who impregnates females,” “who takes women from their husbands whenever he wishes according to his desires”.
Depictions of him in animal form are of a crocodile who is often seated on a shrine, and in his animal-headed form he’s a man with a crocodile head who may wear a tripartite wig, as in my photo of a statue now in the Ashmolean Museum (and one of my favourite objects in their collection). His headdress, when he wears one, is a horned sun-disc with two upright feathers – these might be green in colour, as he’s referred to in the Pyramid Texts as “green of plume/plumage/feathers”.
The Egyptians liked to group their deities into groups of three that we call triads, which are normally a god, his female consort and their male offspring. Sobek is no exception to this, and he’s a member of several triads in different parts of Egypt. His membership of these doesn’t seem to have much basis in mythology (in fact there are no surviving stories about him from Pharaonic Egypt) but is rather an organisational feature of how the Egyptians thought of their gods. At Kom Ombo his consort is Hathor, and their son is Khonsu, whereas at Medinet Maadi he is linked with Renenutet and Horus is their son. And he’s also known as the son of Neith, but her consort isn’t clear (sometimes he’s Seth but not always).
As I’ve already mentioned above one of Sobek’s cult centres was at Kom Ombo, which was called Pa-Sebek in Ancient Egypt – the Domain of Sobek. The surviving temple at the site is Ptolemaic, as is so often the case, but there are indications that there were earlier temples – New Kingdom period and possibly before. Sobek shared the surviving temple with Horus the Elder. I don’t mean this in the normal sense where a large Egyptian temple has shrines to several different gods, instead it has two parallel main axes running from east to west – the doors are set next to each other in the temple walls, the shrines that are the focal point of the temple sit side-by-side at the end of these axes. The southern of these is dedicated to Sobek and the northern one is dedicated to Horus the Elder.
Another very important cult centre for Sobek was at Medinet el-Faiyum, at the ancient town of Shedyet (later called Crocodilopolis by the Greeks). The earliest temple remains surviving here date to the reign of Amenemhat III back in the Middle Kingdom, and this temple was later rebuilt by Ramesses II. It was a cult centre for him long before this, however – the Pyramid Texts refer to Sobek as “of Shedyet” so by the Fifth Dynasty he’s associated with the town. And even earlier – perhaps even as far back as the time of Narmer, though the evidence is fairly circumstantial hinging around a seal impression from the time of Narmer and some correlations with later texts and structures. There’s also a truly fantastical story told by Diodorus Siculus (in the 1st Century BCE) which tells how the cult of Sobek was started in Shedyet by Menes out of gratitude to a crocodile which had saved him from a pack of wild dogs. Prior to this altruistic crocodile stepping in to save a king crocodiles were only thought of as disgusting and man-eaters. Clearly fiction, but perhaps a tiny kernel of truth – the cult maybe did start around the time of the unification of Egypt, and during prehistoric times there don’t seem to’ve been any positive associations with the crocodile.
As well as these two major cult centres Sobek had several other temples throughout Egypt, including at Gebelein and Gebel el-Silsila, Medinet Maadi (in conjunction with Renenutet) and Sumenu. Each of these temples probably would’ve had a pool (or perhaps the sacred lake itself) where the crocodiles sacred to Sobek were kept and these were subsequently mummified after their deaths. There are two sorts of sacred animal in Ancient Egypt, and these mummified crocodiles cover both options. Many are votive offerings, bred specifically for the purpose and killed before they got very big. Others were avatars of the god who lived out a long life before finally being given a ceremonial burial.
The seal impression from the time of Narmer I mentioned above suggests that Sobek may’ve been worshipped at least as early as that, however that is not definitive (there is a crocodile and a shrine, but nothing explicitly labelling it as Sobek). By the time of Khasekhemwy at the end of the Second Dynasty there is stronger evidence that a cult of Sobek was in operation – two stone vessels have been found (one in Khasekhemwy’s tomb and one in the Step Pyramid complex built by his successor) that have the title ḥm sbk on them. This title is a priestly one that translates as Servant of Sobek. And the cult continues into the Old Kingdom as indicated by his presence in the Pyramid Texts. It rose to particular prominence in the later Middle Kingdom – which can be seen from the number of rulers with his name as part of their own, mostly Sobekhoteps in the 13th Dynasty. And as with many deities he gradually became assimilated with Amun – helped by the solar associations of crocodiles whose emergence from the waters each morning to bask in the sun was seen as a sign of veneration of the sun. This partly manifests in the formation of the merged deity Sobek-Re (as Re is also assimilating with Amun). By the Ptolemaic Period this solar association is so strong that Sobek is thought of as an equivalent to the Greek sun god Helios. He’s also associated with the horizon – as Lord of Bakhu, which was a mythological mountain at the horizon where Sobek was believed to have a temple made out of carnelian.
As well as his solar associations Sobek is also (and perhaps more logically!) a god of the river environment. He was a water deity, and the Nile was supposed to come from his sweat. And as a crocodile might lurk in the marshes and riverbanks to ambush the unwary, these regions too were under the authority of Sobek. In this context it’s not surprising to find that he was also a fertility deity – one of the things the Pyramid Texts says about him is that he makes green the fields and riverbanks. He’s also, as I discussed at the beginning, involved with fertility in a different way – the epithets of Sobek in the Pyramid Texts are a very crocodilian aspect of fertility, I think: ambush and rape, rather than love or even lust.
Sobek is also seen as upholding law and order – a text on the walls of Kom Ombo refers to Sobek as a sa-per who smites rebels. Sa-per was a title given to officials who had some aspect of what we’d now think of as the functions of a police force – during the Old Kingdom they were responsible for arresting and punishing tax evaders but again the imagery of Sobek suggests a much less bureaucratic sort of involvement with law & order.
Taken together these aspects of fertility, power and order make him a good symbol of the king’s might and potency. But there is a crocodilian flavour to these concepts – this is a forceful fertility of impregnation (not of the motherhood of Hathor), this is the king who smites his enemies with the mace on every temple gateway, and executioner who deals out punishment for crimes. The king to be feared, and to be wary of offending.
Bresciani, Edda. 2005. “Sobek, Lord of the Land of the Lake.” In Divine Creatures: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt, edited by Salima Ikram, translated by C. Rossi. American University in Cairo Press. David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books. Fletcher, Joann. 2016. The Story of Egypt. Hodder. Oppenheim, Adela, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto, eds. 2015. Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Patch, Diana Craig. 2011. “From Land to Landscape.” In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press. Romer, John. 2016. From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom. A History of Ancient Egypt 2. Penguin. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum. Teeter, Emily. 2011. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt.Cambridge University Press. Wilkinson, Richard H. 1994. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. Thames and Hudson. ———. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson. ———. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson. Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2001. Early Dynastic Egypt. Routledge.