Egyptian observations of the avian world: categorisation through human, bird, language, and landscape interactions
Birds physically and symbolically pervaded the ancient Egyptian worldview. As an integral part of language, image, daily life, and ritual, they can thus potentially provide valuable insight into the Egyptian conceptualisation of their environment.
At certain times of the year, migratory birds populated the Nile Valley in an abundance and diversity hard to imagine in today’s highly urbanised cultures. Consequently, the local population had to develop nomenclature to refer to the birds they saw, interacted with, managed, and exploited on a regular basis. This in turn established a system of avian categorisation unique to their culture.
The study of animal names in Egyptology faces many challenges, most problematic being the etymology, meaning, and nuance of the terms used, as well as an inability to identify the species being named. Many words were used to indicate birds and their categories, and one term could often have multiple meanings. Variations depended on factors such as the genre, dating, and the context in which they appear. The complex nature and interconnectedness of the naming of animals has thus hindered investigations in the past.
Like all folk taxonomies, Egyptian naming practices reflect observations of real events. Set within the broader studies of Human-animal interaction and Environmental history, this thesis takes an interdisciplinary approach to the problem, applying the scientific methods of Archaeo- and Ethno-ornithology to evidence from Egyptian history. Based on a strong theoretical and practical background in animal studies, the discussion of the nomenclature for birds at a collective and qualifying level is supplemented by an analysis of corroborating Egyptian iconography. The focus is especially around the development and implementation of the Egyptian ornithological lexicon.
The thesis is organised thematically by six types of avian categorisation: morphology, locomotion, ecology, reproduction, age, and economic value, reflecting the different ways in which birds infiltrated and influenced Egyptian thinking. Through hunting, capturing, and utilising these animals, the Egyptian people gained unique insights into avian psychology and how to exploit them as a natural resource. The terminology the ancient Egyptians employed in all these daily interactions can tell us how they viewed and interacted with the birds around them.
This taxonomic study into the categorisation of birds has addressed, from a new angle, fundamental questions about Egyptian thought and worldview, and has generated new insights into some of the cultural and linguistic mysteries left behind by the Egyptian civilisation. The Egyptian classification system was context-based and socially embedded, and reflected interactions between culture, cognitive processes, and the material world. Their avian nomenclature initially stemmed primarily from its everyday significance to its users, but later developed into a rich and dynamic ornithological lexicon.
By using birds as a lens through which to explore the Egyptians’ unique conceptions and perceptions of their natural world, this thesis also contributes to the cultural history of birds and provides an introduction for both the Egyptologist and the Ornithologist regarding how animal taxonomy in the ancient world might be evaluated.