Like many of the other ancient Egyptian Gods, Seth-Typhon has a number of animals that are considered sacred to Him. I thought I’d take a moment to discuss each of these creatures and how they relate to Seth in their own unique ways. First and foremost, no discussion of this subject can begin without mention of what the Egyptians called “the sha.”
The mysterious sha beast
The infamous sha – which is otherwise known as the “Seth Animal” or “Typhonian Beast” – is one of history’s great mysteries. It was depicted by the ancient Egyptians as some kind of red-haired canid, and it has a long curved snout, a pair of rectangular ears and a forked tail. Egyptologists are divided as to whether this animal actually existed and went extinct, or if it’s just a mythical creature that the Egyptians created from bits and pieces of different animals (like a dragon, griffin or phoenix). Some authors have theorized that it may be a stylized hyena, jackal or fox. It might actually be a fennec fox, which looks like this in real life:
The fennec fox
Fennec foxes are nocturnal, and they’re native to the Sahara Desert in Northern Africa. (In case you didn’t already know, the Sahara borders Egypt on its western border.) As you can see, it has the biggest ears you’ll ever find on any member of the Canidae family, and it also has reddish-orange hair. It might also interest you to know that fennec foxes are very social animals, that they mate for life, and that they can live for up to 14 years in captivity. Unfortunately, this poor little guy is often hunted by indigenous African tribes. It doesn’t cause any direct harm to humans (e.g., attacking people or livestock), but its fur is highly prized. It hasn’t been proven that the sha beast is really a fennec fox by any means, but considering the shape of the sha’s body in Egyptian religious art, I think this theory is the most likely possibility.
The donkey or jackass
The donkey or jackass is my personal favorite Typhonian animal, and it was associated with Seth the most in Late Antiquity (i.e., during Greco-Roman times). It was very common for Him to be drawn as an ass-headed man at that time. It’s often thought that a donkey’s stubbornness is due to stupidity (which is why the word “jackass” later became a derogatory term for people who act like imbeciles), but it’s actually because they’re very wise and cautious. It’s extremely difficult to force or frighten them into doing anything they perceive to be dangerous, and you must earn a donkey’s trust before you can convince it to work with you. Donkeys are so resistant to being bullied, in fact, that farmers will often keep them stabled with horses just to keep the horses from spooking so easily. (Other animals just seem to feel better when there’s a donkey around.)
When Typhon became hated and feared by most polytheists around the time of Christ, donkeys suffered as well. In Late Antiquity, urban Egyptians pushed the poor creatures over cliffs as a way of warding Seth away from their neighborhoods. At the same time, drawing people with donkey heads or donkey ears became a way of representing them as “evil” or “stupid.” In fact, the oldest-known illustration of Jesus Christ – the Alexamenos graffito – depicts Jesus as an ass-headed man on a cross. Whoever it was who drew this picture wasn’t trying to share any lost mystical wisdom about Typhon or Christ; he or she was merely insulting Jesus (and Seth) in the same way that political cartoonists might draw Barack Obama with devil horns today.
The Alexamenos graffito
Despite both of their negative reputations, the link between donkeys and Seth-Typhon makes perfect sense to me. What better totem animal to represent the mighty Red Lord than a floppy-eared underdog that refuses to be bossed around (and that’ll crush your skull with its hind legs if you even dare to try)? Not to mention that donkeys are really very trusty companions and workers once you get to know them (and once they get to know you).
An African bush pig and her baby
Pigs are also sacred to Seth, and this includes all pigs (from Miss Piggy to those big Razorbacks that gore people to death in the Australian Outback with their tusks). Big Red takes the form of a black boar when He blinds one of Horus’ eyes in Egyptian mythology, which is just one reason why pigs are so often considered “unclean” in some faiths today. Other reasons relate to religious dietary laws and the fact that pigs are genetically closer to humans than any other animal. In Judaism and Islam, animals must have split hooves and chew their cud to be considered kosher or halal, and while pigs have split hooves, they don’t chew their cud. At the same time, pig flesh bears the closest resemblance to human flesh (i.e., “the long pork”) in the entire animal kingdom (as evidenced by the fact that pig carcasses are so often used by crime scene investigation units when they re-create crime scenes). In light of this resemblance, some ancient cultures probably thought that eating pork was much too close to cannibalism for comfort.
…But aren’t their babies just the CUTEST things?
Some Egyptologists have theorized that perhaps the sha beast isn’t really a canid at all, but some kind of feral hog. (P. E. Newberry once claimed that some feral hogs have greyhound-shaped bodies, but I have yet to see anything like this for myself.) I’m very skeptical of this interpretation, but I do think the sha animal’s tail and curved snout are both very similar to those of a wild boar. In any case, perhaps the connection between Seth-Typhon and pigs is what led the creators of The Legend of Zelda to give the evil sorcerer Ganon a boar’s head.
The hippopotamus is yet another sacred animal of Seth, who was thought to appear as a hippo while battling Horus. Hippopotami are semi-aquatic, spending most of their time in water and only walking on land at dusk. They’re also the toughest and most dangerous herbivores on Earth. Male hippos are particularly aggressive and were highly feared by the Egyptians for their tendency to attack human beings in the water without provocation. They were also revered by Zulu warriors for this same quality and were considered to be braver and even more difficult to kill than lions. Yet they normally eat only vegetable matter. (Similarly, Typhon Himself is an herbivore in Egyptian mythology, which is ironic considering His uproarious nature.) There are a few recorded cases of hippo cannibalism, but this is an aberrant behavior that only occurs among sick or distressed hippopotami; it isn’t common by any means.
A hippopotamus and her baby
If you’ve ever seen a baby hippo, you’ll know it’s just about the cutest thing in the entire world…and you’ll wonder how such a cute little thing could possibly grow up to become one of the world’s deadliest creatures. One of my least favorite things about ancient Egypt is that the Temple of Horus at Edfu includes an engraving of Horus spearing a baby hippopotamus. The image represents Horus defeating Typhon in one of Their many battles, so I know it shouldn’t be taken literally. But I can’t help but wonder if it didn’t also represent an actual ritual in which a priest of Horus might have slaughtered a captured baby hippopotamus to execrate Seth.
Horus killing a baby hippo
Then there’s the oryx, which is a type of African antelope. Big Red was sometimes called “the White Oryx” in Roman times, and those who called Him this believed He was a completely evil being (which is no doubt due to urban Egyptian influence; nomadic desert-dwelling Egyptians continued to worship Him as a benign Savior well into the Common Era). Calling Big Red “the White Oryx” was probably very similar to how Christians sometimes identify Satan as “the Black Goat” today. For the Egyptians, black was actually the color of “goodness” because it represented the fertile soil of the Nile Valley, while white and red were “bad” because white represented death and red was the color of the inhospitable desert. In fact, this might have been the very first time a horned animal was ever used as a symbol for evil (as opposed to being used as a symbol for fertility or kingly power). So powerful was this association that when the Coptic Christians came along, they vilified Seth and oryxes by directly linking them both with Satan.
The majestic oryx
Finally, Seth is said to be rather fond of fish. When He drowns and dismembers Osiris in Egyptian mythology, He feeds the God’s phallus to a fish. No one’s really sure what kind of fish this supposedly was, but some sources theorize that it’s a member of the Mormyridae or “elephantfish” family. They’re called “elephantfish” because their snouts resemble elephant trunks. In fact, you might say that the faces of these fish bear a striking resemblance to the sha animal:
A very Typhonian-looking elephantfish
Can’t see it? Let me draw some ears for you:
I think it’s pretty safe to assume that Seth-Typhon’s fish is from the Mormyridae family. We can be reasonably sure of this since the Egyptians were nice enough to make statues of the fish, especially in a city called Per Medjed or Oxyrhynchus (a Greek name which means “Town of the Sharp-Snouted Fish”). For whatever reason, the fish that swallowed Osiris’ penis was particular beloved to the people of this city. This is especially interesting since Oxyrhynchus was located in what archaeologists call “Upper Egypt” (i.e., the southern and most desert-like half of the country, which was dedicated to the cult of Seth in predynastic times). Their statues of Typhon’s fish show once and for all that the fish is definitely a Mormyrus of one kind or another:
A statue of the holy Oxyrhynchus fish
It’s ironic that a barren desert God would become associated with an animal that’s entirely aquatic, and the reasons for this aren’t entirely clear. It makes perfect sense to me, though; if you’re accustomed to living in an arid desert wilderness, what would you expect heaven to be like? You’d probably imagine it to be a place where there’s never any shortage of water, like an oasis, a lake, or even an ocean. The fish, in turn, would be seen as a powerful symbol of hope. Interestingly, Oxyrhynchus was one of the first Egyptian cities to accept Christianity under the Coptic Church. (Numerous non-canonical Christian texts have been discovered there.) Early Christians used the Ichthys fish as their primary religious symbol long before they switched to using the crucifix, and perhaps this is one of the things that attracted the people of Oxyrhynchus to Christianity.
Other animals are sometimes associated with Big Red, including giraffe, okapi and snakes. But donkeys, pigs, hippopotami, oryx, fish and the mysterious sha beast would seem to be His favorites.