Mythological birding

Yesterday I had a long and fascinating amble around the new exhibition at the British Museum on the Egyptian Book of the Dead. This was a series of spells to help the dead on their path through the netherworld, which were painted onto papyrus and placed in the sarcophagus with the mummy. Rich with colour, the parchments really do form a stunning exhibit.

A couple of the gods caught my eye. First, Ra, god of the sun. Obviously half man-half falcon, but which falcon? I must admit I wasn’t sure. A quick flick through Raptors of the World reveals that there are only a few possible candidates, assuming the Egyptians wouldn’t have gone for a passage migrant.

Ra (left); various falcons (right)

I’m going to stick my neck out and state that the god Ra was at least part-Lanner Falcon. Ra has a clear white cheek, which, though perhaps not as obvious as it might be on my little illustration above, suggests the yellowish-cheeked Barbary wasn’t the one they had in mind. The artists on the Book of the Dead produced a seriously impressive likeness of this fine falcon, complete with a stylised rufous nape.

All good fun. But then I stumbled upon this beaky chap, doodling on the wall. Without looking below, what’s your first thought?

Thoth hard at work.

Mine was ‘Slender-billed Curlew’. It turns out that this is Thoth, who apparently has the head of an ibis. Fair enough, I guess, though as I looked for more examples of this god it became apparent that the thickness of Thoth’s bill seems pretty variable. I wonder though … while SBC today is Critically Endangered and quite possibly extinct, this map from the Slender-billed Curlew Working Group shows that there are historic records of regular wintering in the Nile Delta, and presumably this was the case back when pyramids were in vogue, while we know from other reliefs that the locals back then loved a spot of fowling.

Slender-billed Curlew records, 1900-2002.

Perhaps there was a dab of conflation of SBC with ibis in Thoth – who knows? Though I’m willing to accept the alternative hypothesis – probably not. What do you think?

Regular readers will know that I’m slightly obsessed with curlews, and my elevation of one to the level of deity is maybe not that surprising.

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