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Sobek: Egyptian God of Water

Sobek: Egyptian God of Water

Sobek was the ancient Egyptian god of water. Over time he also became closely associated with surgery and with medicine. These attributes reflected Sobek’s role as a prominent protective deity who is depicted as the form of a man with a crocodile’s head or in crocodile form.

Sobek’s name translates as “Crocodile” in ancient Egyptian. He was the undisputed lord of Egypt’s wetlands and marshes. He was also lined indelibly with the Nile, whose annual floods were said to be Sobek’s sweat. By controlling the Nile’s waters, Sobek also controlled the fertility of the rich Nile soil, which its agriculture depended on.

Facts About Sobek

  • Sobek is the ancient Egyptian god of power and strength and was Egypt’s undisputed lord of its extensive marshes and wetlands
  • In time, he also became associated with medicine and surgery
  • The first written reference to Sobek comes in the Pyramid Texts, the world’s oldest existing sacred texts
  • While Sobek was revered for his gift of Egypt’s fertile fields thanks to bringing the Nile’s annual flood, he was also greatly feared
  • Ancient Egyptians revered Sobek for his virility and reproductive drive hence Sobek’s cult was closely associated with fertility and procreation
  • Sobek was believed to hold the power to revive the deceased’s senses and to restore their sight in the afterlife
  • Crocodilopolis was home to Sobek’s cult. Its temple complex featured a lake, a beach and a live Nile crocodile named Petsuchos, meaning “son of Sobek.”

Deity Of Death And Fertility

The Nile was seething with these aggressive and seemingly fearless predators. Crocodiles are notorious man-eaters, so while Sobek was worshipped and revered for his gifts of their lush fertile fields sustained by control over the Nile River’s annual flood, he was also greatly feared.

Sobek was believed to operate purely instinctively thanks in part to his cunning reptilian character. Sobek was seen as behaving violently and aggressively and was renowned for his overtly sexual nature. Hence, the ancient Egyptians revered Sobek for his virility and reproductive drive and closely associated Sobek’s cult with human fertility and procreation.

An alternate aspect associated with Sobek’s origins as a crocodile god, saw him assume the mantle of the Egyptian deity of unexpected death. Sobek was thought to have the power to revive the dead’s senses in the underworld and restore their sight. A less lethal attribute was Sobek’s role in separating wives from their husbands on a mere whim.

Sobek’s Origins

The Sobek cult first appeared during Egypt’s Old Kingdom, in the ancient city of Shedyet located in Lower Egypt. The ancient Greek name for Sheydet is Crocodilopolis, which translates as the “Crocodile City.” Sheydet is set in the Faiyem region and Sobek is also known as the “Lord of Faiyum.”

A distinctive temple dedicated to Sobek was constructed in Crocodilopolis. The temple grounds contained a sandy stretch of beach, a lake and a live Nile crocodile called Petsuchos, which when translated means “son of Sobek”. Petsuchos was worshipped as an earthly manifestation of Sobek and was garlanded with precious gemstones and gold. He was fed the finest quality food, including meat, grain, wine, and milk mixed with honey. Upon his eventual death, Petsuchos was ritually mummified and his place taken with another crocodile.

According to customs recounted Herodotus, an ancient Greek philosopher and historian anyone killed by a crocodile within the grounds of Crocodilopolis was considered to be divine. The crocodile’s victims were ritually embalmed and buried in a sacred coffin after a being given an elaborate funeral carried out by priests of Sobek’s cult.

Another famed centre of Sobek’s cult was Kom Ombo. This largely agricultural town evolved into a haven for a large number of crocodiles. A sprawling complex of worship grew around the sanctuary. The dual temple Sobek shared with Horace, the war god, is still standing today.

Sobek was thought to live atop a mythical mountain located at the far horizon. Here he ruled and was subsequently linked to the divine authority of the pharaoh as he, himself, was the eternal lord of his domain.

In turn, this link with the far horizon associated Sobek with the Egyptian sun god Ra as the sun rose and set on the horizon. This close association spawned a form of Ra worship known as Sobek-Ra.

Sobek is one of ancient Egypt’s most well-known gods and enjoyed widespread popularity. Sobek’s temple priests kept Nile crocodiles in their temple complexes where they were treated like indulged over-sized family pets. Egyptians believed that feeding a crocodile ensured they would enjoy Sobek’s rich blessings. These crocodiles were treated lavishly and fed delicacies.

When these crocodiles eventually died, they were ceremonially mummified and interred in crypts with all the pomp and circumstance accorded a person. Mummified crocodiles of all ages, adorned with jewels and precious metals together with crocodile eggs have been discovered at sites across all of Egypt.

Sobek Worship

Sobek appears in the Pyramid Texts, one the world’s oldest sacred texts. Sobek was viewed as a protective deity of Egyptian pharaohs and their armies. Sobek’s courage and unassailable strength was a force for overcoming all obstacles. Sobek also protected the pharaohs from evil, magical curses and ill-intentioned sorcery.

The Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BCE) saw Sobek worship widely established. However, his cult really grew in prominence and wealth during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom. During this time, Sobek’s cult was frequently linked with the falcon-headed god of royalty and war, Horus.

Sobek was said to have rescued Horus’ four sons by gathering them into a net and scooping them from the waters where they had emerged from the centre of a lotus blooming flower. For his assistance, Sobek was adopted into the divine Triad of Horus, which comprised Osiris and Isis, Horus’ parents.

Sobek’s Lineage

Sobek is described as the son of Set and Neith in the Pyramid Texts. His father Set was the Egyptian god of chaos, thunder, storms and war. Set’s most infamous act in Egyptian mythology was the murder and dismemberment of Osiris his brother. Sobek’s mother Neith was a forbidding war goddess.

Renenutet the snake goddess and protector of the harvest was Sobek’s wife. Their son is Khonsu, was the Egyptian god of the moon and time. Khonsu means “traveller,” acknowledging the moon’s travel across the night sky.

Evolving Symbolism

In the Old Kingdom, Sobek was usually shown as a crocodile-headed man, and occasionally in his Nile crocodile form. Later images from the Middle and New Kingdoms display his attributes linking him to Ra and Horus. In some images, his body is a crocodile form with the head of a falcon wearing Egypt’s dual crown. Sobek-Ra is depicted as a crocodile with his head embellished with tall plumes and a sun disk.

In Egyptian tombs mummified crocodiles have been excavated with baby crocodiles still on their backs and holding baby crocodiles in their mouths. Crocodiles are one of the few reptile species that care for their young. The practice of preserving this aspect of the animal’s behaviour in mummification emphasises Sobek’s fiercely protective and nurturing attributes.

As one of Sobek’s roles was to protect the Kings and the Egyptian people, this parallels a crocodile’s natural instincts to protect its young in the wild.

Reflecting On The Past

Sobek’s changing depiction shows how Egyptian religious beliefs evolved over time. His enduring popularity is largely due to his role as a fierce protector of the Egyptian people both in life and in the underworld.

Header image courtesy: Hedwig Storch [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons