the Egyptian mongoose (Herpestes ichneumon), is a predator of the civet family (Viverridae) which looks rather like a marten. The length of its body is about 65 centimeters (25 inches) and the length of its tail about 45 centimeters (15 inches); its short legs allow it to move swiftly and sinuously. The ichneumon's coat is dun colored. In tomb decorations of the Old Kingdom it often appears in papyrus thickets; it is rather precisely distinguished in these early works from genets, wild cats, and other similar animals, in contrast to the less rigid New Kingdom depictions, in which it is no longer so carefully differentiated. In the Late period temple at Kom Ombo, a lion is depicted clambering up a papyrus stalk—the normal, if somewhat unrealistic, convention for portraying the ichneumon. The ichneumon was highly valued in ancient Egypt as a killer of mice and, even more, of snakes. It haunted riverine terrain and preyed on bird's eggs; it was reputed also to eat the eggs of crocodiles.

The ichneumon was venerated as a sacred animal. In accordance with its various aspects, it was associated with several different deities and connected with their myths. As the ḫʒtri-ichneumon (a Semitic loan word meaning “weasel”; Coptic shathoi), its large, wide-open eyes make it the complementary “light” figure for the blind ʿmʿm-shrew deity of Letopolis and, in mythology, it represents the seeing side of Horus-Mekhenti-en-irty. As the ʿ-ichneumon (“tracker”)—corresponding to the Greek ichneumon—it is the snake-killing companion of Atum of Heliopolis (Hesychios), known from the Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts until the Physiologus (chapter 26, parallel to the otter in chapter 25) and eventually to the medieval Arab writers Hayat al-Hayawab and Ibn Manzur al-Ifriqi. The Horus or Atum ichneumon—known from Letopolis and Heliopolis, respectively—was worshiped all over the country, particularly in the Nile Delta: in Buto, Herakleopolis Magna, Athribis, Sais, and Hibis. In later times, the ichneumon was assigned to the goddess Wadjet (documented only in isolated examples before Aelian), but probably as a substitute for the otter, which had originally belonged to Wadjet (or Leto) as the uraeus god (of royal snakes), but which had become rare. Finally, the king was said to be “beloved” of the ḫʒtri-ichneumon or was deputized for by the ichneumon as Sol Invictus (Lat., the Unconquerable Sun).

The following texts testify to a cult of the ichneumon: the Book of Going Forth by Day, the Book of That Which Is in the Underworld, the Book of Caverns, and certain magical texts; furthermore, there are ichneumon mummies (particularly from Bubastis) and votive offerings, mainly from the Late period. In addition, there are small bronze statuettes and bronze sarcophagi in the shape of an ichneumon. For the sake of clarity, these may be distinguished from the more common shrew-sarcophagi as follows: the ichneumons have a long head, close-set ears, a tail that hangs down to the ground, and fur that is long and coarse. By contrast, the shrew is long-snouted, with upright ears that have two folds, a tail stretched out horizontally, and mythological decorations placed on its back. The otter has a blunt snout, wedge-shaped tail, and webbed feet, and it stands in the “praying” (scenting) position. In publications and museums, ichneumons, otters, and shrews are usually labeled as these or other animals by guesswork alone.


  • Brunner-Traut, Emma. “Spitzmaus und Ichneumon al Tiere des Sonnegottes.” Nachrichten von der Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen (1965), 123–163.
  • Brunner-Traut, Emma. In Festschrift für Siegfried Schott zu seinem 70. Geburtstag. Wiesbaden, 1968.

Emma Brunner-Traut; Translated from German by Julia Harvey