In our comprehensive article about the powerful Egyptian gods, we mentioned how their mythology was influenced by the natural surroundings and events affecting ancient Egypt itself. One pertinent example would relate to the yearly pattern of Nile floods (that enriched the soil). This played a crucial role in establishing water as one of the primary symbols of life.
This also brings us to the rise of Sobek – the deity that was associated with both the life-giving and destructive aspects of the Nile. Usually depicted with a crocodile head (or crocodile form), Sobek (also called Sobki and Sebek) was venerated across ancient Egypt even during its Old Kingdom period.
Incredibly enough, Sobekneferu, from the Twelfth Dynasty (circa 18th century BC), was possibly the first female ruler of Egypt with royal titles. And her name literally translated to ‘Beauty of Sobek’. As for the scope of veneration, it is entirely possible that even live crocodiles were worshipped in some parts of Egypt as embodiments of Sobek.
To that end, in this article, we will aim to delve into the origins, history, and myths of Sobek – the ancient Egyptian god of the Nile who was associated with both power and virility.
Origins and History of Sobek
The very origins of Sobek hark back to the Old Kingdom period (circa 24th century BC), as can be discerned from the Pyramid Texts – the oldest known funerary texts of ancient Egypt. For example, one particular spell (PT 317) from the texts inscribed on a tomb wall (at Saqqara) clearly praises the Pharaoh Unis (or Unas) as an incarnation of the god Sobek –
Unis is Sobek, green of plumage, with alert face and raised fore, the splashing one who came from the thigh and tail of the great goddess in the sunlight … Unis has appeared as Sobek, Neith’s son. Unis will eat with his mouth, Unis will urinate and Unis will copulate with his phallus. Unis is lord of (seed), who takes women from their husbands to the place Unis likes according to his heart’s fancy.
And while Unis was the last ruler of the Fifth Dynasty, the veneration of Sobek didn’t stop with his death. The cult of the crocodile god was possibly ‘shifted’ to Sumenu, in the Theban province, during the Ninth and Tenth Dynasties. However, the ascendance of Sobek from a localized deity to one of the principal gods of the Egyptian pantheon came during the Middle Kingdom period (circa 2055–1650 BC).
To that end, even during the early phases of the Middle Kingdom, Sobek was, on occasion, possibly merged with Ra. Now Ra – the sun god (when the sun was at its peak), was considered among the most powerful ancient Egyptian deities. And thus the composite deity of two gods Sobek-Ra (or Sobek-Re) was perceived as a creator god rather than just a deity of fertility.
During the reign of King Amenemhat III, the sixth Pharaoh of the 12th Dynasty, Sobek gained even more prominence. His capital at Shedet (present-day Faiyum, also called Crocodilopolis by the Greeks) became the very cult center of Sobek. Consequently, large temple projects were undertaken to promote the elevation of Sobek as a principal deity of the pantheon.
Even more importantly, possibly as an effect of political ambition, a merged version of Sobek and Horus, known as Sobek-Horus was evoked to represent the power of the royalty. With titles like ‘Lord of the Great Palace’, Sobek-Horus was thus perceived as the manifestation of Pharaoh’s authority and divine kingship.
The evolution of the deity coincided with the rise of cult centers around ancient Egypt – even after the Middle Kingdom. For example, a New Kingdom site at Dahamsha, famous for its statue (pictured above) of Amenhotep III and Sobek (circa 14th century BC), was possibly used as a crocodile breeding center.
The cult and worship of Sobek-Ra also had some level of prominence in Egypt during the Graeco-Roman period (Ptolemaic and later Roman rule) post-4th century BC. This possibly had to do with the political evolution of the deity as ‘Sobek of Shedet-Re-Horus’ – a composite god worshiped as the divine patron of kings and Pharaohs.
One prime example would include the dual temple at the famed site of Kom Ombo (or Kawm Umbū) in Upper Egypt. Built between 180–47 BC, by the Ptolemies and later Romans, the sanctums had entire rows of mummified crocodiles.
The Attributes and Myths of Sobek
Suffice it to say, the myths surrounding Sobek also changed and evolved over time with the developing prominence of the deity among the ancient Egyptians. In that regard, one of his primary attributes alludes to Sobek’s animalistic (and rather vicious) nature. Some of his epithets aptly present such a savage side, like “he who eats while he also mates”, and “pointed of teeth”.
Such titles shouldn’t come as a surprise – given the assumed ferocity of the Nile river crocodile. However, Sobek was also associated with royalty, which in itself endowed him with an air of a protective deity. So, over the passage of time, Sobek was often ‘advertised’ as a benevolent deity who also had the ability to heal. Moreover, he was the symbol of power and strength and was thus often worshiped as the protector of the Egyptian army.
The myths of Sobek also mirrored such a shift in perception of the crocodile god. To that end, in some preliminary myths of the Old Kingdom, Sobek was the son of Neith – the primordial goddess of war. In other stories, he was also called the son of Set, the Egyptian god of chaos.
But after the later association with Ra, Sobek was regarded as one of the creator Egyptian gods who rose from the obscure ‘Dark Water’ of Nun to create the Nile river from his very sweat. Another myth notes how he laid eggs in the primeval waters of Nun to create the very world Egyptians lived in. This, in turn, alludes to his position as the eminent deity of fertility and virility.
As for Sobek-Horus, he played a crucial role alongside Isis in healing the dismembered Osiris – who later became the god of the Underworld. A related story mentions how Sobek rescued the sons of Horus when they were found in the water as a lotus bloom. Moreover, Sobek was worshipped and paired with goddesses like Hathor and Tawaret. And lastly, some myths also put forth Sobek as the father of Khonsu – the moon god of the Egyptian pantheon.
Depictions of the Crocodile God of Ancient Egyptians
Given his title as the powerful protector of the Nile, the motifs of Sobek usually revolved around the depictions of the crocodile – the vicious predator and defender of the Nile river. Consequently, Sobek was typically represented with a crocodile head and human body.
Sobek was also venerated as the manifestation of Amun-Ra. So as the patron god of kings, he was often depicted wearing either a plumed headdress with the sun disk or the Atef crown, while carrying the Was scepter (symbol of power) and the Ankh (symbol of the breath of life).
Interestingly enough, the reverence for crocodiles went beyond just motifs and statues. Ancient Egyptians were even known to have kept and fed live crocodiles inside the sacred precincts and pools of a few temples. And as we fleetingly mentioned before, ancient sites have also revealed crocodile mummies of different ages, ranging from fetuses and infants to mature specimens, within the sanctums.
Sobek’s (and a crocodile’s) presumed aggression also associated him with sheer military prowess, thus making him the protector deity of the Egyptian soldiers. And such was the eminence of Sobek and crocodiles in Egypt that even Strabo attested in his Geography, about the practices of Faiyum –
The people in this Nome hold in very great honor the crocodile, and there is a sacred one there which is kept and fed by itself in a lake, and is tame to the priests.