The crocodile god Sobek is one of the best known Egyptian gods - at least by his looks. He was shown as a crocodile-headed man, or a whole crocodile. His realm was the Nile, and one myth tells the Nile was made of Sobek's sweat.
Sobek was worshipped from Old Kingdom all through to the Roman Period - basically the whole time span of ancient Egyptian history. He is first mentioned during the Old Kingdom, in Pyramid text (spell PT 317) as the son of Neith and Seth. His was called the "Rager" - the name reveals how he was seen during these early years of the Egyptian Dynastic age; a dangerous and aggressive god. His names tell of his sharp teeth, how he loved robbery, and how he was the lord of water.
Later on Sobek evolved into a protective deity - his magic turned away harmful influences and evil. He was seen as a protector against the dangers of the Nile. Sobek later turned into a protector of the dead in the afterlife, where he revived their senses so they could live. Sobek was also associated as the healer of the dismembered god Osiris (whose body was chopped into pieces and thrown all around Egypt by his brother Set who wanted to become king). Thus it was logical to see Sobek as the god who in the afterlife could repair the damage done to bodies.
Sobek had a royal role as well - he was a symbol the king's power and patron of the royal army - in this role he wore the uraeus on his forehead. He protected the king from evil influences, even the word "sovereign" was written with crocodile signs, and many kings had "Sobek" as part of their names. He had the role of guardian in the afterlife as well, as the bodyguard of gods (especially Ra and Set).
This crocodile god was also connected with the fertility of the Nile. And like so many other gods, he also had a role in the creation of the world, especially in the later Dynastic age. He was seen as a manifestation of Ra, who rose from the primeval waters and took part in the creation of the earth. In this role he was known as Sobek-Ra, and wore the sun disc on his head.
Sobek was worshipped especially in Upper Egypt and Nubia, but also in the Fayum area near the Nile Delta.
There were many towns in the Fayum area, and they had their local versions of Sobek they worshipped. The 12th Dynasty pharaoh Amenemhat III especially developed the Fayum region.
The most famous place of Sobek worship was at Crocodilopolis. There a 12th Dynasty temple at Medinet Madi was dedicated to Sobek, his wife Renenutet and Horus. Tame crocodiles were kept in a pool in the temple area, and taken good care of as they were considered the incarnations of Sobek. They were fed well, sometimes adorned with jewels, and after death they were mummified and buried is a sacred cemetery.
The temple of the crocodile god in Kom Ombo was called Per-Sobek, on House of Sobek.
Here the god's wife was the goddess Hathor.
There were two species of crocodile in ancient Egypt. We know of the ferocious crocodilus niloticus. Not a very pleasant acquaintance, and it is hard to believe they would have been tame enough to be adorned with jewellery or kept in temple pools.
Herodotus, however, tells in his Histories, that the Egyptians had another species of crocodile, which was smaller, and tamer, and this was the one they kept in the temples and considered sacred. They could be used in ceremonies.
It seems Herodotus told the truth - here is an interesting survey of these two species of crocodile in ancient Egypt:
1. What animal symbolized Sobek?
2. Was Sobek a protector of the king?
3. What other role did Sobek have?
4. How were the sacred crocodiles treated?
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A big thank you to Heidi Kontkanen for the permission to use her photos.
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