October 2012

Apis cow

What is the significance of the picture of the cow at the base of Nesperennub’s mummy?

Answer

Apis cow image on Nesperennub’s cartonage
Image by Queensland Museum

Since the arrival of our international exhibit ‘Mummy Secrets of the Tomb’, we have had a number of interesting questions about the exhibit. One of the most common ones has been “What is the significance of the picture of the cow at the base of Nesperennub’s mummy?”

Well firstly the ‘cow’ is in fact a bull and represents the god Apis. During the time of Nesperennub (around 800 BC) one of the functions of the Apis Bull was to protect and assist the dead on their journey to the afterlife. The image of Apis on Nesperennub’scartonnage case was a symbol of powerful protection.

Apis is not to be confused with the goddess Hathor who was a bovine goddess and had a role as a royal mother and protector of the deceased. Hathor was a female god and her symbol was the cow. She is also depicted as a female figure with the ears of a cow (see if you can spot Hathor in the exhibit as well). Other ancient Egyptian bull cults included Mnewer and Bakha but these were not as popular as Apis.

Like many gods in ancient Egypt Apis went through various stages of change both regionally and over time. Many of the Egyptian gods morphed into different forms and developed various links to other gods changing their names and level of perceived power in the complex world of the gods. Apis developed into a powerful bull worship cult with changes in his name, symbols and association to other gods (first with Ptah, then Osiris and Sokaris). Apis is also known as Hep, Hap and Hapi and evolved into a manifestation of the god linked to Osiris known as Osirapis or Serapis. Amongst other symbols Apis is shown as a bull or a calf. In Memphis, during Nesperennub’s time, Apis was represented through the worship of a live bull that was consulted as an oracle. The live Apis bull lived a privileged life in a temple and was eventually sacrificed, mummified and then buried in a complex of underground catacombs at Saqqara near Memphis.

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