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From an African bestiary to universal science?

Table 2. Eleven systems of knowledge containing animal symbolism

by Wim van Binsbergen

homepage | Part I

 (0) species, object, concept

(1) animal demons world-wide[1]

(2) symbols of Egyptian nomes[2]

(3) major Egyptian gods[3]

(4) figurines in the Chokwe divining basket, Angola, Zambia and Zaire

(5) nomen-clature of Nkoya clans, western central Zambia

(6) nomenclature of Tswana clans, Botswana and South Africa

(7) Chinese zodiac

(8) Chinese lunar mansions

(9) the 36 Babylonian stars

(10) modern international constellations

(11) major Greek gods

abstract concept




lie; imminent misfortune; folly; folded heart (lack of sociability)


nleya (= ‘provided with’)


space; emptiness; danger; straddling

Death; Mistress of life; Lord of death



ant-eater, aardvark, pangolin




ant-bear, pangolin








antelope, deer


U16 (oryx)

Seth, Anukis, Satis (gazelle)

antelope (‘s horn); duiker (‘s hoof)


duiker; impala; kudu; reedbuck; eland antelope; hartebeest


unicorn, deer


Unicorn; Giraffe

Dionysos, Artemis, Aphrodite, Athene, Apollo











Great Bear; Little Bear

Artemis (she-bear)

birds, aquatic


L15 (ibis)

Thoth, Chonsu

wild duck (‘s foot); white heron (‘s claw); kingfisher






Crane, Swan

Hera (kingfisher); Aphrodite, Zeus (swan)

birds, eagle




eagle (‘s claw)








birds, falcon


U2, U5, U18?

Horus, Montu, Anti, Antywey / Antaios, Re Horachti, Haroeris, Harmerti, Sokar, Chonsu

(symbolic but not in basket)








birds, hawk[6]












birds, sylvan & general; also bat




laughing-bird(‘s beak); mason bird ( symbolic but not in basket); owl ( symbolic but not in basket); touraco bird; unspecified little bird


owl (morubisi, thubisi); red-billed quelea bird; weaver bird; any bird of small or moderate size (nonyane)


swallow; crow; bat; bird star

raven; swallow;

Crow; Dove; Toucan; Phoenix

Apollo, Athene, Kronos, Athene (crow or raven); Hera, Zeus (cuckoo); Aphrodite, Zeus (dove); Athene (owl); Herakles, Leto (quail); Aphrodite (swallow); Ares, Zeus (woodpecker)

birds, terrestrial (fowl)


U3 (double ostrich feathers)

Amon (goose); Maat, Shu (ostrich feather)

cock (paw); guinea fowl (symbolic but not in basket); partridge

guinea fowl



pheasant; cock



Apollo, Athene, Hermes (cock); Apollo, Ares, Hera, Hermes (goose); Hera (peacock)

birds, vulture



Nekhbet, Mut








Apollo, Ares, Kronos

body parts, animal (mammal)


L2 (foreleg of oxen)[9]


buck’s rib (or other mammal’s); kneecap, tibia, ear, of unspecified mammal




horn; tail; beak; wings

bull’s jaw


Athene glaukopis with owl’s eyes; Hera boopis with cow’s eyes,

body parts, human


lungs (L17)

Jusas (hand); Min, Amon (penis); Aton (hand at end of ray); sons of Horus (various organs); Mut, Tefnut (sun’s eye)

penis; vagina; heart; folded heart (lack of sociability); woman with distended belly; handicapped person


vulva; heart; penis


neck; heart; stomach


Berenice’s Hair

Aphrodite Comaetho, Cybele (hair); Artemis Orthia= upright, Dionysos lame, Zeus Velchanos= ‘who drags his foot’ (body); Athene glaukopis, Aphrodite peeping, Hera Europia broadly seeing, Hera boopis with cow’s eyes, Herakles Bright-eyed, Hades sightless (eyes); Herakles Nose-docker; Herakles of the Wounded Thigh; Herakles the Dactyl (finger); Hermes (phallus)



U11, U10 (black bull); L6, L3 (two-headed bull); L12 (cow with calf)

Buchis, Mnevis, Apis, Chentechtai, Serapis (bull); Hathor (cow)



ginger ox;

cattle; heifer (tshelwana); buffalo





Poseidon, Artemis Tauropole= ‘bull-killer’ (bull); Hera boopis, with cow’s eyes; Herakles Bouphagos= ‘cow-eater’, Athene (oxen, cow)


dog; wolf[11]

U17, L11

Anubis, Chenti Amentiu, Chent cheti, Wepwewet, Serapis

hunter’s dog


wild dog


fox; wolf; dog

wild dog; fox; great dog

Fox; Great Dog; Hunting Dogs; Little Dog; Wolf

Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Zeus (wolf); Artemis (dog)















L10 (black); L1 (white)

Uto =Wadjit (White crown); Nechbet, Satis (red crown); Neith (blue crown); Osiris, Wadjit (green); golden (Re and all gods)

white bead







Aphrodite (dark, black); Apollo, Artemis, Zeus of the White Poplar (white); Athene Chryse (golden); Athene Colocasia = of the red water-lily (red); Zeus (green)

crocodile, dragon


U6, L14, L5, L4

Sobek, Chentechtai

(symbolic but not in basket)


crocodile (kwena,



scaled dragon; smooth dragon



Apollo, Artemis, Athena, Dionysos, Herakles, Hermes, Kronos, Pan, Poseidon, Zeus (fight against)[13]

directions (n, e, S, w)


U13, U14, U20, U21, L19, L18 (Anterior/ Posterior); L14 (Eastern); L8, L7 (Eastern/ Western); L5, L4 (Northern/ Southern); R13 (Western)

Chenti Amentiu (West); Tefnut (South); Seth (East); Neith, Uto (North); Nekhbet (South)







Southern Fish; Northern Crown, Southern Cross, Southern Crown

Apollo, Artemis (northern)




Hathor, Isis (nursing the king)








Hebe (ambrosia); Poseidon = ‘he who gives to drink from the wooded mountain’

earth, sand, land


Land (U1);Great land (U8);

Re (earth mound in sun temple), Geb



naga (veld / penis)



field; mistress of the enemy-land


Rhea (earth); Poseidon (earthquakes); Zeus (mount of earth on top of Mt. Lukaios); Pan (pasture)
















Seth (ass)







Centaur; Foal; Pegasus

Ares, Herakles Horse-binder, Athene, Poseidon (horse)


lion; cf. Sinhika; panther[15]


Mehit, Tefnut, Pachet, Horus lord of Mesen, Shu Anhuret, Ma-hesa, Sakhmet (lion); Bastet (cat)

lion or leopard’s claw or tooth


lion; leopard (nkwe); predator (sebata)


tiger; leopard

lion; panther

Little Lion; Lion; Lynx

Artemis, Hekate (cat); Dionysos (leopard); Cybele, Herakles (lion)

fish (also dolphin, whale)


Lepidotos (L16); unspecified fish (L15); Tilapia[18] (L4, L5); oxyrynchos (U19)

Neith (Tilapia fish); Hatmehit (‘first of the fishes’); Shu (Lepidotos fish); Atum (eel)

electrical fish’s vertebra



any kind of fish




Dolphin; Fishes; Flying Fish; Sea-goat; Southern Fish; Swordfish; Whale

Aphrodite the Fish; Poseidon, Apollo (dolphin)















belemnite (U9)

Min (belemnite)

cowry; snail’s shell; mother-of-pearl shell of long snail







Aphrodite (Cypraea =cowry)



U15 (hare, female hare)


hare’s tail or paw




















humans and gods


prince (L19, 18); ‘ruler of Anzeti’ (L13); Anzeti (L9)


nuclear family (father, mother, child); Jinga fertility archetype; spirit of mask dancer; male ancestor; female ancestor; slave; child; human being; couple; wailing-woman; handicapped person; sorcerer; woman with distended belly; polluting spirits of the wild; group of people on their way; spirit associated with menstruation and conception; forest spirit; Suku protective archetype; Cisola fertility archetype; sick child; the double person (who treacherously incites conflict); true witness; hunter’s spirit




virgin; demons




old man; Anunitu; faithful herdsman of Anu; twins; Shulpa’e; great twins;; Ninmah; EN.TE.NA.BAR.UM; king; mouth-opening demon; Numu?da; Damu; Marduk; hired labourer; king of the sky-gods; Enlil; ...of Sharur; Enlil; Ishtar mistress of the enemy-land; herald; Great...; Ishtaran, Anu; [...] of Enlil; [Sin (moon)] and Nergal; Mistress; Anu, Enlil, Ea, all three (?); Lord of Death; Lord (?) Shamash [ sun ] ; Queen of the Igigi-gods; Queen of the Igigi-gods; Enlil (?); Goddess of heaven and earth; King, Lord of the Igigi-gods; Mistress of Haruspicy; Lord of the Sources, Ea; Dwelling of Anu; Hero among the Igigi-gods; the two gods Adad and Marduk; Mistress of Life; The three gods (?), Ea; Lord who kills; King of the Igigi-gods

Andromeda; Archer; Cassiopeia; Cepheus; Charioteer; Hercules; Herdsman; Indian; Orion; Painter; Perseus; Sculptor; Serpent-bearer; Twins; Virgin; Water-bearer

Aphrodite the Stranger; Apollo the Hunter; Persuasive Artemis; Artemis Saviour; Athene Mother; Dionysos Saviour; Herakles= ‘glory of Hera’; Athene Guardian; Herakles Saviour; Herakles Victor; Leto= ‘lady’; Ares= ‘male warrior’; Earth= ‘Mother’; Zeus Deliverer; Zeus Morios= ‘distributor’; Zeus Preserver; Zeus Reliever; Zeus Saviour













insect, spider, centipede (, arthropods)


L4?, L5? (bee); U18 (centipede)

Chopri (beetle); Sepa (centipede)

insect nest made out of wood; insect’s external skeleton; piece of a termite-hill; praying mantis (its egg depository)








Bee, Fly

Apollo Parnopios (locust); Artemis, Demeter, Rhea (bee); Herakles Cornopion (locust); Herakles Ipoctonos (grub-killer); Zeus Averter of Flies; Athene (spider)





lizard (riverine )









luxuries (incl. precious stones)



Hathor, Ihi (menat[20]; Uto (White crown); Nechbet, Satis (red crown); Neith (blue crown)

white bead



wealth; iron




Northern Crown, Southern Cross, Southern Crown

Dionysos Plutodotes; Athene Chryse, golden

monkey, baboon




baboon (front-paw)


kgabo (ape); tshwene (baboon); = kgano



monkey; monkey




mountain, wilderness


U12 (snake mountain);L6

Re, Seth, Nephthys








Aphrodite Urania = ‘queen of the mountains’; Poseidon = ‘he who gives to drink from the wooded mountain’; Zeus Acraios = ‘of the summit’




Chnum, Amon, Harsaphes / Herishef (ram)



goat; sheep


sheep; he-goat



Aphrodite Epitragia = - ‘turned into a he-goat’; Goatish Athene, Artemis, Dionysos, Pan, Zeus nursed by Amaltheia, Hera Goat-eating (goat); Hermes Ram-bearer, Pan, Zeus Sabazios (ram)

pig, wild boar


U11 (Seth animal)


wild pig’s tooth







Zeus nursed by a sow













river, spring, lake, sea



Osiris, Hapi (Nile); Tefnut (moisture); Neith, Wadjit, Seth (sea)






Lord of the sources, Ea; Goddess of the sources

River; Water-bearer

Poseidon (sea); Aphrodite (foam-born); Artemis Lady of the Lake; Artemis = ‘? high source of water’; Orpheus = ‘? ophruoeis’ of the river bank’

scorpion, crab



Selket = Selkis






scorpion, crab

Crab; Scorpion


shrew, ichneumon, honey badger, mouse, rat



Atum, Haroeris, Harmerti (ichneumon/ shrew)

mouse (symbolic value but not in divining basket); honey badger(‘s nail)




marten; rat



Apollo Smintheus (mice / rats); Hekate (weasel)

sky and celestial bodies, including stars



Hathor, Haroeris (sky); Chonsu, Osiris, Thoth (moon); Horus (the moon and sun as his eyes); Nut (moon’s mother); sons of Horus (stars); Nut (stars’ mother); Amon, Re, Hathor, Atum, Aton, Re-Harakhte, Harmachis (sun); Nut (sun’s mother)





Pleiades; Orion; Bird Star

Venus; stars; Mars; great star; brilliant star of stars; [Sin (moon)] and Nergal; Lord (?) Shamash [ sun ] ; weapon, star of...; Goddess of heaven and earth; the planet Mars


Apollo, Eos (dawn); Solar Apollo, Helios, Solar Zeus (sun); Artemis Alpheia, Selene (moon); Artemis Anacitis = ‘of the planet Venus’; Zeus (bright sky); Celestial Herakles; Athena, Zeus (thunderbolt)


snake; cf. Nagas, Indian snake-demons[25]

U10 (snake); U12 (mountain snake)

Uto, Apophis, Meretseger, Naunet, Thermouthis/ Renenutet,

snake spirit; snake’s head




snake; worm


Little Snake, Serpent, Water-snake

Herakles Ophioktonos, serpent-killing; [ Zeus] Sabazios (snake)

stone (non-precious), rock



Atum (benben stone)








Apollo of the White Rock; Hermes = ‘cairn or pillar’; Leto = ‘stone’

technology, including smoke


bow (U1); balance post (U2); sceptre (U4, U19); sistrum (U7); relic shrine (U8); flint knife (U22); harpoon (L8, L7); shield (L5, L4); house (L20)

Satet (bow and arrows); Anat (shield, battle-axe); Anzeti (switch, flail); Chnum (potter’s wheel); Isis (throne); Meshenet (birth tile); Neith (shield, [ bow ] and arrows); Reshef (battle-axe, lance, shield); Aker, Sechet (field); Serapis (corn measure); Unut (knives)

boat; drum; mortar; head-rest; night-gun[26]; hoe; bellows; bracelet; path; wooden arrow point; iron arrow point; knife of power;[27] bier; baby carrying sling; basket; woman’s utensils; houses with breached walls to take deceased outside; lock; tally; grave; any object due to European presence in the region; piece of glass or mica; coin; piece of European china (crockery); European bell; bullet

beehive; bell; fish spear?; tinder-box?; bull-roarer?; sparkler?;[28] reed-mat?; peg?; fire-bore?; smoke



milling vessel


winnowing basket; spoon; house; wall; net; bow; coach

plough; arrow; bow; cart; balance; arrow; weapon, star of...; Mistress of Haruspicy; Dwelling of Anu

Air pump; Altar; Arrow; Balance; Clock; Compasses; Cup; Furnace; Keel; Lyre; Mariner’s Compass; Microscope; Net; Octant; Poop; Rule; Sails; Sculptor’s Tools ; Sextant; Shield; Southern Triangle; Table; Telescope; Triangle


Hephaestus (general); Aphrodite Epitymbria = ‘of the tombs’; Federal Aphrodite; Aphrodite Schoenis = ‘of the rush-basket’; Apollo of the Embarcations; Athene Girder-on-of-Arms, Warlike Athene, Warlike Zeus (arms); Artemis Cordax = ‘of the rope dance’; Artemis Dictynna = ‘of the net’; Artemis Eileithyia (midwife); Artemis the hanged one; Artemis the Huntress; Artemis Tridaria = ‘threefold assigner of lots’; Artemis Trivia = ‘of the three ways’; Athene Alea = ‘she who grinds’; Athene Polias, Herakles Melkarth (protector of the city); Athene Skiras (parasol); Cybele, Zeus Labradian (axe); Apollo, Artemis (bow, arrow, quiver); Athena (breastplate); Herakles (club); Zeus (god of the assembly); Zeus, Hestia (hearth); Herakles Ogmios, of the Ogams (a script); Herakles the Healer; Hermes (herald’s staff); Apollo, Hermes, Orpheus (lyre); Apollo (omphalos); Pan (shepherd’s pipe; Hermes (shepherd’s staff); Ares (spear); Three Fates, Athene (spinning, weaving); Poseidon (trident); Apollo (tripod); Hermes (winged hat); Zeus of the Courtyard












Aphrodite, Apollo, Hermes, Pan

trees and plants[29]


U13, U14 Atf, sycamore?); U20, 21 (ntf, granade?); L20

Hathor (sycamore); Uto (papyrus plant); Nefertem (lotus); Osiris, Nepri (corn)

fruits and grains of red maize; Brachystegia tree; raffia palm; gourd (the fruit); a climbing plant; madder; Cannarium tree; Schrebera tree; Elaeis guineensis palm; Parinari tree; Swarzia madagascariensis plant; Abrus precatorius / canescens plant; Vangueriopsis lanciflora; little bundle of sticks[30]; fragment of mushroom with natural perforations; white mushroom

firewood; wood suitable for carving; kindling (out of mushroom)






Aphrodite Erycina = ‘of the heather’; Aphrodite Schoenis, of the rush-basket; Apollo, Herakles Melon (apple); Artemis Caryatis = ‘of the walnut’; Artemis Hyacinthropos (hyacinth); Athene Colocasia, of the red water-lily; Athene Itone, Hera Hellotis, Artemis Lygodesma (willow); Demeter = ‘barley-mother’; Helios (heliotrope); Apollo, Artemis (laurel); Aphrodite (myrtle); Zeus (oak); Athene (olive tree); Apollo (palm tree); Persephone, Hera (pomegranate); Zeus of the White Poplar

[1] Fontenrose, Python, o.c.

[2] The data as tabulated were largely derived from: Roeder, G., 1952, Volksglaube im Pharaonenreich, Stuttgart: Spemann. U = Upper, L = Lower Egyptian nome. No ancient animal association recorded, to my knowledge, for L17.

[3] Ancient Egyptian animal symbolism was recently surveyed in: Houlihan, P.F., 1996, The animal world of the pharaohs, London: Thames & Hudson. He bases himself especially on the extensive studies in this field which have made up the life’s work of Leo Keimer, of which he gives a full bibliography. These publications can inspire further studies on the topic explored in the present paper; however, here again I have had to limit the number of authoritative sources to those specified.

[4] Fontenrose, Python, o.c.: themes A2842, D152.2 (index A, 11).

[5] Falcon associations do not occur in the context of the major Greek gods. However, the name of Circe, the island sorceress in the Odyssea, means ‘falcon’.

[6] Gardiner, Grammar, o.c., p. 467f), brings out that hawk  (Gardiner sign G1, phonetic value tyw) and Egyptian vulture  (Gardiner sign G4, phonetic value 3, ? a, al, ar) are often indistinguishable, contrary to the falcon  (Gardiner sign G5, ?Hr, i.e. Horus) which is so conspicuous in Egyptian religion.

[7] Fontenrose, Python, o.c.: theme D152.1 (index A, II).

[8] Fontenrose, Python, o.c.: theme D152.3 (index A, II).

[9] Foreleg of oxen, khpsh or dww, , Gardiner sign F23; also in use to designate the constellation of Ursa Major, Mskhtyw, whose apparent shape (which despite all stars’ proper motion, being minute, has not noticeably changed since pharaonic times) corresponds with the hieroglyph and with the oxen foreleg it depicts:

[10] Fontenrose, Python, o.c.: bull (theme D133.2; (index A, 11).

[11] Fontenrose, Python, o.c.: dog (theme 118, G211.1.8); wolf (theme D113.1, 113.1.1; index A, 11).

[12] Fontenrose, Python, o.c.: 183-185,187,190, 208.

[13] None of these were dragons, but all fought dragons.

[14] Fontenrose, Python, o.c.: theme F471.1 (index A, 11).

[15] Fontenrose, Python, o.c.: lion (theme B8712.5, D112.1; index A, 11; 207; cf. Sinhika is the Indian lion-demoness); panther (theme D112.4; index A, II).

[16] It is remarkable that none of the ancient Egyptian nomes has a feline-associated ensign; however, many nomes do have major gods (see Table 2 column (2)) with such associations.

[17] Fontenrose, Python, o.c.: theme G308 (index A, 11).

[18] Sacred to the goddess Neith.

[19] Fontenrose, Python, o.c.: theme B8712.4 (index A, 11). The hippopotamus does not appear in the astronomical material of our data set outside Egypt. The fabulous animal, often winged, that features prominently in some very late Egyptian zodiacs and whose head and bodily stance are reminiscent of familiar representations of Taweris the pregnant female hippopotamus, on closer examination turns out to be a crocodile; e.g. the Dendera pronaos which dates from Nero’s time, middle first century CE (Description, 1997, Description de l’Egypte: Publiee par les ordres de Napoleon Bonaparte, edition complete, Koln etc.: Taschen, pp. 402-403); the zodiac of the great temple of num at Esna, which dates from a few decades later (cf. Description, o.c., pp. 131-132; and the zodiac of the northern temple at Esna, dating from the late third century BCE (Description, o.c., pp. 141-142). Neither does the hippopotamus appear as part of the much older zodiac depicted in the tomb of Seti I (c. 1300 BCE), which does feature falcon/ Horus, lion, bull, Re, crocodile (the smaller second crocodile is an hieroglyphic sign, Gardiner no. I5), and a claw or hoof, and water, as further hieroglyphic signs, notably Aa7 and N35).

Diagram 10. The zodiac as depicted in the tomb of Seti I (c. 1300 BCE)

(Picture source: Grolier, Encyclopedia, o.c.: Egypt, ancient / picture ‘tomb painting depicting the constellations’).


[20] Ornamental collar.

[21] Both in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa, and in ancient Egypt, sheep and goat cannot be clearly distinguished, neither anatomically nor genetically.

[22] Fontenrose, Python, o.c.: theme B24, D134 (index A 11).

[23] Fontenrose, Python, o.c.: theme B871.1.2 (index A, 11).

[24] Fontenrose, Python, o.c.: theme B8732 (index A’, 11).

[25] Fontenrose, Python, o.c.: theme 203f., 208, 491, 498, Theme 3a (index A 1); A6712.1, A876, B11to B11.12.1 B29.2, D950.0.1, F541.1.4 (index A, 11); cf. Nagas, Indian snake-demons.

[26] A sorcery apparatus in South Central and Southern Africa: a gun made of a human thighbone, to be fired at night at one’s enemy’s dwelling, in order to cause fatal illness.

[27] The ancient Egyptian knive: ds , Gardiner sign T30, initially made of flint, has virtually the same shape as the Cokwe figurine. I take this to suggest that a common origin underlies the use of this symbol in both cultures, and that this origin is pre-metallurgy Neolithic or earlier.

[28] A little metal thong within a tinder-box, which when scraped against a piece of flint produces the spark that sets linted mushroom kindling afire.

[29] Here we omit one row which was only specified for Greek mythology: category = ‘unspecified’; listed under this category: ‘Artemis Lady of the Wild Things’.

[30] Although isolated in our peculiarly selective data set, the item has remarkably close parallels in other bundles of twigs in cultures North of Africa: the ancient Persion baresman, the most sacred item in Zoroastrian ritual, and in the ancient Italic fasces; cf. Mills, L.H., & Gray, L.H., 1908-1921, ‘baresman (Av. baresom)’, in: Hastings, J., with Selbie, J.A., & Gray, L.H., eds., Encyclopaedia of religions and ethics, 13 vols., Edinburgh/ New York: Clark/ Scribner, II: 424-425; Schrot, G., 1979, ‘Lictores’, in: Ziegler, K., & Sontheimer, W., eds., Der kleine Pauly: Lexikon der Antike. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, cols. III: 645-646.

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