The Monsters and Mythical Creatures of Egypt

In the Egyptian canon, it's often difficult to distinguish monsters and mythical creatures from the gods themselves—for example, how do you classify the cat-headed goddess Bastet, or the jackal-headed god Anubis? Still, there are some figures that don't quite rise to the level of actual deities, functioning instead as either symbols of power (or ruthlessness) or figures to be invoked as warnings to mischievous children. Below, you'll discover the eight most important monsters and mythical creatures of ancient Egypt, ranging from the crocodile-headed chimera Ammit to the rearing cobra known as Uraeus.

01
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Ammit, Devourer of the Dead

Weighing of the Heart
Wikimedia Commons

 A mythological chimera composed of the head of a crocodile, the forelimbs of a lion, and the hind limbs of a hippopotamus, Ammit was the personification of the man-eating predators so feared by ancient Egyptians. According to legend, after a person died, the Egyptian god Anubis weighed the deceased's heart on a scale against a single feather from Ma'at, the goddess of truth. If the heart was found wanting, it would be devoured by Ammit, and the individual's soul would be cast for eternity into fiery limbo. Like many other Egyptian monsters on this list, Ammit has been linked (or even conflated) with various obscure deities, including Tarewet, the goddess of conception and childbirth, and Bes, the protector of the hearth.

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Apep, the Enemy of Light

Apep, the Enemy of Light
Wikimedia Commons

The arch-enemy of Ma'at (the goddess of truth mentioned in the previous slide), Apep was a giant mythological snake that stretched for 50 feet from head to tail. (Oddly enough, we now have fossil evidence that some real-life snakes, like the allusively named Titanoboa of South America, actually attained these gigantic sizes!) According to legend, every morning the Egyptian sun god Ra engaged in heated battle with Apep, coiled just below the horizon, and could only shine his light after vanquishing his foe. What's more, the subterranean movements of Apep were said to cause earthquakes, and its violent encounters with Set, the god of the desert, spawned terrifying thunderstorms.

03
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Bennu, the Bird of Fire

Bennu bird
Public Domain

The ancient source of the phoenix myth—at least according to some authorities—Bennu the bird god was a familiar of Ra, as well as the animating spirit that powered creation (in one tale, Bennu glides over the primordial waters of Nun, the father of the Egyptian gods). More important for later European history, Bennu was also associated with the theme of rebirth, and wound up immortalized by the Greek historian Herodotus as the phoenix, which he described in 500 B.C. as a giant red and gold bird born anew every day, like the sun. (Later details about the mythical phoenix, such as its periodic destruction by fire, were added much later, but there is some speculation that even the word "phoenix" is a distant corruption of "Bennu.")

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El Naddaha, the Siren of the Nile

Wikimedia Commons

A bit like a cross between the Little Mermaid. the Siren of Greek myth, and that creepy girl from the "Ring" movies, El Naddaha has a relatively recent origin compared with the 5,000-year span of Egyptian mythology. Just within the past century, apparently, stories began to circulate in rural Egypt about a beautiful voice that calls, by name, to men walking the banks of the Nile. Desperate to get a look at this enchanting creature, the bewitched victim veers closer and closer to the water, until he falls (or is dragged) in and drowns. El Naddaha is often adduced as being a classic genie, which (unlike the other entities on this list) would place her in the Muslim rather than the classical Egyptian pantheon.

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The Griffin, Beast of War

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The ultimate origins of the Griffin are shrouded in mystery, but we do know that this fearsome beast is mentioned in both ancient Iranian and ancient Egyptian texts. Yet another chimera, like Ammit, the Griffin features the head, wings and talons of an eagle grafted onto a lion's body. Since both eagles and lions are hunters, it's clear that the Griffin served as a symbol of war, and it also did double (and triple) duty as the "king" of all mythological monsters and the staunch guardian of priceless treasures. On the premise that evolution applies every bit as much to mythical creatures as it does to those made of flesh and blood, the Griffin must be one of the best-adapted monsters in the Egyptian pantheon, still going strong in the public imagination after 5,000 years!

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The Serpopard, Harbinger of Chaos

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The Serpopard is an unusual example of a mythical creature for which no name has been adduced from the historical records: all we know is that depictions of creatures with the body of a leopard and the head of a snake adorn various Egyptian ornaments, and when it comes to their presumed meaning, one classicist's guess is as good as another's. One theory is that Serpopards represented the chaos and barbarism lurking beyond the borders of Egypt during the pre-dynastic period (over 5,000 years ago), but since these chimeras also feature in Mesopotamian art from the same time span, in pairs with necks entwined, they may also have served as symbols of vitality or masculinity.

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The Sphinx, Teller of Riddles

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Sphinxes aren't exclusively Egyptian—depictions of these human-headed, lion-bodied beasts have been discovered as far afield as Turkey and Greece—but the Great Sphinx of Giza, in Egypt, is by far the most famous member of the breed. There are two main differences between Egyptian sphinxes and the Greek and Turkish variety: the former invariably have the head of a man, and are described as unaggressive and even-tempered, while the latter are often female and have an unpleasant disposition. Other than that, though, all sphinxes serve pretty much the same function: to zealously guard treasures (or repositories of wisdom) and not allow travelers to pass unless they can solve a clever riddle.

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Uraeus, the Cobra of the Gods

Uraeus, the Cobra of the Gods
Wikimedia Commons

Not to be confused with the demon snake Apep, Uraeus is a rearing cobra symbolizing the majesty of the Egyptian pharaohs. The origins of this figure hark back to Egyptian prehistory—during the pre-dynastic period, Uraeus was associated with the now-obscure goddess Wadjet, who presided over the fertility of the Nile Delta and lower Egypt. (Around the same time, a similar function was performed in upper Egypt by the even more obscure goddess Nekhbet, often depicted as a white vulture). When upper and lower Egypt were unified around 3,000 B.C., depictions of both Uraeus and Nekhbet were diplomatically incorporated into the royal headdress, and were known informally in the Pharaonic court as "the two ladies."