Sobek, Crocodile God of Ancient Egypt

Feelin' Croc, Croc, Croc

Sobek at his temple at Kom Ombo. Danita Delimont/Getty Images

The Nile River may have been Egypt’s lifeblood, but it also held one of its greatest dangers: crocodiles. These giant reptiles were represented in Egypt’s pantheon, too, in the form of the god Sobek. But who was this larger-than-life deity with the body of a croc and the head of a man?

Sobek Started From the Bottom...

Sobek rose to national prominence during the Twelfth Dynasty (1991-1786 B.C.). Pharaohs Amenemhat I and Senusret I built on the already existing worship of Sobek in Faiyum, and Senusret II constructed a pyramid at that site.

Pharaoh Amenemhat III dubbed himself “beloved of Sobek of Shedet” and added splendid additions to the crocodile god’s temple there. To top it off, the first female ruler of Egypt, Sobekneferu (“the Beauty of Sobek”), hailed from this dynasty. There were even several relatively obscure rulers named Sobekhotep who made up part of the succeeding Thirteenth Dynasty.

Most prominently worshiped in the Faiyum, an oasis in Upper Egypt (a.k.a. Shedet), Sobek remained a popular god throughout Egypt’s millennia-long history. Legend has it that one of Egypt’s first kings, Aha, built a temple to Sobek in the Faiyum. He even pops up in the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom pharaoh Unas as the “lord of Bakhu,” one of the mountains that supported Heaven.

Even in Greco-Roman times, Sobek was honored! In his Geography, Strabo discusses the Faiyum, by his time city of Arsinoe, a.k.a. Crocodopolis (the City of the Crocodile) and Shedet.

He says, “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.” The croc was also venerated around Kom Ombo – at a temple complex built by the Ptolemies and near the city of Thebes, where there was a cemetery full of crocodile mummies.

A Monster in Myth

In the Pyramid Texts, Sobek's mama, Neith, is mentioned, and his attributes are discussed. The Texts state, “I am Sobek, green of plumage…I appear as Sobek, Neith’s son. I eat with my mouth, I urinate and copulate with my penis. I am lord of semen, who takes women from their husbands to the place I like according to my mind’s fancy.” Sounds like Sobek was involved in fertility, which makes sense, considering he's part-beast that resides in the Nile.

In the Middle Kingdom-era “Hymn to Hapy,” who was the god of the Nile's inundation, Sobek bares his teeth as the Nile floods and fertilizes Egypt. He has ties to lots of other gods. He’s also associated with different ladies – his wife is variously called Renenutet or Hathor. Once in a while, though, Sobek wasn’t so nice to his fellow gods. He’s described as having eaten Osiris. In fact, though, cannibalization of gods by other gods wasn’t uncommon. After all, what's a god to eat - if not another god?

Another time, Sobek helped Osiris’s son, Horus, when the latter's mom, Isis, cut her kid’s hands off. Re asked Sobek to get them back, and he couldn’t do so until he invented a fishing trap. Crocs weren’t always seen as benevolent, however – they were sometimes thought to be messengers of Set, god of destruction.