In ancient Egypt the bull (Eg. ka, neka, ah) was a symbol of fertility, renewal, sexual virility, and brute strength or power, which is why ancient Egyptian kings were particularly associated with the virile male species of the animal. The horns of the bull came to signify masculinity and sexual virility. Bulls were also strongly linked to the moon (Eg. Aah) and the constellation of Ursa Major. From the earliest times in ancient Egypt the wild bull (Lat. bos primigenius), unlike the cow, was not always sacred and was often hunted, eaten and sacrificed. Bulls appeared to have been associated with creation in that at the beginning of time the creator-god (probably alluding to Atum or Atum-Re) had created four pairs of bulls and cows. In the Pyramid Texts there are many references to bulls and wild bulls in association with the king and the sky of the Duat. According to inscriptions dated to the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BCE) the bull was associated with the god Re. Several kings of the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BCE) bore the titles of ‘mighty bull’ (ka-nakht), ‘Bull of Horus’ (Heru ka), ‘Horus the mighty bull’ (Heru ka-nakht), ‘Bull of Heaven’ (An-Smet, Ka-Pet), and ‘Bull of his mother’ (Kamutef). The king was also the bull calf (Eg. mes, mess). The king’s mother would represent herself as a cow (i.e., Apt, Hathor, Hes, Isis) or red-golden heifer, which was considered particularly sacred, although it could be sacrificed as well. There were three types of bulls particularly sacrosanct to the ancient Egyptians: the Apis bull, the Mnevis bull and the Buchis bull. Perhaps the most sacred of these were the Apis and Buchis.
Statue of the Apis Bull shown with markings and carrying the solar disc with uraeus.
As well as being associated with the king, The Apis (associated with Hapi or Hor-Hapi) was considered the soul or ba of Re or ‘herald’ (Eg. whmw) of Ptah. The Apis is also the image of the soul of Osiris, the Bull of Eternity, the Bull of Djedu. The Apis was revered at the Temple of Ptah at ancient Memphis, and was thought to have been chosen for sacrifice but the animal had to be clean of hairs and free of blemishes. Some experts doubt this to be true. The Apis was also the bull of futuries, being able to bestow omens and prophecies and to even grant people wishes.
In 450 BCE the Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote that the cult of the Apis began during the second dynasty (2890-2686 BCE), also wrote that the Apis bull was completely black but bore a white diamond on its forehead, had the image of a vulture (no doubt representing either Mut or Nekhbet) on its back, double hairs on its tail, and a mark in the shape of a scarab under its tongue. The Apis was thought to have been born from a flash of lightning, which would explain the god Min’s association with the title Kamutef. The god Min, whose cult was celebrated on the new moon and whose shrine also featured the horns of a bull, was thought to be a black bull which reincarnated into a white bull, representing the transformation from death to life. Min, of course, was the god of thunder and lightning par excellence which suitably recalls the lightning flash motif associated with the Apis bull. Herodotus also writes that the mother cow of the Apis bull can only give birth once in its entire lifetime.
A festival was given in honour of the Apis bull, which lasted several days whereupon a grand procession was given. When the bull died the priests, guided by the wisdom of their sacred texts, would scout for another Apis bull to take its place. The new bull, which was considered a manifestation of the soul or ba of Osiris, was kept for forty days near a city close to the Nile; during which only women were allowed to see it. The bull was then taken to the city of Memphis upon a boat. The Apis bull was said to have lived for some twenty five years and no more, after which the bull was sacrificed and the search for a new Apis began again. Sometimes the Apis would die a natural death, which apparently a very momentous occasion was given as a result. The sacrificed Apis bull was embalmed at Memphis and public lamentations began not unlike that given for the death of Osiris.
The death of an Apis bull was associated with the death of Osiris, who was in turn also associated with the dead king. As previously mentioned this occasion prompted national mourning, and a great procession was held taking the embalmed animal from Memphis to Sakkara to be buried in the underground catacombs (Lat.Serapeum). The identification of the dead Apis with Osiris led to the development of the syncretistic god Osorapis, and later in Greco-Roman times the god Serapis was introduced at Alexandria in Lower Egypt.
From Heliopolis in the south came the Mnevis (Eg. Men-wer) bull or Mnevis ox or Bull of Hapi. The Mnevis bull was regarded as the ba of Re at Heliopolis. It was depicted as a completely black bull carrying a solar disc and uraeusbetween its huge horns. Like the Apis it was the bull of oracles and prophecies, and it had its own separate cult. The Mnevis bull came to be associated with the creator-god Atum-Re, and was even adopted by Akhenaton (1352-1336 BCE). The Greeks believed, due to the bull’s veneration at Heliopolis, that the Mnevis was closely associated with the sun. The goddess Hesat or Hest was thought to have given birth to the Mnevis bull.
The Buchis (Eg. Bakha) was the sacred bull of the war-god Montu at Armant (anc. Iunu-Montu). The Buchis bull was considered to be the ba of both Osiris and Re. The bull was chosen on the basis of its unique markings, and along with the mothers of the bulls the Buchis bull was buried in the underground catacombs (Lat. Bucheum). The Greek god Bacchus, who is sometimes shown with the head of an ox, is thought to be associated with the bull due to the fact that Bacchus is the god chiefly identified with Osiris in Greco-Roman times.
Scene from the stele of Ptolemy V Epiphanes (205-180 BCE) showing the Buchis bull.
Other bulls in ancient Egypt included the pure white ‘Bull of Min’ at Koptos (anc.Gebtu) and the ‘Great Black bull’ (Eg. Kem-wer) at Athribis (anc. Hut Repyt). Osiris was the ‘Bull of the West’ (ka amenti) whilst his son Horus was the bull-headed hawk in his name of Hor-ka-pet (‘Horus bull of the Sky’). In the old Pyramid Texts the lunar god Thoth is described as ‘the Great Bull’ (ka-wer). There was the ‘Burning Bull’ (Eg. ka pasy), and the red bull (Eg. ah-tesher) at Karnak was that of the god Khonsu. The bull was revered at Kanobos in Lower Egypt. As the bull was strongly linked to the moon and the constellation of Ursa Major (‘Great Bear’), the division in which the constellation of Orion (Eg. Sah) sits is known in astrological terms as Taurus. Taurus is actually a cluster of stars known as the Hyades (‘the Rainy Ones’), which form a ‘V’ resembling the head of a bull and the two bright stars mark the tips of the horns.