Who is Sobek in Egyptian Mythology?
Sobek, or Sebek, is the Egyptian Crocodile god, represented either as the reptile itself or as a man with a crocodile’s head. Sobek’s following was greatest at Crocodilopolis, capital of the province of Fayum. A live crocodile called Petsuchos, said to be an incarnation of the god, was kept in a lake attached to Sobek’s main sanctuary. Sobek’s devotees sought the god’s protection by drinking water from the pool and feeding the crocodile on delicacies.
According to some stories, the evil god Seth hid in Sobek’s body to escape being punished for murdering Osiris. Sobek was sometimes regarded as the son of Neith, the great mother and warrior goddess, who was also credited with having given birth to the terrifying snake Apophis (Apep).
Creator of the River Nile, both revered and feared, aggressive and unpredictable, yet some still call him gift-bringer and even protector. Sobek is the ancient Egyptian Crocodile god of the River Nile.
Sobek’s Appearance and Creation of the River Nile
His appearance is what makes him so easy to identify, but even that itself slightly varies. Sometimes he was shown as a large crocodile, like those found in the River Nile, and other times he appears as a human man with the head of a crocodile. It was Sobek’s appearance that made him so terrifying. Crocodiles were just one of the many species of animals found in the River Nile that could devour a man.
Over the years, there have been numerous tales was attempting to explain to us how exactly the River Nile was formed. In some of these stories, the river was created from the sweat that poured from Sobek’s body.
Being able to rule over the River Nile, when considering the amount of dangerous and aggressive creatures that called the river home, was no easy task. But because Sobek was able to do this, he was seen as even more dangerous than the creatures themselves.
The River Nile did also bring with it many positive aspects. It provided fertile soil and means to grow vegetation, essentially given birth to new life. Sobek was considered to control these waters. He was seen as a fearless protector of the Nile which often led him to also be associated with fertility as well as crocodiles in the River Nile itself.
The Origin of Sobek
The god was worshipped by the ancient Egyptian people because of the gifts he brought them—the gifts of vegetation and fertility that came of the River Nile—but despite this, he was still extremely feared by the people.
His reptilian appearance and the rule of the environment as harsh as the Nile meant that Sobek was quite often seen as aggressive and unpredictable. His behaviour was often attributed to animal instinct, and along with this instinct and his association with fertility, he was regarded as very sexual—similar to an animal that is unable to control its urges.
Throughout the years, Sobek has been referred to by many names including Sebek, Sebek-Ra, Sobeq, Soknopais, Sobki, and Suchos in ancient Greece, and of course, Sobek as we’ve come to know him today.
He was first mentioned in the Pyramid Texts of the old kingdom, which were widely regarded as some of the oldest texts to exist. When Sobek first made an appearance, it was in the ancient Egyptian city of Shedet—the ancient Greeks referred to this city as Crocodilopolis. Essentially, meaning City of the Crocodile or Crocodile City.
The city of Shedet was part of a larger region known as Faiyum, and that is why Sobek was given the nickname Lord of Faiyum.
The Worship of Sobek
As one would expect in the city of the crocodile, Sobek had quite a cult following. There was a large temple built in his name to honour the god. The temple was home to a crocodile, but people called it the son of Sobek, and it was worshipped as the manifestation of Sobek. It was even adorned with gifts of gold and gems.
The crocodile was fed better than most people within the city, with a diet consisting of luxuries such as meat, wine, and milk with honey. When the crocodile died, much like the Pharaohs of Egypt, it was mummified and then replaced by another crocodile who assumed the role of the son of Sobek.
When observing what took place in the city itself, numerous Greek historians recorded that anyone who was killed by a crocodile considered to be the son of Sobek was divine.
The victims would be embalmed and buried in a sacred coffin and special funeral rites will be performed by the priests of the Nile. It may seem strange to us now, but some of the ancient Egyptians kept crocodiles just like house pets, believing that feeding a crocodile would mean they would receive Sobek’s blessing.
Despite Sobek being worshipped in the old kingdom, it wasn’t until the Middle Kingdom when the influence of Sobek began to grow. During this period, he was often associated with the god Horus, and there are even numerous depictions of the two gods fused—the head of a falcon placed on the body of a crocodile.
It’s also believed that Horus may have taken the form of a crocodile when attempting to retrieve the body parts of Osiris that set had scattered around the rivers of Egypt.
The Stories of Sobek Within the Mythology
Sobek and Horus’ Children
There is a story where the four sons of Horus were drowning in the River Nile, but Sobek appeared and gathered them all up in a giant net, placing the children back on land.
This story raised a very interesting theory. With Sobek been considered so unpredictable and temperamental, you would assume that he saved the children of Horus because Horus was a god, and in turn, so are his children; but there is another story that somewhat changed the view on the situation.
Sobek and Osiris’ Body
When Seth killed his brother Osiris, he disembodied him and through his body parts in the rivers of Egypt. One morning, Sobek saw the parts of Osiris in the Nile, and they looked so appetizing to Sobek that he could not resist and began to eat the parts of Osiris as they floated by.
Sobek was eventually punished for defiling the god in this manner by having his tongue removed, which is why when we see crocodiles in Egyptian mythology, they are rarely ever depicted as having tongues.
Comparison Between Both Stories
If we compare the two stories, in one, Sobek appears to show compassion to his fellow gods, and in the other, he completely disregards them. The way we interpret the difference between these two stories is that Sobek is constantly described as being very instinctual and almost primitive in his approach to his duties.
When he saw the children of Horus drowning in the River Nile, there was no thought process involved in saving the children of a god. Instead, Sobek’s actions were purely instinctual, in the same way, we see animals protect the offspring of other animals or even when pets like cats and dogs are overprotective of their owners’ children.
This explains why when Sobek saw the body parts of Osiris floating in the Nile, he did not care that they once belonged to a god. He saw nothing more than an afternoon snack. By no means does this mean that Sobek possesses the intelligence of an ordinary crocodile, but his animalistic nature can often be seen and these two stories, as it shows us exactly that.
The Depiction of Sobek
By the time of the New Kingdom, Sobek’s depiction once again changed. Rather than being shown as fused of Horus, he was more commonly associated with Ra himself, and once again the two gods were shown as being one entity, creating the new god known as Sobek-Ra.
Family Origin of Sobek
To say Sobek’s parents were quite powerful, influential gods in Egyptian mythology is quite an understatement. His mother was Neith, the ancient goddess of war, and his father was Seth, the god of storms, desert, and chaos.
Several scholars would argue that Sobek’s father could have been a host of other gods. His close association with the god Horus has led many to believe that he may have played a role in Sobek’s creation.
A theory that is not quite as common is that his father was Khnum, one of the oldest Egyptian deities known for his depiction as a man of the head of a ram.
Khnum was considered the source and god of the River Nile—a connection that he would share with Sobek.
Sobek’s wife was Renenutet, the snake goddess who was the protector of the harvest and granaries.
Despite Sobek being associated with several other gods that he could be considered to have fathered a few, it’s hard to find anything too definitive, which leads to believe that he may have fathered none.
Sobek’s distinct and iconic appearance means we still see him in media today, influencing and appearance in the host of games that I’m sure many of you will be familiar with, such as the gameplay SMITE.
Sobek was one of the first Egyptian gods that it has been a pleasure learning about, and he’s always been one of my favourites as a result, but I’m not entirely sure if that’s because a younger me thought the idea of a giant crocodile god was the best thing ever.
Looking into Sobek in much greater detail, as early confirmed, he’s still one of my favourite Egyptian gods. He gives us a very simple but also complex figure. To the ancient Egyptians, he was extremely valued as the protector of the Nile—a source that many depended on to survive.
Sobek being a crocodile, one of the deadliest predators in Egypt, meant he was immensely feared but at the same time he was also respected and revered with cities and temples built in his name. There were several crocodiles found mummified in tombs and pyramids showing us that they were treated in almost the same vein as the great Pharaohs of Egypt.
Some tales depict Sobek as once been a dark god, mostly because of his association was Seth, and crocodiles being considered the messengers of Seth. This sentiment, if it ever existed most likely didn’t last long, as Sobek became somewhat symbolic to the Pharaohs of Egypt.
Sobek’s great strength and power were thought to represent the Pharaoh’s own power. They even look towards so back in times of need, believing that he would give Pharaohs in their armies the strength and fortitude to overcome all obstacles as well as protecting them from evil magic.
Despite Sobek’s unpredictable and aggressive nature, he was never really considered evil. He was almost seen as a force of nature; uncontrollable, instinctual, and unyielding in his role.
Art Sources: Obrotowy, I-an Chen, Rick Moore.