Sobek in Egyptian Mythology: Origin Story, Family, Powers, & Symbols
Sobek was an ancient Egyptian God of the Nile, fertility and crocodiles. Across the land of ancient Egypt, he was one of the most feared and venerated deities, making him a very unpredictable god.
He was often associated with fellow Egyptian gods such as Re (or Ra), Horus and Seth. Typically depicted with the head of a crocodile, Sobek was a very powerful god believed to grant his followers protection against evil spirits. The armies of the Egyptian pharaohs would pray to him to bestow upon them strength and courage during battles. Undoubtedly, Sobek’s most famous cult center has got to be Crocodopolis (also known as the “City of Crocodiles”).
Below is a presentation of everything that you need to know about Sobek in Egyptian mythology – the crocodile-headed god of the Nile:
Fast Facts about Sobek
Major Cult Centers – Crocodilopolis and Kom Ombo
Role – God of the Nile, crocodiles and fertility
Symbols – Crocodile
Parents – Goddess Neith and God Set
Spouse – Renenutet
Other names – Sebek, Sochet, Sobk, Sobki
Association – Fertility, strength and power, military capabilities, protection against evil spirits
Meaning of the name – Sbk : “to impregnate”
Birth and Family
Sobek is believed to have been born to very powerful parents – the goddess Neith and the god Seth. Sobek’s mother Neith was worshipped by the Egyptians as an ancient goddess of war. She was an absolutely frightening goddess. Similarly, Sobek’s father, the god Seth, was another feared and vilified god. Seth was the god of chaos, destruction and war. In view of this account, Sobek has sometimes been portrayed as an a dark god – a messenger of Seth.
However, there are some accounts that believe that Sobek was the son of Horus. Depicting Sobek as the son of Horus often times accentuates his good side and attributes.
The snake goddess of fertility Renenutet was commonly regarded as the wife of Sobek. Renenutet was venerated by the Egyptians as the guardian of the harvest as well as the kings and rulers of Egypt. Ancient Egyptians believed that Sobek and Renenutet bore a son called Khonsu – a moon and time deity. The temple of Medinet Madi at Faiyum was dedicated to both Sobek and Renenutet
How did Sobek become the God of the Nile?
According to many Egyptian myths, the Nile River sprung out of existence from the sweat of Sobek.
Sobek being the creator of the Nile meant that he had dominion over how and when the Nile rose. And because the Nile deposited rich soil sediments across the land, many ancient Egyptians venerated Sobek as the god of fertility.
On the contrary, the Nile was also home to several dangerous and lethal creatures, including crocodiles. This induced a lot of fear in the ancient Egyptians. Owing to this, Sobek was the kind of god that the ancient Egyptians did not mess around with.
Appearance and symbols of Sobek
Ancient Egyptian texts, such as the Pyramid Texts and the Book of the Dead, generally depict Sobek as a man with the head of a crocodile. This depiction was very common in the Old Kingdom era. Some painting and sculptures have shown him as a real crocodile, from head to toe.
Sobek’s most obvious symbol was that of a crocodile. Therefore, anything that had to do with crocodiles were either feared or honored in ancient Egypt.
At the start of the Middle Kingdom, the Egyptians often merged Sobek’s attributes and appearance with other gods such as Ra and Horus. Thus, the god Sobek-Ra could be seen with the head of crocodile alright, however, atop his head was Ra’s sun disk. In the case of ‘Sobek-Horus’, the head of a falcon was placed on top of the body of crocodile.
Sobek’s Role and Significance in ancient Egypt
Exactly how important was Sobek in ancient Egypt? The answer lies in the Nile. Considering how important the Nile was (and still is) to the ancient Egyptians, Sobek’s role as the protector and guardian of Nile makes him stand out as one of the most important figures in the Egyptian pantheon.
Egypt without the Nile would have been a barren desert or a waste land. The ancient Egyptians were fully aware of this. It is for this reason why every ancient Egyptian story, architecture, and event evolved around the Nile. At the helm of all these was the god Sobek.
He was largely considered as the god that protected Egyptian pharaohs and armies. In him, the army drew strength, courage and vitality.
Sobek and the four sons of Horus
Of all the three major kingdoms that characterized ancient Egypt, the Middle Kingdom was the era when Sobek’s fame and veneration was at its highest. His name was often seen in the same light as the falcon-headed god Horus. This association gained popularity because ancient Egyptians believed that Sobek once came to the aid of four of Horus’ sons and prevented them from drowning in the Nile.
The body of Osiris
After murdering Osiris, Seth (Osiris’ brother) dumped the mutilated body of Osiris in the Nile River. It is believed that Seth brutally chopped up Osiris’ body into 14 parts.
Sobek, fully aware of the heinous act perpetrated by Seth, went ahead to devour Osiris’ body parts. For engaging in such sacrilegious act, Sobek was brought before the counsel of Egyptian gods and tried. The crocodile-headed god was found guilty and punished. The story goes on to say that Sobek’s tongue was cut off.
The above explains why many of Sobek’s images show him without a tongue. This story also shows how animalistic Sobek can be sometimes. Thus, there are countless stories of him putting reason on hold and pursuing his own primitive urges in the River Nile, thereby making him one of the most dangerous gods in the Egyptian pantheon.
Read More: Myths and Facts about Seth
Cult centers and worship in Ancient Egypt
Sobek came onto the scene during the Old Kingdom era (26 BCE – 21 BCE). He was a particularly famous god in the Egyptian city of Shedyet (Shedet). To the ancient Greeks, Shedyet was known as “Crocodolpolis”, which translates into the “City of Crocodile”.
Old Kingdom Egyptians also called Sobek the “Lord of Faiyem”. This was due to Shedyet’s close proximity to the reigion of Faiyem (also Faiyum).
The city of Crocodilopolis is believed to have had a massive temple dedicated solely to the god of the Nile, Sobek. In a pond near the temple, the Egyptians kept a gigantic crocodile, which became the embodiment of Sobek. In fact, the temple’s crocodile came to be revered as the “Son of Sobek” or “Petsuchos”. The crocodile was literally treated like a king; it was fed with the best food and meat and many people offered it sacrifices in hopes of getting protection from Sobek. Just like the pharaohs of Egypt, the people of Egypt mummified the temple’s crocodile after it died. Subsequently, a new crocodile was selected to succeed the old one.
According to the famous Greek historian and philosopher Herodotus, the ancient Egyptians believed that dying at the hands of a crocodile guaranteed deceased a divine place in the aftermath. In some cases, such persons were given the same mummification process and treatment comparable to that of a pharaoh.
Other interesting myths about Sobek
- One of the first pharaohs of the First Dynasty of Egypt, Pharaoh Hor-Aha (or Aha), is believed to have been a devout follower of Sobek. According to the Pyramid Text, Pharaoh Aha built a number of temples at Faiyum to honor Sobek.
- During the Middle Kingdom, Sobek was considered one of the three important disciples of Horus (i.e. the divine Triad of Horus). The other two were Isis and Osiris – Horus’ parents.
- Sobek’s worship and veneration peaked during the reigns of twelfth dynasty pharaohs Amenemhat I and Senusret I. Archeological findings have revealed that those pharaohs built several monuments and temples (at Faiyum) in honor of Sobek. The decendants of Amenemhat, including Pharaoh Amenemhat III, often called themselves in relation to Sobek. Amenemhat III was sometimes called the “beloved of Sobek of Shedet”. Similarly, Pharaoh Sobekneferu – Egypt’s first female pharaoh – was given a name in honor of Sobek. Her name translates into “the Beauty of Sobek”.
- Sobek’s worship and cult centers were still existent during the Greco-Roman era. The name “Crocodopolis” is actually a Greek name given to one of the most ancient Egyptian cities – Shedet (i.e. the city of Crocodiles). Today, the city is called Faiyum (Fayum), and it is about a hundred kilometers southwest of Cairo.
- It is most likely that pharaohs from the 12th Dynasty of Egypt kept crocodiles in the Lake Moeris. Those crocodiles would probably have been treated in a royal manner equivalent to the “Son of Sobek” or “Petsuchos”.
- Another famous cult center of Sobek was Kom Ombo, where crocodiles were given the utmost veneration and protection. There were a number of temples of Sobek in Kom Ombo during the Ptolemaic Era as well.
- Regardless of how dangerous crocodiles were, the ancient Egyptians believed that keeping them as house pets bestowed on the household a plethora of blessings, as well as protection. Basically, Crocodiles were seen as sacred animals that warded off bad spirits and wicked people.
- Sobek’s son, Khonsu, was worshiped as the god of the moon and time. His name translates into ‘traveler’.
- The traits that were given to the god Sobek is almost exactly in line with that of a real life crocodile, i.e. nurturing and protective of their young, strong, aggressive, unpredictable and instinctual. For example, Sobek exhibited his nurturing and protective trait when he saved four of Horus’ sons from dying. However, he showed his animalistic and instinctual side when he ate the body parts of Osiris that had been thrown into the Nile.
- As a result of his nurturing and protective attributes, Egyptian pharaohs often prayed to Sobek to keep them safe and healthy. As a matter of fact, many Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom pharaohs believed that their power was derived from Sobek.
- Presently, there are real life crocodiles and other dangerous reptiles found in places across the African continent, including several sub-Saharan African countries, the Nile Basin, and Madagascar. In the Nile Basin, the most famous of these crocodiles are the Nile crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus). Some of these Nile crocodiles can grow up to a staggering length. The males in particular can reach about 16 feet long, with weight of about 1600 pounds. On the other hand, the females appear to be a bit smaller comparatively. However, don’t be fooled! The females can be as deadly as the males. Generally, Nile crocs across the world have been tagged as very powerful and vicious man-eaters, responsible for the deaths and maiming of people.
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