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Students Learn Ancient Mummy Is Sacred Ibis Sacrificed to Thoth, God of Learning

Students Learn Ancient Mummy Is Sacred Ibis Sacrificed to Thoth, God of Learning

An ancient mummy bird remained hidden for over a century in a closet in New York. Then, thanks to student researchers, the mummy’s secrets are being revealed. Students worked together to discover a sacred ibis sacrificed to Thoth, the god depicted with an ibis head and worshiped since the sixth millennium BCE.

Sacred Ibis by Storyteller_ron via PixabayPixabay License

Mummy Hidden in a Closet for Over a Century

The 1,500 to 3000-year-old Egyptian mummy bird was kept in a Cornell University storage closet after arriving possibly over a century ago. Interestingly, there was no record of the mummy’s arrival. About the size of a football, the tear-shaped swaddle of linen remained in a box mislabeled as “hawk mummy.”

Although hidden away, Frederic Gleach, a curator of the Anthropology Collections, was waiting for its time to come.

“As tempted as I might be, I try to let things sit and wait for students to come along who want to work with them,” said Gleach. “The whole point of it is a teaching exercise.”

Screenshot – Youtube/Cornell University (see below)

Student Seeks Research

Recently, Cornell graduate student in archaeology, Carol Anne Barsody, approached Gleach about finding a case study to research. Finally, it was time for the mummy to be seen by someone who cares about its unique story and integrity (see video below).

“Approached by Barsody, Gleach remembered that a colleague from another department had called a decade earlier to ask if Gleach wanted two small mummies he had found in a closet. There were no records of where they came from or what was inside them.

“After retrieving the two artifacts from that closet, Gleach would later discover one of them was only filled with twigs. However, the other mummy had a clue: It was in a box labeled ‘hawk mummy,'” CNN reported.

Bringing the Ibis Back to Life Again

Now, Barsody is working with experts across Cornell to preserve the mummy while revealing its secrets in detail, including a 3D model, hologram, and multisensory exhibit. Thus, the long-hidden mummy is now unlocking new ways to experience museum exhibits.” Certainly, it seems fitting for this sacred bird representing the Egyptian god of wisdom and learning.

“I want to bring the bird back to life,” she said.

Soon, she will make the mummy bird’s ancient story interactive and accessible to everyone online at

“Not only was this once a living creature that people of the day may have enjoyed watching stroll through the water. It also was, and is, something sacred, something religious,” Barsody said. “Now it has this whole entire life of being studied, and respected, as a small representative of the amazing culture from which it originated. It’s had multiple lives. I look at what I’m doing as another form of extending its incredible life.”

Technology Reveals Mummified Ibis

First, Barsody and Gleach took the mummy for CT scans at the veterinary college. Amazingly, the scans showed the bird it contained was remarkably intact, feathers and soft tissue included. Also, the skeletal remains were there, not always the case after the Egyptian mummification process for animals. 

After analysis by an ornithology curator, they determined the bird was an ibis. For some reason, someone may have removed the bird’s sternum and ribcage, an unusual find. Then, they twisted the bird’s neck back against its body.

Soon, the researchers will test a DNA sample taken with endoscopic microsurgery to avoid damaging the mummy. Then, the results will be cross-referenced in a database of sacred ibis DNA samples from ancient Egypt. Possibly, the researchers will be able to pinpoint the bird’s exact origin, the temple it came from, and its age.

Video by Cornell University:

Why Was Thoth Associated with the Sacred Ibis?

Thoth is the god of the moon, reckoning, learning, writing, wisdom and magic. He is believed to have invented hieroglyphics and written tablets, such as the Emerald Tablets that “contained secrets of the world.” His Egyptian name Djehuly translates to “he who is like the ibis.” His Greek counterpart is Hermes.

Left: Image of Thoth and Maat via ARAS :Right: Inlay depicting Thoth as the ibis with a Maat feather via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Possibly, the ibis symbolism is based on the water bird’s inquisitive wading habit and curved beak like the curve of the Crescent Moon. (see video below) 

Sacred Ibis Symbolism

According to the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS):

“In addition to being a lunar animal, the ibis was well known in antiquity because it would refuse to drink unhealthy or poisoned water, killed poisonous reptiles, and set mankind an example of cleanliness. Like the god Thoth, the ibis was hostile to dangerous forces and a model for purity and good sense; for Thoth, in addition to being the moon god, was the god of wisdom, who maintained the cosmic order that pervades the created world.”

Furthermore, Plutarch wrote that the male bird’s black and white feathers are akin to the dark and light phases of the moon. As a water bird, there is a connection to creation myths and the cosmic egg. Thoth’s wife Maat, depicted as a diminutive woman wearing an ostrich feather, embodies cosmic order. 

While the ibis was associated with Thoth, other birds were also sacred. For example, the Egyptian vulture is sacred to the goddess Isis and the falcon with Horus. As animals of the air, birds represent messengers from heaven. 

Featured image: Sacred Ibis by PublicDomainPictures via PixabayPixabay License with Thoth by DEZALB via PixabayPixabay License

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