The Egyptian Vulture:
through mythology and history

With its pure white plumage contrasted by its black flight feathers and its yellow naked face, the Egyptian Vulture is one of the most easily recognizable birds of the Old World. Soaring on warm air currents with its broad wings, its unmistakable presence has been noted and celebrated through the history of human civilization. From southern Europe to Africa and the Middle East to India, this vulture is culturally significant in all the places where it calls home.

As its name suggests, the Egyptian Vulture was the sacred animal of the ancient Pharaohs; its appearance is immortalized in the Egyptian hieroglyphic alphabet as the letter A. Since the ancient Egyptians thought that all vultures were female and were spontaneously born from eggs without the intervention of a male, they linked these animals to purity and motherhood. In actuality, both genders happen to have the same appearance, the only difference being the larger size of the female. Nonetheless, they were held sacred to the mother goddess Isis; they were also elevated to the rank of deity in their own right as Nekhbet, patron of Upper Egypt and nurse of the Pharaoh. The priestesses of Nekhbet wore garments of white vulture feathers, and the goddess herself was often portrayed as a vulture-headed woman, her wings spread to provide protection, a circlet in her claws - the shen, symbol of infinity. Her cult was in fact linked to the eternal cycle of death and rebirth because of the vulture's role in the food chain as a scavenger and its supposed parthenogenesis; Nekhbet was venerated as the mother of mothers, who existed from the beginning.

Although the vultures carry the most weight in ancient Egyptian mythology, they are also important in other cultures. They appear in Greek mythology, where Zeus transformed two enemies - Aegypius and Neophron - into vultures: the former became a Bearded Vulture, and the latter an Egyptian Vulture. This became the source of the Egyptian Vulture's Latin name, Neophron percnopterus. Since these birds are summer visitors to Europe, they are considered a symbol of spring in Greece and in the Balkans.

In Turkey and Bulgaria, the Egyptian Vulture is commonly referred to as akbuba, "white father". There is a story about one of these birds saving Muhammad from the claws of the golden eagle; according to this legend, the vulture was rewarded with eternal life and gained its white plumage as a symbol of purity, wisdom, and bravery.

The Egyptian Vulture also appears in the Bible with the name of râchâm, often translated as "gier-eagle". It is only mentioned as an "unclean" bird that should not be eaten; in actuality, the Egyptian Vulture is a very clean animal, as its feathers are disinfected by the UV light of the sun during flight, and its stomach acid kills off any bacteria it might have ingested. In spite of this unfair reputation, this animal wasn't considered all bad. In fact, its name contains the root for "love": since these birds are almost always seen in mated pairs, the Hebrew thought of them as committed to each other.

The Egyptian Vulture was also considered to be a good bird in India. There is a story about two birds that visited the temple of Thirukkalukundram ("hill of sacred vultures") daily for centuries: they would appear at 11 o'clock in the morning, and were ceremonially fed sweet rice and other delicacies by the priests. According to a myth, the two birds used to be sages cursed by Shiva to live as vultures, and were visiting the temple in penance. Egyptian Vultures used to be rather common in India; what makes this case so special, however, is that it was always a pair of vultures that would visit the temple - never more. Although it is true that two birds were indeed regular visitors to the temple and photos exist of them, we can easily suppose that they were multiple generations of vultures and not incredibly long-lived individuals.

Birds in general were held in high regard by ancient Etruscan and Roman culture, where they were considered messengers of the gods. Their attempts to detect the tides of good and bad luck involved a particular form of divination, called augury, based on reading the flight of birds. One such instance of augury appears in the foundation myth of Rome, when Romulus and Remus were arguing over which hill the new city would be built on and who was to be king; they decided to settle their argument by observing the flight of vultures. The high regard in which the Egyptian Vulture was held seeps through time to its modern Italian name, "capovaccaio", which means "master of cows" - a name given because of the bird's tendency to fly together with cattle. Although the Egyptian Vulture is often a scavenger, it is also an opportunist that will eat about anything in its reach, including other animals' excrement. This is why it is particularly interested in following cows. To people, this might seem like a disgusting behavior, but the vulture is equipped with a digestive system that allows it to absorb nutrients from manure, and it is thought that the carotenoid pigments in the excrement are what give the bright yellow color to its skin. In Spain, this gives it the much less reverential names of churretero and moñiguero, "dung-eater".

Its feeding habits also reveal another aspect of this creature: its intelligence. The Egyptian Vulture seems to have a somewhat curious expression to its eyes, and is in fact a smart animal, being one of the few birds to use tools. When a vulture finds a large egg, it looks for a stone that it can hold in its bill, and repeatedly slams it against the egg until it cracks. Vultures have also been observed using twigs as tools to spin wool that they then use as lining for their nests, further showing that "bird-brained" should really be changed into a compliment.

It is saddening that such an amazing animal, and one that bears such a cultural significance through history, is currently threatened by human activities. In the last fifty years there has been a sharp decline in its numbers, and the Egyptian Vulture is currently in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The population of these birds has halved in most of its range since 1980. The causes of this lightning-fast disappearance have to do with pesticide poisoning, lead poisoning, collision with wind turbines, poorly designed power lines, the use of antibiotics on cattle, poaching, and habitat destruction. A few conservation projects have been started, and the Egyptian Vulture is a protected species under many legislations. However, seen how its quick decline is not stopping, these efforts are not nearly enough. If the trend is not reversed, there is a very real chance that all that will be left of this strikingly beautiful animal will be just ancient myths.

References and resources

  1. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Neophron percnopterus
  2. Gods of Ancient Egypt: Nekhbet
  3. Nekhbet, the white vulture goddess
  4. The return of the Neophron: relation to humans
  5. The Egyptian Vulture on the Balkans
  6. Wood's Bible Animals, 1875: The Egyptian Vulture, or Gier-Eagle
  7. The Neophron Vultures of Thirukkalukundram
  8. Legend of Pakshi Teertham (Thirukkalukundram)
  9. Hill of the Sacred Eagles
  10. Crystalinks: Etruscans
  11. Egyptian Vulture cracking ostrich's egg

The vulture illustration is my own work, also available on my artblog.