The Nile River may have been Egypt's lifeblood, but it also held one of its greatest dangers: crocodiles. These giant reptiles were represented in Egypt's pantheon, too, in the form of the god Sobek.
Sobek and the Twelfth Dynasty
Sobek rose to national prominence during the Twelfth Dynasty (1991-1786 B.C.). Pharaohs Amenemhat I and Senusret I built on the already existing worship of Sobek in Faiyum, and Senusret II constructed a pyramid at that site. Pharaoh Amenemhat III dubbed himself “beloved of Sobek of Shedet” and added splendid additions to the crocodile god's temple there. To top it off, the first female ruler of Egypt, Sobekneferu (“the Beauty of Sobek”), hailed from this dynasty. There were even several relatively obscure rulers named Sobekhotep who made up part of the succeeding Thirteenth Dynasty.
Most prominently worshiped in the Faiyum, an oasis in Upper Egypt (a.k.a. Shedet), Sobek remained a popular god throughout Egypt's millennia-long history. Legend has it that one of Egypt's first kings, Aha, built a temple to Sobek in the Faiyum. In the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom pharaoh Unas, Aha is referred to as the “lord of Bakhu,” one of the mountains that supported Heaven.
Sobek in Greco-Roman Times
Even in Greco-Roman times, Sobek was honored. In his Geography, Strabo discusses the Faiyum, of Arsinoe, a.k.a. Crocodopolis (the City of the Crocodile) and Shedet. He says:
“The people in this Nome hold in very great honor the crocodile, and there is a sacred one there which is kept and fed by itself in a lake, and is tame to the priests.”
The croc was also venerated around Kom Ombo-at a temple complex built by the Ptolemies and near the city of Thebes, where there was a cemetery full of crocodile mummies.
A Monster in Myth
In the Pyramid Texts, Sobek's mama, Neith, is mentioned, and his attributes are discussed. The Texts state:
“I am Sobek, green of plumage… I appear as Sobek, Neith's son. I eat with my mouth, I urinate and copulate with my penis. I am lord of semen, who takes women from their husbands to the place I like according to my mind's fancy.”
From this passage, it is clear that Sobek was involved in fertility. In the Middle Kingdom-era Hymn to Hapy, Sobek-who was the god of the Nile's inundation-bares his teeth as the Nile floods and fertilizes Egypt.
To further his monster-like demeanor, Sobek is described as having eaten Osiris. In fact, cannibalization of gods by other gods wasn't uncommon.
Crocodiles weren't always seen as benevolent, however, they were sometimes thought to be messengers of Set, god of destruction. Sobek helped Osiris's son, Horus, when, Isis (Horus' mother), cut his hands off. Re asked Sobek to retrieve them, and he did so by inventing a fishing trap.