Crocodiles are one of the most ancient animals on the Earth. They lived 200 million years and are contemporaries of dinosaurs. These strong reptiles look not least deterrent than the disappeared prehistoric pangolins. But besides this, they have an incredibly durable and beautiful skin. Its quality was valued already by fighting tribes. The crocodile leather was used to cover shields and sew armor.
The crocodiles live in tropical and subtropical zones in Eurasia, Africa, America, Australia and the adjacent islands. All the crocodiles are of large sizes: the smallest up to 1,5 m, and the length of the largest ones can be more than 6 m. They lead a semiaquatic way of life. All the crocodiles are adapted to living in water where their movements are very quick and nimble. For the most time they live in fresh waters, especially in backwaters or slowly flowing ones, but some species are to be found in seas too. The crocodiles go to the land to lie under the sun on the sandy coastal strips, but are ready to plunge into the water if the slightest danger arise.
The crocodiles are predators. Their main ‘meals’ of their menu are fish, shellfish, mollusks, aqueous and periaqueous medium-sized vertebras (Amphibia, reptiles, birds, mammals).
At present 22 species of the crocodiles are known. According to the biological classification they belong to the Crocodylia order and are divided into three families:
– proper Crocodylidae –14 species,
– Alligatoridae and Caiman – 7 species,
– Gavialidae – 1 species.
The proper crocodiles live in the tropical equatorial zone of all the continents. Alligators (in South America they are called Caimans) live only in southern part of North America, in South America and in Yangtze River in China.
Outwardly, a crocodile differs from an alligator only by the form of its jaws and the bite. When the snout is closed only the protruded teeth of the upper jaw are seen. The protruded teeth of the lower jaw fit the space between the teeth of the upper jaw so that all the teeth are visible.
The skin of the crocodiles and alligators differs too. The crocodiles have a more even and successive pattern. Besides, the number of cells varies also. The alligator has the pattern 2-2-2 in a row, while the crocodile has 4-2 one.
There was time when crocodiles were gods
The crocodile cult existed in Ancient Egypt. A city called Shedit was situated long ago on the bank of Meris lake in oasis of Libyan desert, to the west from the Nile valley. The Greeks called it Krokodilopolis. The supreme god of the city and of the whole riverbank oasis was Sebek – a god-crocodile. It had several aspects. The oasis inhabitants imagined Sebek as a human or as a crocodile with a rich and multiple crown, or as a reptile with a human head. Its tail was the darkness and its eyes were the light. The god-crocodile was thought to be a son of Neith, goddess, the ancestor of the gods, humans and crocodiles. Sebek managed the water realm and made the land fertile. Besides, the Egyptians worshiped the crocodile as a messenger of floods, because the animal went down the stream as water level increased. Plutarch thought the ancient Egyptians made the crocodile a symbol of deity because the eyes of the animal are covered with a thin, transparent membrane. This meant that being invisible it could see everything, just as a god.
During the Greek dominion, the Hellenised Egyptians and Greeks preyed Sebek to heel diseases, help overcome difficulties. Sebek cult was especially developed with Egyptian kings of the 12th dynasty, Ptolemys and Roman emperors.
But the attitude of the ancient Egyptians to the god-crocodile varied. The myths of the regions that worshiped the animal show Sebek as an aid of the supreme gods Ra and Osiris in their struggle with dark forces. His fierceness was considered to scare the evil powers away. Such attitude to this god existed in Fayum, the Western part of Delta, Upper Egypt (today called Com-Ombo). But Sebek was regarded as a hostile deity towards Ra and Osiris in the regions where it didn’t have a good reputation. For protection from crocodiles some special magic formulas were prepared to appeal the beasts not to harm people and animals.
Besides Sebek, a god-crocodile Khentekhtai was worshiped in the region Athribis of the Lower Egypt. Soon it took the appearance and substance of Horus, the falcon-god.
In the regions where the crocodile was worshiped, these animals were kept in temples, respected, given sacrificial food and depicted on the emblems and banners. A died crocodile was embalmed and solemnly buried. Archeologists find lots of tombs with thousands of mummies of grown-up and young crocodiles, and also eggs, saturated with resin and dried. A true crocodile necropolis was found in Com-Ombo. A lot of crocodile mummies are preserved in Cairo museum. Several ancient specimen are in Louvre. Crocodiles were worshiped in other countries too. The first of 20 day signs of the tribes in Central America was called in honor of crocodile-like reptile (Aztecs called it sipaktli, Maya named it imix). The sign was thought to bode fertility and wealth, bring children blessing, happiness and power.
Today there are tribes in Africa that consider crocodile their ancestor. For this reason, an attempt to kill it is regarded as a terrible crime. Up to now the crocodiles are thought to be holy animals in some regions of south-eastern Asia. From ancient times, alligator is respected in China as an embodiment of dragon, who is a symbol of emperor power. The Chinese think that to meet an alligator means a stroke of luck. But it is not an easy task to meet the Chinese alligator. This animal is the rarest crocodile. There are only about 1000 specimen in the World.
Indians consider gavial to be a holy animal protected by Vishnu. This species with very narrow and long jaws lives mainly in the holy waters of Ganges. Despite its frightening form, it is a fish feeder.