Hippopotami in Ancient Egypt

This week I am exploring the relationship between ancient Egyptians and the hippopotamus, a creature that sadly no longer calls the Nile home disappearing in antiquity around ca.1550-107 BCE.

The ancient Egyptians had a wary relationship to hippopotami and that is reflected in the stark distinction they made between the males and females. Ancient Egyptians had plenty of reason to fear the hippopotamus, in modern times hippos are the world’s deadliest large land mammal, killing an estimated 500 people per year in Africa[1].

Figure 1- A hippopotamus hunt scene in the marshes from the Tomb of Ty at Saqqara
https://www.osirisnet.net/mastabas/ty/e_ty_07.htm
Figure 2 (Left) and 3 (Right)-
Figure 2- Seth in the from of a hippo (circled in green) is speared and chained by Horus with the help of Isis and the king. https://www.planetware.com/edfu/temple-of-horus-egy-asw-temhor.htm

Figure 3- Seth as a hippopotamus being chained and stabbed with a harpoon from the internal western enclosure wall from the Temple of Edfu. Taylor, I., 2016. DECONSTRUCTING THE ICONOGRAPHY OF SETH. Ph.D. University of Birmingham. Page 207

Male Hippopotami

As a result of this, the male hippopotamus was regarded by the ancient Egyptians as a nuisance and an embodiment of destructive force. Therefore, hippopotamus hunts were organized as early as the prehistoric period to protect crops, and as a bonus provided a supply of ivory[2]. A tomb scene motif that became popular in the Old Kingdom (ca. 2649–2130 B.C.) continuing to the New Kingdom (ca.1550-107 BCE) was to depict this hunt (Figure 1). This scene reflected two facets for the ancient egyptian who viewed the scene; the physical hunt and a spiritual hunt. The spiritual side related to the conquering of good over chaos (known as Isfet). The hippo belonged to the world of wild animals a world which ancient Egyptian encountered everyday but couldn’t contain. From the New Kingdom on the hippo was connected to the god Seth, the murder of the god Osiris, and later an evil character who was defeated by the son of Osiris, Horus[3].The scenes of Horus, the embodiment of earthly kingship, can be seen harpooning and attaching chains to Seth in the guise of a hippopotamus at the Temple of Edfu (Figure 2 and 3). This hunt may have also influenced the ancient Egyptians to create a ceremony in which kings would ritually kill a hippo as again the symbolic overthrowing of Seth and chaos[4]. Found in the tomb of Tutankhamun was a gilded statue showing the king standing on a wooden papyrus boat, poised with a spear and a bronze coiled chain in his hand (Figure 4). Illustrating that this theme was well established still in the New Kingdom not so much in tombs scenes but the objects placed within.

Figure 4 – Gilded statue of Tutankhamun wielding a harpoon and chains. Authors own photo (Cairo Museum JE 60710))

Female Hippopotami

Figure 5 – A blue amulet of Taweret with a suspension loop on the back. https://petriecat.museums.ucl.ac.uk/detail.aspx

Whilst the male hippopotamus was very much something to be feared, hunted and killed female hippopotami did not befall the same fate. In fact, they were held in much higher regard being seen as a fiercely protective motherly figure and the manifestation of the life-giving powers of the Nile and water[5].It is not surprising then that the hippopotamus goddess Taweret was a popular amulet throughout ancient Egypt (Figure 5) with blue hippopotamus figurines become sort after in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1650 B.C.) (Figure 6).  These figurines were often placed in tombs to protect the dead[6] and became iconic and popular in antiquity with art collectors resulting in the provenance of most currently held in collections being poor[7]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York holds a particularly famous example of one of these blue hippos called ‘William’ (Figure 6). William is moulded in faience, a material made from ground quartz and his body is glazed blue with black details depicting lotus flowers and marsh plants symbolizing his natural environment and rebirth[8]. William’s nickname first appeared in a 1931 story published in Punch, telling the story of a family who consult a colour print of the Met’s hippo—which they called “William”—as an oracle and so the name stuck[9].

Figure 6 – Blue hippopotamus figurine known as ‘William’. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544227

Alongside this ancient Egyptians also worshipped hippopotamus Goddesses. Several hippopotami goddesses are known from ancient Egypt, including Ipet, Reret and Taweret although it is not clear whether they are to be treated separately or are different aspects of the same goddess[10]. These three different goddesses also functioned slightly differently. Reret is referred to as ‘the sow’ or under the name Rere-weret ‘the great sow’ and represented one of the constellations of the northern sky which we now call Draco[11]. This link to the night sky also connects her to the goddess Nut and Hathor. Ipet, her name meaning ‘favoured palace’ and later called the ‘mistress of magical protection’ is seen as a protective and nourishing deity[12]. At Karnak temple are the secret crypts of Ipet where she was said to descend into and give birth to a solar form of the god Osiris[13]. The final, and most widely known hippopotamus goddesses of the three is Taweret. Taweret ‘the great [female] one’ along with her counterparts is attested since the Old Kingdom[14]. Like the other goddesses Taweret is depicted a fusion of hippopotamus, crocodile, human and lion though the hippopotami aspects are primary. Taweret was particularly associated with protecting women in childbirth and is an apotropaic deity (possessing the ability to ward off evil). She is also represented, on head rests, beds and other small pieces of household furniture her presences imbuing these objects with protective properties for their owners[15]. Tawaret can also be seen in a protective guise wielding a knife on Apotropaic wands (Figure 7) commonly found in late Middle Kingdom burials. Although their use is unknown, these wands seem to have provided protection during birth/ early in life and then placed in tombs to offer protection of the deceased at his or her rebirth.  As you can see a very different treatment than the male hippopotamus.

I hope you enjoyed this week instalment exploring the rather ambivalent relationship between ancient Egyptians and the hippopotamus who both called the Nile home.   

Figure 7- Apotropaic Wand with images of Taweret wielding a knife protectively, ca. 1981–1640 B.C. Middle Kingdom
https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/545740

References


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-36320744 Accessed 21.01.2021

[2] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. p147

[3] Stünkel, Isabel. “Hippopotami in Ancient Egypt.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hipi/hd_hipi.htm Accessed 21.01.2021

[4] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. p147

[5] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Page 141

[6] Tristant, Y. 2017. Two early Middle Kingdom hippopotamus figurines from Dendara. In: Di Biase-Dyson, C. and Donovan, L. (eds.) The Cultural Manifestations of Religious Experience. Studies in Honour of Boyo G. Ockinga. Ägypten und Altes Testament 85. Ugarit-Verlag, Münster, pp. 53–69. Page 53

[7] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. p147

[8] Stünkel, Isabel. “Hippopotami in Ancient Egypt.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hipi/hd_hipi.htm Accessed 21.01.2021

[9] Stünkel, Isabel. “Hippopotami in Ancient Egypt.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hipi/hd_hipi.htm Accessed 21.01.2021

[10] Pinch, G. and Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Page 141

[11] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods And Goddesses Of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 184

[12] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods And Goddesses Of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 184

[13] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Page 142

[14] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods And Goddesses Of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 185

[15] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods And Goddesses Of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 186

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