Egyptian Hippos: Ancient Symbol of Protection, Rebirth And Hunting
The ancient Egyptians had an undeniable and powerful connection to nature and the world around them. Almost every animal and plant had a specific meaning to their way of life, inspiring grand murals and the symbols within their writing system. Egyptians gods, all of which take the form of animals, are thought to have been formed through their acute observations of nature. Of these animals, they had an ambivalent attitude towards Egyptian hippos. Hippos were both respected and endowed with positive qualities, but they were also feared. Today, Egyptian hippos are extinct in but in ancient times they played an important role both culturally and physically in the Egyptian world.
Goddess Taweret: Body And Head Of An Egyptian Hippo
One of the most popular household deities worshipped by the ancient Egyptians was the goddess Taweret. Taweret differs from the “standard” slim bodied female Egyptian deities as she is the physical manifestation of a few different animals. Taweret has the body and head of a hippo, she also represents a pregnant hippo (Glenn, Joralyn). Her mouth is usually displayed as wide-open, which exposes her tusks and tongue. This was seen as a very fearsome and powerful display (Glenn, Joralyn). She is often depicted as wearing a modius (a flat cylindrical headdress) on her head. Other times, she is wearing a horned sun disk crown similar to ones worn by Isis and Hathor. Taweret is also had a crocodile tail and the hands/feet of a lioness.
Statuette of the goddess Taweret in its classic Egyptian hippo representational form. (Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0)
The combination of animals was meant to represent her power and strength. Even her name radiates with power, literally translating to “The Great Female One” (Glenn, Joralyn).
Taweret was common among domestic households as the protector of motherhood and fertility. Her swollen, or pregnant, belly is a symbolic representation of fertility and childbearing potential (Reilly, and Candace A). The representation of her as a mixture of such powerful animals was to show Taweret as the “protector of motherhood and pregnancy” (Reilly, and Candace A). The Egyptians observed the Egyptian hippos' fierce protection of their young and used this to represent Egyptian mothers' own fiery fight for their children.
It was common for Egyptian women to use images of Taweret as a way of preventing evil from reaching their infants. Images of Taweret would appear on “beds, stools, headrests, and amulets” (Glenn, Joralyn). Worship of Taweret was practiced mainly at home or in domestic shrines, rather than large temples. However, there may have been “a sanctuary in Taweret’s name at Deir el-Medina” (Glenn, Joralyn). Carved images of her were found to appear on the front of temples, the same way gargoyles protected Christian churches.
Figurines and amulets of Taweret were extremely common, many of which now exist in museums around the world. The statuettes are thought to have “been given as gifts, kept in household shrines, or dedicated at local temples in hope of, or thanks for, a successful birth” (Glenn, Joralyn). Her image also adorned objects associated with birth and caregiving, such as magical wands, feeding cups, and birthing bricks.
After birth, children would be placed upon a couch of bricks. These birthing bricks would have been adorned with the images of various childbearing and protective images. The baby would have been placed onto the bricks as a “way to protect and aid the mother and baby at the time of birth through divine images” (Glenn, Joralyn).
An interesting study in modern Egyptian folk magic found that some women still use the blessing and help of Taweret as an aid for pregnancy. The Cairo Museum houses a statue of Taweret carved from black hard stone, the statue's belly is lighter in color, almost appearing polished. This shiny hue is from modern women rubbing her belly in hopes that “the pregnant deity would help them to conceive” (Glenn, Joralyn). Nowadays, the statue is protected by a plexiglass barrier. However, interviews conducted with visitors show that women make trips to the museum just to see Taweret. This information suggests that even thousands of years later, Taweret is still providing hope, and perhaps protection, to the mothers and mothers-to-be of Egypt.
The famous Cairo Museum statue of Taweret, carved from black hard stone. (See page for author / CC BY 4.0)
Hedjet: The White Egyptian Hippo Goddess
Egyptian hippos were often symbolic of life, regeneration, and rebirth. Every morning and night the Egyptians observed hippos roaring to the skies at sunrise and sunset. They saw this as a way of greeting and saying farewell to the sun. In Egyptian mythology, the sun was symbolic of an “eternal cycle of rebirth that the deceased hoped to join” (Stünkel, Isabel). Therefore, creating amulets and statuettes of Egyptian hippos could magically transfer qualities of life, regeneration, and rebirth to these objects.
One goddess associated with this cycle was Hedjet. She was depicted in full hippopotamus form. Her name translates to “The White One” and she was seen as an example of positive Egyptian hippo symbolism (Stünkel, Isabel). In the archaeological record, Hedjet is depicted through white limestone carvings. The white limestone figurines were accompanied by “white and gold colors that were symbolic of goodness and purity” (Lacovara, Peter).
The Brooklyn Museum’s ivory Egyptian hippo with three broken legs. (Brooklyn Museum)
Early Origins Of Egyptian Hippos
The importance of Egyptian hippos in ancient Egypt can be traced all the way back to Predynastic Egypt period (the period before 3100 BC). One of the earliest examples of hippo imagery in predynastic times can be found in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection. The museum’s hippo figure is carved from ivory, presumably hippo tusk ivory. It was reportedly found in a small village “between El-Zagazig and Bubastis in the central section of the Delta” (Cooney, John D). It is estimated that the artifact was used frequently in daily life in antiquity, due to the extended abrasion found on the hippos' sides.
- Understanding the Gods of Egypt: In Unison With Nature
- Did You Know That Baboons Were Trained in Ancient Egypt to Catch Criminals?
- An Ambiguous Amphibian: The Everchanging Frog Symbol in World Myth
It appears that the figures' legs were carved as a single unit and a hole was drilled into both legs through the feet to allow for the hanging of the artifact. It may not have been worn a necklace. Instead, it may have been “'inserted on the end of a slender rod to be used as a hunting charm” (Cooney, John D). The Egyptian hippo “amulet” was then placed into the tomb of its owner to continue its purpose in the afterlife.
The Egyptian Hippo Hunt
One of the most significant hippo representations in ancient Egypt are depictions of Nile hippopotamus hunting. Hippos were hunted for a variety of reasons. The most common reason was for their meat, skin, and fat. In addition to nutritional value, the Egyptians would hunt them for their ivory. The ivory would be used to construct carvings and figurines, like the one previously mentioned.
These Egyptian hippo hunts were depicted as early as the Predynastic Period and were prevalent for the next three thousand years and beyond. One of these hunts is beautifully depicted on the exterior of a Predynastic bowl. The bowl, dated to around 3700 BC, depicts a “man harpooning two hippos, one large and one smaller” (Stünkel, Isabel). In these hunting scenes, it was common for a hunter to be “on a small boat, with their arms backward, holding a harpoon about to be thrown at the hippo” (Stünkel, Isabel). Egyptian hippos were depicted in these scenes with their mouths wide open. When hippos are threatened they open their mouths allowing for hunters to strike the animals where they are most vulnerable.
A vintage drawing of hunting Egyptian hippos in ancient Egypt. (Morphart / Adobe Stock)
In 3000 BC a shift in how hippo hunts were artistically pictured changed. It was thought that killing such an impressive animal was a sign of courage, strength, and respect. This led to hippo hunts being depicted with pharaohs, leaders, and kings doing the hunting. Hippos were seen as symbols of chaos so the image of a king killing these animals would have been very symbolic. It would have represented the king's “victory over chaos and his ability to maintain the world order” (Stünkel, Isabel).
One of these kingly hunts was found on a relief fragment from the Mortuary Temple of Pepi II in Sakkara. The fragment shows the king “harpooning one of the beasts, and in the next, it is tied to a sled and dragged by a team of men” (Lacovara, Peter). The visuals of kings killing Egyptian hippos continued through the Middle (1975-1640 BC) and New (1520-1075 BC) Kingdom periods, especially on scarabs. These scarabs were small cylindrical button seals that were used for amulets and other protective devices (Lacovara, Peter).
Rulers hunting Egyptian hippos ascended the planes of human existence and entered into the realm of the gods. In the New Kingdom hippos were connected to the evil god, Seth. Horus was the mythological counterpart of the living king. In the Myth of Horus and Seth, “Horus defeats Seth and ascends the throne they had battled over” (Stünkel, Isabel). Ritual enactments of this story were extremely common and in 100 BC the story was depicted on the walls of the legendary Edfu Temple. In the depictions, “Horus, who is often depicted together with the king, harpooning Seth in the shape of a hippopotamus” (Stünkel, Isabel).
Artifacts found at Nekhen | Hierakonpolis, the religious and political capital of Upper Egypt in Predynastic Egypt, which is also the location of the world’s first known zoo, which was a sad home for Egyptian hippos. (Quibell, James Edward, 1867-1935; Green, F. W; Petrie, W. M. Flinders (William Matthew Flinders), Sir, 1853-1942 / Public domain)
Hierakonpolis: World’s First “Zoo” With Hippos And Baboons
Egyptian hippos played a vital role in the lives of people at Hierakonpolis (Nekhen in ancient Egyptian), the capital of Predynastic Egypt. The site was home to the world’s first zoo, however, not in the traditional modern sense. Animals were held captive in the city as “pets or objects of affection … they were also used for offerings hunted and captured for their spiritual power” (Boissoneault, Lorraine). The animals were not held in comfortable living conditions, as evidenced by broken hippo leg bones, broken baboon feet, and “as well as bones from antelope and wild cows that had injuries probably related to being tied up” (Boissoneault, Lorraine). None of the bones found showed evidence of butchery or that they were eaten. That the bones of hippos were found in great abundance has led archaeologists to believe they were often sacrificed.
The value of hippos at Hierakonpolis is represented through the “mummification of three young hippo calves at tomb HK6” (Droux, Xavier). Hippo mummification and numerous Egyptian hippo artifacts suggest that hippos in the city were seen as “a positive light encouraging the production of hippo artifacts” (Droux, Xavier). An interesting object found at tomb #11 features a highly stylized hippo that may have once adorned the rim of a pot. The figurine was most likely attached to the funerary assemblage of the tomb occupant. In the ceremonial center of HK29A, a remarkably preserved hippo head made from calcite was found. It was carved in a way that represented the classic way hippo’s nostrils are “raised above the water” (Droux, Xavier).
A famous Egyptian hippo faience, part of the George Ortiz Collection. (George Ortiz Collection)
Blue Faience Hippos
The most famous and recognizable of hippo symbolism comes from the Middle Kingdom blue hippo faiences. Faiences were a form of figurines that are recognized for their sophisticated craftsmanship. Egyptians faiences were made from a self-glazing ceramic “composed of a body of crushed quartz with copper added to produce a deep blue color” (Lacovara, Peter). Faience was a difficult medium and only the most skilled artisans were known to produce them. Many objects and animals were produced. However, few are as well-known as the Egyptian hippo faiences.
The hippo faiences were produced solely as grave goods and were “believed to have traveled through the afterlife with the tomb occupant” (Cooney, John D). There are nearly one hundred different hippo faiences found in museums around the world. The bodies of these faience hippos were decorated with beautiful scenes of “densely packed river plants, such as closed and open lotus flowers and lotus leaves” (Stünkel, Isabel). Pondweed was another very common plant in these faiences. The figurines also featured riverine features like frogs, butterflies, birds, and occasionally dragonflies.
The decoration of these Egyptian hippos was meant to represent their natural habitat. However, all of these plants were also symbolic of growth and life. The most common plant on the faiences was the lotus. The lotus was symbolic of “regeneration and rebirth since it opens in the morning when the sun appears and closes in the evening” (Stünkel, Isabel). They were linked to the cycle of death and rebirth of the Sun God. When Egyptians passed away they hoped to join the Sun God on his journey, and to be reborn every morning with him. These hippos were included in burials as symbolic representations of this journey and were thought to have helped the deceased reach the Sun God. When placed into tombs the hippos were “ meant to supply the deceased with regenerative power and to guarantee his or her rebirth” (Stünkel, Isabel).
While Egyptian hippos had positive connotations, the Egyptians still feared them. In order to prevent the hippos from magically coming alive the “the legs of many such statuettes were broken off deliberately, thus eliminating the animal’s destructive potential” (Stünkel, Isabel). One of these faiences was found amongst the wrappings of Reniseneb, a Middle Kingdom mummy. This famous standing hippo faience was found nestled against the mummy’s back.
The famous “William” standing Egyptian hippo faience. (Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0)
The most famous of the blue hippo faiences is “William,” which is now part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection. William is dated to roughly 1961–1878 BC and was found at a tomb in Meir. William also has the classic lotus decorations: his back features “open lotus flowers and closed lotus buds along his body” (Stünkel, Isabel). William’s legs were also snapped off: three were restored and one is still intact.
Other blue hippo faiences can be found in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Austria and the Louvre in France. The Austrian Egyptian hippo features lotuses and a marsh duck along its back. The hippo faience found in the Louvre is particularly unique because of its “four legs being connected by a strip of faience and rest on a plinth, making it the only one of its kind” (Stanska, Zuzanna). The Louvre hippo has been dated to the Second Intermediate Period (2181 BC).
Other notable blue faience hippos are located in the Brooklyn Museum (NYC) and the RISD Museum (Rhode Island). Another unique blue faience hippo is a part of the private Charles Ortiz Collection. This hippo is one of the only five hippos that have “their heads turned and it is the only known hippo so far to feature a dragonfly” (Stanska, Zuzanna). This hippo was dated to the 12th-13th Egyptian dynasty, 1850-1700 BC.
Ancient Egyptian hippos were highly symbolic creatures. They represented both peaceful and welcoming qualities, as well as the evil and chaotic forces of nature. Egyptian hippos were one the most dangerous creatures to walk along the Nile, however, they were respected as animals of the gods. They brought comfort, peace, and strength to Egyptians for thousands of years. Though they no longer exist in the Nile River, their cultural presence in the region will be felt for an eternity.
Top image: Though Egyptian hippos are now extinct in Egypt they still thrive in Africa. And these hippos are shown with lotus flowers, which often featured as decoration in Egyptian hippo figurines and paintings. Source: Faas / Adobe Stock
By Alison Snell
Boissoneault, Lorraine. “Leopards, Hippos, and Cats, Oh My! The World’s First Zoo.” Jstor Daily , 12 Nov. 2015, daily.jstor.org/leopards-hippos-cats-oh-worlds-first-zoo/.
Cooney, John D. “Egyptian Hippopotami in the Brooklyn Collection.” Brooklyn Museum Bulletin, vol. 12, no. 1, 1950, pp. 5–13. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26457913. Accessed 17 Apr. 2020.
Droux, Xavier. “Hierakonpolis Hippo Round Up.” Nekhen News 27, www.academia.edu/20169582/Hierakonpolis_Hippo_Round_Up.
Glenn, Joralyn. “The Goddess Taweret: Protector of Mothers and Children.” Glencairn Museum, Glencairn Museum, 1 Oct. 2014, glencairnmuseum.org/newsletter/september-2014-the-goddess-taweret-protector-of-mothers-and.html
Lacovara, Peter. “A New Date for an Old Hippopotamus .” Journal of the Museum of Fine Arts , vol. 4, 1992, http://www.gizapyramids.org/static/pdf library/bmfa_pdfs/jmfa04_1992_17to26.pdf.
Reilly, and Candace A. “Taweret: An Untraditional Egyptian Goddess.” Inquiries Journal, Inquiries Journal, 1 Aug. 2011, www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/556/taweret-an-untraditional-egyptian-goddess.
Stanska, ByZuzanna. “Blue Faience Hippopotamuses Of The World, UNITE!” DailyArtMagazine.com - Art History Stories, 7 Feb. 2018, www.dailyartmagazine.com/blue-faience-hippopotamus-world-unite/.
Stünkel, Isabel. “Hippopotami in Ancient Egypt.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hipi/hd_hipi.htm (November 2017)