This well-formed statuette of a hippopotamus (popularly called "William") demonstrates the Egyptian artist's appreciation for the natural world. It was molded in faience, a ceramic material made of ground quartz. Beneath the blue glaze, the body was painted with the outlines of river plants, symbolizing the marshes in which the animal lived.
The seemingly benign appearance that this figurine presents is deceptive. To the ancient Egyptians, the hippopotamus was one of the most dangerous animals in their world. The huge creatures were a hazard for small fishing boats and other rivercraft. The beast might also be encountered on the waterways in the journey to the afterlife. As such, the hippopotamus was a force of nature that needed to be propitiated and controlled, both in this life and the next. This example was one of a pair found in a shaft associated with the tomb chapel of the steward Senbi II at Meir, an Upper Egyptian site about thirty miles south of modern Asyut. Three of its legs have been restored because they were probably purposely broken to prevent the creature from harming the deceased. The hippo was part of Senbi's burial equipment, which included a canopic box (also in the Metropolitan Museum), a coffin, and numerous models of boats and food production.
The hippo's modern nickname first appeared in 1931 in a story that was published in the British humor magazine Punch. It reports about a family that consults a color print of the Met’s hippo—which it calls "William"—as an oracle. The Met republished the story the same year in the Museum’s Bulletin, and the name William caught on!
Excavated by Sayyid Pasha Khashaba (Said Bey), May 1910. Acquired by Khashaba in the division of finds. In Cairo with Maurice Nahman, November 1910. Purchased from Nahman by Dikran G. Kelekian, 1911. Purchased from Kelekian, 1917.
Phillips, Dorothy W. 1942. Ancient Egyptian Animals, Picture Books (Metropolitan Museum of Art), New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, fig. 22.
Pijoán, José 1950. Summa Artis: Historia general del arte, Vol. III. 1950. Madrid, III, 496, pl. 31.
Hayes, William C. 1953. Scepter of Egypt I: A Background for the Study of the Egyptian Antiquities in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Part I: From the Earliest Times to the End of the Middle Kingdom. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, p. 226-227, fig. 142.
Arnold, Dieter, Emma Brunner Traut, Henry G. Fischer, Matthias Seidel, Wilfried Seipel, C. Vandersleyen, and Erika Feucht 1975. Das alte Ägypten, Propyläen Kunstgeschichte, 15. Berlin, pl. 50.
Cox, Warren E. 1979. The Book of Pottery and Porcelain, 1. 1979. New York: Crown Publishing, p. 33, pl. 8.
Hibbard, Howard 1980. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Harper & Row, 35, fig. 53.
Metropolitan Museum of Art 2012. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p. 46.
Metropolitan Museum of Art 2012. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide. New York and New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, p. 46.
Patch, Diana Craig 2015. "Standing Hippopotamus." In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, pp. 216–17, no. 156.