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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Hippopotami in Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians had an ambivalent relationship with hippopotami. Although the animals were endowed with positive qualities, they were also feared as dangerous. Hippos are indeed unpredictable and powerful animals that—when feeling threatened—will become extremely aggressive; today hippopotami kill more people in Africa than any other large animal. A hippopotamus can outrun a human over a short distance, and they often upend boats and maul passengers. Ancient Egyptians were attacked by hippos, but evidence that people also survived can be found in an ancient Egyptian medical recipe for wounds inflicted by the bites of a hippo. Hippopotami are herbivores and usually graze during the night, when they can decimate a farmer’s field with their enormous appetite. This was already an issue in ancient Egypt; an inscription on a papyrus refers to such a devastated harvest: “the worm took half and the hippopotamus ate the rest.”

Unfortunately extinct in Egypt today, the hippopotamus population already suffered severely in ancient times, as human expansion restricted their habitat and they began to be hunted. A decline in their numbers continued through history until the last wild hippos were observed in Egypt in the early nineteenth century.

The ancient Egyptians hunted hippos for various reasons. In addition to their meat, skin, and fat, the Egyptians used the teeth of hippopotami, especially their impressive tusk-line canines (30.8.218), which can measure up to one-and-a-half feet long. Hippopotamus hunts are depicted beginning in the Predynastic Period (ca. 4400–3100 B.C.) (12.182.15) and occur for over 3,000 years. In such scenes, the hunter is most commonly depicted on a small boat; with his arm extended backwards, he holds a harpoon and is about to throw it (26.2.1). Egyptian harpoons consisted of a wooden shaft with a metal or bone tip that separated from the shaft once the animal was hit, but remained in the animal’s flesh. A rope connected to this tip is frequently seen hanging down from the harpoon. In his other hand, the hunter often grasps a coil of several ropes that are already attached to the hippo from previous successful throws. Small floats were attached to the ropes to indicate the location of the hippo in case it submerged and moved away in the water. In depictions of hippo hunts, the animal is usually shown with its mouth wide open. When a hippo is threatened, it will open its mouth and bare its teeth to its opponent, giving hunters the opportunity to strike the poor animal where it is most vulnerable.

In early societies, this act of hunting and killing such a dangerous animal was a sign of courage, strength, and power—all characteristics that were expected of a leader. Thus it is not surprising that, from about 3000 B.C. on, depictions of the king himself hunting a hippopotamus are known from ancient Egypt. Because the hippopotamus also symbolized chaos, these scenes had important symbolic value. The image of the king successfully hunting and killing the animal expressed the victory over chaos and his ability to maintain the world order, which was the task of the Egyptian ruler. It is likely that hippos were captured and kept alive in order to be employed at a later time in rituals, when the ruler would ritually “hunt” and kill the hippo, thus fulfilling his kingly duty and presenting himself as the victor.

From the New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1070 B.C.) on, the hippopotamus was connected to the god Seth, and in later times Seth was seen as an evil character. The god Horus was the mythological prototype of the king, and in the myth of Horus and Seth, Horus defeats Seth and ascends the throne they had battled over. Ritual enactments of this story were recorded in about 100 B.C. on the walls of the temple of Edfu. These scenes show Horus, who is often depicted together with the king, harpooning Seth in the shape of a hippopotamus.

But the ancient Egyptians also recognized hippopotami as positive creatures. Hippos lived in the Nile River, the source of life, so they, too, were associated with life. They often submerge in water for several minutes, surface to breathe, then sink again; this behavior of disappearing and reappearing was associated with regeneration and rebirth. Sometimes only the back of a hippo is visible, which resembles land surrounded by water, an image the Egyptians might have linked with the primeval mound and the beginning of creation. In one Egyptian creation myth, there is  the primeval water out of which the primeval mound emerges and on which the sun rises for the first time. In another version of this story, the sun god appears for the first time on top of a lotus flower that arises from the primeval water. The primeval water, the primeval mound, and the lotus flower were thus all connected with creation and life. Another intriguing behavior of hippos is that they roar in the morning at sunrise and in the evening at sunset. The Egyptians possibly interpreted this behavior as a greeting and farewell to the sun. And the sun’s travel was seen as an eternal cycle of rebirth that the deceased hoped to join. Hippopotami were thus associated with life, regeneration, and rebirth. Depictions of them, such as statuettes (see below) or small seal amulets (10.130.771), could magically transfer these qualities to their owners.

The ancient Egyptians also observed that female hippos fiercely protect their young. The dangerous yet protective aspect of hippos was probably one of the reasons Taweret (26.7.1193), a goddess who protects mothers and children, was depicted as part hippo. The fact that female hippos usually bear only one young, as do humans, is perhaps another reason. Similar hippo goddesses are known under the names of Ipet and Reret.

Another positive hippo creature was the goddess Hedjet, who is depicted in full hippopotamus shape and is known from a festival. Her name might mean “The White One,” though this translation has been debated. In the past, her ceremony has often been connected with the royal hippo-hunting ritual. However, they are not necessarily linked, especially since the name Hedjet never occurs in hippo hunting scenes, and the hippo never has a negative connotation in the scenes where it is called Hedjet. Egyptologists have often distinguished between a good female white hippo and an evil male red hippo, but this distinction is problematic as there exist representations of red female hippos (23.2.30), and female hippos are not always seen as positive. An example of a negative connotation of a part-hippo female creature is Ammut (the Devourer) in final judgment scenes: if it is determined that the deceased had failed to live a moral and just life, this creature will devour his or her heart, and the person will cease to exist.

Many different types of hippopotamus representations occurred throughout ancient Egypt (23.2.30; 43.8a,b; 23.3.6; 1997.375; 20.2.25), but the most famous are doubtless the wonderful faience hippopotami (17.9.1; 26.7.898; 08.200.37; 32.1.230; 66.99.13) that are known mainly as grave goods and date to the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1650 B.C.) and Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1650–1550 B.C.). Nearly one hundred such faience hippos are preserved in collections worldwide. The exact archaeological context for the vast majority of these figurines is unfortunately unknown. One of the Metropolitan Museum’s hippos is an invaluable exception, as it was recorded that it was found within the wrappings of the mummy of Reniseneb (26.7.898). The bodies of most faience hippos are densely decorated with river plants. Foremost are depictions of closed and open lotus flowers and lotus leaves (17.9.1). Other plants such as the pondweed are common, and many figurines also incorporate the depictions of Nile creatures such as frogs (32.1.230), butterflies, birds (66.99.13), and occasionally dragonflies (08.200.37). Intriguing circular ornaments also appear (26.7.898; 66.99.13); these could be stylized representations of flowers seen from above, but the suggestion has also been made that they are depictions of floats that were used in the hippo hunt. The latter explanation is not fully satisfactory though as such floats are usually shown in a triangular or elongated shape. The decoration of the faience hippos represents the animals’ natural habitat, but in addition these plants and animals also had many positive associations with growth and life. The lotus flower was an especially popular symbol of regeneration and rebirth, since it opens in the morning when the sun appears and closes in the evening. It was linked to the eternal cycle of the death and rebirth of the sun god. The deceased hoped to join the travel of the sun god, in order to be reborn together with him every morning. And, as mentioned above, the lotus flower was also connected to the beginning of creation and thus to life.

The faience hippos were linked to the themes of life, regeneration, and rebirth through many different layers that included the behavior of the animals themselves as well as the decoration of these statuettes. When placed in tombs, they were meant to supply the deceased with regenerative power and to guarantee his or her rebirth. Since the ancient Egyptians also feared these animals and believed that depictions of them could magically come alive, the legs of many such statuettes were probably broken off deliberately, thus eliminating the animal’s destructive potential. The faience hippos have been interpreted in many different ways. Besides the interpretation supported here, that they ensured regeneration and rebirth, it has also been suggested, for example, that they function as icons of the hippo hunt. The latter is partially due to the fact that cross bands above their backs have been construed as depictions of ropes. It is possible that rather than referring to the hippo hunt, they are meant to control the animals’ dangerous aspect. As with the broken legs, these bands might represent the ancient Egyptians’ ambivalent relationship to the hippo.