Hippopotami lived in the Nile at least until the time of the New Kingdom. At some point after that they vanish, but by then they are an integral part of Egyptian culture. They are integrated into the writing system – hieroglyph E25 in Gardiner’s list looks like a hippo, and has the sound “deb”. They feature in the tales of later Egyptians about their predecessors too – the Egyptian historian Manetho (who lived around the 3rd Century BCE) wrote that Narmer (the first king of a unified Egypt) was “carried off by a hippo and perished”! Of course this is almost certainly fiction – Joann Fletcher, in whose book I found this quote, says it might be true but I’m reminded far too much of the purported death of Romulus the founder of Rome. He’s supposed to’ve been swept up by a whirlwind and perished, body never to be found. So this feels like a death story that gets attached to semi-mythical kings to make them seem more mysterious.
The reality of the hippopotamus is that it was dangerous and destructive – in particular male hippos were regarded this way and thus associated with the god Seth. In fact the two most dangerous animals that the Egyptians faced in their environment were the crocodile and the hippopotamus, due to their size and strength. Both these animals could move (and attack) both in water and on land, so nowhere was safe from them. In the case of the hippopotamus they also trampled and ate the Egyptian’s crops (and some authors like Richard Wilkinson think that they were feared more for this than any aggression towards humans).
The Egyptians didn’t just let this dangerous beast roam about and destroy their food – there’s evidence for the hunting of hippos dating back to Prehistoric times. Early farmers who lived by the banks of the Faiyum around 5000-4000 BCE butchered hippos for food – a single hippo has as much meat as 5 cows or 50 sheep, so there’s quite a lot of good eating there, you could have a spectacular feast or feed a community for a while after a single hunt. Hippo bones also show up as a structural material in the north of the country at Merimda in the Delta, where hippo shin bones were used as door sills around 4800 BCE, as well as other bones being used as pillars to hold up house roofs. Hippo teeth were also used to make ivory objects from at least Predynastic times. (Technically the word “ivory” only refers to the material of elephant tusks, but in practice its use is broader and includes dentine from other large mammals such as the hippo.) It’s hard to tell which ivory objects were made from elephant tusks and which from hippo teeth, but the shape of the finished object can give some indications. For instance the shape of wands and clappers reflects the shape of the lower canines of hippopotami, whereas circular boxes are the shape of the hollow ends of elephant tusks.
As you’d expect for a creature that was so visible in the Ancient Egyptian landscape hippopotami are a common feature in art. Hippos feature on pots from at least the Predynastic Period onward often as herds or being hunted. Even in the earliest examples known of hippo hunting scenes one of the hippos will usually be shown being harpooned – Diana Craig Patch suggests that this may be intended as protective: invoking success in decorative art in order to ensure success in life. This art is not confined to pottery, even in the Predynastic Period – there is a painted cloth which was found in a grave at Gebelein that has a fragmentary hippo hunting scene on it. And there are figurines found from the Predynastic Period as well as later in the Early Dynastic Period where figurines are found in temple deposits including the well known Main Deposit at Hierakonpolis. There are also two known examples of larger limestone statues of hippos dating to the Early Dynastic Period, which may’ve been cult statues placed in shrines to be propitiated with offerings to ward off danger from hippopotami in daily life.
So far I’ve mostly talked about practical attitudes towards hippos until that last paragraph, but much of this art and much of Ancient Egyptian thinking about hippopotami would’ve had religious significance. Even tho in the modern world we think of religion as a separate domain to the rest of life we shouldn’t forget that in other cultures religion and the everyday are deeply intertwined. But I do want to first say that we need to be rather cautious about back-porting any meanings from a period where we have written texts to earlier art. Cultures in the past are no more a monolith than our own, and over time the meanings and symbolism of art motifs will inevitably change. Nonetheless even with that caveat we can see that there might be themes that begin during Predynastic times and last into later Egyptian times.
One of the themes that runs through Egyptian art involving hippos is that of control – for instance a bowl with a motif of hippos swimming in a circle can be seen as keeping the hippos under control and not allowing them to escape the bowl (or by extension their own natural place in the world). And the common scene in Old Kingdom nobles tombs of a hippo hunt is not just (or perhaps not at all) showing what might’ve happened in life, instead it’s about keeping control in the afterlife. Even the rather jolly-looking (to our eyes) blue faience figures of hippos from the Middle Kingdom like the one in my photo might be a manifestation of this theme. Richard Wilkinson suggests that the floral decorative motifs on these pieces are a magical method of keeping the hippo in its proper environment (other authors disagree, which I’ll come back to later).
And in Pharaonic Egypt hippo hunting scenes in a royal context had another extra layer of symbolism – not just general themes of imposing order on the chaos of a hippo but also the defeat of Seth by Horus and thus an important part of the religious iconography of kingship. There are hints that this may have its roots in a much earlier time – like a piece of Naqada I-II period art where the hippo hunter wears a bull’s tail. Now in Pharaonic Egypt a bull’s tail was only worn by the king, so one could interpret this as a king killing a hippo and thus an early precursor of the Horus defeating Seth symbolism … but there’s not enough evidence to be at all sure of that, we don’t even know the bull’s tail is an indication that this man is a king let alone the religious underpinnings of the image.
Indeed there’s still no evidence of a link between Seth and the hippo in the 1st Dynasty, even though there are pieces of evidence of royal hippo hunts having some greater significance than the purely practical. But later, the god and the animal are definitely linked. In the Contendings of Horus and Seth, which as a full story survives in a single copy from the 20th Dynasty (although the motifs and episodes from the story show up much earlier as well as later albeit not in a single coherent story), there are two episodes where Seth becomes a hippo – in both he is harpooned, once by Isis who lets him free when he pleads for his life (much to Horus’s disgust) and once by Horus, in an act which brings the contendings to their final conclusion with Horus gaining (at last!) his rightful throne & inheritance. This second episode is also illustrated on the walls of Edfu temple – a Ptolemaic structure – and there was a festival celebrated at this temple that re-enacted the killing (not, I think, with a real hippo – it’s a donkey that’s sacrificed).
So hippos in ancient Egypt were mad, bad and dangerous to know? Not exactly – as so often in Egyptian culture there were two sides to the idea of the hippo. Male hippos might be associated with Seth, but female hippos had a more benign symbolism and were associated with the goddess Taweret (amongst others). Taweret was a household deity who was a protector of women in childbirth. She was a composite creature – she has the body of a female hippo, with the breasts and full belly of a pregnant human, the legs & arms of a lion and the tail of a crocodile (or sometimes a whole crocodile sitting on her back). She stands on her hind legs, and often has one of her forepaws resting on a sa sign (which means protection) or an ankh (for life). She may also carry a knife, or fire, to fight off evil and those who mean the mother-to-be harm. Female hippos had this association with motherhood as they were thought of as being especially protective of their young. Just to be clear – this beneficial and more benign aspect to female hippos wasn’t because they were thought of as any less destructive than male hippos, it’s just that the destructive power was seen as being turned on those who meant one harm. Which is an interesting contrast to modern Western notions of motherhood which emphasise the nurturing rather more than the protective aspects … and the contrast between our culture’s patron saint of childbirth Saint Margaret (who escapes the belly of a dragon because of a miracle she doesn’t really play a part in) and the rather more proactive Taweret is quite striking!
The hippo may also be a more general fertility and regenerative symbol. This is the more common interpretation of the blue faience hippos like the one in my illustration – rather than a control motif. In this interpretation the vegetative decoration is about verdant new life and so in a funerary context (which it’s assumed these are from) it would be a symbol of rebirth into the afterlife. There’s also a hippo-headed bed, which was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, which may fall into this category of symbolising rebirth. Much earlier from the Predynastic Period there are some small hippo figurines which may be amulets – they have a small knob where they might be strung on a thong to wear on one’s person. If they are amulets then that implies a positive interpretation. And these figurines all have distended pregnant looking bellies (unlike other hippo representations of the time), which implies an association with fertility (perhaps even a proto-Taweret, but that’s a stretch).
Hippos therefore played a variety of roles in the symbolism and thinking of ancient Egyptians and you might think this would get confusing when interpreting any given instance. However in “Reading Egyptian Art” Richard Wilkinson suggests an easy way to tell them apart: in the majority of cases a hippo standing like a human is positive, one standing on all fours like a hippo is malevolent (most of the exceptions to this are in my last paragraph). Or, to re-work Orwell’s phrase: Two legs good, four legs bad!
Fletcher, Joann. The Story of Egypt. Hodder, 2016.
Patch, Diana Craig. ‘Early Dynastic Art’. In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. New York : New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press, 2011.
———. ‘From Land to Landscape’. In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. New York : New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press, 2011.
Romer, John. From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid. A History of Ancient Egypt 1. London: Penguin, 2013.
———. From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom. A History of Ancient Egypt 2. Penguin, 2016.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. Rev. and Expanded ed. London: British Museum, 2008.
The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 2007.
Tyldesley, Joyce. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt. London, England: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2010.
Wilkinson, Richard H. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. 1. paperback ed. 1994. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994.
———. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003.
Wilkinson, Toby A. H. Early Dynastic Egypt. London: Routledge, 2001.