Counterpoises like this are often attached to necklaces made of beads, called a menat, which were used like a rattle to make noise during rituals for the goddess Hathor. This one however was intended to have an aegis attached, it no longer exists but maybe depicted Hathor.
An aegis is a collar with a deity’s face above it, and it would’ve been attached so that when the counterpoise was held in the hand to shake the goddess’s face was upright. I assume (but am not sure) that there would also still have been beads to make it a rattle.
The goddess picked out in gold inlay in the top part of the object is called Nebethetepet – she’s associated with Hathor and personifies the original creative act of Atum. The columns on either side of her do have Hathor heads, and there’s a Hathor head above the shrine too.
At the bottom of the object is Horus as a falcon, sitting in the papyrus marshes – a reference to how he was hidden away when young so that Seth couldn’t find him and murder him like he’d murdered Osiris. Hathor was one of Horus’s protectors during this time.
I like the way bronze with gold inlay objects such as this look, with the shiny gold against the warm dark bronze. But it’s important to remember that’s probably not how it looked! The bronze would’ve been shinier in the past and there may even have been colour added.
The counterpoise dates to the Third Intermediate Period or Late Period, and it’s not known where it was found. It’s now in the Met Museum, acc. no.: 08.202.15.
This is a large stela from the end of Pharaonic Egypt (dating to the reign of Nectanebo II, sometime around 350 BCE). It was regarded as having magical powers, and was set up by a priest called Esatum specifically so that people could make use of its power to heal themselves.
The Ancient Egyptians of this time regarded written texts as having special properties, which could be activated by pouring water over them. The water would become imbued with the magic of the texts, and could then be drunk as medicine.
Objects like this are called Horus cippi, and most of the others I’ve seen have been small portable objects. This one is a giant in comparison, standing about 85cm (33inches) tall. The texts that cover it are 13 spells to cure or protect against poisonous bites and wounds.
The central niche has Horus standing on crocodiles and clutching snakes, scorpions, an antelope and a lion in his hands – demonstrating his power over these creatures. He’s flanked by Isis and Thoth who protect him in the texts, as well as the sun god Re-Horakhty.
It’s now in the Met Museum (acc. no.: 50.85), and was probably originally in the Temple of the Mnevis Bulls at Heliopolis.
I like the style of this depiction of the Weighing of the Heart – the elegance of the lines and the delicate shading to distinguish the clothing and wigs of the various deities. And the pleats in the linen kilt that the deceased is wearing are clearly marked out as well.
It’s a piece that rewards looking at the details – the little adjustment weight that Horus is reaching for is shaped like a heart. Thoth appears twice in the scene, once as an ibis-headed man recording the result of the Judgement and once as a little baboon on top of the scales.
And the Devourer, Ammut, has teats and even little teeth. The edge of her feather of Ma’at is also shaded to look like the fringe of a feather. She’s not looking towards the deceased, but instead appears to be eyeing the offering table to the left with a toothy grin.
This piece of papyrus is in the Cairo Museum (as of 2016) but had no label so I don’t know how old it is nor who it belonged to.
Come! Listen! I shall tell you a tale of days when the gods still walked the lands, a story of the contest between uncle and nephew for the inheritance of Osiris and the rage of a son betrayed by his mother!
For it was that in those days Seth of the desert, the impetuous, had lost the kingship of the Two Lands condemned by his own words to give up his rule in favour of his brother’s son, the rightful heir, Horus. Yet even with the face of Ma’at herself set against him, even so Seth the powerful, Seth the strong refused to accept the judgement of the gods against him and in his anger he challenged his young nephew to a contest of strength to determine who was fit to rule.
“Come my nephew, let us become hippopotamuses!” “Come my nephew, let us retreat to the depths of the waters, to the depths of the Great Green itself!”” “Come my nephew let us remain there until only the strongest of us survives to rule the Two Lands!”
And Horus, youthful and full of courage, at once joined Seth as a hippopotamus in the depths. Three long months they were to remain there, three long months without rising to greet Shu of the air above, three long months to prove their strength!
But Isis the mother, Isis the sister, Isis the widow, Isis was full of trepidation for Seth had tricked their brother, her husband, Osiris to his death. She feared her son, Horus the rightful heir, would meet the same fate at the hands of his uncle, her jealous brother Seth! And in her fearfulness she resolved to avenge herself for the death of her husband at the hands of his brother, and protect her son from his uncle’s wrath.
Taking up a harpoon, a barbed harpoon suitable for hunting the dangerous hippopotamus, Isis the mother of Horus went down to the water’s edge and cast forth her weapon. Strong was Isis and clear sighted, and so her harpoon flew straight and true and struck where she aimed! But one hippopotamus looks much like another hippopotamus, and it was Horus, her son, who cried out in a loud voice:
“Isis my mother! Why do you pierce the flesh of your son? Remove your barb from my flesh that I may not die!”
And Isis weeping tears of sorrow for her mistake used her great magic to return her harpoon to her hand. She used that magic to heal Horus, her son, the rightful heir, so that he was as if she’d never pierced his flesh. And then she cast again, strong, clear-sighted and confident in her target! Seth, her brother, cried out in a loud voice:
“Isis my sister! Am I not your brother? Your only living brother! Why do you pierce my flesh so that I shall surely die?”
And Isis wept once more, for the bond of blood between them meant she could not bring herself to kill Seth, her brother, regardless of his crimes or her fears. So once again she used her great magic to return the harpoon to her hand and make all as if the strike had never been.
But Horus, young Horus, her son and the rightful heir, was enraged by this betrayal from his father’s wife, his mother Isis! He burst forth from the waters wearing the face of the leopard in his righteous fury! Carrying a mighty axe he came forth from the waters to confront his mother, his uncle’s sister, Isis! And with the strength of that fury, with one single stroke of that axe, he cleft the head of his mother from her body!
The gods cried out with grief! The gods cried out with shock! The gods cried out with horror!
And Horus the murderer of his mother, Horus still grasping the head of Isis his mother, Horus turned and fled for the desert and the mountains beyond. All the gods, even Seth the brother of Isis, set out after him to find Horus the mother-killer and to bring him for the punishment he deserved for his crime against the true order of the world!
Seth of the desert, Seth fleet of foot, Seth who knew the ways of the wild places, it was he who found Horus first as he hid in the mountains. Seth was the only one of the gods who was not filled with rage at the death of Isis his sister, Isis the meddler, Isis the one who had tricked him into giving up the lordship of the Two Lands. But this did not make him merciful to his brother’s son Horus, Horus who had the rightful claim to his father’s estate. For here was his chance to destroy his brother’s line both root and branch, his chance to eradicate all competition for the lordship of the Two Lands! And Seth, mighty Seth, over-powered young Horus the rightful heir, plucked out the eyes of Horus the killer of Isis and left him to wait for his death!
Weep not for Horus! Weep not for Osiris’s rightful heir! Weep not!
For Horus was always and forever within the protective embrace of Hathor, the Great Cow, she of the Western Mountain. And Hathor was the next of the gods to find lost Horus, the killer of his mother, weeping bloody tears in the mountains where Seth had left him. With her magic she brought a gazelle to them, and brought forth its milk. With this milk she anointed the sockets where his eyes had been. With her magic she healed the young Horus, son of Isis, heir to the Two Lands, and made him whole again!
And together, Horus under the protection of Hathor, they returned to the Black Land to stand before the council of the gods once more. But that, my friends, is a story for another day.
Hart, George. 1990. Egyptian Myths. British Museum Press. Shaw, Garry J. 2014. The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends. Thames & Hudson. Tyldesley, Joyce. 2010. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt.Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books.
This is a second episode from “The Contendings of Horus and Seth,” which narrates the struggle between Horus & Seth for the kingship of Egypt – it follows on immediately after From His Own Mouth Condemned. I have taken the basic plot from the resources above, and then retold the story in my own words. Don’t worry about Isis, she doesn’t seem to’ve been harmed by the events of the story, but the surviving version of the story doesn’t give any details as to how she got her head back.
One of the sites on the standard tourist itinerary is the temple at Dendera – it’s near modern Qena, a bit under 100km north of Luxor on a large bend on the river Nile. When I’ve visited we’ve done it on the way back to our Luxor hotel from Abydos. Dendera isn’t the original Egyptian name of the site, it’s derived from later Greek names (Tantere and Tentyris) – the Egyptians called the town Iunet. It’s positioned near the entrance to the Wadi Hammamat, which was an important route to the Red Sea as well as providing resources itself (including all the siltstone that Predynastic palettes were made from). As a result it was a strategically important place, and was the capital of the sixth Upper Egyptian Nome (nomes were administrative districts). Unsurprisingly, therefore, there are indications that the site was occupied from early on – the necropolis has graves at least as far back as the Early Dynastic Period.
It’s not clear when the temple complex at Dendera was first built, but there is evidence that there was a temple there during the time of Pepi I and that this may’ve been an older temple which was rebuilt during the reign of Khufu. After this there is definitely a chapel dating to the Middle Kingdom (dedicated to Montuhotep II, now in the Cairo Museum). And there is quite a bit of evidence to show that New Kingdom kings built and extended the temples at the site. The surviving temple, the one you’ve been to see if you’ve been to the site, primarily dates to the Ptolemaic Period. One reason archaeological evidence preceding this is slim is that it appears when the current structure was built the site was flattened and it’s built directly on top of the remains from the Old Kingdom. The first surviving structure at the site dates to the reign of Nectanebo I (the founder of the 30th Dynasty in the Late Period, the last native dynasty of Egyptian kings). But most of what you see is Ptolemaic or Roman. The earliest Ptolemaic cartouche in the main temple is that of Ptolemy XII Auletes (Cleopatra VII’s father, really very late, tho see below when I come back to empty cartouches at the site), and Kent Weeks suggests that most of the building work for the Ptolemaic parts of the temples took place in the reign of Cleopatra VII.
The temple was first visited by Europeans quite early in the Western “rediscovery” of Egypt. The first European to write about it was Peter Lucas who visited in 1716 CE. And the site was also one of the places that Napoleon’s great expedition in 1798 visited – they removed the Dendera Zodiac from a roof chapel and sent it to the Louvre (replacing it with a copy that has been painted black to resemble the surroundings).
Like any large Egyptian temple there are several structures on the site which are part of the temple complex as a whole, and the surviving ones are only some of those that once stood there. The primary dedication of the complex is the triad of Horus, Hathor and Ihy. The surviving main temple at the site is the one dedicated to Hathor, but there would once have been two more – the others dedicated to Horus and to Ihy (and this was Ihy’s main cult centre). Dendera is the principle cult centre of Hathor, and has been since at least the Old Kingdom. As well as the temple here there is also a burial ground for cows, the sacred animal of Hathor. The local form of Hathor is closely associated with Nut – emphasising her roles as a sky goddess and a daughter of Re. She is also a goddess with strong links to the west and the dead.
As I said, there are many structures on the site not just the main temple. These include a couple of mammisis, a sanatorium, a temple of Isis and even a Coptic church! The main temple lies on a north-south orientation and most of the other structures are at right angles to this with their entrances to the east. This is actually quite an unusual orientation, and has to do with the direction the Nile is flowing in this part of Egypt. Despite our labelling the axes according to the cardinal directions, from an Ancient Egyptian perspective it was often the case that these were relative to the flow of the Nile rather than the true cardinal directions. So temples were often situated with their main axis at right angles to the Nile, which is notionally an east/west axis (as the Nile flows from south to north). But at Dendera there is a great bend in the Nile, and it’s actually flowing to the east at this point – hence a temple pointing towards the Nile is oriented from north to south in terms of cardinal directions but is still symbolically facing east towards the Nile.
The whole thing is surrounded by a mudbrick enclosure wall, built with a technique called “pan bedding” – this produces a wavy profile to the wall, as there are alternating areas of convex and concave courses of bricks. This does have practical implications (it may improve stability on ground that expanded and contracted as the waters of the Nile rose & fell with the inundation), but in typical Egyptian fashion they may also have had a symbolic meaning. The wavy profile may symbolise the waters of Nun – the boundary wall is thus holding chaos back from the sacred ground of the temple (which is thus the domain of order or ma’at). There are a couple of gateways in the wall, one in the north (the primary gate) and one at the southern end of the east wall. The main gateway is actually rather smaller and less imposing than is the case for other temples. It’s not the typical huge pylon, but instead a structure called a “propylon gateway” and it was built during the reigns of the Roman Emperors Domitian and Trajan. Outside this gate are some other Roman structures – chapels of a type we call kiosks. And within the mudbrick enclosure wall there is also an inner wall – this was built in stone but was never finished.
As well as buildings within the walls there are also a couple of water-related features. Unlike the one at the Precinct of Mut at Karnak this is a typical example – it is rectangular in shape. At the corners were flights of stairs descending into the water, down which the priests would walk to purify themselves. There are also wells on the site, one of which may be a nilometer used to measure the annual inundation.
To the west of the main temple between the gateway and the outer hypostyle hall of the main temple are four buildings. Two of these are mammisis – mammisi is a word that was coined by Jean-François Champollion (as a new word in the Coptic language). It means “birth-place” or “birth-house” and it used for a particular type of building found associated with several Egyptian temples dating from the Late Period through to the Roman Period. The two at Dendera pretty much cover the date range. The older one was built during the reign of Nectanebo I and the other was built by the Emperor Augustus and decorated by Trajan. As is typical they are both small temples placed at right angles to the main temple. The decorations within focus on the marriage (in this case of Hathor) and the birth of Ihy (the child of the triad) and the Pharaoh. The decoration in the Roman mammisi is particularly fine. One of the most famous scenes is of Ihy being formed on the potter’s wheel, and there are also scenes of other deities praising Ihy. The texts include hymns to all three members of the triad. And in keeping with the theme of birth the god Bes (a patron of childbirth) is depicted around the tops of the columns.
The temples were the site of “mystery plays” (so-called by analogy to medieval European mystery plays, I think, rather than being an Egyptian term). The play had 13 acts, with 2 intervals, and re-enacted the birth of Ihy and of the Pharaoh – symbolically linking them together and ensuring the continued existence of the royal line. Although not quite the same idea there are resonances between these plays and the reliefs from the New Kingdom that depict the parentage of the king as being the god Amun impregnating his human mother. Both link the king’s birth explicitly with the gods, even though the link is different in each case.
The other ancient Egyptian building in this group i that’s still on the site is a sanatorium – the chapel dedicated to Montuhotep II that I mentioned above isn’t on the site any more. The sanatorium is where pilgrims to the site would’ve stayed and was also for their healing. It is possible it was a place where they slept in order to receive healing dreams (an “incubation chamber”), but it’s more likely that the primary function was as a centre for cippus healing (where water would be poured over a stela called a cippus depicting Horus and covered in spells, and the now magical water was ingested by the ill person). The presence of a sanatorium at this temple may be because Hathor has healing associations (in one myth she restores the sight of Horus after Seth put his eye out), but they were also more generally attached to temples regardless of dedication from the Late Period onward. Although, having said that – this one is the only one that is known to’ve been built for this purpose, at other sites the evidence is less clear cut.
And finally, nestled between the mammisis, is a Coptic church which was built in the 5th Century CE. This seems a little incongruous but it’s something that often happens – a lot of Ancient Egyptian temples have Coptic churches or monasteries built in or next to the ancient structure. This isn’t restricted to Christian buildings, for instance there’s a mosque inside Luxor Temple. Sacred sites seem to hang on to their sacredness even as the religion around them changes.
Unlike Christian churches, temples in Ancient Egypt were not places where the general public could go inside and worship. And so there had to be more accessible structures for personal petitions to the gods. On the outside of the southern wall of the main temple there is a false door which is shaped like a Hathor sistrum which once had a wooden canopy. This is a place where those who could not enter the temple itself could leave their offerings and make their prayers. Inside the temple, in a chapel that backs onto this false door there is a niche that matches up with the outer structure, which once contained a statue of the goddess.
As a tourist visitor to the temple one is also taken to this wall, but not to leave one’s prayers for Hathor. Instead what we look at is the large relief on the western end of the wall that shows Cleopatra VII (“the” Cleopatra) and her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion, standing and making offerings to the gods. A part of Cleopatra’s campaign to promote Caesarion as the heir to her throne. Whilst with hindsight we know it was doomed, she must’ve been hoping that with Rome as her ally (and her Roman son lined up to take the throne) there might be a new period of stability for Egypt. The Ptolemaic Period in general, and particularly towards the end of it, was a time of great political instability with multiple civil wars and a high turnover of rulers. You can maybe see signs of that elsewhere in the decoration of Dendera Temple as well – there are reliefs where the cartouches are empty and the name of the king hasn’t been filled in, and some just contain the word per-aa (Pharaoh). One possible explanation is that as the king kept changing the people carving the reliefs didn’t have time (or want to commit) to carve a name in them. But I’ve also heard an alternative explanation that it’s more about symbolising eternal kingship rather than one particular king, and I’m not sure if there’s convincing evidence to determine which is the case.
The rest of the decorative scheme of the outer side of the walls of the main temple focuses on scenes of the king laying out the temple, placing the first stones (symbolically one assumes!) and dedicating the temple to Hathor. There are similar scenes in other more public spaces of the temple, including the outer and inner hypostyle halls (see below) – this tells us something about how the kings (mostly Roman Emperors) who commissioned this decoration wanted to be seen. Not as much emphasis on warmongering as earlier kings (perhaps a little close to the bone in a country they conquered?), and more on building houses for the gods.
Immediately behind the main temple is a structure called the Iseum – it’s a temple dedicated to Isis and build by the Emperor Augustus re-using stones from earlier structures on the site. The axis of this temple is unusual – it’s split with the main part of the temple facing towards the east like all the other subsidiary temples on the site, but then the sanctuary faces north towards the sanctuary of Hathor in the main temple. Once there was a statue of Osiris supported by Isis & Nephthys in the sanctuary.
Entering the temple proper (finally!) the facade that greets you consists of six columns joined by a half-height wall between them and a central doorway that leads into the temple. This part of the temple, and the outer hypostyle hall behind it, was built after Cleopatra’s time – in the 1st Century CE, at the orders of the Emperor Tiberius. There’s a Greek inscription above the door that tells us this, saying that the temple is “for the Emperor Tiberius Caesar, the new Augustus, son of the divine Augustus […]”. The columns in this area are all topped with four heads of Hathor arranged to make a cube. These heads are themselves topped with a naos-shaped sistrum. The heads were pretty much all deliberately damaged in antiquity. Hathoric columns are not unique to this Roman structure at Dendera – there are examples seen from the Middle Kingdom onward at a variety of different sites. This is just the most well known example.
Inside the outer hypostyle hall is a spectacular ceiling – it still retains a lot of its colour, and has recently been cleaned, so it looks pretty impressive. It’s decorated with a chart of the sky, mixing newer ideas about the stars brought in by the Greeks and Romans with traditional Egyptian ideas about the sun’s journey. For instance there are signs of the zodiac that came, ultimately, from the Babylonians mixed in with images of Nut swallowing the sun so that she can give birth to it again which is a very old Egyptian belief. The walls include the decorative motifs I talked about above – the king (or rather, Emperor in this case) laying out, building and dedicating the temple. There are also scenes of the purification of the king.
Moving further into the temple you come to the inner hypostyle hall. This room is called the Hall of Appearances, and is where the statue of the goddess was brought to appear at the beginning of rituals and processions. The hall has 6 columns, and the walls are decorated once again with depictions of the king participating in the building of the temple. There are six small rooms opening off the hall, 3 on the east side and 3 on the west. One of the eastern ones we call a “perfume laboratory” as the reliefs have to do with the making of perfume and show the king offering incense – this also has representations of the god Shezmu, originally the god of wine & oil presses but by the Ptolemaic Period known as the Provider of Perfumes for the gods. In another room on the east the king offers food to the goddess. And on the western side there is a room where the king offers silver, and another where he pours libations of water. The rearmost room on each side is a treasury. An opening to the east allows offerings to be brought in, and to the west another opening leads to a well. The area as a whole appears to be for the preparation of offerings and the storage of items needed for the daily ritual at the temple.
Continuing deeper into the temple you come to a room called the Hall of Offerings, to the sides of this room are the stairs to the roof. This hall was the area where sacrifices were dedicated to the deities of the temple, and the scenes on the walls show the king making these offerings . From each side of this room are stairs leading to the roof. The room after this is called the Hall of the Ennead (the name for “group of nine gods”) which is immediately outside the inner sanctuary – here the statues of other deities assembled before joining processions. Amongst the various deities represented in the temple at Dendera were Shezmu (who I just mentioned), Shepet (a form of Taweret, in the Roman mammisi), the Heliopolitan Bull Mnevis and the lion god Mahes. To the left and right are chambers that sorted the clothing and other accessories of these gods – the western room is a linen chamber, and the eastern room is a treasury. If you go through this treasury you come to a courtyard with a set of stairs at the end leading up to a room called the wabet or “Pure Chapel”. In this room ceremonies of offering to Hathor are performed, and these are shown on the walls of the courtyard (along with scenes of processions of deities from Upper & Lower Egypt).
The sanctuary itself is now empty, but it would once have held a shrine containing the statue of the goddess Hathor and her ceremonial barque in which she would travel during processions. These items are depicted on the decoration of the sanctuary. Surrounding this room were 11 chapels dedicated to the other deities who were associated with Hathor at this site. These included deified forms of two of Hathor’s chief attributes – her sistrum and the menat necklace.
Underneath the main temple and within its walls there are crypts, which were used to store cult objects used in the temple. I remember when I visited the temple I’d assumed that this usually invisible and functional space would also be plain – but that is not the Egyptian way, the walls of the underground one I went into are decorated with reliefs that depict the items that were once stored there. This includes a ba statue of Hathor which was once used in processions, such as one at New Year. In this procession the statue was taken out to visit various parts of the temple, including a chapel for Nut and a chapel on the roof where the ba statue was placed overnight. In the morning with the first sunrise of the New Year the statue was bathed in sunlight, which was seen to infuse it with new life for the new year. The staircases on which the procession travelled were decorated with representations of the procession itself – participated in by gods & kings for eternity. On the western staircase the procession carved into the walls leads up to the roof, and in the eastern one the procession goes down into the temple once more.
This was not the only chapel on the roof of the temple at Dendera – there were also others, including two symbolic mortuary chapels for Osiris. These were mirrored with one suite on the east and one on the west of the roof. The roof of one of these was the famous Zodiac ceiling which is now in the Louvre as I mentioned above. The zodiac design itself is primarily a Babylonian zodiac, and is not the same as earlier Egyptian depictions of the heavens (such as those in tombs in the Valley of the Kings). Having said that, it’s not purely a foreign import, elements of Egyptian ideas are incorporated – just like the outer hypostyle hall ceiling combines both ideas of the heavens. Nonetheless even the idea that the stars can influence human destiny wasn’t part of the Ancient Egyptian mindset until the Ptolemaic Period – presumably imported from the Greek culture of the new rulers – previously unlucky and lucky days were based on mythology and the timing of festivals. The date that this zodiac depicts isn’t clear, as it’s difficult to be sure how to match the Egyptian constellations and planet names to our own. However one suggestion is that it may’ve originally represented the conception date for Caesarion, but was later altered to a significant date in the Emperor Augustus’s life. I don’t think that’s widely accepted, however.
There are other more typically Ancient Egyptian elements to the decorative scheme of these chapels. These include figures of Nut (so a more typically Egyptian sky than the Babylonian zodiac) and scenes depicting elements from the mythology of Osiris. This includes the conception of Horus, with Isis as a falcon hovering over the phallus of the mummified body of her dead brother-husband Osiris in order to receive his seed. An inscription also details the annual ceremonial burial of a corn mummy made of soil and grains of barley mixed together. This would then sprout, symbolising the rebirth of Osiris.
Another chapel is one of the earlier structures of the temple – at the southwestern corner of the roof is a kiosk with 12 Hathor-headed columns surrounding it which once supported a wooden roof. This has cartouches of Ptolemy XII on it. And demonstrating that the roof continued to be important ceremonial space the roof of the outer hypostyle hall (the newest part of the temple proper) was used by pilgrims in antiquity who waited there for signs & miracles from Hathor herself.
And also on the roof are waterspouts. Even though it doesn’t rain often in Ancient Egypt, when it does it can be as substantial rainstorms – so the flat roofs of temples need some sort of drainage. The spouts at Dendera (as at some other temples) have lion heads decorating them. These are thus symbolically protective as well as functional pieces of architecture. And as well as these protective associations they are also harnessed to generate water imbued with magic powers – in a vertical line on the wall directly below the waterspout are written magical texts. In the Egyptian belief system the written word itself had power, and pouring water over words (like with the cippi I mentioned above) would transfer this power into the water.
So here ends our tour of the temple complex at Dendera – it’s a delight to see, as it’s so well preserved. But equally it’s so well preserved because it’s so new, relatively speaking – although a lot is Ptolemaic, it’s late Ptolemaic and a lot is also Roman.
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.
Come! Listen! I shall tell you a tale of uncle contending with son over the estate of Osiris and the guile of a mother battling for her son!
And in those days after the great god Osiris had travelled to the Duat there was a need for a successor to his estate, a new ruler for the Two Lands. Horus, son of Osiris and his sister-wife Isis, was conceived after his father’s murder and was not yet of an age to lead men and administer justice in accordance with the precepts of ma’at. So Seth, brother and murderer of the great god Osiris, came to rule while Isis hid Horus in the marshes of Lower Egypt for fear of his uncle.
When the boy became a man, the thoughts of Horus and his mother Isis turned to claiming for him what was rightfully his. They travelled together to the great court of the gods, presided over by the great Re-Horakhty himself, and laid their case before the assembled gods for Seth to answer to. And great was the confusion and debate. Great were the arguments, proposals and counter proposals. For Seth was not willing to give up what he’d taken, and there were those amongst the council who preferred the known strength of the usurper to the untested wisdom of the rightful heir. To tell all the tales of this time would need a multitude of years, and we would all have joined with Osiris in our turn before I finished my story! Suffice it to say that Seth grew increasingly angry with the sympathy aroused by the wise & eloquent Isis, until his rage gushed forth like the floodwaters of the Nile.
“So long as that woman is present I, Seth, shall not be!”
“So long as that woman is present this case cannot end!”
“For each day that woman is present my wrath will only be sated by the death of one of you!”
And the great gods of the court bent like reeds in the wind before his mighty bellowing.
The great Re-Horakhty himself commanded that the court reconvene on an island in the midst of the river. The great Re-Horakhty himself commanded that Nemty the ferryman should convey no woman to this island.
But Isis the wise & eloquent was also Isis the powerful & cunning, and she was not to be denied so easily. She transformed herself into the form of an old woman, stooped under the weight of her years, carrying a bowl of gruel and wearing a single golden ring. And in this guise she came to the river, and to the boat of Nemty: “Come my child, carry me across the river! I go to bring my grandson his meal while he tends the family’s herds out on that island in the midst of the river.” But with the commands of the great Re-Horakhty himself and the bellowings of Seth ringing still in his ears the ferryman refused: “No, good mother, this cannot be. I am forbidden to carry any woman to that island, lest she be Isis whom Seth hates.” Undaunted Isis spoke persuasively of how unlikely it would be for a goddess to let herself been seen as an aged woman, and of how hungry the poor young herdsman would be if she couldn’t reach him. And as she spoke she let the golden ring on her wrinkled hand glisten and glimmer in the light of the sun, and the greed of Nemty reared its head. With his heart clouded by lust for the gold he permitted himself to be persuaded by the silken words of the wise & eloquent Isis and in payment for her crossing and his risk he took that glistening, glimmering ring.
On the island in the midst of the river sat the great gods of the court of Re-Horakhty at their meal, and with them sat Seth and Horus. And past them as they sat came a young peasant woman. Dressed simply in rough linen her beauty shone forth as radiant as the sun, but her face was clouded with care and with sorrow. Seth, heart full of desire, arose from his place and stopped the beautiful, sorrowful woman: “Why do you weep, oh beautiful one?”
She answered him thus: “Oh will you hear my tale and pass judgement, oh god great in knowledge of ma’at? I married a young herdsman and bore him a son. Our child grew strong, our herds increased and all was well in our lives. But now my husband is dead and all is full of despair! Though of an age to inherit my son is still young, and a man of the village has seen an opportunity. He threatens my son with violence, he wishes to take our cattle and our house, saying my son is not strong enough to stop him! How do you judge this case, oh god great in knowledge of ma’at?”
On hearing this story Seth, impetuous Seth, heart clouded with desire cried forth indignantly: “Can it ever be right to give a dead man’s cattle to a stranger when that man’s son yet lives?”
And Isis, for it was she, gave a great shriek of triumph and flung herself into the air as a falcon! “Condemned by your own words, brother Seth, you pass judgement on yourself! Horus son of Osiris yet lives, he must have his inheritance!” And Seth fled in tears at his own foolishness.
From his own mouth condemned Seth went once more before the great god Re-Horakhty himself and all the assembled court of the great gods, and now he found no supporters. From his own mouth condemned Seth was judged and bound to give up his throne to Horus, son of Osiris and rightful heir. From his own mouth condemned, yet not willing to submit, Seth cursed at the treachery of his sister Isis – but that, my friends, is a story for another day.
“Egyptian Myths” George Hart “The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends” Garry J. Shaw “Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley
This is one episode from “The Contendings of Seth & Horus”, a long narrative about the legal (and sometimes physical) battle between Seth and Horus for the kingship of Egypt. I’ve taken the basic story from the sources above, then retold the story in my own words.
History gets divided up into epochs with hindsight, which makes it easier to understand and remember but doesn’t always reflect how it would’ve seemed to the people who lived through it. The high level narrative we have for early Egyptian history is pretty straightforward – Narmer unifies the two kingdoms under one ruler, there are then the rulers of the Early Dynastic Period. This is followed by a transition to the Old Kingdom, which ends with a collapse into the disunity and chaos of the First Intermediate Period after nearly a thousand years of unified stability. Of course once you begin to look more closely at the evidence there are signs that it wasn’t as straightforward nor as peaceful as that narrative would suggest. For instance there’s a period where it looks like Egypt began to fragment, long before the First Intermediate Period, but the process is halted by a re-assertion of royal control across the whole country.
This hiccup doesn’t happen quite where you might think, either. Just looking at the narrative I’d expect any discontinuity to happen just before the Old Kingdom – in the same way that the Middle Kingdom or New Kingdom start with a reunification of Egypt. Instead it is the last ruler of the Second Dynasty who re-asserts royal power across the whole of Egypt. So this reunifying ruler is either a person before or whole dynasty (plus a person) before the start of the Old Kingdom, depending on whether one puts the Third Dynasty into the Early Dynastic Period or the Old Kingdom.
The whole period is rather murky and it’s hard to figure out what actually happened. Not only is it a very long time ago (around 4.5 thousand years ago) so most surviving inscriptions are short cryptic fragments, but the Egyptians also had a habit of not writing down bad things. If writing fixes something for eternity, then it makes sense to only record favourable events but that really doesn’t help later historians! So the evidence is also tangential, and not all scholars agree – for instance in his book “A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid” John Romer pours a certain amount of scorn on the idea of civil war during the Second Dynasty (although he doesn’t propose an alternative explanation as far as I could see).
Later king lists are fairly consistent in their lists of First Dynasty & Third Dynasty rulers, but the middle of the Second Dynasty has a lot of variation. This might suggest that there were differing viewpoints on which rulers were legitimate and which were rebels. There’s also a sudden oddity in the royal iconography. During this period rulers are generally referred to in inscriptions by their “Horus name“, which is written inside a schematic drawing of a palace facade (called a serekh) with a falcon (Horus) sitting on top of it. But there is one king whose name, Peribsen, is written inside a serekh with the Seth animal sitting on top of it. His successor, Khasekhem, writes his name in the traditional Horus topped serekh. Later in his reign he changes his name to Khasekhemwy and writes it in a serekh topped with both Horus and Seth together. Some scholars see this as evidence of a split in the country with a Seth faction and a Horus faction, and suggest this might be a historical seed from which the later myths of Horus and Seth fighting over the throne grew. Others (including Romer) think that’s a rather literal interpretation, and that perhaps it was just an attempted rebranding of the monarchy (I paraphrase). Personally I’m inclined to think that changes in iconography (or indeed branding) tend to mean something and combining the two symbols sends a message of unification. And you only need to make a propaganda point about that if it wasn’t unified before. Much like Henry VII’s use of the Tudor rose to combine emblems of the warring York & Lancaster factions in late 15th Century CE England.
The name change of Khasekhemwy is also indicative of some sort of conflict. He starts off as Khasekhem which means “the power has appeared”, and inscriptions with this name are primarily found in Hierakonpolis. After he changes his name inscriptions are found more widely across the country and the new name, Khasekhemwy, means “the two powers have appeared”. He also added an epithet to his name of “the Two Lords are at peace in him”. All of which suggests that he started off a more regional power in Upper Egypt and then unified the two lands again.
Further supporting evidence comes from inscriptions on two statues of Khasekhemwy, and on some stone vessels found in his tomb. The statues show the king seated wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt, and round the base are carved contorted bodies of slain enemies. The inscription on the statues gives the number of “northern enemies” who were killed. The stone vessels show the Upper Egyptian vulture goddess Nekhbet standing on a ring containing the word “rebel” with an inscription that reads “the year of fighting the northern enemy”. Again it’s tangential evidence – the northern enemies needn’t be in Egypt, after all – but it’s another piece of the jigsaw.
To counterbalance all of this there is the fact that Khasekhemwy wasn’t remembered by later Egyptians as one of the great unifiers of the Two Lands. When Montuhotep II does it some 600 years later to found the Middle Kingdom he’s remembered as a second Narmer, and Ahmose I is also venerated for reunifying the country to begin the New Kingdom. So this perhaps suggests that there was no civil war, and Khasekhemwy did nothing as impressive as the other unifiers. Or maybe Khasekhemwy was just overshadowed by his son Djoser whose tangible and visible construction of the first monumental stone building outweighs the political reunification of Egypt in the memory of the people.
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton “The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher “A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid” John Romer “The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson “The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw “Early Dynastic Egypt” Toby A. H. Wilkinson “Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson