ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian bestiary: Hippos
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Tawret     The goddess Tauret was represented as a hippo with human breasts standing on its back legs. She was both a protective deity and a symbol for female fertility. At the same time Seth, as the evil one, was sometimes depicted as a hippo too.

    An impressive and dangerous animal, the hippo (Hippopotamus amphibius) was indigenous to Egypt. According to Manetho, Menes

was carried off by a hippopotamus and perished
Tomb of Meruka, Hippo hunt     Because of its tendency to graze on the newly grown wheat, overturning boats, hurting and even killing people, the hippo was often hunted and is extinct in the lower part of the Nile today.

Hippo hunt
Tomb of Meruka
Courtesy Jon Bodsworth

    In Lower Egypt there was a Hippo Feast since the Old Kingdom, during which the king as Horus killed a white hippo, identified with Seth. This tradition is reflected in New Kingdom wall paintings depicting hippo hunts. In the temple at Edfu Horus pierces the wretched one in the shape of a hippo with a spear.

    Herodotus, not much of a naturalist, described it as follows:

The river-horse is sacred in the district of Papremis, but for the other Egyptians he is not sacred; and this is the appearance which he presents: he is four-footed, cloven-hoofed like an ox, flat-nosed, with a mane like a horse and showing teeth like tusks, with a tail and voice like a horse and in size as large as the largest ox; and his hide is so exceedingly thick that when it has been dried shafts of javelins are made of it.
Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg
    Diodorus Siculus had this to say about the hippos:
The four-legged animal which is called Hippo is at least 5 cubits long, and it has cleft hooves like cattle and 3 tusks on either side, larger than those of wild pigs. But it has the ears, the tail and the voice of a horse. Its bodily structure is not dissimilar to that of the elephant. Among all the animals it has the strongest skin, as it lives both in the river and on land. During the day it stays in the water and moves where it is deepest, at night it grazes in the cornfields and meadows. If this animal brought forth many young every year agriculture in Egypt would be utterly destroyed.
The hippopotamus is only caught through the concerted exertions of many people who try to hit it with iron harpoons. Wherever it shows itself they row their vehicles towards it, surround it and wound it with a kind of piercing projectile with iron barbs. They tie the end of a rope to one of the hooks which has taken hold and keep it taught until the animal has lost much blood and is completely weakened.
Its meat is tough and difficult to digest. Of the viscera nothing can be eaten, neither entrails nor intestines.
Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library, Vol.1 chapter 35
Faience hippo Faience hippo
    A faience hippo similar to the one shown on the left was found in the tomb of the steward Senbi II at Meir with its legs broken off in order to prevent it from hurting the deceased. During the Middle Kingdom hippo figurines were often placed close to the dead, in the hope of facilitating his rebirth. Hippos, like crocodiles, frogs and other amphibian animals, were symbols of regeneration because they disappeared under the water only to resurge after a while.

- -    Eastern Desert Rock Art: harpooned hippo (Brian Yare's site)
© 2002
Changed: March 2006