The Beauty and The Beast - The Hippo as a Symbol of Power and Fear in Ancient Egypt

While most of us have only ever seen a hippopotamus on TV or in the safe confines of a safari park, for the Ancient Egyptians, the animal found a permanent home in visual culture and mythology.

Despite sharing territory, hippopotami and the Ancient Egyptians had a complicated relationship. On the one hand, the creatures killed and maimed many civilians whilst roaming wild, and had an appetite for top vegetarian cuisine (in the form of farmers’ crops), often devastating harvests and livelihoods.

On the other hand, hippos lived in the murky waters of the Nile - a national symbol of life and fertility - and were respected for their power and strength.

The most prominent way the Egyptians incorporated these animals into their visual culture, was through the crafting of statuettes and amulets. Made with great care and attention, these earthenware objects were often decorated with botanical imagery to symbolise the hippos’ lives in the rivers, and placed in the tombs of important figures and dignitaries.

Hipppotamus (“William”), 1961 - 1878 BC, Faience | © The Met Museum | Creative Commons Licence CC0 1.0

It’s thought that these hippo statues were placed inside tombs to safely guide the deceased through dangerous waters on their way to the afterlife.

The Egyptians passionately believed in their power - so much so that the legs of the hippos were often broken off before being put in place (as with this one above - its legs have been restored), to make sure the hippo didn’t come to life and harm its entombed companion.

This illustrates just how formidable the animals were in Ancient Egyptian society. Whilst civilians sought to capture and emulate their power, they never forgot about the huge threat they posed.

Hippopotamus, 1981 - 1650 BC, Faience | © The Met Museum | Creative Commons Licence CC0 1.0

As well as their heavy involvement with burial rituals, hippos’ behaviours were studied, and connected with representations of the gods. The Egyptians took particular notice of the animals’ fierce protection of their young and the ominous way they sunk down and back up again in the water (which they attributed to mirroring the movements of the sun). This lead to them being associated with many gods ranging from Seth (the god of chaos) to Taweret (the goddess thought to protect mothers and children).

When looking at these creations, it’s almost impossible to believe they were created thousands of years ago - they wouldn’t look out of place in a modern-day ceramicist’s studio! The care and dedication that went into producing these works of art is so evident, and a true gift to artists, historians and museum visitors. It’s as if we’ve been built a window into an Ancient Egyptian world.

Sources/Further Reading:

Delange, E. The Louvre, Available at: https://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/hippopotamus-figurine , (Accessed: 07/08/2018).

The Met Museum, Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544227?sortBy=Relevance&ft=egyptian+animal&offset=0&rpp=100&pos=93 , (Accessed: 07/08/2018).

The Met Museum, Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/547746?sortBy=Date&where=Africa&ft=hippo&offset=20&rpp=20&pos=25 , (Accessed: 07/08/2018).


Stünkel, I. (2017). The Met Museum, Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hipi/hd_hipi.htm , (Accessed, 07/08/2018).