Egyptian Hippopotamus

Gallery 2, ground floor


Focus on the Object

This clay hippo dates to the Naqada IIb time period (about 3500BC) and was found in a grave at Hu (Upper Egypt).

The Hippo in Ancient Egypt

Hippopotami were found all over Egypt in Predynastic times and were extensively hunted with harpoons for their meat and ivory ‘tusks’. Female hippos accompanying their calves could react instantly to any threat - even crocodiles, which they could bite in half! An angry hippo must have been a formidable sight!

Although they were respected in the Predynastic Period, we do not know if hippos had any divine associations at that time. Only later do we meet ‘Taweret’ (‘The Great One’) and other local hippo-goddesses, who were believed to have powers associated with fertility and childbirth. Male hippos, by contrast, were associated with the god Seth and his destructive and negative characteristics.

Materials and Manufacture
This hippo was hand-modelled in clay (probably basic Nile silt) with chaff added to temper the clay and to make it more workable. The hippo would have been placed over an open fire and the chaff would have been burned out - hence the cavities you can see on the surface of the hippo.

The Afterlife

This hippo was placed at the west end of a grave at Hu. We are not certain of the significance of this, but the practice does tally with a later belief that the dead person would join the sun in its daily journey - finding new life in the daily rising to the east, and sinking in the west to travel through the Underworld at night. The care taken to provide the dead with goods suggests that there was already concern in this early period to provide them with sustenance and clothing in the next life. This hippo pot could have been beneficial in several ways - as a very prestigious item of pottery, as a model of a source of food, or perhaps as an animal already attributed with the powers to help procreation and the safe bearing of children.