Tracing Egypt’s lost custom of kings killing hippos

Stephen Nartey August 26, 2022
Photo credit: GETTY IMAGES

In Egyptian culture and belief system, Hippopotamus is regarded as a totem. The mammal’s unpredictable nature and the danger it poses have made it a revered object of art in Egyptian mythology. 

The cultural representation of the hippopotamus is one of an animal that maims its victims and destroys farmlands. Its decline in numbers has been attributed to the intense hunting of their species for meat, skin and fat. Aside from the sport of hunting them down, Egyptians in ancient times used their teeth for ornaments and traditional purposes. 

Arts during the predynastic era have depictions of a man in a small boat with spear like bar piercing the mammal. According to the Department of Egyptian Art, the act of killing the hippopotamus was viewed as bravery, a symbol of strength and power. 

It, therefore, became a pre-requisite tradition during 3000 B.C for Egyptian kings to kill hippopotamus to signify the extent of their power and strength. The symbolic value underpinning this act stemmed from the belief that the mammal represented chaos and unrest. 

The king who is able to kill a hippopotamus during his reign is considered to have the character to prevail over chaos and ensure order under his rule. 

Oral history has it in Egypt that some kings kept hippopotamuses in reserve and killed them when it became necessary to prove their bravery and fulfill their kingly obligations. According to Egypt mythology, the hippopotamus represents the god Seth, who is viewed as evil and defeated by the god Horus. 

In the 100 B.C, this depiction of Seth and Horus emerged strongly making it expedient for kings to kill hippopotamus to cement their legitimacy and authority. Isabela Stunkel of the Department of Egyptian Art noted that despite the negative representation of the creature, it is perceived positively in some circles. 

According to her, because hippopotamuses were frequently seen in the River Nile, they represent a source of life. This deduction stems from the creature’s characteristics of dipping itself deep in water for some minutes. Biblical baptism connotes being submerged in water and brought up after a brief moment to spiritually signify a rebirth. This act by the hippopotamus has a linkage to this philosophy of rebirth. 

Stunkel observed that one fascinating attribute of the hippopotamus is its ability to discern sunset by roaring and practicing the same action when it’s sunset. This is interpreted to mean the creature baying at the sun and reminding the Egyptians of times and seasons. 

Some Egyptians began wearing amulets containing parts of a hippopotamus under the belief that they would be spiritually fortified and have a rebirth in aspects of their life. 

She added that female goddesses have taken on the image of the hippopotamus because of the fierce way it protects their young ones. The gods Ipet and Reret have been carved in the image of a hippopotamus. 

Egyptologists have pointed out that female hippos are associated with good while male ones are associated with evil. 

Egyptian mythology explains that the only time evil has been associated with the female hippopotamus is when the goddess Ammut who is part animal punishes men for their evil deeds on earth. 

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