Hippopotamus amphibius is an underrated creature in the modern era. Aside from seeing them at the zoo, or hearing about the occasional hippopotamus attack (which most people take with a grain of salt even though hippos are called the most dangerous animal in Africa), few outside of the realm of zoology pay much attention to them. I cry foul – hippos are interesting and have many qualities worth learning about. However, I’ll leave it to you to learn more about the hippo on your own. Here I’m going to be focusing on the hippopotamus as known by the ancient Egyptians.
To start, let’s look at its name. Hippopotamus (“riverhorse”) is Greek in origin; hippos (“horse”) + potamos (“river, rushing water”). Some etymologists note also that the word “behemoth” might be hippo-related too; the Hebrew word b’hemoth being a folk translation of the Egyptian word pehemau, meaning “water ox”. According to Geraldine Pinch, “…The Egyptians saw hippopotami as water pigs rather than water horses…” Egyptian Mythology, p. 142.
Whether water ox or water pig, the hippopotamus had some interesting associations for the ancient Egyptians. Set turned into a hippopotamus during his battle with Heru; when one looks at the territoriality and aggression of hippos in the wild, this association is not surprising. Ammut, who devours souls not in balance with Ma’at, has the hindquarters of a hippopotamus. The hippopotamus constellation consists of Taweret and other deities standing guard over Set’s bull form according to sky maps from AE. But, the hippopotamus in goddess form is also a force for motherhood and protector of children. Amulets of Taweret were commonly used for protection and in Her form of Great One She is seen driving forces away from the Divine Child, Heru. She appears in the birth chamber with Bes and, in at least one form, has the full breasts and pregnant belly of a mother about to give birth. Again, when one looks at hippos in the wild, this picture of motherly force is not surprising; even crocodiles steer clear of hippo calves for fear of their mothers.
The hippopotamus goddess has ties both to Nut (as Sow) and Mehet-Weret (as ox/celestial cow). She is the life-giving aspects of the Nun and the fertile marshes and represents the complete cycle of life, from birth through death. Life rises, thrives, and returns to the waters. She is Fire in the Water; She is the Space between the Stars.
Dua Nut! Dua Mehet-Weret! Dua Taweret!