L. 3.9 cm. The better known statuettes of hippopotami are those in faience dating to the Middle Kingdom. Of the roughly 50 examples that are now known to have survived, many have a clear turquoise blue glaze, often with depictions of flora and fauna applied in iron or magnesium oxide.1 There are various theories about the meaning of these hippopotami. According to one, the statuettes are a derivation of the hippopotamus hunt which was illustrated on the walls of tombs of Old Kingdom high officials and was based on what was originally a royal ritual. Some of the statuettes appear to have a leg or the head deliberately broken off, which might have been intended to neutralise the potentially evil powers. Another theory emphasizes the symbolism of rebirth. The blue-green colour would then depict the primeval waters, and together with the occasionally prominent lotus flowers would refer to the powers of creation. A third view sees the statuettes more as part of a group. After all, sleeping or resting hippos are also known and there are other animal figures from the same period, including mice, calves, dogs, cats and monkeys. The statuettes were thus made simply to amuse the elite. However, should the faience hippos have a purely funerary function, then this must only have lasted for a very short period of time.
Hippopotami in bronze have also survived.2 These date from the Late Period and are considered to be part of a composite representation in which the falcon god Horus attacks the hippopotamus – the earthly manifestation of Seth – with a spear.
The expressive small hippo in this collection probably dates from the Ptolemaic Period. It represents a frightened animal in an aggressive pose with its tail tight between its back legs, while the wide-open mouth emphasizes this state of ‘fight or flight’.
Only a few other examples of hippopotamus amulets are known. One of them in pale green faience is now in the British Museum.3 It is about 2 cm in length and the hippo is warily walking on a reed mat. The suspension loop is facing lengthwise to the back of the animal and it has five rings. With two other examples, both without bases, the suspension loops are facing the opposite way as is the case with our amulet.4 As for the colour and texture of the material, our small hippo is closely related to an amuletic representation of Taweret in glassy faience.5 Earlier erroneously identified as glass6 this statuette has now been dated to the 30th Dynasty. Laboratory tests have confirmed that our amulet is also of glassy faience. This may well point to a concurrent dating, supported by the short revival of this rare material at that time.
1. F.D. Friedman, Gifts of the Nile: Ancient Egyptian Faience (London 1998), nos. 142–145.
2. L.M. Berman, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Catalogue of Egyptian Art (Cleveland/New York 1999), no. 380; J.F. Aubert and L Aubert, Bronzes et or égyptiens (Paris 2001), 327, Pl. 44.
3. C.A.R. Andrews, Amulets of Ancient Egypt (London 1994), fig. 28c.
4. Cf. Sotheby’s New York, December 2001, Lot 7, carnelian; Bonhams London, October 2002, Lot 438, glassy faience.
5. N.C. Strudwick, The Legacy of Lord Carnarvon, Miniatures from Ancient Egypt and the Valley of the Kings, The University of Wyoming Art Museum (Laramie 2001), no.28, Pl. XI. Also published in Burlington Fine Arts Club . Catalogue of an Exhibition of Ancient Egyptian Art (London 1922), 45, Pl. XLIX, no. 21.