ART FROM ANCIENT LANDS

Middle Kingdom Faince Sculpture of a Recumbant Hippopotamus - X.0180
Origin:
Egypt
Circa: 19 th Century BC
Dimensions: 2.75" (7.0cm) high x 3.125" (7.9cm) wide
Collection: Egyptian
Style: Middle Kingdom
Medium: Faience


This image of the hippopotamus depicts the heavy, lumbering beast at ease as if it is resting on a bank of the Nile River with its head nestled between its fore-legs. In keeping with ancient Egyptian artistic conventions, the craftsmen have captured the essence of this mammal in a remarkably abstract manner with restrained modeling within a highly modernistic abstract design. Notice how subtly the details of the head are indicated with the slight depression between the eyes and the nostrils in the animal’s snout. Note as well the hieroglyphically designed eyes and their eyebrows. These observations of telling details have not been colored naturalistically because the hippo’s entire body is a turquoise-green in color, and that green surface has been enhanced with the addition floral motifs done in black glaze in a linear, calligraphic style. The turquoise color of the surface and the profusion of floral motifs rendered in black glaze may be taken to symbolize the Nilotic environment in which the hippopotamus lived and prospered.
In general the hippopotamus, particularly the male of the species, was regarded by the ancient Egyptians as a representative of chaos because he often trampled and destroyed crops, as this famous passage from a didactic treatise of New Kingdom date reveals, “…Do you not recall the fate of the farmer when the harvest is registered? The worm has taken half the grain, the hippopotamus has devoured the rest…” Furthermore, the hippopotamus would impede travel on the Nile River and was widely feared by the ancient Egyptians because it posed a hazard to all boats trying to navigate waters in which it lived.

As a result, the hippopotamus was greatly feared because the ancient Egyptians believed that their journey to the Hereafter on the nocturnal counterpart of the Nile River would be thwarted by the hippopotamus just as this mammal threatened boats on the Nile in real life. It was doubtless for this reason that images of the hippopotamus, such as this one, were interred in tombs. However, these funerary images of the hippopotamus were intentionally damaged before interment with the deceased when their legs were broken off and discarded. This intentional damaging of the statuette was ritually motivated to insure that all hippopotami encountered by the deceased in the Hereafter would be similarly incapacitated, by means of such sympathetic magic, so that the journey toward eternal life would not be thwarted by this beast. The lack of uniform glaze on the surface of this animal would be consistent with the ancient Egyptian desire to render the hippopotamus harmless in the Hereafter.

However, the ancient Egyptians were ambivalent toward their symbols and often adopted a polyvalent approach with regard to individual motifs. As a result, the turquoise green of such statuettes is itself a symbol of resurrection and renewal as were species of the floral kingdom. Consequently, the immobilized figure of the hippopotamus was still beneficial to the deceased because its color represented the life-giving Nile River and its floral motifs in black glaze suggested both fertility and rebirth.

Scholars have long maintained that these figures of the hippopotamus are enormously popular with art collectors. Most of the known examples depict the mammal standing on all fours; a few represent him sitting on his hind legs with his head lifted and jaws open as he roars. There is a smaller number still of such statuettes in this pose, which are prized for their charming depiction of the essence of one of the most majestic denizens of the ancient Nilotic marshes.

Jannine Bourriau, Pharaohs and Mortals. Egyptian Art in the Middle Kingdom [exhibition catalogue] (Cambridge 1988), pages 119-120, catalogue number 111, for a discussion of such statuettes of the hippopotamus in Middle Kingdom contexts.

Hans Wolfgang Müller, “Eine viertausend Jahre alte Nilpferdfigure aus ägyptischer Fayence,” PANTHEON 33 (1975), pages 287-292, for one of the most felicitous essays on these wonderful figures of the hippopotamus which features a reclining example like the one under discussion.

Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson, British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (London1995), pages 129-130, for a succinct summary of the animal and the Egyptian attitudes toward it.

- (X.0180)


 

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