The imposing, sometimes deadly, hippopotamus features prominently in ancient Egyptian art and myths, as it does in the ecosystem of the Nile River itself. While other animals, particularly cats and birds, dominate much Egyptian mythological art, the hippo is associated with two different deities, with complementary symbols of fertility and death.

Taweret the Protector

Egyptian homes often featured small statues of gods on altars and as part of practical household goods; these were thought to invoke the deities’ favor or protection. One of the most popular, according to the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University, was Taweret, who protected mothers and young children, particularly during childbirth. Taweret had the head of a hippo, with the heavy breasts and stomach of a pregnant woman.

Set the Destroyer

The same traits that make the female hippopotamus such a powerful protector can also make it a frightening opponent. Although Set, god of evil and death, does not take the form of a hippo, it is one of his symbols; hippo-headed Taweret is his consort. This association with evil forms the basis of one of the important Egyptian stories, represented in temple art and reenacted ritually: the hippopotamus hunt by the great god Horus. As recounted by art historian Hope B. Werness, the story follows a group of renegades who escaped Horus and turned into crocodiles and hippos, so they could attack the sun god on the river. Horus finally defeated them, but only after they had caused much trouble.