The hippopotamus was feared by ancient Egyptians, and like other feared and respected animals in Egypt, it was associated with certain powers and woven into myths. The ancient Egyptians associated the hippopotamus with a deity -- two, in fact: One for the female hippopotamus and one for the male.
Female hippos are fiercely protective of their young. A mother hippo spends much of her life raising and training her offspring. Misbehaving young hippos are quickly brought into line by mama's strong tusks, and anyone who dares come near her little ones has to get past her wide mouth and sharp teeth. Female hippopotamuses even babysit each other's offspring.
The Goddess Taweret
The ancient Egyptians took note of the traits of mother hippos and used them in the creation of the household goddess Taweret, or Taurt, who was depicted as having the head and body of a pregnant hippo, with the legs and mane of a lion and a crocodile's tail. Small statues of the goddess were often placed in homes with the expectation that Taweret would keep pregnant mothers and their children safe, or with the hope that she would increase fertility. She was also thought to be able to frighten away evil spirits, and her figure was sometimes worn around the neck as an amulet. The Egyptian city of Thebes was named after Taweret.
Male hippopotamuses are dominant. They protect the herd's territory and make decisions about which males get to mate with which females. But they are not as ferocious as the females. In fact, when a male hippo approaches a female, he lies down on his belly until she accepts him, according to PBS' "Nature." Still, this doesn't mean that they aren't dangerous, and the ancient Egyptians were well aware of that fact.
The God Set
Male hippos were associated with the god Set, who was the god of wind and storms. A minor god who could not reproduce, Set was depicted as rather powerless, a god who was at one point chained by his wife -- who happened to be the powerful Taweret. Set was able to take the form of a hippo whenever he chose, as well as the forms of other animals considered dangerous by the Egyptians. Set was often also associated with the color red, and was sometimes depicted as a part-red hippo. This could be because hippos secrete a red substance that has antibiotic properties and protects hippos from the sun.
- The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: Teacher Resource Center -- Ancient Egypt, Animals
- Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University, Odyssey Online: Egypt Mythology -- Taweret
- PBS Nature: Hippo Beach -- Hippo Goddess
- Tour Egypt: Set (Seth), God of Storms, Slayer of Apep, Equal to and Rival of Horus
- BBC News: Hippo's "Magic" Sweat Explained
- Anup Shah/Photodisc/Getty Images