Why Taweret is the ancient Egyptian hippo goddess we need now

Taweret has the body of a hippo, the legs of a lion, and the face of a crocodile, as though the ancient Egyptian gods were experimenting with cloning when they got into a little barley beer. She looks like the goddess who carried the hero’s luggage, made sure his spear was sharp and his beard clean—the cosmic sidekick. But her disarming, roly-poly appearance—like that of real hippopotami—is deceptive. Taweret was one of the most widely venerated gods in ancient Egypt, where the three animals that make up her look were considered the most ferocious in the kingdom, especially when their young were threatened.

In “Egypt’s Sunken Cities,” an exhibition of ancient Egyptian artifacts now at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, a statue of Taweret stands atop a series of pedestals so that you are almost eye to eye with this diminutive deity. And you can imagine the mythical world in which this goddess walked upright among the reeds of the Nile River, alert to threats, in perpetual protection mode. She was a god of the people, with no real state cult or temple but plenty of believers, at once ubiquitous and inconspicuous. Almost every home, especially one with young children or an expectant mother, would have had an amulet or figurine or feeding cup with her likeness, and a magician-priest might have drawn a circle in the sand around a woman in labor or a sleeping child with an ivory wand made from hippopotamus tusk. She was the god you turned to when your body, like that of Taweret herself, became rounded and full of fragile promise, when life was at stake.

In the great myth of ancient Egyptian religion, Taweret showed what she was made of. Osiris, king of Egypt, had been slain and dismembered by his brother Seth. And when Osiris’ son, Horus, rose to power, Seth sought to kill him too. But Taweret would have none of it. She held Seth down so Horus could take him out. (In the very ancient days of ancient Egypt, priests suggested that Horus and Seth were were sharing power in a kind of eternal battle, but as the cult of Horus became ascendent the story changed—Horus triumphed over Seth.)  Taweret, after all, was a god of fertility, of life. And life was better than the alternative.

For a time, there were even several overlapping hippo deities in ancient Egypt. Ipet, Reret, and Hedjet all played essentially the same role as Taweret, and may even have been aspects of the same deity. Redundancy was not an issue, in any case. Hippos were simply that admired and feared. Which eventually worked against them in real life.

Pharaohs, like all autocrats, were perpetually out to prove their ultimate power. And as the hippo was the most fearsome animal in their land, to slay one—or dozens—was to be even more powerful. The most powerful. And so the pharaohs waded into the wetlands of the Nile with assistants who would harpoon the animals again and again until a thrashing hippo opened its mouth to reveal its tusks—and its most vulnerable area.

The hippo is extinct now in Egypt, the result of hunting but also agriculture and industry and climate change, which has dried Egypt considerably in the five thousand years or so since hippo gods began showing up on amulets. The lion, too, once roamed Egypt—a couple different species, in fact. Both are now extinct there. In fact of the 37 large mammal species that once roamed Egypt, including rhinos and leopards and giraffes, only eight remain. The crocodile is the only surviving aspect of Taweret.

Taweret could save the children of thousands of humans, it seems, and the child of Egypt’s godly ruler. But humans could not save Taweret from themselves.

Pictured: Installation view of “Statue of Tawaret,” 664–610 BCE, graywacke, Luxor, Late period, Dynasty 26, in the reign of Psamtik I, Egyptian Museum, Cairo CG 39145, in “Egypt’s Sunken Cities” at Mia.