Hippopotamus figurine, Second Intermediate Period, Seventeenth Dynasty, 1650-1550 BCE, Egypt, Thebes, Dra Abu el-Naga, Louvre Museum
This benevolent-looking hippopotamus slips into the marshes, taking on their colour and half-engulfed in water plants. Bright-blue Egyptian faience figures of hippopotami such as this were placed in the tombs of high-ranking civil servants toward the end of the Middle Kingdom.
This bright-blue Egyptian faience hippopotamus, depicted ambling along, seems to slip into the water amids the water plants that form its decoration. Its excellent condition and large size make this an outstanding example of its kind: some fifty faience hippopotami, varying in size from 9 to 23 centimeters in length, are now scattered around the world. The calm, benign appearance of the hippopotamus has gained it such popularity that this blue figurine now conjures up the world of ancient Egypt and the Nile in our collective imagination.
A fresh appraisal
The story of this hippopotamus, which has been famous and popular for many years, has now been traced. In the late nineteenth century the egyptologists of the Cairo Museum, wanting duplicates of the finest works in their collection to be put on display in France, sold the hippopotamus to the Louvre. Yet this figurine has a unique feature: the four legs are connected by a strip of faience and rest on a plinth, making it the only one of its kind. Following archive research and a technical study the plinth was removed, as it did not belong to the original work and gave it the appearance of a modern ornament. We also know from its archeological context that it dates from the Seventeenth Dynasty, in the late Second Intermediate Period.
An object for the afterlife
The hippopotamus was buried in a tomb with funerary furniture comprising a coffin, statues of the deceased, a large number of vases, and a few toiletry items. It therefore served a function in the inner chamber of the tomb. The painted motifs varied from one hippopotamus to another, with water plants sometimes being combined with butterflies and birds, but the decoration of the hindquarters almost always consisted of a lotus flower in full bloom. Depicted half-submerged, the hippopotamus evokes the primordial waters of chaos, the Nun. According to an Egyptian creation myth, on the first morning after the birth of the world, the sun emerged from a lotus flower: "Every being is born from the Nun." The function of this hippopotamus statuette, placed near the mummy, was therefore to prefigure rebirth in the afterlife through the power of imitation.