Faience Statuette of a Hippo

This statuette of a hippo was molded in faience, a crushed quartz glazed and fired at a relatively low temperature. Copper salts in the glaze impart the bright blue or blue-green color so characteristic of faience objects. Over the animal’s naturalistic shape, the craftsman painted lily plants that appear as a giant tattoo.

Small sculptures of hippos such as this one were placed in tombs in ancient Egypt as reminders of the Egyptians’ love of hunting. Each of the sculpted hippo’s legs was ritually broken in order to render it harmless in the afterlife.

Egyptian Faience Statuette of a Hippopotamus
Egyptian Faience Statuette of a Hippo

In ancient Egypt herds of hippos were a constant threat to farmers’ fields. The first kings hunted hippos in the marshes and eventually drove them far south into Upper Egypt.

Hippos became associated with chaos, and the hunt for hippos became a metaphor for how the kings of ancient Egypt could conquer evil.

The ancient Egyptians believed that the hippopotamus also had negative traits and could evoke chaotic forces because of the danger they pose to humans in the wild. So their legs were snapped off the statuettes before placing them in tombs, ensuring that the hippopotamus would not chase and eat the soul of the deceased.

Middle Kingdom, 13th Dynasty, ca. 1783-1640 BC. Made of Egyptian faience. 3 3/4 x 7 1/4 x 2 7/8 in. (9.5 x 18.4 x 7.3 cm). Now the Saint Louis Art Museum. 242:1952