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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

William the Faience Hippopotamus

William the Faience Hippopotamus

William the Faience Hippopotamus

This Egyptian faience hippopotamus from the Middle Kingdom of Egypt was discovered in a shaft associated with the tomb chapel of “The Steward, Senbi” at Meir, Upper Egypt, and dates from c. 1961 – 1878 B.C. This blue statuette may have held some religious significance, as Hippopotamus were sometimes associated with one of the forms of the god Seth. Black paint has been used to enhance the eyes and to decorate the body with lotus flowers, buds, and leaves symbolising its natural surroundings of the Nile.

The hippopotamus was one of the most feared animals for ancient Egyptians and, in this case, three of its legs were purposely broken to prevent it from harming the deceased in the afterlife. Hippopotamuses were considered dangerous and represented the destructive power of the natural world, chaos, and evil. The museum has since restored these legs

This small figurine was made using Egyptian faience which is composed mainly of silica (sand or crushed quartz) along with small amounts of sodium and calcium. Faience was porous and malleable and could be shaped by hand or cast in moulds. Although not pottery on a strict definition since it has no clay, faience is often regarded as pottery. Faience is considered a non-clay ceramic and was a precursor to glazed clay-based ceramics, such as earthenware and stoneware.

In 1931 a published article about the hippo for the British humour magazine Punch referred to this artefact with affection as “William.” The Met museum republished the story in the Museum’s Bulletin, and the name, William, caught on and became the popular name for this figure. In 1936 the Met released a book entitled “William and his Friends: A Group of Notable Creatures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” Since then, William has continued to appear in some museum logos and museum merchandise.

A favourite statuette in Ancient Egyptian Art

A hippopotamus was a favourite statuette in Ancient Egyptian art. Over fifty blue faience hippopotamus statuettes can be found in museums and collections across the world, varying in size from about nine to twenty-two centimetres in length. Ancient Egyptians believed them to be associated with fertility and rebirth.

A blue faience hippopotamus can also be seen at the Brooklyn Museum; unfortunately, it doesn’t have legs, they have been deliberately broken off thousands of years ago. The ancient Egyptians believed that 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.

Reflections

  • Three legs on this statue were broken deliberately to reduce the threat of this dangerous creäture to the well-being of the deceased. What rituals do we have today, that will seem strange to observers two thousand years from today?
  • Did you know that this four-thousand-year-old Hippopotamus serves as an informal mascot of the Metropolitan Museum of Art?
  • Is there a better mascot for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC?

Explore the Egyptian Art

William the Faience Hippopotamus

  • Title:             Faience Hippopotamus or Standing Hippopotamus
  • Date:            Circa 1961–1878 B.C.
  • Period:         Middle Kingdom
  • Dynasty:       Dynasty 12
  • Reign:          Senwosret I to Senwosret II
  • Medium:      Faience
  • Dimensions: L. 20 cm (7 7/8 in.); W. 7.5 cm (2 15/16 in.); H. 11.2 cm (4 7/16 in.)
  • Museum:    Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET, New York, USA

Explore the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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MET Ancient Near Eastern Art Collection

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MET European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Collection

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“Every man is rich in excuses to safeguard his prejudices,
his instincts, and his opinions.”

– Egyptian Proverbs

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Photo Credit: [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

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