Monday, 24 July 2017


“Childbirth is more admirable than conquest, more amazing than self-defense, and as courageous as either one.” - Gloria Steinem 

In Ancient Egyptian religion, Taweret (also spelled Taurt, Tuat, Taouris, Tuart, Ta-weret, Tawaret, Twert, and Taueret, and in Greek, Θουέρις “Thouéris” and Toeris) is the protective ancient Egyptian goddess of childbirth and fertility. The name “Taweret” (Tȝ-wrt) means “she who is great” or simply “great one”, a common pacificatory address to dangerous deities. The deity is typically depicted as a bipedal female hippopotamus with feline attributes, pendulous female human breasts, and the back of a Nile crocodile. She commonly bears the epithets “Lady of Heaven”, “Mistress of the Horizon”, “She Who Removes Water”, “Mistress of Pure Water”, and “Lady of the Birth House”.

From her ideological conception, Taweret was closely grouped with (and is often indistinguishable from) several other protective hippopotamus goddesses: Ipet, Reret, and Hedjet. Some scholars even interpret these goddesses as aspects of the same deity, considering their universally shared role as protective household goddesses.

The other hippopotamus goddesses have names that bear very specific meanings, much like Taweret (whose name is formed as a pacificatory address intended to calm the ferocity of the goddess): Ipet’s name (“the Nurse”) demonstrates her connection to birth, child rearing, and general caretaking, and Reret’s name (“the Sow”) is derived from the Egyptians’ classification of hippopotami as water pigs. However, the origin of Hedjet’s name (“the White One”) is not as clear and could justly be debated. Evidence for the cult of hippopotamus goddesses exists from the time of the Old Kingdom (c. 2686 – 2181 BCE) in the corpus of ancient Egyptian funerary texts entitled the Pyramid Texts.

It was not until the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055–1650 BCE) that Taweret became featured more prominently as a figure of religious devotion. Her image adorns apotropaic magical objects, the most notable of which being a common type of “wand” or “knife” carved from hippopotamus ivory that was likely used in rituals associated with birth and the protection of infants. Similar images appear also on children’s feeding cups, once again demonstrating Taweret’s integral role as the patron goddess of child rearing.

Quite contrarily, she also took on the role of a funerary deity in this period, evidenced by the commonplace practice of placing hippopotami decorated with marsh flora in tombs and temples. Some scholars believe that this practice demonstrates that hippopotamus goddesses facilitated the process of rebirth after death, just as they aided in earthly births. These statues, then, assisted the deceased’s passing into the afterlife.

With the rise of personal piety in the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1069 BCE), household deities like Taweret gained even more importance. Taweret’s image has been found on an array of household objects, demonstrating her central role in the home. In fact, such objects were even found at Amarna from the reign of Akhenaten (c. 1352–1336 BCE), who promulgated the monotheistic cult of Aten.

Taweret’s survival in the artistic corpus found at Akenaten’s capital demonstrates her overwhelming significance in daily life. In this time period, her role as a funerary deity was strengthened, as her powers became considered not only life-giving, but regenerative as well. Various myths demonstrate her role in facilitating the afterlives of the deceased as the nurturing and purifying “Mistress of Pure Water”. However, Taweret and her fellow hippopotamus goddesses of fertility should not be confused with Ammit, another composite hippopotamus goddess who gained prominence in the New Kingdom. Ammit was responsible for devouring the unjust before passing into the afterlife. Unlike Ammit, the other hippopotamus goddesses were responsible for nourishment and aid, not destruction.

Taweret’s image served a functional purpose on a variety of objects. The most notable of these objects are amulets, which protected mothers and children from harm. Such amulets, appearing before 3000 BCE, were popular for most of ancient Egyptian history. She also consistently appeared on household furniture throughout history, including chairs, stools, and headrests.

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