In Ancient Egyptian religion, Taweret (also spelt Taurt, Tuat, Tuart, Ta-weret, Tawaret, Twert and Taueret, and in Greek, Θουέρις – Thouéris, Thoeris, Taouris 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 standard pacificatory address to dangerous deities. The deity is typically depicted as a bipedal female hippopotamus with feline attributes, pendulous female human breasts, the limbs and paws of a lion, and the back and tail 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”.
History and development
Archaeological evidence demonstrates that hippopotamuses inhabited the Nile well before the dawn of the Early Dynastic Period (before 3000 BCE). These creatures’ violent and aggressive behaviour intrigued the people who inhabited the region, leading the ancient Egyptians to persecute and revere them. From a very early date, male hippopotamuses were thought to be manifestations of chaos; consequently, they were overcome in royal hunting campaigns intended to demonstrate the king’s divine power. However, female hippopotamuses were revered as manifestations of apotropaic deities, as they studiously protected their young from harm. Protective amulets bearing the likenesses of female hippopotamuses have been found dating back to the Predynastic period (c. 3000–2686 BCE). The tradition of making and wearing these amulets continued throughout the history of Egypt into the Ptolemaic Kingdom and the Roman period (c. 332 BCE – 390 CE).
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 precise 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”) originates 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. As maternal deities, these goddesses served to nurture and protect the Egyptian people, both royal (as seen in the Pyramid Texts) and non-royal. Spell 269 in the Pyramid Texts mentions Ipet and succinctly demonstrates her nurturing role; the spell announces that the deceased king will suck on the goddess’s “white, dazzling, sweet milk” when he ascends to the heavens.
It was not until the Middle Kingdom of Egypt (c. 2055–1650 BCE) that Taweret became featured more prominently as a figure of religious devotion. Her image adorns 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 also appear on children’s feeding cups, demonstrating Taweret’s integral role as the patron goddess of child-rearing. Quite contrarily, she also played 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. These statues, then, assisted the deceased’s passing into the afterlife. Some scholars believe that this practice demonstrates that hippopotamus goddesses facilitated the process of rebirth after death, just as they aided in earthly births.
With the rise of popular piety in the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1069 BCE), household deities like Taweret gained even more importance. Taweret’s image has been found on various household objects, demonstrating her central role in the home. Such entities were even found at Amarna from the reign of Akhenaten (c. 1352–1336 BCE), a pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty who reorganised ancient Egyptian religion into a henotheistic religion focused on the worship of the sun disc, called the Aten.
The worship of many traditional gods was proscribed during this period, so Taweret’s survival in the artistic corpus found at the Aten’s capital demonstrates her overwhelming significance in daily life. In this period, her role as a funerary deity was strengthened, as her powers became considered life-giving and regenerative. 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.
In the Ptolemaic and Roman periods (c. 332 BCE – 390 CE), Taweret maintained a central role in daily Egyptian life. In either the latter half of the Late Period (c. 664–332 BCE) or the early Ptolemaic period, a temple dedicated to Ipet was built at Karnak. This enigmatic temple was thought to witness the daily birth of the sun god from the hippopotamus goddesses that dwelled there. The sun god (Amun-Re) was conceived as having multiple divine mothers. By this later period in Egyptian history, Taweret and the other hippopotamus goddesses were included in this body of solar mothers. Taweret’s image also appeared outside temples dedicated to other deities due to her apotropaic ability to ward off evil forces. Outside of temple settings, the household cult of the goddesses remained strong, and amulets bearing their likenesses peaked in popularity during these years.
Outside of Egypt
Taweret developed a significant cult outside of Egypt as well. In the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055–1650 BCE), economic and minimal political contact with the Asiatic cultures of the Levant led to the exchange of ideologies. Taweret was adopted into Levantine religions, serving the same maternal role in these foreign pantheons.
Due to communication between Levantine coastal towns and Mediterranean localities, Taweret also became an integral part of the Minoan religion in Crete, where it is known as the Minoan Genius.
This image spread from Crete to mainland Greece, where the goddess was featured in palatine art in Mycenae. Like in Egypt, her appearance was featured most prominently on protective amulets. However, this image was altered slightly from the Egyptian one, as she was folded into the corpus of Minoan iconography in an artistic style congruent with other Minoan images.
The goddess was also adopted by the Nubians, the empire that lay directly south of Egypt in what is now Sudan. Like her Minoan counterpart, the Nubian Taweret became a part of the Nubian pantheon in the late Middle Kingdom of Egypt. She was featured in royal rituals at Kerma, the empire’s capital.
There is a connection to the Phoenician goddess of pregnancy, Dea Gravida.
Although Ipet (aka Apet or Aptet) is mentioned in the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts, and Taweret is seen frequently on Middle Kingdom ritual objects, hippopotamus goddesses did not gain a significant role in Egyptian mythology until the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1069 BCE). Taweret is featured in some versions of a popular and widespread myth in which the Eye of Ra becomes angry with her father and retreats to Nubia in the form of a lioness. Upon the Eye of Re’s eventual return to Egypt, she assumes the form of a hippopotamus (presumably Taweret) and consequently brings the flooding of the Nile.
This myth demonstrates Taweret’s primary function as a goddess of fertility and rejuvenation. Some scholars feel that her role in the Nile inundation is one of the reasons she was given the epithet “Mistress of Pure Water”. However, her similar role in the rejuvenation of the dead also cannot be overlooked concerning this epithet – just as she provided life for the living through physical birth and the inundation, she also cleansed and purified the dead so they could pass safely into the afterlife.
In the New Kingdom, Taweret’s image was frequently used to represent a northern constellation in zodiacs. This image is attested in several astronomical tomb paintings, including the Theban tombs of Tharwas (tomb 353), Hatshepsut’s famed advisor Senenmut (tomb 232), and the pharaoh Seti I (KV17) in the Valley of the Kings. The image of this astral Taweret appears almost exclusively next to the Setian foreleg of a bull. The latter image represents the Big Dipper and is associated with the Egyptian god of chaos, Seth.
The relationship between the two images is discussed in the Book of Day and Night (a cosmically focused mythological text from the Twentieth Dynasty, c. 1186–1069 BCE) as follows: “As to this foreleg of Seth, it is in the northern sky, tied down to two mooring posts of flint by a chain of gold. It is entrusted to Isis as a hippopotamus guarding it.” Although the hippopotamus goddess is identified in this text as Isis, not Taweret, this phenomenon is not uncommon in later periods of Egyptian history. When assuming a protective role, powerful goddesses like Isis, Hathor, and Mut took the form of Taweret, effectively becoming a manifestation of this goddess. Likewise, Taweret gradually absorbed the qualities of these goddesses and is commonly seen wearing the Hathoric sun disc that is iconographically associated with Hathor and Isis.
This cosmic image continues to be seen in later periods, although the tendency was to show such divine astral bodies more abstractly. One example is the late Ptolemaic or early Roman Book of the Faiyum, a local monograph dedicated to the Faiyum and its patron gods, namely Sobek-Re. ancient Egyptians depicted Taweret in her standard form with a crocodile on her back and a small upright crocodile in her right hand. She was shown in the section of the papyrus meant to depict the Faiyum‘s central Lake Moeris.
The papyrus portrays the solar journey of Re with Lake Moeris as the place into which the sun god descends for his nightly journey, traditionally thought of as the underworldly realm of the Amduat. Taweret appears here as a well-known constellation to demonstrate the celestial and otherworldly properties of Lake Moeris. She also serves as a fine protective divine mother to Sobek-Re during his dangerous journey. In this respect, she fulfils the role of Neith, the primary sacred mother of Sobek. This Taweret figure is labelled as “Neith the Great, who protects her son”, demonstrating the malleability of the hippopotamus goddess form. When in the role of a protective mother, it is not uncommon that other goddesses would appear in the form of Taweret.
Taweret was featured in other myths as well during these later periods. In the famed Metternich Stela, Isis tells Horus that he was reared by a “sow and a dwarf”, almost certainly referring to Taweret and her fellow apotropaic demon-god Bes, respectively. Although the date of this stela is relatively late, the central role of Taweret in the successful raising of children is still being stressed, showing the continuity of her character. She is also mentioned in Plutarch’s notes on the central myth of Isis and Osiris. She joined the forces of order and helped Horus to defeat Set.
Taweret bears the physical aspects of both a fertility goddess and a fearsome protective deity. She takes the form of a female hippopotamus, a highly deadly creature. She is also often seen with features from other predatory creatures, most notably being the tail of a Nile crocodile and the paws of a lioness.
Taweret’s predatory form allows her to ward away evil from the innocent. These features directly parallel those of other ferocious protective ancient Egyptian deities, most notably the crocodile god Sobek and the lioness goddess Sekhmet. These violent theriomorphic deities take on some of the aspects of the animals that they represent – both to the benefit and detriment of humans.
Likewise, Egyptians also reinforced Taweret’s nurturing aspects in her iconography, as they frequently showed her with a bloated pregnant belly and pendulous human breasts. These breasts are shared by the god of the Nile inundation, Hapi, and signify regenerative powers. She frequently holds the sa hieroglyphic sign (Gardiner V17), “protection”. Taweret’s riverine form allows her to participate in that which annually revives the Nile Valley: the inundation personified by Hapi. It is partly due to her role in this event that she may share this iconographic feature with Hapy.
Taweret’s image served a functional purpose on a variety of objects. The most notable of these objects are amulets, which protect mothers and children from harm. Such amulets, appearing before 3000 BCE, were famous for most of ancient Egyptian history. She also consistently appeared on household furniture throughout history, including chairs, stools, and headrests.
Apotropaic objects became popular in the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055–1650 BCE), and egyptologists thought ancient Egyptians had used them in rituals related to pregnancy and birth. As is aforementioned, ivory wands and knives showing long processions of deities became widely used in this period. Ancient Egyptians displayed these objects on tomb paintings in the hands of nurses, and wear patterns on the tips indicate that these nurses likely used them to draw protective patterns in the sand. Taweret is featured on almost all known wands, as her powers were invoked particularly to protect children and their mothers.
The other deities almost exclusively accompany the mature sun god in his nightly journey through the dangerous Amduat (underworld). Taweret’s inclusion in this company suggests a protective solar role. Later, Ptolemaic (c. 332–30 BCE) conceptions of the goddess supported this role, stating that she reared – and in some traditions, birthed – the young sun god (cf. Metternich Stela).
Ritual objects bearing Taweret’s image were popular in Egyptian households for the remainder of Egyptian history. Vessels carrying Taweret’s shape became popular in the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1069 BCE). Often these vessels had openings through the nipples, emphasising Taweret’s maternal aspects. These vessels presumably purified the liquid poured from them, as Egyptians considered Taweret “She of the Pure Water”.