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Denizens of the Nile

Marcia Ehinger, MD, a native Californian, is a retired pediatrician and genetic specialist. She is the California Writers Club Sacramento Branch newsletter content editor.

Before we left for Egypt, my granddaughter asked if we needed to be careful while sailing on the Nile. She had read about crocodiles living in the water. In Egypt, we found out that crocodiles still inhabit the Nile, but thousands of years of human commerce have reduced their territory to niche habitats.

Instead of fearing these reptiles, Egyptians and their neighbors to the south in Nubia revered them for their protective nature. The god Sobek, depicted as a crocodile or crocodile-headed man, had a cult of followers which increased from thousands of years ago through Egypt's conquest by the Romans around 100 BC.

At Kom Ombo, once a fertile trading center, there is a double temple to the gods Sobek and Horus. Outside, there is a series of basins for newborn crocodiles. Individual animals and their eggs were chosen each year to be mummified as offerings to Sobek. The people hoped his protective magic would spare them from the dangers of the Nile, promote fertility, and make their soldiers powerful.

Today, many Nubians still consider crocodiles to be sacred. They are allowed to capture them from below the Aswan Dam and keep them in their homes as special pets. We visited a Nubian home and were allowed to hold their plump, pampered baby croc. Their much larger reptilian housemate was safely secured in his indoor pool enclosure.

Ancient Egyptians had mixed feelings about another river resident, the hippopotamus. Like the crocodile, hippos were fierce protectors of their young. The hippo was also heard to roar at daybreak and sundown. These sounds were felt to be a greeting and farewell to the sun god, the supreme being. Hippos also sank down in the water, remained for a while, and resurfaced. This was seen as symbolic of new birth very important to a culture that believed strongly in the afterlife.

Hippos are herbivores and seem to move slowly through the water during the day. However, they can decimate a farmer's field at night, and charge quickly and without warning if threatened. Even today, hippopotami kill more people than any other large animal in Africa.


They were hunted and killed for their meat, fat and long canine teeth, which yielded lovely ivory for carving. In ancient times, small boats would sail near the creatures, and sailors would harpoon them. The weapons had long wooden shafts and tips of bone or metal attached to a rope. After the hippo was harpooned repeatedly, the ropes and the floats attached to them would keep the animals buoyant until they could be hauled onto the nearby shore.

An oft-repeated story about the Egyptian gods relates the death of Osiris by his brother Seth. The latter was jealous and tempted his brother with the gift of a beautiful coffin. Osiris was told to get inside and see if there was enough room for his body plus mummy wrappings and grave goods. He did so and was suddenly locked inside and thrown into the Red Sea by Seth.

Their sister Isis, who was now a widow, cried so many tears that the Nile River was formed. She asked for help from the other gods and found the coffin in present-day Lebanon. When the box was opened, Iris saw that Osiris had been cut into pieces. With a little godly magic, he was restored enough to give Isis a son before he slipped into the afterlife. His son Horus, whose symbol is the hawk, sought revenge and killed his uncle.

At the Temple of Edfu, a wall inscription depicts a hawk-headed Horus stabbing a hippo. At that time, hippopotami were felt to represent evil—thus, a perfect image for Seth, the murderer. This carved panel is thought to be the first written play, or soap opera.

The hippopotamus has been extinct in Egypt for many years. Despite the evil side of their nature, ceramic hippos have been found under mummy wrappings, protecting their holders.

If you'd like your very own hippo statuette to protect your afterlife, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art has an unofficial mascot named William, who is a copy of those tiny hippos. You can buy one online at store.metmuseum.org.

~ Marcia Ehinger





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