What is it?
William is the nickname given to this small Egyptian Middle Kingdom statuette of a hippopotamus. The figurine was made in the 12th Dynasty (c.1961-1878 BC) and was placed with another in a tomb. Measuring just 11.2cm in height and 20cm in length, the bright, blue faience hippopotamus has a well-rounded body and stumpy legs. Black paint has been used to enhance the eyes and to decorate the body with vegetal motifs symbolising regeneration – open and closed lotus flowers, buds, and leaves.
Where was it found, and when?
The statuette was excavated by Sayyid Pasha Khashaba in May 1910. It is one of a pair found in the burial chamber of the nomarch Senbi II at Meir. In 1917, the figure was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, where it is still on display. It was first dubbed ‘William’ by Captain H M Raleigh, who wrote in the satirical British magazine Punch in March 1931 that he and his family have an oracular colour print of the hippopotamus that they ‘love and revere… with an intensity bordering on the pagan’ and that ‘has the casting vote in all family disputes, and in his calm dispassionate way orders our goings out and comings in.’
The story of William the oracle was well received: the Met reproduced it in their Bulletin the same year, and William soon became the museum’s unofficial mascot. He remains a popular exhibit to this day.
Why does it matter?
Hippopotamus figurines are common finds in Middle Kingdom tombs. It was believed that they could help to ensure the rebirth of the deceased, a role that is alluded to in William’s blue glaze and the lotus flowers painted on him. These invoke his natural habitat of the marshes of the Nile, the great river essential to life in ancient Egypt. The association is carried further by the decorative lotuses, as the cycle of the opening of the lotus flower at sunrise and its closing at sunset was closely linked with the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
Yet, despite the calm appearance of the statue, actual hippopotamuses were creatures to be feared. They are huge, with particularly large mouths and powerful jaws, and can move more quickly than their size and shape may suggest. Hippopotamuses were considered dangerous hazards and represented the destructive power of the natural world, chaos, and evil.
There was a way to deal with the negative traits of this animal, though. Only one of William’s original legs – the front left – is intact, the other three are modern restorations. It is thought that the legs were broken deliberately to reduce the threat this dangerous creature posed to the well-being of the deceased.
See for yourself
William is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. A special display commemorating the centenary of this acquisition – Conversation between Two Hippos – juxtaposes the Egyptian figure with a 20th-century work by American ceramicist Carl Walters.
Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York