In antiquity, the Egyptian frog (Rana mascareniensis) was, as it remains today, an abundant resident of the country, a denizen of the Nile River and wetland areas (Eg., ʿbḫn and ḳrr, the latter the onomatopoetic “croaker”). This species, and the now rare tree frog (Hyla savignyi), are extensively portrayed in Egyptian iconography. They were so well known, in fact, that the hieroglyphic sign for the number 100,000 was a diminutive tadpole (ḥfn). To pharaonic Egyptians, there was probably never a clear distinction between the frogs and the local toads (Bufo regularis or Bufo viridis). In the ancient representations of these creatures, it is often difficult to determine which of these amphibians was actually intended (frogs having smooth skins, with toads usually rough and warty). In the following, we use the general term “frog” without being confined to zoological exactness.

The reproductive process of the frog was a mystery to the ancient Egyptians, who were under the erroneous impression that they spontaneously self-created. This mistaken belief almost certainly stems from observing the thousands of swarming tadpoles emerging from the fertile mud each year after the waters of the Nile flood receded. For this reason, and its highly visible fecundity, the frog developed into a powerful symbol of fertility, birth, and regeneration. The four primordial male deities of Hermopolis were often shown with frogs' heads. Most importantly, however, the frog was sacred to Heket, the goddess of childbirth. Stone vessels carved in the shape of frogs were used as early as the Amratian period (Naqada I) and were included as grave goods. Votive figurines of frogs have been discovered in temple sanctuaries at several sites of the Early Dynastic period. In swamp scenes featured on tomb-chapel walls, especially during the Old and Middle Kingdoms, frogs occasionally can be seen as an element of the teeming wildlife of the papyrus thicket. In the Middle Kingdom, images of frogs, sometimes wielding knives, probably a manifestation of the goddess Heket, routinely occur on apotropaic (protective) “magical wands” and rods, which were thought to provide protection to a mother and her newborn child. Not surprisingly, the frog also had some associations with Hapy, god of the Nile inundation. Representations from Greco-Roman times depict Hapy holding a frog in his hand. Vast numbers of frogs are said to have come up from the water and covered the entire land in the biblical account of the second plague, in the Book of Exodus, which was divinely brought upon Egypt. Plentiful at nearly all times in Egyptian history were frog amulets in faience or stone, charms that could be worn both by the living and the dead. The popularity of this aquatic creature as a decorative motif, particularly on objects of domestic use, continued into the Roman period and beyond, as when it commonly appears on small pottery lamps.

Bibliography

  • Anderson, John. Zoology of Egypt: Reptilia and Batrachia. London, 1898. Contains much information on the frogs of Egypt.
  • Andrews, Carol. Amulets of Ancient Egypt. Austin, 1994. Excellent illustrated survey of amulets—including frogs—in pharaonic Egypt, based chiefly on those in the collections of the British Museum, London.
  • Droste zu Hülshoff, Vera. “Kröte.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 3: 790. Wiesbaden, 1980.
  • Houlihan, Patrick F. The Animal World of the Pharaohs. London and New York, 1996. Aimed at a general audience, this volume surveys the ancient Egyptian animal world, including frogs.
  • Kákosy, László. “Frosch.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 2: 334–336. Wiesbaden, 1977.
  • Shier, Louise A. The Frog on Lamps from Karanis. In Medieval and Middle Eastern Studies in Honor of Aziz Suryal Atiya, edited by Sami A. Hanna, pp. 349–358. Leiden, 1972. Discusses the significance of the frog figured on pottery lamps from the Roman period. (This detail has been interpreted by most scholars as a symbol adopted by Christian Egyptians, alluding to the resurrection.)

Patrick F. Houlihan