The Cape hare (Lepus capensis) routinely appears in ancient Egyptian art and in hieroglyphs. It was always rendered in a couchant position. Immediately recognizable by its distinctive large ears and short tail, Egyptian artisans created highly accurate and appealing representations of this small desert mammal, which was called sẖʿt. As a standard hieroglyphic sign, the hare had the phonetic value wn. The Cape hare remains a relatively common and wide-ranging resident. The domestic rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) first arrived in the Nile Valley during late Roman to Coptic times, and was therefore unknown in pharaonic times.

One of the earliest occurrences of the hare in Egyptian iconography is preserved on the Hunters' Palette, from the Late Predynastic period (Naqada III), portrayed amid a group of chased game. From that time onward, it was depicted in countless desert hunting compositions on private tomb-chapel walls and elsewhere. Hares characteristically appeared in those works either fleeing at top speed, attempting to escape the hunter's rain of arrows and pack of dogs, or crouching behind a tree or bush, hoping to go unnoticed. They were bagged, however, so hares occasionally appeared in small cages among the fruits of the field and harvest delivered by bearers in offering processions. In several New Kingdom vignettes of Theban tomb-chapels, they are shown being carried by their long ears; these were probably intended to be enjoyed as table fare in the afterlife. The hare was also sometimes considered desirable quarry for sporting kings. For example, a passage of an eighteenth dynasty text, from the time of Amenhotpe II, mentions that the king hunted hares near the city of Kadesh while on a military campaign. An ornate bow case, discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun (tomb 62) in the Valley of the Kings, was decorated with a scene of the young pharaoh in a chariot, pursuing a variety of desert animals with bow and arrow, including a hare.

The hare was the ensign of the fifteenth Upper Egyptian nome, including the important city of Hermopolis Magna as its capital. It was also the emblem of the local goddess Unas (“The Swift One”). Although amulets in the shape of hares had been in use since the late Old Kingdom, it was during the Late period that they were most abundantly produced; these are invariably made of light-green faience (and are very popular with collectors today). The significance of these amulets is not precisely understood. Several leading Egyptologists have suggested that they were connected with the domain of regeneration. In any case, the hare's legendary fecundity and well-known, fleet-footed abilities were likely to be some of the desirable attributes that their wearers wished to assimilate; Classical-era writers did refer to these and other supposed traits of the hare as accountable for its esteemed place in Egyptian thought. Then too, a demon who inhabited the netherworld, as illustrated on the walls of some late New Kingdom royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings and on mythological papyri also took the form of a hare. From the Ptolemaic period comes an unusual bronze figure of a hare (now in the Ägyptisches Museum, Berlin), which may have functioned as a votive object.

Bibliography

  • Andrews, Carol. Amulets of Ancient Egypt. Austin, 1994. Excellent illustrated survey of amulets in pharaonic Egypt, based chiefly on those in the collections of the British Museum, London.
  • Boessneck, Joachim. Die Tierwelt des alten Ägypten: Untersucht anhand kulturgeschichtlicher und zoologischer Quellen. Munich, 1988. Provides an authoritative discussion on wildlife in ancient Egypt, including the Cape hare.
  • Hornung, Erik, and Elisabeth Staehelin, eds. Skarabäen und andere Siegelamulette aus Basler Sammlungen. Mainz, 1976. Discusses hares as scaraboids and amulets; the authors present a valuable overview of hares in ancient Egypt, with many references.
  • Houlihan, Patrick F. The Animal World of the Pharaohs. London and New York, 1996. Aimed at a general audience; surveys the ancient Egyptian animal world and contains several fine illustrations of hares; extensive bibliography.
  • Osborn, Dale J., and Ibrahim Helmy. The Contemporary Land Mammals of Egypt (Including Sinai). Fieldiana Zoology, n.s., 5. Chicago, 1980. The standard text on the land mammals of modern Egypt; includes much information on the Cape hare.

Patrick F. Houlihan