Egyptologists have long maintained that from pharaonic monuments and representations in the round, two species of hedgehogs are identifiable—the long-eared hedgehog (Hemiechinus auritus) and the desert hedgehog (Paraechinus aethiopicus). Among the multitude of their portrayals, a sharp distinction is seldom clearly indicated. Also, the Old Egyptian name for “hedgehog” is not certain; it may have been hnty or hntʒ, but this term might have also referred to the North African porcupine (Hystrix cristata). Possibly, this designation applied to all hedgehogs, since they possess a coat of prickly spines. Hedgehogs still live in the region.

In the Gerzean period (Naqada II, 3500–3000 BCE), images of the hedgehog were included in human burials, notably in the form of ceramic vessels. Thereafter, the hedgehog was an important and recurring decorative motif. In tomb-chapel scenes of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, hedgehogs are sometimes on the prows of Nile ships as figureheads, looking backward; mostly, they occur in hunting scenes, scurrying along the sparsely vegetated desert margin, mating or about to vanish into the safety of their burrows. Occasionally, they can be seen snapping up a grasshopper. The ancient Egyptians also seem to have enjoyed eating hedgehogs; in offering processions, they are transported in small cages as spoils of the chase, presumably destined for the table of the deceased in the beyond.

During the Middle Kingdom, faience hedgehog statuettes were sometimes placed in tombs. By the New Kingdom, miniature hedgehogs, fashioned as scaraboids and amulets, were popular. Containers for eye-paint fashioned in their plump likeness are known from the Late period. The hedgehog was not associated with a specific deity in the pharaonic pantheon, but its repeated use indicates that its image bore a magical, protective significance; this is almost certainly linked with the hedgehog's characteristic defensive posture—rolling itself into a ball and covering the vulnerable parts of its body with its impenetrable mat of bristling spines—and its ability to resist venomous bites and stings. Some scholars have suggested that the hedgehog was also a symbol of regeneration. In the Ebers Papyrus, Spells 464–474, the animal's spines are mentioned in a remedy for curing baldness but a porcupine may be meant instead of a hedgehog there.

Bibliography

  • Andrews, Carol. Amulets of Ancient Egypt. Austin, 1994. Excellent illustrated survey of amulets in pharaonic Egypt, including those of hedgehogs.
  • 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 hedgehog.
  • Droste zu Hülshoff, Vera von. Der Igel im alten Ägypten. Hildesheimer Ägyptologische Beiträge, 11. Hildesheim, 1980. This book will remain the definitive study on the hedgehog in ancient Egypt for the foreseeable future; however, a few of the interpretations offered for its symbolic role in antiquity seem speculative.
  • 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 hedgehogs; extensive bibliography.
  • Osborn, Dale J., and Ibrahim Helmy. The Contemporary Land Mammals of Egypt (Including Sinai). Fieldiana Zoology, n.s., 5. Chicago, 1980. Now the standard text on the land mammals of modern Egypt; includes much information on hedgehogs.

Patrick F. Houlihan