Depictions of the goddess Taweret depart sharply from the typically slim and beautiful female deities of ancient Egypt. In comparison with them, her image is frightful and grotesque: a composite deity with the head and body of a hippopotamus, the tail of a crocodile, and the hands and feet of a lioness. Most often she is shown standing upright on her hind legs. She usually carries or rests on the sʒ symbol, which means “protection,” and she is often shown carrying a knife. The name Taweret (Tʒ-wrt) means “the great one,” and her frequent epithet is “Lady of Heaven.”
Like those of the similarly strange-looking god Bes, images of the fearsome Taweret were used apotropaically by pregnant and nursing women, to keep evil away from their infants. Taweret has the rounded belly of a pregnant woman and the heavy breasts of a woman who is nursing. Her epithets include “Who Removes the Water,” which may allude to the process of birth. Vessels from the New Kingdom in the shape of pregnant women echo the swollen form of the goddess, and there are also examples of “Taweret vessels” which have openings at the nipples, presumably for pouring milk.
From the Amarna period of the eighteenth dynasty—when worship of gods other than Aten was proscribed—there are even examples of Taweret images from the site of Tell el-Amarna, the center of the worship of the Aten. Taweret's presence emphasizes the importance of this protectress of pregnant woman in the lives of the common people, who did not cease their worship of this popular goddess.
Another epithet of Taweret is “She of the Pure Water,” which may refer to her connection to the Nile River. Taweret was associated with the inundation because of her form as a riverine creature. She is called as “The One Who is in the Waters of Nun” in a shrine at Gebel es-Silsila. As a mother goddess, Taweret had associations with Hathor and Isis and was often depicted wearing the Hathor crown with a sun disk between two cow horns. Ostraca from the site of Deir el-Medina indicate that Taweret could have had a demonic aspect, and her composition from ferocious creatures may have connected her with Seth, the god of chaos.
Taweret was a popular domestic goddess, and her image appears on household items such as beds, stools, and headrests. Her likeness also appears on magical wands made of hippopotamus ivory. Amulets of the goddess were very popular and appear into the Roman period (31 BCE–395 CE). Stelae attest to her role as a healing deity. Much of her cult took place in domestic shrines, however, she may have had a sanctuary at Deir el-Medina. Apotropaic images of Bes and Taweret were placed on the outside of Ptolemaic temples to ward off evil. Taweret's popularity spread outside the borders of Egypt, and images of her have been found in Crete and at the sites of Kerma and Meroë in Nubia.
Taweret was one of several goddesses who could take the form of a hippopotamus, including Ipet (“the Nurse”), Reret (“the Sow”), and Hedjet (“the White One”). All these goddesses were associated with pregnancy and protection, and they are often difficult to distinguish from one another.
A constellation in the form of Taweret is depicted in the Theban tombs of Tharwas (tomb 353 in Western Thebes) and Senenmut (tomb 232 in Western Thebes), and in the Osiris Chapel in Medinet Habu as part of a scene showing the northern sky.
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- Pinch, Geraldine. Magic in Ancient Egypt. London, 1994.
- Sadek, Ashraf Iskander. Popular Religion in Egypt during the New Kingdom. Hildesheimer ägyptologische Beitrage, 27. Hildesheim, 1988.