Greek hedgehog aryballos
Rhodes, c.600-550 BC
Provenance: Maurice Bouvier, Alexandria, Egypt, exported to Switzerland 1959
Over this bank holiday weekend I was walking through the beautiful Scottish countryside when I almost stepped right on top of a hedgehog, rummaging around the undergrowth. I was delighted to watch it potter about its business, and thought that despite its spiny exterior, hedgehogs are universally considered one of the sweetest animals. To me, they are a quintessential part of British wildlife, and yet they are found not only on these islands, but in many other countries, across other continents. The longer I pondered the more I realised what an international animal the hedgehog is, barely changing appearance from continent to continent, and a part of many cultures from Europe to Asia. We may well venerate them here for their charm, but our respect is nothing compared to the homage paid by the ancient Egyptians. But why were they so highly venerated by the Egyptians?
For one thing, the hedgehog has highly adept survival skills in the bleak desert-like areas in which it can be found. The symbolism of its emergence from a long period of hibernation was akin to the concept of rebirth. And let us not forget their prickly outer layer, which was seen to protect the creature both literally and spiritually. So whether you were hoping to come back to life after your departure from this world, or you wanted protection against dangerous creatures and evil spirits in the present, the hedgehog made for a very appropriate talisman.
Let’s take a closer look at the ways in which the hedgehog was represented, and which apotropaic qualities they held.
- Sailors placed statuettes of hedgehogs on the bows of ships, facing towards the crew, and reliefs in Old Kingdom tombs show them painted on the ship’s prow; all to keep the evil spirits of the Nile at bay.
- The wealthier members of society had especially splendid cosmetic sets which sometimes included finely detailed faience kohl jars in the shape of hedgehogs, to invoke the symbolic powers associated with them. A couple of weeks ago I spoke of the use of kohl as a means of keeping infectious flies and diseases away, and not only were the hedgehog’s spines perceived to do the same, but their ability to eat poisonous creatures, such as scorpions, lent them apotropaic qualities. Additionally, and rather incorrectly, the Egyptians believed that the hedgehogs nocturnal behaviour meant they had exceptionally good eyesight, a power they would certainly have hoped to transfer to the wearer of the vessels contents.
- According to the Ebers Medical Papyrus, from 18th Dynasty, hedgehog spines were ground up and mixed with fat or oil as a cure for baldness.
- Despite all this, it would appear that the Egyptians still deemed the hedgehog suitable food for the table, and there are recipes from the New kingdom which show that they ate these poor little darlings. Still, one can’t judge too much – it was hardly the greatest atrocity being committed In those times
Egyptian hedgehog scaraboid
Late Period, 25th-26th Dynasty
Provenance: Gustave Mustaki, Alexandria, Egypt, exported to the UK c.1950