Tawaret is the Egyptian goddess of fertility, maternity and childbirth as well as the patron of women and children. She is traditionally believed to be the wife of the demon god Apep. She is often seen as represented by some of the most ferocious yet respected animals in Egypt – she has the head and body of a pregnant hippopotamus, the back of the crocodile and the arms and legs of a lioness. She is seen as a hippopotamus with one arm resting (a symbol of protection) and the other carrying the ankh (the symbol of life) or the ivory knife used to drive away evil spirits. Her name, may also be spelled as Tuat, Taueret, Taurt, Ta-weret, Tawaret, Tuart, and Taueret, and in Greek, Thoeris and Toeri, translates into “she who is great”.
Originally, she was viewed as a maleficent and dangerous deity. Like Bes, she was a considered as a ferocious demon with nurturing and protective qualities. She resides in the northern sky abode of her husband, Apep, thus she is known as the Nebetakhet or the “Mistress of the Horizon” – a group of stars of Ursa Minor and Draco that serves as guardians of the northern sky. In some legend, Apep could only come out during the night, so Tawaret was considered the evil that dwelt during the day.
However, during the Old Kingdom, her role significantly changed from an aggressive force into a protective deity. Like the hippopotamus that represent her, she is protective of her young thus becoming the patron of childbirth. She became the mother goddess who becomes the wet nurse of the pharaoh. Eventually, her nurturing role extended to all households as she helps both the rich and the poor alike.
During childbirth, she is believed to be the deity who wards off evil spirits who intends to harm the baby and the mother. She also became of assistance in matters of pregnancy and sexuality thus forming a link between her and Hathor. In this aspect, she may be seen as a woman wearing her headdress bearing the Sa for protection. Expectant mother often brought with them amulets depicting the goddess to protect them. Her depiction are often motifs to birth beds. She was also associated with magic wands and knives, often made of hippopotamus ivory, which were used to fend off evil especially during labor. Facience vases likened to her shape are used to serve milk in order to add extra potency to the drink.
Her fertility duties focused on the inundation in the area of Gebel el-Silsila. In the Book of the Dead, she is mentioned as the guardian of the mountain paths in the West that led to the Underworld. She also assisted souls into passing safely into the dangerous and frightening land of Osiris especially to the recently deceased.
Her area in the northern sky and her hippopotamus appearance linked her to Set. She is believed to be a concubine of Set who is loyal to Horus. In one of the myths, she helped Isis protect her young child from the attacks of Set by trapping him in the northern sky.
She was also related to Sobek probably because of her crocodile features. In this form, she has a small crocodile on her back. Sometimes, she is the wife of another demon god, Bes, who is linked to childbirth.
She was also known by two other names: Ipet meaning harem and Reret meaning the sow. Her cult achieved significant importance until the Ptolemaic era and Late Period especially in the area of Karnak.
Goddess Demoness of Birth
Rebirth and the Northern Sky
Taweret (Taueret, Taurt, Toeris, Ipy, Ipet, Apet, Opet, Reret) – The Great Female – was the ancient Egyptian goddess of maternity and childbirth, protector of women and children. Like Bes, she was both a fierce demonic fighter as well as a popular deity who guarded the mother and her newborn child.
She was depicted as a combination of a crocodile, a pregnant hippopotamus standing on her hind legs with large breasts and a lion. Unlike the composite demoness Ammut, her head and body were that of the hippo, her paws were that of the lion, and her back was the back of a crocodile. All of these animals were man killers, and as such she was a demoness.
All three animals were regarded as fierce creatures who would kill to protect their young.
It was in her role of a protector that she was seen as a goddess. As the mother hippo is protective of her young, Taweret was believed to be protective of Egyptian children. She was often shown holding the sa hieroglyph of protection or the ankh hieroglyph of life. She was thought to assist women in labour and scare off demons that might harm the mother or child.
… because hippos are denizens of the fertile Nile mud, Egyptians also saw them as symbols of rebirth and rejuvenation. The birth-related aspect of the hippo’s powers also appears in the complicated shape of the goddess Taweret, who protects women in childbirth.
She was also a goddess relating to fertility. She was goddess of harvests as well as a goddess who helped with female sexuality and pregnancy. In this capacity, she was linked with the goddess Hathor. As a fertility goddess, she was closely associated with the inundation of the Nile especially at Jabal al-Silsila.
Amulets of Taweret were popular, used by the expectant mother because of Taweret’s protective powers. These were even found at Akhetaten – Akenaten had no power to stop his people from needing the protection of this goddess (or of Bes), despite his attempts to replace the gods and goddesses of Egypt with the Aten. Her picture was also found on women’s cosmetic tools, headrests, jewelry. There were even vessels in the shape of the goddess, with a hole in one of her nipples for pouring. It was thought that she would assign magical protection, when accompanied with a spell, to the milk poured through these vessels.
Another way that Taweret was thought to scare away evil that could hurt a mother and child was through the use of magic. She was associated with the magic ‘wand’ or ‘knife’ that the Egyptians used because she was a hippopotamus goddess:
Childbirth and early infancy were felt to be particularly threatening to both mother and baby. Magic played the primary role in countering these threats; various evil spirits needed to be warned off, and deities invoked to protect the vulnerable. These magic knives, also known as apotropaic (that is, acting to ward off evil) wands, were one of the devices used. They are usually made of hippopotamus ivory, thus enlisting the support of that fearsome beast against evil.
The depictions on this knife encompass a range of protective images. They include a grotesque dwarf, probably known as Aha at this date, but later the more famous Bes, and Taweret … both of whom are associated with childbirth.
Taweret was a household deity, rather than a specific deity of the pharaoh, and she enjoyed huge popularity with the every day Egyptian. She wore a low, cylindrical headdress surmounted by two plumes or sometimes she wore the horns and solar disk of Hathor. Although her popularity was strongest in later periods, she first appeared in the Old Kingdom as the mother of the pharaoh, offering to suckle him with her divine milk. In later times, the pharaoh Hatshepsut depicted the goddess attending to her birth along side other deities of childbirth. During Egyptian history, she was called by three names – Ipet (‘harem’), Taweret (‘great one’) and Reret (‘the sow’). Of the three, the cult of Taweret assimilated the other two versions of this goddess, despite the Temple of Ipet (often translated to be ‘Harem’ rather than the name of the goddess) at Karnak.
In Egyptian astronomy, Taweret was linked to the northern sky. In this role she was known as Nebetakhet, the Mistress of the Horizon – the ceiling painting of the constellations in the tomb of Seti I showed her in this capacity. She was thought to keep the northern sky – a place of darkness, cold, mist, and rain to the Egyptians – free of evil. She was shown to represent the never-setting circumpolar stars of Ursa Minor and Draco. The seven stars lined down her back are the stars of the Little Dipper. She was believed to be a guardian of the north, stopping all who were unworthy before they could pass her by.
In all of the ancient Egyptian astronomical diagrams there is one figure which is always larger than all the rest, and most frequently found at the center of what appears to be a horizontal parade of figures. This figure is Taweret “The Great One”, a goddess depicted as a pregnant hippopotamus standing upright. It is no mystery that this figure represents a northern constellation associated, at least in part, with our modern constellation of Draco the dragon.
In the Book of the Dead Taweret, the ‘Lady of Magical Protection’, was seen as a goddess who guided the dead into the afterlife. As with her double nature of protector and guardian, she was also a guard to the mountains of the west where the deceased entered the land of the dead. Many of the deities relating to birth also appear in the underworld to help with the rebirth of the souls into their life after death.
She was thought to be the wife of a few gods, mostly because of her physical characteristics. She was linked to the god Sobek, because of his crocodile form. Occasionally Taweret was depicted with a crocodile on her back, and this was seen as Taweret with her consort Sobek. Bes, because the Egyptians thought they worked together when birthing of a child, was thought to be her husband in earlier times.
At Thebes, she was also thought to be the mother of Osiris, and so linked to the sky goddess Nut. Another part of this theology was that it was Amen, who became the supreme god rather than Ra, who was the father of Osiris. It was believed that Amen came to Taweret (called Ipet at this particular time) and joined with her to ensure the renewal of the cycle of life. Ipet herself had become linked with the original wife of Amen, Amaunet (invisibility). It was at Karnak that she was believed to have given birth to Osiris. In later times, Ipet was assimilated by Mut who took her place as the wife of Amen and mother goddess.
Plutarch described Taweret as a concubine of Set who had changed her ways to become a follower of Horus. In this form, she was linked to the goddess Isis. It was thought that the goddess kept Set’s powers of evil fettered by a chain. This is probably because she was a hippo goddess while Set was sometimes seen as a male hippo. The male hippopotamus was seen by the Egyptians as a very destructive creature, yet the female hippopotamus came to symbolise protection. This is probably why Set was, in later times, regarded as evil while Taweret was thought to be a helpful goddess, deity of motherhood and protector of women and children.