Tarawet is a Goddess of pregnancy and childbirth who was worshipped in various guises by the Ancient Egyptians. She was primarily a household Goddess, though one of her guises did have a temple in Thebes. Her figures have been discovered as far away as Nubia and Crete, and it is believed her worship extended to these areas.
Tarawet is a formidible and fierce Goddess, bearing the attributes of the most feared and respected creatures found along the Nile. She is depicted as a Hippopotomus with large human breasts and a distended, pregnant-looking belly. She has the arms and legs of a lioness, and the back and tail of a crocodile. In her hands she carries either the ankh, the symbol of life, a Sa protection symbol, or an ivory knife, which was believed to fight off evil spirits. She bears a good deal of resemblance to Ammit, the devourer of the souls judged unworthy. To anyone wishing to harm those under her protection, she is just as dangerous.
Tarawet is romantically linked to at least three gods. She has been described in some stories as being married to Bes, who is also a deity of childbirth, and in others she is the wife of the demon god Apep. Tarawet was herself originally considered a dangerous demon. In her most important tale, she is the lover of Set, and it is she who detains him to prevent his attack on Isis and the newly born Horus.
The fearless protectiveness her animal counterparts (Hippo, Lion and Crocodile) display for their own young, and her service protecting Isis and Horus, lead her to be given the position of wet-nurse to the pharoh. From there her role expanded until she became the protector of all children and their mothers during pregnancy, childbirth and early infancy.
Being primarily a women’s goddess, her worship took place in household shrines, so little information about how she was honoured has survived. What we do know, however is that her image was used to invoke her protection and blessing. Pregnant women would carry or wear a Tarawet amulet to ensure a safe pregnancy and birth, and her likeness was carved onto birthing beds. Tarawet shaped vessels have been found with spouts at the nipples. It is believed they were used to hold milk with the idea that milk poured from the breasts of Tarawet would be more nourishing and provide protection to those who drank it. Feeding cups for babies and children carried her likeness for the same reason. Children were given hippopotomus toys with opening jaws. It was believed that a Tarawet amulet would also protect against attacks from wild animals, particularly from hippos, lions and crocodiles.
As she has a reputation as a mistress with considerable powers of persuasion over her lover (she distracted him from a planned attack on his sworn enemy!) she was also associated with issues of female sexuality. Ancient cosmetic applicators have been found bearing her image.
Because of the danger associated with pregnancy, childbirth, and the post-partum period, Tawaret is also familiar with death and The Underworld. She is mentioned in the Book of the Dead assisting the souls of the recently deseased to make the perilous trip to Osirus’ kingdom. Tarawet amulets are also found in tombs along with images of her acting as wet nurse to the deceased, so it appears she is a midwife of death as well as of life.
When I started researching this project, I was actually intending to do a piece on Ammit, the god who eats the souls of all the dead who are judged to have sinned against Ma’at. I couldn’t remember his name so I Googled ‘Ancient Egyptian hippopotamus god’ and Tarawet came up instead. I had never even heard of her, and felt instantly drawn. Funnily enough, now that I know who she is I seem to be encountering her everywhere. Just yesterday I found a picture of her in a book my kids brought home. She was standing next to my primary Goddess, Isis.
As well as the traditional associations, today, I think Tarawet could be a powerful goddess to work with for sufferers of domestic abuse and bullying, and for those who work with them.
As a goddess with no known children, but a great amount of care for the children of others, I believe she would be a wonderful patron for primary school teachers, childcare workers, CPS and DHS workers, Children’s physical and mental health workers, and foster parents.
In her role as chaperone and protectress of the newly dead, I believe she would be an ally to death doulas and those working in palliative care or similar professions, as well as those who are terminally ill themselves.