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A Regular Army of Hippopotarmi

I imagine being in the middle of a pod of hippos to be much like an eternal trip to the traffic department, or some other bureaucratic operation of chaotic organization, in the height of a summer afternoon. The reluctantly gaggled group of all ages and shapes and sizes, with moods ranging from grumpy, to mildly annoyed and downright livid, all jostle for space on tiny plastic chairs in the hope of eventually shuffling closer to the non-existent breeze from an ancient fan. There’s that collective roar when some eejit interloper tries to skip the regimented queue and recognised order of things, followed by tutting and less than covert whispers complaining of the sheer nerve… Then of course the office closes at sundown, and all abscond to meander the night in solitary, sun-burnt, heat-fogged, bad moods until returning to the river for another day of perpetual grumbling…

Pliny the Elder wrote in Antiquity’s first comprehensive field guide that the hippopotamus (or river horse) had “the cloven hoof of the ox; the back, the mane, and the neighing of the horse; and the turned-up snout, the tail, and the hooked teeth of the wild boar.” It should be noted that he lifted this information straight out of Herodotus’ Histories and had obviously never seen one himself. However, some thousands of years later, these curious animals still hold the same bizarre fascination – as though cobbled together from a box of strangely specific, and, to put it kindly, perhaps not particularly beautiful characteristics – to the extent that they seem to defy even gravity itself as their stumpy little legs and webbed feet toddle along at a fairly significant rate, hauling a barrel shaped 1, 5 tons of vegetarian mega-fauna through mud and dust and water alike.

Their extreme proportions – tiny, almost delicate, eyes, ears, and nose that lurk just above the surface of the water – bely their huge girth and a monumental head and jaw capable of unhinging to almost 180̊, yawning in a displays of dominance and aggression. With skin 6 inches thick (presumably to deflect comments like the above), these are beasts of myth and legend. They feature in the panoply of Ancient Egyptian gods in the form of Taweret, both a ferocious demon and the goddess of childbirth and fertility, and her husband Set – the god of chaos. Scholars have also debated their possible inspiration for the biblical Behemoth.

Perhaps more importantly however they are the primary subject of that well known rabble rousing chorus by Messer’s Flanders and Swann:

“Mud, mud glorious mud,

Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood!

So follow me. follow,

Down to the hollow,

And there let us wallow in glorious mud…”

(Look it up and thank me later)


Written by Tara Vivian-Neal

Image by Tayla McCurdy