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Frogs in Ancient Egypt

Frogs belong to the category of ‘amphibians.’ These cold-blooded animals hibernate in the winter and go through bits of transformation during their life cycle.

This begins with mating, laying eggs, growing into tadpoles in eggs then as young frogs without tails. This is why frogs have been linked to the mythologies of creation in ancient Egypt.

From chaos to existence, and from a world of disorder to a world of order, the frog has seen it all.

In ancient Egypt, gods and goddesses have been connected with the frog, such as Heqet, Ptah, Heh, Hauhet, Kek, Nun, and Amun.

The trend of wearing frog amulets has also been popular to encourage fertility and were buried alongside the dead to help protect and revive them.

In fact, it was a common practice for frogs to be mummified with the dead. These amulets were seen as magical and divine and were believed to ensure rebirth.

Frog Amulet / Egypt, New Kingdom, Late Dynasty 18
Cleveland Museum of Art / CC0

Images of frogs were portrayed on apotropaic wands (birth wands) because frogs were seen as protectors of the household and guardians of pregnant women.

When Christianity came to Egypt in the fourth century AD, the frog continued to be viewed as a Coptic symbol of resurrection and rebirth. 

Frog Amulet / Egypt, Late Period, Saite, Dynasty 26 / Made from Copper alloy
Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0

Moreover, the frog is one of the earliest creatures to be portrayed on amulets during the Predynastic Period.

Egyptians called frogs by the onomatopoeic term “kerer.” The Egyptian ideas about regeneration were associated with the frogspawn.

In fact, the hieroglyph of a tadpole amounted to the number 100,000. Images of frogs have appeared side by side to scarier animals on different platforms, such as on Middle Kingdom ivory wants and birthing tusks.

Live examples of these are available at the Manchester Museum.

Frog Amulet Possibly Depicting a Tree Frog / Egypt, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18–20
Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0

Different objects, such as spouts, have images of frogs on them to imply connections with the Nile flood and the overflowing water.

Frogs have been featured during the Pharaonic iconography, and they appear as symbols of Christian resurrection in the Coptic times- terracotta lamps often portray images of these frogs.

Life Cycle of Frogs in ancient Egypt

Frogs were known to live in the marshes of the Nile in multitudes. The flooding of the Nile was a crucial event for agriculture as it provided water to many distant fields.

Frogs would grow in the muddy waters left behind by receding waves. Hence, they became known as symbols of abundance.

They became a symbol for the number “hefnu,” which referred to 100,00 or a massive number.

The life cycle of a frog started with mating. A pair of adult frogs would engage in plexus while the female would lay her eggs.

Tadpoles would start to grow inside the eggs and would then metamorphose into juvenile frogs.

The frogs would develop hind legs and forelimbs but would not yet transform into fully grown frogs.

Tadpoles have their tails, but as they mature into a young frog, they lose their tails.

According to the myth, before there was land, the Earth was a watery mass of dark, directionless nothingness.

Only four frog gods and four snake goddesses lived within this chaos. The four pairs of deities included Nun and Naunet, Amun and Amaunet, Heh and Hauhet, and Kek and Kauket.

The frog’s fertility, coupled with their association with water, which was essential for human life, led the ancient Egyptians to view them as potent, powerful, and positive symbols.

Frogs and the River Nile

Image courtesy: pikist.com

Water is essential to man’s existence. Without it, man can’t survive. Since the Egyptians were religious, their cultural beliefs derived from water. 

The Nile Delta and the Nile River in Egypt are some of the most ancient agricultural lands in the world.

They have been under cultivation for approximately 5,000 years. Since Egypt has an arid climate with high evaporation rates and very little rainfall, the water supply of the River Nile stays fresh.

Furthermore, no natural soil development can take place in this area. Hence, the River Nile was only used for agriculture, industry, and domestic use.

The sun and the river were important to the ancient Egyptians as the life-giving rays of the sun helped crops grow, as well as shrink and die.

On the other hand, the river made the soil fertile and destroyed anything that lay in its path. Its absence could bring famine to the lands.

The sun and river together shared the cycle of death and rebirth; every day, the sun would die on the Western horizon, and every day it would be reborn in the Eastern sky.

Moreover, the death of the land was followed by the rebirth of crops every year, which correlated with the river’s annual flooding.

Hence, rebirth was an important theme in Egyptian culture. It was seen as a natural occurrence after death and strengthened the Egyptian conviction of life after death.

The Egyptians, like the sun and crops, felt certain that they would rise again to live a second life after their first one ended.

The frog was seen as a symbol of life and fertility because, after the annual flooding of the River Nile, millions of them would spring up.

This flooding was a source of fertility to the otherwise barren, distant lands. Since frogs thrived in muddy waters left behind by receding waves of the Nile, it is easy to understand why they became known as symbols of abundance.

In Egyptian mythology, Hapi was a deification of the annual flooding of River Nile. He would be decorated with papyrus plants and surrounded by hundreds of frogs. 

Symbols of Creation

Figure of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris / Egypt, Ptolemaic Period
Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0

The frog-headed god, Ptah made his transformation to rise as the opener of the lower world. His dress was a tight-fitting garment that was similar to mummy wrappings.

It highlighted his role on behalf of the souls residing in the underground world. 

Ptah was known as the god of creation because he was the only god who created the world in ancient Egypt using his heart and tongue.

To put it simply, the world was created based on the power of his word and command. All the gods that followed were given work based on what Ptah’s heart devised, and tongue commanded.

Since the frog is a creature whose tongue is fixed at the tip of its mouth, unlike other animals who have their tongues in their throats, the tongue is a distinguishing feature for both Ptah and the frog.

Forces of Chaos

The gods hhw, kkw, nnnw, and Imn were seen as personifications of ancient forces of chaos.

These four males out of the eight gods of the Ogdoad of Hermopolis were portrayed as frogs while the four females were portrayed as serpents swimming in the mud and slime of chaos. 

Symbols of Rebirth

The ancient Egyptians used the sign of the frog to write after the names of the deceased.

The well-wishing term used read “live again.” Since a frog was a symbol of rebirth, it showed its role in the resurrection.

Frogs were associated with resurrection because, during their hibernation period in the winters, they would put a stop to all their activities and hide among the stones.

They remained stationary in pools or river banks till the dawn of spring. These hibernating frogs would not require any food to stay alive. It almost seemed like they were dead.

When spring arrived, these frogs would jump out of the mud and slime and go back to being active.

Hence, they became seen as symbols of resurrection and birth in ancient Egyptian culture. 

Coptic Symbols of Rebirth

As Christianity became widespread during the fourth century AD, the frog started to be viewed as a Coptic symbol of rebirth.

Lamps found in Egypt portray frogs drawn on the upper area. 

One of these lamps reads “I am the resurrection.” The lamp portrays the rising sun, and the frog on it is the Ptah, who is known for his life in Egyptian mythology.

Goddess Heqet

Heqet depicted on a board.
Mistrfanda14 / CC BY-SA

In Ancient Egypt, frogs were also known as symbols of fertility and water. The goddess of water, Heqet, represented the body of a woman with the head of a frog and was associated with the later stages of labor.

Heqet was famous as the partner of Khnum, the lord of inundation. Along with other gods, she was responsible for creating a child in the womb and was present at his/her birth as a midwife.

Also known as the goddess of childbirth, creation, and grain germination, Heqet was the goddess of fertility.

The title “Servants of Heqet” was applied to priestesses who were trained as midwives to help the goddess in her mission.

When Khnum became a potter, the goddess Heqet was given the responsibility to supply life to gods and men who had been created by the potter’s wheel.

She then gave the newborn the breath of life before placing him to grow in his mother’s womb. Due to her powers of life, Heqet also took part in burial ceremonies at Abydos.

Coffins mirrored an image of Heqet as the protective deity of the dead.

During childbirth, women wore amulets of Heqet as protection. The Middle Kingdom ritual involved ivory knives and clappers (a type of musical instrument) that portrayed her name or image as a symbol of protection within the home. 

Learn more about the Goddess Heqet

Khnum

Khnum Amulet / Egypt, Late Period–Ptolemaic Period
Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0

Khnum was one of the earliest Egyptian deities. He had the head of a frog, with horns but the body of a human man. He was originally the god of the source of the River Nile.

Due to the Nile’s annual flooding, silt, clay and water would flow into the lands. Frogs would reappear as life was brought to the surroundings. 

Due to this, Khnum was considered to be the creator of the bodies of human children.

These human children were made at a potter’s wheel from clay. After being shaped and made, they were placed in the wombs of their mothers.

Khnum is said to have molded other deities as well. He is known as the Divine Potter and Lord. 

Heh and Hauhet 

Heh was the god, and Hauhet was the goddess of infinity, time, long-life, and eternity. Heh was portrayed as a frog while Hauhet as a serpent.

Their names meant ‘endlessness,’ and they were both the original gods of Ogdoad.

Heh was also known as the god of formlessness. He was portrayed as a man crouching down while holding two palm ribs in his hands. Each of these was terminated with a tadpole and a shen ring.

The shen ring was a symbol of infinity, while the palm ribs symbolized the passage of time. They were also present in temples to record cycles of time.

Nun and Naunet

Nun was the embodiment of the ancient waters who existed in the chaos before Earth bore creation.

Amun was created from Nun and rose up on the first piece of land. Another myth states that it was Thoth who was created from Nun, and the gods of Ogdoad continued his song to ensure that the sun kept traveling through the sky.

Nun was shown as a frog-headed man, or a bearded green or blue man who wore the palm frond, a symbol of his long life, on his head and held another one in his hand.

Nun was also portrayed as rising out of a body of water while stretching out his hands holding the solar barque. 

The god of chaos, Nun, did not have a priesthood. No temples have been found under his name, and he was never worshipped as a personified god.

Instead, different lakes symbolized him in temples showing chaotic waters before the Earth was born.

Naunet has been seen as the snake-headed woman who lived on the watery chaos along with her partner, Nun.

Her name was the same as Nuns with just an added feminine ending. More than a real goddess, Naunet was the feminine version of Nun.

She was more of a duality and an abstract version of a goddess. 

Kek and Kauket 

Kek stands for darkness. He was the god of the darkness of chaos before the Earth came into being.

The god of obscurity, Kek was always hidden among the darkness. The Egyptians viewed this darkness as night time- a time without the light of the sun and a reflection of Kek.

The god of the night, Kek is also associated with the day. He is called the ‘bringer-in of the light.”

This means that he was responsible for the time of night that arrived right before sunrise, the god of the hours right before the day dawned on the land of Egypt.

Kauket was a snake-headed woman who ruled the darkness with her partner. Like Naunet, Kauket was also the feminine version of Kek and more of a representation of duality than an actual goddess. She was an abstract. 

Frogs have been a part of human culture for countless centuries. They have taken on different roles, from the devil to the mother of the universe.

Humans recast toads and frogs as main characters of different stories to explain the unfolding of the world. 

Do you ever wonder who will populate our mythologies when these creatures no longer exist?

References:

  1. https://www.exploratorium.edu/frogs/folklore/folklore_4.html
  2. https://egyptmanchester.wordpress.com/2012/11/25/frogs-in-ancient-egypt/
  3. https://jguaa.journals.ekb.eg/article_2800_403dfdefe3fc7a9f2856535f8e290e70.pdf
  4. https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/researchers-in-museums/tag/egyptian-mythology/

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The Editors of Give Me History, "Frogs in Ancient Egypt," Give Me History, September 21, 2020, https://givemehistory.com/frogs-in-ancient-egypt.

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