hippo goddess of the Nile
years after this dream, in Erich Neumann's The Origins and History
of Human Consciousness, I came across a picture of a statue of the hippopotamus
goddess Ta-urt, holding before her the Sa symbol of protection. Surely it
is she of whom I dreamed, here in the womb-egg of the headwaters of the
Nile . . .1
I'm on a train with a group of people who are part of a tour to which I don't belong. We arrive at a great cavern at the end of the line. This is a perfectly smooth hollow in the shape of an egg or a womb. The walls are smooth and dun-coloured and seem somehow artificial, as though they have been sprayed by gunnite like the fake badlands at Calgary Zoo.
Indeed the whole place seems like a zoo exhibit, complete with artfully hidden lighting. On the floor of the cavern is a pool of water in which several hippos wallow lugubriously. All except for one hippo, who lies motionless up on the far bank with her back to the crowd.
The people ignore the hippos in the water, but they are most annoyed about the hippo who ignores them. Some African children (totos) are around. The tourists egg them on to stone the stationery hippo. Nothing seems to budge her. Finally one toto goes up to her and pulls her tail, then hammers a sharp-pointed stone into the base of her spine.
She moves now, and in a flash stands upright on her hind legs, a baby clutched to her breast. The other hippos rear up on their hind legs and form a group that marches out toward the train, the first female in the lead. The tourists scream and flee, though the hippos (who now looking more like gigantic mountain gorillas than hippos) appear to be far more sad than vicious.
The tour leader is the Education Curator of the Calgary Zoo. He pulls me aside near the entrance to the tunnel where the train is. The two of us and a third person, an internationally renowned wildlife photographer, also from Calgary, stand against the wall and watch the hippo-gorillas pass by, slowly and sedately. They climb into the train and take places in the first class compartments. The rest of the humans have already fled in an hysterical mob into the furthest end of the train where there is a cattle car.
The three of us who didn't join mob get on the train and it begins to move. We sit in the dining car for the entire trip. I soon realize we are headed for Nairobi; the cavern at the end of the line must have been beneath Lake Victoria, source of the Nile -- or perhaps the pool in the cavern was a remnant of the great lake. The hippo-gorillas come into the dining car for their meals. They behave themselves in an exemplary fashion, like Victorian matrons on holiday.
The chief steward -- a tall, shiny black African, almost certainly from a Nilotic tribe -- comes to report on the humans in the cattle car. "They've gone insane, " he says. "They're screaming for something to read."
"Didn't they get the newspapers?" we ask.
"They can't read Swahili. They don't want to admit it though. They've torn the papers into shreds. They say they need them to sleep on. But torn like that, how can they be any use to sleep on?" He shakes his head in bewilderment.
"Don't they know Swahili is a lingua franca imposed on the Africans by us white people?" I ask. "It's a slavers' language, an indignity to the blacks. But now that it's the official language, the least we can do is learn to communicate in it."
We arrive at the terminal in Nairobi and walk out of the train into the middle of a bustling marketplace. The hippo-gorillas are now garbed in brightly coloured African robes and look like statesman from the west coast. The white tourists are naked and dirty and shriveled. They resemble nothing so much as a crawling mass of termites exposed in a nest beneath the foundations of a house.
The head hippo-gorilla -- the mother who ignored the tourists in the cavern -- comes up to me. She lifts me up in her arms till I'm snuggled close with her child. It's a wonderful warm feeling. I let it sink in, feeling every moment stronger, safer, more invincible. Finally she lets me down. Suddenly I feel cold and frail. I realize that when she held me in her arms, what I felt was her power coursing through my veins. She looks down at me, her eyes fluid with love. Huge tears form at the corners of them. One drops onto my face.
1 Ta-urt is closely associated with another Egyptian mythological figure, the monster Amam, "devourer of the dead," the Terrible Mother of death and the underworld. Those of the dead who have not passed the test are eaten by this "female monster" and are extinguished for good. She is "repressed" and crouches beside the judgment scales like a horror -- "not a subject that popular fancy cared to pursue." (Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness, p.69). Return.
of 14 March 1989]