Beaker with Two Crocodiles
This small drinking vase in pink terracotta with a whitish slip and a red-brown painted decor, is typical of Nubian production in the early centuries of our era. Two crocodiles, in single file, are placed between two double horizontal brown lines, in a frieze running along the whole cylindrical surface of the body.
The representations of desert animals or from the Nile Valley can often be seen on this type of object. The theme of the crocodile, the amphibian living mainly in freshwater, evokes primarily the natural environment in which human beings evolve. The crocodile is still today a large part of the African artistic repertoire: for example, his image decorates large wooden doors and on scales weighing gold-dust. Its presence is equally symbolic as Africa attaches a value, positive or negative, to different animals that play leading roles in myths, tales and proverbs.
This symbolic nature of the crocodile was already present in Pharaonic Egypt when the crocodile occupied a special place. Associated with the Nile, he was both protector and guarantor of agricultural prosperity; but also formidable, ready to destroy his enemies, and even more prosaically, everything within his reach. As the sacred animal of the god Sobek, he was venerated in many places in Egypt, especially in Fayum and Nubia. The god helped to maintain order and justice. These prerogatives are illustrated for example, in chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead when the “Devourer of the Dead”, a hybrid monster with the head of a crocodile, forepart of a lion and hindquarters of a hippopotamus, is ready to devour the impure hearts of the deceased, or even in the miracle of the story of the cheated husband in papyrus Westcar; it describes how a wax figurine cast by a magician in the pool is transformed into the formidable animal and devours the unfaithful wife’s lover alive. In both cases, morality and common law prevail.
The sanctified animals which could measure up to six metres were mummified after their death. Examples can be seen in the small museum of Kom Ombo.
In Antiquity, the crocodile swarmed on the banks of the Nile which impressed foreign visitors. After the Roman conquest of Egypt, the animal became one of the symbols of the country. Shrines and private residences in Italy were decorated with statues of crocodiles and mosaics in prominently places, evoking fashionable Nilotic landscapes during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. Much later in one of his letters from Egypt and Nubia, Champollion rejoiced at the feast he would have following the capture of a crocodile; however, realizing the flesh was no longer edible, his delight quickly vanished.
The animal disappeared during the 19th century to the north of the First Cataract, but the implementation of the Aswan Dam today permits families of crocodiles to thrive again on the shores of Lake Nasser.