Happy Groundhog Day!
I thought it would be fun to occasionally have some posts about Ancient Egyptian connections to modern holidays.
But as you may already know, groundhogs have nothing to do with Ancient Egypt (since they are natively a North American creature).
But I DO happen to know quite a bit about hedgehogs in Ancient Egypt. And hedgehogs are REALLY cute.
So even though groundhogs and hedgehogs are not at all related, this seemed like as good a week as any to tell you about hedgehogs in Ancient Egypt.
The Ancient Egyptian word for “hedgehog” was either HntA or Hnty.
However, this Egyptian word may also refer to porcupines and there’s no definitive evidence that the Egyptians used separate words for “porcupine” and “hedgehog.”
Practical uses of the hedgehog
Actual hedgehogs and depictions of hedgehogs in Ancient Egypt had a few practical uses.
Medicine–Hedgehog quills may have been used as medicine; in one medical text, a recipe for curing baldness calls for the burnt spines of the Hnty, mixed with oil.
Food or pets–There are also some tomb scenes that show people carrying cages with hedgehogs in them. Because those scenes also show food offerings for deceased individuals, it may indicate that hedgehogs were used as food. However, those same images may indicate that live hedgehogs were brought back from the dessert in cages to be pets (or as symbolic figures to ward off danger. More on that below).
Decoration–Depictions of hedgehogs are found in tomb scenery to indicate the dessert. They also appear on many three-dimensional objects like boats, pottery vessels, amulets, and stamp-seals.
But hedgehogs also seem to have had an important symbolic role.
Possible symbolic significance of the hedgehog
Protection–As a nocturnal animal, the hedgehog may have been viewed as an advantageous apotropaic (meaning “protective) creatures to ward off the dangers of the nighttime. Additionally, hedgehogs have some natural resistance to poison from scorpions (and snakes) and a good defensive position; although hedgehogs generally avoid conflict and are more likely to flee when possible, they will roll into a ball when severely threatened, so their softer bellies are protected by the defensive spines of their back. The ability to resist poison and to protect themselves when in danger are probably the reason that many Ancient Egyptian amulets are in the shape of a hedgehog.
So there you have it both ways. Depictions of these adorable creatures were used in Ancient Egypt for decoration, but many of them also had symbolic significance.