A hippopotamus making beer

I was paging through a recent edition of the twelfth century comic ‘beast epic’ Ysengrimus and was reminded of these two papyri from the British Museum’s collection.

This first (details and expandable image here) is described as:

Papyrus with satirical vignettes: a figured scene in which animals ape human activities, but in a topsy-turvy world, they act against their natural instincts. The lion does not attack the gazelle but plays a board game, probably ‘senet’, with her. The pair grasps the playing pieces with great difficulty; the lion also holds a dice made from an animal bone. Even when the lion wins, he claims his reward in the bedroom: although the end of the papyrus is damaged, it is surely the same gazelle who is depicted there lying on her back on the bed. The rampant lion who overwhelms her certainly wears the same triumphant expression. Framed by this scene is one in which goats and geese are driven along by their natural predators the hyena, fox, and wild cat who walk upright like human herdsmen, wielding a goad, carrying their possessions in a bag slung over a pole carried on the shoulder, leaning on a staff or playing a double flute. As a further irony the cat cradles a gosling.

The second (details and expandable image here) gets a lengthier commentary:

Illustrated papyrus: fragments of an illustrated papyrus showing animals engaged in human activities, including a hippopotamus making beer, a cat waiting on a mouse, a lion making beer and a canine carrying grain.

It is uncertain how the papyrus would have been ‘read’; the scenes do not represent a narrative sequence of successive events, and are thus unlikely to be a mnemonic summary or illustration of narrative tales, or to have been verbalized into a spoken narration.

Such papyri are often composed of parodies of types of scene from official and religious art, suggesting that the effect of the humour and the manner in which the papyrus was ‘read’ were purely visual. The sequence of images representing comic role-reversals is similar to the episodic textual images of social reversals in classic poems like the ‘Dialogue of lpuur and the Lord of All’. It has been suggested that the papyrus images are social satire that mocked officials by portraying them as animals, but it is more likely that these scenes were not subversive or programmatic social satire aimed at particular classes, but principally expressed a holiday mood. The world turned upside down may be connected directly with the New Year feast and the drunkenness of religious festivals – which would explain why some similar types of scene occur on Greco-Roman Period temple walls. They are, however, also connected with relaxation of a less liturgical nature, constituting laughter pure and simple; this carnival atmosphere has left little trace in the monumental record. Although a modern audience’s response is spontaneous, it is difficult to reconstruct the original cultural context and suggest a plausible interpretation. The provenance may have been the village of Deir el-Medina.

A close-up of the brewer hippo:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s