The Stork and the Hippopotamus

This bizarre pictura, part of an emblem from Hadrian Junius’s 1565 Emblemata, is made hardly more comprehensible by the texts that claim to explicate it.

The inscript is straightforward enough, “Faithlessness must be overcome and rooted out.” But what does that have to do with the creatures in the picture? And what are these beasts, anyway?

In his poetic subscript, Junius fills us in — just a bit.

The bird, enemy of serpents, perches atop a scepter,

Which pushes down on the back of the horse of the Nile.

It conquers the haughty and stamps out the faithless,

This scepter of justice, and it destroys the wicked.

The “enemy of serpents” is, its crane-like raised foot notwithstanding, the white stork, and the horse of the Nile, of course, is the hippopotamus, which Junius’s engraver seems to have imagined as something like a perissodactyl bear. The moral signification of these animals and their awkward pose is explained only somewhat less allusively in the prose explication that follows:

The faithlessness of the hippoppotamus is so unbounded … that it will not even spare the life of the father that gave it birth…. But the stork is most certainly the death of snakes … the scepter is the sign of kings …. And it is indicated by this emblem that faithlessness (the foundation of all vices, which contains in itself all sins and crimes) must be suppressed and punished by the sword of retribution and removed from all things, just as storks do to the race of serpents.

All very obscure. Fortunately, though, we know where to look when the early modern creators of emblems reach to Egypt for their inspiration.

The study — “study” — of hieroglyphics before Champollion and Young was dominated by fanciful works, inspired by the apparent forgery attributed to a certain Horapollo, in which members of the humanist elite vied with one another to see who could pile up the most learned lore in explanation of a given symbol. This led inevitably to the creation of hieroglyphic encyclopedias, great sources for the emblematizers and even greater resources for us as we seek to understand just what they were on about half a millennium ago.

One of the most useful is Piero Valerianus’s Hieroglyphica, first published in 1556. Looking under the chapter headings “Stork” and “Hippopotamus” tells us everything we need to know, with an extremely strange illustration as a bonus.

Valerianus begins his interpretation by observing that coins from the reign of Hadrian show a stork with the inscription “pietas augusta,” “the highest faithfulness.” Those words

meant that the noble man should be faithful to his parents … and never desert them, caring for them in their old age…. Storks do not let their parents wander here and there in search of food but bring them what they have, so that the old birds, which bore them and raised them, can stay in the nest and feed from the young birds’ labor…. And the ancient Law of the Stork, commemorating the name of these birds, requires that elderly parents be supported, as we have said.

The Roman lex ciconaria was a frequent subject of sermons on the fifth commandment, as Valerianus points out at length.

And the hippo?

Egyptian priests were quite right to depict a hippopotamus when they meant to indicate that someone was faithless, unjust, and ungrateful….  As soon as the hippopotamus begins to mature, it grows hostile to its father and tries to see whether it can defeat its father in a fight, often challenging it: if it happens that the younger animal comes out the victor, it seeks to copulate with its mother … but if it is defeated by its father or otherwise prevented from accomplishing its criminal desire, its depravity persists for so long that once it is mature, and stronger and more powerful, it attacks its father, now weakened by age, and tears him to pieces.

Valerianus explains his illustration as a reminder to always put faithfulness above ingratitude:

The Egyptians made the scepters of their kings with the image of a stork at the top and the hooves of a hippopotamus at the bottom, desiring to remind us that faithfulness was to be embraced, highly valued, and readily undertaken, but faithlessness, as represented by the hieroglyph of the hippopotamus, was to be done away with entirely.

All makes sense now, doesn’t it?