Amiable after all

To go to Copenhagen and not make a point of paying respects to the Egyptian hippopotamus would be a grave mistake. This small alabaster sculpture, almost five thousand years old, is a prize possession of that most elegantly appointed museum in the Danish capital, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. A friend sent me a post card of the ancient stone tribute to the hefty river dweller a few years ago. It was so beautifully ugly, and, as sculpture, such a compact and knowing piece of work, that I developed an instant affection for this hippopotamus. Now I've seen him in the flesh (as it were) and he is even more appealing than I expected.

But is ''affection'' an apt kind of response? How can we be at all certain that we are reading the signs of a stylized representation of this sort, with any correctness? I am not the only person to think he finds in this carving a sculptor's fond amusement in the description of one of nature's odder shaped creatures. But isn't this just part of a tendency, surprisingly recent in its development, to reduce animals to the status of toys to be handled and loved? Surely the ancient Egyptians had other than playful reasons for making a sculpture of a hippopotamus?

Experts have discovered few signs of any cultish worship (as there was of other animals) of the hippopotamuses that floated in the Nile, though there are Egyptian reliefs showing the creature being hunted. These may be true records of methods employed to control the numbers of a galumphing vegetarian capable of causing generous havoc to crops. Equally, they may represent what Kenneth Clark's book Animals and Menm calls the ''memory of a ritual practice.'' The caption in question continues: ''An ancient legend relates how Horus triumphed over Seth who had assumed the form of a red hippopotamus; and at the time of the first Dynasty the priests of Horus at Edfu went into the middle of the Holy Lake on a raft and dismembered a cake cooked in the form of a hippopotamus.'' Another writer has observed that when the animal was brought ''into affinity with the god Seth'' it was ''mostly seen as an incarnation of violence and terror.''

What could be further from these superstitious goings-on than the self-possessed little carving in Copenhagen? Or, for that matter, quite a number of later miniature sculptures of the hippopotamus in various museums, made of blue glazed faience charmingly decorated with water plants and flowers and birds , like a Paul Klee? Nor do the ''cosmetic palettes'' of the fourth millennium B. C., made of slate and used for grinding eye-paint, some of which are shaped like a hippopotamus (though almost more like its relation the pig), suggest anything other than a decorative pleasure. It also seems hard to accept that the Egyptians, whose observation of wildlife frequently displays directness and factuality, would have disregarded the essentially peaceable and mild nature of the hippopotamus which only shows determined ferocity when threatened, or in defense of its young.

So perhaps the signs of this carving are being read accurately after all: perhaps the sculptor really did enjoy his subject and feel friendly toward it. The incised line of the mouth seems to suggest a certain complacency, an untroubled approach to the world, not exactly a smile but an unenergetically wry acceptance of the (generally wet and muddy) status quo. What gargantuan effort would be required to open those jaws even to yawn! It's far easier to keep them tight shut. The great bulging eyes, underlined with a circular crease of skin, have a lazy tolerance that is almostm benevolent - and, as to alertness, they are given not the slightest competition from the residual nostrils and even less from the ineffective ears. The rest is a globular rotundity, and yet the subtlety of the carving is such that you can feel under all this rounded mass that the animal has a recognized structure. There is also a particularly happy use of the ''grain'' of the alabaster which runs in faintly undulant streaks from one end of the hippopotamus to the other, as though it represents the water in which the animal spends most of its days largely submerged.

There is something particularly endearing about the miniaturization of such a sizable mammal, though the sense of scale is sound and nothing of its bignessm is lost. So even if the sculptor had made it life-size, it seems likely that his hippopotamus would still have been the altogether amiable and pleasing lump it is.

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