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It is not known exactly what ancient Egyptians looked like: whether they were white, black or brown. Many scholars believe they probably looked like modern Egyptians.The study of ancient Egyptian people and life---whether it be homes, food, family life, hair care, child rearing, pets or whatever---is based mostly on identifying scenes associated with each of these activities from monuments, temples and tombs and translating and interpreting the inscriptions and texts found with them. Clues can also be gleaned from artifacts found in burials.

At its height, ancient Egypt only had a population of 1.5 to 2 million people. Large cities in the Near East in the third millennium B.C. had only around 20,000 or 30,000 people. The population density around Amarana---royal city built by Akhnaten to honor the god Atun---was about 500 people per square mile in 1540 BC.

It is estimated that the population of Egypt (the Nile Valle) doubled between 4000 and 3000 B.C. and quadrupled between 4000 B.C. and 2500 B.C., the height of the Old Kingdom, when the pyramids were built. In 1250 B.C. the population of ancient Egypt was about 1.5 times what it was in 2500 B.C. and then it dropped to Old Kingdom levels before the Greco-Roman period.

Methods of birth control mentioned in the Petri Papyrus (1850 B.C.) and Eber Papyrus (1550 B.C.) included coitus interruptus and coitus obstructus (ejaculating into a bladder inserted in a depression at the base of urethra). To keep from having babies, Egyptian women were advised to inset a mixture of honey and crocodile dung in their vagina. The honey may have acted as a temporary cervical cap but the most effective agent was acid in the dung that acted as the world's first spermicide.

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Discovering Egypt; BBC History: Egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt; Egypt’s Golden Empire; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt; Ancient Egypt Magazine; Egypt Exploration Society ; Amarna Project; Egyptian Study Society, Denver; The Ancient Egypt Site; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East; Egyptology Resources

Ancient Egyptian Customs

The custom of handshaking has been traced back to ancient Egypt. Hieroglyphics, dating back to 2800 B.C., representing the verb "to give," show an extended hand. Kings in ancient Babylon and Assyria grasped the hands of statues of their major Gods during important celebrations and festivals.

The first known book of manners and correct manners, The Instructions of Ptahhotep , was written around 2500 B.C. and a papyrus copy lies a Museum. Known as the "Prisse payrus," it advises guests with their boss to "laugh when he laughs," and "thou shalt be agreeable to his heart." Women are advised to "Be silent it is a better gift than flowers.”

In Genesis 41:41-42 a pharaoh gives Joseph a ring to symbolize a deal has been made. Most ancient rings were made of steatite of medals such as bronze, silver or gold. Few were adorned with precious stones. Some of the oldest known rings were used as signets by rulers, public officials and traders to authorize documents with a stamp. Signatures were not used until late in history.

Kissing the feet, hands of hems of garments of important people was an expression of respect in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome.

Concepts of Self in Ancient Egypt

Christina Riggs of the University of East Anglia wrote: “The human body is both the physical form inhabited by an individual “self” and the medium through which an individual engages with society. Hence the body both shapes and is shaped by an individual’s social roles. [Source:Christina Riggs, University of East Anglia, UK, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, <>]

“The culture of ancient Egypt offers rich resources for analyzing the Egyptians’ conceptualization of the body and the embodied self, in terms of texts and language, pictorial representation, religious beliefs and eschatology, rituals, bodily practices (including grooming and medicine), and social differentiation (such as class, age, and gender). The practice of mummification informs us, not only of the Egyptians’ knowledge of human physiology, but of their conceptualization of the body, which is culturally constructed in every society, while extant physical remains give a much greater insight into the physical anthropology of the populace than is possible for other ancient societies. <>

“The human being as a complete entity was composed of numerous elements in addition to, or residing in, the physical body. These included fate, the extent of one’s lifetime (aHaw), the name (rn), the shadow (Swt), one’s personal magic (HkAw), the life force (kA), and in some interpretations, the soul (bA). The heart (jb or HAtj) was a metonym for emotion and cognition, and the pumping of the heart was recognized as an indicator of health and life. The jb- heart connoted emotions and cognition, while the HAtj-heart was the physical organ, although the two words could be used interchangeably. An individual was also linked to his parents and ancestors through both the life force (kA) and the physical body, as the expression “heart (jb) of my mother” may suggest (Book of the Dead 30 a - b). Bringing together these elements of the person is a goal expressed in funerary literature and in art, for instance through the symbolism of coffin iconography, including the Four Sons of Horus associated with the integrity of the corpse. A scene from the Ramesside tomb of Amenemhat depicts each of the Four Sons presenting one of these elements to the deceased: Amset bears the heart (jb), Hapi the bA, Duamutef the kA, and Qebehsenuef the XAt-corpse, presaged as a mummy (saH) by being shown in the wrapped form.” <>

Instruction of Ptah-hotep (2200 B.c.) On Being a Good Person

The Instruction of Ptahhotep is an ancient Egyptian literary composition written by the Vizier Ptahhotep, during the rule of King Izezi of the Fifth Dynasty. Regarded as one of the best examples of wisdom literature, specifically under the genre of Instructions that teach something, of Ptahhotep addresses various virtues that are necessary to live a good life in accordance with Maat (justice) and offers insight into Old Kingdom — and ancient Egyptian — thought, morality and attitudes. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Instruction of Ptahhotep ( c. 2200 B.C.) reads: “If you desire that your conduct should be good and preserved from all evil, keep yourself from every attack of bad humor. It is a fatal malady which leads to discord, and there is no longer any existence for him who gives way to it. For it introduces discord between fathers and mothers, as well as between brothers and sisters; it causes the wife and the husband to hate each other; it contains all kinds of wickedness, it embodies all kinds of wrong. When a man has established his just equilibrium and walks in this path, there where he makes his dwelling, there is no room for bad humor. [Source: Charles F. Horne, “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East” (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. II: Egypt, pp. 62-78, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt, Fordham University]

“Be not of an irritable temper as regards that which happens at your side; grumble not over your own affairs. Be not of an irritable temper in regard to your neighbors; better is a compliment to that which displeases than rudeness. It is wrong to get into a passion with one's neighbors, to be no longer master of one's words. When there is only a little irritation, one creates for oneself an affliction for the time when one will again be cool.

“If you are a son of the guardians deputed to watch over the public tranquillity, execute your commission without knowing its meaning, and speak with firmness. Substitute not for that which the instructor has said what you believe to be his intention; the great use words as it suits them. Your part is to transmit rather than to comment upon.

“If you are annoyed at a thing, if you are tormented by someone who is acting within his right, get out of his sight, and remember him no more when he has ceased to address you. If you hear those things which I have said to you, your wisdom will be fully advanced. Although they are the means which are suitable for arriving at the maat, and it is that which makes them precious, their memory would recede from the mouth of men. But thanks to the beauty of their arrangement in rhythm all their words will now be carried without alteration over this earth eternally. That will create a canvass to be embellished, whereof the great will speak, in order to instruct men in its sayings. After having listened to them the pupil will become a master, even he who shall have properly listened to the sayings because he shall have heard them. Let him win success by placing himself in the first rank; that is for him a position perfect and durable, and he has nothing further to desire forever. By knowledge his path is assured, and he is made happy by it on the earth. The wise man is satiated by knowledge; he is a great man through his own merits. His tongue is in accord with his mind; just are his lips when he speaks, his eyes when he gazes, his ears when he hears. The advantage of his son is to do that which is just without deceiving himself.

Instruction of Ptah-Hotep (2200 B.C.) on Being a Good Man

The Instruction of Ptahhotep ( c. 2200 B.C.) reads: “Do not repeat any extravagance of language; do not listen to it; it is a thing which has escaped from a hasty mouth. If it is repeated, look, without hearing it, toward the earth; say nothing in regard to it. Cause him who speaks to you to know what is just, even him who provokes to injustice; cause that which is just to be done, cause it to triumph. As for that which is hateful according to the law, condemn it by unveiling it.

“If you are a wise man, sitting in the council of your lord, direct your thought toward that which is wise. Be silent rather than scatter your words. When you speak, know that which can be brought against you. To speak in the council is an art, and speech is criticized more than any other labor; it is contradiction which puts it to the proof.

“If you are powerful, respect knowledge and calmness of language. Command only to direct; to be absolute is to run into evil. Let not your heart be haughty, neither let it be mean. Do not let your orders remain unsaid and cause your answers to penetrate; but speak without heat, assume a serious countenance. As for the vivacity of an ardent heart, temper it; the gentle man penetrates all obstacles. He who agitates himself all the day long has not a good moment; and he who amuses himself all the day long keeps not his fortune. Aim at fulness like pilots; once one is seated another works, and seeks to obey one's orders.

“As for the man without experience who listens not, he effects nothing whatsoever. He sees knowledge in ignorance, profit in loss; he commits all kinds of error, always accordingly choosing the contrary of what is praiseworthy. He lives on that which is mortal, in this fashion. His food is evil words, whereat he is filled with astonishment. That which the great know to be mortal he lives upon every day, flying from that which would be profitable to him, because of the multitude of errors which present themselves before him every day.

Ethics in Ancient Egypt

Nikolaos Lazaridis of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands wrote: “Ancient Egyptian ethical thought and action revolved around the notion of maat. Although there are no traces of a standard moral code surviving from ancient Egypt, moral principles are often reflected in the literature--especially works of wisdom literature, funerary books and songs, tomb biographies, and literary narratives. In these sources moral principles are mostly expressed in practical admonitions and general observations on everyday conduct, and are voiced by authoritative sages. Through the study of these sources one can observe the occurrence of a major change in ancient Egyptian ethical thought during the New Kingdom, when piety and religiosity became significant criteria for the judgment of the individual. [Source: Nikolaos Lazaridis, Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, <>]

“Ethics can be defined as a network of interrelated moral values whose content touch upon all social roles that can be played by a member of an organized community and whose aim is the practice of good. The term is often identified with that of “morality.” Although scholars have attempted in the past to define these two terms and distinguish them from each other, from the perspective of philosophy, cultural studies, sociology, and related disciplines, no overall agreement has ever been reached. <>

“The concerns of the moral values comprising the system of Egyptian ethics resemble themes of a code of conduct, the Egyptian term for which was mTn n anx (“a way of life”). The main difference between the Egyptian system of ethics and Western tradition is that the former did not include a self-reflective, theoretical discussion of the essence and purpose of its moral values the way the latter does, following the archetypal example Aristotle set in his Nicomachean Ethics. If put in modern philosophical terms, Egyptian ethics were “practical ethics”—that is, moral values linked to practical matters and expressed in the form of personal, down-to-earth observations and admonitions.” <>

Ethics and Maat in Ancient Egypt

Nikolaos Lazaridis of Radboud University Nijmegen wrote: “In contrast to the multitude of debatable terms used in modern ethics, the only Egyptian term evidently employed in association with a body of moral values and their application was maat. Maat was the name of the goddess of “justice” and “cosmic order,” but also an abstract term for “justice,” “truth,” and “balance,” embodying the gist of a proper code of conduct—the very nucleus of Egyptians ethics—and hence opposed by the terms jsft (“sin, wrong”) and grg (“lie”). The goddess Maat was the daughter, and an essential aspect (Teilmacht), of the sun god; she was featured in a wide range of religious and mythological works and had a cult and a number of cultic sites dedicated to her. As an abstract notion, maat personified the divine and cosmic order and was included in the epithets of several gods—for example, Ptah (as Creator), Horus (as a sky god), and Thoth were often granted the epithet “Lord of Maat”. [Source: Nikolaos Lazaridis, Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, <>]

“The exultation of maat and its associations is a central theme in the tomb biographies, which are inscribed on funerary objects, such as stelae and statues, or on the walls of tombs. In these works the life and accomplishments of the tomb owners are described in glowing terms, including praises for their character and conduct, inasmuch as they reflected maat and the various existing moral standards. <>

“Thus, for instance: 1) “I was a worthy citizen who acted with his arm, the foremost of his whole troop. I acquired oxen and goats. . . . I made a boat of 30 (cubits) and a small boat that ferried the boatless in the inundation season.” 2) “I was the priest for slaughtering and offering in two temples on behalf of the ruler. . . . I was not robbed. . . . I did what the great ones liked, what my household praised; a person beloved of his companions.” “From such private texts, one can determine what the Egyptians considered to be good and bad in relation to a man’s character and social status.” <>

Ideas About Good and Evil from Ancient Wisdom Literature

Nikolaos Lazaridis wrote: “A similar set of principles of good and evil/right and wrong can be identified in the works of wisdom literature, a literary macrogenre that, according to current consensus among Egyptologists, mainly includes “Instructions” and “Lamentations”. The Instruction texts contain short sayings and admonitions, in addition to elaborate ethical statements on general matters of human conduct. The moral principles reflected in the Instructions relate to the social life and status of the individual and thus resemble the moral teachings of the tomb biographies. However, the Instructions also present a small number of ethical statements regarding more theoretical/philosophical matters, such as the nature of the Divine or the creation of the world. Conversely, the genre of “Lamentations,” also known as “Discourses,” consists of vivid descriptions of gloomy situations in which all moral principles are trampled and all normal ways are reversed. [Source: Nikolaos Lazaridis, Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, <>]

“Both types of literary writing—Instructions and Lamentations—are attributed to learned men whose assumed fame and status grant the writings an authoritative tone and an unquestioned validity. Reading through these works of ancient wisdom, one can discern what the various foci of ethical norms were and in what way they were linked to the norms of politics, religion, society, and education, and to the Egyptians’ conception of their own history. For example, when one reads the following wisdom passage, one can identify various moral norms and their relationship to the acquisition of wealth and to Fate: 1) “Do not set your heart on wealth, There is no ignoring Fate and Fortune; Do not let your heart go straying, Every man has his hour.” 2) “Do not strain to seek out excess, What you have, let it suffice you.” <>

“In addition to those provided in tomb biographies and wisdom literature, glimpses of a moral code are granted in works of funerary literature. There is, for example, the so-called “Negative Confession” found in Chapter 125 of the standard New Kingdom version of the Book of the Dead. This chapter contains a list of short, negative declarations that the deceased addresses to Osiris. The intent of these declarations was for the deceased to prove that she or he was pure and worthy to be judged “good” by the gods in the Hall of the Two Truths. Thus the deceased declares that he or she has not committed a standardized set of evils within the context of everyday social and religious conduct: “I have not done crimes against people, I have not mistreated cattle… I have not blasphemed a god, I have not robbed the poor...“I have not done what the god abhors.” [From Papyrus BM 10477 (translation: Lichtheim 1976, Vol. II: 125)] <>

“On the one hand, the standardization of the list of evils, along with its treatment of general themes and its common use in New Kingdom private and royal tombs, could suggest that it was indeed a well-established moral code, reflecting the ethics of contemporary Egyptian society. On the other, the exclusive use of The Book of the Dead within a funerary context (with a possible symbolic and ritualistic function) might indicate that the application of this moral code was restricted to that context rather than the sphere of popular ethics. <>

“Finally, ethical principles are also reflected in literary narratives, as well as in the so-called Harper’s Songs. Such works include general ethical statements and/or express ethical ideas indirectly through descriptions of everyday scenes, the progress of the “plot,” and the construction of various literary characters. In addition, in some cases, as in The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, ethical principles, and especially the function of the institutions associated with them (such as the judicial system), are questioned, revealing that their authority is not unchallengeable. A good example of the conveyance of ethical ideas in the context of a literary narrative is found in the passage from The Story of Sinuhe in which the runaway protagonist is addressed by Pharaoh: “What have you done that one should act against you? You have not cursed, so that your speech could be condemned. You have not spoken against the Counsel of the Nobles, that your words could be rejected. . . . You should not die in a foreign land! Asiatics should not inter you. You should not be wrapped in the skin of a ram to serve as your coffin.” [Papyrus Berlin 3022, lines 183 - 185 and 197 - 198 (translated by the author)]” <>

Values of Ancient Egyptian Villages

“In spite of the official bias of the bulk of our sources, some references reveal that the village was an important element in the construction of social identities. Late 3rd millennium texts, for example, introduce for the first time epithets and titles stressing links with the town and the village. In a period of armed conflicts, individual members of the local militia were called anx n njwt, “soldier,” the expression s n njwt, “a man of the town,” began to refer to “citizens,” and the very concept of nTr njwt, “local god,” became popular in private monuments. [Source: Juan Carlos Moreno Garcia, Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), France, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2011, <>]

“But it is in the realm of the private inscriptions where the importance of the praise and approval of the citizens, of acting in favor of one’s locality, appear for the first time as proof of personal prestige and distinction, to the point that epithets like mry n njwt.f, “one beloved of his town,” or Hzy n njwt.f, “praised by his town,” figure prominently in the autobiographies and monuments of this period. Later teachings and sapiential literature assert the importance of the village as a cohesive and protective social network for its members, linked not only by endogamy but also by solidarity and mutual obligation ties controlled by the local notables. A discernible self-awareness of belonging to a community appears as a highly esteemed value, whilst the village temple and the local cult centers become basic pillars of collective identity. <>

“Nevertheless, archaeology also shows that popular, private religion relied extensively on magic and cults of natural forces, while ancestor cults and collective burials were foci of family memory and identity. In this respect, finds from New Kingdom Kom el- Rabia, a suburb of Memphis, are probably quite representative of the conditions prevailing in the countryside, as they reveal a duality of cultic forms linked to social status, with figurines and amulets being widely spread among commoners while small stelae were reserved for low rank priests living in the neighborhood. In any case, it is quite probable that the local priesthood was reserved for the wealthiest villagers and local notables, the same social sectors who could sometimes afford for themselves the type of prestige items (statues, decorated sarcophagi, inscribed objects, etc.) usually restricted to the administrative elite, thus enhancing their status inside the communities they ruled.” <>

Herodotus on Egyptian Customs

Herodotus wrote in Book 2 of “Histories”: “It is sufficient to say this much concerning the Nile. But concerning Egypt, I am going to speak at length, because it has the most wonders, and everywhere presents works beyond description; therefore, I shall say the more concerning Egypt. [Source: Herodotus, “The Histories”, Egypt after the Persian Invasion, Book 2, English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920, Tufts]

“Just as the Egyptians have a climate peculiar to themselves, and their river is different in its nature from all other rivers, so, too, have they instituted customs and laws contrary for the most part to those of the rest of mankind. Among them, the women buy and sell, the men stay at home and weave; and whereas in weaving all others push the woof upwards, the Egyptians push it downwards. Men carry burdens on their heads, women on their shoulders. Women pass water standing, men sitting. They ease their bowels indoors, and eat out of doors in the streets, explaining that things unseemly but necessary should be done alone in private, things not unseemly should be done openly. No woman is dedicated to the service of any god or goddess; men are dedicated to all deities male or female. Sons are not compelled against their will to support their parents, but daughters must do so though they be unwilling. 36.

“Everywhere else, priests of the gods wear their hair long; in Egypt, they are shaven. For all other men, the rule in mourning for the dead is that those most nearly concerned have their heads shaven; Egyptians are shaven at other times, but after a death they let their hair and beard grow. The Egyptians are the only people who keep their animals with them in the house. Whereas all others live on wheat and barley, it is the greatest disgrace for an Egyptian to live so; they make food from a coarse grain which some call spelt. They knead dough with their feet, and gather mud and dung with their hands. The Egyptians and those who have learned it from them are the only people who practise circumcision. Every man has two garments, every woman only one. The rings and sheets of sails are made fast outside the boat elsewhere, but inside it in Egypt. The Greeks write and calculate from left to right; the Egyptians do the opposite; yet they say that their way of writing is towards the right, and the Greek way towards the left. They employ two kinds of writing; one is called sacred, the other demotic19. 37.


“They are religious beyond measure, more than any other people; and the following are among their customs. They drink from cups of bronze, which they clean out daily; this is done not by some but by all. They are especially careful always to wear newly-washed linen. They practise circumcision for cleanliness' sake; for they would rather be clean than more becoming. Their priests shave the whole body every other day, so that no lice or anything else foul may infest them as they attend upon the gods.

“Among the Egyptians themselves, those who live in the cultivated country are the most assiduous of all men at preserving the memory of the past, and none whom I have questioned are so skilled in history. They practice the following way of life. For three consecutive days in every month they purge themselves, pursuing health by means of emetics and drenches; for they think that it is from the food they eat that all sicknesses come to men. Even without this, the Egyptians are the healthiest of all men, next to the Libyans; the explanation of which, in my opinion, is that the climate in all seasons is the same: for change is the great cause of men's falling sick, more especially changes of seasons. They eat bread, making loaves which they call “cyllestis,”37 of coarse grain. For wine, they use a drink made from barley, for they have no vines in their country. They eat fish either raw and sun-dried, or preserved with brine. Quails and ducks and small birds are salted and eaten raw; all other kinds of birds, as well as fish (except those that the Egyptians consider sacred) are eaten roasted or boiled. 78.

“After rich men's repasts, a man carries around an image in a coffin, painted and carved in exact imitation of a corpse two or four feet long. This he shows to each of the company, saying “While you drink and enjoy, look on this; for to this state you must come when you die.” Such is the custom at their symposia. 79.

“They keep the customs of their fathers, adding none to them. Among other notable customs of theirs is this, that they have one song, the Linus-song,38 which is sung in Phoenicia and Cyprus and elsewhere; each nation has a name of its own for this, but it happens to be the same song that the Greeks sing, and call Linus; so that of many things in Egypt that amaze me, one is: where did the Egyptians get Linus? Plainly they have always sung this song; but in Egyptian Linus is called Maneros.39 The Egyptians told me that Maneros was the only son of their first king, who died prematurely, and this dirge was sung by the Egyptians in his honor; and this, they said, was their earliest and their only chant. 80.

“There is a custom, too, which no Greeks except the Lacedaemonians have in common with the Egyptians: younger men, encountering their elders, yield the way and stand aside, and rise from their seats for them when they approach. But they are like none of the Greeks in this: passers-by do not address each other, but salute by lowering the hand to the knee. 81.

“They wear linen tunics with fringes hanging about the legs, called “calasiris,” and loose white woolen mantles over these. But nothing woolen is brought into temples, or buried with them: that is impious. They agree in this with practices called Orphic and Bacchic, but in fact Egyptian and Pythagorean: for it is impious, too, for one partaking of these rites to be buried in woolen wrappings. There is a sacred legend about this. 82.

Herodotus on Egyptian Distaste for Greek Customs

Herodotus wrote in Book 2 of “Histories”: “The Egyptians shun using Greek customs, and (generally speaking) the customs of all other peoples as well. Yet, though the rest are wary of this, there is a great city called Khemmis, in the Theban district, near the New City. In this city is a square temple of Perseus son of Danae, in a grove of palm trees. Before this temple stand great stone columns; and at the entrance, two great stone statues. In the outer court there is a shrine with an image of Perseus standing in it. The people of this Khemmis say that Perseus is seen often up and down this land, and often within the temple, and that the sandal he wears, which is four feet long, keeps turning up, and that when it does turn up, all Egypt prospers. This is what they say; and their doings in honor of Perseus are Greek, inasmuch as they celebrate games that include every form of contest, and offer animals and cloaks and skins as prizes. [Source: Herodotus, “The Histories”, Egypt after the Persian Invasion, Book 2, English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920, Tufts]

“When I asked why Perseus appeared only to them, and why, unlike all other Egyptians, they celebrate games, they told me that Perseus was by lineage of their city; for Danaus and Lynceus, who travelled to Greece, were of Khemmis; and they traced descent from these down to Perseus. They told how he came to Khemmis, too, when he came to Egypt for the reason alleged by the Greeks as well—namely, to bring the Gorgon's head from Libya—and recognized all his relatives; and how he had heard the name of Khemmis from his mother before he came to Egypt. It was at his bidding, they said, that they celebrated the games. 92.

Humor, Sarcasm and Prejudice in Ancient Egyptian Art and Texts

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Satirical papyrus
A work called the “Teaching of Ani” penned during the 18th Dynasty offers this advice on drinking: “Do not indulge in drinking beer lest bad words come out of your mouth without you knowing what you are saying. If you fall and hurt yourself, no one will give you a helping hand. Your drinking companions will stand around saying, ‘Out with the drunkard!’ If someone comes to find you and talk to you, you will be discovered lying on the ground like a little child.” [Source: Nathaniel Scharping, Discover, September 22, 2016]

“A strong sarcastic strain comes out here and there, mostly in very small pieces,” Souren Melikian wrote in New York Times. “The ancient Egyptians were not above expressing their dislike of foreigners. Warfare repeatedly pitched the pharaohs against the Semitic states of the Near East. The unknown artist who engraved an ivory plaque destined to adorn a piece of furniture clearly did not have much sympathy for the Assyrians.A prisoner wearing the Assyrian princely attire is depicted raising his arms, tied around the wrists. He seems to be wriggling in a curious quasi-dancing posture. The Assyrian’s goggle-eyed stare makes him a figure of fun. [Source: Souren Melikian, New York Times, May 20, 2011]

Relations between the ancient Egyptians and the Nubians who lived south of their territory were not the best either. A small limestone trial piece was dug up at Tell el-Amarna by William Flinders Petrie during his 1891-92 excavation campaign. The sculpture in sunken relief portrays a man with curly hair and exaggerated protruding lips. This is a caricature, definitely not meant to flatter the model.

The museum label dates the small plaque to the reigns of Akhenaten or Tutankhamun, adding that it is “reminiscent of the images of Nubians and West Asians found in Haremhab’s tomb at Saqqara.” At that time Haremhab was still the commander of Tutankhamun’s army. Apparently, the dour general wasted no love on his foes. This was an ethnocentric culture that took an unfavorable view of outsiders.

It is only fair to add that the ancient Egyptians’ sense of fun could sometimes be turned on the sacred symbols of their own religion.Toth, the god of writing, accounting and other intellectual pursuits, was associated with two animals, the baboon and the ibis. A marvelous group on loan from the Louvre, which was carved under Amenhotep III (1389-49 B.C.), portrays the royal scribe Nebmerutef. The official reads a scroll with the faintest smile of concentrated attention. This is a man aware of his power to get things done. Perched on a pedestal next to him, a baboon with bushy eyebrows frowns, creating an irresistibly comical effect.

Artists retained their sense of fun right down to the end of ancient Egypt. A small turquoise faience baboon, 8.8 centimeters high, is a masterpiece of understated irony, so discreetly wielded that one cannot be absolutely sure that mockery was intended. Seated with its hands resting on its thighs and its penis delicately rendered, the animal stares ahead, with a suggestion of defiance and amusement all at once.

Their humor did not desert Egyptian masters when they portrayed themselves. A wooden statuette of Kery, who was active under Ramesses II (1304-1237 B.C.), hails him as the “great craftsman in the place of truth.” Kery was one of the artists chosen to decorate the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The master proudly marches on, carrying the standard of “Horus son of Isis, Lord of the desert” on the staff. His happy expression suggests that his prayer for “a good life, combined with health, gladness and rejoicing every day” inscribed on the base had been fulfilled. With his puffed-up cheeks, the craftsman seems about to laugh, despite the solemn tone of his religious invocation that ends “my two eyes seeing, my two ears hearing, my mouth filled with truth.”

Duality in Ancient Egypt

Frédéric Servajean of the Université Paul Valéry in Montpellier, France wrote: “The term “duality” refers to a way of thinking that creates meaning by conceptually juxtaposing opposite or complementary realities (whether cultural, philosophical, or of the natural world) in a static or dynamic relationship and serves as a mechanism to make sense of, and explain, the functioning of the world. [Source: Frédéric Servajean, Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, <>]

“These realities are joined in pairs consisting of two related elements whose combination results in a new, meaningful concept that demonstrates a sense of unity and inclusiveness that the individual elements lack. Dualistic thought was a characteristic of the ancient Egyptian mindset, as is evident from the textual and pictorial record, where we find that the paired elements, or conceptual “poles,” could be in a relationship of true opposites, such as ntt and jwtt, “what is” and “what is not,” respectively, whose combination resulted in an idiom denoting the totality of the cosmos. Alternatively, the poles could stand in a relationship of complementarity, such as Upper and Lower Egypt, and also deficiency, such as day and night, where night could be understood as the “absence of sunlight.” <>

“In ancient Egypt duality was by no means simply a contrivance of intellectual thought, or an esoteric doctrine, inaccessible to the majority of the populace. On the contrary, it was a mental structuring device the Egyptians lived by, expressing, implicitly or explicitly, a vision of the world and its functioning. Moreover, it was not exclusively Egyptian (Lévi-Strauss 1974).” <>

Static Versus Dynamic Relationships in Ancient Egypt


Frédéric Servajean of the Université Paul Valéry wrote: “Any discussion of duality must differentiate between the “static” character of certain combinations—for example, the organization of the Egyptian state into two discrete regions (Upper and Lower Egypt)—and the “dynamic” character of other combinations, such as the division of a complete day into a succession of day and night. The two opposing poles constitute what Lévi-Strauss calls l’écart maximum, or “the maximum distance” (Lévi-Strauss 1962), between which intermediate stages are classified. For instance, in the dynamic relationship night/day (defined by the contrast between the absence and presence of sunlight), Egyptians classified the intermediate stages as follows: night without moon; night with waxing or waning moon; night with full moon; day. [Source: Frédéric Servajean, Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, <>]

“Static and dynamic approaches were often applied in combination to one and the same image or concept. For instance, as a human being, the king was subject to time in what is essentially a dynamic relationship. Then again, as a being invested with the powers of kingship, which is a uniquely immutable institution, the king is eternal. This duality allows an understanding of the king’s function as mediator between the immutable realm of the divinities (djet) and the transitory world of man (neheh). <>

“As a means of explanation and classification, dualism permits the imposition of hierarchical relationships on the natural world. For example, Upper Egypt has primacy over Lower Egypt, just as day has primacy over night, and djet over neheh. Each of the conceptual poles has meaning of its own, but the presence of the other is always implicit and can add meaning by association. By viewing the night as a period during which certain negative events took place, such as Seth’s attempt to violate Horus, the day is implicitly under- stood, through opposition and association, as a time of peace and order (maat).” <>

Duality in Static and Dynamic Relationships in Ancient Egypt

Frédéric Servajean of the Université Paul Valéry wrote: “Whenever dualism is employed to explain the immutable character of a phenomenon or concept, the two terms of the dyadic relationship are in a state of equality. For example, in the motif of the “Unification of the Two Lands”, the domination of the king over a unified state is expressed through combining the two complementary territories of Pharaonic Egypt, i.e., Upper Egypt (or the Nile valley) and Lower Egypt (or the Delta). One emblem is split into two parts by a vertical hieroglyphic sign, smA (“unite”), on which rests the name of the king, written in a cartouche. At the right stands Seth, the deity associated with Upper Egypt, while Horus, associated with Lower Egypt, stands at the left. The two gods are shown tying together the two heraldic plants of Upper and Lower Egypt—the lotus and papyrus, respectively. In doing this the gods symbolically unite (smA) the territories of Upper and Lower Egypt, or “the Two Lands” (tAwj). With the name of the king atop the smA sign, the emblem communicates visually and verbally that it is the king who enables and supervises the union. Unity is thus achieved by transcending the opposition. This should not be understood as a denial of the existence of diversity; rather, it was a way to express the totality of a concept in terms of the unification of its opposing but interdependent components. The same idea was expressed in the motif of the pschent, which combines the white and red crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt, respectively, into a crown that stands for the unified Pharaonic state. [Source: Frédéric Servajean, Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, <>]

“In contexts where duality is employed to explain the dynamic character of a phenomenon, the two terms of the dyadic relationship are interdependent, one term relying on the other. For example, the transition of time was expressed in Egyptian thought by combining neheh, time as reckoned by man, with djet, immutable eternity. The former is inherently a constituent of djet, but is extracted from it and returned at regular intervals. A similar interdependency is expressed in the unity of Ra and Osiris, which is understood in theological terms as Ra (the neheh principle) entering into Osiris (the djet principle) in the sixth hour of the night and leaving him again at dawn. <>

“Whether the relationship was static or dynamic, unity was made possible only through the “mediation” of an external referent. For example, the “Union of the Two Lands”—a static duality—required the mediation of the royal name to be viable. Dynamic duality, moreover, depended specifically upon the mediation of either the secondary element only, or a product of the primary (dominant) element. Thus, in the case of djet and neheh, it was the return of neheh (the secondary element) to djet (the primary element) that made unity possible. Similarly, in the myth of the creation of the gold disc (that is, the moon), as narrated in the Late Egyptian story The Contendings of Horus and Seth, it is the moon (jtn n nbw)— which grows from the semen of Horus out of the forehead of Seth—that presides over a whole series of binary relationships such as day/night and order/disorder, embodied by the two antagonists Horus and Seth. Hence, the mediation of the moon results in a “unity” composed of the infinite succession of days and nights.” <>

Dualism: A Mechanism for Comprehending the Ancient Egyptian World?

Frédéric Servajean of the Université Paul Valéry wrote: “The dualistic identification of Egypt as the combination of two complementary halves (Upper and Lower) was articulated in the cultic topography of the country, which was characterized by a symmetrical distribution of cities and cult centers in Upper and Lower Egypt. For example, the god Thoth was worshipped both in his primary cult center of Hermopolis in Upper Egypt and in a mirror city with the same name in Lower Egypt: there was thus a Hermopolis of the south and a Hermopolis of the north. Similarly, Horus was worshipped in Behdet of the south and Behdet of the north; Osiris, in Abydos in the Nile valley and Busiris in the Delta; the sun god Ra, in Heliopolis in the Delta and Armant in the Nile valley (anciently known as“Heliopolis of the South”). The same held true for the organization of the central government: offices were subdivided into pairs (whether in title only), one of which pertained to the administration of Upper Egypt and the other, Lower Egypt. The king, for example, was “Lord of the Two Lands” (nb tAwj) or “He of the Sedge and the Bee” (nswt-bjtj). In certain periods, the vizierate was similarly subdivided; likewise, the treasury consisted of two complementary institutions, “the Two Houses of Silver” (prwj HD). [Source: Frédéric Servajean, Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, <>]

“The process of creation was also understood dualistically. The cosmos was believed to have been created by a single deity who implicitly embodied both masculine and feminine qualities. In the case of the creator god Atum of Heliopolis, this dual nature was made explicit at the moment when Atum created the first two divinities, Shu (male) and Tefnut (female), who were manifestations of two complementary aspects of the cosmos—“air” and “humidity,” respectively—and again at the moment of the creation of their offspring, Geb (male) and Nut (female)—“earth” and “sky”. Although in this example the dual gender of the demiurge was implicit, gender-duality could be expressed explicitly as well: the goddess Neith bore the epithet “the father of the fathers and the mother of the mothers”, and in his description of himself in Coffin Texts spell II, 161a, Atum says, “I am the male and the female.”

“In ancient Egyptian thought, numerous paired concepts served as instruments to define, and set rules for, the relationship between gods and men. The pair maat/isfet (“order” and “disorder”) codified these relationships in terms of morality. With respect to ritual, these relationships were defined by such pairs as sacred/profane and ritualized/non-ritualized, and by a geographic duality, such as north versus south and east versus west. Similarly, in relation to temple architecture, the pair “interior/exterior” imposed a hierarchical structure on cult places and thereby defined the roles and duties of the persons involved. The pair djet/neheh organized the relationship temporally and spatially, the former referring to the immutable nature of the divine world and the latter, to time as experienced by man.” <>

Archaism (Revival of the Past) in Ancient Egypt

Jochem Kahl of Freie Universität in Berlin wrote: “Certain features of ancient Egyptian culture display a conscious return to bygone times. Texts, architecture, and works of art often referred to elements of the remote past. This revival of the past is known as “archaism,” provided that there was a substantial gap in time between the model and the copy, and that the elements referred to had fallen out of use. Archaism appears to have been an elite phenomenon and is found in the royal as well as the (elite) non-royal sphere. It occurred during the Pharaonic Period, from at least the Old Kingdom onward, and was most obvious during the Third Intermediate and Late Periods. [Source: Jochem Kahl, Freie Universität Berlin, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, <>]

“Archaism presupposes a substantial lapse of time between the model and the copy. Forms, types, and styles from earlier periods were imitated or emulated, although it was usually not intended that the models be copied so slavishly that future generations would believe the copies actually dated to an earlier era. Moreover, the recurrence to earlier forms does not necessarily imply an identification with earlier time periods. Archaism is but one of several mechanisms by which the ancient Egyptians drew upon their past; others include tradition, renaissance, restoration, usurpation (of works of art), reuse of building materials, damnatio memoriae, ancestor cults, king lists, and reconstruction of historical events. <>

“It is important to make a distinction between “copying” and true archaism. In ancient Egypt certain models were particularly esteemed and copied. The Pyramid Texts provided such a model, as did the texts from the tomb of 12th Dynasty nomarch Djefai- Hapi I in Assiut (Siut I), which were copied on monuments throughout Egypt from the New Kingdom to the Roman Period, such as we see in the tombs of Senenmut and Ankh-Hor, and on Roman papyri from Tebtunis. However, in both aforementioned examples there was no gap in time between the model and the copies; these texts were frequently copied and recopied, and thus constitute a continuous tradition rather than archaism. Because it can be difficult, furthermore, to identify tradition and transmission in libraries, so-called archaisms might often turn out to be traditions: one has to examine in each particular case whether the use of certain previously attested elements constitutes archaism or tradition. <>

“The term “archaism” poses possible complications in instances of the recurrence of former, rather than original, elements. Therefore, more precise distinctions are helpful. The term “archaizing” could be used to describe, for example, the 25th and 26th Dynasties, which borrowed, among other things, titles and styles of sculpture and relief from the Old through the New Kingdoms, whereas the term “archaistic” would apply, for instance, to the 29th and 30th Dynasties, which themselves may have used the archaizing 25th and 26th Dynasties as their models. <>

“It is important to emphasize that in ancient Egypt the phenomenon known as “archaism” was a continuum—an inherent feature of the culture, detectable as early as the Old Kingdom. Although it reached its climax in the Late Period (712–332 B.C.), specifically in the 26th Dynasty, already in the 18th Dynasty (under rulers Ahmose, Hatshepsut, and Thutmose III) and the 22nd Dynasty archaism had reached points of culmination. There currently exists no statistical analysis of the extent of archaism in ancient Egypt. However, in Bothmer’s exhibition catalog (1960), only six out of 38 statues and reliefs of the 26th Dynasty are described as archaizing. This corresponds to 15 percent. Less than five percent of the individuals known from the Theban area in the Late Period bore a “good name.” Thus it would be incorrect to consider, as some scholars have, that archaism hallmarked a cultural revolution specific to the Late Period.” <>

Manifestations of Archaism in Ancient Egypt

syphinxes still happening in the 29th dynasty

Jochem Kahl of Freie Universität in Berlin wrote: “Archaism occurs in a wide range of manifestations, including art (sculpture and relief), architecture, names (royal and non- royal), titles, literature, and writing. It was employed in the royal sphere (kings, queens, and the royal household) and in the non-royal, as well, where it seems to have been mostly restricted to the upper classes (priests, officials), although it was also practiced by individuals who had good relations with elite members of society. [Source: Jochem Kahl, Freie Universität Berlin, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, <>]

“1) Art (sculpture and relief) and Architecture. After the reunification of Egypt that ushered in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1640 B.C.), we see examples of archaism in art from the reign of King Mentuhotep II, which breaks with the Theban artistic tradition and copies the Memphite Old Kingdom canon, adapting stylistic elements of that period. Similarly, a sphinx of King Amenemhat II is sculptured on the model of the Great Sphinx of Giza. Globular wigs reappear on most of the surviving statues of both queens and non-royal women dating from the 21st to 26th Dynasties, though they had been out of fashion since the 11th Dynasty. The stela of King Ahmose from Abydos harks of 11th Dynasty works of art. Reliefs from Temple T in Kawa show King Taharqo as a sphinx trampling a Libyan enemy while his wife and children look on, in a scene known as “the Libyan family.” We see a similar family scene already depicted in the Old Kingdom temples of Sahura and Niuserra at Abusir, as well as in the temples of Pepy I and Pepy II at Saqqara. The gate from the palace of Apries at Memphis bears similarities in design and execution to Old Kingdom and 12th Dynasty works of art (. Additionally, garments represented on statues of Theban priestesses of the second century B.C. imitate the pleated garments of priestesses of the late 18th and early19th Dynasties. An especially clear example of archaism in ancient Egyptian architecture is the temple of 18th Dynasty Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri, modeled after the temple of the 11th Dynasty ruler Mentuhotep II located in its immediate vicinity. <>

“Names and Titles: During the Old Kingdom, and only rarely in the Middle Kingdom, personal (non- royal) names were followed by the “good name” (rn nfr), which expressed the characteristics of the owner and which appears to have been acquired some time after birth. This practice, which went out of use after the Middle Kingdom, became an archaism when it was introduced again in the 22nd Dynasty. Archaisms occur frequently in royal names, as rulers often incorporated, in their own nomenclature, the names of glorified predecessors; the Persian king Cambyses, for example, bore the name “Unifier of the Two Lands,” a name already borne by Mentuhotep II. Ancient titles were often reused. We find titles from the Old and Middle Kingdoms recurring during the Late Period. <>

“Literature and Writing:. Autobiographical formulae and epithets occurring in New Kingdom and Late Period tomb inscriptions are patterned after those from the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom—compare, for example, the autobiographical formulae in Siut III of the First Intermediate Period and in Theban Tombs 34 and 36 of the 26th Dynasty. We find that hieratic characters of the 22nd Dynasty borrow forms that occurred in the 18th Dynasty, and hieratic characters of the Ptolemaic Period (304–30 B.C.)reflect those of the 21st Dynasty. Moreover, such recurrence implies that older texts were studied and esteemed.” <>

Ancient Egyptian Approaches to the Past

Jochem Kahl of Freie Universität in Berlin wrote: “Libraries were presumably the principal means through which borrowings from earlier ages occurred. Libraries were affiliated with the “houses of life,” where religious, magical, medical, and scientific writings were composed, copied, and stored. According to written sources, high officials and even kings consulted libraries in order to look through ancient writings kept there. It is worth noting that included in these writings were descriptions of works of art. The Abydos stela of King Neferhotep, for example, mentions that this ruler consulted ancient writings that contained illustrations and instructions for the fashioning of statues. Architectural plans and small three-dimensional models of buildings were also apparently stored in libraries. [Source: Jochem Kahl, Freie Universität Berlin, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, <>]

“A distinction must necessarily be made between what are referred to by Egyptologists as “patterns” and “Musterbücher” (pattern books). Patterns were designed for a specific purpose—such as a scene drawn on papyrus to be copied upon a temple wall—regardless of whether they were actually used in the manner originally intended. “Musterbücher” were collections, or catalogs, of preexisting examples or templates available for multiple applications and intended for later excerpting, if necessary. We possess evidence for patterns. The existence of Musterbücher is, however, theoretical; no actual examples have as yet come to light. <>

“The Egyptians also studied works of art and monuments. Written evidence attests that artisans traveled to study original works. Physical evidence, in the form of late plaster casts of Old Kingdom reliefs from the Temple of Sahura in Abusir and late square-grids drawn upon Old Kingdom reliefs from the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, further confirms the study of original works from the past.” <>

Motivations and Models for Archaism

Jochem Kahl of Freie Universität in Berlin wrote: “Archaism was employed by Egyptian rulers in order to legitimize their sovereignty. For example, rulers under political pressure could adopt the names of remote predecessors in order to emphasize their own legitimacy to reign. In their quest for prestige and social exclusivity Theban officials copied texts from the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom, harking back to a time period when officials were relatively independent and powerful. The desire to increase his authority and thus satisfy his striving for power was likely Middle Kingdom ruler Amenemhat II’s motivation for the design of his sphinx, which refers—in a clear display of archaism—to the Great Sphinx of Giza. Political opposition provided yet another motivation. During the Ptolemaic Period, statues of Theban priestesses were rendered as an expression of the Egyptians’ opposition to their Ptolemaic rulers. [Source: Jochem Kahl, Freie Universität Berlin, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, <>]

“Archaism appears to have been employed by only a limited group of persons: kings and queens, the royal household, priests, and high officials, as well as individuals who had good relations with such elite members of society. The role of the librarians and scribes, and of the artisans who created the works in question, is unclear, as is the geographic expansion of the phenomenon of archaism. It can be supposed, however, that Thebes and perhaps Memphis were centers of archaism from the New Kingdom onward. <>

“The Egyptians’ own records—annals, king lists, literature, and Block Daressy, for example—attest to their awareness of the chronological sequence of their history. The particular elements of their past that they chose to archaize varied from dynasty to dynasty: the late 11th and early 12th Dynasties, for instance, favored features of the Old Kingdom; the 18th Dynasty preferred references to the Middle Kingdom, while the 22nd Dynasty harkened back to the 18th Dynasty; the 25th and 26th Dynasties appear to have favored the Old Kingdom and the 12th and 18th Dynasties; Dynasty 30 tended to refer to the 26th Dynasty. Moreover, archaizing art did not necessarily reference a single period: archaizing reliefs and sculpture often have parallels in works of art from several earlier periods. Certaingeographical regions tended to emulate particular time periods. The Theban area, for example, focused on New Kingdom models, and the Memphite area on models from the Old and Middle Kingdoms.” <>

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato,; Mark Millmore,; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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