You know that obsessive fascination you developed with a boy or girl in your grade school class? Like, back when you had feelings and emotions? That situation most likely resolved itself over time. But 5,000 years after Egyptians reigned, humans in today’s day and age are still fascinated by the ancient society. And we are continuing to uncover more evidence of what Ancient Egyptian life was like.
If you’re like me, your understanding of their culture is 95% derived from the DreamWorks movie, The Prince of Egypt and 5% derived from random trailers found on The History Channel. Not to hate on either of these quality pieces of entertainment (especially since I still play The Prince of Egypt‘s soundtrack on my Spotify regularly), but I think it’s worth expanding our knowledge here, outside of a TV screen.
Come and dive into some of the lesser-known facts about the ancient civilization’s marvelous culture, the water’s warm!
What kind of article would this be if it didn’t start with the infamous mummification process that Egyptians are said to have perfected?
Of course, mummies (in general) can be terrifying, but ancient Egyptians took it a step further by extracting each mummy’s organs and preserving them in vessels, referred to as “canopic jars.”
This may seem gruesome… but at least they were thorough.
Ancient Egyptians elevated the trope, “crazy cat lady” to a societal level. Cats symbolized the duality of grace and poise and thus were commonly associated with many important concepts such as fertility and motherhood.
Dichotomously, Egyptians both sacrificed cats to bury with their dead and killed those who harmed cats. A tragic love story, indeed.
Although King Tut’s sarcophagus portrays a youthful and noble portrait, his mummy tells a different story. Tut was the result of inbreeding, as his mother and father were siblings.
Conspiracies on Tut’s death range from chariot accident to murder, but the truth is that he was marred by genetics, likely suffering from Kohler’s syndrome, which is a rare degenerative bone disease.
Reconstructive images of the young King reveal that he had feminine hips as well as a deformed foot – it’s no wonder incest went out of style.
Ancient Egyptian law was (surprise!) not merciful. Torture was routinely used to extract confessions from those believed to have committed a crime, the most common method being “bastinado,” which involves beating someone’s foot with a stick.
Sorry to spoil your kale shake, but one of the mainstays of the Egyptian diet was grain.
Bread, beer, barley… the stuff was pervasive and enjoyed by both the wealthy and the poor.
But really, they ate poop. Let’s just say that for all their achievements, Ancient Egyptians were still mystified by medicine. Treatments ranged from simple hygiene to sorcery and surgery.
The lines between the duties of a priest and a doctor were also commonly blurred. Certain ailments were treated with animal dung, perhaps providing some useful molds and fermentation substances. But giving patients poop breath undoubtedly caused more harm than good.
All That Glitters is Not Gold
The stunning gold-plated sarcophagi and scepters, as well as the lavish gifts lacing the tombs, won’t always tell you the whole story.
Evidence of bilharzia (a disease contracted by walking barefoot in contaminated water), plagues, arthritis, tooth caries, and malnutrition are abundant within the Egyptian remains.
In fact, the remains will show that the average Egyptian man was only around 5’2” and rarely expected to live for longer than 60 years.
The Great Temple, at Abu Simbel, is dedicated to the defiant Pharaoh Rameses and Gods Amun, Ra-Horakhty, and Ptah.
What’s truly stunning about this temple is the architectural calculations that created it. Twice a year, on October 22nd and February 22nd, sunlight pours through the temple to illuminates the scriptures and faces of its inhabitants, with the exception of Ptah. This is likely no coincidence as Ptah is a God connected to the underworld and was shrouded by the dark.
Scriptures, wall reliefs, and other remains depict Dwarfism in Ancient Egypt as a spiritual and holy gift, as opposed to a disability.
Achondroplasia, a disease that renders an individual with a normal trunk and short limbs, has been most thoroughly evidenced in Ancient Egypt.
Dwarfs are thought to have served in the Pharaoh’s court as exotic dancers, and held roles as army generals and governors of Egyptian lands – they have even been portrayed within the Gods. Bes was an Ancient Egyptian deity, and there are two dwarf forms of the God, Ptah.
Ammut, which directly translates to “soul eater” was a goddess in Egypt who represented divine retribution. Her body was constructed of part hippopotamus and part Lion, while her head was in the form of a crocodile.
She appeared to dole out punishment to those who committed sin, as well as at the time of death, where an individual’s heart was weighed to determine the quality of their character. A light heart allowed for passage into the afterlife, whereas a heavy heart made you a quick meal for Ammut.
Evidence from the ancient tombs suggests that before the Egyptians had turned to sacrifice cats and oxen, they sacrificed humans.
It’s believed that this practice was reserved only for royal Egyptians and that the humans sacrificed and laid in the tombs were their servants. Slowly but surely, human sacrifice did die out in Ancient Egypt, dwindling to almost nothing by the end of the First Dynasty, lasting 3100 to 2900 BC.
Egyptians maintained a variable “spice rack” of Gods, each dedicated to specific purposes. From Bes, Sekhmet, Tawaret, and others, these Gods were distinct in their specialties as well as form. But one unexpected portrayal is seen in the God Geb, an often green, nude man found reclining under the female sky.
Geb appears to shapeshift, ranging from his animal forms as a goose or a hare, and his human forms, which he can be seen growing wheat on his back like a chia pet.
Ancient Egypt was roughly divided into two lands, Upper and Lower Egypt. This separation caused a slight divergence in customs, such as tomb burial preferences.
Lisht, located in Upper Egypt, features mastaba tombs or a style of burial that uses raised, flat structures to hold the dead. In contrast, Thebes in Lower Egypt showcases tombs that are carved directly into the mountains.
Before the famed Book of the Dead, Ancient Egyptians had the Pyramid Texts.
Unlike the Book of the Dead, the Pyramid Texts did not feature illustrations and instead focused on recording spells dedicated to the successful transition into the afterlife – a cumulative 759 to be exact. I pity the intern who worked on that spreadsheet.
What would an afterlife be if you couldn’t eat or drink? – An afterlife I wouldn’t want to live in, that’s for certain.
The Ancient Egyptians believed that it was crucial for the dead to eat, drink, and breathe in the afterlife, just as they did in their current life. Thus, the “opening of the mouth ceremony” was performed to grant the dead this power. The complete ceremony conveyed 75 episodes, ranging from incantations to food offerings.
The Ancient Egyptian mummification and burial process is notable for many reasons, one of them being the inordinately long time it took to complete the process.
No Amazon Prime, instant gratification here – from last breath to last rites, it took nearly 72 days to deliver the dead.
This was the literal fate of those who were not properly preserved in the mummification process. The Ancient Egyptians believed that in order to fully enjoy the fruits of the afterlife, the dead had to be as closely preserved to their living form as possible.
That’s a lot of pressure as an embalmer and I wonder, did the living get a chance to interview their embalmers before they died?
Pharaohs were believed to act as Demigods, responsible for mediating the relationship between the Gods and the Egyptian people. But occasionally, a commoner slipped their way into the hierarchy.
Imhotep was one of those commoners, who served as chancellor to Pharaoh Djoser. Highly regarded as a physical and spiritual healer, Imhotep was deified some 2,000 years after his death and eventually became equated with Thoth, the God of architecture, math and medicine, and the patron of scribes.
The Ancient Egyptians had many complex beliefs surrounding life and death. One refreshingly simple equation is that of “Akh,” or the belief that each individual has a “Ka” and “Ba” spirit that must be united in the afterlife.
Ka represents a more general life-force, which received food and sustenance in life and therefore must continue the same in death. Ba was thought to be the person-specific spiritual attributes and unlike Ka, was not released from the body after death.
Special rituals were needed to unite Ka and Ba, and when done successfully, the individual’s spirit lived on as “Akh.”
Central to the Ancient Egyptians society was the belief in “Ma’at and Isfet,” or order and chaos. It was the pharaoh’s primary duty to please Ma’at, who is personified as a goddess holding an Ankh representing eternal life and a scepter for power.
However, that doesn’t mean that the rest of Egypt could devolve into chain-smoking, adultery, and gambling on the weekends! The concept of maintaining Ma’at and Isfet was transmuted into every household, which may partially account for why the Egyptians reigned for so long!
And boys drool! – Well, not quite. But there’s a fair amount of evidence that men and women had equal rights in Ancient Egypt.
Women were allowed to own their own property, execute legal documents, and even hold professions such as being a physician. Even by the world’s standards today this is downright progressive.
During the Old Kingdom time, spanning from 2686 BC to 2182 BC, pharaohs granted large swaths of land to their officials so that they could continue to be worshipped past their death.
This overabundant centralization of power, along with the severe droughts that swept through Egypt from 2200 to 2150 BC, led to the eventual diminished power of the pharaohs. From this, stemmed more autonomously functioning provinces, which appeared to economically enrich the country as evidenced by improved burials for a wider range of classes of people.
Is this history’s first case study in libertarianism?
Ramesses II, aka “Ramesses the Great,” came to power during the New Kingdom, which lasted from 1549 to 1069 BC. He erected more monuments, obelisks, temples, and sired more children than any other pharaoh in history.
He also is credited for establishing the first peace treaty recorded in history, when a war with the Hittites was mired in a stalemate. This means that implicitly, this may be the first recorded bro-hug as well. Prolific.
Who cares about neighborhoods, I want to be a part of a Nome.
This is the term that was used to describe any of the regions that comprised Egypt. What’s even better, is that each nome was ruled by a nomarch.
Although Ancient Egyptians maintained many progressive cultural practices, a class system was still highly stratified. The bulk of Egyptians were farmers, but their crops were controlled by the current noble family. Artisans and craft workers were next up the ladder, but their production was also tightly monitored and controlled, mainly serving the temples. Only the scribes and officials wore the classic white skirts we associate with hieroglyphs today.
This may be rooted in the Egyptians’ obsession with cleanliness. I wonder if they had a Clorox bleach God we don’t know about.
From salts for embalming to gypsum for plaster, gold for jewelry, granite for monuments, and flint for tools, the Ancient Egyptians accessed many natural resources to build their empire.
The richness of this region is largely credited to the fertility that the Nile river provided. No wonder they dedicated a god, Hapi, to represent the annual flooding of the Nile.
What did the Ancient Egyptian language sound like? Most historians agree that as an Afro-Asiatic language, it likely sounded similar to Berber and Semitic languages.
Egyptian language went through many changes through its use and is the longest known history of any language after Sumerian. The final iteration of the Egyptian language, which is called “Coptic,” is still used in the Egyptian Orthodox Church and remnants of it can be found in modern Egyptian Arabic.
Until about the age of 12, it’s thought that most Egyptians walked around naked. Maybe it was a way to escape the heat and bad tan lines?
That said, the everyday nudity came to an abrupt end after children reached maturity, at which point the males were circumcised and their heads shaved. One can only assume this was considered a normal growing pang, only the Egyptians didn’t use worlds like #adulting to describe it.
After worshipping the Gods and irrigating the Nile, the Ancient Egyptians used their leisure time to play games. Go figure– having fun is an ancient tradition too!
Two examples of the games played by Ancient Egyptians include Senet and Mehen. Not much is known about how these games were actually played, but it’s likely that the former included an element of random chance and the latter had a circular gaming board, so maybe these were the original Settlers of Catan?
We mean that in the most literal way. The life expectancy for an ancient Egyptian equaled 35 years for men and about 30 years for women.
Even more dismal, that’s if the person made it to adulthood – about a third of all Egyptians usually died in infancy. The CDC would have a collective heart attack if rates like these existed today!
Ancient Egyptians had their foibles and folly, that’s for sure. But they were also expert architects refined artists, and culturally progressive people. The quirks of past civilization inform the improvements on present society, so let’s just be thankful that someone ate poop and fought crocodiles in the afterlife 5,000 years ago so we don’t have to.