Fun in Ancient Egypt

Approaching the topic of fun in the ancient world is incredibly difficult but allows us the opportunity to explore the intimate lives of ancient people. Why and how people have fun reveals much about the society that they lived in and helps us to understand the stresses and anxieties that would have played on their minds. In this essay I am going to examine what the Egyptians did for fun, by examining what happens throughout the year in rural Egypt in the Middle Kingdom and by understanding that the environmental conditions of Egypt created stability and predictability. Such conditions allowed for a greater range of leisure activities that could be pursued regardless of social status. This approach was inspired by Szpakowska’s Daily Life in Ancient Egypt (2008) and Hughes’ Sustainable Agriculture in Ancient Egypt (1992), however Szpakowska focused on urban living where I am looking at rural life and using Hughes’ conclusions in order to prove that fun was had, rather than as part of a discussion of wider environmental trends. What I want to prove by the end of the essay is that the nature of the Egyptian environment provided much scope for fun to be had, and although there were anxieties that would have affected all Egyptian people, life was good and fun was ingrained into almost all activities.

I am going to follow a typical (and fictional) Egyptian family in their day to day lives and explore their levels of enjoyment and how they passed the time. They are rural, as this would have been the case for the majority of the population of Egypt (Tyldesley 1994, pp.87; Ikram 2010, pp.208) and I have made them a multi-generational family living in a small hamlet with a few other families. Their main produce is grain, which is then exported around the country, but they also have vegetable gardens and shared fruit trees, such as date palms, with the rest of the community. The Nile is close by, and this means that fish and fowl are also on the menu. The Nile is also how the grain is transported and how the scribes get to the village to undertake the collection of taxes and other official duties.

A new day begins and one of the first things that had to be done would have been baking the bread and brewing the beer. These two processes are related as they use the same ingredients, grain and yeast. Baking and brewing were the staples of ancient Egyptian cuisine and these jobs were part of a woman’s role (Tyldesley 1994, pp.104; 112). Highly nutritious and alcoholic (thus killing any pathogens), the beer would have been drunk throughout the day, with multiple brews made from the same ingredients, which would have made the product less alcoholic and more appropriate for younger and more infirm people. The process would have been very work intensive, especially early in the morning, with the grinding of the grains, lighting a fire and keeping an eye on it to ensure it didn’t burn; this is likely to have been done whilst also looking after the children. This does not sound very fun, but bread could be combined with other things to improve the flavour and make it more wholesome, so on a particularly bad day, or on a celebration, dates and nuts may have been added to the dough to make a much more interesting bread (Tyldesley 1994, pp.104; Szpakowska 2008, pp.96). Since dates and nuts could be dried, and the climate of Egypt made preservation much easier, this option was available year-round, which would have made the start of the day more enjoyable. This is where our own concept of fun becomes somewhat of a hinderance, since eating sweetened bread may have been the highlight of someone’s month in rural Egypt.

After breakfast, comes work. In a small hamlet such as the one this family lives in, it is likely that all the family took part in the agricultural work. Work depends on the seasons, of which there are three: akhet (flood), peret (time of preparation and sowing) and shemu (time of harvest). I will talk more about what work and leisure is available during akhet below. The role of children in the hamlet during peret and shemu would likely have been as scarecrows (Ikram 2010, pp.212). I think this is a stroke of genius, as it taps into some sort of natural instinct that children have to scare birds, it is still common now to see young children scaring pigeons in parks and town centres today, the ancient Egyptians have channelled this energy into something that could be construed as a game, whilst also having an extremely important role in the community.

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Figure 1 A Sickle with flint blades, context unknown, heirogylphs reads ‘Amennakt’. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 ©Trustees of the British Museum.

I believe something similar would have happened with the collection of flint nodules, which were needed for the agricultural implements and for knives. Flint nodules were commonly scattered across the land (Szpakowska 2008, pp.86) and this would have been a perfect job for children to do, as it combines an element of competition (who could get the best quality or the most) with a job that is important, but can be delegated to someone with lower social status, such as a child. These two examples of ways to have fun with agriculture show the complexities of human activity, something that should be purely utilitarian is turned into a game and is made all the more enjoyable. The fact that these activities are related to agriculture is interesting as it has been remarked that due to the interconnected nature of the universe in Egyptian religion, hoeing and preparation of the soil was a form of worship of the earth god (Hughes 1992, pp.16), as it is restoring the earth to a fertile form. It shows how utilitarian activities actually are multi-layered in meaning, which is particularly clear with the flint, since there has been some work in the last ten years about the ritual significance of flint (Graves-Brown 2010). The thing to take away from these examples are the multiple layers of meaning that exist in all everyday activities that the ancient Egyptians did: utility, ritual, fun.

Work during peret and shemu would have been intensive and long, but during akhet the fields would have been flooded, so normal agricultural practice ceased. This may have been a time for working on the pharaoh’s projects, being conscripted by scribes and transported to the building sites. (Szpakowska 2008, pp.110; Ikram 2010, pp.212) We have to refer back to the multiple layers that make up these activities, on a utilitarian level work is being provided, they would have been paid in food so they would not starve and this conscripted labour counted towards their taxes. This work would have had a ritual element too, since the pharaoh was divine carrying out the work would have had some form of religious significance, especially if it were building a temple or mortuary complex (Ibid. pp.112). When you consider the logistics that may have been involved, taking rural farmers via boat to the building sites, providing the necessary food and drink in order to pay them and supplying appropriate accommodation, it would have been an adventure for those involved, breaking up the monotony of the farming life. When you consider the variety of animal bone that has been found at the Old Kingdom Workers Village at Giza (Redding 2010) it shows that they were eating well. After the hard work at the site they may have treated their off time as a holiday, enjoying a great variety of food and maybe indulging in the ubiquitous beer that was so important to the diet. However, there was a darker side to this form of conscription. Evidence from the Middle Kingdom site Lahun (also known as Kahun) shows the separation of families during this period of conscription, this was due to the gendered nature of work (Szpakowska 2008, pp.111-112), this separation must have been difficult, but since the penalties for avoidance were severe and this conscription was based upon the pharaoh’s divinity (Ibid.pp.111-112), they would have had to carry on and try to make the most out of the situation.

During the more productive months of the year, when the family were focused on the growth of crops. The crops would have been split into two groups, those that were needed for personal use and those that would be used as a form of tax and for trade. Grain would have been essential, either barley or emmer wheat, as it was needed for the daily essentials of bread and beer and would have been their main good for taxes and for trade. In addition to grains, other produce that was grown for personal use were onions, lettuce, radishes, pulses and legumes (Tyldesley 1994, pp.104). This variety in personal crops would help create more choice in what can be consumed, this would have made life less boring, as a greater variety of produce meant more options for meals and for preserving. Tyldesley also mentions how diet could be further supplemented by people’s ability to put in the work, things like fishing, hunting, the growing of surpluses for trade and the raising of livestock (1994, pp.104). I argue that the unique ecology of the Nile and of Egypt allowed them to pursue such a diverse range of activities, the predictability of the Nile and the sustainability of agriculture it creates (Hughes 1992) allows for this diverse range of activities, since the sustainability of the crops means that there will be enough for everyone, this allows time to made for activities that have multiple purposes, such as hunting and fishing, which will provide food and nourishment but also a chance of competition, co-operation and sport.

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Figure 2 Image from the Tomb of Khunumhotep II, from Beni Hassan, Middle Kingdom. It shows Khunoumhotep and his family hunting birds. CC BY-SA 3.0

It is very difficult to distinguish between hunting for sport and hunting for sustenance (Decker 1992). When you consider that the likely candidates for hunting by lower status rural dwellers are the ducks and geese that would have inhabited the marshes around the Nile, it shows how the cycles of the Nile give the gift of variety to the people of Egypt. As well as providing comfort and stability in the agricultural cycle and making life easier that way, the Nile also provided many opportunities for sport. Fishing and fowling would have been a significant aspect of daily life (Tyldesley 2007, pp.43-44). Although it would have been a more structured sport amongst the elite members of Egyptian society, the rural population would still have had fun going to the Nile and looking for opportunities to fish or hunt, although it was more necessary to creating a more diverse and exciting diet. Additionally, hunting and fishing on the Nile would have required a boat, and rowing is another aspect of the leisure that the Egyptian population could have enjoyed (Ibid, pp.51). This could have been an activity was fun for the whole family, as tomb scenes show multiple generations in boats hunting birds with the traditional curved hunting sticks (Tyldesley 1994, pp.143), and although those scenes come from an elite context and reflect an idealised version of the world, that reflection shows that it was an important activity in Egypt. Although it would have had a different significance to people of different social status, the activity of going on a fishing or hunting trip with your family would have been fun regardless of whether it was as part of an elite hunting trip focused on conspicuous consumption or a trip designed to fill the pantry.

It is difficult to think about how the Egyptians saw the rural life, and whether they saw it was pleasurable and fun, as the evidence they have left us is often contradictory. The Satire of the Trades, a text that was written during the Middle Kingdom rather humorously goes through the evils of the world of work outside of the scribe-hood. It is particularly vicious when discussing the jobs associated with rural life: the field hand  “cries out forever” and their “fingers have become ulcerous” (Satire of the Trades, 13), “the fowler is utterly afflicted while searching out for the denizens of the sky” (ibid. 20) and the fisherman works in crocodile infested water and is “more miserable than (one of) any (other) profession” (ibid. 21). Although this text is now generally considered satirical in nature, through farce we can see some of the concerns and issues that would have affected the majority of the Egyptian population: hard labour, disease and a dangerous environment. However, when these stresses and anxieties are considered in the context of Ma’at and the preservation of universal order these anxieties would have been background noise, and may explain why the ancient Egyptians went about their daily business with the intent to get the most out it, incorporating elements of fun and pleasure into everyday activities. These activities often strengthen the bonds between the family, community, the nation and the environment, what this means is that our concept of fun to alleviate boredom is not applicable to the ancient Egyptians, as fun seems to be a way to combat Isfet (disorder, chaos etc.), which is why ideas of fun are so intertwined with the utility and ritual. The Satire of the Trades is more an attempt to show the benefits of scribing by showing what the young scribes are missing out by painting a picture using stereotypes that do not reflect the reality of rural life, since field hands would have also fished and hunted birds.

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Figure 3 Scene from the Tomb of Sennedjem and Iyneferti (Both pictured) | Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain

Another thing about the Satire of the Trades is that its rough treatment of farming seems counter to how it was perceived in other parts of Egyptian society. Tyldesley goes as far as to say that rural living was “the ideal way of life” (1994, pp.87). This is seemingly confirmed by the tomb of Sennedjem and Iynferti (TT1, Deir el-Medina), which presents the couple as working on their crops in the afterlife, even though they came from an urban area where food was imported into it and that Sennedjem likely worked as a mason on the royal tombs. The tomb autobiography of Amenemhet (a nomarch serving the Middle Kingdom 12th Dynasty) also alludes to his agricultural prowess:

“I ploughed all the fields of the Oryx Nome up to its southern and northern border, nourishing its inhabitants, acquiring food…high Niles came to pass, having barley and emmer and having everything, and I did not exact the arrears for the land taxes.”

When you consider this is how Amenemhet chooses to conclude his own autobiography, it shows that the farmers had a direct line to Ma’at, since there actions helped to regulate the stability of the land, Amenemhet is showing his ability to co-operate with the land in order to benefit the people (Hughes 1992, pp.14). It shows the unique position the rural farmer was in, when the elite wanted to imitate their lifestyles and the connections that they had to the concept of Ma’at. I am using these examples to illustrate although we might not consider the rural Egyptian life as fun, it was extremely desirable for those at the time, or at least the idea of it was. A desirable lifestyle is one that is balanced, one that includes satisfying work that is also enjoyable, a good community, and one that allows free-time for leisure. Hughes’ argument that the Nile’s predictable cycles is the reason for the stability of Egyptian civilisation has a more nuanced argument within in, since the predictability allowed more time for leisure, since the environment helped to take some of the workload, whilst also providing more opportunities for fun and games.

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Figure 4 Tomb Scene from Beni Hassan showing a sequence of wrestling. Middle Kingdom. Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain

The Egyptians didn’t waste their free time (Tyldesley 1994, pp.143). In the Middle Kingdom wrestling becomes an extremely common motif in funerary art and likely reflects a growing trend across Egypt (Szpakowska 2008, pp.116). It is easy to imagine the male youths after a hard day’s work ending the day by wrestling with each other, having fun wrestling, but also causing quite the spectacle in the small village (Tyldesley 1994, pp.45). As well as being fun and bringing the community together, the act of wrestling would also have been a form of military training that readied the male population in case they were conscripted to fight. Many sports were linked with military activity (Szpakowska 2008, pp.116; Ikram 2010, pp.270), this shown in the funerary art, particularly the Beni Hassan Tombs. This demonstrates the link between of sport and training; both the nomarchs and pharaohs maintained standing armies in the Middle Kingdom, but there wasn’t a system of state training, and it is likely that it the enlistment of troops was at random, so a basic level of training through sport would help everyone. It is difficult to say whether conscription was used in the Middle Kingdom military, like in the use of labour, but the main scholars seem to think so (Faulkner 1953; Spalinger 2005). By making training entertaining and fun it allowed it to become a regular feature of Middle Kingdom life, whilst also preparing young men in case of war.

Egypt would have been a land constantly in song. Whether it was in the fields, at a festival, or marching off to war, the Egyptians would have been singing and receptive to the music if flutes and drums (Tyldesley 1994, pp.126; Ikram 2010, pp.273; Abouelhadid 2015, pp.62). Folk music of this kind wasn’t written down, and this makes it hard to reconstruct, though Szpakowska suggests that by looking at rural African folk songs and stories, it is possible to recreate the sort of environment where this oral culture flourished. It would have been likely that in smaller rural communities the everyone would have sung and possibly used a drum, and it would have been the elders in the community who passed down the songs down the generations.

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Figure 5 Relief from the Causeway of the Pharaoh Unas, Old Kingdom. It shows starving Bedouins and is thought to encapsulate fears of disaster.

Throughout this essay I have continually referred to several things: how the environmental and ecological conditions make life easier for the rural population, how seemingly utilitarian activities would have been fun and how this meant leisure and fun were intertwined with everyday activities. By approaching this topic from the point of view of examining many aspects of rural life, I was able to show that the Egyptians did not just do things for fun, but that the concept was ingrained into how they went about their day to day business; working and fun were elements of stability in the universe and part of the idea of Ma’at. Of course, there would have been anxieties surrounding warfare and ecological disaster, this best summarised in a passage from Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage:

“[verily (every) face goes white with fear] // [For citizens bow] their heads to the earth, subject to marauding bands // And a man goes out to plough bearing his shield.” (2,1)

This constant battle between Ma’at and Isfet would have been in the mind of every Egyptian going about their business, and the idea of maintaining order and honour amongst their families and communities would have meant ensuring that the bonds between those communities were strong (Martin 2008). This is why the Egyptians had fun, and it is why fun can be found in many seemingly ordinary activities, and why specifically fun activities such as singing, dancing and some sports involve the whole community.

Bibliography

Abouelhadid, S. (2015). ‘The sacred geometry of music and harmony’ in Stevenson, A. E. (2015). The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology: Characters and Collections. London: UCL Press. pp.62-63.

Decker, W. (1992). Sports and Games of Ancient Egypt. Yale University Press: New Haven.

Faulkner, R. O. (1953). ‘Egyptian Military Organization’ in JEA 39, 32-47. Graves-Brown, C. A. (2011). The ideological significance of flint in Dynastic Egypt (Doctoral dissertation, UCL (University College London)).

Hughes, J. D. (1992). Sustainable agriculture in ancient Egypt. Agricultural history66(2), 12.

Ikram, S. (2010). Ancient Egypt: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Martin, D. (2008). Maat and order in African cosmology: A conceptual tool for understanding indigenous knowledge. Journal of Black Studies38(6), 951-967.

Redding, R. (2010). Status and diet at the workers’ town, Giza, Egypt. Anthropological approaches to zooarchaeology: Complexity, colonialism, and animal transformations, 65-75.

Simpson, W.K. (ed.) (2003). The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, and Poetry. London: Yale University Press.

Spalinger, A.J. (2005). War in Ancient Egypt: The New Kingdom. Oxford: Blackwell.

Szpakowska, K. (2008). Daily Life in Ancient Egypt: Recreating Lahun. Oxford: Blackwell.

Tyldesley, J. (1994). Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt. London: Viking.

Tyldesley, J. (2007). Egyptian Games and Sports. London: Shire Publications.

Images

Figure 1 A Sickle with flint blades, context unknown, heirogylphs reads ‘Amennakt’. From The British Museum Website: https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=100919&page=1&partId=1&searchText=sickle%20egypt

Figure 2 Image from the Tomb of Khunumhotep II, from Beni Hassan, Middle Kingdom. It shows Khunoumhotep and his family hunting birds. From Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beni-Hassan-KhnoumhotepII.jpg 

Figure 3 Scene from the Tomb of Sennedjem and Iyneferti, Beni Hassan, Middle Kingdom. It shows the couple collecting grain. From Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Egyptian_harvest.jpg

Figure 4 Tomb Scene from Beni Hassan showing a sequence of wrestling. Middle Kingdom. From Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beni_Hassan_tomb_15_wrestling_detail.jpg

Figure 5 Relief from the Causeway of the Pharaoh Unas, Old Kingdom. It shows straving Bedouins and is thought to encapsulate fears of disaster. From Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bedouins_starving_in_the_desert-E_17381-IMG_9845-gradient.jpg

 

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