Common Misconceptions about Ancient Egypt

Among the myriad ways that Egypt has touched our imaginations, many misconceptions have spawned from how Egypt is creatively represented in films, books, and other media. From booby trapped tombs to hieroglyphs as the ancient precursor of emojis, misconceptions of Egyptian ideas and concepts continue to thrive in popular culture. This week, the Nile Scribes address some popular inaccuracies from ancient Egypt.

Aliens, Hebrews, or Egyptian slaves built the pyramids

There have been ample theories as to who built the pyramids. Disregarding the jocular suggestion that aliens built them, Egyptian slaves or the Hebrews are also popular suggestions. Herodotus, who wrote about Egypt in the fifth century BC, mentions that King Khufu forced a large portion of his populace into slavery to build his Great Pyramid at Giza. Textual sources from the time of the Old Kingdom, however, are silent on the presence of slaves. If we look at a town site to the south of Menkaure’s pyramid, it quickly becomes obvious that the workers who lived there were well looked after. Archaeologists found not only bakery, brewery, and butchery installations in the town, but also several galleries which acted as sleeping quarters for the workmen. A number of the workmen also had tombs near the pyramid town. Slaves certainly were not afforded such amenities.

The sheer size of Khufu's Great Pyramid has led to some outrageous theories about their construction (Photo: Nile Scribes)
The sheer size of Khufu’s Great Pyramid has led to some outrageous theories about their construction (Photo: Nile Scribes)

If they weren’t built by Egyptian slaves, what about the Hebrews? We discussed in a previous blog that there is no convincing evidence for the Hebrews in Egyptian texts before the New Kingdom. While we can document the arrival of Asiatics beginning in the late First Intermediate Period, the large-scale influx of Hebrews needed for such monumental construction cannot be established for the time of the Giza pyramids.

Egyptian tombs were booby trapped

Many archaeologists can thank Indiana Jones for inspiring them as children to pursue academic careers at museums, universities, and dig sites. Raiders of the Lost Ark also popularised a myth about Egyptian tombs: they were booby trapped by the ancients to keep people from knowing their secrets. Tomb robberies were a serious threat to Egyptian burials even in ancient times, so why wouldn’t the Egyptians booby trap their tombs to protect the wealth inside? The answer is: they wouldn’t for the same reasons we wouldn’t.

After burial, the soul of the deceased, shown as a human-headed bird, could leave the tomb each day and returned to reunite with the deceased's mummy (Photo: Nile Scribes)
The soul of the deceased, shown as a human-headed bird, could leave the tomb each day but always returned to reunite with the deceased’s mummy (Photo: Nile Scribes)

Tombs are sacred spaces and the burial rites for the deceased took precedence over safeguarding the tomb’s wealth, even in the case of kings. After death, priests and family members brought food offerings to the tomb chapel to feed the souls of the deceased. The burial chamber was effectively the eternal ‘home’ for the deceased, where their soul (or ba) would reunite with their mummy after traveling outside the tomb to the land of the living, not somewhere you would think to put a booby trap. In addition, the reuse of funerary objects and spaces was not taboo for the Egyptians: looted tombs or sarcophagi were often repurposed and repainted for a new tomb owner generations later.

Egyptians despised foreigners

Images of bound, slain, and smitten foreigners are frequent in Egyptian iconography, decorating temple walls and ceremonial palettes as well as royal sandals and chariots. Scenes of the Egyptian king defeating foreigners are often colourful, expressive, and ethnically diverse, leading an uneducated viewer to surmise that to be foreign in Egypt was to be an enemy of the state. Quite to the contrary, at every point in Pharaonic history Egypt was a vastly multicultural society, with foreigners of numerous ethnic backgrounds living and working in Egypt as soldiers, farmers, officials, and priests. These individuals are often identifiable by their non-Egyptian names, sometimes even generations after their families immigrated to Egypt. This shows that maintaining their cultural identity was possible even in Egyptian contexts. Non-Egyptians can also be found holding positions of prestige in the Egyptian royal court, as royal wives, courtiers, and even as vizier.

Foreigners representing people from every corner of the Egyptian world are shown bound and defeated by the Egyptian king (Photo: Nile Scribes)
Foreigners representing people from every corner of the Egyptian world are shown bound and defeated by the Egyptian king (Photo: Nile Scribes)

Egyptian hieroglyphs are a secret, ancient code

Proving that all good things must come to an end, the Egyptian language was slowly replaced as the native language by Greek and Coptic after 3,000 years of its continuous use (the last hieroglyphic inscription dates to 394 AD). For the next 1,500 years, hieroglyphic inscriptions remained indecipherable to any living person, gathering an aura of mystery and enchantment. It was not until 1822 when French linguist Jean-François Champollion deciphered the Egyptian language for the modern world that these ancient texts were able to be read again.

Most hieroglyphs function as phonograms but some represent the image they depict (Photo: Nile Scribes)
Most hieroglyphs function as phonograms but some represent the image they depict (Photo: Nile Scribes)

We inherited our word for the script from the Greeks: “hieroglyph” means “sacred writing.” The Egyptians called their language “medu netjer,” or “divine words.” Both names capture a sensation of awe that the script evokes even in modern viewers that has inspired some to endow it with mysterious, unknown meanings. In reality, Egyptian hieroglyphs are merely a script that accompanied the Egyptian language, like the Latin script accompanies English. What makes the script seem ‘code-like’ to modern eyes is that all of the signs depict objects from their world: birds, trees, tools, and even food. These signs, however, function in predictable, grammatical ways: as ideograms (an image representing what it depicts), phonograms (an image representing a sound or sounds), and determinatives (an image clarifying the general idea of the word it follows). Like us, the Egyptians had much about their world they wanted to preserve in writing, they just used plants and animals to do it.

Egyptians practiced human sacrifice

The practice of human sacrifice has stirred modern imagination for several centuries by now. The large number of subsidiary graves associated with the royal tombs of the First Dynasty kings buried at Abydos has led scholars to suggest an early form of retainer sacrifice. The tomb of Djer, for example, had more than 300 subsidiary burials surrounding his tomb! We can identify them as officials, priests, and retainers from the many stelae giving their names and titles placed near their grave.

The tomb of King Den included numerous subsidiary burials including that of a queen (Photo: Nile Scribes)
The tomb of King Den included numerous subsidiary burials including that of a queen (Photo: Nile Scribes)

When we look at the actual remains of those interred in these graves, they are very often in a fragmented state due to pillaging and looting of the tombs. From earlier in the Predynastic Period we have tombs which show intentional dismemberment of the bodies and in one case an individual had their throat slit followed by their decapitation. At Abydos, however, there are only a few cases where closer examination provides more detail, yet there is no proof these persons were buried while still alive. This evidence of vast subsidiary burials at Abydos is only confined to the First Dynasty and the practice was not continued elsewhere in any other period of Egyptian history.

Egyptians were obsessed with death

Our ideas surrounding Egyptian obsessions with death is based somewhat wrongly on what has survived and what has not: the large number of cemeteries, built along the desert’s edge, were preserved much better than Egyptian towns and villages built on the floodplains. As a result, Egyptian collections in museums display a wide variety of funerary goods and, in turn, many of our misconceptions have been influenced by these finds for a long time.

The prevailing plethora of finds from tombs and cemeteries dominate Egyptian collections in museums (Photo: Nile Scribes)
The prevailing plethora of finds from tombs and cemeteries dominate Egyptian collections in museums (Photo: Nile Scribes)

Digging a little deeper, however, it soon becomes obvious that Egyptians were obsessed with life and did everything in their power to continue to live in the next world. Researchers like Barry Kemp emphasize the love for life that Egyptians actually display through their tomb scenes and texts. In texts such as the Harper’s Songs, the sadness of death and the pleasures of life are two key themes:

“Let your pleasures increase
And let not your heart grow weary.
Follow your heart and your happiness,
Conduct your affairs on earth as your heart dictates,
For that day of mourning will (surely) come for you.” (1)


Notes

  1. V.A. Tobin. 2003. ‘The Love Songs and the Song of the Harper’. In The Literature of Ancient Egypt. An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry, edited by W.K. Simpson, 307–33. New Haven: Yale University Press – page 333