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Humour  and Comics



Many people will picture ancient Egypt visually as slaves building the Great Pyramids.  It is was comes to one's an the common man's mind's eye, though today we believe that the Pyramids were probably not built primarily with slave labour. Still, the concept does not lend itself easily to smiling, happy faces. In fact there seems to have been little outlet for humour within the confines of official funerary and religious art and literature. Yet we know that ancient Egyptians had a since of humour, even as they toiled to build the ancient monumental buildings. In fact, they even had a god of humour in the form of Bes, who was a fat, bearded dwarf; ugly to the point of being comical.

It is difficult for us to analyze humour even in different modern cultures, much less those of ancient civilizations.  Humour and satire are most often associated with the subversion and undermining of normal social decorum, but if the normal social decorum is not fully understood, then the humour or satire will be lost to us.


Most humour comes to us from "unofficial" sources, such as rough sketches and Ostracan, though occasionally we even find official humour, though it most often regards matters outside the Egyptian royal audience.  Notable is the scene at the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri that portrays the overweight figure of the queen of Punt, followed by a small donkey.  The caption reads, "the donkey that had to carry the queen", and apparently the ordinary Egyptians thought this was funny as well, for they repeated the drawing in rough sketch clearly copied from the original. 

In a number of texts, scribes corned just about every other trade (with the exception of their own).  Some of this was clearly meant to be humorous, though considering the ego that scribes clearly enjoyed, some of the text were probably out and out scorn.  Even in private tombs, there was sometimes mockery of some of the labourers.

Probably the most obvious and one of the largest bodies of humour are sketches and paintings depicting animals such as mice and cats engaged in typical human activities.  They are shown beating captives, driving chariots, and in one papyrus, a lion and antelope are shown playing a board game while a cat is shown herding geese. It has been suggested that these might have been illustrations for animal fables, but if this were true, no text has survived as proof.













We are likely to never know the full extent of ancient Egyptian humour.  Today we know have considerable knowledge of the royal and religious aspects of ancient Egypt.  But while our understanding of common Egyptians is increasing, there is yet much to be learned.  I was probably the common Egyptians who formulated most humour, and who probably needed it the most in order to deal with their lives. Today, Egypt remain a society with a great sense of humour.

political satire, scatological and vomiting humour, jokes concerning sex, slapstick, and animal-based parodies.

For satire, Noegel explained that commoners would make fun of leaders by showing pharaohs in an unflattering manner. For example, some leaders were depicted unshaven or "especially effeminate."


Drawings of defecating hyenas and drunken, vomiting party guests are among the existing examples of scatological humour, while the sex-based jokes consisted of "innuendoes and outright erotica," he said.

Slapstick comedy included drawings that showed people suffering unfortunate accidents, such as hammers falling on heads, or passengers tipping out of boats.

The ancient Egyptians had a special fondness for animal humour, given the many examples of sketches on papyrus, paintings, and other drawings, according to Noegel.

He said, "(The images show) ducks pecking at someone's buttocks, baboons and cats out of control, animals riding on top of other unlikely animals, baboons playing instruments, and animals drinking and dining."

One papyrus shows a mouse pharaoh, gallantly posed in his chariot pulled by two dogs, speeding towards a group of feline warriors. Yet another papyrus depicts a lion and an antelope playing a board game. The lion lifts a game piece as though in victory, while the antelope falls back in his chair.

"From everything that I've seen and heard, I believe that their sense of humour was very similar to our own," said Vincent Jones, who organized one of Andrews' lectures this week, and is president of the ARCE Georgia Chapter.

Jones told Discovery News that he attended another recent lecture by Guillemette Andreu, curator of the Louvre's Egyptian collection. He said Andreu presented a list of Egyptian excuses as to why people did not come into work. The top three were illness, getting married, and sorry, but I am building a house now.

"It was funny to learn that people have been creative at getting out of work for thousands of years," Jones said.

Humour was not limited to the mundane. A drawing on the wall of the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri shows an obese "queen of Punt" in front of a tiny donkey. The inscription for the sketch reads, "The donkey that had to carry the queen." The drawing gained popularity and was copied, cartoon-style, many times from the original.

The land of Punt, which historians believe might have been the area that is now Libya or Ethiopia, held near-mythical status for Egyptians in the ancient world. Animal skins and other exotic goods came from Punt via trade routes. Historians also think that Bes, the ancient Egyptian god of humour, infants, home life, song, and dance, originated in Punt.

While the Egyptians built no temples to honor Bes, shrines for the chubby, bearded dwarf with uncombed hair were placed in many homes. The ancient Egyptians believed that anytime a baby smiled or laughed for no reason, Bes was in the room making faces.


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Last modified: 11/17/10