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Social Life

Conviviality

The at-home

     For most Egyptians a get-together would have been a simple affair: sitting around a fire or lamp, telling stories, singing songs, eating sweetmeat and drinking beer. Not so for their betters. They organised banquets on a lavish scale. The tables were burdened with all kinds of food, the wine was poured by shapely servants.

Banquet scene
excerpt from a picture printed in Ancient Egypt by Lionel Casson

    

Traditional receptions could be full of rituals, with people having to observe a strict etiquette, though the very fact that they had to be reminded of it may be a hint that the rules were not as strictly observed as some would have liked them to be:

If you are one among guests
At the table of one greater than you,
Take what he gives as it is set before you;
Look at what is before you,
Don't shoot many glances at him,
Molesting him offends the ka.
Don't speak to him until he summons,
One does not know what may displease;
Speak when he has addressed you,
Then your words will please the heart.
The nobleman, when he is behind food,
Behaves as his ka commands him;
He will give to him whom he favours,
It is the custom when night has come.
It is the ka that makes his hands reach out,
The great man gives to the chosen man;
Thus eating is under the counsel of god,
A fool is who complains of it.
The Maxims of Ptahhotep
M. Lichtheim - Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol I

   

 

 Men and women sat apart, the host on a chair, the guests on stools, pillows or floormats. During the New Kingdom they were sometimes depicted as wearing a cone on their heads. Conventional wisdom has it that these were made of scented grease, which would melt and flow down the wig releasing the perfume. Few traces if any of such grease have been found on wigs, and fastening grease cones to hairpieces without them falling off, would not have been easy. It may therefore have been a pictorial convention similar to the lotus flowers hovering above the heads of revellers. [1]


    These banquets seem to have been staid affairs, the worst that seemed to have happened to the guests was to become drunk (and there are pictures of that having happened) or overeat.

 

     The entertainment consisted of storytelling, music, above all flute, oboe and harp playing duets or trios, at times accompanying a singer or a reciter. Dancing, some of it quite acrobatic, with backsomersaults and the like, was performed by scantily dressed girls. Dwarfs were always popular, and wrestlers were sometimes hired.


 


    Towards the end of the evening, the mood might turn more sombre and the guests might be reminded of the shortness of life by a singer

The bodies return to their source since the days of the god, and younger generations rise in their stead. As long as Re rises in the morning, as long as Tum goes to his resting place at Manu, the males will beget and females get pregnant, the nostrils will breathe air. But all who enter this world will return one day to their origin.
Bring upon us a gloriously beautiful day, oh priest! The most exquisite perfumes shall be given to us and pleasant scents shall enter your nose. Your shoulders shall be adorned with garlands and lilies as shall be the neck of your beloved sister sitting beside you. In your ears shall resound singing and harp playing. Do not open your heart to evil! Do not think just of your hearts desires, until the day arrives when we will have to pass the land of silence.
Bring upon us a gloriously beautiful day, Neferhotep, whose mouth utters the word of justice and truth....
From the chant of Neferhotep's harpist

or by statues of mummies as described by Herodotus, who - as inventor of feature story reporting - had an ear for a (possibly) extraordinary story:
In the entertainments of the rich among them, when they have finished eating, a man bears round a wooden figure of a dead body in a coffin, made as like the reality as may be both by painting and carving, and measuring about a cubit or two cubits each way; and this he shows to each of those who are drinking together, saying: "When thou lookest upon this, drink and be merry, for thou shalt be such as this when thou art dead." Thus they do at their carousals.
Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg


 
Footnotes:
[1] A Harper's song lamenting a dead person reminds the living to go on celebrating life
I have wept, I have mourned!
O all people, remember getting drunk on wine,
With wreaths and perfume on your heads!
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume 1, p.194
 

Celebration & Intoxication 

The Ancient Egyptians, like anyone else, loved a great party. The entire calendar year was filled with different celebrations for the various Names of Netjer, throughout the country. Almost any day of the week, a celebration of some sort could be found to honor the Netjeru and to be thankful for the gift of life. One inscription from antiquity says:

"....be joyful and make merry."


Egyptian people loved to celebrate and loved to commemorate births marriages and religious events. Wealthy Egyptians would routinely invite friends and other important persons to their homes in order to share in great feasts and parties. The wine flowed freely alongside the food which was rich and plentiful, people dressed in their best finery, eating meals seasoned by herbs, both domestic and imported. Guests would sit on cushions on the floor or on chairs eating the food with their fingers and drinking large quantities of wine. 

(The peasant classes were more inclined to drink beer at their own similar celebrations!) At such parties, the host would perhaps hire entertainers that could consist of storytellers, acrobats, dancers, singers and musicians. During religious festivals such as Opet and other large celebrations, crowds would gather for a "coming forth" when the statue of the God or Goddess went around about the streets in processions. After such appearances feasting consumption of large quantities of wine and beer were often a part of the celebrations.

 

Drink, drugs and sex

Drink

    Drinking alcohol was widespread. Children indulged as well, even if it was just the somewhat weak Egyptian beer. Actually beer may have been safer for them than water or even milk which were often infected by germs. But a scribe warned his pupil:
I hear that you are neglecting your writing and spending all your time dancing, going from tavern to tavern, always reeking of beer...If only you realized that wine is a thing of the devil...You sit in front of the wench, sprinkled with perfume; your garland hangs around your neck and you drum on your paunch; you reel and fall on your belly and are filthied with dirt.
pAnastasi IV
Lionel Casson, Daily Life in Ancient Egypt, p.56
    Religious holidays were often occasions for joyous public celebrations which included drinking, at times to excess, which on these occasions was not frowned upon:
Drink till drunk while enjoying the feast day!
Inscription from the tomb of Petosiris, 4th century BCE
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, p.51

.... the soldiers were drunk and anointed with beq oil every day, as in the festivals in Egypt.
29th year of the reign of Thutmose III
Petrie A History of Egypt Part Two, p.114

    There were inns and bordellos where men could indulge and which were not frequented by respectable women. These had to pursue their pleasure in their own home.


     Both men and women were known to get intoxicated. In one tomb picture a woman is seen vomiting, in Pahery's tomb at el Kab a man is depicted saying

 

Give me eighteen jugs of wine - I want to get drunk, my insides are as dry as straw.
    Royalty did it too. A drawing on limestone shows a king with what seems to be a six o'clock shadow, looking much the worse for wear.
    The New Kingdom scribe Any, seemingly a paragon of middle class rectitude, warns potential drunks of what will happen to them:
Don't indulge in drinking beer,
Lest you utter evil speech
And don't know what you are saying.
If you fall and hurt your body
None holds out a hand to you;
Your companions in drinking
Stand up saying: "Out with the drunk!"
If one comes to seek you and talk with you,
One finds you lying on the ground,
As if you were a little child.
The Instruction of Any
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Records of Egypt, Volume II, p.137
 
 
 
 
    One effect of excessive alcohol consumption is the headache the morning after. The Roman Dio reported that the Egyptians used boiled cabbage and cabbage seeds against hang-overs. The addition of a small amount of sea water to the wine was also practiced in order to improve the taste (according to Pliny) and prevent headaches (in the opinion of Athenaeus).

Drugs

Couple with blue lotus flowers     In many scenes blue lotus flowers (Nymphaea caerulea, a water lily) are depicted with the revelers ostensibly sniffing them. This has led some researchers to suspect that they might be psychoactive. Their investigations were inconclusive.
    What drugs apart from alcohol were used is unclear. Traces of hashish have been found in mummies. The properties of mandrake and opium were certainly known during the Late Dynastic Period and psychoactive plants are (or at least seem to be) depicted since early times [2].
    Dr Svelte Balabanova of the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Ulm found traces of cocaine and nicotine in 21st dynasty mummies. [1] But it is unclear whether these are remains of drug use, stem from plants of the same families or are modern contaminations.

Sex

    Nudity was an accepted part of Egyptian life and had little to do with sex. Children were often naked and even grown ups removed their clothes when the work they were doing required it.
    Depictions of phalli are not infrequently found in temples as part of fertility scenes rather than sexual activity. The purification rites priests had to undergo before entering their temple point to there having been a taboo on sex in sacred grounds. In Egypt, unlike in some Middle Eastern countries, there was apparently no 'temple prostitution' [5].


 

     Little is known about the sexual mores, and the rarity of any mention of sex has been variously interpreted as being the result of prudish attitudes or, conversely, of it being an accepted, natural phenomenon [8]. Depictions of sexual character [3] have been described as satires or as symbols of the creation acts of the gods [4]. The fact that there was some pornography might be interpreted that there were at least periods when sexuality was repressed.
    How widespread prostitution was cannot be verified; that there would have been customers of such services we can be sure of [9]. As Ankhsheshonq said in his demotic Instruction:

Man is even more eager to copulate than a donkey; his purse is what restrains him.
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, p.178
    To the fictitional Setne Khamwas, son of Pharaoh Usermare, one hour with Tabubu, the daughter of the prophet of Bastet, was worth 10 pieces of gold:
Setne said to the servant: "Go, say to the maid, 'It is Setne Khamwas, the son of Pharaoh Usermare, who has sent me to say, "I will give you ten pieces of gold - spend an hour with me....
Setne Khamwas and Naneferkaptah
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, p.134
In the story Tabubu was less offended by the proposition itself but rather that she was being treated like a low woman of the street.
    While there was little explicit sex in literature, erotic love poetry was widespread in Ramesside times. The terms 'brother' and 'sister' generally referred to one's beloved.
My heart desires to go down to bathe myself before you,
That I may show you my beauty in a tunic of the finest royal linen...
I'll go down to the water with you, and come out to you carrying a red fish, which is just right in my fingers.
I'll set it before you, while looking upon your beauty.
O my hero, my brother,
Come, look upon me!
Michael Fox, The Song of Songs and Ancient Egyptian Love Songs
(Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin, 1985), p. 32.

    Dancing too could often be titillating erotic, when scarcely clad young women performed sinuous dances at banquets [6]. The preferences of ancient Egyptian men were remarkably similar to those of modern Westerners. In a story from the Westcar papyrus Pharaoh Snefru decides on an outing
Indeed, I shall go rowing! Have brought to me twenty ebony oars worked in gold with handles of skeb wood worked in fine gold. Have brought to me twenty women with beautiful bodies and breasts and hair who have not given birth. And have brought to me twenty nets and give these nets to these women in place of their clothes.
Papyrus Westcar


    Generally speaking - and as has been the case throughout most of history and in most societies - men had much more social and sexual freedom than women; but, at least in theory, wives of other men were out of bounds.

Beware of a woman who is a strange,
One not known in her town.
Don't stare at her when she goes by,
Don't know her carnally.
A deep water whose course is unknown
Such is a woman away from her husband.
"I am pretty," she tells you daily.
She is ready to ensnare you,
A great deadly crime when it is heard.
The Instruction of Any
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Records of Egypt, Volume II, p.137
    How much men could and did permit themselves with their female servants and slaves is not known. They often did not restrain themselves as this mourner did:
Three years have passed since that day (since his wife died). I do not enter another house, and a man of my rank does not have to abstain from this... The sisters who dwell in the house, I did not visit any of them.
From a papyrus at the Leiden Museum

     As to homosexual behaviour, of which there is very little testimony [7], it was, at least in certain quarters, frowned upon. Sexual misconduct ranked high in the list of misbehavior men were at pains to distance themselves from when confronted with their judges in the other world.
Hail, Qerrti, who comest forth from Amentet, I have not committed adultery, I have not lain with men.
Hail, Tutu, who comest forth from Ati, I have not debauched the wife of any man.
Hail, Uamenti, who comest forth from the Khebt chamber, I have not debauched the wife of [any] man.
Hail, Maa-antuf, who comest forth from Per-Menu, I have not polluted myself.
    According to the Contending of Horus and Seth the Egyptian attitude towards homosexuality may have been similar to that of the Greeks who considered the man performing the part of submissive to be inferior but did not attach opprobrium to homosexuality per se.
    The story relates that Seth caused his phallus to become stiff and inserted it between Horus's thighs. Then Horus placed his hands between his thighs and received Seth's semen. Isis, when Horus told her about what Seth had done let out a loud shriek, seized the copper (knife), cut off his hand(s) with which he had received Seth's semen. Seth clearly considered Horus to be unworthy to rule, as did the other gods:
Said Seth: "Let me be awarded the office of Ruler, l.p.h., for as to Horus, the one who is standing (trial), I have performed the labor of a male against him." The Ennead let out a load cry. They spewed and spat at Horus's face.
It was only thanks to the trickery of Isis that the gods came to believe that Seth and not Horus was the effeminate one, unfit to rule.

 

 

 

 

 

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