October 19, 2012

Entertainment in Ancient Egypt

Entertainment
Leisure was made possible by the economy, exceptional opportunities and favourable climate. Almost all the tombs of the noblemen at Saqqara and Giza contain scenes of the deceased with his family seated beneath an arbour enjoying the mild north breeze, or with friends or relatives being entertained by musicians, dancers and singers. Moreover the panorama of everyday life indicates how vitally conscious the people were of the animal and bird life teeming around them and how much they esteemed the great outdoors. It seems that among the greatest pleasures were venturing into the marshes in search of aquatic birds, hunting in the undulating plains of the desert and fishing in small canals and lakes.

The ancient Egyptians had a great sense of rhythm and love of music. During important national events (for example, the breaking of ground by the ‘Scorpion King’ depicted on his historically important mace-head), a line of women clapped in unison. A piper or singer often entertained ancient Egyptian fishermen and farmers while they worked. Not surprisingly, we find the wealthy classes enjoying music at all times of day, at their morning toilet, at meals and during leisure hours. Harps were small and usually played by a seated musician. Flutes were in two sizes and a full orchestra comprised two harps and two flutes. Two or three musicians as well as singers and clappers usually accompanied lithe young maidens as they performed dances for the pleasure of the nobleman and his family. One such scene, in the tomb of Ti, shows both male and female performers. The dancers raise their arms in a circular motion above their heads while their feet move forward; a gesture probably repeated to the rhythm of the music. A more energetic performance is depicted in the tomb of Ankhmahor where the dancers do a high kick, and in the tomb of Kagemni an acrobatic dance is performed by young girls who are depicted with the left foot placed flat on the floor, torso curved, head dropping backwards until the hair, plaited into a pigtail with decoration on the end, hangs down in perfect symmetry.

Entertainment brings to mind the story of the pigmy brought from the Land of Yam to amuse the young pharaoh Pepi II. It is one of the most appealing tales of the Egyptian Old Kingdom. Pepi was only six years old when he ascended the throne. During the second year of his reign, Harkhuf, a nobleman of Elephantine, returned from the south with exotic products and a dancing pigmy as a gift for the king. He sent messengers ahead to inform the pharaoh of what to expect and with great enthusiasm Pepi sent a letter of thanks to Harkhuf requesting him to take every precaution that the pigmy should arrive in Memphis in good condition. Harkhuf was instructed to put trustworthy persons in charge on the boat so as to ensure the pigmy should not fall overboard, and that when he slept guards should sleep on either side of the cabin and make an inspection ten times a night. ‘For’, wrote Harkhuf in his tomb where he recorded the entire episode and quoted the letter in his biographical text, ‘My Majesty desires to see this pigmy more than all the gifts of Setjru, Irtjet and Yam.’

A legend in the Westcar Egyptian Papyrus tells of the aged king Senefru being otherwise entertained. A magician recommended that he row on the palace lake in the company of ‘all the beauties who are in your palace chamber . . . The heart of Your Majesty shall be refreshed at the sight of their rowing as they row up and down. You can see the beautiful fish ponds of your lake, and you can see the beautiful fields around it [and] your heart will be refreshed at this.’ Senefru forthwith ordered that twenty oars be made of ebony, fitted with gold and silver, and instructed that twenty women be brought, ‘the most beautiful in form, with hair well braided, with firm breasts, not yet having opened up to give birth. Let there be brought to me twenty nets, and let these nets be given to these women when they have taken off their clothes. Then it was done according to all that His Majesty commanded, and they rowed up and down. The heart of His Majesty was happy at the sight of their rowing.’


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