To the Egyptians, whose life-span averaged a mere 30 years, earthly life was only a passing spell.
Essential, however, was the afterlife, pictured as an eternal repetition of family blessings, plentiful harvests in the fields of Ialu, and sports and games, with the deceased maintaining the prestige of rank reached on earth. This concept deeply influenced art and architecture but did not dim the Egyptians’ sense of humor. Their faith in the life-providing sun, his son Pharaoh, and other gods aimed at securing a long life on earth and, after death, an eternity of happiness.
Society was structured on love within the family. Wisdom books exhorted youths to “found a household” at an early age and warned them against the woman who has left her husband in another city and repeats: “I am pretty.” Marriage took place probably just after puberty, with only the affluent classes and royalty having more than one wife. It seems that the incentive for a pharaoh to marry foreign princesses was to secure alliance with the powerful Hittites, Babylonians, or Mitanni. A nomarch—the ruler of a nome, or district—married into the family of a neighboring nomarch to implant his children’s claim on that nome. Although a wife was often called “sister” as a mark of affection, brother-sister marriages occurred only among royalty and nobility, on the model of the mythical couples Osiris-Isis and Seth-Nephthys.
Exceptionally a pharaoh, such as Snefru, Amenhotep III, and perhaps Akhenaten (Akhenaton), married his own daughter. The wife was the “lady of the house” enjoying the same legal rights as her husband. Legal documents differentiated between married and unmarried couples of laborers. At the court of Pharaoh—soon imitated by princes—concubines, singing girls, and servants lived in the “house of the secluded women” or harem. Only those sons by the legal wife could assume the title of “son of his body.”
The Egyptian man hoped for marital love and the procreation of a son who would inherit his post, perpetuate his name, and see to the proper execution of his funerary rites. A wife might accompany her husband when he went fishing or fowling, or at home she would play music and sing. In murals. and statue groups, husband and wife appear seated together, though sometimes in the art of the Old Kingdom the wife is smaller, clinging affectionately to her husband’s leg. A wife was particularly esteemed in her role as mother. She nursed her child for three years, and when he was older she brought him daily bread and beer at school. Maternal care was acknowledged with veneration.
Personal names were compounds, consisting of the exclamations uttered at childbirth (Nefertiti, “The beautiful one comes”) or featuring the name of a god (Amenhotep, “Amon is satisfied”). This “great name” was shortened into a familiar “beautiful name” (Merw, for Mererwikai). A high official would adopt a compound nickname that included the name of his sovereign as a mark of adulation. Others were nick-named after animals.
Small children went naked, boys with heads shaven as well, except for a hairlock curling on the right side of the head. Pairs of girls would play a game of ball that involved one girl riding the other, while boys engaged in even more athletic leapfrog variants of this game, but without a ball. Favorite children’s toys included tops, flat wooden dolls with profuse wigs, and dogs and crocodiles with movable jaws.
Food and Drink.
The usual Egyptian fare consisted of three or four loaves of bread and two jugs of beer daily. More substantial meals than the ordinary might feature goose, duck, or ox meat roasted over a chareoal fire; fresh or dried fruit; and sweets. Funerary steles list an impressive variety of breads, cakes, meats, wines, and beers.
Bread was prepared at home from wheat ground by hand and baked in beehive ovens. Beer was delived from the fermentation of special half-baked loaves. Teachers warned students against the alluring beer-houses. People of better means drank wine, of which at least six varieties were already known in the Old Kingdom. Dates and figs were the favorite fruits, to which grapes, pomegranates, watermelons, sweet melons, and carobs added much variety. Vegetables, grown in special gridiron-shaped beds, included lettuce, onions, garlic, leeks, lentils and cucumbers, which were eaten uncooked with roasted meat, dried fîsh, caviar, cheese, and boiled milk. There were many kinds of game from the desert, such as antelope, as well as wildfowl, hunted with the clapnet and throw-stick, and innumerable types of fish.
Meat was hung on lines to dry. The only sweetener used in Egypt was honey, extracted from beehives made of rows of jars built in mud. Ricinus and lettuce oils were used before olive trees were introduced in the Greco-Roman period, at which time the Egyptians also began to keep chickens.
Three meals were served daily— originally on a mat, but later on a round platter placed on a low cylindrical stand. When rich people began sitting on chairs, taller stands raised the platter to the level of the seat. It was customary, as in the Middle East nowadays, to wash the hands before and after meals, using an ablution jar and basin. These vessels stood on special lattice stands. Large water jugs were aligned in sturdier stands at the entrance of the house. Longnecked wine jars stood in rows decorated with gaily colored garlands.
Flowers graced all aspects of life, topping victuals or draped in garlands around vessels, columns, and canopies. Placed radially at a slant in slate flower bowls, they provided a subtle eeho of the lotus floating in the artificial pond outside the house.
Furniture designed for the upper elasses never lost its initial eleganee, which resulted from the alliance of functionalism with heraldic symbolism. This can be seen particularly in furniture legs simulating those of lions or bulls placed on conical bases; the sides of thrones carved in openwork with the motif of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt: sedge and papyrus being bound to the hieroglyph sema; the masks of two lions fronting chair seats and beds; the floral knobs at the ends of the bedframes; the irregularly vaulted chest lids derived from architecture; and the use of the figure of the household god Bes. Precious textiles and cosmetics were kept in chests, but white linen was ranged on built-in shelves.
The early Egyptian technique of lining the ends and junctures of wooden frames with embossed gold caps and decorating furniture with inlays of ivory and ebony were complemented in the New Kingdom with the use of variegated inlays of enamel and glass paste and by painting. Matwork formed a versatile covering for floors, walls, screens, and roofs. It was woven into geometric patterns and, in the Middle Kingdom, with rhythmic floral designs in color.
At sunset the profuse daylight was succeeded by the dim, reddish glow of oil lamps. The lamps, made of pottery, were placed in triangular niches and on papyriform stands. Charcoal braziers dispensed a welcome warmth on chilly nights. Fire was probably preserved in the smoldering ashes of the oven.
Most of the houses had no bathroom. People slept inside bedrooms in winter but on the terrace during the hot summer. Daily activities like grinding grain and cooking were performed by the women in the yard fronting the rural houses or in the kitchen at the back of artisans’ houses in towns. Bringing water from the Nile before sunset was more a diversion than a chore, for it offered the prospect of a cool dip, satisfying natural needs, meeting friends, and getting the news.
In the evolution of its fashions, Egyptian clothing showed great versatility, varying according to class, age, and occasion. The prehistoric Egyptian man at first wore only a phallus-sheath and, when he went hunting, an animal tail—both kept traditionally in the ceremonial costume of the pharaoh. The leopard skin that was worn in the Old Kingdom and maintained as part of the priestly garb down to the latest period must have been used by prehistoric chiefs; women already had long mantles.
A short rounded kilt of white linen, originally of palm leaves, was the typical male dress in the Old Kingdom. The kilt evolved a ponderous starched front projection in the 5th Dynasty, slightly reduced later. The short rounded kilt, pleâted and with geometric decoration on the girdle, was kept for ceremonial use, while a long skirt reaching down to the calf or the ankle was usually worn by older people. Toward the end of the Old Kingdom servants and other commoners wore longer kilts. In the Middle Kingdom a skirt reaching the calf of the leg and worn over a kilt formed the usual attire. often it was covered with a longer skirt of transparent linen, occasionally complemented by a cape.
In the affluent New Kingdom, fashions evolved rapidly. In the first half of the 18th Dynasty, the outer skirt became shorter and a sleeveless shirt covered the shoulders and torso. Pharaoh Akhenaten innovated a long inner shirt appearing below a tucked-up outer one, both with broad pleats. In ceremonial costumes, the lower skirt became an ample pleated robe, while the upper one was again reduced. Minor officials usually adopted earlier fashions. Commoners wore a short kilt, or in everyday life they might wear an apron of leather or leaves or go completely naked.
Women dressed uniformly in a close-fitting robe, hung beneath the bosom on two straps originally broad enough to cover the breasts. Plain cloth, occasionally with line or feather designs, was commonly used. In the 18th Dynasty an ample mantle was hung on the shoulders over a tight robe wrapped around the left shoulder. Both garments were of transparent linen. In the 19th Dynasty the outer mantle covered the left arm. A shirtlike opaque coat was worn over the two thinner robes toward the end of the 20th Dynasty. At work, women wore only a short kilt, and dancing girls and young servants went nude except for a decorated belt. Women’s textiles were still dyed in the Middle Kingdom, but men had long ago opted for white linen.
Sandals were not in fashion before the Middle Kingdom, but in the New Kingdom they became essential. The soles were usually made of papyrus, also of palm leaf or leather. Two thongs, one wrapped around the big toe and one around the ankle, held the sandal on. In the 18th Dynasty the sole curved up in front in fantastic shapes.
From the Old Kingdom onward, woolen wigs formed an essential item of the costume of men and women of the upper classes. They were either graded short or long, reaching down to the shoulders. In the 18th Dynasty the small wig style assumed a rounded profile covering the neck, or lower on either side to the shoulder. Women, in the Old Kingdom, wore very full wigs, with two large braids reaching the breasts. Elaborate fringes were added in the Middle Kingdom. In the New Kingdom the hair hung loose around the head or toward the back in a variety of braided or curled styles.
The Egyptians used to anoint their limbs with oils. Women applied black and green eyepaint, red lip paint, and scented unguents and perfumes combining incense, myrrh, and various odoriferous plants. Special formulas were supposed to restore growth and color to hair.
Broad, multirowed collars of faience, semiprecious stones, and gold beads were worn by men and women from the Middle Kingdom times on. They were often complemented by elaborate necklaces with pendants that were decorated in openwork with symbolic or heraldic scenes. Rings were used from the earliest times, and signet rings from the Hyksos period. During the 18th Dynasty earrings were introduced from Asia for royal princes but soon evolved as rings, disks, and pendentives of elaborate, extravagant shapes for ladies of rank.
The upper classes whiled away their leisure on various sports and entertainments. Nobles and nomarchs, often accompanied by wife and children, went sailing in papyrus skiffs, harpooning fish or even the hippopotamus, and aiming their throw-sticks at papyrus thickets teeming with wildlife. The more adventurous went on expeditions into the desert; some hunted on the edges of fenced-in reserves, where trained hounds drove gazelles, oryxes, bubalis, ostuches, and hares within range of their arrows. Wrestling comprising hundreds of holds was practiced by naked ephebes, especially in the First Intermediate Period in Middle Egypt. Games played with a ball were reserved to girls.
At home, recreation consisted of various types of chess-like games (shield, serpent), singing and dancing to music played on harps by men or, from the New Kingdom, by women. Banquet guests, in festive attire, were presented with costume jewelry and perfume as well as the choicest meats and drinks, while enjoying performances of music and dance. The harp and flutes were the leading instruments until the New Kingdom, when lyres, lutes, tambourines, and clappers were imported or invented.