Hippopotami lived in the Nile at least until the time of the New Kingdom. At some point after that they vanish, but by then they are an integral part of Egyptian culture. They are integrated into the writing system – hieroglyph E25 in Gardiner’s list looks like a hippo, and has the sound “deb”. They feature in the tales of later Egyptians about their predecessors too – the Egyptian historian Manetho (who lived around the 3rd Century BCE) wrote that Narmer (the first king of a unified Egypt) was “carried off by a hippo and perished”! Of course this is almost certainly fiction – Joann Fletcher, in whose book I found this quote, says it might be true but I’m reminded far too much of the purported death of Romulus the founder of Rome. He’s supposed to’ve been swept up by a whirlwind and perished, body never to be found. So this feels like a death story that gets attached to semi-mythical kings to make them seem more mysterious.
The reality of the hippopotamus is that it was dangerous and destructive – in particular male hippos were regarded this way and thus associated with the god Seth. In fact the two most dangerous animals that the Egyptians faced in their environment were the crocodile and the hippopotamus, due to their size and strength. Both these animals could move (and attack) both in water and on land, so nowhere was safe from them. In the case of the hippopotamus they also trampled and ate the Egyptian’s crops (and some authors like Richard Wilkinson think that they were feared more for this than any aggression towards humans).
The Egyptians didn’t just let this dangerous beast roam about and destroy their food – there’s evidence for the hunting of hippos dating back to Prehistoric times. Early farmers who lived by the banks of the Faiyum around 5000-4000 BCE butchered hippos for food – a single hippo has as much meat as 5 cows or 50 sheep, so there’s quite a lot of good eating there, you could have a spectacular feast or feed a community for a while after a single hunt. Hippo bones also show up as a structural material in the north of the country at Merimda in the Delta, where hippo shin bones were used as door sills around 4800 BCE, as well as other bones being used as pillars to hold up house roofs. Hippo teeth were also used to make ivory objects from at least Predynastic times. (Technically the word “ivory” only refers to the material of elephant tusks, but in practice its use is broader and includes dentine from other large mammals such as the hippo.) It’s hard to tell which ivory objects were made from elephant tusks and which from hippo teeth, but the shape of the finished object can give some indications. For instance the shape of wands and clappers reflects the shape of the lower canines of hippopotami, whereas circular boxes are the shape of the hollow ends of elephant tusks.
As you’d expect for a creature that was so visible in the Ancient Egyptian landscape hippopotami are a common feature in art. Hippos feature on pots from at least the Predynastic Period onward often as herds or being hunted. Even in the earliest examples known of hippo hunting scenes one of the hippos will usually be shown being harpooned – Diana Craig Patch suggests that this may be intended as protective: invoking success in decorative art in order to ensure success in life. This art is not confined to pottery, even in the Predynastic Period – there is a painted cloth which was found in a grave at Gebelein that has a fragmentary hippo hunting scene on it. And there are figurines found from the Predynastic Period as well as later in the Early Dynastic Period where figurines are found in temple deposits including the well known Main Deposit at Hierakonpolis. There are also two known examples of larger limestone statues of hippos dating to the Early Dynastic Period, which may’ve been cult statues placed in shrines to be propitiated with offerings to ward off danger from hippopotami in daily life.
So far I’ve mostly talked about practical attitudes towards hippos until that last paragraph, but much of this art and much of Ancient Egyptian thinking about hippopotami would’ve had religious significance. Even tho in the modern world we think of religion as a separate domain to the rest of life we shouldn’t forget that in other cultures religion and the everyday are deeply intertwined. But I do want to first say that we need to be rather cautious about back-porting any meanings from a period where we have written texts to earlier art. Cultures in the past are no more a monolith than our own, and over time the meanings and symbolism of art motifs will inevitably change. Nonetheless even with that caveat we can see that there might be themes that begin during Predynastic times and last into later Egyptian times.
One of the themes that runs through Egyptian art involving hippos is that of control – for instance a bowl with a motif of hippos swimming in a circle can be seen as keeping the hippos under control and not allowing them to escape the bowl (or by extension their own natural place in the world). And the common scene in Old Kingdom nobles tombs of a hippo hunt is not just (or perhaps not at all) showing what might’ve happened in life, instead it’s about keeping control in the afterlife. Even the rather jolly-looking (to our eyes) blue faience figures of hippos from the Middle Kingdom like the one in my photo might be a manifestation of this theme. Richard Wilkinson suggests that the floral decorative motifs on these pieces are a magical method of keeping the hippo in its proper environment (other authors disagree, which I’ll come back to later).
And in Pharaonic Egypt hippo hunting scenes in a royal context had another extra layer of symbolism – not just general themes of imposing order on the chaos of a hippo but also the defeat of Seth by Horus and thus an important part of the religious iconography of kingship. There are hints that this may have its roots in a much earlier time – like a piece of Naqada I-II period art where the hippo hunter wears a bull’s tail. Now in Pharaonic Egypt a bull’s tail was only worn by the king, so one could interpret this as a king killing a hippo and thus an early precursor of the Horus defeating Seth symbolism … but there’s not enough evidence to be at all sure of that, we don’t even know the bull’s tail is an indication that this man is a king let alone the religious underpinnings of the image.
Indeed there’s still no evidence of a link between Seth and the hippo in the 1st Dynasty, even though there are pieces of evidence of royal hippo hunts having some greater significance than the purely practical. But later, the god and the animal are definitely linked. In the Contendings of Horus and Seth, which as a full story survives in a single copy from the 20th Dynasty (although the motifs and episodes from the story show up much earlier as well as later albeit not in a single coherent story), there are two episodes where Seth becomes a hippo – in both he is harpooned, once by Isis who lets him free when he pleads for his life (much to Horus’s disgust) and once by Horus, in an act which brings the contendings to their final conclusion with Horus gaining (at last!) his rightful throne & inheritance. This second episode is also illustrated on the walls of Edfu temple – a Ptolemaic structure – and there was a festival celebrated at this temple that re-enacted the killing (not, I think, with a real hippo – it’s a donkey that’s sacrificed).
So hippos in ancient Egypt were mad, bad and dangerous to know? Not exactly – as so often in Egyptian culture there were two sides to the idea of the hippo. Male hippos might be associated with Seth, but female hippos had a more benign symbolism and were associated with the goddess Taweret (amongst others). Taweret was a household deity who was a protector of women in childbirth. She was a composite creature – she has the body of a female hippo, with the breasts and full belly of a pregnant human, the legs & arms of a lion and the tail of a crocodile (or sometimes a whole crocodile sitting on her back). She stands on her hind legs, and often has one of her forepaws resting on a sa sign (which means protection) or an ankh (for life). She may also carry a knife, or fire, to fight off evil and those who mean the mother-to-be harm. Female hippos had this association with motherhood as they were thought of as being especially protective of their young. Just to be clear – this beneficial and more benign aspect to female hippos wasn’t because they were thought of as any less destructive than male hippos, it’s just that the destructive power was seen as being turned on those who meant one harm. Which is an interesting contrast to modern Western notions of motherhood which emphasise the nurturing rather more than the protective aspects … and the contrast between our culture’s patron saint of childbirth Saint Margaret (who escapes the belly of a dragon because of a miracle she doesn’t really play a part in) and the rather more proactive Taweret is quite striking!
The hippo may also be a more general fertility and regenerative symbol. This is the more common interpretation of the blue faience hippos like the one in my illustration – rather than a control motif. In this interpretation the vegetative decoration is about verdant new life and so in a funerary context (which it’s assumed these are from) it would be a symbol of rebirth into the afterlife. There’s also a hippo-headed bed, which was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, which may fall into this category of symbolising rebirth. Much earlier from the Predynastic Period there are some small hippo figurines which may be amulets – they have a small knob where they might be strung on a thong to wear on one’s person. If they are amulets then that implies a positive interpretation. And these figurines all have distended pregnant looking bellies (unlike other hippo representations of the time), which implies an association with fertility (perhaps even a proto-Taweret, but that’s a stretch).
Hippos therefore played a variety of roles in the symbolism and thinking of ancient Egyptians and you might think this would get confusing when interpreting any given instance. However in “Reading Egyptian Art” Richard Wilkinson suggests an easy way to tell them apart: in the majority of cases a hippo standing like a human is positive, one standing on all fours like a hippo is malevolent (most of the exceptions to this are in my last paragraph). Or, to re-work Orwell’s phrase: Two legs good, four legs bad!
Fletcher, Joann. The Story of Egypt. Hodder, 2016. Patch, Diana Craig. ‘Early Dynastic Art’. In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. New York : New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press, 2011. ———. ‘From Land to Landscape’. In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. New York : New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press, 2011. Romer, John. From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid. A History of Ancient Egypt 1. London: Penguin, 2013. ———. From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom. A History of Ancient Egypt 2. Penguin, 2016. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. Rev. and Expanded ed. London: British Museum, 2008. The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 2007. Tyldesley, Joyce. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt. London, England: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2010. Wilkinson, Richard H. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. 1. paperback ed. 1994. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994. ———. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003. Wilkinson, Toby A. H. Early Dynastic Egypt. London: Routledge, 2001.
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Menkaure is an odd combination of obscure and well known. He’s the builder of the third of the pyramids on the Giza plateau so we have a big monument to him and I’d imagine most people who know a little about Ancient Egypt know his name because of this. He was the penultimate king of the Fourth Dynasty in the Old Kingdom so he’s successor to Khafre (probably) and predecessor to Shepseskaf, reigning for two or three decades around about 2500 BCE – but really most “facts” about him turn out to be pretty nebulous once you start reading up on him.
Menkaure was perhaps the son of Khafre, and thus the grandson of Khufu – hence related to the builders of the other two pyramids at Giza. I say “perhaps” because nowhere is the relationship actually written down, the assumption hinges on his inheriting the throne when there were definitely sons of Khafre around who were in positions of power. And would be in a position to object if he was not a legitimate heir. We also assume it because the Egyptians went out of their way to present their kings as an unbroken line of father to son inheritance (despite all the evidence to the contrary in their long history) – so it’s a good default if you don’t have direct evidence otherwise, but it is an assumption. In fact some of the evidence to the contrary comes within the 4th Dynasty itself right around the time of Menkaure’s accession. There is an ephemeral king called Baka who was the son of Djedefre (who was a brother of Khafre who ruled before him) – he definitely seems to’ve ruled for a short time, but it’s not clear if he inherits from his father and thus precedes his uncle Khafre or if he rules briefly between Khafre and Menkaure.
Menkaure’s mother was probably a woman called Khamerernebty who is thought to be one of Khafre’s wives, backing up our assumptions about Menkaure being the son of Khafre. The evidence is fairly slim here, but she has an appropriate collection of titles: King’s Daughter of His Body, Great of Sceptre*, King’s Wife, King’s Mother. A flint knife was found in Menkaure’s mortuary temple which has the partial inscription on it of “King’s Mother K[…]” – which does rather suggest that she was his mother, and thus probably Khafre’s wife as I said and Khufu’s daughter.
*Great of Sceptre is a queenly title used in the Old Kingdom.
As you can see we have more genealogical data available for the 4th Dynasty that preceding ones (look at the paucity of information I could find for Hetepheres, for instance) but still not enough to bring clarity to the situation. It continues into Menkaure’s own family – he had two or three wives, none of whom are known for absolutely certain. But there can be some degree of confidence that one of his wives was a woman with the same name as his mother: Khamerernebty (she’s given the numeral II by Egyptologists whereas his mother is number I). The evidence here is not just a rather fine dyad statue of the two of them together but the rather more certain evidence of a son of Khamerernebty II called Khuenre who is titled Eldest King’s Son of His Body, and is buried in a cemetery associated with Menkaure’s pyramid – so this seems as close to certain as we’re going to get without a time machine or the sudden discovery of a cache of documents (i.e. not very certain).
Khuenre is interesting in another way – that title Eldest King’s Son of His Body is suggestive. And his mother seems a good candidate for a senior wife – her titles are like Khamerernebty I’s (only without King’s Mother) and the only colossal statue of a queen found from Old Kingdom Egypt is of her, as well as the dyad statue with Menkaure. So was Khuenre actually Menkaure’s heir? Certainly Miroslav Verner makes that speculation in his book “The Pyramids”, and goes on to suggest that Khuenre pre-deceasing Menkaure may’ve led to a succession crisis. And what we now call the 4th Dynasty doesn’t seem to last another decade after Menkaure’s death (although as always, it’s a bad idea to assume that the change of dynasty was at all noticeable to the people living through it). But Menkaure does seem to’ve been succeeded by a son – a man called Shepseskaf, whose mother we don’t know (only it doesn’t seem to’ve been Kharmerenebty II).
The transition from Shepseskaf to the beginning of the 5th Dynasty (Userkaf) is rather murky but may’ve involved more of Menkaure’s offspring – perhaps, it’s always perhaps in this story. Userkaf himself may be another son of Menkaure, although he may also be a descendent of another branch of the family. And a woman called Khentkawes is important in the transition as the mother of king(s) and perhaps a king herself and she may have been a daughter of Menkaure. The books I read were really split on this – one theory is that she’s Menkaure’s daughter & Shepseskaf’s sister/wife, another is that she was a wife of Menkaure, and Aidan Dodson and Dyan Hilton make no mention of any relationship between Khentkawes & Menkaure. Given how thoroughly their book “The Complete Royal Families” goes into every tiny piece of evidence in the jigsaw puzzle that is the Egyptian royal family this silence makes me inclined to doubt her relationship to Menkaure. But given her importance she must surely be a part of the extended royal clan at the least – this is a royal culture where power was kept in the family, after all!
Summing up – the family of Menkaure looks a bit like this: He is probably the son of Khafre and Khamerernebty I, and has several brothers who hold positions of power. He has two or three wives, one of whom was probably Khamerernebty II. The number of his children isn’t clear but it seems there were at least two sons, and perhaps a daughter or two. One of his son’s pre-deceases him but nonetheless he is succeeded by a son, and even though we change the dynasty number after that it seems plausible that the “new” dynasty were the same family as Menkaure.
So that’s his family … perhaps! Do we actually know anything at all about the man himself? Well, not really – there don’t seem to be any significant events from his reign for which records have survived through the millennia. We do have his pyramid complex, as a monumental record that once he was the most powerful man in Egypt. And we have an idea of how he wanted to be portrayed – the photo I’ve used to illustrate this article is one of the four surviving triad statues that were found in his Valley Temple (the fragments also found indicate there were more but how many more is unclear). Each of the statues shows Menkaure flanked by two deities – on his right standing shoulder to shoulder with him is Hathor and on his left is the somewhat smaller figure of a Nome* deity. Menkaure is confident and at ease with his divine company, with his muscular idealised body demonstrating his perfection as a man and a ruler.
*Ancient Egypt was divided into administrative regions called Nomes.
There are a couple of stories in Herodotus, but I don’t think we can even begin to think of these as actual events. Not only is it the case that Herodotus was more interested in telling a good story than recounting history, but he was also writing some 2000 years after Menkaure died so no-one he spoke to was doing more than telling fanciful tales. However they might give a bit of a flavour of how the man had been mythologised over the millennia (providing his Egyptian informants weren’t just telling the nosey foreigner random nonsense). Herodotus refers to him twice as a good king – pious and just. But the first time he goes on to tell a story about Menkaure’s only child, a daughter, dying perhaps by suicide after her father raped her – which doesn’t sound terribly good to me! The second time is as an explanation of why he died young – apparently an Oracle told Menkaure the Egyptians were fated to have 150 years of hardship which Khufu and Khafre had been providing but Menkaure was being too nice to his subjects so would die in 6 years time as punishment. But Menkaure figured out how to cheat the Oracle – he ordered torches burnt all night every night so that he could stay up (partying) and effectively double his life span! As I said, these are obvious fiction – and quite vivid in Herodotus’s text with elaborate details about the golden cow the daughter is buried in etc. However, they do give a flavour of a memory of Menkaure as a good king, not like the mythologising around Khufu the tyrant. Whether that’s true or not, we’ll likely never know.
This is part of the fascination of ancient history for me. That we can get so close to knowing about a real individual person who lived so very long ago – we can piece together these little pieces of information like a logic puzzle or a jigsaw puzzle. But we don’t have all the pieces and so we can only catch a glimpse of the outline – so near and yet so far from knowing this man from the deep past.
David, Rosalie. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books, 2002. Dodson, Aidan, and Dyan Hilton. The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson, 2004. Fletcher, Joann. The Story of Egypt. Hodder, 2016. Herodotus. The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories. Edited by Robert B Strassler. Translated by Andrea L. Purvis. Quercus, 2008. Lehner, Mark. The Complete Pyramids. Thames and Hudson, 2008. Malek, Jaromir. ‘The Old Kingdom’. In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by Ian Shaw, New ed. Oxford University Press, 2003. Romer, John. From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom. A History of Ancient Egypt 2. Penguin, 2016. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. Rev. and Expanded ed. British Museum, 2008. Verner, Miroslav. The Pyramids: Their Archaeology and History. Translated by Steven Rendall, Atlantic Books, 2003.
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The Dual King Neferkare, the Son of Re Pepi (aka Pepi II) was the fifth king of the 6th Dynasty in the Old Kingdom, and he reigned for a very long time around about the 23rd Century BCE. Manetho (a 3rd Century BCE historian in Egypt) credits him with 94 years on the throne, a king list dating to around the 13th Century BCE (or perhaps later) now in the Turin Egyptian Museum agrees with more than 90 years. I think modern scholars are fairly sure that he reigned for over 62 years but after that there are no attested dates (so far?). Unsurprisingly he took the throne as a young boy, somewhere between ages 6 & 10 (with most books I read following Manetho and making him 6 years old on accession). His immediate predecessor was Merenre Nemtyemsaf, and before that there was Meryre Pepi (aka Pepi I).
Who his father was is not entirely clear, so let’s start with his mother. She was a woman called Ankhenespepi or sometimes Ankhenesmeryre, one of three or four of that name living around that time. The name means “Pepi/Meryre lives for her”, and was taken by her on her marriage to Pepi I – in modern literature she is known as Ankhenespepi II to distinguish her from Ankhenespepi I (also married to Pepi I) and Ankhenespepi III & IV who were both married to Pepi II. As well as the identical names for multiple people this family is also one of those terribly convoluted Egyptian royal families where everyone seems to have at least two different relationships with every other person. Ankhenespepi I and Ankhenespepi II were sisters, and were both married to Pepi I. Both were the mothers of kings: Ankhenespepi I was the mother of Merenre Nemtyemsaf, and Ankhenespepi II was the mother of Pepi II. A relatively recently discovered inscription (within the last 25 years) tells us that Ankhenespepi II was also the wife of Merenre Nemtyemsaf (her step-son/nephew) after Pepi I’s death. And so you see where the uncertainty about Pepi II’s father comes in – it’s definitely one of his two immediate predecessors, but which one it is depends on how long you think Merenre Nemtyemsaf reigned for. More than a decade, and Pepi II must be his son, significantly less and he can’t be. I think the current consensus is that Pepi II is the son of Merenre Nemtyemsaf and the grandson of Pepi I, and the son & great-nephew of Ankhenespepi II and the grandson & nephew of Ankhenespepi I.
As he was so young when he took the throne Pepi II had regents who acted on his behalf – these were his mother, Ankhenespepi II, and her brother, Djau, who had held high office in the reign of Pepi I. It’s from this early part of his reign that we have one of the few glimpses into an Egyptian king’s personality as recorded by the Egyptians of the time. It’s rather a charming anecdote, a combination of childish joy and absolute power. We know the story from a letter written by Pepi II to a courtier called Harkhuf – who was so proud of the fact that he had personal correspondence from the king that he had the letter copied out onto the walls of his tomb to be remembered for eternity. Over his life Harkhuf had been sent on four expeditions to lands south of Egypt – the last of which was in Year 2 of Pepi II’s reign. As he returned he wrote to his king to tell him about the riches he was bringing back – including a dancing pygmy from the land called Yam. And Pepi II was so taken with the idea of this pygmy that he wrote quite a long letter back to Harkhuf, most of which is enthusing about this pygmy. It’s too long to quote the whole thing, so I shall excerpt a few bits of it (following Miriam Lichtheim’s translation):
“[…] You have said in this dispatch of yours that you have brought a pygmy of the god’s dances from the lands of the horizon-dwellers […] Truly you know how to do what your lord loves and praises. Truly you spend day and night planning to do what your lord loves, praises, and commands […] Come north to the residence at once! Hurry and bring with you this pygmy whom you brought from the land of the horizon-dwellers live, hale and healthy, for the dances of the god, to gladden the heart, to delight the heart of King Neferkare who lives forever! When he goes down with you into the ship, get worthy men to be around him on deck, lest he fall into the water! When he lies down at night, get worthy men to lie around him in his tent. Inspect ten times at night! My majesty desires to see this pygmy more than the gifts of the mine-land [Sinai] and of Punt! When you arrive at the residence with and this pygmy is with you live, hale, and healthy, my majesty will do great things for you […]”
It’s formal, and full of repetition (as I think is standard for Ancient Egyptian letters) – but even with the stylised prose we clearly hear the voice of a gleeful little boy who’s just been promised the Best. Present. Ever!
This little humanising anecdote, charming as it is, does cause a few problems for my mental image of the king – it’s easy to remember the excited little boy, but obviously that’s one brief part of a long life and probably something he rarely thought about once the novelty wore off. Information about Pepi II as an adult seems rather scarcer. He had at least five wives, some of whom were his sisters or aunts – Neith, Iput, Ankhenespepi III and Ankhenespepi IV were all King’s Daughters. Another wife was Wedjebten, whose relationship is less clear. And of course he had children, though I’m not sure if it’s known how many or who predeceased him and who survived.
His long reign was relatively peaceful, in fact none of the books had very much to say about it. Outside Egypt the political landscape was changing – the lands to the south were coming together in a coalition of states and Egypt’s influence wasn’t as strong as it had been. But that doesn’t seem to’ve led to any particular problems during his reign. However there are other indications that Egypt was no longer in as healthy a state as it had been. Pepi II built a pyramid complex for his tomb, as his predecessors had done – but despite having at least 62 years to do this in it’s just a standard 6th Dynasty pyramid. No signs of embellishment or additions or new ideas. Perhaps just that there was now “a standard” so he didn’t deviate from the proper way to do things. But he also copied the decoration scheme for the pyramid temple pretty much entirely from the 5th Dynasty king Sahure’s pyramid temple. Again, there could be positive reasons that he did this that we just don’t know – but it’s not really an indication of a vibrant and creative culture. And there are signs of an economic downturn as well. There may’ve been a period of prolonged low floods, leading to reduced tax revenue and the population not thriving – and no sign of a robust response from the king. Perhaps there was no way Pepi II’s administration could’ve responded effectively, perhaps the devolution of power to local governors had left the central authority too weak, perhaps we just don’t have the evidence.
Whether or not Egyptian culture had become stagnant and the government ineffective during Pepi II’s reign, it is clear that things don’t go terribly well immediately afterwards. Just like for planets there is a Goldilocks zone for the length of reign of a monarch. Too few years, and the changes at the top lead to instability. Too many, and chances are the king outlived his heirs. But a small handful of decades – that’s just right, neither too long nor too short. Sadly for Old Kingdom Egypt the reign of the Dual King Neferkare, the Son of Re Pepi fell outside this zone and into the range where your average Egyptian might believe that his divine ruler was in fact immortal. Ten viziers had come and gone while he ruled, countless courtiers must’ve lived their entire lives while he ruled. He did still have a living son to inherit, but Nemtyemsaf II didn’t long outlive his father – and his successor was also fairly ephemeral (so much so that for millennia he was thought to be a woman, but is now thought to’ve been a man, a fairly basic detail to be unclear on). And after that we’re into the revolving door of the next dynasty none of whom lasted long on the throne.
The Egyptians themselves did not remember Pepi II fondly – the other anecdote from his life is posthumous, much less charming and much less likely to be true. In it Pepi II is portrayed as a man distracted from the business of kingship by a torrid affair with one of his generals. He’s described as sneaking out of the palace at night to climb up a ladder into this general’s bedroom, then once he had “done what he desired” with him he sneaks back to the palace in the hopes that no-one would notice. This is unlikely to mean that Pepi II is history’s first recorded gay ruler – it has the flavour of a story to explain “what went wrong” at the end of the dynasty. It reminds me of the way that all Chinese imperial dynasties are traditionally said to start with a wise, brave, honourable ruler and end with a cruel, out-of-touch, perverted tyrant. Not necessarily true but it’s the narrative they use to explain historical events.
As always with figures from the deep past like this we have tantalisingly few facts to build our own narrative on top of. And so Pepi II is probably always going to be that over-excited boy anticipating the arrival of his pygmy in my head, despite how unrepresentative that must’ve been.
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton “The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher “The Complete Pyramids” Mark Lehner “Ancient Egyptian Literature: Vol I The Old and Middle Kingdoms” Miriam Lichtheim “A History of Ancient Egypt: Vol 2 From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom” John Romer “The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson “The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw “Texts from the Pyramid Age” Nigel C. Strudwick “Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson
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Ancient Egypt is a place of firsts or near firsts – the first monumental stone building, one of the first civilisations to develop writing, one of the first places people lived in cities – but one that I haven’t often seen mentioned is that it has the first significant corpus of written religious texts in the world. This is another of these things that we take for granted today, most of the extant religions of the modern world have a canonical body of written literature that underpins what people believe and how they practice their religion. It’s also an illustration of how comparisons to the modern world can be misleading – these Egyptian texts weren’t an ancient Bible or Book of Common Prayer. For starters the population was almost entirely illiterate and so these texts would’ve been no more than pictures & squiggles carved in stone to them (as, to be fair, they are to most of us who can’t read hieroglyphs). And secondly the copies we’ve found were carved on the inner chambers of pyramids – hence the modern name of Pyramid Texts – and so were inaccessible to everybody once the king had been buried.
The Pyramid Texts were first discovered in the 1880s, much to the surprise of archaeologists in general. Most Old Kingdom pyramids, like the ones at Giza which we’ve all heard of, have nothing on the walls of their burial chambers. But something changes in the late 5th Dynasty and from then until the end of the Old Kingdom the walls of the internal chambers are covered in texts. There are (so far) 10 pyramids known to have these texts, all of them at Saqqara. The first is that of Unas, the last king of the 5th Dynasty (reigning some 200 years after the builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza). The kings of the 6th Dynasty follow suit (Teti, Pepi I, Merenre, Pepi II), and some of their wives also have texts in their pyramid chambers: Ankhesenpepi II (wife of Pepi I) and three wives of Pepi II (Neith, Iput II, Wedjebetni). The last known king to have these texts was an obscure 8th Dynasty king called Ibi – in fact he’s so obscure that the only evidence for his existence is his pyramid texts! This isn’t the end of the line for the texts – they in some sense develop into or merge with the Coffin Texts (so called because they’re found written on Middle Kingdom coffins). The books I read are divided in how much they think this was an evolution of one turning into the other and how much the Coffin Texts were a parallel development that borrowed from the Pyramid Texts. Some aspects of the texts definitely survive through into the New Kingdom and beyond (like the Opening of the Mouth ritual), whereas others aren’t even found in all the pyramids that have Pyramid Texts. There’s also a bit of a renaissance for the texts in the Late Period (around 2,000 years after Unas) as part of a general culture of harking back to the “old ways”.
The texts are written in columns and were divided up by the ancient writers into sections – generally each starts with a word meaning “Recitation” and ends with “chapter” or “section”. We call these sections spells or utterances – I think I prefer utterances because spells has all sorts of connotations which don’t always seem appropriate, whereas if they themselves wrote “Recitation” at the beginning then they were all intended to be uttered. Modern scholars give them numbers to make it easier to discuss them, but these numbers have no ancient relevance. The original numbering was done by the German Egyptologist Kurt Sethe who numbered them according to where they were found in the pyramid, going from the inside out. Then as more examples were found with extra utterances these were added onto the end of the list (not always consistently). There are around 800 utterances found in total (so far!) but not all of them are found in every pyramid, for instance Pepi II had over 600 but Unas had only a couple of hundred.
There are indications that the texts that end up on the pyramid walls were copied off a papyrus master copy written in a cursive script (rather than the monumental form carved in the stone). James Allen describes how you can use mistakes in the copying to detect this, and to detect how the spells were edited for their new location. For instance, some texts began life in 1st person but were edited into 3rd person to be carved on the walls with some 1st person pronouns replaced with the deceased’s name and some with the appropriate 3rd person one – and there are occasional places where the original pronoun is left intact, or a verb form hasn’t been changed to match the new grammatical structure. So this is very clearly not a new set of rituals or theology that spring up from out of nowhere in the 5th Dynasty. Instead it looks like an already existent tradition is expanding into a new context, that adds a level of permanence to the rituals and utterances.
The overall purpose of the texts is to ensure a successful afterlife for the king (or queen) for whom they were inscribed. They can be divided up into a few broad genres of texts, although almost every author seems to divide them up a bit differently. In essence there are texts that have to do with rituals, there are texts that have to do with protection from problems (which are the ones for which “spells” seems most appropriate) and there are descriptions of the journey the deceased must take into the afterlife and what he or she will do once there. The ritual ones often look like instructions for the priests conducting these rituals – words to be said and stage directions for the required actions. Some scholars (in particular Siegfried Schott) have used these to argue that the whole corpus should be interpreted as the funeral ritual written out on the walls in the order the priests should read it as they bring the body into the chamber. I think this specific idea is almost entirely discredited now, although the general concept that the ordering reflects order of “use” is still influential. James Allen’s recent translation of the texts sees them as being ordered for the convenience of the resurrecting king – in the burial chamber are texts to protect him and to help him resurrect and start his journey. Then in the antechamber and corridors there are spells that the king must read on his journey to the afterlife (via the exit from the pyramid).
Taken as a whole the texts do not form a coherent or consistent body of literature. They don’t even seem to’ve all been written at the same time – some have language & imagery that implies they are contemporary with the pyramids that they’re written in, some seem much older. And they appear to be deliberately obscure. To write things down was in some sense to make them magically present for eternity so that affected what & how the Egyptians were willing to write in their texts. Hieroglyphic signs that had the shape of dangerous animals were damaged to make sure they couldn’t cause harm to the king in his tomb. And myths tended to be talked round and referred to rather than spelt out – Mark Lehner suggests they might’ve been regarded as too potent to commit to writing. Altogether this makes it rather difficult to reverse engineer a sense of “the Ancient Egyptian Religion” from these texts, and I don’t think there’s even general agreement as to whether these texts represent a single tradition or a selection from co-existing and/or competing concepts for the gods & the afterlife.
In some parts of the texts the king is to rise from his tomb and make his way to the “imperishable stars” (the ones near the northern pole star that never set) there to join with the court of the gods. In some parts of the texts the king rises up to the sky (assisted by wind, by flying, by jumping like a grasshopper) and travels with Re in his solar boat across the day sky. And in yet other parts of the texts the king travels through the Duat (the underworld) to merge with Osiris and become reborn. But there is an underlying consistency – the king will rise from his tomb and go to join with the gods in some capacity. Contemporary non-royals expected an afterlife in the vicinity of their tombs – the idea that everyone might partake in the Osirian afterlife doesn’t develop until the Middle Kingdom after the political upheavals of the First Intermediate Period.
And finally I should mention the Cannibal Hymn, the most notorious utterances of the Pyramid Texts. This part of the texts describes quite graphically how the king will eat the gods and absorb their powers to become more mighty than them, and pretty much always gets brought up in any discussion of the texts. As is so often the case how the Cannibal Hymn is interpreted shines more light on the person doing the interpreting than the text itself. Some scholars jump in both feet first and use some indications of retainer sacrifice in Early Dynastic Egypt to back up a bloodthirsty story of ancient ritual cannibalism now only referenced in this one hymn. Other scholars clearly take a step back, reflect on the fact that we don’t think early Christians ever actually ate Jesus or anyone else during the Eucharist, and interpret the whole thing as entirely symbolic and magical. And yet others take a path that’s a mixture of the two – hinging round the fact that some Egyptian gods had bulls as avatars. The most well known one is the Apis Bull (an avatar of Ptah) and I’ve mentioned the Buchis Bull (avatar of Montu) in a previous article. In later periods of Egyptian history these bulls were mummified and buried in catacombs, but there’s some evidence that in earlier periods they were cooked and eaten – a presumably ritual & symbolic meal where the king consumed the powers of the god via this avatar. I’m most inclined to this mix of practical & symbolic, which presumably tells you all something about me!
“The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts” James P. Allen “Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David “The Serapeum at Saqqara” Aidan Dodson; talk given at Sussex Egyptology Society 28 September 2019 “The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher “Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt” Wolfram Grajetzki “The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper & Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan “The Complete Pyramids” Mark Lehner “Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol I: The Old and Middle Kingdom” Miriam Lichtheim “Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz “A History of Ancient Egypt Vol 2: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom” John Romer “The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw “The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson “Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley “Pyramids” Miroslav Verner “The Egyptian World” ed. Toby A. H. Wilkinson “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson
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In a twist on the usual “donkey leg in a hole” mythology of tomb discovery the most intact elite burial of the 4th Dynasty was discovered when the leg of a photographer’s tripod broke through the seal at the top of the shaft. The photographer in question was Mohammedani Ibrahimi, who was working for George Reisner at Giza in 1925, and the tomb was that of Hetepheres, a queen of the early 4th Dynasty dating to around 2500 BCE. The tomb is a type of tomb known as a shaft tomb – a descriptive name meaning the entrance is a vertical shaft and the chambers are at the bottom (or off the sides) of this. In this case the shaft was completely full of limestone blocks for its entire 27 meter length. Partway down they discovered a small sealed side chamber with an ox head and some beer jars. Many tombs have reliefs with ox heads and beer jars as part of their offering scenes, and texts that refer to offerings of “bread, beer, oxen, birds, alabaster, clothing, and every good and pure thing upon which a god lives.”. This chamber was a literal manifestation of the same wish for Hetepheres to have all that she needed in the afterlife.
When the excavators reached the bottom of the shaft they could see that the south wall was made of limestone blocks rather than bedrock and behind this was a short corridor. At the end of the corridor another wall of limestone blocks. Just as Howard Carter had done at Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, they removed a block and peered through into a room that glistened with gold! And then promptly sealed it back up and Reisner spent 10 months planning the excavation that was to follow. Sadly the contents of the tomb weren’t in nearly as good condition as Tutankhamun’s were. Not only because the objects were some 1000 years older, but also there had been a water leak into the chamber which had hastened the deterioration of the wooden and other organic elements. As a result the gold leaf that had covered much of Hetepheres’s furniture was in fragments and no longer attached to what was left of its supports. It took Reisner and his team two years to meticulously clear this relatively small chamber (about 17 feet by 9 feet) to the point where they could reach the large alabaster sarcophagus that they could see from the very beginning.
The sarcophagus was intact and in an undisturbed tomb so expectations were high when it came time to open it. The reality was rather more … confusing. Inside there was nothing at all! But her organs were discovered sealed in an alabaster canopic chest tucked into a sealed niche in the tomb wall, so clearly her body had been mummified. Reisner came up with an explanation for the missing body, which John Romer rather delightfully refers to as an “Ali Baba-ry” of a tale. In this story Hetepheres is initially buried at Dahshur near her husband, but then her son decides she should be reburied at Giza. When his officials go to organise the moving of the tomb contents they discover the tomb has been looted and the body destroyed; no-one can quite bring themselves to tell the king that his mother is no longer in her tomb, so they reseal the sarcophagus and bury the empty box with full honours! More recently Mark Lehner has proposed a more sober explanation, with some similarities but a bit less farce. The idea again is that Hetepheres’s place of burial was upgraded some time after her death, but in this version she is initially buried in the tomb that Reisner excavated. She is then exhumed and reburied in one of the small pyramids near the Great Pyramid with fresh & more elaborate funerary goods. These are subsequently looted in antiquity and so all we have are the discarded original set.
So who was Hetepheres? Prior to the discovery of this tomb her name was completely unknown in the modern world. But from the inscriptions on objects in her tomb we can now glimpse her rather indistinctly through the fog of time. One part of her funerary assemblage, a frame for a large canopy, has the cartouches of the 4th Dynasty founder, Sneferu. Another part, a carrying chair, has the name of Sneferu’s successor who built the Great Pyramid at Giza – Khufu. Khufu’s name is also on the sealings of items found in the tomb, so Khufu’s bureaucracy was involved in the provisioning of Hetepheres’s tomb. This gives us a good idea of when she lived and a good idea of her status, both of which are backed up by the proximity of this tomb to the Great Pyramid and by the high quality precious items discovered inside.
The titles she bore give us some more clues. One of these was “Mother of the Dual King”. Of the two kings named in her funerary assemblage it seems most plausible that she was Khufu’s mother – she died during his reign and this tomb is found in close proximity to his tomb. The other title that gives us relationship information is “God’s Daughter of His Body” – the god in question is the king, and “of his body” indicates a biological rather than honorific relationship. Her father is rather unlikely to be the other named king in her tomb – that would require an extra generation between Sneferu and Khufu that there’s no other evidence of. So it’s most plausible that Sneferu was her husband and his predecessor Huni was her father.
Hetepheres had other titles which reflect her high status in Egyptian society like “guide of the ruler” and “favourite lady whose every word is done for her”. I’m using John Romer’s translations here – none of the books went for what I thought was the obvious joke/reference: “She Who Must Be Obeyed”! If you take these literally it implies that Khufu did what his mother told him to do, but I’m inclined to go with those who see them as an indication of status and power but not necessarily literally able to order the king about.
Her funerary goods also give some indication of what that high status meant in terms of material wealth in her society. She was buried with the usual assortment of provisions for the afterlife. As well as jars and boxes she had some large items of furniture including a bed and a frame for a canopy to surround it. These were painstakingly restored from the pieces of gold leaf and wood remnants by Hag Ahmed Youssef Mustafa (who later restored one of Khufu’s solar boats) and are now in the Cairo Museum. Even if these specific items were ceremonial & funerary rather than her everyday furniture they give us an impression of a magnificent and opulent court – being able to bury that much gold is a sign of great wealth, after all. The design is lightweight and portable – the bed and canopy can be disassembled and reassembled easily. This fits with other evidence that indicates that the Egyptian court was peripatetic: more like a medieval English king than the fixed seats of government that we have today.
As so often in ancient history we have this tension between feeling like we know about someone but not really knowing anything for sure. Hetepheres’s tomb reinforces our view of Old Kingdom Egypt as a culture with a conspicuously wealthy elite moving around the country looking practically god-like in comparison to the average person. And it gives us a flavour of a society where a woman could hold high status and perhaps wield great power but was nonetheless defined primarily by her relationships to men. But we still know nothing certain about the woman herself beyond the fact of her existence.
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton “The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher “Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt: Life and Death for Rich and Poor” Wolfram Grajetzki “The Complete Pyramids” Mark Lehner “A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid” John Romer “The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson “Egypt: How a Lost Civilisation was Rediscovered” Joyce Tyldesley “Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson
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