ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian bestiary: Mosquitoes
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    Mosquitoes are a plague in tropical and subtropical countries, above all in places where there is a lot of standing water. In Egypt the regions especially infested were the Fayum and the marshy parts of the Nile Delta [1]. Malaria, spread by the Anopheles mosquito, was endemic in ancient Egypt while in Nubia it appears to have occurred much more rarely [1].
    To the Egyptians mosquitoes were a nuisance rather than a deadly danger. The Satire of the Trades [4] with its usual hyperbole describes the lot of the people working in the pools and ponds of the Delta:
The reed-cutter travels to the Delta to get arrows;
When he has done more than his arms can do,
Mosquitoes have slain him,
Gnats have slaughtered him,
He is quite worn out.
    The Cairo Hymn to Amen [3] extolled the virtues of the god, praising his creations, among them:
who makes what mosquitoes live on
and worms and fleas likewise...
but the divine origin of the mosquito and its victim may have held little consolation for the workman plagued by swarms of the insect.
    According to Herodotus the Egyptians invented the mosquito net, though it is doubtful whether a fishing net would have been very effective for this purpose. Sleeping on the flat house roofs on the other hand is a means of escaping from the low-flying insects applied in many mosquito infested countries [1].
Against the gnats, which are very abundant, they have contrived as follows:--those who dwell above the fen-land are helped by the towers, to which they ascend when they go to rest; for the gnats by reason of the winds are not able to fly up high: but those who dwell in the fen-land have contrived another way instead of the towers, and this it is: --every man of them has got a casting net, with which by day he catches fish, but in the night he uses it for this purpose, that is to say he puts the casting-net round about the bed in which he sleeps, and then creeps in under it and goes to sleep: and the gnats, if he sleeps rolled up in a garment or a linen sheet, bite through these, but through the net they do not even attempt to bite.
Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg
    In Egypt today castor oil plants are grown near houses in the hope of repelling mosquitoes [2]. Whether the ancient inhabitants of the country did likewise is an open question.
Herodotus, Euterpe, Project Gutenberg
Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many, Cornell University Press 1996
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 1, University of California Press
L. Manniche, An Ancient Egyptian Herbal, University of Texas Press 1989
Walter Scheidel, Death on the Nile: disease and the demography of Roman Egypt, Brill Academic Publishers 2001

[1] Scheidel, p.76f.
[2] Manniche, p.142
[3] Hornung, p.200
[4] Lichtheim, p.186

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February 2007
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