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Ancient Egyptian conviviality
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Conviviality

The beer hall

    This seems to have been a gathering place for the lord of the manor and his friends. In the tomb of Petosiris the deceased is shown playing a game on a board of 33 squares arranged in three rows
The Great of the Five, Petosiris, enjoys himself playing with his friends after dinner, until the time when he refreshes himself in the beer hall.
After G. Lefebvre, Le tombeau de Petosiris p. 50
    It is not quite clear what went on in these beer halls apart from the obvious drinking. At any rate, not having been able to enjoy himself thus seemed a great privation to Tefnakhte when he surrendered to Piye, describing the hardships he had suffered:
I have not sat in the beer-hall, nor has the harp been played for me; but I have eaten bread in hunger, and I have drunk water in thirst.
J.H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt Part Four, § 880
    At times people took considerable risks upon themselves. The beer hall seems to have stood for more than just a few pints and a sing-song with one's chums, when the men accused of having attempted to assassinate Ramses III met some women:
Persons upon whom punishment was executed by cutting off their noses and their ears, because of their forsaking the good testimony (i.i the king's instructions) delivered to them. The women had gone; had arrived at their place of abode, and had there caroused (lit. made a beer-hall) with them (some of the accused in the harem conspiracy against Ramses III) and with Peyes. Their crime seized them.
The harem conspiracy against Ramses III
J.H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt Part Four, § 451

The at-home

Banquet scene, Source: Jon Bodsworth     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 - if pictures in tombs are to be believed. The tables were burdened with all kinds of food, the wine was poured by shapely servants.

Banquet scene
Tomb of Nakht
Excerpt. Courtesy Jon Bodsworth

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

Dancing girls at banquet     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
    During Graeco-Roman times at least, invitations to dos could be rather formal. Proud parents invited friends and acquaintances to wedding-parties, generally held in the early afternoons, with notes like this:
Herais requests your company at dinner, in celebration of the marriage of her children, at her house tomorrow, the 5th, at 9 o'clock
J. G. Milne, A History of Egypt, Vol.V, p.160
    Religious holidays, too, called for celebrations which at times were held in the temples themselves, and good hosts made sure their guests would be properly received and looked after:
Greeting, my dear Serenia, from Petosiris. Be sure, dear, to come up on the 20th for the birthday festival of the god, and let me know whether you are coming by boat or by donkey, in order that we may send for you, accordingly. Take care not to forget. I pray for your continued health.
J. G. Milne, A History of Egypt, Vol.V, p.160

 


[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

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