Childhood in ancient Egypt:
Learning for life
Coming of age
Death and the child
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ChildhoodChildren are not infrequently depicted, but never given a voice in ancient Egypt. What we know about them and their lives derives from descriptions and recollections of grown-ups and the objects they equipped the children's tombs with for after-life.
Seneb, his wife and children
I passed four years in extreme childhood.In contrast to our modern customs, ancient Egyptian children became involved in the grown-up world of their parents early on and were regarded to some extent - and at times also portrayed - as diminutive adults fulfilling social and economic tasks which became ever more important and demanding as they grew older. The economic role of helpmate is reflected in one of the words used for child, khered (Xrd), which occasionally also refers to servants, and in stelae where children and servants are depicted together (cf. the stela of Mentuhotep).
It was the duty of the parents to educate their children, but little is known about how girls were treated. Most literary sources of this kind are instructions of fathers for their sons. Boys were often considered to be wayward and in need of a firm hand to guide them, much in the spirit of the biblical "He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes." (Proverbs 13:24) we have come to despise .
Family outing in the marshes
Behold you shall come to your country in two months, you shall press to your bosom your children, and you shall rest in your tomb.The love of siblings and parents is, even if somewhat stereotypically, expressed in many mortuary inscriptions:
I was one beloved of his father, favored of his mother, whom his brothers and sisters loved.And the scribe Ani sums up a mother's care for her baby and exhorted the son to honour his mother as she deserved:
A heavy burden you were to her. After nine months of pregnancy you were born and she continued carrying you on her neck. Three years your mouth was on her breasts. She felt no nausea at your excrements.
The hereditary prince, count, king's confidant, whom his god loves, governor of the eastern highlands, Nehri's son, Khnumhotep, triumphant; born of the count's daughter, the matron, Beket, triumphant.Sons, and to a lesser extent daughters, inherited their parents possessions, usufructs, social station, profession and offices. Some of these inheritances were subject to official approval, some, like the ownership of land, were passed on apparently without state interference apart from the ownership having to be registered, even if - theoretically at least - the land itself belonged to the crown. As is only to be expected, the children of the rich were less likely than the paupers to suffer hardships like malnutrition, though to what degree this affected their development or life expectancy in normal times is unknown.
There was little contact between children of different social classes or communities. Most of them, above all the villagers, grew up in the midst of their extended families who could provide them with support in case they were orphaned. These family ties between the inhabitants of a village brought about many marriages between close relatives (to begin with brother and sister marriages may have existed mostly in the royal families, in the Roman period at least they were quite frequent among both Greeks and Egyptians). The appearance of supernumerary digits  is interpreted by some to be the result of prolonged inbreeding.
Isis suckling Horus
This, however, of all their usages is most to be admired - that they bring up all children that are born.Throughout their history the ancient Egyptians seem to have had a registry for births , and possibly deaths as well . According to the Tale of Princess Ahura the registrar resided in the House of Life, a kind of repository of all ancient Egyptian knowledge.
And they gave him the name of Merab, and registered him in the book of the "House of Life.Some think that the newborn were not named, as in child burials little children are generally only referred to as The Osiris, i.e. the deceased one. The name a child received either at birth  or when it had passed through the most dangerous stages of early childhood would be used throughout his or her life for purposes of official identification, together with nicknames if he had any, the name of his father and less frequently the name of his mother, and his profession, rank or position. This additional information was important as, despite there being a great many possible names, parents often followed the fashion of the day calling their child one of a limited number of names popular at the time.
Title to property made by the regulator of the corps, Antef's son Mery, called Keba, for his son, Mery's son Antef, called Iusenb.13], as in a hot country like Egypt diseases of the digestive tract are widespread.
Wet nurses suckled babies whose mothers could not or would not  feed their children themselves. They often had considerable influence over their former charges and if they had fed the king they enjoyed a high social status. Ay's position at court was certainly not diminished by his marriage to Tiy, great nurse, nourisher of the god, adorner of the king, who had nursed royalty.
Royal with deformed foot, possibly Siptah, leaning on a crutch
Persevere (?) in writing,Only a small minority of privileged children, sons of scribes and noblemen destined to fill their fathers' administrative positions one day, received a formal school education which included reading, writing and arithmetic. Sometimes their sisters would be taught too as quite a few women are known to have been literate.
The intricacies of the Egyptian writing systems and the complicated notation of numbers cannot but have caused the young students to be occasionally inattentive or even wanting to abandon school altogether, which exasperated their teachers:
They tell me that thou forsakest writing, and departest and dost flee; that thou forsakest writing and usest thy legs like horses of the riding-school(??). Thy heart is fluttered; thou art like an axj-bird. Thy ear is deaf(?); thou art like an ass in taking beatings. Thou art like an antelope in fleeing.
Wooden writing board covered with plaster
But though I beat you with every kind of stick, you do not listen. If I knew another way of doing it, I would do it for you, that you might listen.Having grown up and being at the other end of the stick they may have agreed with Amennakht, who claimed in his Teaching:
... a beating at school is pleasurable...and considered any temporary inconvenience to the youngster well worth his improved future prospects. Apart from having to suffer the almost inevitable beatings, the youngsters had to prove in examinations that they were worthy to inherit their fathers positions, at least aspiring young priests were quizzed and their future depended on the impression they made on the head teacher:
He its is (i.e. the head teacher) who reads the writings of the children of the prophets, of the lector priests and of the high ranking priests, and who chooses among them those qualified for the position of his father in the temple.It is likely that the best education was given to the royal princes. They were at times joined by other children, sons of noblemen or officials
... in the time of Shepseskaf; whom he educated among the king's children, in the palace of the king, in the privy chamber, in the royal harem; who was more honored before the king than any youth; Ptahshepses.Most boys were destined to become labourers, peasants or craftsmen, the girls to become housewives. They underwent a kind of mostly informal apprenticeship, being taught their trade by working side by side with their fathers, mothers or other family members. From the Graeco-Roman Period contracts for formal apprenticeships signed by the parents of children and master craftsmen are known, which included stipulations concerning duration, living and working conditions of the child and payments due .
As early as the New Kingdom some workers, above all artisans working on tomb decorations which included copying of sacred texts, are known to have acquired writing skills and to have used them in every-day situations. Whether they were taught as children or picked up the knowledge through work is unknown.
Play has always been a crucial part of a child's life teaching it social and motor skills. A wide variety of games were played testing strength, agility and dexterity. The equipment used was generally basic, sticks, stones or pieces of clay given rough forms, though sometimes toys were intricate and obviously made by skilled craftsmen.
The children of poor parents had probably little time for indulging in play as their economic contribution to the survival of the family was important, though they must often have been able to combine work and play. Uha was circumcised, together with one hundred and twenty men, and one hundred and twenty women, which has been interpreted as meaning that the circumcision was done to men as a rite of passage. A few officials wrote about fastening on the girdle which seems to have been a ritual preceding the assumption of duties we would consider to be adult responsibilities
[I was a child] who fastened on the girdle under the majesty of Teti; my office was that of supervisor of [....] and I filled the office of inferior custodian of the domain of Pharaoh.Marrying, establishing a household, raising children and taking care of old relatives who were left without a home, were duties of the adult.
I grew up in the town of Nekheb, my father being a soldier of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Sekenenre, the justified. Baba son of Reinet was his name. I became a soldier in his stead on the ship "The Wild Bull" in the time of the Lord of the Two Lands, Nebpehtire, the justified. I was a youth who had not married; I slept in a hammock of netting. Now when I had established a household, I was taken to the ship "Northern", because I was brave.Apart from some child marriages arranged for dynastic reasons, most young people got married when they were economically and physically ready to do so. For girls this often happened shortly after the beginning of menstruation; boys, who were expected to provide a home for their wife, were a few years older.
His majesty gave to him the king's eldest daughter, Matkha as his wife, for his majesty desired that she should be with him more than with anyone; Ptahshepses.average age at death of adults was between thirty and forty, women having a somewhat lower life expectancy because of childbirth complications. Orphaned children, even if they were cared for by relatives, had to build their own lives. The age at which Mentuhotep, a Middle Kingdom foreman, lost his parents is unknown. But according to his own account he had to make his own fortune:
Now I was ...... one whose (own) counsel replaced for him a mother at home, a father making the family fortune (??) ...... , one whom his (own) nature instructed as (it were) a child growing up with its father. Now although I was become an orphan, I acquired cattle and got oxen (?) and developed my business in goats; I built a house and excavated a (garden-)pond, the priest Menthotpe.Even more frequently a child would also have to witness the death of a sibling. About a third of all children did not reach their first birthday, almost half died before their fifth, and less than half would grow up to become adults. Parents protected their children with magical charms but all too often to no avail.
Apparently newborn infants were not or only rarely interred in cemeteries, but rather in pits dug inside the house of their parents. Petrie found boxes containing baby bones under the floors of houses at Lahun . Older children were buried in graveyards, their tombs equipped with amulets and with the things they used to play with, such as marbles, balls, spinning tops, and other toys. Sometimes inscriptions in their memory were made . Concerning at least part of the dolls that have been discovered some experts think that they may have served magical purposes rather than been used as playthings.
 "Archaeologies of Childhood" at http://www.lsa.umich.edu/kelsey/research/Publications/fall2003/childhood.html, accessed December 2003
 Josef Wegner, "The Mayor's House of Ancient Wah-Sut", Expedition Vol. 48 Number 2, University of Pennsylvania
 Menmare: Seti I (c.1318 -1304)
 Hathor: The Seven Hathors proclaimed the fate of the king's son in the tale of The Doomed Prince:
Once upon a time there was a king in Egypt whose heart was heavy because that he had no son. He called upon the gods, and the gods heard, and they decreed that an heir should be born to him. In time came the day of the child's birth. The seven Hathors greeted the prince and pronounced his destiny; they said he would meet with a sudden death, either by a crocodile, or a serpent, or a dog. Among the nobility it was seemingly not uncommon for women not to nurse their babies themselves. Hiring wet nurses who were economically dependent on their employers may not have been completely unproblematic as one of the maxims in the Instruction of Ankhsheshonq suggests:
Do not give your son to the wet nurse and so cause her to set aside her own. From the Westcar Papyrus:
Then said the majesty of Re, lord of Sakhbu, to Isis, Nephthys, Meskhenet, Heket, and Khnum: "Please go, deliver Ruddedet of the three children who are in her womb, who will assume this beneficent office in this whole land. From the speech of Thothrekh, son of Petosiris, High Priest of Thoth, 4th century BCE. By that time the optimistic prospect Old Kingdom Egyptians cherished of an afterlife in a beautiful land very much like Egypt, which must have been a solace for the dying and their families alike, had given way to a view of a bleak, cheerless underworld:
Who hears my speech, his heart will grieve for it, The age of three years seems to have been a common age for weaning. At times older children were referred to as still suckling, apparently hyperbolically. The mortuary stela of Isenkhebe speaks of death as
The dark, a child's terror, engulfed me,
(21) THE TENTH INSTRUCTION. The teaching not to weary of instructing your son. Under the Romans parents still registered their offspring:
To Areios son of Lysimachos, komogrammateus of Tebtunis, from Psyphis son of Harpokras son of Pakebkis, his mother being Thenmarsisouchos daughter of Psyphis and Kellauthis, inhabitants of the village, priest of the fifth tribe of the gods at the village, Kronos the most great god, and Isis and Serapis, the great gods, and one of the fifty exempted persons. I register Pakebkis, the son born to me and Taaseies daughter of N.N. her mother being Taopis in the tenth year of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Imperator, and request that the name of my aforesaid son Pakebkis be entered on the list ... Not registering the death of a tax-payer had economic consequences: the family had to continue paying his taxes. Wise heirs were therefore in somewhat of a hurry to make a death known to the authorities.
To Philiskos, farmer of the tax on weaving, from Sarapion son of Sarapion. On 9th August, 10 CE Harmiysis and Papnebtynis concluded an apprenticeship contract for their brother Pasion
... we will produce our brother named Pasion to stay with you one year from the 40th year of Caesar and to work at the weaver's trade, and ... he shall not sleep away or absent himself by day from Pasonis' house. At the end of the period we will repay the 16 drachmas of silver and (shall receive) the receipts for the 40th year of Caesar for poll-tax and for the tax on weavers, the tax of an extra third (?) only being borne by the acknowledging parties, who are mutual security for payment, and Pasonis shall have the right of execution upon them and their property. The 39th year of Caesar, Mesore 16, through N.N. writer of contracts.Apprentices were registered for tax purposes, e.g. P.Mich.inv. 81, APIS record: michigan.apis.3130
 After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften => 3. Weisheitslehren => Neuägyptische Weisheitslehren => Die Lehre des Amunnacht => 01. oKV 18/3.614+627 => Die Lehre des Amunnacht
 Pierre Montet, Daily Life in Egypt, chapter 3, §4
 Many translations of this passage do not refer to any women being circumcised, nor is there any physical evidence of female genital mutilation in ancient Egypt.
 Joachim Friedrich Quack, "Die Dienstanweisung des Oberlehrers aus dem Buch vom Tempel" in Horst Beinlich (ed.), 5. Ägyptologische Tempeltagung, Würzburg, 23. - 26. September 1999, Wiesbadem 2002, p.161
 Erika Feucht, "Childhood" in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt
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| Identifying infants and children in the archaeological record|
| Es war einmal die Geburt : Altes Ägypten und Alter Orient: Isis Lactans|
| Es war einmal die Geburt : Altes Ägypten und Alter Orient: Der zwerggestaltige Bes|
| Es war einmal die Geburt : Altes Ägypten und Alter Orient: Thoëris|
| Writing board, University College London, UC 59421|
| A Middle Kingdom introduction to writing - Kemyt|
|Childhood in Ancient Egypt|
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© December 2003