ancient egypt: history and culture
Childhood in ancient Egypt:
Origin
Birth
The toddler
Learning for life
Coming of age
Death and the child

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Childhood

    Children 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, wife and children

Seneb, his wife and children
Source: Jon Bodsworth

    Similar to our own views on the growth of the personality the ancient Egyptians recognized different stages of development: infant and toddler, child (which included the first years of teen-age) and youth (late teen-age). The New Kingdom official Bekenkhonsu inscribed his curriculum vitae on the back of a squatting statue of himself:
I passed four years in extreme childhood.
I passed twelve years as a youth, while I was chief of the training stable of King Menmare [3].
I acted as priest of Amon, during four years.
I acted as divine father of Amon, during twelve years.
I acted as third prophet of Amon, during fifteen years.
I acted as second prophet of Amon, during twelve years.
He favoured me, he distinguished me, because of my rare merit. He appointed me to be High Priest of Amon during twenty-seven years.
    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 [14]. Family outing

Family outing in the marshes
Menna, his wife, and his children
New Kingdom
Excerpt. Courtesy Jon Bodsworth

    But children were also cherished for themselves and for the role they played in perpetuating their parents. The Serpent in The Shipwrecked Sailor promised the castaway the fulfillment of three of his foremost hopes - to live in his homeland, to be surrounded by his offspring and to receive an appropriate burial:
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 instructions of Ani [20]

Origin

    The accident of birth was (and still is today) for the vast majority of the population a sure prognosticator for some aspects of the future life of a person.
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 [1] is interpreted by some to be the result of prolonged inbreeding.

Birth

Birth brick

Birth brick
Picture source: University of Pennsylvania Museum website [2]

    Beset by evil demons and spirits, the woman in labour delivered her baby crouching on birth bricks decorated with images of Hathor [8], invoked the dwarf-god Bes [6] or Taweret [7] who had the form of a hippo, an animal known for its fierce protectiveness of its young. The goddess Meskhenet who created the ka of the baby while it was still in the uterus, announced its destiny at birth. She was the personification of the birth brick on which, according to the Rhind Papyrus, Thoth inscribed the end of the newly born. The chthonic frog goddess Heqat, was worshipped as Khnum's female counterpart at Herur. Together with other goddesses she helped form the foetus and watched over its delivery. [11]
Isis suckling Horus, source: university of Fribourg

Isis suckling Horus
Source: Université de Fribourg [5]

    Despite this divine intervention complications at delivery and during confinement remained the main cause of mortality among young women, probably as many as one woman per 10 births. Infants too fell victim to accident and disease. An estimate of about 30% mortality during the first year of life probably reflects reality. The toll might have been even higher, but according to Strabo the Egyptians, unlike many other ancient peoples, did not practice infanticide or exposure of unwanted children:
This, however, of all their usages is most to be admired - that they bring up all children that are born.
Strabo, Geography Book XVII, 2, 5
    Throughout their history the ancient Egyptians seem to have had a registry for births [15], and possibly deaths as well [16]. 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 [23] 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.

The toddler

Royal with crutch     During the first years of life children are busy acquiring basic skills like walking and speaking and play no economic role. Their chances of survival improved when they were weaned late [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 [10] 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
It has been proposed that the deformity was caused by polio
New Kingdom
Source:

    Childhood diseases against which mother's milk and amulets were ineffective were often fatal or caused infirmities. Mothers tried to protect their young children from accidents or animal bites and stings by carrying them much of them time and keeping them close by. Thus the children became acquainted with all the household chores since the earliest age and would have little difficulty to perform them on their own when they had grown up sufficiently.

Learning for life

    Little is known about the educational system. Most children were probably educated at home and taught the knowledge necessary to become competent housewives, farmers, craftsmen or scribes by their parents:
Persevere (?) in writing,
and when you have a son,
instruct in writings,
the benefit from before me,
as my father instructed me in writings,
a benefit from upon his hands.
-Kemyt [18]
    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.
Writing board

Wooden writing board covered with plaster
Middle Kingdom
Source: Petrie Museum website [9]

    Knowledge was acquired by rote. Texts were learned by heart, copied time and again on any available material with a flat and smooth surface: slivers of stone, pot sherds, pieces of wood and, less frequently, papyrus. Many ancient texts have survived only in this form of pupils' exercises with all the mistakes schoolboys forced to do boring tasks are likely to make. The pedagogical expertise of the teachers appears to have lacked subtlety:
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...
The Teaching of Amennakht [19]
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.
Book of the Temple [22]
    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.
Gathering corn     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 [17].
    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.

Coming of age

    There was no specific age at which a youngster would be considered to be grown-up. Uha was circumcised, together with one hundred and twenty men, and one hundred and twenty women,[21] 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.

Death and the child

    For a child to lose one or even both parents was quite a frequent occurrence. The 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 [4]. 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 [12]. 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.
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Footnotes:
[1] "Archaeologies of Childhood" at http://www.lsa.umich.edu/kelsey/research/Publications/fall2003/childhood.html, accessed December 2003
[2] Josef Wegner, "The Mayor's House of Ancient Wah-Sut", Expedition Vol. 48 Number 2, University of Pennsylvania
[3] Menmare: Seti I (c.1318 -1304)
[8] 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.
From The Doomed Prince, Harris Papyrus
[10] 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.
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, p. 169
[11] 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.
The Birth of the Royal Children
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume 1, p.220
[12] 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,
For I am a small child snatched by force,
Abridged in years as an innocent one,
Snatched quickly as a little one,
Like a man carried off by sleep.
I was a youngster of /// years,
When taken to the city of eternity,
To the abode of the perfect souls;
I therefore reached the Lord of Gods,
Without having had my share.
I was rich in friends,
All the men of my town,
Not one of them could protect me!
All the town's people, men and women,
Lamented very greatly,
Because they saw what happened to me,
For they esteemed me much.
All my friends mourned for me,
Father and Mother implored Death;
My brothers, they were head-on-knee,
Since I reached this land of deprivation.
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, p.53
[13] 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,
While the breast was in my mouth!
From the Stela of Isenkhebe, 7th century BCE
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, p.59
[14]
(21) THE TENTH INSTRUCTION. The teaching not to weary of instructing your son.
(22) A statue of stone is the foolish son whom his father has not instructed.
(23) It is a son's good and blessed portion to receive instruction and to ask.
(24) No instruction can succeed if there is dislike.
(9,1) The youth [who] is not spoiled by his belly is not blamed.
...........
(5) The fault in every kind of character comes from not listening.
(6) Thoth has placed the stick on earth in order to teach the fool by it.
(7) He gave the sense of shame to the wise man so as to escape all punishment.
(8) The youth who has respect through shame is not scorned with punishment.
(9) A son does not die from being punished by his father.
(10) He who loves his spoiled son will spoil himself with him.
(11) The stick and shame protect their owner from the fiend.
(12) The son who is not taught, his <...> causes astonishment.
(13) The heart of his father does not desire a long life (for him).
(14) The sensible one among the children is worthy of life.
(15) Better the son of another than a son who is an accursed fool.
(16) There is he who has not been taught, yet he knows how to instruct another.
(17) There is he who knows the instruction, yet he does not know how to live by it.
(18) He is not a true son who accepts instruction so as to be taught.
(19) It is the god who gives the heart, gives the son, and gives the good character.
Instructions of Papyrus Insinger
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, p.192f
[15] 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 ...
P.Tebt., II.299, ca 50 CE
APIS record: berkeley.apis.266
[16] 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.
My slave Apollophanes, a weaver, registered in Temgenouthis Square, died abroad in the present 7th year of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Imperator. Wherefore I request that his name be inscribed in the list of dead persons, and I swear by Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Imperator that this information is true. Year 7 of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Imperator, Mecheir 27th, august day.
(2nd hand) I, Philiskos, have signed.
Year 7 of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Imperator, Mecheir 27th, august day.
P.Oxy. II 262, 61 CE
APIS record: columbia.apis.p344
[17] 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.
 
(2nd h.) We, Harmiysis and Papnebtynis, both sons of Orsenouphis, Persians of the Epigone, acknowledge that we have received from Pasonis, son of Orsenouphis, 16 drachmas of silver, and in return for the (remission of) interest upon this sum and the boy's keep and clothing and poll-tax at the village of Oxyrhyncha and weavers' tax and wages will produce our brother Pasion to stay with Pasonis for one year from the 40th year of Caesar and to work at the weaver's trade and perform all that he is bidden, and at the end of the period we will repay the 16 drachmas of silver and you shall hand over ... the receipts for poll-tax for the 39th and 40th years of Caesar and the receipts for weavers' tax ...; and if he does not remain with you we will forfeit 100 drachmas, being mutual security for the payment as aforesaid. I, Akousilaos son of Heliodoros, wrote, since they are illiterate.
P.Tebt.0384, 10 CE
APIS record: berkeley.apis.175
Apprentices were registered for tax purposes, e.g. P.Mich.inv. 81, APIS record: michigan.apis.3130
[19] 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
[20] Pierre Montet, Daily Life in Egypt, chapter 3, §4
[21] 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.
[22] 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
[23] Erika Feucht, "Childhood" in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt

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Offsite links   (Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the content of these sites
 
Identifying infants and children in the archaeological record[4] Identifying infants and children in the archaeological record
Isis Lactans[5] Es war einmal die Geburt : Altes Ägypten und Alter Orient: Isis Lactans
-[6] Es war einmal die Geburt : Altes Ägypten und Alter Orient: Der zwerggestaltige Bes
-[7] Es war einmal die Geburt : Altes Ägypten und Alter Orient: Thoëris
-[9] Writing board, University College London, UC 59421
A Middle Kingdom introduction to writing - Kemyt[18] A Middle Kingdom introduction to writing - Kemyt
Childhood in Ancient EgyptChildhood in Ancient Egypt

 

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