ancient egypt: history and culture
Friendship in Ancient Egypt: The Teachings - Literary Friendships - Real-life Friendships - The Pharaohs - The Gods
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    The ancient Egyptians seem to have been a sociable lot, whose language had a number of words understood by scholars to be terms of closeness, which are translated as friend, companion, confidant, intimate, beloved etc: mrj, xnm, xnms, smr, snsn, qrH [1].
    But unlike lovers who have always easily poured out their hearts, friends rarely make much public fuss about their relationship. We have no great paeans extolling the virtues of personal friendship, but - and at this the ancient Egyptians were past masters - heaps of advice about how to make and treat friends.

The Teachings

Making friends

    The aphorisms of the Instruction of Ankhsheshonq are often witty every-day advice; and some of them speak of friendship. They refer to how the choice of one's friends reflects upon oneself:
A wise man seeks [a friend; a fool] seeks an enemy.
The friend of a fool is a fool; the friend of a wise man is a wise man.
The friend of an idiot is an idiot.
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol.3, p.169-195.
    The fact that, unlike family one is related to willy-nilly, one chooses one's friends, can make the bond of friendship emotionally more satisfying, while there is always the risk of it failing:
Do not go to your brother when you are in distress; go to your friend.
One does not discover the heart of a friend if one has not consulted him in anxiety.
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol.3, p.169-195.
    Like all sayings, Ankhsheshonq's deal in generalities and stereotypes; a reasonable person will suppose that the average real-life merchant is not more mercenary in his personal relationships than is his neighbour, and makes as good a friend as anybody else:
Do not have a merchant for a friend; [he] lives for taking a slice.
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol.3, p.169-195.
    Teachers have ever been afraid that their charges might be led astray by bad company. Whether their remonstrances had much effect may be doubted:
You follow the path of pleasure; you make friends with revellers.
Papyrus Lansing: A schoolbook
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2, p.171
They had a difficult task exhorting their pupils By day write with your fingers; recite by night. Befriend the scroll, the palette and telling them that It pleases more than wine, not a plea which will easily convince a young person who has tasted wine in the company of his friends.
    Choosing the right kind of friends can be quite tricky. Basically, friends are equals, that is why kings must have had quite a hard time finding people who could measure up to them socially. For ordinary folk it was not much of a problem, as the people they met on a daily basis were also those they grew up with and had formed friendships with when they were still young.
Keep away from a hostile man,
Do not let him be your comrade;
Befriend one who is straight and true,
One whose actions you have seen.
If your rightness matches his,
The friendship will be balanced.
The Instruction of Ani
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2, p.138
    Cultural differences can render making friends difficult. The Tale of Sinuhe makes the, somewhat extravagant, claim that:
No Asiatic makes friends with a Delta-man
The Take of Sinuhe
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2, p.227
But in the same story Sinuhe is befriended by Asiatics time and again. Aphorisms are tricky little beasts quite likely to turn round and bite their own author.

How to treat friends

    Ptahhotep's precepts warn the reader that there are lines one should not cross even in one's relationship with a friend, above all when sex might come into it:
If you desire to excite respect within the house you enter, for example the house of a superior, a friend, or any person of consideration, in short everywhere where you enter, keep yourself from making advances to a woman, for there is nothing good in so doing.
Precepts of the prefect, the lord Ptah-hotep
Charles F. Horne, The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East,
Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, New York, 1917
    Friendships have to be cultivated, both emotionally and materially. Friends are, together with one's family, part of the network of support a person weaves:
Sustain your friends with what you have,
You have it by the grace of god;
Of him who fails to sustain his friends
One says, "a selfish
One plans the morrow but knows not what will be,
The (right)
ka is the ka by which one is sustained.
If praiseworthy deeds are done,
Friends will say, "welcome!"
One does not bring supplies to town,
One brings friends when there is need.
The Instruction of Ptahhotep
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, p.69
    Ptahhotep does not propose to accept a friend uncritically. His suggestions on how to evaluate a friend's character are a good guide on how to treat anybody one comes into contact with:
If you probe the character of a friend,
Don't inquire, but approach him,
Deal with him alone,
So as not to suffer from his manner.
Dispute with him after a time,
Test his heart in conversation;
If what he has seen escapes him,
If he does a thing that annoys you,
Be yet friendly with him, don't attack
Be restrained, don't let fly,
Don't answer with hostility,
Neither part from him nor attack him;
His time does not fail to come,
One does not escape what is fated.
Know your helpers, then you prosper,
Don't be mean toward your friends,
They are one's watered field,
And greater than one's riches,
For what belongs to one belongs to another.
The Instruction of Ptahhotep
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, p.72f

False friends

    Amenemhet I, generally thought to have been murdered during a coup d'état, must have had some unfortunate experiences with people he trusted. The Instruction of Amenemhet I, unlikely to be the result of the pharaoh's private cogitations despite its title, warns against trusting anybody:
Beware of subjects who are nobodies,
Of whose plotting one is not aware.
Trust not a brother, know not a friend,
Make no intimates, it is worthless.
The Instruction of Amenemhet I for his son Sesostris I
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, p.136
    The suicidal man of the Dispute between a man and his ba casts as beady an eye on friends and relations as the Middle Kingdom pharaoh...
To whom shall I speak today?
Brothers are mean,
The friends of today do not love.
To whom shall I speak today?
The Dispute between a man and his ba
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, p.166
... while the eloquent peasant too has had bad experiences with false friends:
Lo, you are a wretch of a washerman,
A greedy one who harms a friend,
One who forsakes his friend for his client,
His brother is he who comes with gifts.
The Eloquent Peasant
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, p.176

Literary friendships

    In a preface the author of the Instruction of Ankhsheshonq gave a description of a friendship between two men, a rare thing in ancient Egyptian fiction: Two boyhood friends, whose fathers had been friends as well, felt still close enough after years of separation for one of them, Ankhsheshonq, to travel for two days to seek advice, and for the other, Harsiese, to be trustful enough to reveal a plot against the king he was involved in.
    The story opens with Ankhsheshonq needing spiritual support:
After this it happened one day that Ankhsheshonq, son of Tjainufi /// was in great trouble. He thought to himself, saying: "What I should like to do is to go to Mem[phis] and stay with Harsiese, son of Ramose. I have been told he has been made chief physician [and has been given everything] that belonged to the chief physician entirely, and his brothers have been made priests without fee. Perhaps the god will put it [in his heart] to do for me what is right."
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol.3, p.161
    Ankhsheshonq journeys to Memphis and his friend asks him to stay with him. When Harsiese invites him to join a conspiracy against the king, Ankhsheshonq tries to dissuade him, but does not inform the authorities. Still, the plot is uncovered, and the conspirators are arrested. The king has Harsiese brought before him.
Pharaoh said to him: "Ankhsheshonq son of Tjainufi, what is he to you?"
He said: "His father was the friend of my father. His heart was much [attached (?)] to him."
Pharaoh said: "Let Ankhsheshonq son of Tjainufi be brought!"
They ran for [Ankhsheshonq, son] of Tjainufi; they ran and returned bringing him before Pharaoh at once. Pharaoh said to him: "Ankhsheshonq son of Tjainufi, did you eat my bread and hear evil against me without coming to inform me of it, saying. They are conspiring against you to kill you'?"
"///// 'Is what you are doing in return, to have him killed?' By your face, my great lord, I did all I could with him, but he did not give me an answer. I knew that these matters would not be hidden from Pharaoh."
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol.3, p.162
    Harsiese is executed and Ankhsheshonq is gaoled for not betraying his friend. The king never forgives him for his breach of hospitality, and when the other prisoners are freed on the occasion of a holiday, Ankhsheshonq remains in prison where he writes his instruction.

Real-life friendships

Helping out a neighbour

    Records generally waste few words on defining personal relationships, so we are left with a number of questions about a divorcée living at Deir el Medina and the man who left the following record:
I spent three years giving her an oipe of emmer every single month, making 9 sacks.
And she gave me a sash, saying: "Offer it at the riverbank (i.e. the market-place), and it will be bought from me for one
oipe-measure of emmer."
I offered it, but people rejected it, saying: "It is bad!"
And I told her exactly that, saying: "It has been rejected."
Then she gave it to me, and I let one
xAr-measure of emmer be brought to her via Hay son of Sa-Wadjyt.
Leonard H. Lesko, Pharaoh's Workers: The Village of Deir El Medina, Cornell University Press,1994, p/46
One may well ask a neighbour to go to the market and sell a piece of cloth on one's behalf as did this woman, even though it is somewhat of an imposition. But few mere acquaintances will pay four times the asking price for something deemed worthless by everybody else. The man may have had designs on the divorcée who had a bit of a reputation, he may have been an altruist or simply somebody trying to help out a friend.

A quarrel between friends

    The scribe Nakhte-Sobek and the workman Amen-nakhte were friends at Deir el Medina. Something appears to have upset Amen-nakhte, and Nakhte-Sobek inquired in a letter how he had offended his friend.
Now what have I done? What is my offence against you? Am I not your old table-companion?
Happy is the man who is with his old table-companion. Some new [things]are good, (but) an old table-companion is (also) good.
A. G. McDowell: Village Life in Ancient Egypt, p.30
    The two had been close for years, but like many male friendships today, theirs was emotionally somewhat superficial. Nevertheless, Nakhte-Sobek was clearly worried:
What is it with you? Write and send me the thoughts of your heart, so that I can enter into them. Really, since I was a child until today, I have been with you, but I cannot understand your character. Is it good for a man, when he says things to his companion twice, and he does not hear him, like the hin of oil which I requested from you --- but you did not bother. Send to me (about) the state of your health instead of the oil...
A. G. McDowell: Village Life in Ancient Egypt, p.30

Friends and lovers

[Image: Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, Source: Jon Bodsworth]

Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, 5th dynasty
Brothers, friends or lovers?
Source: J. Bodsworth

    When thinking of close male relationships we often tend to suspect that there is more to them than meets the eye. One of the famous Greek male duos were Achilles and Patroclus; the Hebrew tradition extols the friendship of David and Jonathan, though some think that the wording of the Bible may be more appropriate for lovers than for mere friends, and the nature of the relationship between Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, apart from having been close and affectionate, is also unclear.

    Just as sexual relations between two men need not preclude their being friends, a man and a woman can be more than just partners for sex and procreation. Comradeship is an important part of love (The use of "brother" in the following quote is not necessarily to be taken literally, it often denoted "beloved"):

O brother, husband, friend, high priest--thy heart shall not grow weary of drinking and eating, drunkenness and love. Celebrate a happy day; follow thy heart by day and night; put no care in thy heart.
Stela of Taimhotep, 46 BCE
R. Lepsius, Auswahl der wichtigsten Urkunden des ägyp. Alterthums, Leipzig, 1842, pl. 16.
    The word "brother" served (and still serves) Egyptians as a term of closeness. It was often used in letters to friends or among lovers:
Teti greets his beloved brother and favourite friend, the scribe Ahmose
pLouvre 3230, 18th dynasty

Well wishing

    Friends care for each others well-being. The Egyptians, living in a world imbued with religiosity, invoked the gods when wishing each other well:
The servant Mersuyotef greets the servant Sebtyemptah. In life-prosperity-health. (In the) favour of Ptah, daily. I say to the gods, the lords of Piramesse: "Cause you to be healthy, cause you to live." And further, to the effect: We are alive today. We do not know our condition tomorrow. And likewise, may you send to me about your condition, because our hearts are concerned about you.
19th dynasty
John Baines Egyptian Letters of the New Kingdom as Evidence for Religious Practice, p.22
    As letter writing became more frequent and letters more chatty, people sent greetings to their acquaintances or asked for small favours on behalf of their friends:
Diogenes to Dorion his brother, greetings. I considered it necessary before all else to greet you in writing. Ypu wrote to me concerning the price of olive oil. It is still at a high price where you are and I do not think that one should buy at a high price. And previously I wrote to you about the pieces of wood, so that you should send them to me. Accordingly, if they be received by me, I shall pay the freight charges for them. But you will send me a metretes of olive oil at the current price, only of good quality. Good health. Greet Polydas my friend and all of your household.
(2nd hand.) 8th year of Emperor Caesar Domitian Augustus Germanicus. Choiak 6.
Verso: From Diogenes to Dorion my brother.
P.Mich.inv. 6656, 88CE
APIS record: michigan.apis.2913
[Send] me an extra jar of olives for a friend of mine; do not fail to [do] so. You know that whatever you give to Iulius he brings me, which he indeed promised me to do. Write to me [whatever] he does. Salute Sokmenios and his children and [. . .] and Sabinus and Thaisas and her children and my brothers and my sister Tabenka and her husband and her relations-in-law. And write to me if she has had a child. Salute Tasokmenis, my lady sister, and Sambas and Soueris and her [children] and Sambous and all the relations and friends, [each by name].
P.Mich.:3:203, 114-116 CE
APIS record: michigan.apis.1636

Celebrations and bereavements

    Not knowing anything about marriage ceremonies or other such festivities celebrating the attainment of important stages of life, we can but surmise that friends would have participated in them. On the other hand we do know about their importance in giving the dead a good send-off, apparently an important omen for the deceased's fate in the after-life.
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.
Speech of Thothrech, son of Petosiris
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.3, p.53
    Often friends could do little to help, but sometimes, according to Herodotus, they were prevented from lending their support:
[2.90.1] Whensoever any one, Egyptian or foreigner, has lost his life by falling a prey to a crocodile, or by drowning in the river, the law compels the inhabitants of the city near which the body is cast up to have it embalmed, and to bury it in one of the sacred repositories with all possible magnificence. No one may touch the corpse, not even any of the friends or relatives, but only the priests of the Nile, who prepare it for burial with their own hands- regarding it as something more than the mere body of a man- and themselves lay it in the tomb.
Herodotus Euterpe
    Epitaphs do not furnish the most reliable information about a person's character. But this is the last opportunity for friends to bear witness to their affection. Sometimes it was just an anonymous mention in an inscription:
Greatly valued, greatly praised,
Full of charm, well-disposed,
Much beloved by everyone,
Highly praised by her friends,
The worthy young woman, skilled in speech,
Whose words please, whose counsel helps,
Taimhotep, the justified
Stela of Taimhotep
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.3, p.61
    But sometimes it was his friends who furnished the deceased with the necessities for the after-life. The stela of a certain Neferhotep was dedicated by a friend, as apparently he had died without relatives [2]. The workman Nakhtemin, who lived under the eighteenth dynasty, was described by Ankhefenamen as an affectionate and humorous friend in a tomb inscription.
    Having helped the poor during one's lifetime might hide many a blot on one's character when one had to give account of one's life before the gods, but it may be doubted that Intef, son of Sent, was more than an aloof benefactor of the needy:
I am a friend of the poor,
One well-disposed to the have-not.
I am one who feeds the hungry in need,
Who is open-handed to the pauper.
Stela of Intef, son of Sent
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, p.122

Business friends

    Apart from personal friendship there are many other relationships for which we might use the term "friend", even if there is, apart from a certain benevolence, little emotion involved. Business friends use their acquaintances to forge new connections which might be useful later on.
Phileas to Zenon, greeting. Certain of my acquaintances have come to me on behalf of Metrodoros, the man who is handing this letter to you, requesting me to write to you. You will, therefore, do me a favor by making him a collective loan from yourself and your acquaintances. It will be clear to you what sort of man he is from his dress. Good-bye.
p. Col.inv.275, ca 254 BCE
APIS record: columbia.apis.p41

The pharaohs

    Pharaohs may have had a fairly normal upper-class upbringing, as they had often not been the heir apparent at a young age. They were raised by nurses with whom they frequently had close relationships all their life, had playmates and made friends. After accession, as gods and rulers, ordinary personal relationships disappear in a sea of official titles which the people they were close to were endowed with, and which are translated as "sole companion", "confidant", "favorite" etc. Both men and women bore such titles:
By his son, the overseer of the pyramid, "Great-is-Khafre", the king's confidant, Thethi (TTj), who made (this) for his father and his mother, when they were both buried in the western highland.
Revered by the great god, king's-confidante, Henutsen. It was her eldest son, the field-judge, who made (it) for her, to make mortuary offerings to her therein.
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, §§ 184f.
    But if these companions had the king's ear, it is doubtful that there was any emotional closeness, which we might interpret as friendship. The gulf between the pharaoh and his servants was generally too wide.

25th dynasty
Source: Al-Ahram Weekly, 8 - 14 June 2000, Issue No. 485 [3]

    Somebody like Harwa living under the Kushite 25th dynasty [3] may have been more acceptable socially than most, and he was certainly loyal. Whether he was as close to the pharaoh as he intimates is an open question, but it looks as if true, beloved King's friend was just one title among many:
The prince, count, royal seal-bearer; true, beloved King's friend; keeper of the diadem of the God's Adoress; royal servant in the royal harem; embalmer-priest-of-Anubis of the God's Wife; prophet of the God's Adoress, Amenirdis. justified, in her ka-chapel; steward of the ka-priests; prophet of Osiris Giver of Life; the Steward Harwa, son of the scribe Pedimut, justified
Inscription of Harwa
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol.3, p.25
    Almost two millennia earlier, the sudden death of Weshptah, a high official, seems to have affected Neferirkare Kakai (c.2475-2455 BCE) to such an extent that he retired to his private quarters
[He (i.e. Weshptah) was conveyed to (?)] the court, and his majesty had the royal children, companions, ritual priests, and chief physicians come //////. His majesty [had] brought for him a case of writings /// //////. They said before his majesty that he was lost //////. [The heart of his majesty was (?)] exceedingly [sad (?)] beyond everything; his majesty said that he would do everything according to his hearts desire, and returned to his privy chamber.
    People who were socially the pharaoh's equals were the kings of the neighbouring great powers. During the Late Bronze Age these included the kings of Babylon, Mitanni, Hatti and Egypt. Assyria, which expanded its power at the expense of Babylon and Mitanni, achieved the status of Great Power after its king was at first rebuffed by the king of Hatti who asked him indignantly: "Who are you calling brother?"
    There was of course nothing personal about this "brotherhood". It simply reflected the importance of the countries they lorded over. Rulers of smaller nations were clearly subordinate to these Great Kings and did not have the right to address them as "brothers". Even the King of Cyprus, not one of those small city states with which the Levant was dotted, refrained from calling the pharaoh "brother".
    Nor did marrying a foreign princess or exchanging gifts forge any real personal friendship:
When my father and your father had dealings in good friendship, they sent each other beautiful presents, and nothing they refused
Letter from Burnaburiash , EA 9
    Ahmose II, centuries after Egypt had lost its Great Power status, created new alliances, in the same way his 2nd millennium predecessors had done: by giving gifts
To the Samian Juno he presented two statues of himself, made in wood, which stood in the great temple to my day, behind the doors. Samos was honoured with these gifts on account of the bond of friendship subsisting between Amasis and Polycrates, the son of Aeaces in Lindus, for no such reason, but because of the tradition that the daughters of Danaus touched there in their flight from the sons of Aegyptus, and built the temple of Minerva. Such were the offerings of Amasis.
Herodotus, Euterpe 182.1


    Like humans, Egyptian gods had their likes and dislikes for each other. The Nile god Hapi, the source of Egypt's wealth, had, according to the Hymn of Hapy, a special affinity with the earth-god Geb, the original ruler of the world:
Friend of Geb, lord of Nepri,
Promoter of the arts of Ptah.
Lord of the fishes,
He makes fowl stream south,
No bird falling down from heat.
Maker of barley, creator of emmer,
He lets the temples celebrate.
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol.1, p.206


APIS, Advance Papyrological Information System
John Baines, Egyptian Letters of the New Kingdom as Evidence for Religious Practice
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt
Herodotus, Euterpe
Charles F. Horne, The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East
R. Lepsius, Auswahl des wichtigsten Urkunden des ägyptischen Alterthums
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature
A. G. McDowell: Village Life in Ancient Egypt
Leonard H. Lesko, Pharaoh's Workers: The Village of Deir El Medina, Cornell University Press,1994

[1] Transliteration and pronunciation of ancient Egyptian
[2] JEA 63, 1977, S.63 ff.


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-[3] The enigmatic nobleman by Reham El-Adawi (Al Ahram)


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