Ancient Egypt: Fishing, hunting, fowling
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Fishermen, 6th Dynasty
Angler and fisherman using landing net
Tomb of Kagemni, 6th Dynasty

Source: Jon Bodsworth


Fishing, Hunting and Fowling

    The ancient Egyptian civilization was among the first to regard hunting and fishing as both a sport and a source of food. While many professional hunters and fishermen lived from their trade, sportsmen enjoyed leaving the towns behind, spend a few days in the company of other men and measure their hunting skills with those of professionals, as they still do today. The tall stories they must have told are lost, but of one tale which has been named The Pleasures of Fishing and Fowling, enough has survived to convey to us an atmosphere of hunting aficionados enjoying the solitude, the comradeship of like-minded men, and their hunting successes.



Fishermen (Mastaba of Mereruka, OK)     Fish were caught with woven dragnets and weir-baskets [5] made from willow branches, fishing nets for smaller fish, harpoons and hook and line, the hooks having a length of between eight millimetres and eighteen centimetres.

Outing on the river
Tomb of Mereruka
Source: F. Daumas[6]

According to the fictitional eloquent peasant different kinds of fish were caught in different ways[13]:
The handnet fisher (xwd.w) catches the mH.yt (?) fish. The ///yw-fisherman kills the jy-fish. The harpoonist (sti-rm.w) kills the wbb-fish. The DbH-net fisher is after the pAgr-fish.

    Pre-dynastic petroglyphs have been interpreted as depicting fish traps in the form of fences set up in the water, leading the fish to a central cage where they could be caught easily [1].

Angler with rod, 12th dynasty Fisherman using rod
Beni Hasan, 12th dynasty
Lepsius Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien

    Many Old Kingdom tombs have depictions of fishing with line and hook. Fishing rods were generally not used, nor were floats alerting the angler to a catch. Instead, the fisherman supported the line with his outstretched index finger, feeling even the smallest tugs at the bait. The end of the line where the hooks were, appears to have been weighed down, possibly with a lump of clay. As bait they may have used bread, little pieces of dates or the like. The captured fish were clubbed to death and gathered in baskets. By the 12th dynasty metal hooks with barbs were being used. Nile perch, catfish and eels were among the most important fish.

The fishermen

Fishermen, tomb of Ti The kneeling fisherman is removing a Sydontis Schall from a drag-net holding it by its dorsal spike to avoid being stung. The drag-net is equipped with weights at its lower and floats at its upper rim.
Tomb of Ti
Source: F. Daumas: Quelques remarques sur les représentations de pêche à la ligne sous l'ancien empire, BIFAO 62 (1964), p.81

A beautiful day (or a holiday) and we are on our way to the swamps in order to catch bi[rds] (with nets) and innumer[able] fish in the double waters.
The Pleasures of Fishing and Fowling
After a trancription and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website [10]
    For some fishing was a relaxing pasttime, and, being sportsmen, they caught only the better tasting fish, often using harpoons with which they could target specific fish. But for others fishing was their livelihood and the use of nets and multiple fishing lines with hooks promised better catches.
armchair sportsman

Gentleman armchair sportsman
Sir John Gardner Wilkinson, A Popular Account of the Ancient Egyptians, J. Murray 1854, p.238

    These professional fishermen and the poor who tried to improve their diet by catching fish by themselves could not afford to despise commonly occurring, but not very tasty fish like the Clarias and the Sydontis Schall which, being very voracious, were easily caught with fishing lines. But the garmout, a Clarias variety, has been described as being among the worst Nile fish to eat. Moreover, it and the Sydontis (called wHa, similar to the verb wHa=to prick) have poisonous dorsal spikes best removed quickly before they can cause damage [6].
    Thus, the job of the fishermen was not without risks. In the Instructions of Dua-Khety the author considers the fishermen to be more miserable than one of any other profession [9], mostly because their low-lying boats and rafts could be overturned by hippos and crocodiles, and they might be killed by them. But, of course, drowning was also a danger, though one would expect people living alongside a river to be able to swim [7].

The catch

    Many kinds of fish live in the Nile: tilapia, elephantfish, Nile perch, catfish, eels, sharks and many others. Dolphins, counted among the fish, were also seen in the river. Fish behaviour and reproduction remained a mystery to the ancient Egyptians: seeing mouthbreeders spitting out their fry they thought that they were giving birth. In his book about Egypt, Euterpe, Herodotus recounts what he learned about fish and his natural history is not in complete agreement with modern knowledge. It comes as a reminder to be wary as to his reliability or perhaps rather that of his informants:
Fish which swim in shoals are not much produced in the rivers, but are bred in the lakes, and they do as follows: When there comes upon them the desire to breed, they swim out in shoals towards the sea; and the males lead the way shedding forth their milt as they go, while the females, coming after and swallowing it up, from it become impregnated: and when they have become full of young in the sea they swim up back again, each shoal to its own haunts. The same however no longer lead the way as before, but the lead comes now to the females, and they leading the way in shoals do just as the males did, that is to say they shed forth their eggs by a few grains at a time, and the males coming after swallow them up. Now these grains are fish, and from the grains which survive and are not swallowed, Fish; Source: The Glory of Egypt, excerpt the fish grow which afterwards are bred up. Now those of the fish which are caught as they swim out towards the sea are found to be rubbed on the left side of the head, but those which are caught as they swim up again are rubbed on the right side. This happens to them because as they swim down to the sea they keep close to the land on the left side of the river, and again as they swim up they keep to the same side, approaching and touching the bank as much as they can, for fear doubtless of straying from their course by reason of the stream. When the Nile begins to swell, the hollow places of the land and the depressions by the side of the river first begin to fill, as the water soaks through from the river, and so soon as they become full of water, at once they are all filled with little fishes; and whence these are in all likelihood produced, I think that I perceive. In the preceding year, when the Nile goes down, the fish first lay eggs in the mud and then retire with the last of the retreating waters; and when the time comes round again, and the water once more comes over the land, from these eggs forthwith are produced the fishes of which I speak.
Herodotus, Histories II Euterpe
Project Gutenberg
    In Graeco-Roman times sweet-water fishing, like all other occupations, became highly regimented. In order to prevent the death of sacred fish the fishermen had to use nets and liberate—on pain of death—any forbidden catch. [11]
    Fish tend to smell even in moderate northern climes; in Egypt, unless fish are dealt with immediately, the smell of a catch of fish on a day of catching when the sky is hot [8] becomes quickly hard to bear and clings to anything that comes into contact with them. In the Debate between a man tired of life and his soul the reek of bad repute is compared to the stench fish give off:
Behold, my name is detested,
Behold, more than the smell of fishermen,
More than the creeks of the marshes where they have fished.
Geese, Meidum; Source: Tulane University website
(Source: Tulane University website)


Wildlife in the marsh; Source: Tulane University website     Wildlife was concentrated around the Nile and large areas of the delta region were preserved for hunting and fishing. The more arid regions were populated by fleet footed animals which could be pursued by excited hunting parties.

Wildlife in the marsh
Source: Tulane University website

    In ancient times animals dangerous to man still lived in Egypt. Large cats and wild cattle roamed the country, and the river was a habitat for the crocodile and hippopotamus, all of which were associated with the divine. Despite this the hippos were hunted with harpoons, as their grazing could cause great damage to the grain crops [3].
    Among the animals that were depicted in hunting scenes are gazelles, rabbits, red foxes and hyenas. Ostriches were killed for their feathers, cats like the leopard and the caracal for their skins. Even the jerboa and the hedgehog were hunting objects for some.

Hunting dogs
Hunting dogs
The use of rope and throw stick on the Hunters palette; Source: excerpt, British Museum website
The use of rope and throw stick on the Hunters Palette

(Source: excerpt, British Museum website)
Deer hunt Bull hunt     For rougher sport noblemen would hunt hares, gazelles, antelopes and on occasion lions from chariots. They trained dogs as hunting dogs and the ancestry of some of today's breeds is traced back to Egypt.

    Hunting expeditions of the pharaohs resembled often military campaigns more than pleasure outings. When big game hunting the king was accompanied by soldiers wearing full military gear, as was the king himself in his chariot. Thutmose III went elephant hunting near Niy in the Euphrates valley. On the Napata stela he describes finding himself opposite the largest of the elephants but fails to mention that it was Amenmehab, an old retainer, who cut off the elephant's trunk. This fact is known because Amenmehab left his own description of this momentous hunt.

    Amenhotep III's wild bull hunt probably took place in the Delta. The description is gruesome in its score keeping:
Year 2 under His Horus Majesty Powerful-Bull-Appearing-in-the-Glory-of-Maat the two ladies Who-makes-the-Laws-Stable and Serene-the-Double-Land, King of Upper and Lower Egypt Neb-Maat-Re, son of Amenhotep Lord of Thebes, endowed with life and the Great King's Wife Tiye, may she live.
A marvellous success has occurred to His Majesty. They came to tell him: There are wild bulls in the desert, in the region of Sheta. His Majesty set out during the night downstream in the royal boat He-who-Appears-in-Maat's-Glory. He made a good journey and reached the region of Sheta in peace in the morning. His Majesty appeared on a horse, his army behind him. He gave orders to his officers and the soldiers of the whole army, to the young men with them to guard the wild bulls. His Majesty ordered to drive the bulls into an enclosure with a ditch. His Majesty ordered to count all these bulls: seventy wild bulls. The number taken as game by his Majesty on this day: 56 wild bulls. His Majesty stayed four days in order to give rest to his horses. His Majesty appeared on a horse. The number of wild bulls taken as game by him: 40 bulls, giving a total of 96 wild bulls.
    This king, like other pharaoh before and after him, also enjoyed lion hunts. In the tenth year of his reign he had a large number of scarabs cut commemorating his prowess:
Live ...... Amenhotep (III), ruler of Thebes, Given life, (and) the Great King's-Wife: Tiy, who liveth.
Statement of lions which his majesty brought down with his own arrows from year 1 to year 10: fierce lions, 102.
J.H.Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 865

    Reliefs at Medinet Habu show Ramses III hunting wild bulls, and lions in military style surrounded by soldiers. But frequently the pharaoh chased after smaller prey like antelopes on his own. He is depicted driving his chariot by himself without any professional hunters aiding him by chasing the animals into confined spaces where they could be slaughtered.

Dogs chasing hyaena New Kingdom ostracon showing dogs chasing a hyaena
Louvre Museum E14366
Adapted from a photo by Jon Bodsworth

    According to Herodotus, crocodiles were in some places considered to be holy and in others abhorred and hunted

There are many ways how to hunt crocodiles; I shall describe the way I think is most worth mentioning. The hunter baits a hook with a pig's back, and lets it float in the river. He remains on the bank with a live piglet and beats it. The crocodile hears the squeals of the pig, follows the sound, and finds the bait, which it swallows; then the hunter hauls in the line. When the crocodile is ashore, he covers its eyes with mud; then the quarry is very easily overcome, but without that it would be very difficult.
Herodotus, Histories 2,70
    Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE) thought that crocodiles were plentiful because they were rarely hunted. Apart from baiting them with pig meat he mentioned also how ...
... later they were caught with strong nets like certain fish or killed from boats by repeated blows to their heads with iron maces.
Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library, Vol.1 chapter 35
    It may be difficult to define collecting turtles as hunting, but turtles were gathered by the people for their shells and their meat.

    Hunting was not without its risks. Wild bulls, elephants, crocodiles, hippos and lions were probably more dangerous than hedgehogs and partridges, but even hunting small prey was fraught with unforeseen dangers. After waiting for about two weeks for her father and brother to return from a hare hunt Aurelia Tisais from Tebtunis wrote to the Roman centurion Aurelius Julius Marcellinus
...My father Kalabalis, Sir, who is a hunter, set off with my brother Neilos as long ago as the 3rd of the present month to hunt hares, and up to this time they have not returned. I therefore suspect that they have met with some accident, and I present this statement making this matter known to you, in order that if they have met with any accident the persons found guilty may be held accountable to me...
P.Tebt.0333, 216 CE [12]
Fowling in the marshes; Source: Tulane University website
Fowling in the marshes

(Source: Tulane University site)

Duck, XIII Dynasy
Duck, XIII Dynasty


Waterfowl shall come to you in their thousands
lying on your path.
You have cast your throw-stick at them
and a thousand have been felled by the noise of his flying through the air,
greylag geese and green-breasted geese,
white-fronted ducks and pintail drakes.
Coffin text 62
Translation after J.Assmann, Spruch 62, Sargtexte und die ägyptischen Totenliturgien
Netting birds     Fowling was a popular pastime. Even noblemen indulged in it. The marshes and the banks of the Nile abounded with water fowl which were hunted with spears and throwing sticks. Civets were sometimes used to flush the birds out of the reeds.
    Smaller birds were netted. Large numbers of migrating quail were caught when they landed exhausted after crossing the Mediterranean. The hunters spread nets and frightened the birds into rising. Their feet got enmeshed in the nets and they were easily picked off [2]. Interestingly, the hunters in this hunting scene are wearing sandals, when ordinary Egyptians walked barefoot most of the time.
    Netting exhausted quail was easy. Well rested ducks and geese were more difficult to catch. Two nets big enough to cover the whole pool were spread on the ground along a small watering place. Two corners of each net were fastened to pegs on either side of the pool. Netting ducks

Trapping water fowl
4th dynasty, Gizeh
Adapted from Lepsius, Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien

The free corners of the nets on one side were tied to a sturdy pole rammed into the ground, the other corners tied to a long rope. Decoys [4] were placed on the water. A look-out hid behind the reeds or a screen. The rest of the crew took hold of the rope at a distance big enough not to frighten the birds. After a sign by the look-out the rope was pulled smartly bringing the two nets together, trapping the birds underneath. Until all the caught fowl were gathered together the pulling rope had to be kept taut to prevent the birds from escaping. The captured ducks were put into cages or had their wings broken or tied together. They were killed by wringing their necks. The men Wringing the necks of ducks involved in catching the fowl were rewarded with a part of the catch.

Tomb of Ty
The fowler is thanking Hathor by saying: "This is for the dweller of the swamps (i.e. himself), O Mistress."
Hermann Junker, Zu einigen Reden und Rufen auf Grabbildern des alten Reiches, p.45

    It appears that in the Old Kingdom life in the swamps was subject to Hathor. But later it was the field-goddess Sekhet who was the patroness of bird-catching and her favourites were those upon whom the hunter's luck smiled
To enjoy oneself, behold good, be busy with the work of the field-goddess, by the favourite of the field-goddess, priest Amenhotep, justified.
Text accompanying a scene where Amenhotep, son of Thutmose I, is seen hunting with a throw stick.
After Sethe, Urk IV, 107


[2] Diodorus seems to have thought that the Egyptians caught birds more out of necessity than for sport:
They cut the reeds which grow nearby and split them, they made long nets thereof and suspended them along the coast for many stadia in order to catch in them quail which fly in great flocks over the sea. Thus they procured a sufficient supply of victuals by catching birds.
Diodorus Siculus Historic Library, chapter 60
After a German translation by Julius Friedrich Wurm
[3] There was also a symbolic aspect to the hippo hunt: The pharaoh by killing the hippo was reasserting his power over Seth and the chaos he represented, just as Horus had done.
[4] In a 2nd millenium love poem the lover sighs:
I am a wild goose, a hunted one,
My gaze is at your hair,
At a bait under the trap
That is to catch me.
George A. Barton, Archaeology and The Bible, 3rd Ed., (Philadelphia: American Sunday School, 1920)
[6] F. Daumas: Quelques remarques sur les représentations de pêche à la ligne sous l'ancien empire, BIFAO 62 (1964), pp.67-85
Apparently, these spikes are sharp and strong enough to be used as tips of arrows, as finds in Hemaka's tomb at Saqqara prove (Narmer, a Fish out of Water by David A. Cintron, http://www.cintronics.com/cintronics/NarmerName.pdf, ok. so I cite Cintron who cites B. Midant-Reynes citing Rizkana and Seeher citing W. B. Emery's The Tomb of Hemaka, 1938. I feel like one of the big boys now. I wonder if anybody's checked Emery's story)
[7] We do not know how widespread the ability to swim was in ancient Egypt, but some people at least knew how to swim. Kheti, a First Intermediate Period nomarch, received swimming lessons as a child:
He (i.e. the king) had me instructed in swimming along with the royal children.
The Inscription of Kheti II
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, §413
[8] Debate between a man tired of life and his soul
[9] The author of the 18th dynasty treatise The Pleasures of Fishing and Fowling thought better of the fisherman's lot, though he probably referred to himself and his like rather than to professional fishermen:
As concerns the bird catcher and fisherman who does not move to the town, he lives off the fat (of the land)
After the transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae web site [10]
Both the Satire of the Trades and The Pleasures of Fishing and Fowling make points: the former denigrates in order to convince wayward students that their life as scribes will be better than anybody else's, the latter idealizes as only upperclass people can do who think that their holiday experiences reflect those of a fisherman's everyday drudgery.
[10] P. Dils ed., Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Reden und Dialoge => The Pleasures of Fishing and Fowling => pMoskau o.Nr. (Pleasures of Fishing)
[11] Gianfranco Purpura, "Liberum mare", acque territoriali e riserve di pesca nel mondo antico, in Archaeogate, 11-07-2005. http://www.archaeogate.org/iura/article/310/5/liberum-mare-acque-territoriali-e-riserve-di-pesca-nel.html, accessed 27 August 2007
[12] http://wwwapp.cc.columbia.edu/ldpd/app/apis/search?mode=search&subject=Accidents&sort=date&resPerPage=25&action=search&p=1 , accessed 19th May 2009
[13] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches W¨rterbuch, Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften => 2. Reden und Dialoge => Der beredte Bauer => pBerlin P 3023 + pAmherst I (Bauer, B1) => Der beredte Bauer (Version B1)

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Dating Egypt's oldest 'art'[1] Dating Egypt's oldest 'art': AMS 14C age determinations of rock varnishes covering petroglyphs at El-Hosh (Upper Egypt) by D. Huyge, A. Watchman, M. De Dapper, E. Marchi
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