Ancient Egypt: Cultural and political history, mythology and daily life
Pests in ancient Egypt: extermination and remedies, insects, rodents, birds
Main menu Main Index and Search Page History List of Dynasties Cultural Chronolgy Mythology Aspects of life in ancient Egypt Glossary of ancient Egyptian Terms Herodotus on the Pharaohs Ancient Egyptian Reader Apologia and Bibliography

Printout
For best results save the whole page (pictures included) onto your hard disk, open the page with Word 97 or higher, edit if necessary and print.
-

Vermin

    The ancient Egyptians were plagued by all sorts of parasites and vermin, of which the Bible mentions a few (just an aside: J.D.Blaidell in his The curse of the pharaohs sees the ten plagues as symptoms of an anthrax epidemic, others connect them with the explosion of the volcano on Santorini.)
6   ... and the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt.
 
17   ... it became lice in man, and in beast; all the dust of the land became lice throughout all the land of Egypt.
 
24   ... and there came a grievous swarm of flies into the house of Pharaoh, and into his servants' houses, and into all the land of Egypt: the land was corrupted by reason of the swarm of flies.
Exodus, 8

 
13   ... and the Lord brought an east wind upon the land all that day, and all that night; and when it was morning, the east wind brought the locusts.
14   And the locust went up all over the land of Egypt, and rested in all the coasts of Egypt: very grievous were they ...
Exodus, 10
(NB. These bible passages do not record historical facts to the best of our knowledge.
They are quoted here for illustration only.)
    According to an inscription in Menna's tomb the plight of the peasants was even worse than we would have expected: snakes were thought to destroy harvests as well, a curious mistake to make by people who lived cheek by jowl with a number of different snake species.
The snake has seized half the grain, and the hippopotami have eaten the rest. Mice abound in the fields, the locusts descend and the herds devour; the sparrows steal woe to the farmers! The remains on the threshing floor are for the thieves.
John F. Brock: Four Surveyors of the Gods: In the XVIII Dynasty of Egypt New Kingdom c. 1400 B.C.
International Federation of Surveyors Article of the Month, March 2005

Insects

Locust; Excerpt. Source: Divrei Hayamim - Shmot     Many insects tormented the ancient Egyptians: flies, lice, fleas [6], bedbugs, and worst of all, mosquitoes and locusts. While the blood sucking ectoparasites were mostly just an irritation in their eyes, and ants which could be driven away by origanum,[9] a nuisance, a locust swarm might mean famine. There was little one could do about such a plague, apart from praying to the gods, such as the fertility god Min, protector of crops, or Isis as guardian of life.
    Their livelihood was also threatened by weevils and grain beetles which destroyed stored grain [3][2].
    Mosquitoes and gnats were trying during the times when water stagnated in the irrigation canals and basins.
The reed-cutter travels to the Delta to get arrows; when he has done more than his arms can do, mosquitoes have slain him, gnats have slaughtered him, he is quite worn out.
The Satire of the Trades
M.Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol.1 p.186
Fresh ben oil was considered efficient against them or the use of a net:
Against the gnats, which are very abundant, they have contrived as follows:--those who dwell above the fen-land are helped by the towers, to which they ascend when they go to rest; for the gnats by reason of the winds are not able to fly up high: but those who dwell in the fen-land have contrived another way instead of the towers, and this it is: --every man of them has got a casting net, with which by day he catches fish, but in the night he uses it for this purpose, that is to say he puts the casting-net round about the bed in which he sleeps, and then creeps in under it and goes to sleep: and the gnats, if he sleeps rolled up in a garment or a linen sheet, bite through these, but through the net they do not even attempt to bite.
Herodotus, Histories II, Project Gutenberg
    Headlice have been with mankind for a very long time. The Egyptians shaved the heads of their small children, above all the boys. The body shaving of the priests may have been of ritual significance rather than a question of hygiene:
The priests shave themselves all over their body every other day, so that no lice or any other foul thing may come to be upon them when they minister to the gods;
Herodotus, Histories II, Project Gutenberg
Bedbug from el Amarna (Photograph by Eva Panagiotakopulu)     Bed-bugs are first mentioned in a 2nd millennium papyrus. Eva Panagiotakopulu of Sheffield University discovered some when excavating garbage dumps at a workmen's village at el Amarna. [1] Fleas carrying the plague bacillus were also among the parasites she found. The paleoentomologist surmises that the plague epidemics originated in Egypt where the Nile rat, immune to the plague after evolving together with the disease, was the natural host of the flea. Black rats, which came into contact with Nile rats in the insanitary cities spread the flea, and with it the plague, throughout much of the ancient world. [5]

Birds

Boy chasing birds away with a sling during the pomegranate harvest-     Even songbirds could develop into pests. Magpies and orioles, generally useful insectivores, love fruit as well and descended upon the carefully tended trees in the gardens, when the fruit began to ripen. The sparrow, a gregarious seed-eater descending on the cornfields when the grain was ripening, was common and its hieroglyph, sparrow, was used as a determinative not just for "common" and "small", but also for "bad".
    Getting rid of birds was labour-intensive. Nets were spread over the trees, held up by poles, so the birds could fly underneath and settle in the trees. After removing the poles the birds, unable to fly off, were easily caught.
    Throwing stones was also effective, provided the thrower's aim was good. In the picture on the left a boy is protecting ripe pomegranates with a sling, while a grown-up is harvesting them.
 

Rodents

    Mice and rats caused a great deal of damage. Apart from being carriers of diseases, they broke into the vital grain stores and spoiled their contents. Remains of walls of houses, built of unburned mud bricks which rodents could gnaw through, often show the attempts of their human inhabitants at plugging rat holes with stones. Rodents were hunted with cats and ferrets and seemingly also captured in traps.
    In the following text rats are apparently connected with Sekhmet, goddess of pestilences. One should be wary to read too much into such snippets. The Egyptians had no idea what brought about epidemics such as the plague. Their thinking was to a large extent magical:
1st month of peret, day 12: Inauspicious! Inauspicious! Inauspicious! You should not see any rat on this day. You should not go near it in your house. This day, on which one wards off all matters of Sakhmet on this day.
pSallier 4, 19th dynasty
After a German translation in Jürgen Kraus, Die Demographie des Alten Ägypten, Göttingen 2004, p.190
    But occasionally - at least in literature - even vermin was useful, as Shebitku (Sethos according to Herodotus) learned when the Assyrians under Sanherib attacked Egypt and the Egyptian warriors refused to follow him
As the two armies lay here opposite one another, there came in the night, a multitude of field-mice, which devoured all the quivers and bowstrings of the enemy, and ate the thongs by which they managed their shields. Next morning they commenced their fight, and great multitudes fell, as they had no arms with which to defend themselves. There stands to this day in the temple of Vulcan, a stone statue of Sethos, with a mouse in his hand, and an inscription to this effect- "Look on me, and learn to reverence the gods.
Hearsay recorded by Herodotus, Histories 2.141.1 tr. George Rawlinson

Remedies

    The Ebers Papyrus mentions a few remedies against a number of pests. While some of them are ostensibly effective, others seem to be based on magical thinking.
  • Household insects can be killed by washing the house with a solution of natron or whitewashing the walls with bebit mixed with crushed charcoal.
  • Some natron, dried onion seeds or a dried Nile Tilapia placed in front of the hiding hole of a snake will prevent it from leaving its lair.
  • Fat of the Oriole is efficient in eradicating flies and fish eggs get rid of fleas.
  • Loose ash spread around a grinding mill kills flour eating insects.
  • Fat of the woodpecker was used against fly stings while fresh palm wine would protect against gnats.
  • Fat of a cat spread on sacks and bundles keeps rats away, while grain is best protected from them by burning deer excrement.
  • You can protect yourself against the predation of kites by planting an acacia tree. Using proper incantations increases the efficacy of this means.
  • Fumigation of the house with incense and myrrh is recommended but was not affordable to many.
  • Amulets, sometimes in the form of a protective deity, at others shaped like the pest itself, were hoped to ward off the danger, e.g. locust amulets which have been discovered in tombs [7].
    The main - effective - means to keep the house free of vermin seems to have been to keep it clean and keep a cat. Shaving the head, above all of little children, greatly reduced the incidence of head-lice. Personal cleanliness, as mentioned by Herodotus, and frequent grooming added to the well being.

    The Egyptians may not have liked the pests which plagued them and tried to prevent them from bothering them, but they accepted them as a legitimate part of creation, cared for by their divine maker:
who creates that on which the mosquito lives,
worms and fleas likewise,
who looks after the mice in their holes
and keeps alive the beetles in every timber.
From the Hymn to Amen-Re, c.1600 BCE
After Jan Assmann Ägypten - Theologie und Frömmigkeit einer frühen Hochkultur, p.73

Infestations of domestic animals

    Pets had their fair share of parasites, too. A dog mummy dated to the Roman period was reportedly infested by brown dog ticks (Rhipicephalus sanguineus), louse flies (Hippobosca longipennis Fabricius) and sarcosaprophagous flies (Diptera: Sarcophagidae and Calliphoridae). The latter may be the source of myasis, i.e. the larvae grow under the skin of the host, feeding on it, and all of them are known vectors of pathogens. [10]

 


Picture sources:
[  ] Locust: Olam Hatanakh - Shmot
[  ] Bedbug: Eva Panagiotakopulu
 
Bibliography:
Jan Assmann Ägypten - Theologie und Frömmigkeit einer frühen Hochkultur,, Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 1984
John F. Brock: "Four Surveyors of the Gods: In the XVIII Dynasty of Egypt New Kingdom c. 1400 B.C." in International Federation of Surveyors Article of the Month, March 2005
Herodotus Histories, Volume 2, tr. George Rawlinson
Jürgen Kraus, Die Demographie des Alten Ägypten, Göttingen 2004
M.Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol.1, University of California Press 1973
Montet, Pierre, Haiey yom-yom bemitzrayim (La vie quotidienne en Egypte), Am Hassefer Publishers Ltd. Tel Aviv ; 1963
W.E. Muir and P.G. Fields, "THERMAL CONTROL OF INSECTS AND MITES", accessed at http://res2.agr.gc.ca/winnipeg/storage/pubs/presbios/chap13rf.pdf, October 2003
Eva Panagiotakopulu, "New Records for Ancient Pests: Archaeoentomology in Egypt" in Journal of Archaeological Science (2001) 28, 12351246
Eva Panagiotakopulu, "Insect Remains from Pharaonic Amarna, Egypt", accessed at http://www.shef.ac.uk/archaeology/research/egypt/amarna1.html, October 2003
Eva Panagiotakopulu & Paul C. Buckland; "Cimex lectularius L., the common bed bug from Pharaonic Egypt" in ANTIQUITY 73 (1999)
Megan Sever, "Fossilized plague in Egypt" in Geotimes May 2004

 
Footnotes:
[3] As insects are less active at lower temperatures, grain stores were at times sub-terranean [4].
 
Researchers from Bar Ilan University excavating a Bronze Age granary in Israel found the body of a beetle of the Rhyzopetha dominica species, a Lesser Grain Borer. This beetle with its high fecundity posed a major threat to grain stores. The pest could be controlled by adding sand to the grain, which scratched the beetle's shell and caused the insect to die from dehydration, a method still practiced by various African tribes. The researchers also propose, that a Bible passage suggests that by not mixing grain from various locations but storing it locally, one prevented the spread of the beetle:
And he (i.e. Joseph) gathered up all the food of the seven years, which were in the land of Egypt, and laid up the food in the cities: the food of the field which was round about every city, laid he up in the same.
Genesis 41:48
The researchers may have overinterpreted the passage: transportation to a small number of central storage points would not just have been difficult, but above all superfluous.[8]
 
Dr. Panagiotakopulu considers an annual 10 to 12% wastage of stored grain to be a reasonable estimate of the losses incurred through insects, rodents, and other factors.
[9] John Gardner Wilkinson, The manners and customs of the ancient Egyptians, Volume 5, John Murray, 1847, p.260
[10] J. B. Huchet, C. Callou, R. Lichtenberg, F. Dunand: "The dog mummy, the ticks and the louse fly: Archaeological report of severe ectoparasitosis in Ancient Egypt" in International Journal of Paleopathology , 3rd August 2013, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1879981713000764, accessed 27.9.2013

- -Index of Topics
-Main Index and Search Page
 
Offsite links
These are just suggestions for further study. I do not assume any responsibility for the content or availability of these websites.
 
common bed bug[1] Cimex lectularius L., the common bed bug from Pharaonic Egypt by Eva Panagiotakopulu & Paul C. Buckland
Insect Remains from Pharaonic Amarna[2] Insect Remains from Pharaonic Amarna by Eva Panagiotakopulu
Thermal control of insects and mites[4] "Thermal control of insects and mites" by W.E. Muir and P.G. Fields
Fossilized plague in Egypt[5] Fossilized plague in Egypt
Fleas[6] Fleas
Locust amulet[7] Prewitt/Allen Archaeological Museum: Locust amulet
Ancient grain borer reveals biblical pest control[8] Ancient grain borer reveals biblical pest control, originally published at http://www.streem.com.au/articles/News/World/4772/Ancient_grain_borer_reveals_biblical_pest_control__study
 

Feedback: Please report broken links, mistakes - factual or otherwise, etc. to me. Thanks.

© August 2000
Minor changes:
September 2013
April 2008
August, January 2006
May, April 2003

 

xhtml validated
-