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Recreation: The Performing Arts

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Musical performances were an additional importance of the worship of deities and rulers at the cults dedicated to either. Such performances were also enjoyed by the common population. During the Old Kingdom, concerts could be composed of two harpists, a small flute musician, a large flute musician, and one male singer for every instrumentalist who clapped his hands to keep a beat. Flutists were always accompanied by a singer or singers under all kingdoms, whereas harps could be the only accompaniment to singers. By the New Kingdom, as seems constant, women singers were more frequent in concerts and often sang with men, all of whom could appear with a small symphony of the following instruments: a large harp; two lutes or one lute and lyre; and a double flute.


Usually, such concerts were the main entertainment during feasts composed of family members and friends of royal or high status. It was a frequent event where all drank to the enjoyment of life and where becoming drunk was not an inconvenience but rather commonplace [see “happy hour” festivals.]





From the earliest times in Egypt, we find evidence of dancing; from pre-dynastic times, archeologists have found representations of dancing in the form of clay figures that have their hands raised above their heads as well as depictions on pre-dynastic vessels that show women raising their hands above their heads as others shake rattles or sistra. It is also from tomb and temple scenes from all periods of dynastic Egypt that one sees the importance of dancing, acrobatics, gymnastics, and music, of both the religious and secular sort. Most of our evidence of ancient dancing comes from depictions inside tombs, which date to the Old and Middle Kingdoms and then disappear completely during the New Kingdom, which does not mean that New Kingdom Egyptians stopped dancing all together; it might just be that New Kingdom tombs did have dancing scenes depicted in them. On the other hand, concerning temples, it is the exact opposite: during the New Kingdom, the Late Period, and onward, we find dancing scenes while in temples dating to the Old and Middle Kingdoms we really do not see anything of the sort, as Old and Middle Kingdom temples are quite rare. Again, this does not mean that there could not have been dancing scenes depicted in them. Deterioration or the prospect of finding such evidence could be the case here.


When we think of dancing, acrobatics, and gymnastics, we can think of three different sporting events or special events that call for each to take place. The reason for such a large range of activities being described under one header to examine ancient dancing—including in the subject acrobatics and gymnastics—is there was no distinction among the three; dancing, acrobatics, and gymnastics of any degree were seen as activities cut from the same cloth. Also unlike today, where music is a catalyst to provoke dancing, in ancient times, music was really not a catalyst to dancing; it was the clapping of hands or playing of percussion instruments like the tambourine, drums, or sistrum that gave dancers the cause for it. No depictions or records of stringed or wind instrumentalists have been found to be associated with dancers. If they are depicted together—and they sometimes were, as where there are instrumentalists, there may also be dancers close by—there is typically an element of some sort that separates them. However, this does not negate the fact that dancing and music were not done at the same time, as one depiction found at Giza and which dates to the New Kingdom shows less than a dozen women wearing wigs and diaphanous gowns; shaking tambourines or kettle drums and castanets or sticks; and perhaps twirling about in execution of some sort of dance, as the flow of some of the female dancer’s wigs suggest.


Having been such an important element in religious, ritualistic, and daily life, it may come as a surprise that the ancients did not have a concrete word that expressed the words “dancing” or “dance.” However, from the earliest records found, the ancients had derivatives, words that are synonyms of this generic word “dance:” the most common word is ibw, perhaps meaning ‘caper’ or ‘frolic;’ another common word to describe dance in which an acrobatic might engage was hbi, or ‘acrobatic dance;’ a word that described a dance for which performers bore animal-headed clappers was rwi, which means ‘to run away;’ one word that describes a dance that both non-royal and even animals executed was called ksks, meaning ‘twist;’ the word for an Old Kingdom dance performed exclusively by a pair of men was called trf; and then there is a whole slew of more words that describe either a type of dance or another synonym of the word “dance,” profoundly worsening the matter in finding that one word that literally means “dance.”


From the evidence found thus far, we mostly see women dancing or performing aerobatic sequences either alone or en masse, in such scenes; young men were also acrobats, employing or playing with hoops and such, but the majority of acrobats were women. This should not come as a surprise, the ancients even held dancing as an honorable career for women. Women, being considered the “stronger sex,” had to be physically fit; exhibit grace and athleticism; and be very flexible in order to perform different types of aerobatic movements. What is more, some depictions show females with muscular thighs, indicating that they were in fact professionals. Some of these women dancers were sometimes mentioned under the name of khebeyet, particularly in the royal harems.


Being a possible career to either men or women, one had the possibility of working freelance or professionally; the latter being attached to an estate or temple. Of course, any ancient Egyptian could engage in dancing of any kind, as it was an activity in which all enjoyed participating; one could be a dilettante and still engage in dancing and do well at it. The ancients were not strangers to filling their leisurely time with singing and dancing: farmers could praise the gods for a good harvest season by dancing just as female song and dance troupes could complete a dinner party.


Although professional dancers were never revered individually as celebrities and sports figures are to the world today, there is one instance where two female performers—a pair of dancers named Hekenu and Iti—during the Old Kingdom where honored at Nikaure’s tomb, for whom they may have been entertainers. Whatever truth lies in that, it only makes stronger the ancients’ mindset of song and dance being an extremely important aspect of every day life.


Some banquets, celebrations, feasts, festivals, processions, rites, rituals, and other special occasions for which dancing, singing, and regular merriment or mourning were needed were the procession of the mummy or a decedent, either of Pharaoh or a person of high social status; during the Dance of the Muu, which occurred after the procession of the mummy; the heb-sed and the Opet festivals; the procession of deities on barks; feasts celebrated in honor of a chosen deity; or banquets as a means of celebrating with family and friends.


Perhaps the richest and oldest of evidence of ancient dancing is of the funerary kind and comes most notably from tombs. It was the Old Kingdom custom that, shortly after the decedent’s body was mummified women dancers, typically from what is called the ‘acacia house,’ performed for the deceased king or official. Their duty in dancing was to appease the dangerous lioness goddess, Sekhmet, who was known to have a vicious temperament. These dancing women of the ‘acacia house’ danced also for and celebrated the rejuvenation of the dead by mourning the decedent, much like Isis and her sister, Nephthys did for Osiris; as the sisters rejuvenated their husband and brother, respectively, so, too would the dancers from the ‘acacia house’ do for the dead king. The dancing of the women of the ‘acacia house’ was said to have lured the dead to the offering table so that he may be born into his new life in the Afterlife by eating his first meal. This dance was rightfully called the ‘offering table’ dance. Yet, neither the way it was performed nor who performed it were fixed; the women of the ‘acacia house’ were not always the ones to perform it. It was during the Old Kingdom that both men and women of other dancing groups performed this particular dance—there have been scenes found that evince this; a specific group of dancers called the hnrt were also discovered to have been performers in the ‘offering table’ dance, even though they were known to have danced during childbirth ceremonies. Despite the hnrt being particular dancers during birthing rites, these rites and the rejuvenation of the body of the king in the Afterlife are fairly similar in symbolism: both celebrate new life—one on earth and the other in the otherworld. More notable than the “offering table” dance is the dance of mourning that is comprised of women whose are exposed at the chest, crying and shouting, and throwing dirt on and pulling at their hair. Evidence of this band of mourning women has been found on several rolls of papyrus, belonging to several decedents’ Books of the Dead.


At the moment of the actual procession of the mummy to its resting place, Middle and New Kingdom depictions show us dancers dancing during the procession. The best representations of this lot are found at Beni Hassan and illustrate them more as acrobats in a circus rather than dancers—but dancers they were nonetheless. Following these dancers would be the carriers of the funeral equipment and statues in the likeness of the decedent.


Once the procession reached the place of burial another band of dancers, called the mww dancers, were present. The documentation of their importance in funerary processions date from the Old Kingdom to the New Kingdom; they are depicted on tomb walls in various settings, such as among small chapels, tree-surrounded pools, and religious symbols; and they have a very distinctive appearance indeed: they wore a special headdress made of woven papyrus stalks, which denoted them as marsh dwellers and, more importantly, ferrymen. Being marsh dwellers, their duty for the funeral procession was a symbolic one: they were responsible for ferrying the decedent through the waters that lead to the underworld, from Memphis to Sais, and from there to Buto and back.


When the dead Pharaoh or official started his journey through the underworld, he was almost always accompanied by Hathor, whose job it was to ensure a safe journey. In honor of this event, there was a special sort of funeral dance and celebration, which included dancers, singers, and percussionists using their hands to clap and sticks to beat out a rhythm. This festival was called the “Feast of Eternity,” which always included dancers who would process before the statue or effigy of the deceased. It is from depictions from the Middle and New Kingdoms that have illustrated such an event. Dancers participating in this dance are seen leaping or skipping as a means to celebrate Hathor’s appearance to aid the dead in his otherworldly journey as well as to assist in his rebirth into the Afterlife. A dance to appease Hathor would have most certainly made it all the more easy for the king to succeed in his quest for eternal life.


Breaking away from dances for funerary rituals but not parting from the religious quality of dancing, we come to examine further dances that were in honor of the gods, at which our last paragraph hinted. A wise man of ancient Egypt—Anii was his name—once said that banquets composed of family and friends should occur as oft as possible in order to celebrate their favorite gods and that such feasts should include music, dancing, and heavy drinking or beer—wine was less significant to the ancient Egyptians, even though they did make it. Such an occasion is the topic of examination in this paragraph—it was an event where dancing was a means to honor the goddess Hathor, Sekhmet, or the necropolis and for getting drunk together to enjoy life to its fullest and forget how short life was—for life in ancient times was rather short. Toasting each other to “long life” and becoming drunk was a means of enjoying the company of others and communicating with, say, Hathor, who, when in the form of Sekhmet, was known as the “Lady of Drunkenness”; it is evident that the relation between Sekhmet and drunkenness is a reference to the Egyptian legend known as “The Destruction of Mankind,” where this goddess, upon being induced into a drunken stupor by the people of Egypt, forgot her original intensions of killing off the blasphemers against Re, a rather jealous god, according to the story. Toasting to Hathor, to Sekhmet, or to other deities of the necropolis was not only a means of communicating with them, but also it was a panacea to appease them, keeping them in good spirits with mankind. Evidence of such banquets have been found in some New Kingdom tombs and bring together the ritualistic and domestic side of a family get-together to life.


More of a ritual ceremony than a daily life celebration, the Valley festival at Thebes was one was held during the new moon of the tenth month of the year and that honored the god Amun, whose temple is located at Karnak. It is during the time when Amun was said to have parted from his temple par bark, crossing the River Nile to pay respects at the West Bank tombs, that priests, who carried Amun on his bark, musicians, and dancers accompanied him. Despite being more a ritual than a daily life celebration, it would have been commonplace that families set up a grand banquet near the West Bank tombs, awaiting Amun’s arrival and rejoicing when he processed past them on his bark, on his way to the sanctuary of Hathor, which is located at Deir el-Bahri and is where Amun would have honored the goddess as a patroness of childbirth and of the dead. As seems to follow Hathor, a feast, known as the “Inebriation feast,” was held in her honor and was accented with dancers.


It was for another festival for Amun, during which dancers, this time acrobats and dark and exotic dancers—Nubians, no doubt—jumped and weaved to the rhythm of d