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Ancient Egyptian dances

Irena Lexova

Ancient Egyptian dances

[Lexova, p. 3-4]

Ancient Egypt

 

Introduction to the Dover edition

 

Ancient Egypt bas been a source of fascination to the modern world since its rediscovery two hundred years ago by Napoleon Bonaparte and his savants. Everything about the pharaonic Egyptians has inspired close study. It started with the visible and obvious, like temples and pyramids. Champollion expanded the range of study and in fact gave birth to the scientific fïeld of Egyptology with his decipherment of the hieroglyphic writing of the Egyptians using the Rosetta Stone as the key. Eventually, every minute aspect of ancient Egyptian life became the subject of close scrutiny. Religious worship, burying the dead, slaughtering beef, brewing beer and all other human activities were examined.

 

The study of dance was no exception to this. The early-published sources on dance are listed by Lexova herself in her introduction. All of these are rather broad in their scope, containing either short sections on dance or scattered references throughout those books. Lexova's book is the first monograph devoted entirely to dance in ancient Egypt. It consists of a corpus of seventy-eight illustrations organized chronologically from the Predynastic Period through the New Kingdom with a few images from the Saite Period, the twenty-sixth Dynasty. The author also includes two images of Etruscan dancers at the end of the book for the purpose of comparison.

 

Lexova accesses the pictorial material through classification. She catalogs the images into ten types ranging from pure movement to religious and funerary dances. The discussion concludes with the musicians and musical instruments that accompany the dancers.

 

No book exists in a vacuum and every book is indeed enhanced by its relationship to other books of the same or related topic. Here are collected the most useful publications on dance in ancient Egypt that appeared after the work of Lexova:

 

Brunner-Traut, Emma. Tanz. IN: Lexikon der Ägyptologie 6. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1985.

Brunner-Traut, Emma. Der Tanz im alten Ägypten nach bildlichen und inschriftlichen Zeugnissen, dritte, erweitere Auflage (Ägyptologische Forschungen 6) Glückstadt: Verlag J.J. Augustin, 1992. Revision of the two earlier editions of 1937 and 1958.

Decker, Wolfgang, and Herb, Michael. Bildatlas zum Sport im alten Ägypten: Corpus der bildlichen Quellen zu Leibesübungen, Spiel, Jagd, Tanz und verwandten Themen (Handbuch der Orientalistic I: Der Nahe und Mittlere Osten) Leiden: Brill, 1994.

Vandier, J. La Danse. IN: Manuel d'Archéologie égyptienne 4. Paris: Picard, 1964, p. 391-486.

Wild, Henri. Les danses sacrées de 1'Égypte ancienne. in: Les danses sacrées (Sources orientales 6) Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1963.

 

 

The monograph by Brunner-Traut is the most detailed and complete of this bibliography. The material was refined over many years with unquestioned scholarship. In Brunner-Traut's book are many quotations of the Egyptian literature that accompanied the ancient illustrations, and, in addition to drawings, many photographs of monuments depicting dancers. Lexova's work was written virtually simultaneously, but its form is different and serves as a useful complement to Brunner-Traut.

 

The fact that the Lexovà book is translated into English greatly increases the accessibility to its information. This is the only major work on ancient Egyptian dance in English. Its seventy-eight illustrations are rendered in line drawing making it very clear to see the positions, especially for the recreation of the dance steps.

 

Much research has been done in the field of ancient Egyptian dance, as in all aspects of Egyptological study, since 1935. Some of Lexova's interpretations have yielded to new insights and understanding, but her drawings remain unsurpassed. There is much overlap of illustrated scenes among Lexova, Brunner-Traut and Decker. If desired, they can be used in conjunction to get a total impression of the steps and positions with the aid of the photographs of the original representations.

 

In my capacity of Wilbour Librarian, I have had many occasions to introduce students of dance and choreographers to this book. The Wilbour Library is one of the few libraries in the New York metropolitan area that holds a copy. Only seventeen libraries in the United States list it among their holdings in the Research Libraries Information Network (RLIN).

 

The reaction to seeing this book, especially on the part of choreographers, has been to want to photocopy many of the images. I shall now be able to refer them to this reprint which I heartily welcome.

 

Diane Bergman

Wilbour Librarian

Wilbour Library of Egyptology

Libraries and Archives

Brooklyn Museum of Art New York

 

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[Lexova, Irena, p. 7-15]

Ancient Egypt

 

I. The treatise

 

Introduction

 

Much has been written about the ancient Egyptian dances.

 

As far as I can remember, the oldest essay dealing with this subject was written by J. Gardner Wilkinson in his book: "Manners and customs of the ancient Egyptians", (London, 1837; Part II, pages 328-340). In an abridged form this essay appears in the book by J. Gardner Wilkinson: "A popular account of the ancient Egyptians", (new edition I.-II. London, 1874; Part I, pages 133-140).

 

Credit is due to Wilkinson in the first place for the vast pictorial material he has made accessible. The short essay in Part I, pages 133-140, may be summed up as follows: The dance consisted of a succession of figures in which the performer endeavoured to exhibit a great variety of gestures. Men and women danced at the same time or in separate groups, but the latter were preferred for their superior grace and elegance. Some danced to slow airs, adapted to the style of the movements, others preferred lively steps regulated by an appropriate tune. Sometimes when dancing the women accompanied themselves on lutes or pipes. Men always danced with great spirit, bounding from the ground more in the manner of Europeans than of an Eastern people. Dances were accompanied by music, consisting sometimes of several instruments (harp, lyre, lute, guitar, pipes, tambourine, &c.) at another time by clapping of hands only, or by snapping of fingers; in the street by beating the drum only. Graceful attitudes and gesticulations were features of the general style of ancient Egyptian dancing. Some postures resembled those of our modern ballet, e. g., the pirouette was appreciated by the Egyptians thousands of years ago. Sometimes they danced in pairs holding each other's hands, turning their faces towards each other or averting them. Sometimes men and women performed a solo, marking time with the feet. The quality of the dance obviously depended on the talent and the art of the dancer and on the taste of those for whom it was performed. Comical gestures of clowns were permitted as well, so long as they did not overstep the limits of decency. The dances of the lower classes had a tendency to pantomime, and labourers delighted in grotesqueness and eccentricity more than in grace and elegance.

 

Women dancers were dressed in long loose robes made of fine transparent material, which permitted of observing the figure and movements of limbs. At times they wore a narrow ornamental girdle. Sometimes the women are represented without any indication of dress and appear to be perfectly nude, but it is difficult to say whether this is not simply an impression caused by the outlines of the dress having been effaced, or if the painter omitted to paint them on account of their transparency.

 

To banquets and festivals the professional musicians and dancing girls were also invited to entertain the guests by music and dances, which was considered an indispensable condition of good entertainment. In the houses of the rich, slaves were kept, whose duty it was, in addition to other occupations, to divert their masters and their guests with the art of dancing. But it was not customary for a well bred ancient Egyptian to indulge in the dance in public or in private, — that was the privilege of the lower classes. Dancing, however, was a part of education as well as music.

 

The Egyptians danced also within the temples in honour of their deities, and outside them during religious festivals. This custom was borrowed from them by the Jews, who neither considered it incompatible with the dignity of religion. This oldest treatise on the Egyptian dancing is quite modest. The author confines himself to facts gathered from ancient Egyptian pictures, and never attempts even to classify the dances.

 

Note: In a new edition of Wilkinson's work, *) J. Gardner Wilkinson: "The manners and customs of the ancient Egyptians" (new edition revised and corrected by Samuel Birch, I. - III. London 1878, Part. I.,pages 500—510).*) Birch literally reprints "Wilkinson's chapter on the dance from the first edition of his book, and supplements it with a paragraph on pictures of dances from the walls of tombs in the Old Empire and with a final remark.

 

Adolf Erman: "Aegypten und aegyptisches Leben im Altertum, neu bearbeitet von Hermann Ranke" (Tubingen, 1923), writes:

 

Dancing was not to be omitted from any of the ancient Egyptian festivals, because to the Egyptian it was a natural expression of joy. The farmer, bringing sacrifice to the god Min in Gebtiu at harvest time, always danced. Dancing went on during the festivals held in honour of the great goddesses of joy Hathor and Bastet.

 

We have little knowledge of these popular dances; at harvest festivals of the Old Empire, men danced having previously put aside their dress except the belt, performing quick movements and holding canes in their hands, clapping them together.

 

More frequently we meet with dances performed by women of the household, by which they diverted their masters and mistresses. Judging by the old pictures these dances are very quiet and restrained. The dancers followed one after another, hardly lifting their feet from the ground and moving their hands; sometimes other women beat time clapping their hands, at others they were accompanied by airs on harps and pipes.

 

But in this period already more lively dances are met with, which may be compared with our present day ballet. Also pair dancing occurs, and a picture dating from the Sixth Dynasty has been preserved in which girls, dancing with canes ornamented with little gazelle-heads, are divided—as it seems—into fours. More complicated dances, performed by men, occur rarely. One of such dances consisting of three sections has been known from a tomb, dating from the end of the Fourth Dynasty. The dancers, dressed in belts trimmed with long tassels, are facing each other, holding each others' hands and executing the same movements. In the first section they are lifting hands and feet opposite each other; in the second, they are standing on one leg and bending the other at the knee like storks; in the third one they exhibit a back to back position as if they wanted to flee in opposite directions. Each section of this dance bears its particular name, because the Egptians saw certain meanings in them. Such dances are not very far remote from our tableaux vivants. These we encounter in one of the Beni Hassan tombs; in one of them two girls are depicted, one representing a king, the other his defeated enemy. On the other one a girl represents the wind, the two others a bush and grass respectively swayed by the wind. The participating girls are dressed in men's short aprons, the customary dress of women dancers in the Old and Middle Kingdoms showing the body covered as scantily as possible. The dancers wear necklaces, bracelets, rings on their feet and garlands on their heads. The chest is covered with ribbons. Their hair has sometimes been braided into a pigtail, the end of which has been weighted with a ball so as to ensure a graceful line during the dance.

 

The girl servants diverted their masters and mistresses also with games, neither were acrobatic performers lacking. The span was a known accomplishment to them. One of them, drawn from a Beni Hassan tomb, so controlled her body, that being bent backward in an arch and not touching the ground with her hands, she was in a position to carry a companion on her body. Another one with her head turned downward is being carried by her companion, two others are being whisked about by men, touching the ground only by heels. They are dressed in the customary long robes.

 

The dancers of the New Kingdom exchanged the men's apron for long transparent linen cloaks, which more revealed than concealed the body, or wore a narrow belt round their hips only. Dances of this period were more refined. Whereas previously the dancers were accompanied by music, now hired women dance at the banquets beating time themselves with tambourines or castagnettes in quick tempo.

 

This essay is accompanied by four pictures only (fig. 46, page 175, fig. 120-122, pages 280-282), but in the notes exact references are made to many pictures, which Wilkinson has omitted from his work.

 

For my part, there is only one objection to this essay. The author in his description considers our picture fig. 32 to be an illustration of three quiet postures instead of three phases of the same movement, and it does not occur to him that this posture—according to the physical law of balance—is altogether impossible. Correct comprehension of this picture would have led the author to a different interpretation of other pictures as well.

 

A. Wiedemann: Das alte Aegypten (Kulturgeschichtliche Bibliothek, herausgegeben von W. Foy, I. Reihe: Ethnologische Bibliothek 2, Heidelberg, 1920) devotes an independent chapter to the dance (pages 371-375) with two pictures (fig. 73, page 373, and fig. 26 on the attached plates) and four hieroglyphic signs, representing dancing men (page 371).

 

Although persons of higher standing did not themselves dance for pleasure, dancing was of considerable importance to the Egyptians. As shown by hieroglyphic signs, representing joy and its expression, the Egyptian, when giving way to the feeling of happiness, could not resist bounding and performing other movements, which especially in festive moments certainly were not arbitrary. So for instance on the arrival of the king and other persons of importance such bounds were executed by two men, armed with boomerangs, while three others likewise armed were beating time. At religious processions women danced around the sacred barge naked, or dressed in cloaks open in front, to the accompaniment of music, in order to chase away the demons by their complete or partial nudity. The participation at such ceremonies was rigorously observed and lists of participating temple servants have been preserved.

 

Also the king or his representative was obliged to dance at harvest festivals in honour of Min, the god of fertility. The often depicted king's haste with the sacrificial gift to the deity cannot be considered as a sacrificial dance. The speed simply demonstrates the zeal with which the king hurried to offer his sacrifice to the god.

 

Also the religious dances during funerals were of impor­tance to the Egyptians. Women in long robes, playing mu­sical instruments and lashing the air with branches, took part in the procession, while before the tomb a dance was performed for the benefit of the departed soul. Men pro­vided with high caps made of rushes moved about in quiet steps; women clapping hands marked time. Sometimes the movements were livelier, the dancers rotated quickly and raised their feet high. At other times the dancers, conducted by a leading dancer, sped quickly forward bearing sacri­ficial instruments.

 

The movements of women dancers were considerably livelier than those of men. They fell in with a festive step, but then thrust about their hands and feet with all their might. Such dances are still customary at funerals in Egypt and in adjacent countries as well. The aim of the dance was not merely to cheer up the soul of the deceased, but also to chase away evil spirits who might harm the dead person, and for that reason the Egyptian, when still alive, often ex­pressed the wish that dances should not fail to be included in burial ceremonies. The model which the dancers partici­pating at funerals were following was the god Bes, who sometimes alone, sometimes with his companions, protected the young Sun from his enemies through dancing. As he was of a dwarfish figure, the Egyptians considered the burial dances especially efficacious if executed by a dwarf.

 

Also at banquets women danced to entertain the guests. Dressed rather in long than short robes or aprons, some­times they were completely naked or had a narrow belt round their hips. Often they moved slowly, playing mu­sical instruments, ordinarily in groups of two or more, sel­dom singly. Men dancers who were conspicuous through physical training, comical postures and movements seldom performed at banquets. With such dances they diverted the public in the streets for tips.

 

A carefully compiled list of literature dealing with an­cient Egyptian dances, which has been attached to this essay, deserves special notice.

 

Louise Klebs, Die Reliefs des alten Reiches, Die Reliefs und Malereien des mittleren Rei­ches, Heidelberg, 1915, 1922.

 

The authoress presents a complete list of all known pic­tures of dances from the Old and Middle Kingdoms, classi­fies them historically and describes them briefly.

 

The classification of the dances evokes my doubts regard­ing her opinion that slaughtering of cattle in the Old King­dom was accompanied by dancing in the same manner as in the Middle Kingdom dances were performed to a dying person or to a corpse, lying on the death-bed. Pictures of dancers in the vicinity of such scenes appear to me to be purely accidental.

 

 

Historically the classification of ancient Egyptian dan­ces in the way the authoress has carried it out evokes se­rious doubts, because of its logically erroneous judgment.

 

Pierre Montet in his book entitled "Scènes de la vie privée dans les tombeaux égyptiens de 1'ancien empire" (Publications de la faculté des lettres de 1'Uni-versité de Strasbourg, vol. 24, 1925) devotes a chapter to dancing on pages 365-368, the contents of which are as fol­lows: From the fact that women dancers are as a rule de­picted in a row under a line of musicians it does not follow that they danced to the accompaniment of music. The mu­sicians are men; since women dancers have too short dresses, the master of the tomb would hardly allow other men to look at them. Women beating time with their hands always accompany women dancers. The vicinity of men musicians and women dancers can be explained by natural association of views by the artist who created the ornaments of the tomb.

 

In earlier times the dance consisted of a group of women with hands folded above the head, proceeding forward in time, so that one may rather speak of a march than of a dance. Later the movements of the women became more unrestrained; standing on one leg they inclined their bodies backward and lifted the other leg forward. Sometimes they held instruments provided with little gazelles' heads, stri­king them together and so beating time. Later on more space in the tombs was reserved for pictures of dancing; new dan­ces appear with particular names given to them, which some­times are written on the pictures.

 

The reason which M. Montet brings forth for his as­sumption that dancers were not accompanied by musicians, is not convincing. It is true, that from the pictures origina­ting in the Old Kingdom it cannot be judged whether the dance was accompanied by music or not, but from the pic­tures of other periods, representing women dancers accom­panied by music, one can assume that the same conditions prevailed also in the Old Kingdom, except in the ceremonial funeral dances.

 

We also know, that nudity was not so rare and so exci­ting a phenomenon to the ancient Egyptians as it would be to us to-day. That women danced at banquets adorned with jewels and girdles concealing nothing is attested by pictures fig. 13, 45, 48. The dancers wore short skirts not to exhibit their bodies, but in order that their legs should have comp­lete freedom of movement, which would not be possible, if they were dressed in the usual women's dress, the long nar­row robe. It is also possible to assume that dances, even in the oldest times, were not confined to the gestures depicted on pictures of tombs of the Old Kingdom. The artists select­ed these postures either out of incapacity to paint other dancing postures more difficult to draw, requiring quick perception (see fig. 13, 40), or drew the pictures from pat­terns, or copied old models out of indolence instead of arti­stically creating new ones.

 

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Lexova, Irena 24-25

gymnastic-acrobatic dance, Ancient Egypt

 

 

downwards, passes her legs round the head of her mate and bends them forward.

 

The second girl inclines to such an extent that the legs of the first dancer touch the ground and thus the original position is formed again, in which the places and tasks of both girls are interchanged. By sufficient training the girls may attain such a proficiency, that they will execute whole series of such movements in exact rythm.

<until here written by mistake>

 

Acrobatic dances of ancient Egypt have been described by a young man of Syracuse, who visited Memphis at the end of the fourth century B. C. Having been invited by a rich Egyptian to a banquet, he describes the dances with which the host entertained his guests. The respective part of the letter runs in English translation as follows: [According to a German translation published by Fritz Weege in his book "Der Tanz in der Antike", pp. 28-29, without giving his authority.]

 

Suddenly they disappeared and in their place came for­ward a group of dancers, who jumped about in all directions, gathered together again, climbed one on top of the other with an incredible dexterity, mounting on the shoul­ders and the heads, forming pyramids, reaching to the ceiling of the hall, then descended suddenly one after the other to perform new jumps and admirable saltomortales. Being in constant motion, now they danced on their hands, now they gathered in pairs, one turning his head down betw­een the legs of his mate, then they lifted themselves mu­tually and returned to the original position, each of them alternatively being lifted and upon falling lifted his part­ner up.

 

<the following text was written by mistake>

I think that the reader will recognise without any dif­ficulty in the description of the acrobatic pair dances, the same dance which is depicted in fig. 32 and which is de­scribed above. The words "they gathered in pairs, climbed one on top of the other with incredible dexterity mounting on the shoulders and heads..." said at the beginning of the previous paragraph of the letter, are a description of fig. 29, which the author entitled by the word "heaven".

 

It is obvious that the Syracusan speaks about dancers, but he describes among the dances also purely acrobatic performances. I was rather embarrassed, whether to classify the performance of the girls' pair in fig. 32 among dances. The performance of the boys in fig. 29 I do not take for a dance at all, whereas our Syracusan traveller is not pre­occupied with this question. Judging by the commencement of the letter, all the performances described were accom­panied by music and may have been carried out rhytmically. To the Syracusan every movement accompanied by music was a dance.

 

III. The imitative dance

 

Dancers of all nations and of all times imitate move­ments of animals. Among the primitive nations, to which the ancient Egyptians do not belong - the aim of these dances, imitating movements of animals and nature's phenomena, is to attract the animals or to evoke a certain natural phenomenon. The African natives perform an ostrich dance before they start for an ostrich hunt, believing that through these dances they will attract the ostriches. The medicine men attempt through their dance to bring about rain, resul­ting in abundant harvests, &c. Among advanced nations, the imitative dance amuses the spectator either through its grotesqueness or by the comparison to what degree men or women dancers will succeed in imitating what they ende­avour to copy.

 

So far there is not even one single ancient Egyptian pic­ture aiming to illustrate a dance imitating animal move­ments; from this, however, we cannot judge that the ancient Egyptians were not acquainted with them. Correlation of the ideas of animal movement and dances testify to the contrary. So for instance it had been written about the king Ahmes Nebpehtire on a stone slab, which used to stand in the temple of Amon in Karnak: "His splendour is (reflected)

<end of page 25>

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Lexova, Irena 32-34

a dancing dwarf from Sudan, Ancient Egypt

 

 

VIII. The lyrical dance.

 

The fact that the Egyptians knew also lyrical dances can be gathered from the description of the banquet given by the rich Egyptian of Memphis, the author of which is a Greek from Syracuse. One part of the description has been quoted above, when I dealt with the gymnastic dance. The respective part of the letter runs as follows. [according to a German translation; see note 13, page 24.]

 

"Now I caught sight of a troop of musicians, coming with various musical instruments in their hands, in which I recognised harps, guitars, lyres, simple and double pipes, tambourines and cymbals. We were overwhelmed constantly by songs which were most cordially applauded by the audience. Then, at a given sign, the middle of the hall was taken by a man and a girl dancer, who were provided with clappers. These were made out of two small pieces of wood round and concave, located in the palms, and gave rhythm to the dancing steps when suddenly knocked together. These two dancers danced separately or together in harmo­nious configurations, mixed with pirouettes, soon parting and again approaching each other, the young dancer run­ning after his mate and following her with expressions of tender desire, while she fled from him constantly, rotating and pirouetting, as if refusing his endeavours after amorous approach. This performance was done lightly and energe­tically in harmonious postures, and seemed to me exceedingly entertaining."

 

If we look at our pictures of ancient Egyptian dances, we will find three of them which remind us somewhat of the dance alluded to.

 

In fig. 14 three dancers are represented; one in a quiet posture is dressed in the customary women's dress. The re­maining two are in men's skirts, but - unusual as it is - each of them in a different one, in order that the spectator might distinguish clearly one from the other. Both keep the same posture indicative of addressing the girl, who is quietly standing before them. Do not the girls dressed as men represent two rivals competing for the girl's favour ?

 

In fig. 45 the middle girl exhibits a gesture expressing a humble request, whereas the girl standing before her is erect, her gesture seems to express indecision as to whether to grant the request or to refuse it.

 

In fig. 50 the girl standing in the middle is turning her body to the right towards the girl playing the harp, her head however, is turned to the left towards the girl playing the lute; she has no musical instrument and the movement of her arms also seems to express indecision; again, are not the two musicians competing with music and song for the favour of their companion?

 

IX. The grotesque dance.

 

When the caravan leader Herkhuf was returning to Egypt from an expedition, on which he had been sent by king Pepi Neferkare of the VI. Dynasty, he sent a message to the king, telling him that he was successful and brought rich booty for his master. The king answered him in a letter, the contents of which Herkhuf had engraved on the wall of his tomb, the translation of which runs as follows: [The best hieroglyphic text edited: Kurt Sethe, Urkunde des alten Reiches, page 128 a.f., translation Adolf Erman, Der Brief des König Nefr-ke're in Zeitschrift fur die ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde XXXI, 1893, page 65 a.f.]

 

"On the 15th day of the third month of inundation in the second year, by the King's order to his only friend, master of the rites, leader of caravans, Herkhuf: I took note of the contents of your letter, which you wrote to the King in his palace to announce that you have happily returned from Amaam with the army that accompanied you.

 

"You have said in your letter that you were bringing great nice gifts of all sorts, which Hathor the mistress of Amaam had given to the spirit of King Neferkare, of Upper and Lower Egypt, may he live for ever and ever!

 

"Further you have said in this letter that you were brin­ging along a dwarf of divine dances from the Land of the Spirits, similar to the one who had been brought by the custodian of the divine treasure Bawerded from Punt, in the reign of King Asosi. You have told My Grace, that it never happened before that such a dwarf was brought by anyone who had made a journey to Amaam.

 

"Be always aware that you are to do what is the wish and what is approved by your Master. Whether awake, or asleep, take care of what is to be done, as wishes, approves, and has been ordered by your Lord. My Grace will fulfil your numerous important wishes, to benefit also your (son and) grandson for ever, so that all people who will have heard, what My Grace has done for you, will say: Nothing is equal to that, what has been received by his only friend Herkhuf, when he returned from Amaam and executed that which he had to do, as was the king's wish, as approved by him and as ordered by his Master.

 

"Sail immediately on the river to the king's palace. Speed up, and bring with you that dwarf whom you brought from the Land of Spirits, may he live, be in good health and fresh to dance divine dances to cheer the heart of Neferkare the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, may he live for ever!

 

"When he embarks with you on board ship, see that proper men are with him on both sides of the ship, taking care of him, lest he should fall into the water. See that proper men sleep with him in his tent, and ten times in the night make inspection. My Grace longs to see the dwarf more than the presents of Sinai and Punt. When you have landed at the palace, see that the dwarf is with you in good health, alive and fresh, and My Grace will do for you more

<end of page 34>

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Lexova 40

inscriptions, ancient Egypt

 

XL The religious dance

 

The dance in ancient Egypt was a component part of the religious service, as was the case with the rest of the ancient nations. The ancient gods possessed all the human qualities, and it was no wonder that they looked with pleasure on nice dances. Ani in his teaching says:

 

"Song, dance and frankincense are the meals for the god, Acceptance of worship is his privilege.

Act so that the god's name be hallowed. [F. Lexa, Enseignements moraux généraux des anciens Égypt­iens, tome troisième. Enseignement d'Ani et d'Amenemopet, Praha, 1929, pp. 97, IV. 8-10.]

 

In the ritual of the goddess Mut we read: "The towns of Pe, Dep and.... all wreathed with vines are dancing for you". [Hieratische Papyrus aus den königlichen Museen zu Berlin, I. Pap. 3053, 18/3-4.]

 

In the Dendera temple of the goddess Hathor we read:

"We beat the drum to her spirit,

we dance to her Grace,

we raise her image up to the heavenly skies;

She is the lady of sistrum, Mistress of jingling necklaces;"

 

or: "She is the lady of cheers, mistress of dance,

the lady of sistrum, the mistress of song,

the lady of dance, the mistress of wreath making,

the lady of beauty, the mistress of skipping."

 

or: "When both her eyes open - the sun and the moon -

our hearts rejoice, seeing the light.

She is the lady of dance wreaths,

the lady of intoxication,

we dance to none, we cheer none,

but her spirit. [A. Mariette, Denderah, III. 60e-h.]

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Lexova 64-65

itinerant dancers, Ancient Egypt

 

Ancient Egyptian women and men dancers.

 

About the ancient Egyptian women and men dancers we know so far very little.

 

A.

 

The narrative regarding the origin and birth of the first kings of the fifth Dynasty begins thus: [Adolf Erman, Die Märchen des Papyrus Westcar, Berlin, 1890, contains a heliographic reproduction of Mrs. Westcar's hieratic papyrus with a hieroglyphic transcription, first trans­lation and commentary thereto.]

 

One day Redzedet felt that labour pains were coming upon her. Then is Grace Ra, the Lord of Sakhebu told Eset, Nebthet, Meskhenet, Heket and Khnum: Go and help Red­zedet in her delivery of the three children in her womb, who are predestined for the highest offices in this country. They will build temples for you, they will supply your offering tables, they will wreath your drink stands, and multiply your offering funds.

 

The goddesses departed, transformed themselves into vagrant musicians and dancers, and Khum went with them carrying a sack. When they arrived at the house of Rawoser, they found him standing enveloped in his cloak which he wore turned upside down. They started to clap and rattle with clappers and sistra, but he told them: "Look here, ladies, there is a woman in labour."

 

They told him: "Let us see her. We understand mid­wifery."

 

He replied: "Come in."

 

A narrative of how Redzedet gave birth to the three future kings of the Upper and Lower Egypt now takes place and the text follows in this way:

 

Having liberated Redzedet of her three children, the goddesses came out and spoke thus: "Rejoice, Rawoser, three children have been born unto you."

 

He replied: "How can I reward you, ladies? Give this barley to your porter and take it to your granary."

 

Khnum put the sack of barley on his shoulder and they returned to where they came from.

 

Then Eset spoke to the gods: "How is it that we came to her and made no miracle for the children's sake, in order to report about it to their father who sent us?"

 

So they created divine crowns for the Lord - may he live, be fresh and enjoy health - and put them into the barley. Then they called for a storm and rain from the skies, came back and said: "May the barley be deposited here in a closed chamber, till we return on our way back northward!" The barley was deposited in a closed chamber.

 

The contents of this narrative are, of course, mythical. The Sun-god Ra, having begotten with Redzedet, wife of his high priest Rawoser, three sons, - the future kings - sent out four goddesses and the god Khnum to assist Red­zedet in her labour and they completed their task satisfacto­rily. But in order to get to Rawoser's house unrecognised they turn into a group of vagrant dancers, and imitate them so naturally that Rawoser never suspected who came to his house disguised as dancers.

 

We gather then that vagrant dancers formed groups, each group of dancers had a permanent seat (take it to your granary) from which they set forth on their journeys. They were rewarded for their services with that which was given to them, and with it they returned home again.

 

Besides their art, they practised any other thing they knew to earn their daily bread. Their life did not, therefore, differ from the life or such artists as is described in Smetana's "Bartered Bride".

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Lexova, p. 67-68

ritual dancers at a funeral, Ancient Egypt

 

One can see that the Egyptians celebrated quite a number of festivals and that the staff of temple dancers could not complain of unemployment.

 

D.

 

"When comparing the above indicated list of men and women dancers of the Illahum temple with the staff of women dancers accompanying the shrine of the god, carried in the religious procession illustrated on page 56, 58, we see that different kinds of persons are employed. In the first case we find an assembly composed of a majority of foreigners, which included one Egyptian woman only, whereas here a wide group of Egyptian women are seen and surely not of a low origin, if honoured to take part in a procession within close proximity to the god. In all proba­bility they were trained amateurs of noble secular or priestly families.

 

E.

 

In the historical demotic novel of Vienna, dealing with king Petubastis [The demotic text has been published by Jacob Krall, Demotische Lesestücke I, Wien, 1897, pl. XVII; II, Wien, 1903, pl. X.-XII.; the last published edition: Wilhelm Spiegelberg, Der Sagenkreis des Königs Petubastis, Leipzig, 1910, pp. 46-75] the king sends out messages to various princes in Egyptian towns, in which he summons them to participate actively at the funeral ceremonies for the decea­sed King (see below, next paragraph) Yenharrou. The prince of the Eastern country, Peklul, having received the king's message, admonishes his son, saying:

 

"My son, Pemu, go and see to.....the troops of the eastern country, have them prepared with their girdles and myrrh, with the temple officials, masters of ceremony and dancers, who frequent the embalming rooms. Let them sail by boat to Per-Osiris, let them convey (the deceased body) of Osiris, the King Jenharrou to the anointing room, have him embalmed and buried and arrange a beautiful, grand funeral for him such as is being prepared for Hapi (Great Apis) and Merwer (Greek Mnevis), the King of the gods."

 

We gather then that the Egyptian towns kept also special ritual dancers.

 

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Lexova, p. 73

Ancient Egypt

 

Supplement

 

1. The chapter on dancing with musical instruments is to be supplemented by a sketch originating from the XVIII Dynasty, which has been published in 1934 by Bernard Bruyère in his treatise Fouilles de Deir el Medineh, 1931-1932, page 71.

 

The artist has illustrated women dancers accompanying themselves by clackers. The manner in which the drawing has been executed, is rather unusual with the Egyptians. The painter, who did not keep to the prescriptions here, <end of page 73>

 

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Lexova, Irena: Ancient Egyptian dances. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2000.

 

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