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Egypt: A Carefree Childhood in Ancient Egypt


The Life of Ancient Egyptians

Carefree Childhood

Even if safely delivered, the newborn Egyptian's future was far from secure. Infant mortality was high, but with every successive day the chances of survival improved. The death-rate was highest of all in the first few days, rather less when averaged over a month and still lower for the first year. Natural selection played its part by eliminating the weak and sickly or those with congenital defects and deformities.

Many succumbed to disease, especially to infections that were so prevalent where hygiene was poor. The Egyptians, of course, laid the responsibility on Seshat, goddess of writing and arithmetic, who settled the length of each life at the moment of birth. They thought also that the Fates, the 'seven Hathors', influenced the infant's destiny.

The graves of children examined by archaeologists do not provide a sufficient basis for estimating infant mortality. It seems that many children, especially the newborn, were not interred in their own graves in the official cemeteries. If an infant died during or soon after delivery together with its mother, it was normally laid to rest in her grave. Sometimes such bodies were placed in clay vessels and buried near the home, or directly beneath the floor. And there are grounds for supposing that dead children to whom the family had had no time to form an attachment were often exposed at the edge of the desert to be scavenged by wild animals and birds of prey, or cast into the Nile, or a canal, where crocodiles disposed of them.

The number of children's graves in the burial sites is accordingly smaller than would correspond to estimates of mortality based on parallels from less developed countries. In the 1st/2nd dynasty cemetery at Abydos, for example, infants account for only one grave in seven, whereas at the Wadi Qitna burial site in Nubia (3rd to 5th centuries AD) 43 per cent of all mounds were found to cover the remains of infants and young children, while at the secondary cemetery of Abusir (Late to Ptolemaic Periods) the proportion is 50 per cent.

Children's graves often exhibit signs of parental piety and indeed affection. No efforts were spared to preserve the body of a child as carefully as an adult's, so as to ensure it a long existence in the hereafter. Rich families had their little ones embalmed, placed in their own separate coffins and sometimes wrapped in linen, covered with a layer of plaster and decorated with polychrome motifs. Bodies of poor children were protected only by linen wrappings or palm-frond mats.

Lucky charms and personal adornments - pearl, coral or shell necklaces, rings, bracelets, ankle-bands and the like - would be laid over the bodies. Even if the funeral equipment of the young was relatively modest, it included vessels of various sorts and, above all, toys.

High though infant mortality was in ancient Egypt, families were usually large. There are no direct statistics, but if in theory a woman gave birth on average at three-year intervals she could bear eight offspring between her 15th and 40th years. And even if every second or third child died in infancy or later childhood, an average of four to six per family would have survived. Turning now to the happier aspects of family life, we note that parents in ancient Egypt were as much exercised as their modern counterparts with choosing the right names for their young, regarding these as an inseparable part of the child's personality.

Sometimes a name was conferred during the birth itself, based on words uttered by the mother or by one of the real or imaginary beings assisting at the delivery. They were often lyrical and expressed delight at the new arrival: 'Welcome to you'. 'This boy I wanted' or 'The pretty girl has joined us'. Other names extolled some deity: 'Thoth is powerful', 'Re is loving', 'May Amun protect him', 'Mut guard him'. Or they might express devotion to the reigning monarch: 'Sneferu is good', 'Long live Khephren' and so on. The choice was usually made by the mother, less often by the father or by both together. Alongside the given or 'maternal' name it was customary, especially in the Old and Middle Kingdoms and again in the Late Period, to add a second, usually a nickname.

The most essential need for the child's early development was of course nutrition, and the only way to ensure this in those days was the natural one of breast-feeding. Mothers were concerned that there should be an adequate supply of milk and doctors, according to the Ebers Papyrus, used to test its quality by smelling it. To increase the flow they recommended rubbing the nursing mother's back with oil in which the dorsal fin of a Nile perch had been stewed. Children were suckled openly without embarrassment, the mother squatting or kneeling on the ground with her child on her lap as shown in a number of reliefs, such as the one depicting the 12th-dynasty Princess Sebeknakht nursing her baby. A unique Amarna relief even portrays Queen Nefertiti feeding one of her six daughters. The popular figurines of Isis giving suck to her son Horus sometimes featured in household altars, or were worn in miniature by women as amulets.

If a mother was short of milk she resorted, as so often in Egypt, to magical remedies. They might be incantations, such as 'O thou who livest on the water, hasten to the Judge in his divine abode, to Sekhmet who walks behind him, and to Isis, ruler of Dep, saying: "Bring her this milk!"' There must have been a magic purpose, again, in the popular ceramic jugs that depicted a nursing mother squeezing her breast, indeed they may have been used to hold surplus milk. Hollow female figures into which milk could be poured that then ran out through holes bored in the nipples were an example of sympathetic magic.

Milk from mothers who had borne male children was regarded as a potent-medicine, stored in little jugs shaped like a kneeling Isis holding her ailing child Horus to her bosom. and used to treat intestinal complaints, babies' colds and even adult eye infections. The treatment could be reinforced by reciting such spells as 'Flow out, Daughter of all Colds, who breakest bones, gripst the skull and dost painfully molest the seven openings of the head! O companion of Re, give honor to Thoth! Behold, I bring thee thy medicine, thine own saving potion, the milk of a woman who gave birth to a he-child ...' Crushed papyrus stems and certain seeds were sometimes added to this milk, which was then supposed to send a child to sleep for a day and a night. Specialists have suggested that the seeds were those either of the opium poppy or of henbane.

The Egyptians seem to have suspected that a child's health could be affected by medicine administered to its nursing mother. One highly favored 'cure' for a sick child was for its mother to consume a mouse. To make doubly sure, no doubt, the same mouses bones would then be placed in a little canvas bag tied with seven knots and hung around the child's neck as a talisman.



An infant was fed on demand by its mother who carried it with her. Breast-feeding went on for much longer than was the custom elsewhere - normally it continued for three years. In Ani's Instruction a son is enjoined to be good to his mother because she has endured so much for his sake:

When your time was due and you were born, she accepted the burden of having her breast in your mouth for three years.

When a Czechoslovak team looked at the figures for infant mortality in the cemetery around the mastaba of Ptahshepses in Abusir (Late to Ptolemaic Periods), it discovered that three- to four-year-old children died more frequently than younger ones, who would still have been breast fed. The switch to solid foods evidently brought about an increase in intestinal infections, contributing to a higher death rate.

If a mother did not have enough milk of her own or belonged to the upper classes and could not, or would not, nurse her baby, she entrusted it to a wet-nurse. It was mostly women from the poorer families who supplemented their incomes by wetnursing. If such a woman was asked to feed a child of similar background she would take it into her own home and bring it to its parents at stipulated intervals so that they could see how it was faring. In the case of wealthy clients, however, the wet-nurse would move into the house of the child's father.

The legal relations between parents and wet-nurse were sometimes regulated by written contracts, some of which have survived from the later periods of Egyptian history. Before an agreement was finalized the nurse would have a trial run. The contract stated for how long she was being hired; she was under obligation to provide milk of proper quality, not to nurse any other child except her own, and to eschew pregnancy and any sexual activity. If her charge fell ill, it was her duty to tend it. Her employer, on the other hand, undertook not to remove the child before the agreed time, to provide clothing and oil for massaging the child, and to pay the nurse at prescribed intervals both for the milk she was to give and for the cost of her own food.

Aristocratic ladies, especially queens, almost always used a wet-nurse even if they were fit enough to breast-feed themselves. Their children were also attended to by whole groups of nurses and tutors. There were special officials, the so-called 'royal male-nurses', who were personally responsible for the standard of care devoted to the king's offspring and are depicted carrying-princes and princesses in their arms.

It was taken for granted that, because of the physical contact, a special relationship would develop between child and wet-nurse. The nurse's name or portrait sometimes features in the mural decor of her formal charge's tomb alongside those of parents, wives and offspring. Royal wet-nurses came to enjoy considerable status and influence at court; some were accorded near-divine honors when they died.

Children who had shared the same wet-nurse, moreover, developed a close personal rapport which might last all their lives. We know for example that the mother of Qenamun, who became chief seal-bearer and land-steward to Amenophis I, was also wet-nurse to the infant prince.

Inexperienced mothers must have gained most of their knowledge of infant-care from talking to older friends, but there were collections of written precepts available. The Spells for Mother and Child have survived as papyrus No 3027 in the Berlin collection. Though these include much that is superstitious or misleading, the admirable intention of helping mothers and children reflects the yearning of every Egyptian woman for the god-given boon of offspring. The chief concern in these Spells is to safeguard nurslings and toddlers against the ills that afflicted a large proportion of them, especially in the poorer classes. Evidence of this comes from the high incidence of 'Harris lines' in X-rays of the hand and foot bones - lines of dense bone tissue occurring when growth was slow. They indicate periods of serious illness or starvation, and the age when these befell the child can be estimated from the exact position of the lines.

The most common infant malady was infection of the alimentary canal. The spells designed to ward off infection or to expel the pathological agent can be highly emotive:

Come on out, visitor from the darkness, who crawls along with your nose and face on the back of your head, not knowing why you are here!
Have you come to kiss this child? I forbid you to do so!
Have you come to cosset this child? I forbid you to!
Have you come to do it harm? I forbid this!
Have you come to take it away from me? I forbid you to!
I have made ready for its protection a potion from the poisonous afat herb from garlic which is bad for you, from honey which is sweet for the living but bitter for the dead, from the droppings and entrails of fish and beast and from the spine of the perch.

Skin troubles were also frequent, as well as various infections described in the Ebers medical papyrus such as those of the tonsils and lymphatic glands, which were treated mostly with poultices. There were tropical diseases, too, that affected the young. On many infant remains we find patches of spongy or trabecular bone structure on the roof of the eye-sockets or the outer or inner surfaces of the skull vault, associated with severe forms of anaemia. Rickets, on the other hand, so familiar in northern climes, was almost unknown among Egyptian children. Prescriptions in the medical papyri show that doctors were able to cope with urinary failure and incontinence, bronchial and tracheal infections and other ailments.

Prophylaxis was served not by hygiene or inoculation but by frequent repetition of spells and the wearing of charms. The various parts of a child's body were protected, for example, by being identified with those of gods. 'The crown of your head is the crown of Re, oh my sturdy child, the back of your neck is that of Osiris, your forehead is the forehead of Satis, ruler of
Elephantine, your hair is the hair of Neith, your eyebrows are those of the Mistress of the East, your eyes are the eyes of the Lord of the Universe, your nose is the nose of the Teacher of the Gods, your ears are the ears of the Two Cobras, your forearms are those of the Falcon, one of your shoulders is the shoulder of Horus and the other belongs to Seth ...' This had to be recited each morning when the child's amulet was being tied to its arm.

Amulets were manifold. Some had the form of symbols ensuring health, long life, happiness, constancy, contentment and other desirable attributes: some depicted gods. The magic number 7 often recurs: one charm, for instance, consists of seven agate and seven gold beads strung on seven flaxen threads woven by two mothers who were sisters. Another one, found in a child's grave, is a hollow clay ball with scraps of paper, rags and a child's curls inside it. After their period of purification, women carried on their daily activities again with no restriction. When they left the house they took even the smallest child with them in a sling worn in front, or in a fold of their clothes over the shoulder or left hip. With both hands free, mother could work unencumbered.



Among the toys described by Sir Flinders Petrie were dolls representing mothers with children sitting on their backs with legs apart, or on the mother's shoulder or hip. Modern practice incidentally recommends the legs-apart position for cases of imminent congenital dislocation of the hips. As children grew and started to walk they became less of a burden: feeding and clothing were no longer such a problem. In the 1st century BC the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus records that 'they cook the best simple food available, namely the lower parts of papyrus stems if there is a fire to toast them over . . . So up to the time when it is fully grown the child costs its parents little more than twenty drachmas or so.' The child would also get its share of gruel and normal adult food, chiefly unleavened bread - with no doubt the odd sip of beer.

In the warm Egyptian climate children could rove around naked even out of doors, as many mural reliefs and figures show. Nudity seems to have been stressed as the outward token of childhood, so that we sometimes see an otherwise quite naked child wearing a thin girdle, necklace, bracelet or other trinket. Only in later times was nudity thought unsuitable for older girls, who then started to wear the long tunic of adult women.

A further badge of childhood was the long tress of hair left hanging down over the right ear while the rest was cropped short. Sometimes it was braided into a straight or curved queue. These tresses were worn up to the age of ten or beyond. They are recorded frequently as far back as the Old Kingdom. In the New Kingdom they were also the mark of a prince or of a sem, the priest who acted the part of the heir to the throne at royal funerals. The young god Horus, whose sobriquet Harpikhrod -'Horus the child' - appears later in Graeco-Roman guise as Harpocrates, also sported the child's coiffure. A schematized, S-shaped side-lock also served as a hieroglyphic symbol for child or 'youth' in general.

Another motif commonly used to symbolize tender age is one copied from daily life, namely the right index finger stuck into the mouth by way of dummy as in modern times. We find this in depictions of young gods as well as of mortal children. In the Old Kingdom young girls usually wore their hair short, or sometimes had a ponytail falling down the center of the back. It either curled up naturally at the end, or was weighted with a spherical or disc-shaped ornament. From the Middle Kingdom onwards this fashion was affected by young dancing-girls and acrobats.

The habit of close-shaving the whole head except for a few tufts of curled or frizzy hair at the top came evidently from the south. We see it chiefly among Nubians - who still do it - and, in the New Kingdom and later, among young black Africans.

Children had their games and toys in Egypt, of course, as everywhere. In that inviting climate they normally played out of doors, using any objects that came their way - pebbles, pieces of wood or cloth, handfuls of sand, flowers . . . Birds, household pets and monkeys were popular playthings too. However, youngsters were capable of making their own tops, rattles, simple blowpipes and, above all, a wide assortment of dolls from mere pegs swathed in cloth, through figures sketchily carved out of a flat piece of wood and painted, up to dolls made out of glazed clay, stone, or rags and thread. Even miniature beds have been found, and other items of furniture for dolls or puppets to use.

Some children, or their parents, used wood or other material to make carvings or models of crocodiles or leopards that could open their jaws and wag their tails. Elephants or human dummies with movable limbs, and a cat with glass eyes and a mouth that opened have also turned up.

In the 12th-dynasty remains of the workers' town of Illahun Sir Flinders Petrie discovered a number of toys that children had fashioned out of mud. In addition to crude human figures there were many stylized animals - little pigs, sheep, dogs (or jackals), water-birds, tortoises, lizards and crocodiles - as well as bricks, boats, balls, dot-patterned hoops and even miniature
mummies in their sarcophagi. There was a wide gamut of games to play, too. Children could amuse themselves by walking along planks, racing, wrestling, running and jumping.

On the upper register of one relief in the 6th-dynasty mastaba of Mereroka we see a boy balancing on the outstretched arms of a friend, which are resting on the shoulders of two other lads. Two groups of boys have locked elbows for a tug-of-war, and a little further on three youngsters are running a race. In the middle register there is a group having a war-game. Three boys, holding ostrich feathers in their right hands sloping back over the shoulders, are marching around a 'prisoner' whose arms are folded; three others face the prisoner, holding 'insignia of rank' in their left hands - wooden poles ending in a model hand and scourge. Nearby squats a boy with arms stretched out to defend himself while his playmates strike out with their fists; evidently he has to guess which one hit him.

The lowest register illustrates girls at play. On the left four of them have linked up in a ring, the hieroglyphic inscription explaining that this was a game called 'pressing the grapes'. Beside them a band of five girls are doing the Hathor dance, holding hand-shaped wooden rattles in their left hands and mirrors in their right. Evidence of the fondness of the very young for dancing comes from the masterly engraving on the bottom of an oblong wooden box of unknown function, attributed on stylistic grounds to the late 18th dynasty.

Egyptian familiarity with ball games is apparent from excavated balls made of papyrus, cloth or leather, stuffed with straw, thread or horsehair. Several Middle Kingdom tomb murals at Beni Hasan depict groups of girls throwing a ball from one to the other, while others juggle with up to three balls or play a kind of equestrian game where the losers apparently had to carry the winners around on their backs. Other children's sports were fishing, target-shooting, donkey-riding and swimming in the canals that criss-crossed the whole country. Royal offspring enjoyed the use of artificial pools.

Affection for children radiates from many a family scene. One of the oldest and most remarkable finds of its kind comes from the mastaba of the vizier Ptahshepses at Abusir near Cairo. This fragment of a relief originally adorning the wall of the tomb shows part of a man seated with a little boy on his lap. His left arm encircles the boy's waist, while the boy rests his own right arm on his father's shoulder. The youngster is naked except for the typical child's ringlets hanging down the side of his head; he wears a small pectoral on his chest, and an amulet on a chain. into adult life.

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