A Kid in Ancient Egypt
By Ilene Springer
They owned dolls with real hair knotted into the heads, they played ball and stick games, they ran around naked until puberty, and imitated their mothers and fathers at their work at home or in the field. These are the children of ancient Egypt. Although they were kids like kids of every age and place, we have discovered some very intriguing things about the lives of ancient Egyptian children.
First, you were considered fortunate to be born and survive to age one in ancient Egypt. Many women died in childbirth and many infants died within days, weeks and months after birth from infections and other diseases. To protect herself and her newborn child, an ancient Egyptian mother may have kept protective deities in her homes, such as Bastetthe cat goddess of fertility. She also wore special amulets, such as the Eye of Horus, to ward off evil spirits. Childrenboth boys and girls--were precious to ancient Egyptian mothers and fathers. However, great rejoicing by the family and neighbors, always, followed the birth of a boy; this was less so for the birth of girls. There is evidence that most boys were circumcised. The mother usually named the child. Many times, the name turned out to be wishes or cries uttered by the mother at the precise moment of birth. Many girls were called nefret, meaning "pretty." A baby boy might be given the name of his uncle or grandfather in the hopes that he would resemble them. Babies were usually nursed for three years in ancient Egypt. Rich families often hired a wet nurse who became a very important part of the family. The ancient Egyptians carried their babies around on their hips or on their back in slings as they went about their work. The average ancient Egyptian family probably ended up with five or six kids. Many babies wore protective amulets around their necks. Parents chanted many spells over their children:
"The child should be safe from diseases,
Foreigners, bad-wishing Egyptians
and dangerous waters."
There were also wishes, many written into the amulets worn by children, hoping safe trips in the future, and that little girls would grow up to conceive children of both sexes.
From what we know from paintings and statues, kidsboth boys and girlsmostly ran around naked until puberty. Another distinct sign of childhood was the shaved head with a side lockoften braided--on the right side of the head. In fact, children are often depicted in ancient Egyptian artwork as standing naked near their parents, sucking their right index finger and wearing the sidelock. In the Middle Kingdom (2040 to 1991 BCE), it appears that children wore linen clothes similar to adults, especially in the cooler months. But even if the kids were naked, they wore jewelryearrings, collars, bracelets, armlets and anklets. Girls also wore hair ornaments. One relief shows a catfish amulet dangling from a young girls sidelock. In the New Kingdom (1570 to 1070 BCE), there is a wide range of hairstyles shown on kids.
Toys and games
Ancient Egyptian children loved to play. Tomb scenes show that youngsters kept several kinds of petsdogs, kittens, ducks and pigeons. Mirror handles show young girls with pets in their arms. They also played with the family livestock of goats and cows. The kids had plenty of toys to play with, also. Rich kids, of course, had more types of toys and perhaps more time to play with them. Ragdolls, various kinds of balls of wood or leather, throwing sticks and painted wooden dolls with moveable arms and legs are some of the toys ancient Egyptian kids enjoyed.
As soon as they could walk around, kids helped their parents and imitated the life of an adult. Girls learned household chores and boys learned how to tend the fields with their fathers. But both girls and boys played and helped in the fields. In general, girls did not attend school, although we have some evidence that girls from wealthy families may have been literate. At the age of four, a boy began being trained by his father in his particular craft. Royal children were taught reading, writing and mathematics in the palace. The kids (boys) of wealthy parents could join temple schools and become scribesa very prestigious professionor army officers. Boys who attended these schools started at the age of four and kept going until for ten or twelve years before being assigned a position. Often the boys father was instrumental in deciding the subject matter of his sons education. Alas, the carefree childhood of most ancient Egyptian kids was over by the time they reached puberty. By age twelve to fourteen, they would be married and begin to have children of their own. Even though the ancient Egyptian life span was short (average40 years or so), new parents joyfully brought forth children, remembering the love they received from their own parents.
A special thanks to Hatem A. Abol-Ata, Egyptologist and Tour Guide, Cairo
Growing Up in Ancient Egypt by Rosalind M. and Jac. J. Janssen
The Rubicon Press, 1990
For Kids: Growing Up in Ancient Egypt by Rosalie David
(Eagle Books, 1994)
Ilene Springer writes on ancient Egypt. Her second trip is in January, 2000.
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