The Game is Afoot in Ancient Egypt!
By Ilene Springer
Hardly any other ancient people honored the animals they hunted more than the ancient Egyptians. Like the Native Americans the ancients Egyptian hunters prayed to god and goddess images of the animals they quarried to ensure their safety and the success of the hunt. Hunting in ancient Egypt not only provided a variety of fish, fowl and meat, but became a symbol of courage and mastery over many of the animal forces the Egyptians believed they needed to conquer.
The hunters philosophy
"A balanced relationship between people and beasts was seen by the ancient Egyptians as one element in the eternal globe and cosmic order," says The Life of Ancient Egyptians on the Web (historical essays). Hunters knew their animals welltheir mating habits, diet, diseases and their "personal" characteristics. Out of this respect came great success in hunting.
The hunters world
Predynastic Egypt had been a paradise for hunters. Agriculture had not yet infringed on some of the wild lands of the fertile alluvium. The land was a virtual wet jungle of trees and thickets of reed and papyrus. All kinds of animals--elephants, giraffe, lions, rhinoceros, wild boar, antelopes, gazelles, numerous varieties of deer, ibex, countless numbers of birds, fish, crocodiles and hippopotami--thrived in this area. Theres a famous hunting scene that comes from the period of Egypts original unification, showing a hunting party out for lions, gazelles, stags and ostrich.
Then cultivation and stockbreeding began to take hold along the Nile during the first three dynasties. When the farmers drained the marshes and extended the region of agriculture, the larger game left the valley. During the Old Kingdom there is evidence that hunting took place mainly on the plains beyond the pyramid burials. But there was still a lot of gamehyenas, lions and leopardsall of which required a greater degree of skill to hunt, and were pursued for their skins as well as their meat.
Fit for a king
Meat was not eaten very much by the peasant farmers; they stuck mostly to bread and beer, vegetables and dried fish. It appears that hunting was reserved for the richer nobles. As hunting lost its economic importance, "the chase" became a matter of sport for kings, courtiers and dignitaries "in which they could display their strength and valor," according to The Life of Ancient Egyptians on the Web.
In the early days, a desert hunt took place on foot, but after the chariot was introduced, the Pharaoh and his colleagues galloped after their prey. According to Egyptian Life by Miriam Stead, "The technique of hunting was to await or lure a large number of animals to a restricted area, possibly around a water hole, and then to attack them en masse with volleys or arrows.
The nobleman would be accompanied by professional huntsmen." Animals were also used as accomplices in the hunt. There were a couple types of hunting dogs depicted throughout Egypts history, but the favorite seem to resemble the greyhound. Some evidence from tomb paintings suggest that tame cheetahs may have also been drafted in the hunt.
The Egyptians wielded a number of different tools in the hunt: spears, arrows, throw-sticks, nets which had been driven into a wadi and a boomerang type of weapon to take down birds from the sky. Hunting in the marshes included fowling, fishing and possibly the killing of hippopotami. The techniques of the hunt and its pleasures are summed up in a fragmentary papyrus called The Pleasures of Fishing and Fowlin.
In one part a hunter describes the process of bird trapping and the excitement he experiences in snaring ducks in the net.
Fishing was an exciting sport and seemed to be particularly important in the Old and Middle Kingdoms. Besides sportsman, there were professional fishermen on the Nile and its canals. Typically, the fishers would stand in their papyrus canoes, ready with their harpoons.
They apparently got lazier by the time of the New Kingdom; they were often portrayed with rod and line, sitting in their armchairs beside their garden pools!
But real fisherman faced real dangers. There were species of poisonous catfish and one of the most dreaded foe of allthe crocodile. If a boat capsized, there was real risks of being devoured by this monster of the Nile.
However, fishing was also a time for fun. There are tomb paintings showing fisherman playfully trying to jostle each other with their fishing poles.
Hunting provided a lot of different things to the ancient Egyptians. It wasnt just meat and skins, but a chance to prove ones prowess and enjoy the camaraderie of friends on the hunt. The pleasure of the hunt is recorded in the fishing and fowling papyrus: "A happy day when we go down to the marsh, that we may snare birds and catch many fishes in the watersa happy day on which we give to everybody and the marsh goddess is propitious. We shall trap birds and shall light a brazier to Sobek.