Old Age in Ancient Egypt
by Marie Parsons
A passage from the Insinger Papyrus, in the Ptolemaic period:
A man spends ten years as a child before he understands death and life,
He spends another ten years acquiring the instruction by which he will be able to live.
He spends another ten years earning and gaining possessions by which to live.
He spends another ten years up to old age, when his heart becomes his counselor.
There remain sixty years of the whole life, which Thoth has assigned to the man of god.
From the age of 40 to the expected 100, a man could enjoy the best years of his life, using the fruits of his labor and knowledge. The Egyptians regarded the attainment of this age as evidence of special divine favor and the reward for blameless behavior. Old people were respected for their experience and wisdom and their wise advice received close attention. The Instruction of Ani says "Never remain seated if a man older than yourself is standing."
Ideal and Real Life Expectancy
There is no wonder that older people could be seen as almost magical. Today, with modern medicine, we surely think very differently than our more ancient counterparts. Now, people may reach maturity and beyond without ever having even known anyone close to them who has died. But this was certainly not the case in ancient Egypt, when children frequently never made it to adulthood, women often died in childbirth and simple diseases very treatable today could take a loved one at any given moment. In fact, one of the real challenges of understanding ancient times is that it is frequently very difficult for us today to understand the mindset of ancient people, for our modern experience is so very different. Rather than expecting old age, one must have had to prepare themselves for the death of a wife or a child and then to move on.
And yet, one hundred-and-ten years seems to be the ideal Egyptian life-span. There are 27 places in documents where this figure crops up, and it had its widest acceptance during the 19th and 20th Dynasties. King Pepi II of the 6th Dynasty certainly came close, since we know of events that took place in the 94th year of his reign. Ptahhotep, who was vizier to King Djedkare Isesi of the 5th Dynasty, and two others individuals, are reputed to have lived to that age as well. An Old Kingdom nomarch during the reign of Pepi II was named Pepiankh. He is referred to as Neferka in his tomb, where the following text is found:
I spent a lifetime until a hundred years among the living, in possession of my faculties.
Age is here, old age arrived,
Feebleness come, weakness grows,
Childlike one sleeps all day,
Eyes are dim, ears deaf,
Strength is waning through weariness,
The mouth, silenced, speaks not.
The heart, void, recalls not the past.
The bones ache throughout.
In the New Kingdom art begins to represent bent figures with round backs, folds of fat on the chest and belly and wrinkled faces, leaning on sticks. In the tomb of Paheri, a mayor of el-Kab and Esna under Tuthmosis I, there is a wall painting showing a series of agricultural scenes. One scene shows a pot-bellied old man with a receding hairline, combing flax. Convinced of the value of his performance, he says to a younger colleague who brings a bundle: "If you bring me thousands of bundles, I will still comb them." The younger man, unimpressed, replies, "Hurry up, dont chatter so much, you bald yokel."
Though the Middle Kingdom funerary stelae and tombs contain biographical information, there are no dates of birth or death or ages mentioned. In the New Kingdom there is at least one reference to the age a man achieved, along with his successful career. Bekenkhons, the High Priest of Amun under Ramesses II, describes his career in detail, indicating that he was apparently active until at least his seventies, probably into his eighties. It is not until the Ptolemaic Period that dates of birth, dates of marriage, and dates of death and sometimes burial, are added. These show the average age at death was 54 years for men and 58 for women.
Today, when a new household is begun, by either marriage, co-partnership, or simply an adult child moving out and starting fresh, it is not always the case that the now aged parents remain as part of the household. That may have been the case in Ancient Egypt as well, but there was a duty and responsibility for the adult children, particularly the oldest son when applicable, to ensure that the parents would be properly buried and their funerary needs met.
One entry from the workmens town of Kahun in ancient Egypt shows that a household could include ones aged parents. The household list reads:
"The soldier, Dhutis son Hori;
His wife, Satsopdus daughter Shepset;
Their son Snefru;
Horis mother Harekni;
Her daughters, Qatsennut, Mekten, Ese, Rudet, and Satsnefru."
In general, children, daughters as well as sons, inherited all possessions from their parents. One man named Nekhtefmut, a priest of Amun during the 22nd Dynasty, handed over his properties to his daughter during his lifetime, in recognition of the fact that she had taken care of her parents in their old age.
Conversely, a lady named Naunakhte drew up her last will, and in it stated that she had brought up her nine children, given them everything appropriate to their position, but now that they were all grown, they did nothing to care for her. So she disinherited one son and three daughters. Of another daughter who would inherit, Naunakhte said: "She shall have her share in the division of all my property, except for the emmer-wheat, which my three male children and one daughter have given to me."
It should be noted that Naunakhte had much property and was not placed in a dependency situation, however, it was clear that she at least (and possibly the custom of the time as well) expected that her children provide her with some notice of their care for her, filial duties and such.
Options when Childless
So children were the blessing to their parents, to care for them as they grew older, and adults longed to have children to ensure their later care. If a couple was childless, they had the options of adoption, divorce and remarriage, and even polygamy.
Adoption was certainly done legally, with formal papers drawn up in front of witnesses, all parties properly named, but it was also possibly done informally, as indicated by a letter from Deir-el-Medina. It states: "He who has no children should get for himself some orphan to bring him up. Then he will be the person who pours water upon his hands, as a genuine eldest son."
A man could also divorce a childless woman and remarry. Divorce was fairly easy to accomplish; since there was no ceremonial wedding, the bond could be dissolved with no formality. However, it should be noted that there were couples who, though childless, remained together.
The Egyptians tended to be monogamous, but polygamy was not expressly forbidden. There exist a few instances that polygamy did occur in the upper classes. One instance is that of Mery-aa from the 9th Dynasty. In his tomb six women are depicted, all called his wife. Five had children. The most important wife interestingly enough was the childless one.
In this age of Social Security and employment pensions, we are accustomed to the state and our employers looking out for our welfare. What happened in ancient Egypt?
The workmen of Deir-el-Medina worked for the state: they built the tombs in the Valley of the Kings near Thebes. A limestone ostracon lists the quantities of grain that served as basic wages. Four women are also named. They are not noted herein as slaves, though female slaves are appropriately noted as such in other lists. Perhaps these were widows of workmen and were thus being included in compensation. Even if this is true, however, it is not clear if these women were elderly.
The older men of the village, explicitly noted as "old", received a monthly grain-ration as well, though theirs was lower than that of the ordinary workmen.
The state also supported its soldiers, primarily by allotting them plots of land, together with agricultural workers. There is also evidence that elderly soldiers were given honorary positions in temples. One such was Maya, who served under Tuhtmosis III. He was given the "gold of honor" to reward gallant soldiers. He was awarded the title "governor and chief of the prophets." Another soldier named Amenemone, a general in the 18th Dynasty, was later appointed steward of a funerary temple of Tuthmosis III. Other examples also exist, and not all may have been honorary appointments.
Old Age and Administrative Positions
Lastly, in an age today where it seems to be a "new" and startling idea that the elderly might still be capable, talented, and have much to offer, it should be noted that many top officials in the ancient Egyptian government were on in years.
One example is Hemiunu, the Vizier and Overseer of Works for King Khufu. He was head of the entire administration of the state, responsible for the building works on temples and the royal funerary complex, for which he had authority to call up the corvee. He directed the state finances, organized expeditions into the desert and to foreign countriesin short, he was second only to the King himself. Hemiunus tomb is one of the largest in Giza, and his life-size limestone statue is a marvel. Clearly Hemiunu was no young man.
Our second statesman, Uni, served under three Kings of the 6th Dynasty. He must have lived at least 60 years. His autobiography was inscribed on his tomb-chapel at Abydos. He was instrumental in discovering a plot within the royal harem that involved the Royal Consort. Uni acted along as judge, though he was not Vizier. Clearly he had the trust of his King to handle such a delicate and significant matter. And later he was placed at the head of a large army which five times defeated the "Sand-dwellers", inhabitants of Syro-Palestine.
Though there are many examples throughout Dynastic history of aged administrators after Hemiunu and Uni, in both noble and workers classes, the last here noted comes from near the very end of Egypts independent history in its ancient times. Udjahorresnet became a chief physician under the first Persian rulers of the 27th Dynasty. He began his career under Amasis, a ruler of the 26th Dynasty, and lived into the reign of Psammetichus III, as the commander of the fleet (already middle-aged most likely.) Cambyses then appointed him to be chief Physician and came to live in the palace, composing Cambyses royal titulary.
This personal record is interesting not only for its evidence that growing older did not mean going out to pasture, but also historically. Cambyses has been painted as a veritable monster of depravity. Here he is shown as attempting to reconcile the Egyptians to his regime by assimilating his activities to the traditional model of Egyptian kingship.
As further proof that Udjahorresnet was still celebrated long after his death, a statue was found that was made 177 years after his death to replace one that had been found to be decaying.
- Life in Ancient Egypt by Eugen Strouhal
- Getting Old in Ancient Egypt by Rosalind M and Jac. J. Janssen