Party Time in Ancient Egypt
by Ilene Springer
There have been many people, experts and amateurs alike, who have said the ancient Egyptians were preoccupied with preparing for death. But this doesn't altogether seem true, particularly among more common Egyptians. If you asked them, they would have probably said they spent more time preparing for festivities and a good time while they were living, but even in death, there seemed to be considerable celebration.
Just a quick glance at tomb paintings, which depicted the best part of an individuals life, often show the ancient Egyptians fully enjoying themselves in the company of others at banquets, being beguiled by exotic dancers and acrobats, even though many of these scenes depict funerary banquets. The ancient Egyptians loved a good time and entertainment. Music, food and drink were a major part of their lives.
Its not hard to imagine most of ancient Egyptian society celebrating throughout various parts of the year, for harvesting, marriages, childbirth and even funerals in which they sent off the deceased to the next world. But, of course, the more wealthy Egyptians were able to hold lavish banquets and parties purely for enjoyment. The drawings of these events are where we get our information about what it was like to be a participant in one of these banquets.
From what we can tell, each guest was warmly welcomed by both the male and female hosts of the household, and upon entering the party, the guests were draped in blossoms and fragrant wreaths of flowers. This scent of these mingled with those very intriguing perfumed wax cones the party goers wore on their heads. The heat of their bodies slowly melted the scented wax through the evening until the perfumed wax filtered through the hair or, more likely, the fancy wig of the guest.
The food and drink
Obviously, for the very poor, things might have been much different. Really, we often have very little record of their lives, though they surely had some participation in the many state festivals. For those of means, we find scenes depicting scantily clad servant girls carried trays laden with delicacies, as we see in a banquet scene from the tomb of Nebamun (and many others). Imagine the food: with rich dishes of butter and cheese, fattened fowl and beef, flavored with rosemary, cumin, garlic, parsley, cinnamon and mustard, and sweetened with honey, figs and other fruits. Meat was a luxury in ancient Egypt, but at a feast, no expenses were spared.
In addition to beef, there were duck, geese, goats, fish and pigs. Plates filled with chickpeas and lentils, lettuce, cucumbers and onions were passed around. In the Old Kingdom, about fifteen varieties of bread could have been served. By the New Kingdom, there were 40 names for breads, cakes and biscuits. Guests had an amazing number of specialties to select from.
Usually guests dined from their own little tables while sitting on benches, and ate off of attractive implements such as bowls, plates and cups made from blue faience with lotus designs.
There was also wine and beer, and plenty of it. Archaeologists have found jugs with the date and type of wine, the estate where it was stored, the vineyard and the vintner.
Let the music begin
Without Music and dance, no banquet was possible. From what we see on tomb paintings, music and dance played a big part in the lives of the ancient Egyptians, both in secular and religious activities. Male and female dancers and musicians would excite the festivities with harps, lyres and lutes (all string instruments) and a type of oboe (most often played by women) and drums to keep up the beat of the music and the hearts of the guests. At the banquet, guests would be treated to dancing girls wearing jewels and lithe acrobats who twisted, jumped and turned. The musicians encouraged the guests to join in by chanting, clapping or playing tambourines or cymbals.
The Egyptians did prepare for the afterlife, but thats because they hoped for nothing less than the joy they experienced in their lives on earth. And parties were a big part of that joy of life. A very poignant statement on an unknown Egyptian tomb advises the living, "With a beaming face, celebrate the joyful day and rest not therein. For no one can take away his goods with him (a concept that was evidently contrary to much Egyptian thinking). Yea, no one returns again, who has gone hence." Who could say it better than an ancient Egyptian?