Egypt: Human Sacrifice in Ancient Egypt

Human Sacrifice in Ancient Egypt

by Caroline Seawright

Human sacrifice is not generally connected with ancient Egypt. There is little evidence of human sacrifice during most of the dynastic period of ancient Egypt... but there is some evidence that it may have been practiced in the Nile Valley during the 1st Dynasty and possibly also Predynastic Egypt.

The earliest known example of human sacrifice may perhaps be found in Predynastic burials in the south of Egypt, dated to the Naqada II Period. One of the discovered bodies showed marks of the throat from having been cut before having been decapitated.

-- Human Sacrifice, Jacques Kinnaer

The two definitions of human sacrifice that could be applied to the very early development of ancient Egypt are:

  • The ritual killing of human beings as part of the offerings presented to the gods on a regular basis, or on special occasions.
  • Retainer sacrifice, or the killing of domestic servants to bury them along with their master.

-- Human Sacrifice, Jacques Kinnaer

Offerings to the Gods

One form of human sacrifices to the gods may have been in the form of slaying criminals and prisoners of war. Some early dynastic depictions of sacrifices have been found, showing a man holding a bowl, possibly using it to catch the blood of a victim who is seated in front of him. The man and the victim are normally before either gods or men of power, making it seem as if these scenes are of human sacrifices. Despite the pictures, there is not enough information as to why it was done, what happened with the blood in the bowl, or for whom it was done. Other than the human sacrifice theory, there is another theory as to what is happening in the scenes:

Line drawing of Djer's label possibly showing human sacrifice

Two slabs were discovered dating to the beginning of the 1st Dynasty, one in Abydos concerning King Aha and the other in Saqqara, concerning King Djer. Each slab depicts a seated person directing a pointed instrument to the throat or chest of another person who is kneeling backwards with his arms tied behind his back. Petrie, Emery and Zaki Saaed believed that this denotes human sacrifice whereas Vikentiesf and Hussain believe it to be a tracheostomy being performed. The latter view is more appropriate as the lancet is used as a determinative "to breath" rather than the habitual signs of the nose or the sail. In Aha's slab the sign Ankh is present; the way the scalpel is handled is more appropriately directed to the trachea than the neck vessels as obviously the best way for slaughtering was known even at prehistoric times!

-- Medicine and Surgery in Ancient Egypt, Ahmes L. Pahor

Later in Egypt's history, Amenhotep II of the 18th dynasty claimed to have executed seven Syrian princes at the temple of Amen in Karnak, then displayed six of the bodies on the temple walls. Although he did not claim that it was a sacrifice to the gods, it shows that there is enough evidence that prisoners were killed at temples, making the depiction of Predynastic killings in front of deities likely to have actually happened.

The Cannibal Hymn

Not strictly an offering to the gods, the Cannibal Hymn of Unas and Teti talk of cannibalism to gain power from the gods in ancient Egypt. The Pyramid Texts have a section that seems to hint that in Predynastic times, the ruler could gain the magical powers of the gods through human sacrifice.

Utterances 273 - 274 of the Pyramid Texts, known as the Cannibal Hymn, describe the pharaoh as a god who cannibalises the gods - 'A god who lives on his fathers and feeds on his mothers ... who lives on the being of every god, who eats their entrails ... Pharaoh is he who eats men and lives on gods.'

It is a blood-thirsty text of the power of the pharaoh, talking of death and killing and devouring of body parts. This seems to combine ritual cannibalism with sacrifices to the gods, but there is no direct evidence that cannibalism was normally practiced in ancient Egypt.

Human Heads in the Book of the Amduat

There is, though, a suggestion that cannibalism may have occurred during times of great famine and drought. During the First Intermediate Period, there was a great famine, dust storms, plague, and political strife that affected the country for decades. Ankhtifi (Ankhtify), Nomarch (governor) of the 3rd Nome of Upper Egypt during this time, left on his tomb this message: "...the sky was clouded and the earth [...] of hunger on this sandbank of Apep... All of Upper Egypt was dying of hunger and people were eating their children, but I did not allow anyone to die of hunger in this nome."

Despite his boasting, Ankhtifi may not have be lying about people being reduced to eating their children to survive. Abdel-Latif Al-Baghdadi, a physician/scholar from Baghdad who was in Egypt between 1194 to 1200 AD, tells of people who habitually ate human flesh; parents even ate their own children. Graves were ransacked for food, assassinations and robbery reigned unchecked and noblewomen implored to be bought as slaves. These horrific scenes had been caused by a low Nile flood, two years running.

Human Heads in the Book of the Amduat

In the depiction of Seventh Hour from 'The Book of the Amduat' (Imydwat), are four rectangular shaped frames with a bed or a mound of sand inside, surmounted with two human heads, one at each end. E. A. Wallis Budge calls them the 'Four Tombs of Osiris', saying that the heads were supposed to come forth when they heard the voice of Re as he traveled through that particular area of the underworld.

Human Heads in the Book of the Amduat

It was, no doubt, a custom in Predynastic times to slay slaves at the graves of kings and nobles in order that the souls of the slaughtered might protect them and keep away evil spirits. The human heads on the tombs of Osiris probably represent a tradition that, when Osiris was buried, human sacrifices were offered at his tomb for this or for some similar purpose.

-- The Gods of the Egyptians, E. A. Wallis Budge

This may or may not relate to any human sacrifice. E. Hornung has a different description than Budge: "... we once again observe the [four] burial place[s] of the sun's [Ra's] corpse..." There are no references in the text to the killing of humans for the protection of Ra as he travelld.

From the Seventh Hour of the Amduat

Two Human Heads on Tombs

E. A. Wallis Budge's translation of the Amduat can be found as 'The Book of Am-Tuat'.

Anedjib's Tomb

King Aha - 33 subsidiary burials at tomb B10, 15, 19

Djer. - 318 subsidiary burials at Tomb O

Djet - 174 subsidiary burials at Tomb Z

Merytnit - 41 subsidiary burials at Tomb Y

Den - 136 subsidiary burials at Tomb T

Anedjib - 64 subsidiary burials at Tomb X

Semerkhet - 68 subsidiary burials at Tomb U

Qa'a - 26 subsidiary burials at Tomb Q

The sacrificed retainers, servants, slaves or even nobles or family members all had their own burial pits as part of the Abtu (Abydos) tomb complex of each ruler of the 1st Dynasty. These people were thought to carry on their respective positions in the afterlife, for example the slaves and servants were killed so that they could continue to carry out their work for their master.

Aha's Tomb

In the case of King Aha, his tomb was looted in antiquity, but the bones scattered around the burial pits were all of young men and women aged 20-25 years old. This would indicate that they probably did not die from natural causes, but were selected for burial with Aha. The burial pits once held copper tools, stone vessels and ivory carvings, and some even had the name of the occupant inscribed on limestone stela. These stelae referred to servants, dwarfs, women, dogs and even a group of young lions.

Djer., on the other hand, probably showed the peak of human sacrifice for burial with the king. He 318 burial pits surrounding his tomb, as well as a number of other burial pits at his funerary enclosure, about two kilometres away, which may have been a mortuary temple. Djer's tomb at Abydos was believed by Egyptians of the latter Middle Kingdom to be the tomb of Osiris himself, and this belief lasted even into the Roman period.

In the tomb of Queen Merytnit, most of the skeletons were found facing the same direction, but no signs of violence were found on the skeletons. This would suggest that they were not buried alive, since the bodies were all placed in the tombs in a specific direction for religious purposes, and that they had died previously to being buried. W B Emery, who unearthed tombs at Abtu, had a theory that suggested the people were killed by poison prior to being buried with the queen.

Human sacrifice was not only performed at Abtu, but in Saqqara as well. Originally it was believed that the rulers of the 1st Dynasty had two tombs - one at Saqqara and one at Abtu, but research has led to the conclusion that the Saqqara tombs were for nobles of the 1st Dynasty. Tomb S3500, the tomb of a noble during the reign of Qa'a, has the last of the sacrifices found in Saqqara:

Qa'a's Tomb

Three of the four subsidiary tombs were found intact and the westernmost ones (n. 1 and 2) still had the dead bodies (a middle aged man and an old woman; head to the south facing west) wrapped in linen within the coffin; each one had a foreign flask and a wood cylinder seal (one uninscribed and another one with faint painted inscribed).

-- Saqqara: Early Dynastic Monuments (Dynasties 1-3), Francesco Raffaele

This practice was abandoned after the last retainer sacrifices by Qa'a, although it was replaced by representations of sacrificed retainers in the form of ushabti figures. There figures were meant to magically turn into servants, to carry out the work of the deceased in the afterlife. A small hint that the Egyptian people in later times reviled human sacrifice can be seen in the story of Khufu and the Magicians -

Khufu then ordered a prisoner brought, thinking to lop off his head and see Djed-djedi's magic. Protesting, the magician said that he could not do so to humans. Instead, they found a goose Djed-djedi could work his magic upon.

-- Tales of Magic in Ancient Egypt, C. Seawright

Khentamentiu from a Label of Den

Some rulers of 0 Dynasty, and rulers of the 1st and 2nd Dynasties were buried at Abtu. The local deity of the necropolis was Khentamentiu khntamntt mountains determinative (Khontamentiu, Khentamenti, Khontamenti, Khenty Amentiu, Khenti Amentiu), Foremost of Westerners, god of the dead who helped the deceased go to the Land of the West, pilot of the solar barque during it's nocturnal travels. The earliest temple found at Abtu was for Khentamentiu. He was later associated with Osiris, as Osiris-Khentamentiu, and with the jackal god Anubis.

Den's Tomb

The Tekenu

The Tekenu in a Dark Shroud on a Sledge

Early Egyptologists believed the




tekenu (teknu) was a representation of the human sacrifices that the 1st Dynasty rulers were buried with. It seems to be a figure of a man, in a fetal or sitting position, shrouded in a bag, hides or a sack that was placed on it's own sledge during funeral processions. Current theories suggest that it contains the spare body parts that were left over during the mummification process, occasionally having a mask of the deceased where a face would be on the figure, and sometimes not looking like a man at all.

In the tomb of Rekhmire, the words relating to the tekenu say: "Causing to come to the god Re as a resting tekenu to calm the lake of Khepri". This may be relating to a time when people were killed and thrown into a lake to appease Apep or Set. There is no evidence for this actually happening, or of the tekenu being thrown into any lake.

Tekenu from Rekhmire's Tomb

Egyptologist Greg Reeder shows a depiction in the tomb of Montuhirkhepeshef (Mentuherkhepshef) (18th dynasty) at Thebes actually shows a man lying on the sledge, being dragged along just as the tekenu was in the funeral procession. In the tomb of Rekhmire (18th Dynasty) the tekenu is finally placed in the tomb, on a chair or couch, with the head poking out of a bag. Then the man sits up on the couch in the 'Opening of the Mouth' scene, shown to be wearing shroud-like wrapping, yet obviously human and alive:

It is the Sem priest who is awakened from his trance at the beginning of that ceremony at the tomb of the deceased. The Sem states that he was "asleep" but had visited the deceased in the otherworld. The Sem then is a shaman undergoing a trance like dream state in the guise of the tekenu. As the tekenu he is transported to the tomb wrapped in a shroud to help facilitate his "death" so that he can be transported to the other world. Thus having visited the spirit world, the Sem was imbued with powers which enabled him to perform the succeeding "Opening of the Mouth" ceremony for the deceased. The tekenu was no more for he had been transformed into the Sem.

-- The Enigmatic Tekenu, Greg Reeder

Tekenu in the Tomb of Duauneheh

This is the speech of the Sem-priest, from the tomb of Rekhmire:

Seclusion in the Gold Mansion: resting by the sem-priest
Speech of the sem-priest seated facing it
Words spoken: 'He has struck me'
The imy-is to stand behind it
Words spoken 'He has outlined me'
The imy-is - speech four times
Words spoken by the imy-is 'My father my father' 4 times
Waking the sleep of the sem-priest; the find of the imy-khent priests

-- Opening the Mouth, University College London

Face of Unknown Man 'E'

Unknown Man 'E' Unknown Man 'E', found with the royal mummies in the Dier el-Bahri cache, is buried with such an horror-filled look on his face and in such a strange manner, that many believe that he was sacrificed and buried with the pharaohs. The Unknown Man 'E' is a man in his early 20s, his face seeming to silently scream. His coffin was white and undecorated, yet it was made from cedar wood, an expensive commodity in ancient Egypt.

He was unwrapped by Dr. Fouquet and M. Mathey in 1886, and discovered to have some unusual features for an Egyptian burial. He had been wrapped in white sheepskin, which Herodotus had said was ritually unclean to the ancient Egyptians. Dylan Bickerstaffe, who wrote an analysis on Unknown Man 'E' in KMT Magazine, pointed out that no other Dynastic burial had been found where sheepskin was used to shroud the body. Under the sheepskin was a layer of bandages, then a layer of natron-soaked bandages. When he was unwrapped, his body fat, which has been absorbed by the natron, emitted a putrid stench. The bandages were of high quality, yet they had been wrapped and knotted around his wrists, upper arms and lower legs so tightly that it imprinted his body. Under the bandages, his skin was coated with a very thick layer of natron, crushed resin, and lime - quicklime. His body still had his internal organs in place, as was the rest of his body. Even his gold earrings were still in place.

One of the popular theories is that because of the oddities in the burial, is that Unknown Man 'E' had been buried alive as punishment during the 18th or 19th Dynasty. Another theory is that he had been prepared and 'mummified' by non-Egyptians who were not familiar with the Egyptian mummification process:

Body of Unknown Man 'E'

The use of calcium oxide seems to point toward an ancient Greek influence. In Greek, the word "sarcophagus" means "flesh eater" and was used to designate the large stone receptacles filled with quicklime in which corpses were placed. Much more harsh in its desiccating properties than natural Egyptian natron, this chemical would have been avoided by Egyptian embalmers who wanted to preserve rather than destroy the tissues of the body. The Greeks who used this method of treating corpses mistakenly believed that Egyptian sarcophagi were employed for the same purpose ... Bickerstaffe points out that the Hyksos were buried with sheep, and that the Tale of Sinhue describes "Asiatics" as being buried wrapped in sheepskins. This again indicates that Unknown Man E was probably "embalmed" in a foreign country where sheepskins were cured and employed in a funereal context.

-- The Strange Case of Unknown Man E, W. Miller

The state of the quicklime on the body indicates that while it was applied, there was no struggle. The thickness also suggests that the quicklime was applied after the body had been dehydrated by other methods. This would suggest that Unknown Man 'E' was already dead, rather than sacrificed.

Unknown Man 'E' may have been an Egyptian noble or prince who held a high position in an Asiatic country, and who died there. The people there may have done their best, but been unable to make a mummy as the Egyptians did, and then sent their efforts back to Egypt. Yet in Egypt he was untouched, despite being placed by the priests who moved royal mummies to a hidden cache along side pharaohs.

Human Sacrifice

There is evidence of human sacrifice in ancient Egypt during the 1st Dynasty, for the rulers and rich of the time. This possibly came from Predynastic times, but no strong evidence has been found to prove this. The labels of King Aha and Djer. are pictures of men that may be being ritually killed, yet the people buried with the rulers do not seem to have been killed in that fashion - they were most likely poisoned before being buried with the rulers and nobles. There is also a possibility that predynastic people may have cannibalized others to gain their power, but without evidence this can not be proved - it may have just been a dramatic way of showing the strength and power of the king! Other than the killing of prisoners of war, no other evidence for human sacrifice, neither as offerings to the gods nor in the form of retainer sacrifice, has been found. Since the Egyptians gave up the practice during the Old Kingdom, they seemed to have come to object to the practice through the rest of their history.