Honoring Motherhood in Ancient Egypt (Nile Cruise)

A Nile cruise provides opportunities to stop and tour several beautiful temples, including those at Edfu, Kom Ombo, and Philae.  Each of these contains scenes that honor women.  Some temples from ancient Egypt feature scenes of the goddesses Hathor and Isis as madonna figures, an idea expressed in ancient Egyptian art long before Christianity existed.

Edfu

The Edfu temple honors Horus the Elder and his wife, Hathor.  Some of its walls feature scenes of Hathor nursing her infant, Horus the Younger.  Some of these scenes were damaged by early Christians during the Roman era, in an attempt to obliterate the earlier Pagan beliefs.

This scene of Hathor nursing her baby appears on a wall of the temple at Edfu, Egypt.

The Edfu temple that stands today is relatively young, though it was built on the site of a much older temple.  It was built after the conquest of Alexander the Great, when the Greek Pharoahs were ruling Egypt. The first stone of today’s temple was laid in 237 BCE, and it was consecrated in 142 BCE. This is one of the best preserved temples in Egypt due to having been buried for centuries under sand and river silt deposited by the Nile inundations.

For another of my blog posts about Edfu Temple, see Dance Like an Egyptian!

Kom Ombo

The temple at Kom Ombo, Egypt is unique because it honors two different gods – Sobek (with a crocodile head) and Horus the Elder (with a falcon head).  It’s a fascinating temple to visit, with many interesting images on its walls.

These scenes of women in labor and surgical tools appear on a wall of the temple in Kom Ombo, Egypt.

A unique segment of wall that is popular with many of the tourists who visit Kom Ombo is the scene showing two women using birthing chairs to give birth.  The wall to the right of them features images of surgical tools.

The throne-shaped object on the head of the lower woman is a nod to the goddess Isis and her role as a patron of fertility and motherhood.

One of the tour guides I’ve worked with, Abdul Aly, has proudly pointed out that ancient Egyptians have known about the benefits of delivering babies while sitting up in birthing chairs for at least 2,000 years. In contrast, modern Western medicine only started to embrace birthing chairs and the upright posture since about the 1980’s.

Like Edfu, Kom Ombo was built during the period of the Greek Pharaohs, on top of an older temple site.  Construction lasted from 180 BCE to 47 BCE.  In addition to the birthing chair scene, I was very fond of the on-site museum featuring crocodile mummies.  Another of my blog posts shows the Nilometer at this temple.

Philae

Philae Island at Aswan hosts the beautiful Nubian temple of Isis.  Construction began around 690 BCE, on a site that had hosted an older structure.  In the 1960’s, the island was flooded by the rising waters of the Nile caused by the Aswan High Dam, and Philae was one of the temples moved to a new site on higher ground funded by UNESCO.

Isis nurses Horus in this scene at the temple on Philae Island at Aswan, Egypt. Photo by Jewel, copyright 2015, all rights reserved.

There are several images of Isis nursing the baby Horus in this temple.  These resemble the madonna-style images of Hathor with Horus at Edfu. There is some overlap of the stories regarding Hathor (which were earlier) and Isis (who came later.)  Unfortunately, many of the images of Isis with Horus at Philae were vandalized during the Roman era by early Christians who were trying to obliterate the earlier Pagan religion.

Closing Thoughts

I’ve featured highlights of how ancient Egypt honored motherhood by selecting three must-see images to watch for that are easy to find if taking a Nile cruise or a Luxor-to-Aswan tour.  But these are just a few examples.  Keep looking on your own, and you’re sure to discover more of them in statues (in museums), tombs, and other temples.

Edfu, Egypt: Dance Like an Egyptian!

The stereotype of “Pharaonic dance” with the bent elbow and wrist arm positions is deeply embedded in U.S. culture, and has been since about the 1920’s. Buster Keaton does those arm positions in the 1918 silent movie The Cook which also stars Fatty Arbuckle.

Buster Keaton makes “Egyptian arms” in a dance scene from the 1918 silent movie “The Cook”.

These arm positions have also shown up in cartoons, countless “Pharaonic” dance performances, and the music videos such as the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian”. When Irena Lexova wrote Ancient Egyptian Dances in 1935, her initial objective was to examine whether this stereotype was indeed accurate.

Shira shows the stereotype of “Pharaonic” arms.

For many years, I’ve been looking for evidence showing that “Pharaonic arms” actually were part of dance in ancient Egypt.  On my many trips to Egypt, I have looked for images on temple and tomb walls demonstrating such a pose, without finding any.  I have also dug through books and articles about ancient Egypt.  I’ve discovered many other dance scenes with other postures, but not the right-angled joints.  In her book Ancient Egyptian Dances, Irena Lexova stated her conclusion that this pose came from the Etruscan civilization (in what is now modern-day Italy), not Egypt.

Liturgical Dance
This image at the Temple of Horus in Edfu, Egypt shows the bent wrists and arms that the public thinks of as Pharaonic dance.

So imagine my surprise in February 2017, on my 12th trip to Egypt, when I spotted one at the Temple of Horus in Edfu, Egypt! This was my 7th time visiting that temple. Why didn’t I see this on any of my previous 6 visits?

I asked the Egyptologist who was acting as our tour guide whether this was a “dance” or some other activity. (In Egypt, in order to become a licensed tour guide, an individual must obtain an advanced degree in Egyptology as well as meet some other qualifications.)  He said yes, it was a liturgical dance being performed by a priest. So, what does this image suggest about the stereotype of the “Pharaonic” wrist and elbow posture?

  1. This dance is done by men. I have not yet found images of women doing it.
  2. The “Pharaonic” arm position was used for religious ritualistic dance.
  3. This dance was known to Egyptians as of 200 BCE, because construction on the temple building that stands at Edfu today was begun in 237 BCE. I haven’t yet found earlier images of it.

I still have never seen this type of arm position anywhere in Egypt other than the Edfu Temple.  I realize it’s possible that it appears elsewhere, but so far I haven’t found it.  I’ll keep looking.

I said for many years that I didn’t believe there was ever a bent wrist-and-elbow dance posture in ancient Egyptian dance because all of my prior research seemed to indicate there was not. It seems I was wrong. It’s time to update my thinking!