Our stereotypes of ancient Egyptian dance involve awkward-looking poses with right-angle positions of the elbow and wrist. People assume that such images appeared on temple and tomb walls. But, did they? Here’s a look at some of the dance scenes appearing in temples and tombs in Egypt.
At the Luxor Temple
The dancers in the photo at the top of this page appear on the west wall of the Luxor temple. If you look left to right, you’ll see that each image is bending back a little further. Think of these as individual frames in a movie, showing the motion of doing a backbend into a yoga wheel pose, or maybe doing the first half of a back handspring. Off to the right [not shown in this picture] there is a group of women playing sistrums (a type of rattle).
This scene is part of a larger mural showing a joyous religious celebration, the Opet festival where the god and goddess are united for conjugal fun. This dance, though, is not considered a ritual religious dance (although those did exist in ancient Egypt). Instead, it’s more of an entertainment spectacle that was being performed for the pleasure of those who saw it.
The Luxor Temple was built around 1,400 BCE, which means these images of dancers are about 3,400 years old.
These dancers are not priestesses worshiping a goddess, but rather secular people who are participating joyously in the annual event. I kind of think of this as being like Christmas in our North America culture – there ARE sacred events related to celebrating Christmas such as church services and pageants, but there are also many secular celebratory activities such as children sitting on Santa Claus’s lap to pose for photos.
Ostracon from Deir el-Medina
This ostracon (piece of limestone painted with an image) was found at the Worker’s Village near Luxor, also known as Deir el-Medina. Archaeologists believe it was created between 1292 and 1076 BCE. Today, it resides in Italy, at the museum in Turin. It bears a strong resemblance to the dancers on the west wall of the Luxor temple. For more information about Deir el-Medina, the site where this was found, see my post about Deir el-Medina.
The Red Chapel of Hatshepsut at Karnak Temple
Inside the grounds of the Karnak temple near Luxor, there is a chapel known as the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut. It features images resembling those of the Luxor Temple’s west wall.
The top row shows the backbends. Off to the right is a harpist playing for them. The bottom row shows men dancing on the left, and women playing sistrums (a type of rattle) on the right.
Archaeologists estimate this chapel may have been built around 1,400 BCE.
The Tomb of Ka-Gmni at Saqqara
These dancers appear in the tomb of Ka-Gmni at Saqqara, Egypt. It dates back to approximately 2300 BCE, and therefore is one of the oldest known images of dance found in Egypt.
Temples and tombs from ancient Egypt offer many tributes to motherhood. As of 2019, I’ve found one tomb at Saqqara with a madonna scene, and several temples along the Nile cruise route with motherhood-related images, including Luxor Temple, Edfu Temple, Kom Ombo Temple, and Philae Temple. Here’s a look at the ones I’ve discovered in my travels so far.
Tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep (Tomb of the Brothers)
At Saqqara, which is just outside of Cairo, the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, often known as the “tomb of the hairdressers” or the “tomb of the brothers” features two beautiful scenes of motherhood near its entrance.
These are the oldest images from ancient Egypt that I have found so far celebrating motherhood. Although scholars have not determined the tomb’s exact age, the current theory is that Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep served either Nyuserre Ini or Menkauhor Kaiu. Assuming that theory is correct, this tomb would thus have been built in the latter part of the 25th century BCE, making it over 4,000 years old.
One of the images at this tomb shows a small child playing around his mother while she does her daily housework.
The other shows the mother nursing the baby when it’s time to feed him. It’s really interesting to see this madonna-type image that was created about 2,500 years before the time of Christ.
The birth room of the Luxor Temple tells how Queen Mutemwia became the mother of Amenhotep III. It offers a fascinating story of immaculate conception, annunciation, and birth about 1,300 years before the story of Jesus Christ. The bottom row shows the ram-headed creator god Khnum molding two children, one to be the physical body, and the other to be his ka (spirit version). The story goes on to show the god Amun coming to her, the conception, the pregnancy, and the birth. The intent of the story is to justify Amenhotep III’s right to be revered as a god, just as the later story of Jesus used immaculate conception to justify his claim to be the Son of God.
In this segment of the wall, we see Queen Mutemwia (top right) sitting on the birth chair giving birth to her son s the deities Isis and Khnum rub her hands.
This birth scene would have been commissioned by Queen Mutemwia’s son, Amenhotep III, to support his divine claim to the throne of Egypt. Scholars estimate that his 37-year reign begin in 1386 BCE or 1388 BCE, which places the age of this scene as being more than 1,000 years before the temples of Edfu, Kom Ombo, and Philae (mentioned below) were constructed.
Interestingly, I had visited the Luxor Temple approximately 8 times without ever seeing this birth story. Finally, I visited the temple for about the 9th time in 2019, and this was the first time a guide showed me this scene. It’s not something that every tour of the Luxor Temple includes. If you want to see the birth room, you may need to insist that your guide include it in the tour.
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.
Near the entrance to the Edfu temple is a special room known as the mammisi, or “birth room”. This is a small chapel located just outside and in front of the main pylons, and it celebrates the birth of “Horus, the Unifier of Two Lands”. The mammisi features several images of Hathor playing musical instruments, including sistrum (rattle), frame drum, and lyre.
The Edfu temple that stands today is relatively young, but resides on the site of a much older shrine. The structure that stands today was built after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, leading to the era of Greek Pharaohs that ended with Cleopatra. 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.
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.
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 dating from the New Kingdom. 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. Unfortunately, the Crocodile Museum at the temple does not allow visitors to take photos. Another of my blog posts shows the Nilometer at this temple.
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, with most of the temple that remains today being built during the reign of Nectanebo I, ranging from 380-362. 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.
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.
I’ve featured highlights of how ancient Egypt honored motherhood by selecting several must-see images to watch for that are easy to find if taking a Nile cruise or a Luxor-to-Aswan tour or touring Saqqara near Cairo. These are ones I’ve personally noticed so far on my travels to Egypt, but I’m sure there are many I have not yet found. I’ll keep looking, and if I find more, I’ll add them to this blog post.
I encourage you, too, to keep looking on your own. You’re sure to discover more of these images in statues (in museums), tombs, and other temples.
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.
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.
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.
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?
And once I found it, I discovered it appeared in more than one place. Here’s a column showing the dancer facing the opposite direction.
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. The vertical lines coming down from the hands represent a stream of liquid being poured from the hands. So, what does this image suggest about the stereotype of the “Pharaonic” wrist and elbow posture?
This dance style is done by men. I have not yet found images of women doing it.
The “Pharaonic” arm position was used for religious ritualistic dance.
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.
This scene was shown in a temple that was built during the era of the Greek Pharaohs. This makes me wonder whether this dance position was indigenous to the Egyptians, or whether it was introduced by Greek priests. I guess it’s a question for further research.
When I returned to the Edfu temple in 2019 for my 9th visit to it, I once again saw the images shown in the photos above, but then was astonished to discover there were more such images at this temple! My guide confirmed that yes, these are also images of sacred dance being performed by priests. This time, instead of appearing to pour liquid from their hands, they appear to be holding something, perhaps daggers or feathers. How could I have missed these on my first eight visits to this temple?
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!