Moments of joy and leisure are evoked by dancing, as was the case in ancient Egypt. Some texts show that teachers warned their pupils against dance, considering it a mere amusement and, therefore, a loss of time. “One who dances in the desert” is a lazy and neglectful person, they admonished. Scenes of banquets with young dancing girls were represented in New Kingdom tombs at Thebes, where the impression made was that they were only concerned with entertainment in a mundane sense. Scrutiny revealed, however, that this was only the superficial aspect of such scenes, which have become rightly famous for their artistic achievement.
The Egyptian language does not have a generic word dance, which can cover all aspects of this concept, no matter what type of dancing or movement is involved. Instead, Egyptian had, from the very beginning, two or three words usually translated as “dance,” without further precision. The most common and ancient word is ibʒ, which frequently includes a game piece in its hieroglyphic orthography, suggesting that there might be some resemblance between the movement of the game piece and the dancer: “caper” may be a proper translation. Another common word, but of obscure etymology, is ḫbi, usually considered an acrobatic dance. In the rwi (“run away”?) dance, performers bear, in most cases, clappers ending with animals heads. Other terms have even less clear meanings. A ksks (“twist”?) dance seems to have been practiced mostly by non-Egyptians or even by animals. The ṯrf dance of the Old Kingdom was, in most cases, performed by a pair of men. Contrary to the commonly expressed opinion, its relationship to the later ṯrf remains questionable; in its only known representation, it is not associated with dance but with music, in a rather static way. After the New Kingdom, many new terms appeared, adding little to our understanding. The growing vocabulary may give the impression that each word was related to a specific dance but, unfortunately, pictorial evidence has failed to confirm that view.
The problems related to the ṯrf activity and a closer examination of scenes in which dances are represented raise the question of their relationship to musical instruments in general. In tombs, where wall scenes are displayed in superimposed registers, bands of musicians and groups of dancers are usually shown in different registers, giving the impression that their respective activities may not be too closely associated. Even when they are represented in the same register, some element frequently interferes with the scene to separate them from each other. People painted in direct contact with dancers are, as a rule, clapping their hands, using sticks of various forms as clappers, or playing tambourines, drums, sistra, menat-necklaces, or any form of percussion intended to beat out tempo and rhythm. Only occasionally were wind or stringed instrument players closely associated with dancers in the same scene.
In most instances, dances were performed either by men or by women, but in separate groups. Within a single group, a movement could be executed solo, by a couple, or by several persons; however, all dancers were part of the whole, as in a modern ballet, in which different dancers onstage execute different movements but all are part of the same choreography.
The oldest dances known from ancient Egypt are those related to different phases in funerals. In some Old Kingdom tombs, just after mummification was completed, dances were first performed by a specialized group, the ladies of “the acacia house.” The members of that institution were concerned with the appeasement of the dangerous lion goddess Sekhmet and the rejuvenation of the dead. The ladies mourned the dead but also celebrated the regenerated body. The appeasement of Sekhmet was probably related to successful mummification—the victory over demons endangering the rebirth of the deceased. After that, dancers were involved in what is called the “offering table” dance, which invited the dead, born to a new life, to his first meal. Variations on this topic do not always include the ladies of “the acacia house,” since there are portrayals of other groups of women and even men. A range of dance scenes, especially during the Old Kingdom, have been loosely associated with the dead sitting at a table. Another group of dance performers, the ḫnrt, apparently specializing in childbirth ceremonies, might also have been associated with funerals in helping the deceased enter a new life. On its way to the grave, the funeral equipment and the statues of the dead were again followed by dancers. Some Middle Kingdom tomb scenes in Beni Hasan gave a special emphasis to that episode; they show groups of acrobats executing complicated figures, some looking more like circus performances than dancers. Beni Hasan princes were very fond of acrobatic or wrestling games and perhaps they wished to introduce a personal touch in their funerals. That kind of scene was also used later on in the New Kingdom, but it was depicted in a less vivid manner. As was already the case with the old ṯrf dance, a special kind or variant of funeral dance was performed in honor of the goddess Hathor, known from Middle and New Kingdom tombs. It was characterized by leaping or skipping and was meant to celebrate the coming of the goddess. Hathor could represent the comely aspect of the dangerous Sekhmet, but she was also the goddess who met the dead at the entrance of the underworld. She helped them enter it and is the main agent of rebirth. An appeal to her was recited or sung, accompanied by the clapping of hands and sticks or by the rustling of the menat-necklace beads.
As part of the funerary procession the dances required no other setting. Such was not always the case for the mww-dancers, known from the Old Kingdom until the end of the New Kingdom. In the less sophisticated scenes, their dance, performed when the procession reached the tomb, differed only from the others by their special headdresses. Woven of papyrus stalks, their “caps” identified them as marsh dwellers and, more precisely, as ferrymen. Their role was to ferry the dead across the waters leading to the netherworld, a travel patterned on a fictitious journey through the Nile Delta, from Memphis to Sais, then to Buto and back. In more complex settings, the mww-dancers were part of a scene that included lightly built chapels, pools surrounded by trees, and religious symbols—a scene that endeavored to re-create, on a small scale and near the tomb, the sacred precincts of the cities mentioned above.
Although they were depicted as dancing at the entrance of the tomb, mww-dancers should not be confused with the dwarfs dancing “at the entrance of the shaft,” as texts usually put it. Dwarfs as dancers were known from the Old Kingdom and were much prized because of their rarity. King Pepy II (c.2300 BCE) warmly congratulated the noble Horkhuf for bringing back a dwarf for “god's dances” from an expedition abroad. In the Pyramid Texts, the dead king was identified, once, with such a dwarf. In the few scenes in which they were portrayed, the dwarfs appeared alone, discretely mixed in with children or adults. The dances performed by them at the entrance of the tomb were mentioned in texts only, from the Middle Kingdom onward. These were clearly farewell dances, where the departure of the dead was associated with the departure of the sun for its night journey into the underworld; like the sun that appears each morning as a newborn child, the dead would rejuvenate during their own journeys. The dwarf, who hardly exceeds a youth in height, was considered a representative of the sun, never growing old. Dwarfs also danced at funerals of the sacred bulls, Apis and Mnevis, who were closely related, respectively, to the rebirth of Osiris and the sun god. A magic spell from the New Kingdom also linked the solar dwarf to the baboon, a well-known sun dancer.
From numerous representations in tombs and from short texts that comment on them, funeral dances are better known any others; but this does not mean that dances were performed mainly for such sad events. Many of the dance scenes from the Old and Middle Kingdoms, for example, appear at first glance, to be set in the context of daily life. Their very presence in tombs, however, and their many details in that setting have suggested an unquestionable religious significance. The dividing line between both aspects of the same activity—the sacred and the profane—is especially true for banquet scenes painted in New Kingdom tombs at the Theban necropolis. These scenes brought together the ritual and domestic sides of a family feast, where musicians and dancers were present. The scenes gave special emphasis to the banquet, where food was much less important than wine. Richly dressed guests were attended by youths pouring out wine in cups. As musicians sang “make-merry” songs, guests made “long life” toasts and drank until drunkenness descended—a condition that allowed them to communicate with Hathor, “the lady of drunkenness.” Offerings were even made to gods of the necropolis or to gods like the ferocious Sekhmet, to satisfy them and to keep malevolent beings at a distance. All was done to enjoy the present day, to forget how short life is. The New Kingdom scenes differ from the “offering table” dances of the Old and Middle Kingdoms. The religious element is still present, however, in those banquet scenes.
As the wise Anii recommended in his teaching, celebrate in due time the feast of one's own god by a banquet to which family and other relatives are invited. During the feast, he said, make offerings, play music, dance, and drink until drunkenness. Anii's text provided the clue to the banquet scenes; in some, a girl dancing alone was represented among musicians, thus complying with the wise man's advice. In most cases the girl, in a curious attitude, bowed and hid her face behind her arm. The female musicians, near her, were generally lute players. They were represented with a bent knee, striking the ground with the tip of the foot. They were not dancing but just beating out the rhythm. Their stance, however, was similar to the ideogram that depicts, after the New Kingdom, the supposed ṯnf lute-dancer, so the question remains, was ṯnf really a dancer, as generally accepted in past years? He might have been a musician with specific attributions in religious rites, those related to the appeasement of Sekhmet and similar deities.
The link between the old “offering table” dance and the dances in New Kingdom banquet scenes might be less tenuous than has usually been supposed. A Middle Kingdom stela (Louvre C 17) shows a scene halfway between both representations. Guests were sitting at tables and wine was absent, but the harp player and the dancing girl shown were heralding what was usually seen in banquets. All the dance scenes pictured in tombs showed moments of sadness or moments of joy, because dance was the hinge of both. It might end the one and pave the way for the other. It might be performed for the pleasure of the living or for the dead, auguring a good event to come—their rebirth. Always with a religious background, the only difference in such dance was the schedule: the moment of the death was unpredictable but family feasts, in all probability, were intended to coincide with religious events that were turning points in a cycle.
Notwithstanding some remarkable exceptions, dancing scenes disappeared from tombs after the end of the New Kingdom. That was probably due to changes of habits in tomb decoration and did not mean that dances ceased to be practiced during funerals. Mortuary texts of the Late period confirmed that dances were still an important part of these ceremonies. In contrast, dancing scenes in temples were depicted only from the New Kingdom onward; this may be explained by the circumstance that temples prior to the New Kingdom are scarcely known to us. The dances pictured in temples concern both royal and divine ceremonies; their role was, ultimately, not really any different from those already discussed.
The king was, from a dogmatic point of view, the representative of the gods on earth; they bestowed on him the power to govern, to preserve cosmic order by performing their rites in temples. These activities supposed that the king was, at any moment, at the peak of his ability. When the king grew old, the jubilee ceremony, the so-called sed-festival, was intended to restore his declining vigor. From reliefs preserved in the tomb of Kharuef (reign of Amenhotpe III, c.1410 BCE), at crucial moments, festival dances were performed. Dances performed during religious ceremonies related to turning points in the year can also be considered moments of renewal. The variations of dances performed on those occasions were mostly explained by their religious context and by the way they had to conform to or reflect the local mythology of the god to whom they were addressed. The factor they have in common is that perhaps all ceremonies of this kind reached their climax in the popular rejoicing that focused on a solemn procession of the sacred barks, since most of the important dance scenes showed that kind of procession.
During the Valley festival at Thebes, the god Amun left his temple at Karnak to visit the tombs on the western bank, after crossing the Nile River on his bark. While transported overland, the bark was escorted not only by priests but also by musicians and dancers. That visit, paid to private tombs on the new moon of the tenth month of the year, was surely related to the banquets discussed above. The families were probably awaiting the procession in the court of the tombs, preparing the banquet, and rejoicing when it passed by. Eventually the procession reached the sanctuary of Hathor, situated in the Deir el-Bahri valley, where the deity was honored as a child-giving goddess and protectress of the dead. A vigil called “the inebriation feast” was important on this occasion. During the Opet festival, the bark of Amun was accompanied by much the same retinue as during the Valley festival. For that occasion, when the flow of the Nile was at its highest, the god traveled from Karnak to Luxor temple (called the “Southern Opet”) to meet his wife, the goddess Mut. Some clues indicate that this feast was considered a sacred marriage, which would result in giving birth every year to a reborn or rejuvenated king. The procession was identified with the journey of the sun in its bark, in the company of Hathor in her role of sky and love goddess. Acrobatic dances executed by groups of women were the most characteristic feature of the processions, even if such figures were performed for other occasions; in addition, dark and exotic dancers—perhaps Nubians—jumped and weaved to the beat of drums. During the feasts of Min, the god of fertility and regeneration, dancers specially attached to his cult took part in ceremonies and processions. Dancing monkeys were also pictured, at least during the Late period, although they had been used for entertainment long before. In Egyptian mythology, monkeys were supposed to have executed farewell and greeting dances to the setting and the rising sun; they announced that the god was to be born again during his night journey, and they rejoiced at his rebirth in the morning. These trained animals were consecrated to Thoth, the god of science and writing. The priests of Min danced with monkeys and had, as their inscriptions tell us, knowledge of the sacred books. In ancient Egypt, writing was considered a major tool for the preservation of life.
In all those ceremonies, as in the funeral rites, dances announced or celebrated rebirth in all its possible aspects. That was especially important for new year's feasts. In most temples, during the last five days of the year, music was played and dances were performed to appease Sekhmet and to protect the country from attacks of her disease-bearing and deadly demons. They swarmed around, marking the agony of the year; dancing was intended to protect against this dreadful possibility. The new year was marked by the coming of the Nile flood. At the southern border of Egypt, joyful and noisy feasts were organized to greet the first manifestations of “the new water,” as it was called. The coming of the flood was thought to be nothing more than the return to Egypt of the angry and dangerous Sekhmet—to be transformed by music and dancing into the mild Hathor. With the flood, she fertilized Egypt for the year to come, providing wealth, ease, and comfort. All kinds of performers were involved: acrobats, foreigners with their exotic dances, and even the trained monkeys. The god Shu, who brought back “the distant one,” danced and welcomed the goddess, his wife, for the promising harvests she was bringing with her.
In ancient Egypt, dance was a time marker. It evidenced the moment of radical change, when something ends and something else begins. It protected from the dangers of what was dying and celebrated what was to be born anew.
See also MUSIC.
- Altenmüaller, Hartwig. “Zur Frage der MWW.” Studien zur Altägyptische Kultur 2 (1975), 1–37. An extensive study on the mww-dancers and their ritual significance.
- Assmann, Jan. Stein und Zeit. Mensch und Gesellschaft im Alten Ägypten. Munich, 1991. Chapter 8 (pp. 200–237) is devoted to banquet scenes and their ethic and religious significance.
- Brunner-Traut, Emma. Der Tanz im Alten Ägypten. 3d ed. Glückstadt, 1992. Chronological analysis of dance scenes and texts concerning dance in general; this edition reproduces that of 1938, augmented by the 1986 article on dance, “Tanz,” published by the same author in Lexikon der Ägyptologie.
- Burkard, Günter. “Der in der Wüste tanzt.” In Wege öffnen, Festschrift für Rolf Gundlach, edited by M. Schade-Busch, pp. 23–29. Wiesbaden, 1996. Remarks on dance as amusement and a sign of laziness.
- Daumas, François. “Les propylées du temple d'Hathor à Philae et le culte de la déesse.” Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 95 (1968), 1–17. Studies the texts of a Hathor temple that mentioned hymns and dances for this goddess during the new year's feast.
- Edel, Elmar. Das Akazienhaus und seine Rolle in den Begräbnisriten des alten Ägyptens. Munich, 1970. A study of the “acacia house” and its ladies as dance performers in funerary rites.
- El-Aguizy, Ola. “Dwarfs and Pygmies in Ancient Egypt.” Annales du Service des Antiquités de l'Égypte 71 (1987), 53–60. Summarizes the religious and mythological roles of dwarfs, with comments on dancing dwarfs.
- Gardiner, Alan H. “A Didactic Passage Re-examined.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 45 (1959), 12–15. Comments on a literary text that mentioned music and dance in relation with family feasts; the text was, in some ways, a description of banquet scenes depicted in tombs.
- Green, Lynda. “Egyptian Words for Dancers and Dancing.” Egyptological Miscellanies. A Tribute to Professor R. J. Williams, edited by J. K. Hoffmeier and E. S. Meltzer, pp. 29–38. The Ancient World, 6. Chicago, 1983. A handy survey of the dance vocabulary.
- Nord, Del. “The Term ḫnr: ‘Harem’ or ‘Musical Performers’?” Studies in Ancient Egypt, the Aegean, and the Sudan: Essays in Honor of Dows Dunham, edited by W. K. Simpson and W. M. Davis, pp. 137–145. Boston, 1981. Stresses the existence of a specialized group of musician-dancers frequently represented or mentioned on tombs of the Old and Middle Kingdom.
- Quaegebeur, Jan, and Agnès Rammant-Peeters, “Le pyramidion d'un “danseur en chef” de Bastet.” Studia Paulo Naster Oblata, vol. 2: Orientalia Antiqua, edited by J. Quaegebeur, pp. 179–205. Leuven, 1982. A study (pp. 193–205) examining the role of the ṯrf musician and his possible dancing activities.
- Van Lepp, Jonathan. “The Role of Dance in Funerary Ritual in the Old Kingdom.” Akten des vierten Internationalen Ägyptologen Kongresses, vol. 3, edited by S. Schoske, pp. 385–394. Beihefte Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur. Hamburg, 1989. Summarizes the ritual context of some funeral dances shown on Old Kingdom tombs.
- Wild, Henri. “Les danses sacrées de l'Égypte ancienne.” In Les danses sacrées: Sources Orientales, vol. 6, pp. 33–117. Paris, 1963. The basic study on the subject; although limited to sacred dances, treats almost all aspects of the topic.