desert game and the animals of the Nile Valley and its adjacent marshes was the original (Paleolithic) form of food gathering in ancient Egypt. The domestication of some animals and the slaughter of domesticated animals replaced hunting during and after the Neolithic period. Rudiments of the original hunt were, however, preserved in the slaughter ritual, and animals selected for slaughter were caught, bound, killed, and then dissected according to the ancient hunting traditions. The hunting of animals in the wild continued, however, as a special event, although the main focus was no longer the gathering of food but the dominance of the hunter over the game. The task of the hunt came to be seen as a testament to the physical superiority of the hunter over the spiritual powers of the animal world. A successful hunt qualified the hunter as a leader and it especially legitimized the power of the ruler or king (as, for example, the royal hunts portrayed on the chest of Tutankhamun or the hunting scenes of Ramesses III in Medinet Habu). The importance of the hunt in qualifying the powers of Egypt's ruler resulted in an eventual reservation of the hunt as a privilege for the king. For example, during the height of the Old Kingdom, only the king was allowed to go hunting equipped with bow and arrow, and he had the reserved right to hunt specific game animals—above all the wild bull and the lion. Other instances of royal hunting privileges included the harpooning of the hippopotamus in the Nile Delta's marshes, bird-hunting with throw sticks in the papyrus thicket, and the spear-hunting of fish with two-pronged spears.

In the hunting scenes of private tombs from the Old Kingdom, the tomb owner was not shown as the hunter. He participated in the hunt only as a spectator, while the members of his household joined as helpers (for example, in leading the hounds, handling the bent sticks, or lassoing game). Only during the fifth dynasty do nonroyal tomb owners join actively in the hunt (the first documented examples being Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep in Saqqara), where the first depictions of fishing and of bird-hunting in the papyrus thicket were also found. The nonroyal tomb owner in his role as hunter was then given the same qualifying symbols as the ruler. The adaptation of royal hunting privileges for nonroyal tomb owners became evident toward the end of the Old Kingdom, when they were shown hunting with bow and arrow (the first known depiction is the rock tomb of Ankehtifi in Moʿalla).

The ritualistic interpretation of the hunt in ancient Egypt means that hunting was not considered a sport or recreation. An evaluation of hunting as a sport is possible only after the rituals have lost meaning; thus, during the Middle Kingdom, the king and his noble officials went hunting for the first time as a recreation. The concept of open and closed seasons for hunting was unknown to the Egyptians. In depictions of hunting scenes from the Old and the Middle Kingdom, the hunt was portrayed mostly in spring—in the mating season and when the young are born.

Hunters and Hunting Costumes.

Typical hunting costumes were first documented during the late prehistoric period on the Lion Hunt Palette, on which the expedition hunted lion and desert game. The hunters are dressed in furs belted with animal tails. Some wear a headdress of ostrich feathers. Their hunting equipment consists of bows and arrows, spears, bent sticks, and lassos. Only the leader of the expedition shoots at the lion. Circumstances were somewhat different by Old Kingdom times. The noble tomb owner (Niankhkhnum, Khnumhotep) of that period wore the three-sectioned kilt for desert hunting; it was also worn during the hunt in the papyrus thicket and is almost identical to the royal shendyet-kilt (šnḏwt). The accompanying hunters and beaters were dressed in the so-called ribboned kilt. Specialized hunters, used mostly for leading the hounds (nu [nw], “hunters”), wore a special costume that clearly identified them. It consisted of a knee-length dress that covered the upper body. The seam on the top is cut below the arm on the one side; on the other side, it is tied in a knot above the shoulder. The dress is usually in multicolored stripes; but sometimes the stripes are uniformly white. Since the costume is knotted above one shoulder, like a panther skin, it may well have been a dress made of fur or animal skin or a fabric imitating such materials.

During the Middle Kingdom, the hunter wore a long kilt with a wide gap in the front, behind which a bunched-up leather leaf is visible. In some cases, a ribbon crosses the upper body. This hunting costume can be identified as the Nubian mercenary dress, worn from the beginning of the Middle Kingdom. During the New Kingdom, tomb owners were shown wearing the Egyptian courtier's costume and riding a chariot to the hunt.


Hunting. Fowling depicated on a relief from the tomb of Mereuka at Saqqara, sixth dynasty. (Courtesy David P. Siverman)


Aside from birds and fish, the most frequently sought animals were the hippopotamus, hunted with harpoons in the papyrus marshes, and the desert animals in areas around the Nile valley. The most popular region for hunting game in Egypt was the flat desert area, where the conditions for ambush, the foremost hunting method, were favorable. There are accounts of hunts in the Wadi Hammamat, a desert valley in the Eastern Desert, in the Faiyum Oasis, and in the Giza area, near Memphis. As the game became depleted, the hunt sometimes extended into foreign lands, where they were often part of war campaigns. Royal inscriptions from the New Kingdom tell of hunts in neighboring countries for lion, elephant, and rhinoceros.

Game is shown in detail in the hunt depictions from the Old Kingdom onward. During the Old Kingdom, many wild animals were hunted: antelope cows, Isabella gazelle, Dorkas gazelle, bow-legged antelope, Mendes antelope, stag, ibex, mane sheep, hyenas, wild dogs, foxes, and hares but also lions, leopards, and ostriches. To identify the landscape as a desert, the hunt illustrations include zorils (a skunklike animal), porcupines, hedgehogs, and desert rats; with the possible exception of the hedgehog, those were likely not regarded as game. In the hunt illustrations of the Middle Kingdom, wild donkey, giraffe, and various monkeys were shown, as well as some unusual hunt animals (such as the mythical beasts whose habitat was believed to be in the desert).


Hunting. A hippopotamus hunt on a relief from the tomb of Mereuka at Saqqara, sixth dynasty. (Courtesty David P.Siverman)

Hunting Tools and Methods.

The hunting methods of the historic period were, in the main, the same as those of the prehistoric. The hunting weapons had also changed little since Neolithic times (arrows, spears, and harpoons, as well as flat curved clubs). Traps and nets were used for hunting birds; collapsing nets were used for catching waterfowl. In the marsh thickets, birds were hunted with throw sticks. Fish were caught with nets, wicker traps, fishing rods, and spears, and the hippopotamus with harpoons. Desert game was pursued by trapping, by ambush, or by chase.

There is very little documentation for trapping in the historic period, in which animals were caught either dead or alive in traps, nets, pits, tight enclosures, and other manmade structures. In an Old Kingdom tomb, two lions were shown being transported in cages on sleighs, and they were probably caught by trapping. In the historic period, most hunts took place as a single-file ambush, in which hunters with varying types of equipment participated. Hounds (and probably hunting leopards) were also used. Many depictions document that the ambush took place in the flat, open landscape of the desert. Fences and nets were erected to close off the area on two sides, with lateral barricades set up parallel. From the opposite open sides, the hunters and beaters would approach with their hounds, herding the game with cries and by beating sticks. While the royal hunter shot the choicest game (wild bull and lion) with bow and arrow, the other participants fell upon the game with bent clubs, axes, or lassos; some caught it with bare hands.

The ambush hunt was replaced by the chase hunt only during the New Kingdom, when the horse-drawn chariot was first used. The hunter rode in the chariot and gave chase to the game that tried to escape at top speed from both a hail of arrows and the accompanying hounds. The lion hunt became part of the royal hunt from the middle of the eighteenth dynasty onward. A special variation of the lion hunt was the hunt for a single lion from a chariot, in which the king killed the lion with a lance while riding in the chariot. The iconography of this image was probably adapted from Mesopotamia.

Hunters' Language and Hunting Gods.

No special hunters' language has been found. The exaggerated accounts of royal prowess in the hunt cannot be taken as “huntsman's slang,” because such accounts were written in order to praise the king. The victorious hunt of the king metaphorically made “game” of Egypt's enemies, and they fled in horror from the attacking king. They also ran like “herds of game” from the attacking ruler, it was said.

Some gods, too, went hunting (Horus, Onuris, Sched), although Egypt had no specific god of the hunt. The goddess Neith was, however, linked to the hunt as a hunt deity. Possibly, the hunt was the domain of the lion goddess Sekhmet. Desert game was sacrificed to her, and to the goddess Bastet in the temple, yet during the feast of Bastet, lion hunting was forbidden.

See also SPORTS.


  • Altenmüller, Hartwig. Die Jagd im Alten Ägypten. Hamburg, 1967.
  • Altenmüller, Hartwig. “Jäger,” “Jagd,” “Jagddarstellungen,” “Jagdmethoden,” “Jagdritual,” “Jagdtracht,” and “Jagdzauber.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 3: 219–236. Wiesbaden, 1975.
  • Decker, Wolfgang, and Michael Herbst. Bildatlas zum Sport im alten Ägypten, Handbuch der Orientalistik, Erste Abteilung, 14. Leiden, New York, and Cologne, 1994.

Hartwig Altenmüller; Translated from German by Elizabeth Schwaiger