Cow's milk ἰrṯt ḥḏt was highly valued and was by no means considered nourishment only for young children or medical patients. Milk's perishable nature and the low yield of Egyptian cows (1–4 liters/quarts), prevented it from being a staple food, however, although dairy cows were raised in rural areas for a village's self-sufficiency. The act of milking was portrayed on tombs and coffins; the cow's hind legs were bound, and the milk was drained from the udder side ways into wide bowls. Instead of massaging the udder to stimulate milk production, the calf was often tied to its mother's front leg. For transport and storage, the milk was poured into clay pitchers that had narrow openings sealed with foliage. The drinking of goat and donkey milk, mentioned in Egyptian medical texts, was rarely illustrated and seems to have been considered unpleasant.
It is unclear into which other products milk was processed: smἰ was probably curdled milk or curd, but possibly cream, since it was formed by letting the milk stand overnight. Aside from “fresh” smἰ, there was milk with salt added, to enhance taste and to support clotting (curdling). A relatively expensive commodity, smἰ was listed next to oils, fats, and honey as an offering. It was also mentioned in delivery documents for the sed-festival and as additional rations in hin-measures for workers. Whether real cheese was produced is questionable, despite its easy manufacture from letting curd stand and from pressing and despite its being familiar to the neighboring Near Eastern peoples. Other milk products were sšr (“whey”), ἰʒṯt (“cream”?), and srw (Demotic sr, Coptic CIP, “butter”). There are but two mentions of “new” vessels for setting milk. The boiling of milk was a peculiarity of bedouin cuisine. In medicine, milk and smἰ were primarily used as cough medicine. In the Horus and Seth myth, Hathor healed the wounded eye of Horus with gazelle milk. Preserved “marsh bowls,” anthropomorphic vessels with arms and perforated breasts, and others in the form of Taweret have, with some assurance, been identified as milk pitchers.
Milk had a widely religious significance. It symbolized purity and rejuvenation. Nursing by the sacred cows bestowed “divine status and royal status.” In the New Kingdom, herds belonging to the temple and others imported from Syria and Nubia provided both cooked and fresh milk for feasts and offerings. For them, the king supplied pails, made of fine metals and copper, and he commissioned milk carriers. Large amounts of milk—more than two full pails—were used for the Sokar feast and the Nile offering. An unrelated ritual consisted of extinguishing torches in milk basins (“milk lakes”) in the sanctuary of Deir el-Bahari; in the offering ritual, milk served as food. For the milk offerings of Greco-Roman times, milk was given metaphoric names, such as “sweetness,” “life-blessing,” “white Eye of Horus,” and “perfection.” For the Abaton rites, milk was brought daily to Osiris (in 365 bowls) and to the trees of the mntʒ grove, as a libation, a custom that continued to influence the Meroitic offering tablets of the first and second centuries CE.
For the care of the dead, milk appeared on the offering list and in the name of estates. It was poured onto the ground in front of the coffin sled, for purposes of purification. In transfiguration texts, the dead wish for milk from divine cows, mainly those of Hesat and Sechat-Hor, who also appear as local deities.
- Bossneck, Joachim. Die Tierwelt des Alten Ägypten. Munich, 1988.
- Darby, William J., Paul Ghalioungui, and Louis Grivetti. Food: The Gift of Osiris. New York, 1977.
- Guglielmi, Waltraud. “Käse”; “Milch(wirtschaft)”; “Milchopfer”; and “Sauermilch.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, vol. 4. Wiesbaden, 1982.
Waltraud Guglielmi; Translated from German by Elizabeth Schwaiger