Ancient History & Civilisation

5. Manners


If we try to visualize the Egyptian character we find it difficult to distinguish between the ethics of the literature and the actual practices of life. Very frequently noble sentiments occur; a poet, for example, counsels his countrymen:

Give bread to him who has no field,

And create for thyself a good name for ever more;114

and some of the elders give very laudable advice to their children. A papyrus in the British Museum, known to scholars as “The Wisdom of Amenemope” (ca. 950 B.C.), prepares a student for public office with admonitions that probably influenced the author or authors of the “Proverbs of Solomon.”

Be not greedy for a cubit of land,

And trespass not on the boundary of the widow. . . .

Plough the fields that thou mayest find thy needs,

And receive thy bread from thine own threshing floor.

Better is a bushel which God giveth to thee

Than five thousand gained by transgression. . . .

Better is poverty in the hand of God

Than riches in the storehouse;

And better are loaves when the heart is joyous

Than riches in unhappiness. . . .115

Such pious literature did not prevent the normal operation of human greed. Plato described the Athenians as loving knowledge, the Egyptians as loving wealth; perhaps he was too patriotic. In general the Egyptians were the Americans of antiquity: enamored of size, given to gigantic engineering and majestic building, industrious and accumulative, practical even in the midst of many ultramundane superstitions. They were the arch-conservatives of history; the more they changed, the more they remained the same; through forty centuries their artists copied the old conventions religiously. They appear to us, from their monuments, to have been a matter-of-fact people, not given to non-theological nonsense. They had no sentimental regard for human life, and killed with the clear conscience of nature; Egyptian soldiers cut off the right hand, or the phallus, of a slain enemy, and brought it to the proper scribe that it might be put into the record to their credit.116 In the later dynasties the people, long accustomed to internal peace and to none but distant wars, lost all military habits and qualities, until at last a few Roman soldiers sufficed to master all Egypt.117

The accident that we know them chiefly from the remains in their tombs or the inscriptions on their temples has misled us into exaggerating their solemnity. We perceive from some of their sculptures and reliefs, and from their burlesque stories of the gods,118that they had a jolly turn for humor. They played many public and private games, such as checkers and dice;119 they gave many modern toys to their children, like marbles, bouncing balls, tenpins and tops; they enjoyed wrestling contests, boxing matches and bull-fights.120 At feasts and recreations they were anointed by attendants, were wreathed with flowers, feted with wines, and presented with gifts.

From the painting and the statuary we picture them as a physically vigorous people, muscular, broad-shouldered, thin-waisted, full-lipped, and flat-footed from going unshod. The upper classes are represented as fashionably slender, imperiously tall, with oval face, sloping forehead, regular features, a long, straight nose, and magnificent eyes. Their skin was white at birth (indicating an Asiatic rather than an African origin), but rapidly darkened under the Egyptian sun;121 their artists idealized them in painting the men red, the women yellow; perhaps these colors were merely cosmetic styles. The man of the people, however, is pictured as short and squat, like the “Sheik-el-Beled,” formed by heavy toil and an unbalanced ration; his features are rough, his nose blunt and wide; he is intelligent but coarse. Perhaps, as in so many other instances, the people and their rulers were of different races: the rulers of Asiatic, the people of African, derivation. The hair was dark, sometimes curly, but never woolly. Women bobbed their hair in the most modern mode; men shaved lips and chin, but consoled themselves with magnificent wigs. Often, in order to wear these more comfortably, they shaved the head; even the queen consort (e.g., Ikhnaton’s mother Tiy) cut off all her hair to wear more easily the royal wig and crown. It was a matter of rigid etiquette that the king should have the biggest wig.122

According to their means they repaired the handiwork of nature with subtle cosmetic art. Faces were rouged, lips were painted, nails were colored, hair and limbs were oiled; even in the sculptures the Egyptian women have painted eyes. Those who could afford it had seven creams and two kinds of rouge put into their tombs when they died. The remains abound in toilet sets, mirrors, razors, hair-curlers, hair-pins, combs, cosmetic boxes, dishes and spoons—made of wood, ivory, alabaster or bronze, and designed in delightful and appropriate forms. Eye-paint still survives in some of the tubes. The kohl that women use today for painting the eyebrows and the face is a lineal descendant of the oil used by the Egyptians; it has come down to us through the Arabs, whose word for it, al-kohl, has given us our word alcohol. Perfumes of all sorts were used on the body and the clothes, and homes were made fragrant with incense and myrrh.123

Their clothing ran through every gradation from primitive nudity to the gorgeous dress of Empire days. Children of both sexes went about, till their teens, naked except for ear-rings and necklaces; the girls, however, showed a beseeming modesty by wearing a string of beads around the middle.124 Servants and peasants limited their everyday wardrobe to a loin-cloth. Under the Old Kingdom free men and women went naked to the navel, and covered themselves from waist to knees with a short, tight skirt of white linen.125 Since shame is a child of custom rather than of nature, these simple garments contented the conscience as completely as Victorian petticoats and corsets, or the evening dress of the contemporary American male; “our virtues lie in the interpretation of the time.” Even the priests, in the first dynasties, wore nothing but loin-cloths, as we see from the statue of Ranofer.126 When wealth increased, clothing increased; the Middle Kingdom added a second and larger skirt over the first, and the Empire added a covering for the breast, with now and then a cape. Coachmen and grooms took on formidable costumes, and ran through the streets in full livery to clear a way for the chariots of their masters. Women, in the prosperous dynasties, abandoned the tight skirt for a loose robe that passed over the shoulder and was joined in a clasp under the right breast. Flounces, embroideries and a thousand frills appeared, and fashion entered like a serpent to disturb the paradise of primitive nudity.127

Both sexes loved ornament, and covered neck, breast, arms, wrists and ankles with jewelry. As the nation fattened on the tribute of Asia and the commerce of the Mediterranean world, jewelry ceased to be restricted to the aristocracy, and became a passion with all classes. Every scribe andmerchant had his seal of silver or gold; every man had a ring, every woman had an ornamental chain. These chains, as we see them in the museums today, are of infinite variety: some of them two to three inches, some of them five feet, in length; some thick and heavy, some “as slight and flexible as the finest Venetian lace.”128 About the time of the Eighteenth Dynasty ear-rings became de rigueur; every one had to have the ears pierced for them, not only girls and women, but boys and men.129 Men as well as women decorated their persons with bracelets and rings, pendants and beads of costly stone. The women of ancient Egypt could learn very little from us in the matter of cosmetics and jewelry if they were reincarnated among us today.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!