The Ancient Egyptians are known for creating one of the greatest early civilizations in world history. They left behind a rich cultural legacy that includes the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx. But if you look beyond their architectural marvels, what was life really like for the Ancient Egyptians? As it turns out, mummification was just the tip of the iceberg. Here are ten of the bizarre practices of ancient Egypt.
The Ancient Egyptians were early proponents of hygiene and knew the importance of keeping their bodies clean, even if they didn’t yet understand bacteria. They did, however, make the link between maintaining personal hygiene and not getting sick.
While this seems amazing for a culture that was formed over 5000 years ago, their chosen solution left a little to be desired. The Ancient Egyptians were big fans of laxatives, with most people using them several times a month “to keep diseases away”. The prevailing medical theory of the time was that the body contained numerous “channels”. These channels could become blocked by evil spirits, leading the person to become sick. They believed that laxatives unblocked these channels. In fact, it was seen as the remedy to most, if not all, ailments. Ironically, this even included complaints of diarrhea. The types of laxatives used included figs, bran, and dates.
It’s also been shown that they used bowel stimulants such as colocynth and castor oil as part of this bizarre practice of ancient Egypt.
Childbirth can be one of the most painful experiences in a mother’s life. So imagine going through labour without the support of modern medical care and practitioners. When giving birth in Ancient Egypt, mothers would go into a squatting position over two large bricks.
Those bricks are now known as Abydos birth bricks. The bricks would be decorated with colorful images of the gods and happy children, to invoke protection for the mother and new baby.
They believed that the infant needed to be protected from evil spirits who would attempt to harm the child from birth. After all, the infant mortality rate at the time was so high. The mother-to-be was attended by her handmaidens who would help her remain in the squatting position, as the midwife delivered the baby.
The birth bricks were a crucial part of the ceremony of childbirth. The richer you were, the better- and more highly decorated – birth bricks you owned.
Ancient Egyptians loved cleanliness. But another way in which they maintained their personal hygiene was to shave their heads.
Not only is a shaved head more comfortable in the hot Egyptian climate, but it’s also easier to avoid the dangers of lice infestations. So although they’re commonly depicted in art as having long black hair – these were actually wigs.
One of the main reasons they wore wigs, especially for the working class, was to protect their shaven scalps from getting burnt in the sun. They were also used for decoration and as a way to cover thinning hair. Interestingly, lice were so prevalent that wig makers had to clean the hair with combs to remove lice eggs. We know this since combs have been found with traces of the eggs still in their teeth!
The Royal Family were especially fond of using wigs. They would be used in daily life as well as for special ceremonies, with some wigs dyed blue, green, or red and featuring precious stones. It has also been discovered that the Ancient Egyptians, especially Royals and nobles, used an early type of hair gel on their wigs. This was made from the fatty acids of both plants and animals and actually created the perfect environment for the wig to be naturally mummified alongside the human body. Although young children also shaved their heads, those of nobility often had a long lock of hair on the left side of their head, called a ‘sidelock of youth’.
It was a symbol indicating the wearer was a legitimate heir or osiris.
Wearing a bag full of mouse bones around your neck may not sound like a good idea to us today. But this was the very remedy prescribed to those having trouble with bed-wetting in Ancient Egypt.
And it didn’t stop there: rodent-related cures seem to have been very popular with the Ancient Egyptians. Treatments involving mice were used in ointments to help everything from scalp issues to rheumatic pain. The bag of mouse bones remedy was also suggested to help a teething child, with the mother and child having first eaten the cooked mouse.
These treatments likely had more negative effects on these ailments, as examinations of the digestive tracts of several children buried in cemeteries from the Predynastic period found evidence of rodent bones. Alongside actual written accounts of the remedy, it’s proof that this bizarre practice of ancient Egypt was widely and frequently used.
6. Servants Coated in Honey
There’s a saying that you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Pharaoh Pepy II would have totally agreed with the sentiment. Pepy absolutely hated flies, but with the Nile in close proximity to the Royal Quarters, the pests were commonplace. In response, Pepy ordered that several naked slaves or servants be kept around him at all times. But here’s the kicker: they had to be completely covered in honey. That way, the flies would swarm to the honey-smeared servants and not bother him.
While this barmy idea did actually succeed in luring the flies away from Pepy, it must have been more than a little uncomfortable for the servants involved. Plus, Pepy II lived to the age of 100 – he had one of the longest reigns of any Egyptian Pharaoh. That means a long list of honey-drenched servants with much shorter lifespans!
5. Incestuous Marriage
When it comes to Royal Dynasties, history has shown the prevalence of intermarriage or incestuous marriage. It continued to be popular in some countries right up to the 16th Century. Many commoners, too, once believed that it was perfectly acceptable to marry your cousin. This bizarre practice of ancient Egypt was not only acceptable but also was expected of the new Pharaoh.
The usual candidate would be the Pharaoh’s sister. But there were also marriages between cousins, uncles and nieces and even mothers and sons. Not to mention that most Egyptian Pharaohs were polygamists who kept multiple wives. King Tutankhamun was probably the least scandalous of the bunch since he only married his half-sister.
The Ancient Egyptians believed that intermarriage was the only option because it was a way to keep their royal bloodlines pure. Added to this, it was in imitation of two of their most beloved gods, Isis and Osiris, who were both brother and sister and a married couple.
Although we now know that interbreeding can result in a range of genetic disorders for the offspring produced by the union, intermarriage in the Ptolemaic dynasty did actually have the desired effect. The Ptolemys were Macedonians who didn’t want to taint their bloodline by mixing it with native Egyptians. Through intermarriage, they kept control of Egypt within their family for almost 300 years.
4. Disabled Workers
One of the biggest debates surrounding the Ancient Egyptians was whether or not they used slaves to build their pyramids. While it’s now proven that the builders were paid workers – paid one gallon of beer a day, no less – there is another interesting facet to be found within the Ancient Egyptian workforce – that many Pharaohs chose to employ workers with dwarfism or gigantism.
A Pharaoh’s pyramid was arguably the most important building project of his life since it would help him on his journey to the afterlife. Besides the Pharaoh’s sarcophagus, it would also contain untold wealth and treasure. It was unsurprising, then, that Pharaohs often feared the looting of this bounty by the builders and the desecration of their all-important tomb. That’s why they employed such an unusual demographic.
Employing dwarfs or giants was a great idea, as the benefits were twofold: the workers were thankful for the work. They have probably been snubbed because of their uncommon appearance. And secondly, the Pharaoh knew that if the workers were to loot the tomb, they would be easily noticeable when trying to escape into a crowd of people! Rather ingenious when you think about it…
3. Guilty Until Proven Innocent
Although the Ancient Egyptians disliked the death penalty and very rarely passed such a sentence, it wasn’t exactly easy to get out of trouble once you found yourself accused. Nowadays we have the saying “innocent until proven guilty”. In Ancient Egypt, however, it was more of a case of “guilty until proven innocent”. It was up to the accused to prove their innocence. If you think that this sounds like a fatally flawed system, then you’d be right. Beatings were common to “prove” a person’s guilt.
The judge and police of the time knew that after sustained beatings people would often say whatever you wanted them to say. The other option for the accused was to be judged by “the magic” of an oracle. This involved standing in front of a statue of a god, with two papers on each side of them which read innocent and guilty. The sentence would be decided by whichever paper the statue turned towards. However, the real decision was made by the priests controlling the oracle statue.
Priests had a huge amount of power in Ancient Egyptian times. Courts such as these allowed them to decide a person’s fate based on their own opinions and whims.
2. Police Monkeys
The Ancient Egyptians established the world’s first police force. One fact that you may not know is that they had trained police monkeys as well as police dogs!
The police force came into effect near the end of the Old Kingdom. Typical duties included patrolling marketplaces and temples to maintain law and order. At this early stage, officers were only equipped with a wooden staff. That is why the trained police dogs and monkeys were so useful. In times of disorder, these animals were used to chase down and apprehend criminals. How do we know that police monkeys did this? Well, it’s actually recorded in a 5th-century tomb that shows a monkey in a marketplace holding a thief by the leg as they wait for a police officer to arrest him.
At the Tomb of the Two Brothers, too, there’s a painted scene involving a monkey who’s named as a security guard.
1. Priestly Rituals
Priests played a hugely important role in Ancient Egyptian life, but it wasn’t always an easy job. They lived in the temples which were each devoted to one of the Egyptian gods – and cared for these gods as if they were physically present on earth.
Every day, food would be prepared and presented to the god statues in the temple. They would not be removed until the priests were given a “sign” that the god had received the nutrients from it. In keeping with their love of cleanliness, they shaved their entire bodies for reasons of hygiene.
They had two baths in the morning, and two at night: one hot and one cold each time. Greek chronicler Herodotus comments that the priests in Ancient Egypt had an unusually strict regimen – and were only allowed to wear shoes made of papyrus. But perhaps the strangest aspect of priestly life was that their initiation ceremony into priesthood included circumcision.
This bizarre practice of ancient Egypt was also common as an entry into the nobility, which means that it was seen as a way to distinguish an elite class. I’m sure Egyptians today are glad that this particular ceremony has been lost to the pages of history!
Which was the most bizarre practice of ancient Egypt? Are there any others that I’ve missed from this list? Let me know in the comment section down below. Thanks for reading!