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The Dwellers on the Nile: The Life, History, Religion, and Literature of the Ancient Egyptians

The Dwellers on the Nile: The Life, History, Religion, and Literature of the Ancient Egyptians

by E. A. Wallis Budge, Wallis E. Budge
In addition to his 40-year career at the British Museum, Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge was a prolific and popular author who specialized in books on ancient Egypt. The Dwellers on the Nile remains among the most comprehensive and readable histories of daily life in ancient Egypt, covering the Egyptian family and school; furniture, jewelry, food and


In addition to his 40-year career at the British Museum, Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge was a prolific and popular author who specialized in books on ancient Egypt. The Dwellers on the Nile remains among the most comprehensive and readable histories of daily life in ancient Egypt, covering the Egyptian family and school; furniture, jewelry, food and drink; society, work, and play; Egyptian religion and its numerous gods, temples, and priests; Egyptian writing — hieroglyphic, hieratic, demotic, and Coptic; literature, medicine, astrology, and alchemy. The book concludes with an exploration of practices related to burial of the dead and beliefs concerning the afterlife.
Using information from the excavations of tombs and excerpts from papyri, tomb inscriptions, and other sources, Budge brings to life the ancient culture of the Nile dwellers. The text is profusely illustrated with many reproductions of Egyptian art and artifacts. The great wealth of detail, primary information, and original interpretation make this volume indispensable to students and other readers interested in classical civilization and comparative religion.

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Dover Publications
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The Dwellers on the Nile

The Life, History, Religion and Literature of the Ancient Egyptians

By E. A. Wallis Budge

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2016 E. A. Wallis Budge
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-23501-1



The Egyptian was in all periods of his history a lover of his home and family, and the relations between parents and their children were usually of the most affectionate character. His world was the village where his home was, and his kinsfolk were the only inhabitants of it that counted in his sight. He regarded sojourning in a strange village or town as exile and, if it had for any reason to be prolonged, as banishment. The same feeling existed in Egypt until a very few years ago, and when young men were drafted into Cairo from Upper Egypt and the Delta to serve in the army it was no uncommon thing to see a recruit weeping bitterly and cursing the fate that had torn him from his balad, or village, and his father's "house," i.e. his mother and his near relations. Naturally these strong, hefty young men hated the duties and restraints of military service, but the sting that brought the tears to their eyes was the enforced separation from their homes and families, and the absence of daily intercourse with them which it entailed. The Egyptian loved his home more than his country, and service in any part of it outside his village or town was, and still is, an abomination to him.

The master of the house, i.e. the father and bread-winner, was the most important person in it from one point of view, but his wife, whether she was his "sister," or his "woman," or "the lady of the house," [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], who bore him children and brought them up was almost more important, for she provided for the continuance of his family and preserved his name among the living, and safeguarded his property. In Egypt and in many other parts of Africa the mother was regarded as the predominant partner in the house, and though a man might honour his father's name, it was the name of his mother that he was proud to mention. And after that the name of his mother's father, rather than that of his father's father, was the name to be commemorated. On a large number of the funerary stelae preserved in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and in the British Museum the name of the mother of the deceased person is given, but no mention is made of the name of his father. The wise and prudent mother in ancient Egypt ruled from inside her house, and her influence was very great, and the more attention she gave to the well-being of her husband and the management of his property and his children, the greater was her power. It has often been said that the Egyptians, like other Orientals, regarded women as their inferiors and as playthings, but everyone who has read Oriental history, or who knows the East even as it is to-day, is well aware that whenever the wise mothers of families in a village or town have decided collectively that an order of the local council in respect of their homes and families is or is not to be carried out, they usually have their way. Egyptian women, however well educated, never went about in public as Western women do, or made public speeches on any subject, for such a course of action was contrary to the public opinion, not only of the men but of the women. There is no reason to doubt that women in Egypt held property in their own names and had money invested in businesses, especially under the New Kingdom, and we know that some learned to read and write the Egyptian language correctly, and some became expert scribes. Princess Nesitanebtashru (about 1000 B.C.) wrote her own copy of the Book of the Dead, and about A.D. 1000 a woman copied the fine Zouche manuscript containing the Encomiums on Saint Michael the Archangel, which is now in the British Museum.

To found a family and establish a house was held to be the duty of every right-minded man, and the first step towards its fulfilment was marriage. The scribe Ani wrote : "Marry a wife whilst thou art a young man" (or, perhaps, "marry a wife who is a young woman") "and she will give thee thy son. If thou begettest a son whilst thou art young, thou wilt be able to train him to become a proper man. It is good for a man to have a numerous progeny, for he will be applauded by reason of his children." How a marriage was "arranged" or brought about in the early period is not known, but we are justified in assuming that the method employed was the same then as it is now. The father, or rather mother, who had a son about 15 years of age looked about among the neighbours for a maiden about 12 years old, and when one suitable for a daughter-in-law had been found, an intermediary probably was employed to carry on negotiations. After the maiden's beauty had been described in glowing terms to the father of the youth, and the youth's manly attributes and physical attractions had been enumerated to the maiden's father, the intermediary, who knew the circumstances of both fathers, brought them together and assisted them to settle what and how much the maiden's father was to receive in exchange for his daughter. In early times the price of the maiden was arranged by word of mouth, and when an understanding had been arrived at the marriage took place without delay; but at a later period it seems that the marriage contract was drawn up by a scribe, or notary, as we should say, who took good care to safeguard the maiden's interests. In due course an evening was fixed for the wedding, and the bride was brought to the bridegroom's house and handed over to the bridegroom. At the marriage festival and during the rejoicings that took place on the days following the marriage-night the friends and kinsfolk of the bride and bridegroom were entertained on a scale commensurate with the social position of the parents; animals were slaughtered and the poor were fed, and acrobatic performances and singing and dancing amused the guests. Whether any religious ceremony was performed to consecrate the marriage is not known, but it is not likely; nothing has yet been found that can be regarded as a Marriage Office.

Among well-to-do Egyptians young men often married their sisters, and the sister-wife is often mentioned on the inscriptions. In some cases such marriages were the result of affection pure and simple, but generally they came about through the desire, which was deep-seated in the mind of the Egyptians, to keep property in the family. The gods Osiris and Set married their sisters Isis and Nephthys respectively, and Osiris begat Horus by Isis and Set begat Anubis by Nephthys; therefore the marriages of brothers and sisters were sanctioned by the gods, and there is no doubt that they existed in the earliest times in Egypt. It is not certain that the sister-wife was in every case a real wife to her husband, but even if she was it did not prevent the man from marrying another woman if his sister-wife for any reason failed to give him a son. And it does not follow that the wife whom the Egyptian called "his sister," [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], sent-f, was really his sister, for the love-songs of the Egyptians prove that the lover often called the loved one "sister," using the word as the equivalent of the words "beloved," "dearest," and "darling" of modern Western peoples. The word used for the woman who was a real wife to a man and gave him children was [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], hemt, and there is no doubt that she was regarded as joint owner of her husband's property, and that she shared the control and disposal of it with him. As to the woman who is called the "lady of the house," we may assume that she held a position somewhat resembling that of the "housekeeper" in the establishment of a well-to-do man, and it is possible that she was also one of her master's wives. Many funerary stelae of women who held the position of "lady of the house" are known to us, and it is quite clear that these women were held to be as worthy of honourable burial as the women who had given their husbands many children. Kings and nobles undoubtedly kept large harims and married many of the women who were kept secluded in them, but the inscriptions show that theoretically, at least, the king was a monogamist, and that he only bestowed the title of "King's chief woman" on one woman at a time. And certainly monogamy was the rule in Egypt; polyandry seems to have been unknown.

As among all African peoples, the love of children among the Egyptians was very great, and it was generally held that every man who could afford to keep a wife should marry, and that every woman should give her husband offspring. Virginity and celibacy were not approved of by the Egyptians in their pagan state, though in some religious ceremonies the women performers were obliged to be virgins. Convents and nunneries were unknown in Egypt until after her people embraced Christianity. It is a remarkable fact that the founder of Christian asceticism, Anthony the Great, was a pure Egyptian. So convinced were the primitive Egyptians that every man, living or dead, should possess a wife and concubines that, on the death of a man of wealth and importance, several women were killed in order that their spirits might go to the Other World and minister to his wants there as their bodies had served him in this world. The bodies of some of the women who were murdered for this purpose at the death or burial of Amenhetep II, about 1448 B.C., may be seen lying on the ground near his sarcophagus, in his tomb at Thebes, to this day. When in the course of centuries funerary murders became too expensive or unpopular, the figure of a naked woman, made of wood or terra-cotta, or painted on wood or papyrus, was buried with the deceased, so that the spirit of the woman that would be evoked from it by the heka, or "word of power," might comfort him in the world beyond the grave. Sometimes the figure or model of the naked woman is represented as lying on a bed with a child by her side, the child symbolizing the offspring that the woman would bear to her husband in the Land of the Dead. Examples of such figures may be seen in the British Museum.

Now although polygamy existed in Egypt in all periods, the Egyptians well understood the moral and material advantages that accrued to the man who loved and honoured his wife and was faithful to her. Ptah-hetep the Sage said : "If thou wouldst be wise (or prosperous) stablish a house for thyself (i.e. get married). Love thou thy wife in the house wholly and rightly. Fill her belly and clothe her back; oil for anointing is the medicine for her limbs. Make her heart to rejoice as long as thou livest; she is a field profitable to her lord. Enter not into disputes with her. She will withdraw herself before violence. Make her to prosper permanently in thy house. If thou art hostile to her she will become like a ditch..." And about 1,500 years later the scribe Ani said: "Attempt not to direct a married woman in her house, when thou knowest that she is an excellent housewife. Say not to her, 'Where is that thing? Bring it to me,' when she has set it in its proper place. Watch her with thine eye, and hold thy peace, and then thou wilt be able to appreciate her wise and prudent management. Happy wilt thou be if thou goest hand in hand with her! Many are the men who do not understand this. The man who interferes in his house only stirs up confusion in it, and never finds that he is the real master thereof in all matters."

And the sages were never tired of impressing upon men, both married and single, the folly and the danger incurred in running after the strange woman and the women in the houses of neighbours. Ptah-hetep says : "If thou wishest to maintain a permanent friendship in the house to which thou art in the habit of going, whether as master, or whether as brother, or whether as friend, or in fact in any place to which thou hast the entry, strive against associating with the women there. The place which they frequent is not good [for thee]; but the imprudent man follows them. A thousand men have been destroyed by them in their quest of what is beautiful. A man is made a fool of by their dazzling limbs, which turn into things that are harder than quartzite sandstone. The pleasure lasts only for a brief moment, and it is even as a dream, and when it is ended a man finds death through having experienced it." And Ani the scribe says : "Guard thyself well against the strange woman who is not known in her quarter of the town. Cast not longing glances after her, as do those who are like unto her, and have no intercourse with her of any sort or kind whatsoever. She is a deep ditch, and where her currents will lead no man knows. When a woman whose husband is absent from her [reveals her] charms, and beckons thee to her every day, and says that there is none present to bear witness, and arranges her net to snare thee therein, it is a most abominable deed which merits the penalty of death for a man to hearken to her, even if she does not succeed in her object ... Nevertheless men commit abominable deeds in order to gratify a passion of this kind." For the unfaithful husband Egyptian law had no penalty, and the wronged wife presumably had no redress; but for the unfaithful wife the case was entirely different, and two instances are known in which she suffered the penalty of death. Under the Old Kingdom the guilty wife was burnt alive and her ashes were scattered, and under the New Kingdom Anpu killed his wife, cut up her body, and fed the dogs, or jackals, with the pieces. In the first instance the paramour was thrown into the Nile and a crocodile devoured him.

A father claimed implicit obedience from his son, but the Egyptians thought a boy owed more to his mother than to his father, and it was, therefore, his duty not only to obey her but to love her and to give her constant proof of his devotion to her. The scribe Ani especially exhorts his son, Khensuhetep, to cherish his mother, and though his Book of Precepts belongs to a comparatively late period, his admonition on the subject of a son's duty to his mother so well illustrates the general feeling about it in ancient Egypt that the paragraph may be quoted in full. Ani says : "Multiply the bread-cakes which thou givest to thy mother, and carry her as she carried thee. When thou wast a heavy load she carried thee often, leaving me nothing to do for thee. When she had brought thee forth after thy months [were fulfilled], she set thee like a veritable yoke upon her neck, and her breasts were in thy mouth for three years. Though whilst thou wast a babe her task as nurse was loathsome she felt no disgust at thee, saying ['Consider] what I have to do.' And afterwards, when she had placed thee in the house of instruction (i.e. school), and whilst thou wast being taught [thy] letters, she [came] to thee there day by day, regularly and unfailingly, with bread-cakes and beer from her house. When thou art a young man, and dost marry a wife, and art the master and possessor of a house, I pray thee to consider thine own childhood, and how thou wast reared, and to do for the child that shall be born to thee everything that thy mother did for thee. Let it not happen that she (i.e. his mother) shall have cause to blame thee, and give her not occasion to lift up her hands to God [in complaint], and let it not be necessary for Him to hear her supplications." Ani thought that God would hear a mother's complaint against an unkind or undutiful son, and would punish the offender.

The wife, whilst awaiting the birth of her child, wore amulets of various kinds to protect her and her unborn babe from the attacks of the evil spirits that were held to be hostile to expectant mothers, and recited incantations in order to obtain the help of the benevolent goddesses who presided over child-birth. Two of these goddesses were believed to dwell in a special kind of stone, and two tablets made of this stone were laid down on the spot where it was arranged that the birth of the child should take place. The Hebrew women also used such tablets, as we see from the passage in Exod. i. 16, where they are called [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] hâobhnayim, literally, "the two stone tablets." When the son of a king was born several of the old gods and goddesses were believed to come into the birth-chamber to protect the child, and among these were Heqt or Heqit, the Frog-goddess, Taurit, the Hippopotamus-goddess, and the very ancient god, Bes. Both Heqit and Taurit were goddesses of fertility and birth, and Bes was supposed to disarm by his jests and drolleries and laughter the less harmful of the evil spirits, and to attack with his sword and put to flight the demons who would injure the mother or her child.

Women who belonged to the industrial classes and peasant women relied for protection upon the pictures or figures of these deities that were kept in their houses. The birth of a son was followed by great rejoicings in the house, and warm congratulations on the part of the neighbours; births of daughters, then as now, were not specially welcomed. Usually the mother suckled her child and devoted herself to him, or her, for about three years; in rich men's houses nurses were often employed, and these frequently obtained great influence and power. Whether any ceremonial washing of the child took place after its birth, as was customary among many African tribes, is not known, and no religious ceremony seems to have accompanied the naming of the child. The evidence of the inscriptions shows that the Egyptians in general did not cultivate pride of family and the perpetuation of family names, and the prominent man of each generation seems to have been content to proclaim his own exploits and merits, and to allow those of his ancestors to fall into oblivion. Only here and there is an instance found in the texts in which a man refers with pride to the generations of his ancestors, and the few genealogies of great officials and others known to us were compiled during the later period of Egyptian history.


Excerpted from The Dwellers on the Nile by E. A. Wallis Budge. Copyright © 2016 E. A. Wallis Budge. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Meet the Author

Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge (1857–1934) ranked among the most distinguished Egyptologists of his era. In addition to his 40-year career at the British Museum, Budge was a prolific and popular author who specialized in books on ancient Egyptian religion and hieroglyphic primers.

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