Nourishment for the Heart: Ancient Egyptian Music and Dance

Dr. Lyn Green, currently a lecturer at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, received her Ph. D. from the University of Toronto where she presented a dissertation on the Queens and Princesses of the Amarna Period. Dr. Green has excavated at Tel el-Amarna and been a member of the Akenaten Temple Project at Karnak in Upper Egypt. She is a widely published author and has lectured extensively on a variety of subjects associated with women, food, and entertainment in Ancient Egypt.

Dr. Green opened her lecture by noting that music and dance have always been integral parts of the culture of Egypt, both modern and ancient. Images of the god, Bes, who was among other things god of the dance, portray him dancing and playing a tambourine. The Romans, however, thought he carried a shield and sword, so for them he became a guardian of soldiers.

In many tombs young women dancing and whole orchestras of musicians fill the walls with flute, harp, tambourine and sistrum players. The sistrum was an instrument sacred to the goddess, Hathor, and can still be heard in use in Ethiopian Christian churches. The goddesses Isis and Hathor were often confused, and in fact they co-mingled to the degree that by the Greco-Roman period Isis had become "all things to all people" and was worshiped throughout the Mediterranean. Hathor, however, was, throughout the Pharaonic period, the goddess of the dance though her alter ego is Sekhmet, goddess of war, associated with the destructive forces of the sun's heat. In that guise she once set forth at the behest of the sovereign Ra, to destroy the rebellious humans. Only the intervention of Ra, who ordered the preparation of a considerable quantity of red ocher laced beer which the raging goddess consumed, mistaking it for blood, averted disaster!

Throughout Egyptian history, music was a pacifier of the gods and a way to communicate or convey information to humans. The Opet Festival ceremonies are always depicted with musicians and dancers, as are Foundation ceremonies. Tambourine players, dancers and other musicians are all there. Tambourines were constructed with a wooden frame with leather stretched over the top and ringers attached to the frame. Both women and men are portrayed clapping hands in rhythm, playing tambourines and even playing trumpets. A trumpet survives from the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Some of the instruments ancient Egyptians played came into the culture from Asia. Drums, which often appear in representations of musical instruments, were attached to a neck strap so they hung at about waist level and were played side-ways. Harps with various numbers of strings and in various sizes are regularly represented in records found on both tomb and temple walls. They range from small lap harps, similar to lyres, to large, free standing instruments. A shoulder harp rests on the shoulder and is played from that position. Often the musician playing such a harp is portrayed kneeling, which may have been the most comfort-able position for playing the instrument.

Singers [hesi] are represented by picturing individuals with a hand to the ear, and are frequently noted by that word in the hieroglyphs.

Children started to learn dancing and music at an early age and are often portrayed in dance or musical scenes, holding clappers to assist in establishing the rhythm. Soldiers are also shown with drummers, and a device that looks a bit like a boomerang, which is actually a capper. Some members of a musical scene are portrayed performing improvisationally, by slapping their hand to their thigh or back side. In the tomb of Khamut we find reliefs depicting lessons going on at a musical academy, in which future chantresses of the temple are being prepared.

There is no period from which we have more representations of musicians and dancer than the Amarna period. Talatat from the Aten temple reveal a large orchestra - at least 15 musicians in all - with scented cones on their heads. Harp, lute, and tambourine players are all depicted. Clearly musicians were given the same status as high-ranking guests at banquets and other events.

A particularly interesting relief has Asiatics playing a large, upright lyre which is about 5 feet tall and is played by two musicians, one on each side. They wear a three-flounced skirt and a conical hat which appears often when these large lyres are portrayed. The instrument may have come from what is today, Turkey - the Hittite empire, which was heavily influenced by both the Hurian and Mitannian culture groups. We know that many princesses of Mitanni came to Egypt so perhaps these unique musicians and their large instrument came with them.

In religious texts from Hittite temples we have detailed instructions for holding a sacred banquet. One must have specific hymns and music at various points in the meal. The "hunzuni" which is a large lyre or harp, is specifically mentioned. The sound of music begins the food offerings to the gods. Similar declarations appear in Amarna reliefs. When musicians are present in such relief scenes, the music is conveying the essence to the gods. Sometimes musicians are shown blindfolded, or even blind. Dr. Green noted that Lisa Manniche suggests that this may be required because they are in the presence of the god. She has additionally suggested that some may be eunuchs. Often they are portrayed wearing special clothing and with special symbols. Only specific people - high priests, the king - were eligible to "see" the image of the god or be in his/her presence, so others had to have their sight obstructed and/or perhaps be identified in a special way.

Music is often very sexually charged. Musicians and dancers are drawn very sexually and may have been initiates in to the cult of Bes and/or his consort Beset. Papyrus Westcar refers to three musicians who show up to assist with a birth, for Bes is also the protector of mothers, particularly during pregnancy and child birth.

From the tomb of Nakht we have a well known portrayal of musicians and dancers as music was needed to help move the deceased from this world to the next and assure his rebirth. In the Old Kingdom - from the tomb of Akhethotep - one pose clearly and specifically defines dancing. The dancer is shown in silhouette with arms raised over the head. In the tomb of Heruef a mourning scene includes somber movements which may represent a mourning dance. There may be a symbolic relationship between death and rebirth as is portrayed in the heb sed. Other dancers wear specific costumes. In the Amarna period we find dancers with long hair and wearing long kilts shown inside the palace. Sometimes dancers wear unique headdresses. Some very specific maces, which were used by dancers, have survived. Specific actions are portrayed in scenes of dance, such as twirling. In a relief, dubbed "The Dancing Class" all sorts of moves are portrayed. Some moves are very acrobatic with dancers, for example, doing back flips.

Some formalized dances seem to be similar to dances done today. Some may have once been violent, but are definitely revitalizing and symbolic now.

At the end of an Egyptian's life it was clearly imperative that the deceased have a "good burial" with musicians and dancers. In several tombs, the headdresses worn by the dancer resemble the headdress of Osiris and the thumb and first finger are extended in what is perhaps a phallic expression.

Egyptian dance played a central role in Egyptian life. From the temple at Dendera we learn that music was considered "nourishment for the heart". Beginning with Bes at the beginning of one's life, to the muu dancers associated with departing life and traveling to the underworld, music and dance were all important. Music and dance were definitely part of the world view of the ancients in Egypt for it is only humans who are able to laugh, cry and dance.

Nancy Corbin

For a membership packet either write

ARCE Northern California Chapter
P.O. Box 11352
Berkeley, CA 94712-2352

or email Membership Director, Betty Bussey

Contact Joan Knudsen by email at for further information on ARCE/NC events or by mail at P.O. Box 11352, Berkeley, CA., 94704-2352.

Go Back to Archives

Go Back to Homepage

Page Design and Content by Al Berens. All Rights Reserved
Copyright 2004 by Berens Graphics