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king egyptian pygmy god



Most dancers were women who belonged to the bureau called the khener . A smaller number of men were also khener members. The khener was a bureau within other institutions, including the royal palace, a temple, a town, or the household or the tomb of a wealthy individual. Many earlier scholars confused the khener with a “harem,” the Turkish word for women’s quarters that housed wives and concubines in a polygamous society. Because so many of the members of the khener were women who entertained men, these scholars assumed that khener members also had sexual relations with the head of the household or tomb owner. Current scholarship considers the members of the khener to be professional musicians and dancers who had no other intimate personal relationship with the head of the household. According to ancient inscriptions, these musicians and dancers “refresh[ed] the heart” of their master. Many inscriptions make clear that this refreshment came only in the form of music and dance. There were many female overseers of the khener recorded in inscriptions, and they were often singers. One Amarna period relief sculpture in a tomb depicts the women’s quarters where both musicians and dancers rehearse together, though admittedly this is a unique representation. Oddly enough, only a few male professional dancers recorded inscriptions. They include Khnumhotep, who was also a priest of the king’s funerary cult, and Horihotep who served in the cult of Bastet. In at least one case, the male dancers portrayed in a tomb were sons of the deceased. The major evidence for the khener comes from captions to tomb scenes. Egyptologists thus make use of a passage in Papyrus Westcar to establish an understanding of the way the khener worked. The papyrus contains the story of Ruddedet, a woman who bore triplets destined to become kings. In the story, the midwives are goddesses disguised as traveling musicians and dancers. The text specifically calls them a khener, which suggests that a khener of traveling musicians and dancers was unremarkable, a good disguise. In the story they traveled freely and received wages in grain for their services. There is no other evidence that musicians and dancers also normally worked as midwives. However, the god Bes was associated both with music and dance in the cult of Hathor and with protecting a mother in childbirth. It is hard to know if this story represents a broader reality, but the limited evidence available has encouraged Egyptologists to use this story to the greatest extent possible.


Many scholars have identified dancers in Egypt as foreigners, particularly in the New Kingdom, when Egypt had extended contact with neighboring regions. Scholars recognize these foreign dancers by their clothing and hairstyles and in some texts by their names. One Middle Kingdom papyrus from the reign of Senwosret II (1844–1837 B.C.E. ) contains a list of twelve singers and dancers who performed at the king’s funerary temple. Five of the dancers had Semitic names, while two had Nubian names. One dancer definitely had an Egyptian name, but four other names are too damaged to read. Even if all of the damaged names were Egyptian in this case, only 41 percent of these musicians and dancers would be Egyptian. It is impossible to know how representative these figures are for Egyptian dancers and musicians in general, but it does seem significant that foreign dancers and musicians could be incorporated into the khener of this important religious institution. This situation suggests that foreigners were certainly welcome to participate in this aspect of Egyptian society. On the other hand, some relief scenes in temples represent only Egyptian women of elite status performing in the god’s cult.


Egyptian artists often represented a dwarf dancing alongside the female troupe of dancers in funerals and in cult scenes in temples. The Egyptians distinguished among different physiological conditions that led to dwarfism. These conditions include achondroplasia, a pathological condition, and pygmies, who exhibit a natural adaptation to their environment. Egyptians had different words to distinguish between different kinds of dwarfs. Yet, both kinds of dwarfs became associated with the sun god, Re, and with the god Bes, associated with music and childbirth. Thus dwarfs were important in dance.


Traders brought an African pygmy to dance in Egypt in the reign of Djedkare Isesy (2415–2371 B.C.E. ). Pygmies were apparently highly prized dancers in the royal courts, as evidenced by an inscription carved on the tomb of the nobleman Harkhuf near Aswan, who had delivered a pygmy to King Pepi II (2288–2194 B.C.E. ). The carving is a royal decree expressing both gratitude and excitement that Harkhuf had delivered a dancing pygmy who could perform the “dances of the god.” The inscription described the pygmy’s origin as the “Land of the Horizon-Dwellers,” suggesting that he had come from the farthest reaches of the earth. The god whose dance the pygmy could perform was probably the sun god, Re. The Pyramid Texts , carved in the pyramid of King Pepi I (2338–2298 B.C.E. ) mentions these divine dances where the king himself imitated a pygmy for the benefit of the god.



INTRODUCTION : The cycle of stories that Egyptologists refer to as the Pedubastis Stories contains a local prince’s response to the call for participants in a funeral for a deceased king. This prince instructs his son to send the khener of the town, the musicians and dancers, to help with the funeral.

My son, Pemu, go and see to … the troops of the eastern country, have them prepared with their girdles and myrrh, with the temple officials, masters of ceremony and dancers, who frequent the embalming rooms. Let them sail by boat to Per Osiris, let them convey the deceased body of Osiris, the King Jenharrou to the anointing room, have him embalmed and buried and arrange a beautiful, grand funeral for him such as is being prepared for Hapi and Merwer, the king of the gods.

SOURCE : Irena Lexová, Ancient Egyptian Dances (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2000): 67–68.



INTRODUCTION : The majority of music and dance bureaus, known as “kheners,” were attached to temples, tombs, towns, or the homes of wealthy individuals. The Papyrus Westcar contains a story in which a group of goddesses—Isis, Nephthys, Meskhenet, and Heket—and the god Khnum disguised themselves as a traveling khener and acted as midwives and servant to the birth of triplets who would later become kings. The fact that deities saw nothing shameful in disguising themselves as dancers suggests that dancers in ancient Egypt enjoyed high status.

On one of those days Ruddedet felt the pangs and her labor was difficult. Then said the majesty of Re, lord of Sakhbu, to Isis, Nephthys, Meskhenet, Heket, and Khnum: “Please go, deliver Ruddedet of the three children who are in her womb, who will assume this beneficent office in this whole land. They will build your temples. They will supply your altars. They will furnish your libations. They will make your offerings abundant!”

These gods set out, having changed their appearance to dancing girls [i.e., a khener], with Khnum as their porter. When they reached the house of Rawoser, they found him standing with his loincloth upside down. They held out to him their necklaces and sistra [ceremonial rattles]. He said to them: “My ladies, look, it is the woman who is in pain; her labor is difficult.” They said; “Let us see her. We understand childbirth.” He said to them: “Come in!” They went in to Ruddedet. They locked the room behind themselves and her.

SOURCE : “The Birth of the Royal Children,” in The Old and Middle Kingdoms . Vol. 1 of Ancient Egyptian Literature . Trans. Miriam Lichtheim (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973): 220.


Two dwarfs who lived in widely separated periods danced the heby-dance. Khnumhotep, who lived in the Sixth Dynasty (2350–2170 B.C.E. ), and Pawenhatef, who lived in the Thirtieth Dynasty (381–343 B.C.E. ), are both spoken of in inscriptions as dancing the heby-dance for the cult of the Apis bull. This cult worshipped the bull in his lifetime and performed a special funeral for him. Dancing the heby-dance in his funeral was a particular honor.



INTRODUCTION : In approximately 2286 B.C.E. , the eight-year-old King Pepi II received a gift of a dancing pygmy from his expedition leader Harkhuf. Harkhuf recorded in his tomb the thank-you note that the king sent him. The note reveals the role of African pygmies in ancient Egyptian dance. The young king tells Harkhuf that the pygmy will dance for the soul of the king’s predecessor, Neferkare. It seems that the king also eagerly awaits the pygmy’s arrival for his own enjoyment.

The King’s own seal: Year 2, third month of the first season, day 15.

The King’s decree to the Sole companion, Lector-priest, Chief of scouts, Harkhuf.

Notice has been taken of this dispatch of yours which you made for the King at the Palace, to let one know that you have come down in safety from Yam with the army that was with you. You have said in this dispatch of yours that you have brought all kinds of great and beautiful gifts, which Hathor, mistress of Imaau, has given to the ka of King Neferkare, who lives forever. You have said in this dispatch of yours that you have brought a pygmy of the god’s dances from the land of the horizon-dwellers, like the pygmy whom the god’s seal-bearer Bawerded brought from Punt in the time of King Isesi. You have said to my majesty that his like has never been brought by anyone who did Yam previously.

Truly you know how to do what your lord loves and praises. Truly you spend day and night planning to do what your lord loves, praises, and commands. His majesty will provide you many worthy honors for the benefit of your son’s son for all time, so that all people will say, when they hear what my majesty did for you, “Does anything equal what was done for the sole companion Harkhuf when he came down from Yam, on account of the vigilance he showed in doing what his lord loved, praised, and commanded?”

Come north to the residence at once! Hurry and bring with you this pygmy whom you brought from the land of the horizon-dwellers live, hale, and healthy, for the dances of the god, to gladden the heart, to delight the heart of King Neferkare who lives forever! When he goes down with you into the ship, get worthy men to be around him on deck, lest he fall into the water! When he lies down at night, get worthy men to lie around him in his tent. Inspect ten times at night! My majesty desires to see this pygmy more than the gifts of the mine-land and of Punt!

When you arrive at the residence and this pygmy is with you live, hale, and healthy, my majesty will do great things for you, more than was done for the god’s seal-bearer Bawerded in the time of King Isesi, in accordance with my majesty’s wish to see this pygmy. Orders have been brought to the chief of the new towns and the companion, overseer of priests to command that supplies be furnished from what is under the charge of each from every storage depot and every temple that has not been exempted.

SOURCE : King Pepi II, in The Old and Middle Kingdoms . Vol. 1 of Ancient Egyptian Literature . Trans. Miriam Lichtheim (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973): 26–27.


The Egyptians depicted both monkeys and ostriches dancing. Dancing monkeys comprised part of the Egyptian tradition that depicted animals in human pursuits. Artists included these depictions in the Old Kingdom tombs of the high officials Ti and Kagemeni. Monkeys may have been linked with pygmies, perhaps because both monkeys and pygmies had their origins in the far south of Africa, the area Egyptians called “God’s Land,” which gave them special access to the divine. A New Kingdom sketch depicted a monkey dancing with a Nubian dressed in a non-Egyptian costume of a red, leather kilt with a feather in his hair. Monkeys also danced with Egyptian dancing girls in the New Kingdom. One sketch shows a monkey dancing on a ship. Scholars consider many of these scenes to be satirical. They depict an upside-down world where animals wait on each other as servants. These scenes reverse normal preconceptions, for example, by showing a cat serving a mouse. Yet, dance scenes with monkeys might represent actual performances that included animals. The Egyptians believed that ostriches danced in the wild. They called the violent movements with outstretched wings that ostriches do at sunrise an iba , the same word they used for human dancing. Modern ornithologists also have observed this behavior and independently called it a dance. The Egyptians spoke directly of the ostrich dance in a hymn to King Ahmose (1539–1514 B.C.E. ). They also represented the ostrich dance in the tomb of King Akhenaten (1352–1336 B.C.E. ) and at the funeral temple of Ramesses III (1187–1156 B.C.E. ) at Medinet Habu. The painting of ostriches on Nagada II period (3500–3300 B.C.E. ) pots near a dancing woman might also represent the ostrich dance. The Egyptians understood the ostrich dance to be part of general jubilation on earth at the rising of the sun-god Re. All creation, in Egyptian belief, rejoiced daily at sunrise. The ostrich was one animal that directly expressed its joy through dance.


Emma Brunner-Traut, Der Tanz im Alten Ägypten (Glückstadt, Germany: J. J. Augustin, 1938).

Betsy Bryan, “The Etymology of HNR: Group of Musical Performers,” Bulletin of the Egyptological Seminar 4 (1983): 35–54.

Charles Kuentz, “La danse des autruches,” Bulletin d’Institut français d’archéologie oriental 24 (1924): 85–88.

Auguste Mariette, Les mastabas de l’ancien empire (Paris: F. Vieweg, 1889):

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almost 8 years ago

Great page. I found it through a google search. When I first pulled up the page the title confused me. I didn't know the entire article was on Egyptian Dance. Just some feedback.