Thousands of years before the first appearance of the first musical notation system, ancient Egyptian music, and dance played an important role in the development of Egyptian art and culture. Egyptologists today are discovering new facts about the importance of music and dance in ancient Egyptian culture.

Music and dance were more important to the Egyptians than was initially thought. Unlike today, music and dance served more than a pure entertainment value, they represented a link with the gods and were seen as a celebration of life and creativity. Let us delve into the wonderful and complex world of ancient Egyptian music.

Music in Ancient Egypt: A Magical Link With the Gods

Music existed in prehistoric and early dynastic Egypt, but direct evidence of music in Ancient Egypt comes from the so-called Pharaonic period that lasted for longer than three thousand years. It is now widely believed that music was an integral part of religious worship. Musicians were highly prized and could find employment in temples, palaces, and workshops throughout Egypt.

Hathor: The Goddess of Fertility, Joy, Love, and Music

The goddess Hathor was associated closely with music. A primordial deity, Hathor was worshipped across Egypt as the mother of the sun god Ra, the protectress of women. Hathor symbolized life and fertility and was thought to bring the annual flooding of the Nile.

Usually depicted as a woman with the head of a cow, or in cow form, Hathor came to be associated with finer aspects of life, such as music and dance. Although her role was universal, Hathor is primarily associated with Egyptian women who sought her help and protection during childbirth and identified with her in the afterlife.

Hathor is often depicted with a sistrum, one of the most important ancient Egyptian instruments. The goddess used sistrum to drive evil from the land and inspire people with the will to do good. Priestesses of Hathor and Isis are often depicted holding a sistrum which was used in religious rituals. The instrument appears either in the form of an oval hoop or a temple.

Order Through Music: Egypt’s First Divine Musician

Hathor was not the only deity associated with music. A deity known as Merit played a central role in the Egyptian creation myth, according to which she, Ra (or Atum), and Heka, the god of magic, created order out of chaos at the beginning of time. They did it through music which had a divine quality for the Egyptians as a consequence. In a culture that valued balance and harmony above all, music was the means to connect with the divine.

The Various Types of Musical Instruments in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptians were familiar with all the major categories of musical instruments. Thanks to their advanced knowledge of musical instruments, they were able to create elaborate music. Percussion instruments included handheld drums, rattles, and castanets, as well as bells and the sistrum.

Hand clappers accompanied musicians at parties, celebrations, and festivals. When it came to wind instruments, flutes were the most popular, which were either double or single and sometimes included reeds. Trumpets were another popular wind instrument that might have been used in religious rituals and public ceremonies.

Stringed instruments such as harps, lyres, and lutes were also highly popular. Images of the gods such as Hathor and Bes were carved on the instruments, which were usually inscribed with the name of their owners. In Ancient Egypt, both men and women could be musicians.

Dance Was as Important as Music

As was the case with music, dance in Ancient Egypt had a religious and ritualistic role. It did not mean, however, that dance served a religious purpose only. Egyptians of all social classes enjoyed music and dance. Nevertheless, dancers in the service of the goddess Hathor frequently appear on images and inscriptions found in tombs, temples, and other monuments that survived from ancient times.

Dancers in the Service of the Goddess

It appears that the great majority of temple dancers were women. Not only priestesses perform the role of musicians and dancers in religious ceremonies. Women of all social classes were depicted shaking sistra for their deceased during the New Kingdom period (c. 1570 – 1069 BCE).

Temple performances that involved music and dance are thought to have been highly elaborate. Larger temples dedicated to the most popular deities would have likely employed dozens, if not hundreds, of musicians and dancers. Temple dancers played a prominent role in the cultic worships of Hathor. Her cult center was located at Dendera, but she was worshipped at temples throughout Egypt.

Entertainment in the Land of the Pharaohs: Music and Dance as Pastimes

Life in Ancient Egypt was not easy. The majority of the population consisted of farmers and unskilled laborers whose existence depended on the harvest, which, in turn, depended on the annual flooding of the Nile. Music and dance were popular among Egyptians as means of escaping everyday drudgery.

Dancing had a sexual connotation. Female dancers wore little clothing that was designed to arouse the viewers. In ancient Egyptian culture, sex was not frowned upon. There seems to have been no stigma attached to musicians and dancers, as was the case with other ancient cultures.

The Egyptians Were No Strangers To Good Parties

Thanks to their familiarity with different types of instruments, the Egyptians were able to create complex musical pieces. The lute came from Mesopotamia, while instruments such as harps, shepherd’s pipe, clarinet, and oboe were used since the earliest times.

In addition to solo musicians, there were also ensembles. In the absence of musical notations, tunes had to be passed from one generation of musicians and performers to the next. Occupations in Ancient Egypt were usually inherited from parents. Children of musicians were likely to become musicians themselves.

Ancient Egyptians loved to party. Egyptologists have discovered ample evidence that shows that parties in Ancient Egypt could get pretty wild. In fact, the Egyptians had a festival that required everyone to go wild in honor of the fierce lion-goddess Sekhmet. Participants would have used plenty of alcohol, and the festivities were accompanied by music and dance performances.

We Don’t Know How Ancient Egyptian Music Sounded Like

The absence of a musical notation system means that no Egyptian musical compositions have survived. We don’t know how ancient Egyptian songs sounded like, but some Egyptologists think that modern-day Coptic liturgy may have been inspired by ancient Egyptian music.

– Conductors Used Hand Gestures to Communicate With Musicians

In ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic script, terms such as ‘song’ ‘singer’ and ‘musician’ were designated as ‘hst’ (usually read as ‘heset’). Interestingly, the hieroglyph includes a raised arm which is commonly believed to signify the role of a conductor in a musical ensemble.

Tomb paintings from the Saqqara necropolis also depict a conductor with a hand raised over one ear. It is assumed that conductors used hand gestures to communicate with their musicians, making it possible to create elaborate musical pieces.

– Musicians Were Highly Sought After

Musicians had plenty of opportunities to find employment in Ancient Egypt. Public and private festivals, banquets, religious ceremonies, and funerals presented a chance for career advancement. Good performers could hope to find employment with the nobles who were in constant need of entertainers to perform at social gatherings.

Women were more inclined to become dancers and singers, but it was not uncommon for men to play an instrument. Music occupied an important place in the lives of ancient Egyptians. Talented individuals could gain high status in the community.

If we could, by some chance, travel back in time and take a stroll down the street of an Egyptian city, we would have stumbled across performers and musicians playing for laborers and merchants and passersby.

The Golden Age of Egyptian Dance During the New Kingdom

If you think that the love genre song is a relative novelty, you are mistaken. Ancient Egyptians composed songs about love which may have been accompanied by interpretative dance. Musical performances during the New Kingdom period had grown more elaborate but continued to be a part of religious rituals.

Hymns and acrobatic dances were dedicated to deities. The performance sought to connect its participants with the divine, as well as honor the gods through music and dance.

– Who Could Dance in Ancient Egypt?

Dance in Ancient Egypt was not restricted to the lower class only, but upper-class people are not shown dancing publicly. Dancers and other performers were scantily dressed, and even though nudity didn’t present a problem for the ancient Egyptians, public entertainment of this type was commonly associated with the lower class.

– Dance Brought One Closer to the Gods

Although we know little about public performances, Egyptologists believe that dances performed in temples served a highly ritualistic purpose. Temple dancers attempted to get closer to the gods by impersonating the deity and taking on its attributes. Dance was particularly important in the worship of the goddess Hathor.

– Some of the Most Common Dance Types Practiced in Ancient Egypt

Various types of dances existed in Ancient Egypt. Even though dance was a common form of entertainment, it had also been meant to elevate the dancer spiritually and invoke divine protection and grace. Music and dance were the highest forms of artistic self-expression. We list some of the most dances practiced by the Egyptians.

  • Movemental dance in which both the dancer and the audience simply enjoyed the movement and its rhythm
  • Gymnastic dance was more demanding and required greater skill on the part of the performer
  • Pair dance was performed by groups of either two men or two women dancing together
  • Dramatic dance, the aim of which was to commemorate important historical events such as battles
  • Lyrical dance that may have resembled modern ballet
  • Funeral dance consisting of several sub-types, including ritual dance performed as a part of funeral rites, dance as an expression of grief, and dance to entertain the ka of the deceased
  • Religious dance performed at temples and accompanied by hymns and chants in honor of a deity

The Fate of Egyptian Music and Dance in the Late Period

Ancient Egyptians associated music and dance with the divine. They did not distinguish between secular and liturgical music, as was the case in late Roman Egypt when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Traditional Egyptian music survived in the form of Coptic liturgy that keeps the memory of ancient times when Egypt had been ruled by pharaohs. To truly understand ancient Egyptian culture, we must recognize the power of music and the unique role it played in the lives of Egyptians.

Conclusion

Music and dance occupied a central role in ancient Egyptian culture. Musicians and dancers were highly valued and performed at temples, markets, and the streets of Egyptian cities. Unlike us today, the Egyptians considered music and dance as means of communicating with the gods and celebrating life.

Music in Ancient Egypt had the power to shape the lives of the people and bring them closer to the divine. Here’s a summary of the role of music in ancient Egyptian society:

  • Egyptian gods were celebrated in temples throughout Egypt through music and dance
  • The goddess Hathor was associated with music and her cult involved ritualistic dance
  • Most dancers were women but it was not uncommon for men to play instruments and sing
  • Public entertainment often involved music and dance
  • There was no stigma attached to dancing; musicians and dancers were highly sought after
  • Upper-class Egyptians rarely danced in public because dancers appeared in public naked
  • During the New Kingdom, new types of dances appeared, which involved elaborate performances
  • A great variety of musical instruments such as lutes, lyres, harps, drums, and trumpets was used
  • The absence of musical notation meant we don’t know how ancient Egyptian music sounded

We continue to learn more about the music of Ancient Egypt and how it came to define the art and culture of this great civilization.

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