Elite and Gods: Dwarves in Ancient Egypt
(ORDO NEWS) — Ancient Egypt, with its huge stone temples, pyramids and tombs, was undoubtedly one of the most productive advanced civilizations of the pre-Christian world.
However, their progress was not limited to their famous monumental works of architecture, but was also present in other aspects of their culture.
While the ancient Greek, Roman and Chinese cultures enslaved and ridiculed the little people, or dwarfs, the dwarfs of ancient Egypt were respected and lived normal and even sublime lives.
Sometimes dwarfs in ancient Egypt became powerful social players and were buried in elaborate tombs next to the pyramids. Dwarfs were so important in early Egyptian religion that there were even dwarf gods!
Dwarves in Ancient Egypt: Language and Culture
The complex hieroglyphic language system of the Egyptians, which they drew and carved on objects of architecture, arts and crafts, gives modern researchers an insight into the daily life of the Egyptians.
Among the crumbling stones and ancient texts are images of small people with achondroplasia, a bone growth disorder that causes disproportionate dwarfism.
And in the real world, as Professor Chahira Kozma writes in his 2006 paper Dwarfs in Ancient Egypt, “Egypt is the main source of information about achondroplasia in the old world, where dwarf remains are plentiful and include full and partial skeletons.”
One form of ancient Egyptian literature, called wisdom literature, originated during the Middle Kingdom of Egypt and became canonical during the New Kingdom. The Letters of Wisdom were moralizing and said that dwarfism should not be viewed as a handicap.
On the contrary, according to historian Betty Adelson, it was believed that dwarfs in ancient Egypt had “significant sacred associations, so the possession of a dwarf gave a person a high social status.”
The hieroglyphic words for dwarfs and pygmies are “dng” (or “deneg”), “nmw” and “hw”. A set of specific symbols was developed depicting a human form with shorter than average upper and lower limbs and a large head on a long torso with bent legs.
In medieval European cultures, dwarfs were often used to stand next to kings and queens during public performances and ceremonies, as they made the kings appear much larger than they really were.
In contrast, Egyptian hieroglyphs show how dwarfs in ancient Egypt worked as jewelers, personal assistants, animal tamers, and entertainers.
According to a 1972 article “Orthopedics and Orthopedic Diseases in Ancient and Modern Egypt”, dwarfs were depicted on the walls of “at least 50 tombs of the Old Kingdom, both near the pyramids and in the vast necropolises of Saqqara and Giza.”
Moreover, several high-ranking dwarfs of the Old Kingdom (2700-2190 BC) achieved elite social status, including Seneb, Pereniankh, Khnumhotpe, and Djedera, who were all buried in elaborate tombs near the pyramids of Giza and Saqqara.
If you look closely at the first name in the above list of four small ancient Egyptians, then the dwarf Seneb served during the fourth dynasty of the pharaohs Khufu (c. 2575-2465 BC) and Djedera (2649 BC – c. 2611 BC). The elaborate mastaba tomb of Seneb was excavated at Giza in 1925-1926.
And in the naos (inner chamber of the temple) in the mastaba tomb of Seneb, archaeologists discovered a statue depicting a dwarf and his family, which is currently on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
It is believed that Seneb was probably an achondroplasty dwarf, and he is depicted in the statue with ocher-red skin, a pronounced nose and mouth, short hair, and large eyes.
According to some researchers, his “soft” facial features compared to other Egyptian depictions of dwarfs suggest that he may have suffered from hypochondroplasia, which is a milder form of achondroplasia. However, his body was never found, so an accurate diagnosis cannot be made.
Seneb’s wife and children are of average height, and the boy and girl are located below him, and this detail is not accidental, according to the book “Egyptian Treasures from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo”, published in 1999 by Egyptologist Francesco Tiradritti.
Tiradritti explained that the ancient Egyptian artist who created Seneb’s statue was “very skillful and sensitive” in creating balance and symmetry in the group by placing two children where Seneb’s feet should have been.
The 50 Old Kingdom funerary art dwarfs depicted at Giza and Saqqara are non-elite, simple dwarfs working as “jewelers, animals or pets, fishermen, wardrobe keepers, entertainers and dancers, dress and linen inspectors, and personal servants”.
In several tombs of the Old Kingdom, dwarf women are depicted as midwives and nurses assisting in childbirth. And in Saqqara, the tomb of the dwarf Mereruka, the minister of King Teti, was divided into three parts, each of which depicts the life of ancient dwarf artisans.
The scenes in the upper third depict “sculptors, vase painters, carpenters and metalworkers” and in the middle third a collection of completed jewelery masterpieces.
In the lower third, two workers of medium height hold a completed collar, and next to them two dwarfs hold a chain for a neck choker, while other dwarfs complete a keyhole-shaped pectoral. Other Old Kingdom reliefs show male and female dwarfs singing, dancing and playing music.
The Egyptian Museum in Cairo has one display of 12th Dynasty “naked pygmy amulet dances” with small holes for the strings so that when they are pulled, the dancers move.
In conclusion, we can safely say that the life of dwarfs in ancient Egypt was exceptionally comfortable, compared to how small people were treated in other ancient cultures.
In ancient Greece, dwarfs were used in Dionysian cult rituals as “small, bald men with huge penises lusting after women of average height,” according to a 2017 academic paper in the Pacific Standard.
In ancient Rome, dwarfs were taken as slaves and their masters deliberately malnourished (starved) to sell at a higher price, and dwarfs in West Africa and China were subjected to similar cruelty.
Perhaps the most culturally appalling treatment of dwarfs in China has been written by the historian Martin Monestier.
He described how Emperor Xuanzong (712 – 756 AD) built a “Resting Place for Desirable Monsters”. In this dungeon, the emperor kept his personal dwarf court jesters and entertainers, who were among the monsters.
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