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“Music and Dance in Ancient Egypt” Suzanne Lax-Bojtos (EEG Meeting Talk)

On Sunday Suzanne Lax-Bojtos came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about music and dance in Ancient Egypt. She started off by reminding us that we have no idea what Egyptian music actually sounded like, because they had no musical notation. We also need to remember that Egyptian art is not representative of what is but rather symbolic of what they wanted things to be (in particular in a funerary context). However, with those two caveats in mind it’s still possible to glean quite a lot of information about the types of instruments the Egyptians played, and the sorts of contexts they played their music in. And Lax-Bojtos spent the rest of her talk showing us what we can learn, with the help of a lot of pictures.

The Egyptians had a variety of different instruments available to them, and it seemed like most of them were used throughout the whole sweep of Egyptian history. In terms of stringed instruments the main one was the harp – in a variety of different sizes. They also played lutes (and there were some really cool pictures of baboons playing lutes from reliefs on the walls of Philae temple). As well as this lyres are sometimes depicted, but Lax-Bojtos explained that these were an imported instrument from Mesopotamia so I think they only show up later in Egyptian history. There was one scene she showed us where the people playing the lyre have been drawn with non-Egyptian clothes, faces & hair styles – she suggested that maybe lyre music for the Egyptians was a bit like Indian music is for us: something exotic sounding.

In terms of wind instruments the Egyptians had what Lax-Bojtos called flutes and double flutes (or oboes) – these don’t look like our flutes and oboes, more like a recorder or penny whistle. The double flutes are two pipes played by the same person (I’m not sure if it’s one mouthpiece or two). They also had trumpets – the most famous of these having been discovered in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Those were played once after their discovery by a British military trumpeter, James Tappern, for the BBC in 1939 – there’s a recording of that radio broadcast it here (obviously the music he’s playing is a modern fanfare, rather than being intended to reproduce Egyptian music). He used a modern mouthpiece, and sadly one of the trumpets got damaged by the playing.

Percussion ranged from people clapping their hands to provide a beat to drums and sistrums. Oh, and as well as clapping your actual hands you might have a pair of hand shaped clappers to play. Sistrums are rattles, and are strongly associated with the goddess Hathor – they often have her face as a part of their design. I think Lax-Bojtos said that sistrums started out as people shaking papyrus reeds to create the sound, before they began to be made of metal.

As well as all these musical instruments people also sang. They did write down the words to some of their songs, so we know those even if we don’t know the tunes. Lax-Bojtos read out snippets from several examples, but I can’t remember the exact wording of any of them. The subjects covered a wide range, from songs about wine making through to hymns of praise for the gods. Also on some reliefs depicting dancers there are repeated hieroglyphs over the heads of the dancers, and Lax-Bojtos thought this might indicate repeated syllables in a song that went with a particular part of the dance.

Music seems to’ve been a part of all sorts of different contexts in Ancient Egyptian life. Lax-Bojtos showed us lots of examples including music to accompany workers at repetitive or boring tasks, of music for festivals, music in military contexts, music for worship (in private & non-festival contexts too) and music at parties. For the latter Nebamun’s tomb paintings (at the British Museum) have a lovely representative scene of women playing instruments whilst other women dance to provide entertainment at a feast. Music was clearly an important part of worship, but it was also particularly associated with the goddess Hathor (who is also associated with pleasure and with drunkenness) and with the god Bes. Interestingly when scenes are drawn of people worshipping gods with music the musicians are often depicted blind or blindfolded – Lax-Bojtos speculated that this is about it not being permissible to look directly at a god.

I’ve not said much about dancing yet – she did show us several pictures of scenes during the talk which depict dancers, but we know even less about dancing than we do about Egyptian music. Dancers are often drawn in scenes with musicians, and the dancing looks quite acrobatic in some cases. Often they seem to be young women, often not wearing much. Lax-Bojtos explained that in a funerary context dancers and music are often associated with sexuality, fertility and rebirth.

This was a fascinating talk. In part because it covered a segment of Egyptian life that one doesn’t necessarily think of much. And in part because it demonstrated just how much you can figure out from the details, even when you can never know a large part of subject (in this case what the Egyptian music sounded like).