Peeps at Ancient Egypt - Jamse Baikie

Child-Life in Ancient Egypt

How did the boys and girls live in this quaint old land so many hundreds of years ago? How were they dressed, what sort of games did they play at, what sort of lessons did they learn, and what kind of school did they go to? If you could have lived in Egypt in those far-off days, you would have found many differences between your life of to-day and the life that the Egyptian children led; but you would also have found that there were very many things much the same then as they are now. Boys and girls were boys and girls three thousand years ago, just as they are now; and you would find that they did very much the same things, and even played very much the same games as you do to-day.

When you read in your fairy-stories about a little boy or girl, you often hear that they had fairy godmothers who came to their cradles, and gave them gifts, and foretold what was going to happen to the little babies in after years. Well, when little Tahuti or little Sen-senb was born in Thebes fifteen hundred years before Christ, there were fairy godmothers too, who presided over the great event; and there were others called the Hathors, who foretold all that was going to happen to the little boy or girl as the years went on. The baby was kept a baby much longer in those days than our little ones are kept. The happy mother nursed the little thing carefully for three years at all events, carrying it about with her wherever she went, either on her shoulder, or astride upon her hip.

If baby took ill, and the doctor was called in, the medicines that were given were not in the least like the sugar-coated pills and capsules that make medicine-taking easy nowadays. The Egyptian doctor did not know a very great deal about medicine and sickness, but he made up for his ignorance by the nastiness of the doses which he gave to his patients. I don't think you would like to take pills made up of the moisture scraped from pig's ears, lizard's blood, bad meat, and decaying fat, to say nothing of still nastier things. Often the doctor would look very grave, and say, "The child is not ill; he is bewitched"; and then he would sit down and write out a prescription something like this: "Remedy to drive away bewitchment. Take a great beetle; cut off his head and his wings, boil him, put him in oil, and lay him out. Then cook his head and his wings; put them in snake-fat, boil, and let the patient drink the mixture." I think you would almost rather take the risk of being bewitched than drink a dose like that!

Ramses II


Sometimes the doctor gave no medicines at all, but wrote a few magic words on a scrap of old paper, and tied it round the part where the pain was. I daresay it did as much good as his pills. Very often the mother believed that it was not really sickness that was troubling her child, but that a ghost was coming and hurting him; so when his cries showed that the ghost was in the room, the mother would rise up, shaking all over, I daresay, and would repeat the verse that she had been taught would drive ghosts away:

"Comest thou to kiss this child? I suffer thee not to kiss him;

Comest thou to quiet him? I suffer thee not to quiet him;

Comest thou to harm him? I suffer thee not to harm him;

Comest thou to take him away? I suffer thee not to take him away."

When little Tahuti has got over his baby aches, and escaped the ghosts, he begins to run about and play. He and his sister are not bothered to any great extent with dressing in the mornings. They are very particular about washing, but as Egypt is so hot, clothes are not needed very much, and so the little boy and girl play about with nothing at all on their little brown bodies except, perhaps, a narrow girdle, or even a single thread tied round the waist. They have their toys just like you. Tahuti has got a wonderful man, who, when you pull a string, works a roller up and down upon a board, just like a baker rolling out dough, and besides he has a crocodile that moves its jaws. His sister has dolls: a fine Egyptian lady and a frizzy-haired, black-faced Nubian girl. Sometimes they play together at ninepins, rolling the ball through a little gate.

For about four years this would go on, as long as Tahuti was what the Egyptians called "a wise little one." Then, when he was four years old, the time came when he had to become "a writer in the house of books," which is what the Egyptians called a school-boy; so little Tahuti set off for school, still wearing no more clothes than the thread tied round his waist, and with his black hair plaited up into a long thick lock, which hung down over his right ear. The first thing that he had to learn was how to read and write, and this was no easy task, for Egyptian writing, though it is very beautiful when well done, is rather difficult to master, all the more as there were two different styles which had to be learned if a boy was going to become a man of learning. I don't suppose that you think your old copy-books of much importance when you are done with them; but the curious thing is that among all the books that have come down to us from ancient Egypt, there are far more old copy-books than any others, and these books, with the teachers' corrections written on the margins, and rough sketches scratched in here and there among the writing, have proved most valuable in telling us what the Egyptians learned, and what they liked to read; for a great deal of the writing consisted in the copying out of wise words of the men of former days, and sometimes of stories of old times.

These old copy-books can speak to us in one way, but if they could speak in another, I daresay they would tell us of many weary hours in school, and of many floggings and tears; for the Egyptian school-master believed with all his heart in the cane, and used it with great vigour and as often as he could. Little Tahuti used to look forward to his daily flogging, much as he did to his lunch in the middle of the day, when his careful mother regularly brought him three rolls of bread and two jugs of beer. "A boy's ears," his master used to say, "are on his back, and he hears when he is beaten." One of the former pupils at his school writing to his teacher, and recalling his school-days, says: "I was with thee since I was brought up as a child; thou didst beat my back, and thine instructions went into my ear." Sometimes the boys, if they were stubborn, got punishments even worse than the cane. Another boy, in a letter to his old master, says: "Thou hast made me buckle to since the time that I was one of thy pupils. I spent my time in the lock-up, and was sentenced to three months, and bound in the temple." I am afraid our schoolboys would think the old Egyptian teachers rather more severe than the masters with whom they have to do nowadays.

Lesson-time occupied about half the day, and when it came to an end the boys all ran out of the school, shouting for joy. That custom has not changed much, anyway, in all these hundreds of years. I don't think they had any home lessons to do, and so, perhaps, their school-time was not quite so bad as we might imagine from the rough punishments they used to get.

When Tahuti grew a little older, and had fairly mastered the rudiments of writing, his teacher set him to write out copies of different passages from the best known Egyptian books, partly to keep up his hand-writing, and partly to teach him to know good Egyptian and to use correct language. Sometimes it was a piece of a religious book that he was set to copy, sometimes a poem, sometimes a fairy-tale. For the Egyptians were very fond of fairy-tales, and later on, perhaps, we may hear some of their stories, the oldest fairy-stories in the world. But generally the piece that was chosen was one which would not only exercise the boy's hand, and teach him a good style, but would also help to teach him good manners, and fill his mind with right ideas. Very often Tahuti's teacher would dictate to him a passage from the wise advice which a great King of long ago left to his son, the Crown Prince, or from some other book of the same kind. And sometimes the exercises would be in the form of letters which the master and his pupils wrote as though they had been friends far away from one another. Tahuti's letters, you may be sure, were full of wisdom and of good resolutions, and I dare say he was just about as fond of writing them as you are of writing the letters that your teacher sometimes sets as a task for you.

When it came to Arithmetic, Tahuti was so far lucky that the number of rules he had to learn was very few. His master taught him addition and subtraction, and a very slow and clumsy form of multiplication; but he could not teach him division, for the very simple reason that he did not properly understand it himself. Enough of mensuration was taught him to enable him to find out, though rather roughly, what was the size of a field, and how much corn would go into a granary of any particular size. And when he had learned these things, his elementary education was pretty well over.

Temple at Karnak


Of course a great deal would depend on the profession he was going to follow. If he was going to be only a common scribe, his education would go no farther; for the work he would have to do would need no greater learning than reading, writing, and arithmetic. If he was going to be an officer in the army, he entered as a cadet in a military school which was attached to the royal stables. But if he was going to be a priest, he had to join one of the colleges which belonged to the different temples of the gods, and there, like Moses, he was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was taught all the strange ideas which they had about the gods, and the life after death, and the wonderful worlds, above and below, where the souls of men lived after they had finished their lives on earth.

But, whether his schooling was carried on to what we should call a University training or not, there was one thing that Tahuti was taught with the utmost care, and that was to be very respectful to those who were older than himself, never to sit down while an older person was standing in the room, and always to be very careful in his manners. Chief of the older people to whom he had to show respect were his parents, and above all, his mother, for the Egyptians reverenced their mothers more than anyone else in the world. Here is a little scrap of advice that a wise old Egyptian once left to his son: "Thou shalt never forget what thy mother has done for thee. She bare thee, and nourished thee in all manner of ways. She nursed thee for three years. She brought thee up, and when thou didst enter the school, and wast instructed in the writings, she came daily to thy master with bread and beer from her house. If thou forgettest her, she might blame thee; she might lift up her hands to God, and He would hear her complaint." Children nowadays might do a great deal worse than remember these wise words of the oldest book in the world.

But you are not to think that the Egyptian children's life was all teaching and prim behaviour. When Tahuti got his holidays, he would sometimes go out with his father and mother and sister on a fishing or fowling expedition. If they were going fishing, the little papyrus skiff was launched, and the party paddled away, armed with long thin spears, which had two prongs at the point. Drifting over the quiet shallow waters of the marshy lakes, they could see the fish swimming beneath them, and launch their spears at them. Sometimes, if he was lucky, Tahuti's father would pierce a fish with either prong of the spear, and then there was great excitement.

But still more interesting was the fowling among the marshes. The spears were laid aside on this kind of expedition, and instead, Tahuti and his father were armed with curved throw-sticks, shaped something like an Australian boomerang. But, besides the throw-sticks, they had with them a rather unusual helper. When people go shooting nowadays, they take dogs with them to retrieve the game. Well, the Egyptians had different kinds of dogs, too, which they used for hunting; but when they went fowling they took with them a cat which was trained to catch the wounded birds and bring them to her master. The little skiff was paddled cautiously across the marsh, and in among the reeds where the wild ducks and other waterfowl lived, Sen-senb and her mother holding on to the tall papyrus plants and pulling them aside to make room for the boat, or plucking the beautiful lotus-lilies, of which the Egyptians were so fond. When the birds rose, Tahuti and his father let fly their throw-sticks, and when a bird was knocked down, the cat, which had been sitting quietly in the bow of the boat, dashed forward among the reeds and secured the fluttering creature before it could escape.

Altogether, it was great fun for the brother and sister, as well as for the grown folks, and Tahuti and Sen-senb liked nothing so well as when the gaily-painted little skiff was launched for a day on the marshes. I think that, on the whole, they had a very bright and happy life in these old days, and that, though they had not many of the advantages that you have to-day, the boys and girls of three thousand years ago managed to enjoy themselves in their own simple way quite as well as you do now.