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10 Ancient Egyptian Traditions (Only Egyptians Will Understand)

Ancient Egyptians are responsible for several inventions we come across every day. Toothpaste, the calendar, writing, door locks… and the list goes on and on. However, as thousands of years of development separate us from the ancients, most of their inventions and traditions differ a great deal from ours. Here is a list of 10 customs shared by ancient Egyptians that would seem quite odd in our society today.

10. Mourning

Herodotus, the Greek Historian, pointed out that most Egyptians used to shave their heads, while the Greeks would wear their hair long. He was surprised to find out that people who did let their hair grow long did so only because they were mourning a loved one who had passed away. Beards were also considered unhygienic and only mourning men would wear them.

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The death of the family cat was considered equal to the death of a family member. In addition to them usually mummifying the late pet, all members of the household would shave their eyebrows, and only stop mourning when they had grown back to the original length.

9. Shabtis

Shabti (or ushebti) is an Egyptian word that meant “those who answer” and was used to name a series of small statuettes of gods and animals. These were placed in the tombs, hidden between a mummy’s layers of linen, or simply kept in the house. Most were made of fayence, wood, or stone, but a few (used by the elite) were made of the gemstone lapis lazuli. The shabtis were supposed to contain spirits, who would continue to work for the deceased in the afterlife, or simply protect the holder of the shabti from harm. More than 400 shabtis were found in Tutankhamen’s tomb.

8. Kohl

khol ancient egypt

Both Egyptian men and women would wear eye makeup. Later called kohl by the Arabs, Egyptian eyeliner was made by grinding minerals such as galena and malachite. Usually, the upper eyelid was painted black, while the lower one was green.

This practice was not only meant to be aesthetic, but also spiritual, as it implied that the wearer of the makeup was protected by Horus and Ra. They were not entirely wrong about the protective properties of makeup, as some researchers have proposed that the cosmetics worn along the Nile helped in preventing eye infections.

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7. Animal Mummies

Every animal, no matter how small or large, could be mummified. Domestic animals and pets, but also fish, crocodiles, birds, serpents, and beetles, would all undergo the same preservation process after their death, which usually was the result of ritual slaughter. Pets, however, were mummified after their natural death and buried together with their owners.

A number of reasons were given for this practice. Preserving beloved animals was one, but animal mummies were largely used as offerings for the gods. As most gods were part animals, all of them had one appropriate species that would appease them. For example, mummified jackals were offered to Anubis, and hawk mummies were placed in the shrines of Horus. Mummified animals would also be placed in private tombs, as they would serve the purpose of providing food for the afterlife.

6. The Afterlife

Egyptians believed in the afterlife

Egyptians believed in the afterlife, but it was not simply another life after the one on earth. The Underworld was a very complicated place, and complex rituals were performed in order for the deceased to successfully reach and live in the afterlife.

One such ceremony involved the symbolic re-animation of the mummy, which was taken out of the tomb periodically and a cut was performed in the bandages where the mouth should be so that it could speak, breathe, and eat food.

This was named the ceremony of the opening of the mouth and was performed since the Old Kingdom and as late as Roman times. The opening of the mouth itself was a ritual consisting of 75 steps, no less.

5. Magical Healing

What is an item everyone has in their home, but hopes to never have to use? For Egyptians, especially during the Late Period, this would be a magical stela or cippus. These stelae were used for healing afflictions caused by snake or scorpion bites. Usually, they showed the image of a young Horus stepping over crocodiles and holding snakes, scorpions, and other harmful animals, in his hands. It implied that the god had control over dangerous beasts and had the power to diminish the harm they do. What Egyptians did with these stelae, which typically would not exceed 30 centimeters (1 foot) in height, was pour water on top and let it drip along the figure of Horus, then collect it when it reached the base of the cippus. The magically charged water would be offered to the ill person, and it was hoped that its properties drove the venom out of their body.

4. Cat Worship

Cat Worship
Cat Worship

Well, maybe this is a tradition only Egyptians understand. Cat worship was almost universal in Egypt, and not only did they extensively mourn their dead cats, but they were expected to provide them with the best of lives until that point. This was because, while not considering the cats themselves as gods, Egyptians believed felines shared certain divine traits with cat goddesses such as Bastet, Sekhmet, and Mafdet. Most households had at least one cat, and they were allowed to roam freely inside and outside the family home.

3. Drug Use

Egyptians had a deep understanding of all the plant and animal species they coexisted with. Many plant properties, some of which were later confirmed by modern science, were described in medical papyri. And while it is still debated whether they did so on a recreational basis, it is clear that strong opioids such as opium and hashish were known to Egyptians as far back as the 3rd millennium BCE.

Researchers have found, thanks to the decryption of medical writings from the time, that opium and hashish were used during surgery to ease the pain of the patients. Hashish in ancient Egypt was chewed, rather than smoked, and was prescribed to women during childbirth

2. Gender Reveals

gender reveals

According to scientists, there is proof that the method devised by ancient Egyptians for knowing the sex of unborn babies was accurate. Pregnant women were required to urinate into a jar containing wheat and barley seeds, which were then placed on the fertile soil next to the Nile. After a few weeks, they would check the place where the seeds had been planted to see which of the two plants grew. If it was barley, then the baby would be a boy. If the wheat grew instead, it would be a girl.

1. Damnatio Memoriae

Egyptians believed the name and one’s image were consubstantial with the person it belonged to. This is why one of the worst punishments Egyptians could endure was a name change.

For instance, around 1155 BCE, there was a plot to assassinate pharaoh Ramesses III, known as ‘The Harem Conspiracy’. The culprits were found and charged, but they were not executed. Instead, some of them had their names changed. So, one previously named ‘Merira’, or beloved by Ra, was afterward known as ‘Mesedura’, or hated by Ra. This was believed to be almost worse than death.

In the case of images and paintings, it is not uncommon to find portraits of pharaohs and officials with their faces scraped out so that their memory would be damned forever.

Wrapping Up

Life in ancient Egypt was quite different from our everyday reality. Not only did they have different values and beliefs, but their customs would be considered bizarre by today’s standards. Surprisingly, however, some of the ancient Egyptian traditions have roots in scientific facts that time has confirmed. We still have a few lessons to learn from the Egyptians of old.

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Sebastian Francisco Maydana
Sebastian Francisco Maydana

I'm a PhD candidate in History, with a specialization in ancient Egyptian history. My main field of interest is Egyptian art and religion, especially during the Predynastic period. I also write film reviews and narrative, and have a passion for sailing.