Coming of Age in Ancient
by Daniel Kolos, MA,
Current affiliations: Benben Books, Benben Publication
Based on a paper presented at the
Sex and Gender Conference, The Egypt Centre,
Coming-of-Age ‘rites of passage’ are apparent in the ancient world and have been well documented into our own time. Although there is a growing body of literature on gender roles and sexuality in Pharaonic culture, very little has been written on ancient Egyptian rites of passage for puberty. It is the purpose of this essay to present a theory and to set up a methodological framework within which to begin a systematic study.
I propose that the major common denominator in the Coming-of-Age rites of passage is to face and survive a life-and-death situation. Looking at ancient Egypt in general, but concentrating on the New Kingdom, military training and service as well as forced labor would provide the necessary environment for males, while the exemptions would be apprenticeship in the trades. Becoming pregnant and surviving childbirth would provide the necessary conditions for young females, while celibacy would serve as the exemption. This paper proposes the theory of liminality in the Coming-of-Age rites of passage as the social/cultural vehicle within which primary as well as circumstantial evidence will be structured or gain context. It will also explore scholarly opinion that touches on the issues and, finally, reinterpret the evidence.
Coming-of-Age rites of passage as liminality
Liminality (from the Latin word līmen, or "threshold") is the condition of the second stage of a ritual in the theories of Arnold van Gennep, Victor Turner, and others. In these theories, a ritual, especially a rite of passage, involves some change to the participants, especially their social status. This change is accomplished by separating the participants from the rest of their social group (the first, or preliminary stage: separation); a period during which one has not only lost social status, but functions in a limbo, without the usual social contacts in a specially constructed group Turner called ‘communitas’ (the liminal stage); and a period during which one's new social status is confirmed (the postliminal stage: aggregation or reincorporation). Liminality as a social phenomenon has been used in the study of ancient society elsewhere.
A mythological model for the male Coming-of-Age rites of passage
are fortunate that there is a mythological blueprint for the male coming-of-age
process. It is the
Horus’s social milieu is in the marshes where he was raised by his mother Isis. In the beginning of this story he has come of age a “youth with strong limbs” and enters liminal space when appears before the court of the gods with his mother, Isis, as his chief advocate to “claim the office of his father, Osiris.” To claim a role in society initiates the coming-of-age process. The question is whether or not he will survive that process.
Seth, his uncle, plays the role of the challenger when he declares, “Let him be sent outside with me and I shall let you see my hand prevailing over his hand….” A series of contests follow that measure strength. Some of the contests include the potential for death.
Banebdjede, the Ram-headed deity of Mendes complains through the pen of Thoth, scribe of the Ennead, “What shall we do about these two people, who for eighty years now have been before the tribunal?” Thereby we know the contest takes a long time, so coming-of-age is not a single, symbolic ceremony.
Both contenders have advocates who try to manipulate the contest. The Goddess Neith, for example, tries to buy off Seth so that Horus would be exempted from the challenge. She writes, “Double Seth’s possessions. Give him Anat and Astarte, your two daughters. And place Horus on the seat of his father!”
We know Horus is a youth because Pre-Harakhti, the great-grandfather, tells him “You are feeble in body and this office is too big for you, you youngster whose breath smells bad.” The word Lichtheim translates as ‘youngster’ is aDd (adjed) meaning ‘offender, wrongdoer’. We have to assume that Seth, also, is a ‘youth’ for this occasion, because Atum refers to the two contenders as ‘these two youths,’ where the word for ‘youth’ is again aDd.
One contest is totally different from all the others. The two youths try to outwit one another. It includes a homosexual attempt by Seth and revenge by Horus. For the purpose of this paper, however, both contenders prove that they produce semen.
The contest between Horus and Seth is resolved when Thoth calls forth these young men’s semen before all the deities. Seth’s semen, on the one hand, is found discarded, or wasted, in the marshes. Horus’s semen, on the other hand, seems to have found its mark in Seth’s belly. It transforms into a golden sun disk that Thoth appropriates for himself. More on Thoth’s curious taste in crowns later.
goal of this contest is dominance and penetration. Classical
Horus and Seth story ends with the father, Osiris, declaring his son, Horus,
his legitimate heir. Seth is brought as
a bound prisoner, a game that was played by post-pubescent boys throughout
This story of Horus and Seth contains all three stages of liminality as it pertains to a rite of passage: separation from his customary environment (the marshes); a liminal state while he is at the court of the deities, and a reincorporation state as he is given the claim which he originally declared. The Horus and Seth story will serve as a model to which all other male coming-of-age stories will be measured.
The mechanics of the Coming-of-Age rite of passage
These mechanics consist of:
1. Physical maturity
Horus appears as a “youth with strong limbs”
2. Making a claim
Horus enters liminal space when he “claims the office of his father, Osiris.”
3. Meeting a challenger
Seth, his uncle, plays the role of the challenger when he declares, “Let him be sent outside with me and I shall let you see my hand prevailing over his hand….”
4. Preparing for and fighting contests
A series of contests follow that measure strength. Some of the contests require preparation and/or include the potential for death.
5. Duration of the Coming-of-Age process
Banebdjede asks, “What shall we do about these two people, who for eighty years now have been before the tribunal?” His words imply the contests take a long time.
6. Distracting the challenger
The Goddess Neith tries to buy off Seth so that Horus would be exempted from the challenge. She writes, “Double Seth’s possessions. Give him Anat and Astarte, your two daughters. And place Horus on the seat of his father!”
7. Age requirements
We know Horus is a youth because Pre-Harakhti, calls him a “youngster, ‘aDd’ whose breath smells bad.” In turn, Atum calls both Horus and Seth as “these two youths,” also using the word ‘aDd’.
8. Change of Identity
There are several ways that identity can change: physical, psychological and symbolic. Some of the changes of identity in the Story of Horus and Seth happen when
a. Horus received an insult. Pre-Harakhty told him, “You are feeble in body and this office is too big for you….”
b. when the White Crown was placed on his head and removed again
c. when Horus willingly changed into a hippopotamus
e. after Horus cult off his mother’shead, Seth blinded him, thus changing his identity until Hathor healed Horus’ eyes
9. Separation from the Mother
the end of the Hippopotamus fight, when it becomes obvious that
10. Establishing dominance
One contest is totally different from all the others. The two youths try to outwit one another. It includes a homosexual attempt by Seth, where Seth declares to the Ennead, “I worked Horus as a woman,” and a revenge by Horus.
11.Proof of semen production
In the course of this contest of dominance, both contenders prove that they produce semen.
12. Winning the contest
Several of the contests produce a conclusive win for Horus. Horus even complains to Neith, “…a thousand times now I have been in the right against him day after day…. I have contended with him in the hall ‘Way-of-Truth’,” and in three other halls, and “I was found right against him.”
A public declaration of the winner in the Horus and Seth story ends with the father, Osiris, declaring his son, Horus, his legitimate heir.
14. Public humiliation of the loser
is brought as a bound prisoner, a game that was played by post-pubescent boys
15. Attainment of claim
closes the ceremony by confirming Horus’s new identity as heir of his father
Osiris and king of
These fifteen characteristics and activities in the Story of Horyus and Seth form a blueprint of a male Coming-of-Age rite of passage. I propose a methodology to use these mechanics to test the evidence, which will be presented elsewhere.
Coming-of-Age among royalty
of royal princes are rare until the time of Ramses II. Fortunately, some texts exist where kings
talk about their youth. Amenhotep II,
for example, mentions several aspects of his rite of passage. He indicates his physical maturity when calls
himself “a beautiful youth who was well developed and had completed eighteen
years upon his thighs in strength….” We
can assume that his claim is the throne of his father, Thutmose III. He talks about his training: “He was one who knew all the works of
IV left, as his only evidence of having won a ‘contest’, a stela between the
paws of the Great Sphinx. This stela
contains the text that contains his claim, put into his mouth by Re Harakhty
himself, that he will be king of
Amenhotep III appointed his eldest son, Prince Thutmose, High Priest of Ptah, but that is all we know of him. There is no known tomb for him. He may have died a natural death, from illness, but it is also possible that boys, royal or otherwise, who died during their coming-of-age contests, were buried anonymously, because this motif recurs with soldiers and young women.
the two curious references to the sun’s disk in the Horus and Seth story,
particularly to the golden Aten Thoth takes as his crown, it is possible that
Akhenaten may have adapted this story as symbolic of his own coming-of-age
process. As we have seen, the elements
of liminality are present. Akhenaten,
like Horus, made a claim to kingship when his older brother died. We don’t know what Akhenaten did previous to
that, but his coronation changed his social status. He entered a period of ambiguous life in
which he contended with the priests of Amun-Ra for five years at
potential evidence that Akhenaten was going through a rite of passage at
first his relationship with the priesthood of Amun-Ra was not life
threatening. According to D. B. Redford,
he would likely annoy them by mounting his chariot at his palace, which was
somewhere southwest of Karnak temple, and rid with Nefertiti through
five years Akhenaten won the contest simply by shutting down the Amun-Ra temple
altogether and moving to Akhetaten.
There he emerged as a full king, having allied himself with Thoth in the
sense that the city of
Seth, as challenger, would have been Amun-Ra’s high priest and his advocates in the court of Ra would have been those deities who supported Seth’s claim, in this case caricatures of those Theban nobles who served as Amun priests.
may have been nine years old when he was crowned. The only evidence we have about his rise from
childhood into adolescence is his change of name to Tutankhamun and the move
from Akhetaten to
II states in a dedication inscription on the façade of the
Since Sety I died while Ramses II was still young, it is possible that his coronation ceremony was his actual coming-of-age initiation, and, in a sense, the declaration of his intent, or claim on his society. It is possible that the Battle of Kadesh was his challenge. As for evidence of dominance, it is established by his oft repeated ‘victory’ scene at Kadesh. Gay Robins noted that Ramses’ “youth” is reflected by having included in the Battle of Kadesh inscriptions a thanksgiving peon to his two horses who brought his chariot through the harrowing experience, and that his only known response to the soldiers who deserted him was a talking-to: “What will people say when it is heard of: your deserting me, I being left all alone? And not an officer, captain or soldier came to give me a hand as I fought!”
the Corridor of the Bull Ramses II as king is shown having lassoed a wild
longhorn bull of
From these epithets, the prince’s credentials, we can surmise that he has participated in the ritual of being named ‘heir apparent’; that he was trained in archery and experienced ‘mêlées’ and ‘fights’. Moreover, he had fared better than his older brother Khaemwase, and likely ‘won’ his place at his father’s side through various contests. Amenhirkopshef also participates in another bull ceremony and later in a presentation of a flock-of-birds scene that is part of an ancient harvest and fertility rite.
of the Ramses II temples show processions of his children, both males and
Within the theory of liminality royal princes would enter a period of anonymity, go through a potentially life-and-death challenge and either die or return into society. Other than those who became kings, there is little, if any, information. Since anonymity goes hand in hand with lack of information, the issue of what happened to those who did not ‘make the cut’ is lost in the obscurity of history: what happened to all the royal princes whose names we know but whose mode of death and burial evidence is missing? There may be a parallel with the case of the common soldier, below.
Coming-of-Age among noble youth
oldest inscription we have is that of Weni from his sixth dynasty tomb at
we learn from the sixth dynasty tomb of Harkhuf at
Coming-of-Age among the common people
The eighth dynasty soldier, Qedes, left a hint in his tomb inscription about the events of his youth. Among other things, he seems to have had a very ambitious mother.
He “acquired oxen and goats, …granaries of Upper Egyptian barley, …title to a great field” at a time when he was still part of his father’s household. These may be the rewards for contests he won because he states that he “surpassed this whole town in swiftness, its Nubians and its upper Egyptians!” However, he may have won these contests while still prepubescent because he admits that, in fact, it was his mother who took title to these belongings for him! He nevertheless lived long enough to enter the military and survive life as a soldier.
Emhab was a Seventeenth dynasty drummer who “was invited to… try his skills against those of another contestant.” After secretly practicing his art, Emhab beat out his opponent, pun intended, and became an army drummer, possibly for Kamose. After a year of faithful drumming, the king rewarded Emhab with a female slave.
We have several elements of the mechanics of a male Coming-of-Age rite of passage in the tomb inscriptions of Qedes and Emhab.
1. They both took on a challenge. Qedes raced on his feet, Emhab went off by himself and practiced drumming.
2. They both won a contest.
3. They entered liminal space by serving in the army where their skills were utilized.
4. They both survived their military service
5. Emhab received a reward as evidence of his usefulness.
this ‘class’ comprised the majority of ancient
Childhood mortality and Coming-of-Age mortality
mortality right up to the end of the nineteenth century of our own era was
high: one out of two children was expected to die by the age of five. Modern statistics reflect this high mortality
rates in particularly backward areas of our planet where mother mortality
during birth also translates into infant mortality. A recent study shows a similar high rate of
child mortality in ancient
There is, at the moment, no known process by which to determine the post-pubescent attrition rate for boys. Evidence is lacking concerning those soldiers, and possibly members of labor battalions, who died in the line of duty or work. We must nevertheless assume that such death must have occurred.
To suppose that the ancient Egyptians did not concern themselves with the death of their own sons in battle or at desert quarries would be to miss the point: liminality is a tool to help society cope with high occurrence of death.
have only one piece of evidence of common soldiers’ corpses being disposed,
either buried in situ or brought back to
In spite of numerous battle scenes actually showing Egyptian soldiers pierced by arrows and victory descriptions of battles, we have no other record, to the best of my knowledge, as to how many Egyptian soldiers died in any given battle, or how they might have been disposed.
I have categorized scribal schools and scribal service under exemptions, below, but the Satire on the Trades, ostensibly written to encourage scribal students to stick to their studies, not only shows the real dangers of a soldier’s life, but hints at their being abandoned to anonymity:
(the soldier) reaches the enemy while he is like a pinioned bird. If he succeeds in returning to
silence of anonymity is in the phrase, “If he succeeds in returning to
The theory of liminality allows a society to turn a blind eye to the personal pain and death of soldiers on a battlefield or young women on the birthing stool in the same sense that our own culture did not notice nor recognize various handicaps, nor the people who suffered them, until a well organized, long-term public education process culminated in governmental legislation and almost total integration that included wheel chair access to all public premises and handicapped parking spots everywhere.
Evidence of military training
little evidence we have from ancient
and adolescent boys are often depicted naked, while, in the
of the youth are involved in games, sports and military exercises. In Touny and Wenig’s book, “Sport in Ancient
Egypt,” boys are often naked while young girls
engaged in games and sports are fully clothed in Middle Kingdom tombs. This gender differentiation is exactly the
opposite of the
games, sports and military involvement continue for boys through out the Old,
Most of the young boys have the youth fillet on their heads indicating not only their youth but likely also their unmarried status. Their games and sports are often military exercises. Touny and Wenig note that many of what we call ‘sports’ events, such as shooting or rowing contests, were performed in front of the army, and therefore, could be called military exercises. Duels, such as wrestling and single stick fighting ‘were probably included in military training.” They use the example of the Middle kingdom tombs at Beni Hassan of Baqti III (Tomb 15) Prince Kheti (Tomb 17) and Amenemhet (Tomb 2) where the wrestling events “are shown in long friezes … together with pictures of sieges of cities or fortresses, detachments of soldiers or duels. It has rightly been pointed out that the close proximity of such war-like scenes is important for an explanation of the wrestlers’ friezes; it will have been a matter of military exercises in which soldiers did physical training and increased their fitness and powers of resistance. The pictures below them – of duels to the death – show clearly how much importance the Egyptians attached to agility and fitness.” Single stick fencing is usually done by males dressed as soldiers, and there is no way of knowing whether these are married or unmarried youth. The fact that soldiers dominate so many ancient Egyptian scenes, especially at Akhetaten, means that Egyptian youth was not only conscripted into labor battalions, but also into the military.
In the several literary works of complaints of the First Intermediate Period, there is only one reference to what happens to adolescents, and it is set in the negative light of the entire work. It is the last line of the Admonitions of Ipuwer: “There was an old man who was about to die, while his son was a child without knowledge.” It is possible, therefore, that one route to adulthood that may circumvent military or labor service is through the gaining of knowledge. I have categorized scribal schools and scribal service under exemptions because, although some scribes serve as ‘scribes of the army,’ there seems to be no proof that all scribes took a stint in the military.
The Satire on the Trades, preserved on 18th and 19th dynasty papyri, gives us a clear picture that becoming a scribe is an alternative to military service, and a hint that the other ‘trades’ may also be exemptions and, therefore, alternative paths to the Coming-ofAge rites of passage. Due to the brevity imposed on this study, I will deal only with the scribal path.
The scribal trainee who learns his craft is well rewarded: “Barely grown, still a child,/ He is greeted, sent on errands,/ Hardly returned he wears a gown.” His teacher promotes him at the royal residence. He is given endless rules of conduct to observe. But the message is hypocritical: learn to be subservient to those greater than you and you will be your own boss. The challenger is the teacher, or the teacher’s stick. The contest was to succeed, through mental gymnastics, to overcome contradictory concepts. Success arrived when “the hearer became the doer.”
At the end of the Satire on the Trades we encounter a phrase that may be the ancient Egyptian equivalent for the Coming-of-Age rite of passage: ‘the path of life.’
The scribal trade, of course, is juxtaposed with apprenticeship to other trades, where the process is less kind. In these other trades youth are beaten; they are seized for labor; they are weary and worn out; they are ravaged by mosquitoes and gnats; they suffer; they work themselves to death and still can’t feed their families; they stink; they are joyless; their food is mixed with dirt. This is satire, but I would expect a grain of truth hidden in each exaggeration.
Summary of Male Coming-of-Age rite of passage
An application of the Coming-of-Age theory to royal, noble and common people’s epithets and biographies yields a consistent response to the three stages of liminality: a declaration of intent that separates the boy from childhood; a period of time during which the boy performs tasks or wins contests or serves in either the army or at some trade; and finally a resolution of his identity where he is noticed, receives a reward and rejoins society. Within these three stages of liminality, we find many of the ten steps or mechanics of the rite of passage that every young man must pass through.
have not included male circumcision among the above mechanics because of the current
uncertainty about its universality in ancient
As we have seen in the story of Horus and Seth, dominance can be attained even by the illusion of sexual penetration. The trickery involved is not unlike psychological phenomena. In terms of the post-Freudian Psychoanalyst, Jean Lacan, the successful initiate is one who penetrates the consciousness of his superiors. Tom Hare, in his work, Re-Membering Osiris, offers ample proof that the hieroglyphic script is overwhelmingly geared toward penetration and the number of words with the penis hieroglyph far exceeds those with female sexual organs. When Ptahhotep writes, “teach your son to be a hearer,” we may understand thereby that even ancient Egyptian teachers expected their words to ‘penetrate’ the ears of their pupils. Later, in the Satire of the Trades, as we have seen, this concept is repeated in the phrase, “the hearer becomes the doer.” This culture of penetration has more to do with dominance and the individual identity as a ‘penetrator’ than with sexual performance.
fact, the most surprising aspect of the male Coming-of-Age rites of passage is
that it does not include sexuality! It
seems fairly certain that the ancient Egyptian pubescent youth had no libido
issues. Whether this freedom occurred
because of unrestricted access to sexual activities or a general blindness to
the same, cannot be discerned at the moment.
In many cultures, such as the Masaai in Africa, in the overcrowded
Indian subcontinent, and until a century ago throughout
* * *
Female Coming-of-Age Processes
It is far more difficult and rather more sensitive to define the female coming-of-age process. Yet, the evidence is plentiful from mythological and literary stories, tomb and temple inscriptions, banqueting scenes, love and harpers’ songs, ostraca and papyrus paintings.
will look for the gods and goddesses who appear at scenes associated with
sexuality, childbirth, music, dance and other forms of entertainment. In mythological, funerary and general
banqueting scenes and settings, Hathor
seems to be the goddess of every aspect of sexuality, whether it is pleasure,
reproduction, entertainment, healing or childbearing. According to one myth, she was brought into
the Egyptian pantheon for pleasure at Ra’s request. Thoth magically transformed
her from a fierce desert lioness into the goddess of love, two aspects Hathor
already had if we equate her with the ‘apparition’ in the Middle Kingdom
Herdman’s Tale. There may also be a
connection between Thoth’s ‘magic’ and his role as a trickster that becomes
apparent in the
Thoth led Hathor into her
One of Hathor’s first role in the Horus and Seth story may be that of the female entertainer, because, at a time when Pre Harakhty was sulking “she uncovered her nakedness before him,” in Lichtheim’s translation. “Thereupon the great god laughed at her.” Literally, she ‘uncovered her vagina’, and judging from the lion’s flank determinative, she exposed her vagina by bending forward, a popular pose among the relatively few illustrations of copulation we have from ancient Egypt.
The way the words are written, the sexual act is implied, but not expressly stated. The sun-god nevertheless emerges from his depression with satisfaction. Perhaps someone can come up with another example where laughter is possibly a euphemism for orgasm.
Another deity involved with fertility is Hapy. A Middle Kingdom Hymn to Hapy, in a passage pertaining to fertility, includes singers and dancers and intimates that they are going to get pregnant:
“Songs to the harp are made for you,
One sings to you with clapping hands;
The youths, your children hail you,
Crowds adorn themselves for you,
Who…makes flourish every body;
Sustains the pregnant woman’s heart
And loves a multitude of herds.”
Five more deities are introduced in the Westcar papyrus story of the birth of three children. These are Isis, Nephthys, Meshkenet, Heqat and Khnum dispatched by Ra himself to help deliver the children. These deities change their appearance to those of four dancing girls with Khnum acting the role of their porter. They go directly to the birthing room and tell Rawoser, the husband, “Let us see her. We understand childbirth.”
Upon the successful completion of the birthing ritual Rawoser ‘paid’ the midwives with a sack of barley and the deities left.
This Story of Wonder is one certain evidence that under the apparent frivolity of entertainment, these troupes of women musicians were also trained midwives. Their decorated hips and perfumed wigs were a cover for other useful skills and that these young women may have performed valuable service to the villages they visited, other than to take the minds of scribal students off their work.
Meshkhenet, one of the goddesses in the story, is also the name of one of the two large bricks on which the mother squats for giving birth. Robins cites a magical spell the subject of which is childbirth, which begins with the words: ‘to be spoken over the two bricks.’
Rud-Djedet gave birth in a room of her house, by the
little is known about princesses until the
Amenhotep III was the first king whose sexual life came to light through archaeological evidence, though that evidence has been mostly suppressed. seemed to have had a prodigious appetite for young women, one that may have included his own daughter, Sitamun. Unfortunately we have no evidence that, as the Strong Bull, or Ka-Nakht, he performed the ritual impregnation of the daughters of his noblemen.
Robins writes: “The evidence for the existence of father-daughter marriages in the reign of … Akhenaten is hotly disputed. Two of the king’s daughters, Meretaten and Ankhesenpaaten, appear as the mothers of king’s daughters called Meretaten junior and Ankhesenpaaten junior respectively. A third daughter, Meketaten, probably died in childbirth. Unfortunately the paternity of the children is nowhere stated. It is tempting to assume that the title ‘king’s daughter’ must mean that they are daughters of a king and thus Akhenaten, but there is some evidence that the daughter of a king’s son could also be called ‘king’s daughter’. … …None of the three princesses who seem to have borne children have the title ’king’s wife’. Later, towards the end of her father’s reign, Meretaten became ‘king’s principle’ wife’, but this was well after the birth of Meretaten junior. There are too many gaps in our sources to determine whether or not Akhenaten fathered his daughters’ children.”
Lyn Green mentions the possibility of two other princesses as royal wives, Isis and Henut-ta-Nebu. Dorothea Arnold believes that the scenes from the royal tomb at Amarna should be read as a coded reference to a hope for rebirth, as there are no other examples in Egyptian funerary evidence where the cause of death is shown.
The theory of the Coming-of-Age rites of passage for females, however, provides a context in which the above situation, that Akhenaten fathered his daughters’ children, makes sense. Moreover, if the king’s sense of divinity forced the royal family to distance itself from other mortals, then Akhenaten may have found no other choice than to bring his own daughters through the Coming-of-Age rites of passage ‘in house’, as it were.
Amenhotep III, Akhenaten and Ramses II were the kings during whose reigns such ‘king’s daughters’ were born. Each of these kings had assumed a role of divinity no other Egyptian could match. In such an untenable position, they would be the only ones eligible to perform the necessary ritual first impregnation of their own daughters. In doing so, they would have also successfully removed themselves from the sort of public relations disaster that befell Khufu with regard to his daughter.
Both Ramses II and Ramses III showed their sons and daughters in parade. Sometimes the daughters would be wearing menat necklaces and the sons would be riding in chariots. Unfortunately we cannot tell from looking at the scenes whether they were going through the coming-of-age process, or had just completed it.
Chastity is one option for avoiding pregnancy and the potential lottery of dying in childbirth. It may be that at the beginning of the 18th dynasty the royal family hoped to avoid their daughters having to consort with lower classes, or to avoid pregnancy altogether by having their daughters live a chaste life as a ‘wife of Amun’. Chastity or celibacy, however, cannot be confirmed until Ramses VI.
Noble Ladies and Their Daughters
wrote, “The title 'lady-in-waiting' is… found in the
The situation this title masks may be the Coming-of-Age rites of passage for the daughters of high officials. They would in fact be handed over to the king, or to the king’s household, not yet in the sense of the Feudal droit du segnor, but as an honor for the young girls to spend the first years of their sexually mature lives at court instead of on the road with troupes of itinerant singers and dancers, which seemed to have been the lot of the lower classes. This way they could bear their first child in the relative comfort of the royal palace, a situation, no doubt, which would also give these girls a slightly better chance of survival. When they had proven their ability to bear a healthy child, rather than being ‘royal rejects’, they would be married off as highly prized ‘brides’ whose proven child bearing abilities would be less likely to interrupt the service of their husband to the king by untimely and unexpected death in childbirth.
As to how these daughters of noble families, or families of high officials, would pass their time during the long year or even a few years of their social limbo, the New Kingdom evidence has been gathered by, among others, Gay Robins and Lise Manniche. These girls did not linger in the royal harim, that is, they were neither married nor had ‘chattel’ status. Rather, they constituted the singers, dancers and musicians that were attached to the palace, to the better funded temples, or to the wealthier private households. They were the ones performing at the post-funerary meal of kings and high officials.
find the relationship between the Coming-of-Age theory and ancient
Coming-of-Age rites of passage as a social construct to ease a high rate of childbirth deaths
Robins and others assume that the “risk of death to women in childbirth” was taken within marriage. Whereas such death is always a risk in the ancient world, a majority of deaths in childbirth would occur during the first delivery attempt. The risk of death to both the first time mother and her infant is very high. Although estimates vary wildly from one in four children to one in ten, either number is still high. Even today, women in economically backward areas of the world suffer a mortality rate of one in seven. The statistics recur in various sociological studies, and, when complications due to pregnancy and later due to childbirth are included, mother mortality rates jump to 1 in 5!
to the opinion expressed by Robins, I propose that
The theory I present takes this initial risk out of marriage and places it in a socially acceptable setting where the girls are in limbo: they are even marginalized as performers or entertainers at every sort of occasion in the sense that they are not part of the society that they entertain. At the same time they are in the service of Hathor, learning to play music, to dance, to sing, to perform midwifery services, to entertain at wealthy private banquets, at temple ritual, funerary banquets as well as at the royal palace. They remain socially useful in their separation. They go through their life and death struggle anonymously, far removed from their families, whether noble or commoner, rich or poor. And they die and are buried in anonymity.
I must note that there is no hint of the Smayt being part of the Coming-of-Age rites of passage in Suzanne Onestine’s recent work. She holds that these groups of women benefited the state and their children learned loyalty to the state.
wrote that “a section of the (
Reinterpreted in the light of the Coming-of-Age theory, we find these burials in a context that works: these were singers and musicians who were assigned to perform at the numerous funerary banquets and festivals held at Abydos; that they became pregnant in the process, as they were hoping to do; and that they died in the process of childbirth anonymously. Even the Turin Erotic Papyrus can be interpreted as evidence of this coming-of-age process.
The proposed coming-of-age process of an ancient Egyptian young girl is mirrored both in historical, pre-Christian societies as well in recent and even contemporary non-Christian ones.
One of the latter
is the Maasai people of the Kalahari, another is the European Roma people. Maasai girls are socialised to become
sexually active at a young age, beginning from about 10 years old. Prior to puberty, a Maasai girl gradually
acquires her “right” to fertility. The
girl chooses one or several of the young warriors to live or consort with. “A virgin bride is looked upon as an awkward
phenomenon and somehow brings embarrassment on her family.” There is even
a tenuous connection between the Maasai and ancient
though Islam has been the traditional religion across North Africa for over a
thousand years, the oases of the
The cultural drive
to know the childbearing abilities of its post-pubescent girls also exists in
custom in common among the Masaai, the Ouled Nail,
The sexual liaison between naked female musicians and their male lovers, seen on the Turin Erotic papyrus, may represent the end of an evening of entertainment where the environment became conducive to sexual liaison. Although this papyrus has satirical content, the curious presence of baldheaded men adds a note of realism to the scene.
It is possible to equate bald headed men with low rank or cast. In the Admonitions of Ipuwer, among the lists of overturned social customs are the lines, “See, he who did not know a lyre owns a harp,/He who did not sing extols the goddess (Meret)…. /See, the baldhead who lacked oil/Has become owner of jars of sweet myrrh.”
When we encounter bald headed men impregnating possibly drunken female musicians, we may be looking at the lower social levels enacting one aspect of the Coming-of-Age rites of passage.
Summary of female coming-of-age processes
First, the sheer number of young girls participating in ceremonial banquets at every level of society bodes favorably for the practice that at the onset of menses, most girls would have entered a liminal state by joining a musical troupe. But, as Susan Onestine notes, not all girls had the title ‘Smayt’. She narrows this title to the noble women, at first, and then to an artisan or middle class, and even among these not all girls and/or adult women (who would have kept the title) had this title.
Secondly, the ancient Egyptian post-pubescent girl’s ambiguous position in society could only be resolved by her ability to bear a healthy child and stay alive herself. High rates of both mother and child mortality in childbirth made her a liability in the highly organized household economy based on a lively fertility culture.
The conditions of the Coming-of-Age theory stipulate that a post-pubescent girl has to bear a child before she is received back into her society. In order to bear a child, ancient Egyptian society had to devise a role for these young girls where they would be
1. separated from their usual social milieu at the onset of their menses;
2. where they would serve a socially useful role;
3. where they could become pregnant;
4. where they could spend the time of their child’s gestation in a safe place;
5. and where they could give birth under the best possible circumstances.
role was remarkably uniform throughout
or finally, these girls would find a new social identity for themselves once
they had given birth and survived. For
most that identity was marriage. Just
recently (in 2005) both Nicole Hansen (on the Amun Yahoo Groups discussion
site) and Prof. John Gee in his public lectures (e.g. the 2005 SSEA Symposium
At the moment a gap exists as to how many women remained in the entertainment profession for the rest of their productive lives. It would seem logical that many of the barren females would naturally remain as entertainers and make it their profession.
questions remain. What happened to the
children these females produced during their time as entertainers? There is both a logical answer to that
question as well as some evidence from Deir el Medina. Logically, in a fertility culture, the wealth
of a household economy depends upon the size of the household. One possibility would be if the entertainers
left their children at the villages where the children were born. Another, based on banqueting scenes, is that
these children grew up with the entertainers and danced with their
mothers. Gay Robins noted that in the
The interpretive theory as presented here is not all-inclusive. It fails, for example, in the case of the childless couple, Ramose and Mutemwia from Deir el Medina’s Workers’ Village, whose two surviving monuments are dedicated to the fertility deity, Bes and the deity of childbirth, Taweret. Robins cites two other childless couples from the 18th dynasty and an infertile male from the 20th. It is possible that the women went through their coming-of-age separation from their families, did not conceive, and returned to their villages and families and re-entered normal village life. In that case the focus of the puberty ritual was not a successful birth, but the fact that the young pubescent girl went through the ritual, learned about childbirth and rejoined her society with her newfound knowledge.
There is more, a wealth of detail that could fill a book. But I must end with a caveat. Not all occurrences of sistra and menat necklaces lead to a free-for-all sexual melee. Not every soldier was a ‘teenager’ going through his Coming-of-Age rite of passage. There were adult women who served Hathor and there were professional soldiers who were educated in both the arts of the scribe as well as in the martial arts. Further reinterpretation of the known evidence will have to answer questions such as, ‘was the liminal social status of young women serving in ceremonial roles at the palace, in temples, at funerals, and at various village festivals tantamount to enacting a ‘sacred’ role?’
A version of this paper was read at http://www.anf.pt/site/data/pdf/museu.pdf
term was first used by van Gennep, A.
(1960). The rites of passage. (M. B.
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Toouny and Dr. Steffen Wenig, Sport in
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Toouny and Dr. Steffen Wenig, Sport in
 Lichtheim, Vol. II, p. 41
Nicholas Reeves, Akhenaten, Egypt’s False
B. Redford, personal communication,
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Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt placed Tutankhamun in
Sety and Hanny el Zeini, Abydos: Holy
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 David, p. 114
 David, p. 15
 Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 1, p.18
 Ibid, p. 25
 Ibid, p. 90
 Manniche, Music, p. 75
"The percentages of infant burials found in the cemeteries of Gurob,
Matmar and Mostagedda, dating to the
Winlock, The Slain Soldiers of
Neb-hepet-Re’ Mentu-hotpe. New Yorkm 1945: Publication of the Metropolitan
McDermott, Warfare in Ancient
 Robins, pp. 185-186
 A. D.
Touny and Dr. Steffen Wenig, Edition
Women in Ancient
 Touny and Wenig, p. 15
 Ibid, p. 19
 Lichtheim, I, p. 161
 E.g. Amenhotep, Son of Hapu and Horemheb
 Lichtheim I, p. 186
 Ibid., p. 191
 Ibid., p. 191
& Janssen, Growing Up in Ancient
 For mass circumcision, see Ann Macy Roth, Egyptian Phyles in the old Kingdom, Chicago, 1991: University of Chicago Press; for different types, see Emoke Bailey, “Circumcision in Ancient Egypt,” in The Bulletin of the Australian Centre for Egyptology, vol. 7 (1996): 15-28
 Tom Hare, ReMembering Osiris: Number, gender and the word in ancient Egyptian representational systems, Satnford, 1999:
 Lichtheim, Vol. 1, p. 66
 Ibid., p. 191
Meskell,, “Re-embedding sex: domesticity, sexuality, and ritual in New Kingdom
Egypt,” in Archaeology of Sexuality,
Robert A Schmidt and Barbara L. Voss, eds.,
Manniche, Music and Musicians in Ancient
 Ibid. p. 118
 Lichtheim, Vol. I, p. 208
 Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 1 (Berkeley, U of Cal Press, 1975) p. 220
 Robins, p. 83
 The Histories, Book Two, 126, Aubrey de
 Reeves, p. 61
Lyn, “Who was Who at Amarna,” in The
Royal Women of Amarna, Dorothea Arnold, ed.
 “Aspects of the Royal Female Image.” in The Royal Women of Amarna, p. 115
 Robins, p. 117
 Robins, p. 58
 Ibid, p. 61, 64
 WHO Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood Program
Barbara, Growing Up in Medieval
 “The role of the Chantress in Ancient Egypt,” in British Archaeological Reports: International Series 1401, Oford, 2005: Archaeopress, p. 32
 Music, pp. 124/25
Fosbrooke H. A. (1948) “An Administrative Survey of the Masai Social System,”
 Adrian vander Meijden, personal communication
 Lichtheim, Vol. I, p. 156-57
 Onestine, p. 37
 Robins, p. 77