Coming of Age in Ancient Egypt*                                   


by Daniel Kolos, MA,

Current affiliations:  Benben Books, Benben Publications



Coming-of-Age ‘rites of passage’[1] are apparent in the ancient world.  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.[2]  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. 


Theoretical setting


I propose that the major common denominator in the Coming-of-Age rite of passage is to face and survive a life-and-death situation.  The environment that would provide adolescents with such a situation would be military training and service as well as forced labor.  The exemptions would be apprenticeship in the trades.  Performing as entertainers in various itinerant troupes or phyles attached to temples would provide the necessary environment for girls where they would become pregnant, have a safe place to come to term and hope to survive childbirth.  Celibacy would serve as the exemption.  Because the attrition rate of this proposed rite of passage was known and, at the same time, was socially unbearable and unacceptable, ancient Egyptian society was faced with a psychological state of conflict that had to be resolved.. 


This paper proposes the theory of liminality in the Coming-of-Age rites of passage as the social/cultural vehicle to resolve that conflict.         


Liminality (from the Latin word līmen, or "threshold") is the condition of the second stage of a ritual, especially a rite of passage[3] that involves the following three sets of changes to the social status of their participants. [4] 


1, Separation

The first or preparatory stage is to separate the participants from the rest of their social group.

2.  Liminality

The second stage is a period during which the participant has lost social status, functions in a limbo, lacks the usual social contacts and lives in a specially constructed group.

3.  Reincorporation

The third stage is a post-liminal period during which one's new social status is confirmed. 


Liminality as a social phenomenon has been used in the study of ancient society elsewhere.[5]


The New Kingdom story of Horus and Seth provides us with a mythological model from which we can extract the mechanics of the male Coming-of-Age rite of passage.  I am using Miriam Lichtheim’s translations. The story sets up a liminal space by creating a court of justice.  This court is an extra-social space removed from the everyday realities of life.  All the participants have entered this liminal space and the consequent story exhibits at lest fifteen characteristics, or activities, which supply us with the methodology within the liminal stage of the 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.”[6] 


     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!” 


Isis tricking Seth into making a judgment in favor of her son on the Island-in-the-Midst is an example of forcing a concession to end the context and serves as a second distraction.


    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

d.  when Isis harpooned Seth, he cried out to her and in the process insulted Horus by calling him a ‘stranger’

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

At the end of the Hippopotamus fight, when it becomes obvious that Isis has equal loyalty to her son and brother, Horus symbolically slays his mother.  In spite of the social disapproval, Horus is healed by Hathor and Isis recovers


    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.”[7]


    13.  Acknowledgement 

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

Seth is brought as a bound prisoner, a game that was played by post-pubescent boys throughout Egypt.[8]      


15.  Attainment of claim

Isis closes the ceremony by confirming Horus’s new identity as heir of his father Osiris and king of Egypt.  This ceremony also marks Horus’ reintegration into society.


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.


Three contexts exist where young boys would have spent their adolescence:  the army, labor troupes, and the trades.


In spite of fighting numerous wars and leaving behind stele and reports of military campaigns and quarry expeditions, the ancient Egyptians did not mention their casualties!  Although there is a statistical necessity for a fairly high death rate at war and in forced labor, to the best of my knowledge we only have two examples from ancient Egypt that soldiers and laborers died,.


Mentuhotpe II seems to be the only king who had buried soldiers during his reign:  these were covered in sand, they were neither eviscerated for embalming, nor mummified.[9]  And Nakht, a young weaver from Deir el Medina, was buried with his lungs coated with Aswan granite dust revealed by a late 20th century autopsy.[10]  The fact that Nakht had a tomb means that he survived his ordeal, returned to his village and was reintegrated into society.  The interpretation that he was a ‘bad boy’ and was sent to the quarries for punishment has no basis in fact and he would likely not receive such an elaborate burial if he was a criminal.  The several millennia it took to find the cause of his death is evidence for this nearly complete denial of death and dying in war and quarry work and supports the theory of liminality.

Whereas I have proposed that the trades provide the exceptions to military or labor service, a closer look at the Satire on the Trades reveals these exercises as part of a contest and leaves no doubt that the purpose of these stories is to show that scribal students are the ultimate winners who do not have to face a life-and-death choice. 


The most surprising aspect of the male Coming-of-Age rite of passage is that it does not seem to include sexual encounters with females!  I propose that sexuality only becomes an issue once a young man has survived his rites of passage and is reintegrated into his household and village society: he begins the process of ‘establishing a household,’ the ancient Egyptian euphemism for marriage.  That is also likely the point at which the New Kingdom love songs come into play.


*     *     *

The Female Coming-of-Age rites of passage


It is far more difficult and rather more sensitive to define the female Coming-of-Age rites of passage.  This paper proposes that:


    1.  Separation occurs at the time of the first menses: young girls would leave their families and villages. 

    2.  Entering liminality: Joining an itinerant troupe of entertainers or a permanent group of the same attached to a temple, a necropolis, a nobleman’s household or the royal palace, depending upon their social status. 

3.   Challenge: primarily, to become pregnant, and secondly, to have a supportive environment within which to give birth and survive childbirth. 

4.     One aspect of Training: The girls would learn either a musical instrument or a form of dance

5.     Performance: They would provide entertainment at specific rituals and religious festivals.

6.    Achieving primary goal:  The last ritual at any festival would be the attempt at impregnation

7.    A second aspect of Training:  They would learn midwifery

8.     Winning:  They would ”win the contest” if they survived their first childbirth, having a healthy infant to show for it;

9.    The new mother then would be reintegrated into her family and household setting and become eligible for marriage.


Evidence is plentiful from mythological and literary stories, tomb and temple inscriptions, banqueting scenes, love and harpers’ songs, ostraca and papyrus paintings. 


Mythological Setting


The deities associated with the rites of passage of post-pubescent girls:


1.  Hathor was the goddess of every aspect of sexuality, whether pleasure, reproduction, entertainment, healing or childbearing. 


2.  Bes, the dwarf god, was intimately associated with entertainment, sexuality and childbirth.  He “played a part on the two most important occasions in a woman’s life,”[11] conception and childbirth.  Also present with Bes or Hathor were musicians playing the angular harp, lyre, oboe and tambourine.  Lise Manniche remarks, “We may perhaps deduce that (these instruments) could not be played unless a sexual purpose was intended, be it procreation or rebirth.”[12]


3.  Hapy was involved with fertility.  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.[13]


4.  The Westcar Papyrus story of the birth of three children introduces five other deities, Isis, Nephthys, Meshkenet, Heqat and Khnum.  They change their appearance to those of four dancing girls or entertainers (Khener) 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.”[14] 


This “Story of Wonder” is one certain evidence that under the apparent frivolity of entertainment, these troupes of female musicians were also trained midwives.  Their decorated hips and perfumed wigs were a cover for other useful skills and that these young girls may have performed valuable service to the villages they visited, other than performing ritual entertainment or to take the minds of scribal students off their work. They remained socially useful in their separation.  Suzanne Onestine, in her recent publication on the Shemayt, holds that these groups of women benefited the state and their children learned loyalty to the state.[15]




Male and female adolescents in an economic context


Dr. Robins noted the economic content of late period marriage contracts and that one of the obvious advantages of a report from the time of Thutmose III was that wealth was being kept within the family.[16]  Since the Egyptian economy functioned on the basis of a household, the wealth of a household was directly proportional to the number of people able to work the land.[17] 


Although Robins and others assume that the “risk of death to women in childbirth” was taken within marriage,[18] it is my contention that such a household economy could not afford to take the chance that a new wife would die in her very first birthing experience.  The Coming-of-Age rite of passage, therefore, is a social construct to remove a high-occurrence, terrible form of death from society. Young girls went through their life-and-death struggle, their first-time giving birth, anonymously, far removed from their families, whether noble or commoner, rich or poor.  If they died, they were buried in anonymity. 


Manniche wrote that “a section of the (Abydos) necropolis was set apart for songstresses, the ‘Smayt’, of a number of deities and their stillborn children.  It is not known why these women had a separate burial place.  It may indicate a favored status; perhaps it was a privilege for women dying in childbirth to be buried there; only one of the songstresses was accompanied by a husband and possibly these women had no fathers in whose tombs they could be buried.  Whatever the explanation, the burials indicate that chastity was not required for these musicians of the gods.”[19]


Reinterpreted in the light of the Coming-of-Age theory, we find these burials in a context that works:  these were likely the 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 normal course of a festival has not changed much over the millennia:  gathering, feast, entertainment, inebriation, sexuality, sleep and hangover.  I would argue that most festivals were held within a sacred context and each stage may have been a ritual.  The sexual stage was the one where the inebriated female musicians and dancers attempted to become pregnant as part of their Coming-of-Age rite of passage.


These girls would find a new social identity for themselves once they had given birth and survived.  For most that identity was marriage.  Nicole Hansen, at the ARCE Annual Meeting in 2005, and Prof. John Gee in a public lecture[20] have given examples they believe are marriage ceremonies or celebrations.  The theory of liminality requires a ceremonial reintegration of the individual within society, and such examples may be interpreted to be the last part of the Coming-of-Age process, possibly for both boys and girls.




What happened to the children these females produced during their time as entertainers?  What happens with those who are barren?  Who were the impregnators?  I have purposely left out the matter of circumcision both for boys and girls, each of which have been dealt with by others


The interpretive theory as presented here is not all-inclusive.  There is more, a wealth of detail that will eventually 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 the many other questions that remain.



* I am indebted to Dr. Lyn Green for numerous references in journals and books not ordinarily available to me in the Benben Books library.

[1] The term was first used by van Gennep, A. (1960). The rites of passage. (M. B. Vizedom & G. B. Caffee, Trans.) Chicago, 1909:University of Chicago Press.

[2] Rosalind M. Janssen and Jac J. Janssen, Growing up in ancient Egypt, London, 1990: The Rubicon Press; Toivari-Vitala, Jaana, Women at Deir el-Medina:  A study of the status and roles of the female inhabitants in the workmen’s community during the Ramesside Period;  Meskell, Lynn. Private Life in New Kingdom, Princeton and Oxford, 2003: Princeton University Press; Manniche, Lise. Sexual Life in Ancient Egyp,t(London and New York, 1987: Kegan Paul International; Manniche, Lise. Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt, London, 1991: British Museum Press;  Robins, Gay. Women in Ancient Egypt, Boston, 1993: Harvard University Press. 

[3] van Gennep, A. (1960). The rites of passage. (M. B. Vizedom & G. B. Caffee, Trans.) Chicago, 1909:University of Chicago Press.

[4]Turner, Victor W.  “Betwixt and between: The liminal period in rites de passage.” In Symposium on new approaches to the study of religion: Proceedings of the 1964 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society, edited by J. Helm, 4-20. Seattle, 1964: American Ethnological Society.

[5] Cantarella, Eva. Pandora’s Daughters:  The Role and Status of Women in Greek and Roman Antiquity.  Translated by Maureen B. Fand.  Baltimore and London, 1981, 1987: The Johns Hopkins University Press; Charachidzé, Georges, “The Cult of Helen and the Tribal Initiation of Women in Greece,” in Greek and Egyptian Mythologies.  Translated by Danielle Beauvais.  Compiled by Yves Bonnefoy.  Translated under the direction of Wendy Doniger.  Chicago and London, 1992: The University of Chicago Press; Tyrrell, William Blake, Amazons: A Study in Athenian Mythmaking.  Baltimore and London, 1984: The Johns Hopkins University Press

[6] Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. II, Berkeley, 1976: University of California Press, p. 214-223

[7] Papyrus Chester Beatty I, Recto, sheet 14

[8] A.D. Toouny and Dr. Steffen Wenig, Sport in Ancient Egypt, Translated from the German by Joan Becker. Leipzig, 1969:  Editions Leipzig, pp. 56-57

[9] H.E. Winlock, The Slain Soldiers of Neb-hepet-Re’ Mentu-hotpe. New Yorkm 1945: Publication of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Egyptian Expedition XVI


[11] Lise Manniche, Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt, London; British Museum Press, 1991, p. 57

[12] Ibid. p. 118

[13] Lichtheim, Vol. I, p. 208

[14] Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 1 (Berkeley, U of Cal Press, 1975) p. 220

[15]  “The role of the Chantress in Ancient Egypt,” in British Archaeological Reports: International Series 1401, Oford, 2005: Archaeopress, p. 32

[16] Robins, p. 58

[17] Mark Lehner

[18] Ibid, p. 61, 64

[19] Music, pp. 124/25

[20] At the 2005 SSEA Symposium at Toronto, Oct. 11,