5 Ancient Egyptian Oddities You’ll Enjoy Hearing About

When you look at the Ancient Egyptians, they seem like stodgy, formal people.  The writing and architecture looks formal. The elaborate mummification process and the gigantic expenses incurred to build pyramids and tombs suggests that the Egyptians weren’t people for trifling around. Yet, it was because they loved life so much that they moved mountains to ensure their dead would enjoy it in the next world. The Egyptians were a jovial bunch, and here are five oddities from Ancient Egypt you’ll get a kick out of.

1. The Boy King and the Traveling Dwarf

During the Sixth Dynasty, in the waning days of the Old Kingdom, a young boy of 6 or 7, known as Pepi II, ascended the throne. He would reign for over 90 years, longer than any other Egyptian king, including the famous Ramesses II. Pepi would face severe challenges in his reign, with the growing power of the local lords (known as “nomarchs” in Egypt) challenging royal supremacy, and ultimately leading to the collapse of the Old Kingdom.

Yet, these challenges were in the future, and when we first see Pepi II, we see him concerned with far more ordinary things…or maybe not so ordinary. In Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs, we see one of his local lords, Harkhuf of Elephantine, off on a trading voyage to the fabled land of Yam.

Where was Yam? Nobody knows, but it was most likely somewhere in Sudan, far from the Nile. This was a long journey in those days, the round trip taking many months. Nevertheless, it was obviously worth making, because Harkhuf was returning, laden with treasure. The young king was interested in one particular item, though:

You have said in your report that you have brought a dwarf from the land of the horizon dwellers. Come northward at once to the court! Hasten and bring with you this dwarf, alive, sound, and well! When he comes down with you into the ship, appoint trustworthy people to be beside him on every side of the ship so that he won’t fall into the water. When he sleeps at night, appoint trustworthy people who shall sleep beside him in his tent. Inspect ten times a night! For my Majesty desires to see this dwarf more than the products of Sinai and Punt!

Glittering treasure wasn’t on the boy king’s mind. He just wanted to see and play with this dwarf. Pepi II doesn’t look that much different from kids today, does he? For all the challenges he would face in his reign, here we see him with all the carefree innocence of a child of today, enjoying the world’s oddities. Across the gulf of 4,000 years, we see ourselves, and our children.

2. The Hatshepsut Graffiti

The parallels between Hatshepsut and Elizabeth I are eerie, though with confirmation bias, you can admittedly find parallels with anything if that’s what you want to look for.

Nevertheless, Hatshepsut was in many ways Elizabeth’s predecessor. She took on male roles, wore male clothing (as Elizabeth famously wore armor during her Tilbury Speech), and emphasized her relationship with her father Thutmose I, just as Elizabeth emphasized her relationship with her own father, Henry VIII (seen at 25:00).

But like Elizabeth I, rumors were rampant about Hatshepsut’s sex life. In this case, the Egyptians saw her royal architect, Senenmut, in the role of Robert Dudley. That they did is seen in one the most amusing Ancient Egyptian oddities.

The Temple of Deir el Bahri, Hatshepsut’s mortuary shrine, is one of the most magnificent architectural feats from any civilization in the ancient world. It wasn’t built by robots, though. It was built by Egyptians who were happy to chatter among themselves about their overseer. Who was this Senenmut guy? Why did he have so much power in this strange female “king’s” court?

It was easy to see the reason why! One Egyptian man working on the temple did a doodle in a cave not far off.

Hatshepsut graffiti.

This graffiti depicts the female figure wearing the royal headdress, obviously Hatshepsut. Is the male figure Senenmut? Probably. Obviously, we can’t know for sure if the two were actually lovers, only that some people thought they were. Hatshepsut was probably too politically astute to make a show of it if they were. When reading of her reign, one gets the impression that, much like Elizabeth I, she wouldn’t take the risk to begin with.

Nevertheless, it’s fun to see that the Ancient Egyptians weren’t above making some dirty jokes.

3. Amenemhab vs. the Elephant

When Hatshepsut died, Thutmose III finally claimed his birthright, and his personal rule would prove him as the best king Egypt ever had. He took his people to the pinnacle of glory. Yet, he might have been cut off in his prime, or so the soldier Amenemhab says. In his tomb, there is a peculiar inscription:

I report another excellent thing which the Lord of the Two Lands (Thutmose III) did in Ny. He hunted 120 elephants for their tusks. But then the greatest elephant among them charged against his Majesty! I cut off his trunk while he was still alive before his Majesty, for I was positioned in the water between two rocks. My Lord rewarded me with gold!

Could the loyal soldier Amenemhab have really done such a thing? Recall that this was an attempt by Amenemhab to record his deeds for posterity, so embellishment or fabrication is a good possibility. Ny is in the Syria area, and Asian elephants used to range from there to China. Strabo and others spoke of them there, and other kings, like Ashurbanipal, hunted them, so it wouldn’t be out of place for Thutmose III to have hunted them, too.

Yes, this Ancient Egyptian oddity could have happened. I suspect that if it did, Amenmhab had help in taking the beast down. A couple of spears in the side would have made his task of cutting off the trunk easier. But why would you want to talk about what other guys did in your own tomb?

Ancient Egyptian Oddities

4. Amenemhab vs. the Mare

Yes, we turn once again to the same guy, because the encounter with the elephant was the only one of the oddities which Amenemhab came across. He also talks about his bravery in Thutmose III’s siege of Kadesh, where he encountered another beast:

Then the chief of Kadesh sent out a mare and she was flight of foot and entered the ranks of the army. She galloped behind them and the army brandished blades. I slit open her belly, I cut off her tail and I put it in front of his Majesty. Praise god for me! May he give joy, for it fills up my belly and exultation, it permeates my body!

The prince of Kadesh hoped that sending a mare into the ranks of the Egyptian stallions would distract them and create chaos in the chariot divisions. Evidently, Amenemhab prevented that, and seizing the morale momentum, the Egyptians swarmed the walls. Amenemhab, of course, brags about being the first over them (as told in Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs).

This story seems less believable than the one about the elephant. We suspect embellishment here at the least, but the Egyptians certainly weren’t above that. Neither was or is anyone else. It’s just another one of those fun oddities I wanted to share.

5. “Send medicines so that she might be caused to give birth!”

After the more famous Battle of Kadesh signaled a strategic stalemate between the Ancient Egyptians and Hittites, Ramesses II decided that it was better to maintain his holdings in south Syria, leaving the northern portion in Hittite control. Both empires had a mutual threat in the rising power of Assyria to the east and it was in both of their interests to keep the Assyrians out of Syria. So they signed a treaty of peace and alliance, ending nearly a century of tension and conflict.

The new peace opened up a friendly correspondence between the royal courts, and we see one of those peculiar Ancient Egyptian oddities at 1:43:00:

Thus says Hattusili, the great king, King of Hatti, say thus to Ramesses, Great King of Egypt: let my brother send a man to prepare medicines for her, so that she might be caused to give birth.

I, the King, your brother, know about Matinasi, my brother’s sister. She is said to be 50 or 60 years old. It is not possible to prepare medicines for a woman who has completed 50 or 60 years, so that she might still be caused to give birth.

There’s something incredibly amusing about this one. It shows that even in the midst of grand diplomacy, people weren’t above asking for the oddities that friendship might, they hoped, provide.

If these Ancient Egyptian oddities amused you, you’ll enjoy Stumped, which details the oddities of our brains.