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Volume 19, Number 3May/June 1968

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Humor From The Tombs

Written by William A. Ward

Most people, I imagine, think of ancient Egypt as a somber land of temples and tombs built by a race of grim people preoccupied with death. And with those thousands of statues of dead Egyptians crammed into those hundreds of tombs I can see why people do think so. Such casual observers, however, overlook one thing: most of the statues are smiling.

Now to jump from that observation to the conclusion that the Egyptians were really a race of practical jokers would be stretching it, I admit. But the fact remains that beneath the pompous facade of their grander achievements the Egyptians were just ordinary human beings, able to laugh like anyone else and able to make others laugh with them.

The walls of a tomb, for example, wouldn't strike modern man as an especially appropriate place for jokes. Yet on the wall of the main temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Dier el Bahri some ancient artist with a wry sense of humor has inscribed for eternity a cartoon poking fun at a certain queen whose figure, apparently, was as majestic as her position.

The temple was built to perpetuate the memory of a ruler of Egypt. On the walls of one of the porticos, there is a series of stone reliefs commemorating a voyage to the land of Punt on the shores of the Red Sea. One of the reliefs shows the Egyptians meeting the local king and his wife, portrayed as a woman of very substantial proportions. Another merely shows a very tiny donkey plodding along with an inscription explaining why this donkey was singled out for distinction: "The donkey that carries the queen." One need only compare the figure of the queen to see the monumental job assigned to the donkey, and why the artist was amused by the idea.

The artist intended no disrespect to the dignity of the Queen of Punt nor to the mortuary cult of the Queen of Egypt. He simply included an amusing detail of the expedition along with the rest—thus providing those who came to participate in the temple rituals a quiet chuckle as the processions marched past.

Unlike the gravity of modern burial places, the Egyptians permitted smiles everywhere. In tomb-chapels, for example, decorations consist not only of hymns, prayers and religious scenes, but also scenes of daily life. Peasants sing in the fields or vineyards. Nobles go fowling in the marshes. Aristocrats dine amidst dancing girls and the music of full orchestras. There are glimpses of a garden in a villa, boats on the Nile, carpenters shaping wood. No, Egyptian tombs were anything but dead.

In a tomb at Thebes there is a delightful panel showing an overseer following four porters carrying jugs of wine fresh from the winepress to the storehouse. Inside, the storekeeper is rubbing his eyes, having obviously fallen asleep on the job. Everyone has something to say and, while the text is somewhat damaged, the general drift of the conversation is clear. The overseer, anxious to get the day's work done, says, "Hurry up! It's getting hot out here in the sun!" Each of the porters adds his own remark. The first mutters, "The load's getting heavy." The second offers the equivalent of "That's for damn sure." The fourth, who has knocked at the door of the storehouse, announces, "The storekeeper is asleep." The third has other ideas: "He's just drunk on the wine." From inside comes the muted defense: "I haven't been sleeping at all!" The storekeeper, perhaps with a guilty conscience, ignores the jealous reference to his enviable post among the rows of full wine jugs. This incident must have brought a knowing grin to those who stopped by the tomb-chapel to say a prayer or leave an offering. The sleepy doorkeeper was probably as inevitable in Egypt then as the bored concierge is throughout Europe and the Middle East now.

Not all servants were quite as placid. Everyone loves a good brawl, and the huskier the combatants, the better the brawl. A common scene in Egyptian tombs is the river battle between boatloads of fishermen or fowlers engaging in a lively struggle with long poles, the way lumberjacks do on logs.

One such illustration, showing the crews of three boats fighting, has an added twist. Off on one side is a fourth boat, and floating serenely in this boat is the "Chief Sculptor Ankhonptah," quietly eating his lunch. Apparently the sculptor in charge of decorating this tomb took the liberty of immortalizing himself by placing his own figure among the hundreds he carved in the dozens of scenes on the walls—rather like Alfred Hitchcock's custom of appearing briefly in every movie he makes. This was truly a liberty since, as a rule, Egyptian artists remained anonymous no matter how brilliant their work. This one found a way of leaving his signature by showing himself in the last place one would look for a man of his dignified position—at the edge of a brawl.

These examples of humor in Egyptian art are very much like the modern cartoon. The joke depends primarily on a picture which may or may not be accompanied by a short inscription. In the case of the Queen of Punt and her donkey the words are necessary to show the association between two separated pictures. The doorman asleep on his feet needs no explanation even to the modern viewer. The official eating and drinking amidst the battle on the Nile has its own humor as a picture. The inscription adds a further subtle laugh by identifying this calm picnicker as one we should least expect to find there.

Such humor is certainly intentional, but it is not immediately obvious since the cartoons are only details in great expanses of relief scenes which cover whole walls. One clear example of this is the group of pets frolicking under the throne of Queen Tiye. This detail comes from a large formal scene showing the queen in ceremonial dress on a state occasion. Though the whole scene seems to adhere rigidly to the strict canons of Egyptian style, .close inspection shows that under the throne these canons have been somewhat relaxed: the family cat embraces the family goose, while a monkey leaps around in abandon.

Today, of course, humor in a tomb seems incongruous, but in ancient Egypt it wasn't at all. Tombs and funerary temples were built and decorated primarily to assure kings and commoners of a continuing life after death. By sympathetic magic, the essence of what was portrayed in pictures on the walls was transferred to the realm beyond the grave. Funerary monuments, therefore, were filled with the necessary religious texts and pictures to make sure one reached that realm. But since life after death wras thought to be patterned after the present existence, artists also tried to send along as many of the ordinary pursuits of daily living as possible. The presence of such scenes in the tombs meant that the peasants would work eternal fields, the aristocratic banquets would go on forever, and men would always hunt and fish in the Nile marshes. Since everyday life has its humorous moments, it was only logical to provide a few chuckles for eternity too.

Humor in Egyptian art was not restricted to tombs and temples. Pottery, for example, also provided surfaces on which humor could be expressed. On one fragment found, there is a traditional scene of a Pharaoh in his chariot surrounded by his army attacking a walled city, while another fragment shows the same scene in caricature. Here all the essential features of the original are given, except that mice have replaced the Egyptian army, cats defend the walls and the mouse-king's chariot is pulled by dogs rearing like horses. Each detail of the traditional scene finds its counterpart in the caricature, right down to the scaling-ladders and defenders on the wall.

The substitution of cats and mice in familiar scenes from formal art is fairly common in Egyptian popular art. Another example is the traditional group of the noblewoman being served and coiffured by her servants. But on one ostracon—a piece of broken pottery on which texts or pictures could be drawn—a stately Madame Mouse sits drinking wine through a drinking-tube while two cat-servants arrange the wine-jar and adjust her hair. Madame Mouse wears the long linen dress of the wealthy and, like any Egyptian lady of aristocratic birth, sniffs at the lotus blossom in her hand. Just as in the formal portrait of Queen Tiye, the family cat and goose are also present. Madame Mouse, however, has an attraction not possessed by the queen—the family goose is happily munching a mouse tail.

Another scene shows Madame Mouse seated with her lotus-blossom while a cat presents offerings—a parody on the offering scene found in every Egyptian tomb.

These are just a few of many examples where cats and mice act out the roles of humans in scenes drawns from the traditional repertoire of Egyptian art. Oddly enough, it is always the mouse who plays the part of the hero. Like our modern Tom and Jerry cartoons, the mouse always outwits the cat—suggesting perhaps that people haven't changed much in the last few thousand years. No matter how much we cheer the inevitable winner, secretly we enjoy seeing him lose once in a while.

Animals in human roles were also popular in informal Egyptian art. In one example an animal orchestra plays on musical instruments which are exact copies of instruments unearthed in excavations.

The donkey and lion strum harps, the lion giving forth with joyous song as well. A crocodile with a banjo and a monkey with a double-flute complete what looks like a Pharaonic jazz quartet. Another scene shows a cat with her staff driving a flock of geese and two wolves taking the part of goatherds. A third example shows a lion and gazelle engaging in a lively game of checkers.

The frequent substitutions of animals for human beings suggest that such pictures may have illustrated stories of some kind. These pictures never occur in a formal artistic context. As noted above, jokes do occur within the formalized art of the tombs and temples, but these always involve people in humorous human situations. On the other hand animals cast in human roles appear on papyri and ostraca whose purpose is basically to provide amusement. These are examples of popular humor, meant to be enjoyed in this life, not as eternal jokes for the hereafter.

An analogy with Aesop's Fables or the more modern Uncle Remus stories immediately comes to mind. Is it possible that in these ancient Egyptian drawings we can identify a "Br'er Donkey" or a "Br'er Lion?" At present, scholars can't be certain. There are no manuscripts which preserve such tales. But folk stories with animals playing very human parts abound in the world's literature and it is not unreasonable to suppose that the Egyptian peasant would have derived immense enjoyment from seeing the usually stubborn donkey playing a harp for Madame Mouse in her role as the high-born Egyptian lady.

Such a scene is more fully understood in its own social context. The animal cartoons of ancient Egypt deal with the daily life of the upper classes. If, as is probably the case, these drawings accompanied stories or fables, we may assume that these likewise were parodies of aristocratic life. As we enjoy today stories poking fun at political and social leaders, so did the Egyptians then—again suggesting that man has not changed very much. He has always enjoyed poking fun at the gentry.

It is true that the idea of caricaturing aristocrats in story and cartoon does not fit with the usual modern concept of the absolute oriental monarchy. In reality, the social structure of ancient Egypt was quite different from popular supposition. Unlike contemporary peoples, the ancient Egyptians had no strict caste system in society so that a man of humble origin could rise to any position his ambition and talent could command. Aristocrats, therefore, could not surround themselves with a sacrosanct wall of inviolability; it was no crime to poke fun at the upper classes. If they commanded respect, it was respect touched with humor. The aristocrats themselves, in fact, went along with the gags; it was in their tombs, after all, that nodding door-keepers appear on the walls. And there is every reason to suppose that the aristocrats also enjoyed the stories about Madame Mouse. Perhaps even the Pharaoh himself would tell the stories of the mouse-king to the royal children at bedtime. The smiling statues of ancient Egypt, therefore, are clues to the character of the people who made them. Although the Egyptians created a highly formal and stylized art, an art leaving an impression of stolid dullness in the mind of the casual viewer, there was, beneath the facade, a lively and very human people and a puckish wit, part of the great legacy that Egypt wished to pass on to eternity. The Egyptian heaven must have been full of quiet laughter.

William A. Ward, a regular contributor to Aramco World Magazine, is a professor of ancient history at the American University of Beirut.

This article appeared on pages 30-33 of the May/June 1968 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1968 images.