Elites and Gods: The Big Lives Of Little People In Ancient Egypt!
With its enormous stone temples, pyramids and tombs, ancient Egypt was undoubtedly one of the most productive advanced civilizations of the pre-Christian world. However, their advancement was not restricted to their famous monumental architectural works but is also present within other facets of their culture. While ancient Greek, Roman and Chinese cultures enslaved and ridiculed little people, or dwarfs, the dwarfs of ancient Egypt were respected and lived normal and even elevated lives. Sometimes, dwarfs in ancient Egypt became powerful social players and were buried in elaborate tombs alongside pyramids. So important were dwarfs in early Egyptian religion that there were even dwarf gods!
Dwarfs in Ancient Egypt: Language and Culture
The Egyptians’ complex hieroglyphic language system - which they painted and carved on architecture, arts, and crafts - offers modern researchers insights into daily Egyptian life. Among the crumbling stones and ancient texts are images of little people with achondroplasia; the bone growth disorder that causes disproportionate dwarfism. And in the real world, according to professor Chahira Kozma in her 2006 paper, Dwarfs in ancient Egypt, “Egypt is a major source of information on achondroplasia in the old world, where the remains of dwarfs are abundant and include complete and partial skeletons.”
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A form of ancient Egyptian literature, called wisdom literature, emerged during the Egyptian Middle Kingdom period, and became canonical during the New Kingdom era. Wisdom writings were moral teachings, and they stated that dwarfism was not to be regarded as a physical handicap. On the contrary, according to historian Betty Adelson, dwarfs in ancient Egypt were believed to have “significant sacred associations, so owning a dwarf gave a person high social stature.” The hieroglyphic words for dwarfs and pygmies are “dng” (or “deneg”), “nmw,” and “hw.” A set of specific symbols was developed depicting a human form with shorter than average upper and lower limbs, and a large head atop a long torso with bowed legs.
Dwarfs in ancient Egypt: this relief of the dwarf god Bes was found next to the Roman north gate of the temple complex at Dendera, Egypt. (Olaf Tausch / CC BY 3.0)
The Little Noble Dwarf and His Average-size Family
In medieval European cultures, dwarfs were often employed to stand beside kings and queens during public appearances and ceremonies, because they made the royals appear much larger than they actually were. In contrast, Egyptian hieroglyphs reveal how dwarfs in ancient Egypt worked as jewelers, personal attendants, animal tenders, and entertainers. According to the 1972 paper, Orthopaedics and orthopaedic diseases in ancient and modern Egypt, dwarfs were depicted on the walls of “at least 50 tombs of the Old Kingdom both near the pyramids at the vast necropolises of Saqqara and Giza.” Furthermore, several high-ranking dwarfs in the Old Kingdom (2700-2190 BC) achieved elite social status including Seneb, Pereniankh, Khnumhotpe and Djeder, who were all buried in elaborate tombs near the pyramids of Giza and Saqqara.
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Looking closer at the first name on the above list of four little ancient Egyptians, the dwarf Seneb served during the fourth dynasty of pharaohs Khufu (circa 2575-2465 BC) and Djeder (2649 BC to circa 2611 BC). Seneb’s elaborate mastaba tomb was excavated in Giza between 1925 and 1926. And in a naos (the inner chamber of a temple) in Seneb’s mastaba tomb archaeologists unearthed a statue depicting the dwarf and his family, which is currently on display at Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It is thought that Seneb was probably an achondroplastic dwarf and he is depicted in the statue with ochre red skin, a pronounced nose and mouth, short hair, and large eyes. According to some researchers his “mild” facial features when compared with other Egyptian depictions of dwarfs suggest he possibly suffered from hypochondroplasia, which is a milder form of achondroplasia. However, his body has never been discovered so an accurate diagnosis cannot be made.
Seneb’s wife and children are of average size and his boy and girl are positioned below him, a detail which is no accident according to Egyptologist Francesco Tiradritti’s 1999 book, Egyptian treasures-from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Tiradritti explained how the ancient Egyptian artist who created Seneb’s statue was “very skillful and sensitive” in creating balance and symmetry in the group by placing the two children where Seneb’s legs would have been.
The "dancing dwarfs" at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which move around when their string is pulled. (kairoinfo4u / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The 50 Working Dwarfs Of Ancient Egypt
The 50 dwarfs of funerary art from the Old Kingdom depicted at Giza and Saqqara feature non-elite, ordinary dwarfs, working as “jewelry makers, animal or pet handlers, fishermen, keeper of the wardrobe, entertainers and dancers, supervisor of clothing and linen, and personal attendants.” In several tombs from the Old Kingdom, female dwarfs are depicted as midwives and nurses assisting in birthing. And at Saqqara the tomb of the dwarf Mereruka, a minister of king Teti, was divided into three parts all of which depicted the lives of the ancient artisan dwarfs.
Scenes in the upper third depict “sculptors, vase makers, carpenters, and metal workers” and the middle third shows a collection of completed masterpieces of jewelry. In the lowest third two average height workers hold up a completed collar and next to them two dwarf workers hold up a neck-choker chain with other dwarfs completing a keyhole-shaped pectoral. Other reliefs from the Old Kingdom show male and female dwarf entertainers singing, dancing, and playing music. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo has one display (see image above) of 12th dynasty “amuletic naked pygmies dancing” with little holes for strings, so that when pulled the dancers moved.
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In conclusion, we can safely say the lives of dwarfs in ancient Egypt were exceptionally comfortable, compared to how little people were treated in other ancient cultures. According to a 2017 research article in the Pacific Standard, in ancient Greece dwarfs were used in Dionysian cult rituals as “little bald men with out-sized penises lusting after averaged-sized women.” In Ancient Rome, dwarfs were enslaved and their owners intentionally malnourished (starved) them so they would sell for a higher price, and similar cruelty was endured by dwarfs in West Africa and China.
Perhaps the most culturally horrific record of how dwarfs were treated in China was written about by historian Martin Monestier. He described the Emperor Xuanzong (712 to 756 AD) constructing a “Resting Place for Desirable Monsters.” In this dungeon the emperor kept his personal dwarf court jesters and entertainers, who were among the monsters.
Top image: There is much evidence of dwarfs in Egypt. Here, a group statue of the dwarf Seneb and his family at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The statue was found in a naos in his mastaba tomb in Giza. Seneb is represented seated, with his legs crossed, beside his wife who embraces him affectionately. His wife is of regular height. Source: Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities
By Ashley Cowie
Adelson, B. 2005. The Lives of Dwarfs. Rutgers University Press.
Andrews, C. 1997. Ancient Egyptian jewelry. Harry N Abrams.
Dasen, V. 1993. Dwarfs in ancient Egypt and Greece. Oxford University Press.
Hamada G, Rida, A. 1972. Orthopaedics and orthopaedic diseases in ancient and modern Egypt. NCBI.
Hecht, F. 1990. Bes, Aesop and Morgante: Reflections of achondroplasia. Wiley.
Kozma, C. 2006. Dwarfs in ancient Egypt. NCBI.
Tiradritti, F. 1999. Egyptian treasures-from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Harry Abrams, Inc.