Diversity in The Land of The Pharaohs

Today’s post is from Visitor Team Supervisor, Shaun Bennett. Although the Visitor Team are not curators or subject specialists, we have a passionate interest in the museum and its objects. Here Shaun looks at some of the aspects of ancient Egyptian culture that interest him most, exploring some of the culture and customs at time of the Pharaohs.

For the curator’s eye view of our Egyptian and Sudanese collections, please see the curator’s blog.

Unfortunately, due to the temporary closure of our Ancient Worlds galleries, our Egyptology collections are not currently on display. For more information our hello future transformation please see the hello future blog.

shaun 1

Diversity in the Land of the Pharaohs

The ancient Egyptians had a diverse lifestyle and their culture lasted for millennia. Life in Kemet was complex, and varied throughout the centuries and locales of this amazing civilisation. Like our own, Egyptian culture was defined by such things as their spiritual beliefs, art, customs, rituals, music, and social habits, so let’s take a look at a couple of these aspects.

shaun4The Pharaoh Tutankamun and his wife Ankhesenamun (source)


In ancient Egypt marriages were generally monogamous, as polygamy does not seem to have ever been in fashion outside of the royal family. Most Pharaohs were known to maintain a harem led by their Great Royal Wife in order to ensure an heir and secure diplomatic alliances. It is also known that several brother-sister marriages also occurred within the royal family, especially during the 18th Dynasty and the later Ptolemaic Period. There is also a school of thought that states that royal succession is ancient Egypt may have been matrilineal – meaning that though the Pharaohs were male the right to the throne was passed down the female line.


Death and judgement

Death for an Egyptian meant more than just being mummified. The process took around 70 days to complete, as the body, composed of 50-70% water, needed to be completely dried to prevent decay. The organs were then removed and placed in canopic jars, as pictured in the scene above. The brain was extracted through the nose then discarded as it was thought to serve no important function, believing as they did that the heart was the seat of the intellect. The body was then packed with natron, a form of salt that absorbed water and helped with the desiccation, before the skin was washed with fragrant oils. The body was then packed with cloth before finally being wrapped in strips of resin-soaked linen, with protective amulets placed between the layers.

As all this was happening it was believed that the soul was being judged in a process called ‘the weighing of the heart‘. Thus the Egyptians strove to do many a good deed throughout their lives to avoid being refused entry into the afterlife. As can be seen above the god Anubis, patron of  mummification, led the souls of the deceased into the underworld and used a set of scales to weigh the heart of an individual against the feather of the goddess Maat, patron deity of truth and justice; any soul that failed the test risked being consumed by Ammit, the ‘Devourer of The Dead’. Ammit was a demon; she was depicted as part lion, part hippopotamus, and part crocodile, and it was her function to inflict a second death on the deceased if they proved unworthy.

Only the heart was put back into the body after the embalming process, with a heart scarab amulet placed over it within the wrappings. The scarab beetle was considered symbolic of new beginnings and new life as it was seen to lay eggs in the dung causing new life to emerge from the ground. The engraving on the underside of the heart scarab, was a spell for the heart to be true to its owner in the afterlife.


 Sex lives of the ancients

The Egyptians had no more boundaries than ourselves when it came to sex, and in some ways less – sex was an important part of life – from birth to death and even beyond. It was generally believed that a deceased person kept his sexual powers in the afterlife, as Osiris, ruler of the dead, had done as he had been able to reproduce and conceive the divine Horus after his death. The sexual power of the dead was a significant factor not to be ignored. Sex in and of itself was not considered a particularly taboo subject, though ancient Egyptian mythology was certainly filled with subjects that we today consider taboo. Same-sex relationships between women are sparsely documented, however between men the evidence is apparent in both paintings and written texts. 

shaun5Detail of a painted frieze from the wall of the Old Kingdom tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep at Saqqara showing evidence of their presumed same-sex relationship. (source)

If you put someone in a particular pigeon-hole, you decide that they belong in a particular category. The ancient Egyptians rarely seemed to do this, which I believe to be a better way to live. In our modern obsession with social categories have we made life more difficult for ourselves today?

Shaun Bennett

For the curator’s eye view of our Egyptian and Sudanese collections, please see the curator’s blog.


Find our more:

Garstang Museum: Homosexuality In The Ancient World

Egypt Manchester (Curator’s blog) Interpreting the Two Brothers (I): Alternative readings, brothers and lovers 

Homosexuality in ancient Egypt

Close-kin marriages in ancient Egypt

Why did the Egyptians mummify their dead?

Love, Sex, and Marriage in Ancient Egypt


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