Human sacrifice in Ancient Egypt

Did human sacrifice occur in Ancient Egypt? Some Egyptologists deny that ancient Egyptians practiced cannibalism, while others believe it did happen.

CAIRO, 10 February 2012 - Did human sacrifice occur in Ancient Egypt? Some Egyptologists deny that ancient Egyptians practiced cannibalism, while others believe it did happen.

Ancient cultures used human life to exchange a single life for a greater cause.  Many ancient cultures, such as Aztecs and Mayans who had cultures similar to ancient Egyptians, practiced human sacrifice. 

Mayans performed human sacrifice on top of Mayan pyramids to keep the sun on its daily path.  Similarly, a story about ancient Egypt says officials drowned fair maidens in the Nile River to save the country from drought and famine.  There are other oral records of human sacrifice in Egypt that closely resemble accounts of sacrifice in other ancient cultures. 

Both the reasons for the important sacrifice – saving society, for example – and the victims – servants, enemies, prisoners or virgins. 

Scholars continue to debate whether the sacrifices took place.  George Reisener, the famous Egyptologist, says the early tombs of Abydos and Sakkara like the tombs of King Aha (c.3100 B.C.) and King Djer record human sacrifice.  Reisener says the different architecture of the tombs suggested that the servants were buried alive with their tools and vessels. Reisener also believed that King Djer’s queen was buried alive along side her husband. He believes that in Abydos, there are at least 162 sacrificial tombs.

A desert country like ancient Egypt suffered from terrible famines, and leaders believed human and animal sacrifices appeased the gods and limited the famines.  One famous story, “Bride of the Nile,” recounts a ritual where the high priest chose the most beautiful maiden in the country and offered her to Hapi, the god of the Nile, to save the country from droughts and famines.  The ritual reportedly took place annually during flood seasons. However, some scholars believe priests substituted an effigy for an actual human sacrifice. 

Cannibalism is often linked to human sacrifice.  Some scholars believe ancient Egyptians engaged in cannibalism, at least during severe famine, but also potentially for symbolic reasons. 

Ancient Egypt witnessed several famines, starting as early as the 3rd Dynasty (C 2687-2649 B.C.).  During the year of Hyenas, 1949 B.C., one priest described the famine to his family by saying that “people were eating each other.”  According to the British Archaeologist Sir Flinders Peterie, who excavated a large pre-dynastic tombs at Naquada dating back to (3500-3100 B.C.), he found signs of teeth marks on the human upper leg bones of 6  skeletons. 

Although Peterie was uncertain whether the teeth marks were human or animal, he said that those 6 people were victims of cannibalism.  However, the Greek historian Diodorous Siculus (c 30 B.C.) said Osiris, the god of the hereafter, forbade the Egyptians to eat each other.  Some holy texts, such as the Pyramids Texts of the Old Kingdom contradict this prohibition.  They mention a Cannibal Utterance carved on the wall of the pyramid of Unas  (Utterance 273-4, which describes the king eating the flesh of the gods so that “he may flourish with magic in his belly.” 

The debate over human sacrifice in ancient Egypt continues.  Currently, there is no definitive answer. 

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Anwaar Abdalla

Anwaar Abadallah Khalik Ibrahim has her Ph.D. from Ain Shams University (1999, first degree honour) and currently lectures on Civilization and Cultural Affairs for Helwan University.  Dr. Abdalla Kahlik Ibrahim also works as an official coordinator for the cultural exchange program between Helwan Uni and TSU in the USA entitled “Cultural Immersion 2011-2014.”

Additionally, Ms. Abdallah is a member of the Egyptian and Arab women’s writer’s union and the Cairo Women Association.  She is also the translator of several books published by the Ministry of Culture including Shadows on the Grass, Impossible Peace and The Secret Rapture. Dr. Ibrahim is also an accomplished author and essayist in both Arabic and English publications. 


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