Growing Up in Ancient Egypt

As in many past cultures, children are mostly seen and not heard. And depictions of children of ancient Egypt demonstrate this same practice. Children are acknowledged quite frequently in ancient texts, but always from the point of view of an adult.

Similar to today, ancient Egyptians acknowledged the growth stages of infant, toddler, child (through the first years of teen-age) and youth (late teens). The idea of childhood was not “invented” until at least the 17th century, so children of ancient Egypt were quickly viewed as “mini adults.” Children were often depicted in statues along with slaves for they acted as helping hands to their parents until society demanded more of them with age. Parents played the main role in teaching their children, but most sources of educational instruction were for a father to his son. Only a small group of children, like the sons of scribes or noblemen, received formal education. In this they would learn reading, writing and arithmetic. There is little known about how girls were treated, but their is record that many women were literate. And of course, royal princes received the best education of all. But regardless, all children were cherished not only because they were beloved children, but also for how they acted as helping hands to their parents.

Children inherited their parent’s possessions and wealth. Therefore, rich children generally stayed rich, and the poor stayed poor. There was also a great division between social classes, so children rarely had contact with children above or below them on the social ladder. Most villages consisted primarily of extended family to help support each other and help in the case of children being orphaned. Orphans were common since life expectancy was between thirty and forty years old. The only problem these communities  created was marriage between close relatives, which may have been the cause of children being born with more fingers or toes than normal.

As many as one women per ten births died giving labor. And around 30% of children died within their first year of life. This number could have been higher, but it is believed  ancient Egyptians did not practice infanticide or exposure of unwanted children. Due high levels of infant mortality, sometimes children were not given names until after they passed through the most dangerous stages of childhood. This is believed because many graves of children only referred to them as “The Osiris,” the deceased one.

There is no record for the age of which children were considered adults, but for boys circumcision may have been the mark and the beginning of menstruation for girls. Many boys became laborers and girls become housewives. And besides a few marriages arranged for children for dynastic reasons, most people got married when they were economically and physically ready.

2 thoughts on “Growing Up in Ancient Egypt

  1. I enjoyed reading your blog post of the role of children in Ancient Egypt society. As an older student with children myself, I always find it interesting to see how raising children has changed and also stayed the same throughout the world’s history. It is a shame that we have mostly information on wealthy family life and not enough on the average Egyptian family, though it seems to be a strong focus in the Archaeological world to search for and tell the story of the average human as well.

    Your blog post mentioned circumcision in boys. I knew about the connection to Jewish culture, but I had no idea the practice spanned that far back into history. After looking it up for myself, it seems the practice was depicted in pictures such as the bas-relief in the necropolis at Saqqara in the Sixth Dynasty. Even Herodotus wrote about it, saying “Egyptians practice circumcision for the sake of cleanliness, considering it better to be cleanly than comely”.

    The infant and mother mortality makes sense given the time period, but it would be interesting to discover how the mother herself viewed young infants. Your blog pointed to the fact that it is believed that Ancient Egyptians didn’t practice infanticide, but their emotional attachment you would think would be distant. In other parts of the country where poverty is so extreme, many mothers ignore children that are born with bad health, simply expecting them to die.

  2. It seems like Ancient Egyptian culture was a lot different from the cultures that would follow them (like those in the Middle Ages). Firstly, the lack of arranged marriages (through all social classes) is surprising because it is a tradition that would continue though hundreds of years all throughout Europe and Asia. It is surprising that they didn’t follow that practice as well.
    It was not as shocking that they didn’t always name their children until after they had passed through the younger stages of life. If you had had seven children and only three survived (for example), you might take actions, like not naming your child at first, to prevent yourself from becoming too attached to a child who most likely would not survive. However, are we really sure that’s why their graves said that? Maybe it was just the tradition for children – it could have been for religious reasons or superstition or something.
    The rule that children should be seen and not heard is definitely nothing new, and it’s something that has been utilized for hundreds of years. However, the depiction of children working with slaves could symbolize this – or it could just mean they worked hard like the rest of their family. In American culture (especially before the 1950’s), lots of kids would stay out of school to help their families on the farm, like with the harvest – yet they didn’t follow that “children should be seen and not heard” rule. And for the depictions of children always being through the eyes of adults – wouldn’t it have to be that way for adults were the only ones creating this art, scenes, etc.

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