Paganism and Dance - Part 2
Ancient Egypt Religion
Definition: Ancient Egyptian religion was a complex system of polytheistic beliefs and rituals which were an integral part of ancient Egyptian society. It centered on the Egyptians' interaction with many deities who were believed to be present in, and in control of, the forces of nature. Rituals such as prayers and offerings were efforts to provide for the gods and gain their favour. Formal religious practice centered on the pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, who was believed to possess a divine power by virtue of their position. They acted as the intermediary between their people and the gods and was obligated to sustain the gods through rituals and offerings so that they could maintain order in the universe. The state dedicated enormous resources to Egyptian rituals and to the construction of the temples.
Individuals could interact with the gods for their own purposes, appealing for their help through prayer or compelling them to act through magic. These practices were distinct from, but closely linked with, the formal rituals and institutions. The popular religious tradition grew more prominent in the course of Egyptian history as the status of the Pharaoh declined. Another important aspect was the belief in the afterlife and funerary practices. The Egyptians made great efforts to ensure the survival of their souls after death, providing tombs, grave goods, and offerings to preserve the bodies and spirits of the deceased.
The religion had its roots in Egypt's prehistory and lasted for more than 3,000 years. The details of religious belief changed over time as the importance of particular gods rose and declined, and their intricate relationships shifted.
Ancient Egyptian Creation Myths
Definition: Ancient Egyptian creation myths are the ancient Egyptian accounts of the creation of the world. The Pyramid Texts, tomb wall decorations and writings, dating back to the Old Kingdom (2780 – 2250 B.C.E) have given us most of our information regarding early Egyptian creation myths. These myths also form the earliest religious compilations in the world. The ancient Egyptians had many creator gods and associated legends. Thus the world or more specifically Egypt was created in diverse ways according to different parts of the country.
In all of these myths, the world was said to have emerged from an infinite, lifeless sea when the sun rose for the first time, in a distant period known as zp tpj (sometimes transcribed as Zep Tepi), "the first occasion". Different myths attributed the creation to different gods: the set of eight primordial deities called the Ogdoad, the self-engendered god Atum and his offspring, the contemplative deity Ptah, and the mysterious, transcendent god Amun. While these differing cosmogonies competed to some extent, in other ways they were complementary, as different aspects of the Egyptian understanding of creation.
The different creation accounts were each associated with the cult of a particular god in one of the major cities of Egypt: Hermopolis, Heliopolis, Memphis, and Thebes. To some degree these myths represent competing theologies, but they also represent different aspects of the process of creation.
Definition: Egyptian mythology is the collection of myths from ancient Egypt, which describe the actions of the Egyptian gods as a means of understanding the world. The beliefs that these myths express are an important part of ancient Egyptian religion. Myths appear frequently in Egyptian writings and art, particularly in short stories and in religious material such as hymns, ritual texts, funerary texts, and temple decoration. These sources rarely contain a complete account of a myth and often describe only brief fragments.
Egyptian myths are primarily metaphorical, translating the essence and behaviour of deities into terms that humans can understand. Each variant of a myth represents a different symbolic perspective, enriching the Egyptians' understanding of the gods and the world.
Mythology profoundly influenced Egyptian culture. It inspired or influenced many religious rituals and provided the ideological basis for kingship. Scenes and symbols from myth appeared in art in tombs, temples, and amulets. In literature, myths or elements of them were used in stories that range from humor to allegory, demonstrating that the Egyptians adapted.
Dance in Ancient Egypt
Dancing played a vital role in the lives of the ancient Egyptians. The trf was a dance performed by a pair of men during the Old Kingdom. Dance groups were accessible to perform at dinner parties, banquets, lodging houses, and even religious temples. Some women from wealthy harems were trained in music and dance. They danced for royalty accompanied by female musicians playing on guitars, lyres and harps. However, no well-bred Egyptian would dance in public, because that was the privilege of the lower classes. Wealthy Egyptians kept slaves to entertain at their banquets, and present pleasant diversion to their owners.
Types of Dancing:
“Elizabeth Artemis Mourat, performer and dance scholar has categorized these dances into six types:
Irena Lexova mentioned that at the end of the fourth century BC there were acrobatic dances and pair dances. Men and women were seen dancing with clappers (wooden castanets). She also added that dancers of that era used a short curved stick or cane while dancing which is a prop still used by modern Egyptian dancers.
It included Four types of dances: ritual, postures and gestures and secular dances. During the old kingdom, just after the mummification process was completed, dances were performed by a specialized group of ladies known as “the acacia house”. At Beni Hasan, Middle kingdom tomb, there are scenes depicting dancers following the funerary procession and performing acrobats. Another group of funerary dances were the mww (muu) - dancers, known from the old kingdom through the New Kingdom. These wore kilts and reed crowns and dances performed when the funeral procession reached the tomb, to symbolically ferry the dead across the waters leading to the netherworld. Dancing dwarfs were known from the old kingdom and were prized for their rarity. They used to dance at the entrance of the shaft. The dances they performed were farewell performances associated with the departure of the sun. The dwarfs were used as they were thought to represent the sun due to their stunted growth. Another kind of funeral dance was seen during the Middle and New kingdoms in celebration of the coming of the goddess Hathor (the lady of drunkenness) whose responsibility was to help the deceased enter the underworld, and was the main force behind their rebirth; so an appeal was recited or sung using percussion instruments and the clapping of hands and sticks. Banquet scenes represented in New Kingdom tombs combined the ritual and domestic sides of a family feast, where music and dancing took place to help people forget how short their lives were. After the new Kingdom changes of tomb decoration took place funerary dances were no longer depicted on tomb walls but were found in temples instead. The dancing scenes portrayed in temples reflected both royal and divine ceremonies. All dancing scenes had one common feature that being the solemn procession of the sacred barks carrying a god.
Among the festivals during which dancing took place the following are enumerated:
Solo, Pair and Group Dances
Ancient Egyptian Dancers danced either as soloists, in pairs or in groups depending on the occasion and type of the dance performed. In solo dance, “the king performed the sun dance. Priests designated as the kings representatives performed solo dances or led religious dances. At the harvest festival, the king or his representative danced in honor of Min, a god of fertility.” (Kassing, 46)
In pair dancing, it was either two males or females performing their dance as a kind of entertainment. It was noted in the 5th dynasty that girls held hands while performing unison symmetrical and dramatic movements to express emotions as longing or depression whereas in the 6th dynasty girls danced with canes.
There were two types of Egyptian group dances. One was performed in individual movements that confirmed a theme or idea or was carried out spontaneously as in prehistoric times. Dancers competed with one another, often in groups, substituting movement that were later established in funeral dances rites (Lexova 1935) “In the second group style, pairs or ranks of dancers executed repetitive movements in a circle. Trained pair dancers often performed at banquets and festivals.” (Kassing, 46)
Costumes and Headdress of Ancient Egyptian Dancers
In the Old Kingdom female dancers wore short men’s skirts or danced naked wearing just a belt around their waist. Some dancers wore long or short transparent garments sometimes completely revealing the right side of their chests. Whereas in the Middle and New kingdoms dancers wore transparent broad long cloaks with tight or loose sleeves. Dancers adorned themselves in brightly decorated collars, bracelets, earrings, and ribbons or garlands on their heads. The dancers also wore cones made of fragranced semi solid fat, used to give out a pleasant perfume as the dancers performed.
The Old and Middle Kingdom women’s hair dress was characterized by “evenly cut and smoothly combed down, divided into two thinner plaits hanging from the shoulders down to the chest and one broad plait covering the upper part of the back.” (Lexova, 59) Female dancers who did not have long hair resorted to wearing wigs styled in the same fashion. The Egyptian male dancers in both the old and middle kingdoms wore the regular men’s dress viz. skirt or an apron with round edges in the front. The dancers of the dwarf dances wore a crown made of reeds or palm fibers woven into the shape of white upper Egyptian crown. For ornaments male dancers wore collars adorned with ties, they also wore chains around their necks, whereas the younger boys wore bracelets on their feet.
The ancient Egyptians used a vast array of musical instruments such as harps, lutes, drums, flutes, cymbals, clappers and tambourines that played a prominent role in melodic compositions of ancient Egyptians composers and musicians. “Only musicians directly associated with the dancers are those clapping their hands, using clappers or playing tambourines, drums, sistrums or other percussion instrument to beat out tempo and rhythm.” (Metwally, 2) It was rare to find wind or stringed instrument players close to dancers in the same scene. However, it was noted that whenever musicians are depicted, dancers were not generally far away.
To be continued ...
Sources and further reading:
"Ancient Egyptian Dancers.” – Irena Lexova
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