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The Elite Dwarfs of Ancient Egypt: God's Dancers

Updated on March 31, 2017
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Dieselnoi studies the history and culture of ancient Egypt, and is also a collector Egyptian art.

Pharaoh Pepy II and the Pygmy

The capture of a pygmy was described in a preserved letter, sent on behalf of the 8-year-old pharaoh, Pepy II (c. 2284 - 2184 BC) to a high official. This dignitary called Harkuf was so proud of his accomplishments that he had the contents of the letter recorded on his tomb wall. He led trade missions to modern day Sudan where he managed to get his hands on a pygmy, much to the pleasure of the king. In the letter the boy king's enthusiasm to get this prized possession to his court as fast as possible is quite obvious.

"Come northward to the court immediately; [...] thou shalt bring this dwarf with thee, which thou bringest living, prosperous and healthy from the land of spirits, for the dances of the god, to rejoice and [gladden] the heart of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Neferkare, who lives forever. When he goes down with thee into the vessel, appoint excellent people, who shall be beside him on each side of the vessel; take care lest he fall into the water. When he sleeps at night appoint excellent people, who shall sleep beside him in his tent, inspect ten times a night. My majesty desires to see this dwarf more than the gifts of Sinai and of Punt. If thou arrivest at court this dwarf being with thee alive, prosperous and healthy, my majesty will do for thee a greater thing than that which was done for the treasurer of the god Burded in the time of Isesi, according to the heart's desire of my majesty to see the dwarf."

A figurine of a male dwarf made out of hippopotamus ivory. (late Old Kingdom approx. 2200)
A figurine of a male dwarf made out of hippopotamus ivory. (late Old Kingdom approx. 2200) | Source

Even though in this letter, the word dng (meaning dwarf) is followed by the determinative for a standard dwarf, it is highly likely that this dwarf was, in fact, an African pygmy. There is no evidence that the ancient Egyptians made a distinction in their textual references between ethnically short people and their own indigenous, pathologically short people. Black tribes in the south were known to keep the nomadic pygmies in captivity to work their lands, so Harkuf may have obtained the dwarf through trade with the local tribes.

Queen Ankhnes-meryre II and her Son, Pepy II
Queen Ankhnes-meryre II and her Son, Pepy II | Source

God's Dancers

As we can see from the example cited above, ancient Egyptian nobles and kings loved to keep dwarfs and pygmies in their households. A large number of them were given expensive burials in close proximity to the tombs of their patrons. Most representations of dwarfs date to the Old Kingdom (some fifty tombs at Giza and Saqqara bear depictions of short people), but there are depictions of dwarfs all throughout Egyptian history. Some of these dwarfs were able to obtain very high positions in the administration of the kingdom, others had more regular jobs, most commonly jeweler, domestic servant, nurse, entertainer, or animal tender. There is no indication that dwarfism was regarded as an inhibiting factor in Egyptian society, in fact, the opposite is true, dwarfs were thought to be special because of the magico-religious significance that was attributed to them. Because of their unusual appearance, they were believed to have supernatural powers and to have a special relation to the gods, and they participated in religious rituals where they performed as 'god's dancers.'

Elite Dwarfs

Several elite dwarfs who achieved a high status have names and titles that were preserved and are known to us. The number of dwarfs found in the royal cemetery in Abydos is higher than would be expected in a normal population. This is an indication that dwarfs were 'imported' from other area's but it is not clear whether the dwarfs and pygmies were bought and sold or if they were paid to do work voluntarily. However, in case a dwarf or pygmy switched their employer it was common that a 'transfer sum' was paid, but there is also proof that in some cases the relation between the master and the dwarf appears to have been of an affectionate nature.

Seneb and his wife and two of his children
Seneb and his wife and two of his children | Source

Dwarf Seneb (4th Dynasty)

Probably the most well-known dwarf from ancient Egypt is Seneb. A famous statue has been preserved where he sits in the pose of a scribe, next to his wife, Senet, who is of normal size. Two of Seneb's children stand below him, in the place where his legs would have been if he had been of normal size. Seneb served during the fourth dynasty of pharaohs Khufu and Djeder. His tomb in Giza was unearthed in 1926, and from the so-called ‘false door’ we know that Seneb held may titles. It is possible that Seneb started out as a low ranking attendant and made his way through the ranks, but it is also possible that he was born into a noble family. In his tomb 20 titles are recorded among which:

  • 'Beloved of the King'
  • 'Overseer of Dwarfs' (meaning there were other dwarfs in the court)
  • 'Overseer of the Crew of the ks Ship' (a ceremonial boat)

A limestone statue of Khnumhotep
A limestone statue of Khnumhotep | Source

Dwarf Khnumhotep (6th Dynasty)

Another famous Old Kingdom dwarf is Khnumhotep. A limestone statue with biographical information has been preserved. He achieved courtly status, held the titles ‘Overseer of Clothing’ and 'Overseer of Ka-priests.' It was the task of these Ka-priests to perform the daily rituals for the deceased. His titles suggest that he belonged to the household of a high official and that he achieved medium rank within that household. His priesthood could indicate that he was particularly well liked by his patron, but is is also possible that he inherited the title. The inscription carved on Khnumhotep’s statue speaks of dancing at the funerals of two sacred bulls. His dance performances must have been highlights in Khnumhotep’s career because he specifically mentions them. Khnumhotep is one of only a few male dancers known by name from ancient Egypt.

The granite sarcophagus of Djeho
The granite sarcophagus of Djeho | Source

Dwarf Djeho (30th Dynasty)

Almost 2000 years after Seneb was put to rest in Giza, the dwarf Djeho was buried in Saqqara. He shared a tomb with his patron Tjaiharpta, which is an indication of the favored position Djeho had with his master. The craftsmanship displayed in the granite sarcophagus of Djeho is of superb quality, and it would have been very costly to produce such a magnificent piece. Djeho is depicted naked in profile, possibly life-sized (4 ft or 120 cm). It was found by Quibell in 1911. On the sarcophagus' lid, the biography tells us that Djeho, much like Khnumhotep during the Old Kingdom before him, was a dancer in burial ceremonies connected to the Apis and Mnevis bulls.

Further Study

If you would like to know more about this subject I highly recommend 'Dwarfs in Ancient Egypt and Greece' by Swiss archaeologist Veronica Dasen. Much of the information in this article is based on the extensive studies done by Dasen on this subject. In this book Dasen has succeeded in grasping the wealth of information that is provided by literary, artistic and archeological sources, to put it into context and to present it in a way that is enjoyable for a broader audience.

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