Beef. The highest status food in ancient Egypt was the foreleg of an ox, called the khepesh, which was offered to the gods and to the deceased in their tombs. Oxen were economical to raise. Though the foreleg was considered the best-tasting part of the ox, nearly all of the animal was eaten, including its internal organs.
Other Meats. Sheep and goats were the second-most-important meats eaten in ancient Egypt. Not only was the
flesh eaten, but the fat of the sheep was used in cooking, medicine, and perfume. Many peasants could afford to purchase sheep and goats, although an ox would have been beyond their means.
Prohibitions on Pork. Egyptians ate pork more often than historians have expected. Herodotus, the fifth-century b.c.e. Greek historian who wrote about Egypt, reported that Egyptians considered pork to be taboo. He also claimed that merely touching a pig was reason for a purification ceremony and that swineherds were shunned. Pigs are not depicted in tomb paintings, though most other Egyptian animals have a place in them. In the Book of the Dead and the story “Horus and Seth,” pigs were associated with the evil god Seth. The fact that Islam and Judaism ban eating pork added weight to Herodotus’s claims for modern Egyptologists. Yet, further investigation suggests that pork was a regular part of the Egyptian diet.
Textual Evidence. Scattered reference to pigs in Egyptian texts indicate that the attitude toward this animal was not always negative. The autobiography of the Dynasty 3 (circa 2675-2625 b.c.e.) nobleman Metjen mentions pigs. During the time of Senwosret (or Sesostris) I (circa 1919-1875 b.c.e.) the title Overseer of Swineherds existed. In the New Kingdom Amenhotep III (circa 1390-1353 b.c.e.) and Ramesses III (circa 1187-1156 b.c.e.) offered pigs to the gods. Swineherds at the temple of Sety (or Sethos) I (circa 1290-1279 b.c.e.) at Abydos also bred pigs.
HERODOTUS ON PORK
Herodotus’s story that Egyptians shunned pork is probably untrue.
The Egyptians think the pig an unclean animal. If any one of the Egyptians, but passing by, touch a pig, he goes to the river and dips himself therein, garments and all. Furthermore, such native-born Egyptian as are swineherds, alone of all people durst not enter any Egyptian shrine; nor is anyone willing to give his daughter in marriage to one of a family of swineherds or to marry one himself from such a family, and so the swineherds marry and are given in marriage only among their own folk. The Egyptians do not think fit to sacrifice the pig to any god except the Moon and Dionysus, and to these they sacrifice at the same time, the very full moon; it is then they sacrifice pigs and taste of their flesh. Why it is that they utterly reject the pig at other festivals and sacrifice it at this one–as to this, there is a story told about the matter by the Egyptians; I know it, but it is not quite suitable to be declared.
Source: Herodotus, The History, translated fey David Gretie (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 151–152.
Eating Pork. Archaeological evidence proves that pigs were commonly eaten by ordinary people. In sites dating to Dynasties 1 (circa 3000-2800 b.c.e.) and 2 (circa 2800-2675 b.c.e.), pig bones outnumber cattle, sheep, or goat remains at many domestic sites. Archaeologists have recovered pig bones from the New Kingdom sites of Armant, Tukh, Abydos, and Malqata. At Tell el Amarna pig bones found in garbage dumps near houses had clear butcher marks. Houses also had pigpens and areas for butchering pigs.
Conclusion. The archaeological and textual evidence suggests that pigs were mostly a low-status food. Their bones are mostly associated with poorer houses. Though the gods required pigs in some New Kingdom ceremonies, they were apparently excluded from banquets and tomb offerings.
Poultry. The chicken originated in Southeast Asia. There is no evidence that the Egyptians knew of chickens before the fifth century b.c.e. No chicken bones are found in any Egyptian archeological site dated prior to 332 b.c.e. and the arrival of the Greeks.
Other Animals. The Egyptians ate other small animals such as mice and hedgehogs. Mouse bones have been found in the stomachs of mummies, and oil of mouse was added to foods. Possibly the Egyptians fed nuts and raisins to mice before eating them, as did the ancient Romans. Hedgehogs were prepared by being coated with clay and baked in a fire. When the clay was removed, the spines of the hedgehog were stripped away, leaving only the meat.
William J. Darby, Paul Ghalioungui, and Louis Grivetti, Food: The Gift of Osiris, two volumes (London & New York: Academic Press, 1977).
Salima Ikram, Choice Cuts: Meat Production in Ancient Egypt (Leuven: Departement Oosterse Studies, 1995).
Hilary Wilson, Egyptian Food and Drink (Aylesbury, U.K.: Shire, 1988).