Male and Female Musicians in the Old Kingdom

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Male and Female Musicians in the Old Kingdom

Gender Distinctions.

Men and women both worked as musicians during the Old Kingdom. While some instruments—such as the harp and certain forms of percussion—could be played by either men or women, other instruments were gender-designated. Only men played single and double flutes and oboes, while women played the shoulder harp, frame drums, clap sticks, and the sistrum. Singing, another musical expression open to either sex, was so fundamental to almost every performance that the instrumentalists functioned either as accompanists to other singers or to themselves if they were singing. The singers and the instrumentalists were largely professionals, though there is evidence that women entertained members of their family as amateur musicians. In the Sixth Dynasty, for example, a tomb drawing shows the high official Mereruka and his wife Watetkhethor lounging on a bed while she played the harp. In other tombs there are examples of wives, daughters, or granddaughters of the deceased playing the harp for the deceased. The first known professional singer, named Iti, performed with the harpist Heknut during the Fifth Dynasty according to a depiction of the pair on the tomb of Nikawre in Saqqara. Since they do not appear to be relatives of Nikawre, Egyptologists assume that they were professionals.


Though all-male ensembles predominated in the Old Kingdom, all-female and mixed-gender ensembles are represented in tomb scenes of music making. This conclusion is based on an interpretation of two different Egyptian artistic conventions. Relief sculptures and paintings in tombs are divided into registers. Each register can represent a different place, or in some cases the upper register can be read as located behind the lower register. In most Old Kingdom examples the male and female members of the ensemble are located in different registers. Yet, in the tomb of Queen Mersyankh III, the tomb owner herself is located in both registers, identifiable by her representation as a figure two times larger than the other figures in the relief. This placement of the queen suggests that the male ensemble members in the top register and the female singers in the lower register are understood as playing and singing together. The same is true of the dancers, also located in the lower register. The dancers and singers are probably closer to the tomb owner, while the all-male ensemble of two harps, a flute, and an oboe are behind the dancers and singers. A similar scene in the tomb of Debhen at Giza also uses the artistic device of the tomb owner spanning all the registers to signal that here five registers should be read as one behind the other, the topmost at the back. This scene includes two harps, two oboes, a flute and two male singers in the top register. The second register includes four female dancers and three female singers. These examples both come from the Fourth Dynasty (2625–2500 b.c.e.). By the end of the Fifth Dynasty (2500–2350 b.c.e.), in the tomb of Iymery, a scene shows female dancers and singers together with a male harpist, a male singer, and a male oboe player in the same register. Another musical scene in the tomb, however, separates four female singers and nine female dancers from a male ensemble made up of a flute, an oboe, two harps, and four male singers in different registers. Thus it is likely that the separation of male and female musicians in tomb scenes was more of an artistic convention than evidence that male and female musicians played separately. The grouping of men and women into separate groups may have been a division borne more of their association with particular instruments than a division based on gender. Perhaps the true separation is between the strings (harps), winds, and lower-voiced male singers in the back, and the higher-voiced female singers and percussion section in the front of the ensemble.


Lisa Manniche, Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt (London: British Museum Press, 1991).

Emily Teeter, "Female Musicians in Pharaonic Egypt," in Rediscovering the Muses in Women's Musical Traditions. Ed. Kimberly Marshall (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993): 68–91.