A Musical Bureau in the Old Kingdom

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A Musical Bureau in the Old Kingdom


The Egyptians used the word khener to refer to a troupe of professional singers and dancers organized through a bureau. Earlier Egyptologists misunderstood the khener to be specifically attached to the harem because tomb drawings always depicted female singers and dancers entertaining a man in his private quarters. This erroneous identification stemmed from historians' misunderstanding of Islamic customs in the Middle East and Victorian preconceptions about male/female relationships in ancient times. Victorian scholars were often embarrassed by ancient behavior that they considered lewd in their own time. European scholars also condemned their contemporaries in Islamic countries that practiced polygamy. In reality, many institutions had a khener, including the royal palace, the funerary estates that supported a king's cult after he died, and the temples of the goddesses Bat and Hathor, and the gods Wepwawet and Horus-Iunmutef. Many titles found in tombs show that women were usually the supervisors of the khener, which is one indication of the degree of freedom enjoyed by women in ancient Egypt. Because the titles change in Egyptian according to whether the office holder was male or female, it is clear that the Overseer of the Khener and the Inspector of the Khener were women in most cases. There is also an example of a male Overseer of the King's Khener. The evidence for the khener comes almost entirely from scenes on the walls of tombs and temples. Thus it is not clear if all the possible performance venues for the khener are represented in the evidence. The khener is often depicted entertaining the deceased in a tomb while he eats from the offering table. This could imply that the khener entertained at meals during life on earth. Other evidence that the khener entertained at secular functions includes some titles held by khener members. A member of the khener could also be the "overseer of all the entertainments of the secrets of the palace," or the "overseer of all the fine entertainments of the king," or the "overseer of the singing of the palace." Some singers of the khener are even described as those whose singing "rejoice the heart of the king with beautiful songs and fulfill every wish of the king by their beautiful singing." The khener also played for religious ceremonies. It is depicted in funeral processions and performing in front of the tomb during funerals. Specific kheners were also attached to temples of Hathor, Bat, Wepwawet, and Horus Iunmutef. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the khener was exclusively religious.


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.

see also Dance: The Dancers

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