The Social Status of Musicians

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The Social Status of Musicians

Modern Scholarly Bias.

Scholars from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries differed widely in their hypotheses regarding the status of musicians in ancient Egypt. This difficulty stems, in large part, from their projections of the modern status of musicians—particularly female musicians—onto an ancient culture. For example, scholars assigned to female musicians of ancient Egypt the same class associations that they knew in Europe and America. One Victorian scholar suggested that only non-elite women became professional musicians. A mid-twentieth century scholar, on the other hand, suggested that young, elite girls learned to play the harp in ancient Egypt much as upper-class ladies in America learned to play the piano. Others suggested that musicians held a place of honor but were also slaves, a statement that has no basis in the evidence. In fact, there is no evidence that explicitly comments on the social status of musicians, although evidence from tomb drawings suggests that musicians and singers throughout ancient Egyptian history enjoyed elite status in their society.


introduction: The Story of Sinuhe was the most important literary work from ancient Egypt. It is an epic poem that describes Sinuhe's flight from Egypt to the Levant after the assassination of Amenemhet I. Sinuhe left because he mistakenly believed he had been implicated in the plot against the king. During his absence, Sinuhe lived with a bedouin tribe. He dressed like a bedouin even for his fearful return to Egypt at the king's invitation. At the end of the poem, King Senwosret I welcomed Sinuhe back to Egypt. Music and song were integral to Sinuhe's formal welcome as the royal princesses sang, accompanied by sistra.

Thereupon, they brought in the Royal Family;
And then his Majesty said to the Queen,
"Look, it is Sinuhe,
come as a Bedouin created by the Asiatics!"
so that she gave a very great cry,
the royal children [joining in] with a single shriek.
Then they said before his Majesty,
"Truly, it is not he, our sovereign Lord?"
Then his Majesty replied, "Truly, it is he."
So then they brought out their necklaces,
With their scepters and their sistra in their hands.
Then they presented them to his Majesty;

"Your state is more than beautiful, King,
who bears the insignia of the Lady of Heaven.
The Golden Goddess offers life to your nostrils,
The Lady of the Stars protects you;
The White Crown goes north, and the Red Crown goes south;
And what has been joined unites in the utterance of your Majesty;
Success is given from your brow.
You have delivered the poor man from evil,
Having propitiated Re, Lord of the Two Lands;
Praises to you, as to the Mistress of Us All!
Loosen your bow, lay aside your arrow,
Give breath to him who is in suffocation!
Give to us this fine thing
In favor of the foreign chieftain, Son of the Northwind,
The foreign bowman born in [our] beloved land.
He has made a flight for fear of you,
He has fled the land in terror of you.
[Yet] there should be no blanching of the face which looks upon you,
no fear in the eye which gazes at you."
Then his Majesty said, "He shall not fear henceforth …

source: "The Tale of Sinhue," in Thought Couplets in "The Tale of Sinuhe." Trans. John L. Foster (Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Peter Lang, 1993): 60–61.

Old Kingdom Status.

In the Old Kingdom (2675–2170 b.c.e.), tomb drawings indicate that there was no professional class of female musicians, but there was an amateur class of high-status women who played for the men of the household. Women playing the harp in tomb representations were nearly always family members of the deceased. They include a daughter in the tomb of Idu and the tomb owner's wife in the tombs of Pepi at Meir and of Mereruka at Saqqara. The latter is significant in that Mereruka's wife was specifically identified with her name, Watetkhethor. The Egyptians attached great importance to the preservation of personal names in a tomb, because the purpose of a tomb was to ensure the survival of the tomb owner's name for eternity. When an additional name appeared in a tomb, even the name of a wife, the Egyptians considered this to be an honor. Further evidence that these family members were relatively high status comes from the tomb of Pepi of Meir. His wife, depicted as a harp player, also bore the title "King's Companion," a recognition of her high status at court. There is some evidence to support the theory that men could be professional musicians; the male singer Khufwy-ankh enjoyed high status at court. He was a singer, Overseer of Singers, and flutist who owned a tomb in Giza near the Great Pyramid. Both the location of the tomb near such an important structure and the fact that a musician could own a tomb at all is an indication of his high social status. Clearly the Old Kingdom evidence supports the idea that elite men and women learned to play music and that music was a part of elite society.

Middle Kingdom Status.

In the Middle Kingdom, the evidence for musicians is sparser than in other periods. Yet there are examples of musicians among the elite, or at least the class that obtained stelae for monuments in Abydos and even among princesses. The high official Seba-shesu boasted in his tomb that he trained ten musicians. Stelae from Abydos belonging to Neferhotep, Renseneb, and Sathathor were decorated with artistic renderings of musicians. If these prominent men and women included musicians on monuments intended to honor their own memories, musicians must not have been considered shameful. In literature there are examples of both princesses and goddesses taking on the role of musician. The daughters of Senwosret I in The Story of Sinuhe played the sistrum and sang in honor of Sinuhe's return to Egypt. In the late Middle Kingdom story contained in Papyrus Westcar, a group of goddesses and a god disguised themselves as professional musicians, indicating that there was nothing reprehensible about being a musician.

New Kingdom Status.

There is more evidence to support a growing class of professional musicians in the New Kingdom (1539–1070 b.c.e.), as indicated by the presence of musicians with no relationship to the deceased on tomb walls. There is also more evidence of the elite status enjoyed by musicians in both literature and tomb drawings. A passage in Papyrus Anastasi IV, for example, expresses the disappointment of the parents of a man who has become a drunk, a lout, and a customer of prostitutes; they suggest that this is not the behavior they expected from him since he is a highly trained musician. The high status of the chantress in the New Kingdom—which sometimes included queens who chanted the ritual for the god—also suggests that musical training was an elite trait. Singers served the gods and succeeded each other as the office passed from one generation to the next in elite families. For example, the female family members of Rekhmire, a vizier of the king, were nearly all musicians. Thus it seems likely that there was no shame in being a musician in the New Kingdom.


E. Hickmann, "Musiker," in Lexikon der Ägyptologie. Vol. IV. Ed. Wolfgang Helck (Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, 1972–1992): 231–234.

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.

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The Social Status of Musicians

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