Work Songs

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Work Songs


Tomb and building drawings present us with evidence that Egyptian laborers integrated music with their labor, although such evidence is fraught with barriers to interpretation. For instance, the pictorial combination of music and labor is an uncommon theme in Egyptian art so it is difficult to draw conclusions based on comparison. The songs themselves throw up barriers to a greater application to Egyptian life since the meaning of the words that accompany the image does not clearly relate to the work being depicted. Neither is it possible to determine whether the songs preserved on tomb walls represent songs that workmen actually sang in the fields or whether the songs represent only the hopes of the elite who paid for the tombs. Tomb walls, after all, depicted an idealized version of life on earth to ensure the continuation of such a life in the next world, particularly as it related to the growing and harvesting of crops which would provide the necessary food for the dead tomb owner in the next life. Yet there is enough evidence to show that workmen eased their labor through song. There is also evidence to suggest that musical instruments aided in hunting as a method to flush game out of bushes.

Agricultural Call and Response Songs.

Agriculture was the basis of the Egyptian economy, and agricultural workers made up the majority of the population. Evidence for this agricultural activity and the songs sung during the workday is preserved on the walls of tombs. One Old Kingdom song preserves a call and response routine such as those that are still sung by Egyptian workers on archaeological excavations during the course of the work. This song, sung during planting season, begins with a leader singing "O West! Where is Bata, Bata of the West?" A chorus or perhaps another individual responds, "Bata is in the water with the fish. He speaks with the phragos -fish and converses with the oxyrhynchus-fish." The song refers directly to The Story of Two Brothers that is preserved from a Nineteenth-dynasty papyrus (1292–1190 b.c.e.), nearly 1,200 years later. Though the manuscript dates later, the presence of the song in an earlier tomb suggests the story is older than the only known manuscript. Bata was a god who died but returned three times, first in the form of a pine tree, then a bull, and then a persea tree. The phragos -fish in The Story of Two Brothers helped with Bata's rebirth by swallowing and thus preserving his phallus after he mutilated himself to prove he was telling the truth in a dispute with his brother Anubis. The Greek writer Plutarch assigned the same function to the oxyrhynchus-fish in the myth of Osiris, another god who died only to be reborn. The song thus suggests that Bata and Osiris are related. This story also emphasized for the Egyptians that the crops that die at the end of the season would be reborn through the planting of seed. Both fish thus reinforced the meaning of the song both as appropriate for the planting season and for the hopes of the tomb owner to be reborn in the next world. This song is preserved in six different tombs in Saqqara, demonstrating its common usage.

Harvest Songs in Paheri's Tomb.

Yet another call and response song from an Old Kingdom tomb represents workers encouraging each other through compliments while working in the barley field. Two groups of workers are singing similar songs while a flute player accompanies them. In the first group the leader sings "Where is the one skilled at his job?" The worker next to him responds "It is I!" A second leader sings, "Where is the hard-working man? Come to me!" The second worker sings, "It is I. I am dancing." Through these compliments, boasts, and jokes the workers encourage themselves and each other to continue working. To judge by modern usage on archaeological excavations, such call and response songs were repeated with varying rhythms throughout the workday. Sometimes they are improvised, commenting on particular events of the workday. The harvest song in the tomb of Paheri is explicitly labeled a "part song." The carving shows eight men harvesting barley with sickles while they sing. The first two lines describe the day, emphasizing that it is cool because of the northern breeze. The third and fourth lines emphasize that the workers and nature both cooperate to make the harvest go smoothly. Again this song depicts an ideal world where both workers and nature cooperate to ensure food for the deceased. It is not possible to know whether the song was actually sung or only expresses the deceased tomb owner's wishes.

Plowing and Hoeing Songs.

The plowing and hoeing songs are known from two New Kingdom tombs in Upper Egypt. The words of the songs seem to divide into call and response sequences. The layout of the text and the accompanying illustrations make it a little difficult to determine the correct order of the verses. The relief carving shows four men dragging the plow—a job normally performed by oxen—an old man steadying the plow, and a young man sowing seed. All of the figures face left. Further to the left are four figures hoeing, the next step in the process of planting the seed. These four hoeing figures face right. The words of the song appear directly above each group of figures. Egyptian hieroglyphic writing can also face either left or right and can also begin on the right side going to the left or vice versa, unlike English writing, which can only begin on the left and run to the right. It is thus easy to associate the lines of text with the proper group of figures because of this characteristic of Egyptian writing. The order of the lines, however, is unclear. It might be that the songs were an endless sequence of call and response so the slight confusion in the layout of the words might be a reflection of the fact that these songs have no real beginning or end. These songs emphasize the positive and show the stake that the workers have in the success of the crop, even though they work for a nobleman. The second plowing song in the tomb of Paheri is written above a group of workers sowing seed and plowing with oxen. A leader stands behind one of the plows with his own columns of text arranged near him. The arrangement of text and image here is clearer to modern eyes. The leader sings, "Hurry, the front guides the cattle. Look! The mayor stands watching." The three men and the boy near the cattle reply, "A beautiful day is a cool one when the cattle drag (the plow). The sky does our desire while we work for the nobleman." Such a song reveals the main purpose for depicting these scenes in a tomb in the first place; by depicting the sequence of growing crops and eager workers, the deceased ensures that he will have adequate food supplies in the next world.


introduction: The lyrics to a song about the god Bata recorded in the Tomb of Paheri are from a story called The Story of Two Brothers. In this tale, a child named Bata came to live with his older brother Anubis and Anubis' wife. As Bata matured into a young man, Anubis' wife made sexual advances toward him, which he repulsed. In revenge, Anubis' wife told her husband that Bata had tried to seduce her. Anubis determined to kill Bata, but the young man escaped. In the following passage, Bata confronts his brother Anubis across a river filled with crocodiles.

Then the youth rebuked his elder brother saying: "What is your coming after me to kill me wrongfully, without having listened to my words? For I am yet your young brother, and you are like a father to me, and your wife is like a mother to me. Is it not so that when I was sent to fetch seed for us your wife said to me: 'Come, let us spend an hour lying together'? But look, it has been turned about for you into another thing." Then he let him know all that had happened between him and his wife. And he swore by Pre-Harakhti, saying: "As to your coming to kill me wrongfully, you carried your spear on the testimony of a filthy whore!" Then he took a reed knife, cut off his phallus, and threw it into the water; and the catfish swallowed it. And he grew weak and became feeble. And his elder brother became very sick at heart and stood weeping for him loudly. He could not cross over to where his brother was on account of the crocodiles.

source: "The Story of the Two Brothers," in The New Kingdom. Vol. 2 of Ancient Egyptian Literature. Trans. Miriam Lichtheim (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976): 206.


introduction: These songs were preserved in the tomb of Paheri of El Kab. Another partial copy of these songs is painted on the walls of the Tomb of Wensu in Thebes. Both of these sites are in Upper Egypt. It is difficult to determine whether these songs spread to other parts of Egypt, but it is significant that at least some songs were repeated in different places and at different times. This phenomenon suggests some continuity in knowledge of Egyptian music.

The Plowing Song

We do (it).
Look! Do not fear for the fields! They are very good!
How good is what you say, my boy!
A good year is free from trouble.
All the fields are healthy. The calves are the best!

The Hoeing Song

I shall do more than my work for the nobleman!
My friend, hurry up with the work, and let us finish in good time.

The Harvest Song

A part song:
This fine day goes forth on the Land.
The northern breeze has risen.
The sky does our desire.
Our work binds our desires.

Translated byEdwardBleiberg.


In addition to agricultural work, music appears to have played a role in the hunting of game. Three scenes, each carved in different time periods, seem to depict servants flushing game with music. Yet it is not clear if the servants are just making noise to scare away birds, perhaps from crops, or if they are indeed flushing game. Furthermore, the scenes do not clearly demonstrate whether the servants are making music or are just making noise. The three examples come from an Old Kingdom tomb, from a block from a building in Tell el Amarna, and from a Roman period relief. The Old Kingdom tomb scene shows a small boat steered through the marsh by an oarsman and helmsman. Two other men stand in the boat. A boy holds two bird decoys with one hand while the other hand holds a tube on which the boy is blowing. Since not all of the tube is preserved, it is not possible to say for certain that it is a trumpet whose noise or song would flush out the game in the marsh, but the presence of decoys certainly suggests hunting given evidence of their use in the New Kingdom. In the Amarna relief only one stone block is preserved. On the left side, a woman holds a tambourine. There is also the figure of a second woman and a boy with up-raised arms. On the right side is a tree with one bird either alighting or flying off, startled by the tambourine. Again it is unclear whether there is a connection with hunting, though the bird's pose is similar to other New Kingdom hunting scenes. A third Roman period relief shows women beating tambourines to scare birds out of the undergrowth. Such scenes suggest possibilities for the use of music in hunting that cannot be fully confirmed with the present state of the evidence.


Hartwig Altenmüller, "Bemerkungen zum Hirtenlied des Alten Reiches," Chronique D'Egypte 48 (1973): 211–231.

T. G. H. James, Pharaoh's People: Scenes from Life in Imperial Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

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