The ancient Egyptian art of humour

Zahi Hawass
Friday 15 Nov 2019

Much of the modern Egyptian sense of humour has its roots in ancient times, writes Zahi Hawass

Egyptians have always had a reputation for their light and witty sense of humour. Even today, it doesn’t take much to see that the Egyptians like to make jokes and see humour in any situation or event. As Egyptians, we believe that this light-hearted approach to life was passed down to us from ancient Egypt. 

We have a great number of jocular drawings shown on the wall reliefs of Egyptian tombs and on papyri, as well as on ostraca. It is astonishing that these humorous drawings, or “picture jokes”, were produced by Egyptian artists who left us the same great work attested to in tombs and on papyri. 

We can see that the ancient Egyptian artist used his spare time to draw these jokes on ostraca. The drawings are witty scenes that the artist worked on in order to express sentiments about developments and faults in society. These scenes might also touch upon more personal or unique experiences that the artist experienced. He might have wanted to express his opinion on it all while transferring it to a bigger audience in the form of humour. 

The drawings are also sometimes similar to what we call today the art of caricature. One of the most important of the jocular scenes shows a group of rats forming an army attacking a fortress of cats. We can see the rats shooting arrows towards the fortress, and we see another group walking in a military march. Each rat holds an axe and a shield as it makes its way towards the fortress leading an army of rats. 

The army is led by a large adventurous rat, and he rides a chariot drawn by two dogs. The leader rat shoots arrows at the cats in the fortress. The rats have also brought a ladder to use to climb into the fortress. On the other hand, we see that the cats are terrified and remain afraid inside their fortress, with no possible solution to stopping the attack of the army of rats. 

This humorous drawing could explain what happened in Egypt during the Intermediate Period when foreign armies entered the country and became powerful inside Egypt. They began to act as if they owned the country, and the Egyptians clearly were represented as “weak” cats. 

In this case, the artist used symbolism to express the political situation that the country was facing. Even today, we are all too familiar with this method of implicitly alluding to difficult circumstances, as this type of art can be seen in many countries that do not let the artist freely express his or her opinion. 

The impression of Egyptians no longer being the rightful owners of their own home is repeated in other ostraca. In another scene, an artist shows how the society he was used to has changed. He depicts a foreigner, shown to us as an old, foreign rat wearing expensive clothing and sitting on a beautiful chair. Behind him stands a cat, clearly representing an Egyptian. 

The cat is combing the foreigner’s hair, while the rat is holding a glass of liquor, also offered to him by an Egyptian cat. Here, the idea of foreigners enjoying wealth while Egyptians serve them is quite palpable.

In another jocular scene with the same meaning as the previous ones, an artist draws an old female rat trying to show off as young. She has placed flowers on her head and wears a nice dress. She sits on a comfortable seat and is drinking milk or liquor from a small vessel served to her from a cowering Egyptian cat. This cat is also serving the foreign mistress a fat goose to eat. 

The Egyptian cat looks hungry and cannot have a taste of the goose that she is offering to the rat, thus once more highlighting the Egyptians’ inferior position at the time.

One of the best scenes of a critical nature appears on an ostracon showing a rat that has become a judge and is shown barking out orders. In front of him is an Egyptian young man, human this time, who is beaten by a cat according to an order from the rat judge. 

In another scene, we see a donkey as a judge. His doorkeeper is a violent ox, and the suspect is shown as a cat in a subservient position.

All of the scenes show how Egypt was weak at the time and how foreigners had become stronger. Emboldened by their victories, the foreigners eat from the wealth of the country. The Egyptians cannot defend themselves. 

Even if art was done for the sake of art in ancient Egypt, it very often served a purpose, which is the reason why the artists indicated how the society was changing, with Egyptians becoming foreigners in their own land. Sometimes, the artists exaggerated these realities and conjured up impossible scenarios, such as in the following scenes.

One artist depicts a group of geese impossibly protected by three cats. One cat happily eats one of the geese, and another greedily eats and drinks what the goose was consuming. The last big cat, the leader, walks quietly behind the goose and looks at the latter as if he is ready to eat it. 

Another scene shows a group of rams protected by two wolves. One is walking, with its food over its shoulder, similar to what a shepherd does; he is playing the flute, acting as a shepherd but clearly set on doing harm.  

Sometimes the artists moved beyond illustrating politics in favour of representing everyday scenarios. In one such scene, an artist represents his experience attending a musical party where he listened to a troupe. He was not happy with the performance, so he drew a scene showing a donkey and a lion. Both are singing. The donkey is playing a harp and the lion is playing a flute. A crocodile is also seen playing a flute, as well as a monkey. The artist most likely meant to show that the music was bad, and he showed the musicians as if they were animals. 

My last scene is one of a hippopotamus climbing a tree in an attempt to rob a bird’s nest. We see the bird who is the owner of the nest use all his power to defend it. The hippo wants to have this house that is clearly not suitable for it, or perhaps it is trying to steal the eggs. Is this drawing, then, a commentary on theft and injustice?

Such joking was a major aspect of ancient Egyptian society, and in all the bad times that Egypt has faced we always see Egyptians make jokes of their lives, their society, and their leaders. 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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