Egypt: Dwarfs and Pygmies of Ancient Egypt

Dwarfs and Pygmies of Ancient Egypt

By Jimmy Dunn writing as Richard Warner

Dwarfs in ancient Egypt appear to have suffered little due to prejudice. This was the most serious congenital abnormality recorded in ancient Egypt. Well known Egyptologists Kent Weeks has recorded nine skeletons of this type, and Dasen lists 207 known representations of dwarfism.

Dwarfs and Pygmies of Ancient Egypt

The disease, known as achondroplasia, was probably caused by inbreeding, and thus might very well have occurred in royal families. This disease results in a head and trunk of normal size with shortened limbs. Examples have been found even dating back to Egypt's predynastic period. We know of a number of examples where dwarfs were well integrated into society, holding important positions and marrying woman of normal stature.

This is not to say that the condition was not recognized by the Egyptians, but tolerance was taught. In the Instruction of Amenemope at the end of the 2nd millennium BC, a call for justice and forbearance is provided:

Mock not the blind nor deride the dwarf nor block the cripple's path; don't tease a man made ill by a god nor make outcry when he blunders.

We find dwafs in the form of gods, such as Bes. While the Egyptian reasoning for dwarf gods such as Bes is unclear, some have suggested that the belief sprang from an association with dwarfs as familiar protective beings. It is likely that dwarfs benefited socially from their resemblance to these gods.

Dwarfs and Pygmies of Ancient Egypt

We find examples of dwarfs in skilled positions such as jewelry craftsman as depicted in the Old Kingdom tomb of Mereruka at Saqqara, and in other wall paintings they are shown tending animals, undertaking agricultural work and occasionally as entertainers for high officials. At other times they are shown as serving important households sometimes as entertainers and in other capacities.

Dwarfs and Pygmies of Ancient Egypt

One example of a very important dwarf was Seneb, a 4th or early 5th Dynasty dwarf. He was overseer of the palace dwarfs, chief of the royal wardrobe and priest of the funerary cults of Khufu. A fine statue depicts him with his family, including his wife who was of normal stature, and two children. His wife was known to have been a lady of the court and a priestess.

The ancient Egyptians called both dwarfs and Pygmies deneg. In fact, ancient literature and references barely distingquish between Dwarfs and Pygmies. However, Pygmies, probably because they were usually foreign born, did not enjoy the treatment given to dwarfs. They were usually imported from tropical Africa and most often served in the capacity of dancers or acrobats.

While dwarfs might be a part of the court, the pygmies were entertainment for the court, but valued in this respect. A letter from Pepy II of the 6th Dynasty urges Harkhuf, who was on his way back from an expedition to the south of the Sudan, to take great care of the dancing pygmy he had acquired. The letter states that, "My majesty desires to see this pygmy more than the gifts of the mineland (Sinai) and of Punt".