Ancient Egyptian Children
Ancient Egyptian children had quite a different life from children now. They had responsibilities at a far younger age, and decisions to make that only adults would consider these days.
First of all, in a typical ancient Egyptian household, the number of siblings was numerous. A married couple could have up to 15 children… and all of them would live in the same house.
Though it has to be said that the survival rate of infants was quite low, about a third reached their first year, and half of those would go on to reach age five.
Parents tried to protect their children by keeping them close by and giving them amulets, mothers would nurse their children for up to three years to protect them from digestive diseases, but having a child die in the family was quite common.
In depictions, ancient Egyptian children were not shown really looking like a typical child. They were more like miniature figures of regular adults. They were also usually shown naked, even though in real life they wore clothes for protection and warmth.
The other distinctive features were shaved heads with side-locks of hair and also sometimes having a finger on their lips, perhaps a remnant of finger-sucking.
Deities were called on to protect children during their births and throughout their childhoods. Specifically the god Bes and the goddess Taweret. And helping to shape a child’s physical and spiritual creation were other deities. For more on that, you can take a look at my video about the Anatomy of the Ancient Egyptian Soul below:
Educating Ancient Egyptian Children
As for schooling, it’s not like school now. What ancient Egyptian children studied was based on what career they would take up later on. Usually, this was all about the sons. Daughters were taught early on by their mothers how to run a household and do the household chores – this was no easy task however.
Other than anecdotes of specific female children, not much is known about how girls spent their childhoods except in preparation to becoming wives and mothers who ran households and helped their husbands with farming. To know more about ancient Egyptian women, click here.
So for the time being we’ll focus on the boys.
Ptolemaic pharaoh Harpocrates with side-lock and finger to lips. Photo: Patrick Clenet
Usually a first-born followed his father’s career path and started training with him from a very young age (sometimes 5).
Other sons had to choose a career path also by a very young age – around 9 years old. Boys could choose to be soldiers, scribes, doctors, priests, farmers, among many others.
Depending on the choice, and being accepted, a child then starts training as an apprentice until he is ready to be on his own (usually at age 19/20).
A military career was quite popular during the New Kingdom as it promised glory and respect. The physically fit were encouraged to apply and endured a harsh induction as well as life-long intense training. To learn more about the lives of ancient Egyptian soldiers, click here.
Another coveted career was that of a scribe. Wealth, knowledge and respect were given to scribes and their training was less demanding. They were also the few literate people in ancient Egypt.
Most scribes were sons of scribes trained by their fathers, but other children were given this chance to learn from a village scribe. A village scribe sometimes gave group lessons to the local kids for an extra charge.
Ancient Egyptian children of the elite had a special advantage over the others – they were given the opportunity for a formal education, in the closest thing to a real school in ancient Egypt. They were admitted into The House of Life.
The House of Life
A House of Life, sometimes called Mansion of Life, was a building that was usually attached to a temple, though there were some that were stand-alone. They were full of texts and materials kept by priests.
Only a chosen few were accepted and allowed to learn and train in a House of Life – its contents were not open to the public. It also functioned as an archive for important religious texts.
These texts included not only the religious texts and magic spells particular to the temple itself, but they also included information recorded on medical practices, science, math and history.
The priests that operated the House of Life were in charge of keeping these texts stored well, sorting them and copying them.
The ancient Egyptian children that were accepted into these institutions were given the great privilege to learn what most others do not… reading and writing.
It was not thought of as necessary in ancient times to be literate. A person usually stuck with the same career for the duration of life, and most ancient Egyptians held labor-intensive jobs such as farming and building.
As for the chosen few – the children in the house of life learned the sacred writing of ancient Egypt. They were taught hieratic, demotic and hieroglyphics.
They were also taught mathematics.
Most of this type of learning was composed of copying texts and being corrected. Some of these scraps of copied material are shown with red markings correcting the mistakes of the pupils.
It was not an easy task and the teachers were sometimes harsh and quite strict, but it seems to have opened up much more opportunity than that of the average farmer’s son.
This literacy brought to these children a host of wonderful choices that are off-limits. Scribes held administrative jobs and were promoted throughout their careers. Some scribes could reach the position of Vizier – the second most important position after the pharaoh.
Some could take an oath and become practicing physicians and doctors.
Some would go on to become priests in the House of Life itself, another extremely privileged position where they would become the keepers and propagators of important knowledge.
All Work and No Play?
It may seem like the lives of ancient Egyptian children were only full of work and training… but they did have their playtime too.
Of course kids who haven’t finished their chores (and they had many) didn’t have enough time for too much fun. Still, they enjoyed stories and board games as well as toys.
Balls made of skin and stuffed with material were among the toys found by archeologists.
Sports were also popular, and they included wrestling, chariot racing, hunting, target practice and fishing. Most of these activities were part of the military training regiment as well.
Girls also took part in many of these activities and had toys of their own as well…
… One thing is certain – ancient Egyptian children were well loved and cared for by most ancient standards. Producing offspring was considered not only necessary but also a joy and a blessing of life in ancient Egypt. Fertility and birth were sacred and magic was used to increase and protect these blessings.
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