Ancient Egypt 2675-332 BCE: Dance

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

Preconceptions about Dance

Earlier Misunderstandings

Nineteenth-century Egyptologists hindered accurate interpretations of ancient Egyptian dance by imposing their own value systems on the evidence. The lack of clothing in Egyptian dance caused scholars to think of Egyptian dance as lewd, and thus they turned to more seemly subjects for study. These scholars also mistranslated the word “khener”—an Egyptian word meaning “musical bureau”—as “harem.” They assumed that there was a connection between the word for musical bureau and the word for women’s quarters (harem) because of the similarity of the hieroglyphic writing of the two different words. This misconception added to scholars’ difficulties in dealing with Egyptian dance. Moreover, Western scholars did not make an immediate connection between dance and religious ritual because Western culture does not generally maintain the tradition of sacred dance that was common to biblical religion. The absence of dance in the church, synagogue, or mosque traditions found in the West made scholars tentative in accepting dance as integral to ancient Egyptian culture.

Recent Scholarship

Recently scholars have recognized the important role dance played in Egyptian funerals and cult ritual. They note, for example, that the ancient text called “The Wisdom of Any” ranks dance along with food, clothing, and incense as essential to divine worship. Some scholars have now studied different words for dance in ancient Egyptian and recorded dance scenes in tombs and temples. Additional data, along with less prudish attitudes toward dance, will eventually result in a better understanding of this phenomenon.

Dance in Visual Art

Drawn Figures

The great majority of the evidence for dance in ancient Egypt comes from visual art. As early as the Nagada II Period (3500-3300 B.C.E.), sculptures and paintings on pots represented dancers. In the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties (2500-2170 B.C.E.), relief sculpture in mastaba tombs included scenes of dance. The artists who decorated many New Kingdom Theban tombs (1539-1075 B.C.E.) included dancers in banquet scenes. When artists represented dancers, the rules, or canon, of Egyptian art used to depict the tomb owner and his or her family did not apply for the following reason. The canon for artistic representation was in place because the deceased and his or her family needed to be depicted in a very specific way in order to activate the magic that transported them to the next world. Dancers depicted in the tomb, however, were not being transported to the next world, and so could be represented more freely in drawings than the deceased. Thus, there is a great difference between representations of dancers in the act of performing and the canonical representation of the human form. The canonical Egyptian representation of a human in two dimensions requires the head in profile with the eye represented frontally, as if the viewer saw the whole head from the side but the eye from the front. The artists depicted the shoulders from the front, but the figure seems to twist at the waist so that the legs and feet are again in profile. Additionally, artists used hieratic scale, meaning that size indicated importance rather than the visual reality of the relative size of human beings. In the canon, finally, there was little use of overlap and no simulation of visual depth as practiced in most of Western art. These rules, if observed, would have made representations of dance impossible since the rules exclude motion and emphasize timelessness. Thus artists experimented with a number of techniques to represent dancers in the act of performing.

Representing Dancers

Dancers could be represented differently from the tomb owner and his or her family because the dancers were not the figures whose eternal life was guaranteed through this tomb. Thus artists represented dancers in a manner closer to true profile than the figures allowable under the official canon. They also developed methods for showing dancers beside, in front of, and behind each other using overlap. Often, artists elongated arms to allow them to reach to the other side of a group of partners.

Choosing Poses

Artists also chose characteristic poses in order to represent a dance. Wall space limited the number of steps and figures that artists could include from one dance. For example, in the relatively small tomb of Iy-mery, six dancing figures represent parts of the same dance that artists portrayed with 31 figures in the very large tomb of Watetkhethor. Iy-mery’s artists had much less wall space, so they found ways to condense and abbreviate the action. Watetkhethor’s very large tomb accommodated a more detailed portrayal of the dance. During the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, artists first represented these characteristic movements from each dance in the order they were executed. This technique was the beginning of narrative in Egyptian visual art.

Textual Sources

The Egyptians left inscriptions in relief scenes and the texts of funeral liturgies that further explain the meaning and significance of dance. The captions that sculptors carved in relief scenes are extremely abbreviated. Often only two-or three-word sentence fragments stood for a whole sentence that was part of a wellknown song. Unfortunately, modern scholars cannot always make sense of these highly abbreviated inscriptions. Sometimes, though, scholars have connected the words in the captions to fuller texts in the liturgy of the Pyramid Texts, carved in the royal pyramids of King Unas and the kings of the Sixth Dynasty, and Coffin Texts, the rituals written on the inside of many Middle Kingdom coffins. These two sets of spells recited during a funeral often can illuminate both the captions and thus the meaning and significance of dance steps or even entire dances.

Costumes and Fashion in Dance


During the Old Kingdom, women normally wore long dresses with straps over the shoulders. The hems of such dresses hung just above the ankles. Dancers wore this costume while performing the mirror dance in the tomb of the prime minister, Mereruka. Singers and clappers accompanying dances also often wore this costume in scenes of all periods. However, the Old Kingdom dress fit snugly and obstructed free movement. This garment could only accommodate dances performed with short steps that avoided raising the legs. During more vigorous dances, female performers wore a short kilt cut at an angle in the front. A belt often hung down from the waist. This belt was long enough so that its movement would accentuate the dancer’s movements. The Old Kingdom dress continued in popularity for everyday wear and for singers during the Middle Kingdom, but dancers mostly wore the short kilt, probably because Middle Kingdom dances were more lively and athletic than Old Kingdom dances. During the New Kingdom, the typical woman’s dress added a cloak with either broad or narrow sleeves. The dress under the cloak often included a belt. Both the cloak and the dress were often pleated. Dancers wore both the narrow- and broad- sleeved cloak sometimes wearing a belt over the cloak. Many New Kingdom female dancers wore only a belt, performing in the nude. The Egyptians exhibited few inhibitions about displaying the female body. Since a funeral reenacted the steps leading to re-birth, the Egyptians regarded funerals, in part, as containing erotic elements that would lead to conception and birth into the afterlife. Children were also depicted as dancing nude. Most representations of pre-pubescent boys and girls in all situations reveal a lack of clothing. Girls often danced wearing a belt to emphasize the movement of the hips, just as modern Middle-Eastern dancers tie scarves around their hips. Egyptians felt no embarrassment at young children dancing, playing, or living with minimal clothing. Most Egyptian men wore kilts as their normal “street clothes” as well as for dancing. Sometimes men added a belt with a suspended panel to the front of the kilt. The belt sometimes also had fringes attached. These elements would have emphasized their movements by enlarging them. Men’s costumes for dance exhibit little change over long stretches of time.


In the Old Kingdom, women wore their hair short. Representations of women with long hair usually include visual clues that they were wearing wigs. Egyptologists call the long wig the tripartite hairstyle. The hairdresser arranged the hair of the wig in three sections with one section over each shoulder and the central mass of hair down the back. Dancers sometimes wore this style, and it was common for singers. Other dancers wore their natural hair very close-cropped in a style resembling men’s hairstyles. Some scholars believe that women represented with short hair were wearing a close-fitting cap. The third typical hairstyle for women dancers was a ponytail weighted at the end with a disk or ball. In many representations this disk is painted reddish-orange, the same color as the sun. This element thus might relate to the cult of the sun-god, Re. Middle Kingdom female dancers also wore this ponytail with a disk-shaped weight. Others wore three pigtails, though this style was less common. New Kingdom women were subject to more quickly changing styles. Though both the close-cropped style and the tripartite hairstyle continued in popularity, women also wore wigs that entirely enveloped their backs, shoulders, and chests, and dancers sometimes imitated this fashion. Some female dancers wore complicated hairstyles that scholars believe came from Nubia, in the modern Sudan, just south of Egypt. Perhaps some of these changes from the earlier periods resulted from artists’ increased interest in representing this kind of detail. When men danced, they normally wore their hair in a close-cropped short style. They might also wear a tight-fitting cap. The only specialized headgear that men wore for the dance was the tall, crown-like muu-hat. This distinctive headgear identified the muu-dancer with ferrymen who conducted boats through Egypt’s canals, and revealed their function in the dance as conductors of the funeral procession from place to place. The muu-hat was made from woven reeds and was rather tall and cone-shaped. Though rare, representations of men wearing ponytails with the disk-shaped weight more commonly worn by female dancers do exist. This style possibly associated the dance with the cult of the sun-god, Re.


Women’s accessories emphasized parts of their bodies important to the dance. Bracelets and armlets drew attention to their arms and large gold earrings brought focus to the head. The same was true of the headbands and fragrant cones that women wore on their heads as a perfume. Finally, many women wore straps crossed over the chest and back as part of the dance costume. The only accessories that male dancers wore were bracelets and collars. While the precious metals worn on the wrists and around the neck served to draw the viewer’s attention, this jewelry was similar to what men wore in other situations and so was not particularly significant to the dance costume.

Scholars’ Reactions

Western scholars in the past have often expressed discomfort with the relatively revealing costumes that Egyptian dancers wore. They were reacting, in part, to the issue of public nudity, but also to the real presence of erotic intent that was integral to Egyptian funerals. Egyptian funerals led the deceased to rebirth into the afterlife. The Egyptians believed that this rebirth required a sexual conception resembling conception and birth into this world. Revealing clothing paired with movement played an obvious role in this process.

The Dancers

Professional Bureau

Most dancers were women who belonged to the bureau called the khener. A smaller number of men were also khener members.

The khener was a bureau within other institutions, including the royal palace, a temple, a town, or the household or the tomb of a wealthy individual. Many earlier scholars confused the khener with a “harem,” the Turkish word for women’s quarters that housed wives and concubines in a polygamous society. Because so many of the members of the khener were women who entertained men, these scholars assumed that khener members also had sexual relations with the head of the household or tomb owner. Current scholarship considers the members of the khener to be professional musicians and dancers who had no other intimate personal relationship with the head of the household. According to ancient inscriptions, these musicians and dancers “refresh[ed] the heart” of their master. Many inscriptions make clear that this refreshment came only in the form of music and dance. There were many female overseers of the khener recorded in inscriptions, and they were often singers. One Amarna period relief sculpture in a tomb depicts the women’s quarters where both musicians and dancers rehearse together, though admittedly this is a unique representation. Oddly enough, only a few male professional dancers recorded inscriptions. They include Khnumhotep, who was also a priest of the king’s funerary cult, and Horihotep who served in the cult of Bastet. In at least one case, the male dancers portrayed in a tomb were sons of the deceased. The major evidence for the khener comes from captions to tomb scenes. Egyptologists thus make use of a passage in Papyrus Westcar to establish an understanding of the way the khener worked. The papyrus contains the story of Ruddedet, a woman who bore triplets destined to become kings. In the story, the midwives are goddesses disguised as traveling musicians and dancers. The text specifically calls them a khener, which suggests that a khener of traveling musicians and dancers was unremarkable, a good disguise. In the story they traveled freely and received wages in grain for their services. There is no other evidence that musicians and dancers also normally worked as midwives. However, the god Bes was associated both with music and dance in the cult of Hathor and with protecting a mother in childbirth. It is hard to know if this story represents a broader reality, but the limited evidence available has encouraged Egyptologists to use this story to the greatest extent possible.

Foreign Dancers

Many scholars have identified dancers in Egypt as foreigners, particularly in the New Kingdom, when Egypt had extended contact with neighboring regions. Scholars recognize these foreign dancers by their clothing and hairstyles and in some texts by their names. One Middle Kingdom papyrus from the reign of Senwosret II (1844-1837 B.C.E.) contains a list of twelve singers and dancers who performed at the king’s funerary temple. Five of the dancers had Semitic names, while two had Nubian names. One dancer definitely had an Egyptian name, but four other names are too damaged to read. Even if all of the damaged names were Egyptian in this case, only 41 percent of these musicians and dancers would be Egyptian. It is impossible to know how representative these figures are for Egyptian dancers and musicians in general, but it does seem significant that foreign dancers and musicians could be incorporated into the khener of this important religious institution. This situation suggests that foreigners were certainly welcome to participate in this aspect of Egyptian society. On the other hand, some relief scenes in temples represent only Egyptian women of elite status performing in the god’s cult.

Dancing Dwarfs

Egyptian artists often represented a dwarf dancing alongside the female troupe of dancers in funerals and in cult scenes in temples. The Egyptians distinguished among different physiological conditions that led to dwarfism. These conditions include achondroplasia, a pathological condition, and pygmies, who exhibit a natural adaptation to their environment. Egyptians had different words to distinguish between different kinds of dwarfs. Yet, both kinds of dwarfs became associated with the sun god, Re, and with the god Bes, associated with music and childbirth. Thus dwarfs were important in dance.


Traders brought an African pygmy to dance in Egypt in the reign of Djedkare Isesy (2415-2371 B.C.E.). Pygmies were apparently highly prized dancers in the royal courts, as evidenced by an inscription carved on the tomb of the nobleman Harkhuf near Aswan, who had delivered a pygmy to King Pepi II (2288-2194 B.C.E.). The carving is a royal decree expressing both gratitude and excitement that Harkhuf had delivered a dancing pygmy who could perform the “dances of the god.” The inscription described the pygmy’s origin as the “Land of the Horizon-Dwellers,” suggesting that he had come from the farthest reaches of the earth. The god whose dance the pygmy could perform was probably the sun god, Re. The Pyramid Texts, carved in the pyramid of King Pepi I (2338-2298 B.C.E.) mentions these divine dances where the king himself imitated a pygmy for the benefit of the god.

Dwarfs In the Heby-Dance

Two dwarfs who lived in widely separated periods danced the heby-dance. Khnumhotep, who lived in the Sixth Dynasty (2350-2170 B.C.E.), and Pawenhatef, who lived in the Thirtieth Dynasty (381-343 B.C.E.), are both spoken of in inscriptions as dancing the heby-dance for the cult of the Apis bull. This cult worshipped the bull in his lifetime and performed a special funeral for him. Dancing the heby-dance in his funeral was a particular honor.

Dancing Animals

The Egyptians depicted both monkeys and ostriches dancing. Dancing monkeys comprised part of the Egyptian tradition that depicted animals in human pursuits. Artists included these depictions in the Old Kingdom tombs of the high officials Ti and Kagemeni. Monkeys may have been linked with pygmies, perhaps because both monkeys and pygmies had their origins in the far south of Africa, the area Egyptians called “God’s Land,” which gave them special access to the divine. A New Kingdom sketch depicted a monkey dancing with a Nubian dressed in a non-Egyptian costume of a red, leather kilt with a feather in his hair. Monkeys also danced with Egyptian dancing girls in the New Kingdom. One sketch shows a monkey dancing on a ship. Scholars consider many of these scenes to be satirical. They depict an upside-down world where animals wait on each other as servants. These scenes reverse normal preconceptions, for example, by showing a cat serving a mouse. Yet, dance scenes with monkeys might represent actual performances that included animals. The Egyptians believed that ostriches danced in the wild. They called the violent movements with outstretched wings that ostriches do at sunrise an iba, the same word they used for human dancing. Modern ornithologists also have observed this behavior and independently called it a dance. The Egyptians spoke directly of the ostrich dance in a hymn to King Ahmose (1539-1514 B.C.E.). They also represented the ostrich dance in the tomb of King Akhenaten (1352-1336 B.C.E.) and at the funeral temple of Ramesses III (1187-1156 B.C.E.) at Medinet Habu. The painting of ostriches on Nagada II period (3500-3300 B.C.E.) pots near a dancing woman might also represent the ostrich dance. The Egyptians understood the ostrich dance to be part of general jubilation on earth at the rising of the sun-god Re. All creation, in Egyptian belief, rejoiced daily at sunrise. The ostrich was one animal that directly expressed its joy through dance.

Funeral Dances

Long Tradition

The tradition of a funeral dance in Egypt probably began in the Nagada II Period, as early as 3500 B.C.E. Evidence of funeral dances continued into the Thirtieth Dynasty more than 3,000 years later. Yet these dances are not well understood today. Many problems in understanding the dances stem from the way that the evidence is preserved. The evidence comes mostly from paintings and relief sculptures that have severely abbreviated the dance steps in order to fit a representative number of steps on the limited wall space in a tomb. The liturgy of the funeral service can supplement modern understanding of the dances, but the best way to understand the dances is to see how they fit with the parts of the funeral service, a ritual which lasted for many days.

Funeral Ritual

The funeral dance portrayed the five major parts of an Egyptian funeral. The separate sections included:

  • The deceased’s journey from East to West across the sky with the sun god Re,
  • The deceased’s arrival in the West under the protection of the matjerut -priestess,
  • The deceased’s rebirth and washing the newborn in the House of Purification,
  • Animating the newborn through a ritual called “opening the mouth,” led by a panther-skin clad priest, and judging the deceased’s previous life in the House of Embalmment,
  • Depositing the mummy in the tomb, called “reception in the West.”

Dancers portrayed each segment of the funeral, but not every tomb included every part of the dance on its walls. During the Old Kingdom, for example, there are 76 tombs that illustrate some part of the funeral dance, either with the depiction of the funeral procession or as part of the funeral meal. The fullest depiction of the dance comes from the tomb of Princess Watetkhethor, daughter of King Teti (2350-2338 B.C.E.) and wife of his prime minister, Mereruka. In this very large tomb comprising six separate rooms, the princess commissioned one wall depicting the funeral dance. This large amount of space contrasts greatly with the usual amount of space allotted to dance scenes in other tombs. In the princess’s tomb, 31 figures comprise the fullest known illustration of the funeral dance. Yet other tomb reliefs concentrated on and expanded particular parts of the dance found in this tomb. Thus scholars can only achieve a full understanding of the dance by combining information from various tombs.

Couples Dance

Two couples perform the funeral dance. In eight different Old Kingdom tombs belonging to men, two groups of men impersonate the deceased while female dancers simultaneously perform the iba -dance. In Princess Watetkhethor’s tomb, however, the two couples are women, indicating that the gender of the dancers in the couples dance is determined by the gender of the deceased. In the tombs belonging to men, the tomb owner sits at an offering table while the performers execute the steps. In the princess’s tomb, she sits in a carrying chair and observes it.


Artists depicted the dance scene in the Tomb of Watetkhethor using registers, a device for organizing the space in a picture by creating a series of parallel groundlines within the picture. The dancers in the first register of Watetkhethor’s tjeref dance perform the opening movements of the dance. These movements were called the muu -dance. Artists in other tombs expanded this section with more detail, allowing scholars to determine that the muu-dance represented the beginning of the funeral where the deceased symbolically crossed the heavens in the sun-god’s boat. The dancers who performed the muu-dance impersonated the guardians at the entrance to the land of the dead and the ferrymen who conducted the boat carrying the sarcophagus to the land of the dead. The muu-dance further represented the symbolic journey to Buto, a city associated with Osiris, the god of the Afterlife. The Egyptians believed that a pilgrimage to Buto was the first stage of the journey to the land of the dead. Finally, the muu-dancers pulled the sledge—a sled that travels on sand—containing the mummy, the canopic jars used to store the mummified organs, and the tekenu—the placenta of the deceased. The text of the first register refers to the Egyptians’ wish for a quick passage across the sky, the hidden movements of the funeral, and the pulling of the sledge. The text also alludes to gold at this point, which probably refers to the sun and its journey across the sky, which the deceased joined. The Egyptologist Jonathan Van Lepp suggests convincingly that the movement accompanying this caption is a gesture that allows the dancers to form the hieroglyphic sign for gold. This attempt to imitate writing through movement is also used in modern Egyptian folk dance where the dancers imitate Arabic calligraphy in their poses. The dancers use this technique in other parts of the dance.


Register two symbolizes the deceased arriving on the west bank of the Nile river, the land traditionally viewed as the necropolis or “city of the dead.” Here the text asks the funeral priestess called the matjerut to protect the ka statue that will act as a home for the soul. The dancers form a circle that represents the circuit the sun follows through the sky of the living and under the earth in the land of the dead.


Register three depicts the festival of re-birth that priests celebrated at the House of Purification. They probably recited “The Lamentations of Isis and Nepthys” at this point in the funeral, a secret text mourning the death and anticipating the rebirth of Osiris, god of the dead. The inscription suggests that this portion of the funeral was kept secret from the majority of the participants. Only the priests were admitted to the House of Purification. The ceremony consisted of symbolically washing the newly born spirit with water. Pyramid Texts 2063a to 2067b, a liturgy of washing, seems to describe this process. In this part of the ceremony, the Egyptians expressed their belief that birth and death are nearly equivalent. The inscription calls this the “secrets of the harem” or the women’s quarters. These secrets include the mystery of birth and thus also the mystery of rebirth into the next world. The Egyptians viewed this part of the ceremony as the re-birth into the afterlife and thus an intimate part of the world of women. The dancers form the hieroglyph forakhet, the “horizon,” which symbolizes the daily rebirth and death of the sun. The greeting to the “quartet,” which follows in the inscription, refers to the four sons of Horus, the demi-gods that convey the reborn from the House of Purification to the House of Embalmment. The inscription asks them to come and pull, explicit directions to take the funeral procession and the mummy to the next stop in the funeral: the House of Embalmment.

House of Embalmment

Register four depicts in movement the time that the funeral procession spent in the House of Embalmment. Now that the deceased was reborn, the priests performed the ritual that protected the mummy so that it had the potential to live forever. The setem -priest performing this ritual wore a panther skin so the inscription refers to seeing a panther, a direct reference to the priest performing the ritual. Then the judges of the afterlife gave their verdict, judging that the deceased had lived a just life and would be admitted to the afterlife. The dancers in the relief make quiet, respectful gestures to the judges of the dead and speak of maat, the standard of justice the judges use to reach a verdict about the dead. The inscription speaks of granting millions of years to the deceased, a standard phrase for awarding eternal life. The mystery of birth was now complete. The dancers then enacted a pulling gesture according to the instructions of the inscription. These words and actions represent the conducting of the deceased into the tomb.

At the Tomb

Register five depicts the final transformation of the deceased into a ba-soul. According to Egyptian belief, the ba traveled between the land of the dead and the tomb in this world. The ba delivered the food offered at the tomb to the deceased in the next world. One dancer represented the transformation into the ba by gestures while the second dancer performed the adoration gesture, celebrating that the deceased now existed as an ethereal being in the next world. The next dancers form the hewet hieroglyph, used to write the name of the tomb and indicating the resting place for the mummy. Finally, dancers offered their arms, impersonating the Goddess of the West who “extends her arms toward the deceased in peace” according to the funerary wishes found in many tombs. The dancers have now reenacted the entire funeral in movement.


Both men and women wore very similar costumes while performing this dance: a short kilt cut at an angle with a long belt hanging down in front. Both men and women wore a band of cloth wrapped across the chest without any other shirt or blouse. Men wore their hair close-cropped, but women wore a long ponytail with a red disk attached at the end. The color of the disk, sometimes called a ball, associated it with the disk of the sun. The dance thus has some association with cult of Re.


The tjeref-dance thus recapitulated the entire funeral. Scholars believe that the dancers performed it at the entrance to the tomb at the conclusion of the funeral. Such a performance would reflect the Egyptians’ use of magical redundancy. The Egyptians performed the ritual, performed it again through the dance, and performed it a third time by representing it on the walls of the tomb. Thus they could guarantee that the proper rituals were celebrated and the deceased would continue to live in the next life.


Funeral Procession

The muu-dancers performed in people’s private funerals in the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, a period lasting about 1,500 years. The muu-dancers performed throughout the funeral. Representing the muu-dancers in tomb drawings was a popular choice for tomb owners, more popular than representing the whole funeral ritual as Princess Watetkhethor chose to do. Scholars do not know why this scene was represented so often. Artists represented in tombs the muu-dancers’ performance at four different stages of the funeral procession. The muu-dancers greeted the funeral procession at the “Hall of the Muu” where the dancers lived at the edge of the necropolis. They danced while priests loaded the sarcophagus onto the funerary barge at the ritual site called “Sais,” associated with the town of Sais in the delta. They danced a greeting to the sledge carrying the sarcophagus at the ritual site in the necropolis called the “Gates of Buto,” and associated with the town of Buto, also in the delta. Finally, at an unknown place in the necropolis, the dancers were the reception committee for the sledge bearing the canopic jars and tekenu—the containers for the viscera of the deceased and the still unidentified portion of the corpse, or perhaps the placenta, of the deceased that the Egyptians also placed in the tomb. The sites where the muu-dancers performed illustrate the itinerary that the funeral procession followed, allowing Egyptologists to reconstruct parts of the typical funeral.

Distinctive Costume

Muu-dancers usually wore a distinctive costume that made them easily identifiable. They wore a headdress made from a plant, probably papyrus stems. The headdress resembled a wreath wrapped around their heads. Rising from this wreath was a woven, cone-shaped structure that came to a point, then flared at the end. The headdress resembled but was not exactly the same as the king’s White Crown. During the New Kingdom, scribes sometimes identified the images of muu-dancers only with captions rather than showing them wearing the distinctive headgear. In these cases the muu-dancers appear only as male dancers.

Identity Crisis

The most vexing question about the muu-dancers remains an explanation of their identity and thus their symbolic meaning. Earlier Egyptologists have explained the symbolism of the muu-dancers by equating them with other, known semi-divine beings. These beings include the gods of the necropolis who transported the deceased; the Souls of Buto who received the deceased; the Sons of Horus who rode in the barque (sun-boat) with deceased kings and the sun-god, Re; and the most recently proposed and most convincing suggestion, ferrymen who guided the deceased from the beginning of the funeral procession to the entrance of the tomb. In the earlier twentieth century, the Egyptologist E. Brunner-Traut thought the muu-dancers represented gods of the necropolis who transported the newly dead into their world. This interpretation built on earlier ideas advanced by the Egyptologist H. Junker. Junker tried to identify the muu-dancers with the “Souls of Buto,” who were described in the Pyramid Texts as the beings that received the dead into the next world. He also believed that the “Souls of Buto” were deceased kings. Though it is true that the “Souls of Buto” had some role in welcoming the deceased into the next world, no texts actually equate the “Souls of Buto” with the muu-dancers. Rather the muu-dancers danced at the ritual point, called the Gates of Buto. Advances in understanding the Pyramid Texts demonstrate that the muu-dancers performed a different ritual function from the “Souls of Buto” during the funeral procession.

Evidence from Texts and Images

The Egyptologist H. Altenmüller identified six places where the muu-dancers were active in the funerary procession, combining the evidence of texts and representations. This itinerary of the muu-dancers corresponds with the funeral procession’s itinerary. The muu-dancers began their role in the funeral from the “Hall of the Muu.” They were present as the deceased journeyed westward toward the land of the dead and then journeyed to Sais, a pilgrimage that was ritually re-enacted during the funeral. They attended the procession of the sarcophagus on a sledge, the separate procession of the canopic jars and tekenu on a sledge, and at the tekenu ritual. Artists represented the parts of this procession in paintings and relief sculpture in Old, Middle, and New Kingdom tombs, establishing that this ritual was part of the funeral for over 1,500 years. Though it must have evolved and changed over time, the muu-dance was a very long-lived ritual.

Hall of the Muu-Dancers

Artists also represented the setting of the Hall of the Muu-Dancers in tomb paintings and relief sculptures. The Hall sat in a vegetable garden at the edge of the necropolis. When the funerary procession reached the Hall of the Muu-Dancers, the priests called for the dancers to join the procession. In the paintings and reliefs, the caption for this event is, “The Coming of the Muu-dancers.” The dancers, standing in pairs, executed a step, crossing one foot over the other with their arms raised to hip-level. In some representations they say, “She has nodded her head” while they dance, perhaps singing. The Egyptologist E. Brunner-Traut explained this phrase to mean that the Goddess of the West—the goddess of the necropolis—had approved the deceased’s entry into the necropolis. The muu-dancers’ first important role then was to welcome the deceased to the necropolis with their dance.

Pyramid Text 310

Egyptologists have gained further understanding of the muu-dancers from the Pyramid Texts. These texts were the ritual that priests recited at royal funerals beginning no later than the reign of King Unas (2371-2350 B.C.E.). Something similar became part of the beginning of all elite funerals somewhat later. H. Altenmüller correlated Pyramid Texts 306 through 310 with New Kingdom scenes of the tekenu and canopic jar procession. Artists divided the scenes into five parts, including the bringing of the tekenu, a censing, the bringing of the canopic jars, the bearing of the papyrus stocks, and the dance of the muu-dancers. These five scenes correlate with the five Pyramid Texts. In Pyramid Text 310, the spell identifies the deceased with the god Atum. According to the text, if enemies enchanted, opposed, struck, or repelled the deceased, it would be no more effective than to do the same to the god Atum. The text then associated the deceased with the god Horus. As Horus he asks the two ferrymen—Whose-Face-is-on-his-Front and Whose-Face-is-on-his-Back—to bring the ferry boat called “It flies up and lets itself down” to him. Thus in this text the pair of muu-dancers are ferrymen whose job was to transport the tekenu and the canopic jars.

Personified as Crowns

H. Altenmüller connected Pyramid Text 220 with scenes in tombs of the muu-dancers before the Gates of Buto. The four personifications of crowns named in Pyramid Text 220 were probably the same four beings addressed in Pyramid Text310 where they were called ferrymen. In the spell, the crowns were not symbols of royal power. Rather they were personified as beings that wore crowns, each with a beautiful face. The fact that these beings had a face at all, and could also feel satisfaction and appear both new and young, indicates that the spell was addressing beings rather than crowns themselves. The three statements about them in the text referred to their outer form, physical circumstances, and descent from gods. H. Altenmüller associated these four beings with the two pairs of muu-dancers in tomb scenes. As gate-keepers at the gates of the horizon, they played a similar role to the ferrymen of Pyramid Text 310; they facilitated transport of the deceased to the afterlife. Furthermore, Altenmüller showed through connections with other spells that this horizon gate is located in the east, making it the beginning of the sun-god Re’s journey from east to west. Thus the evidence from the Pyramid Texts connects the muu-dancers with the transport of the deceased from the east—the land of the living—to the west—the land of the dead—through their dance. This transportation involves the god’s boat, a place easily associated with the ferrymen muu-dancers. Pyramid Text spells 220 and 310 thus establish that the muu-dancers represented ferrymen. This connection is clear because of comparisons between the scenes in tombs of the Old Kingdom and the role the texts played in the burial ritual. In Pyramid Text 220, the dancers represented ferrymen who double as border guards on the east side of heaven and who were personifications of the Lower Egyptian crowns. These crowns were also associated with ferrymen in Pyramid Text 1214a.


Egyptian thought conceived of a heavenly world filled with canals and ferrymen from experience of life on earth. These ferrymen, in both realms, wore plants and wreaths as clothing. Numerous depictions of boats in tombs show that the crewmembers decorated themselves with braided plants, placed in their hair. The papyrus-stem headdress worn by the muu-dancers thus connects them further with boats and ferries.

Statue Processions

Another connection between ferrymen and muu-dancers can be found in statue processions. In Old Kingdom tombs, there are scenes that depict processions of statues guarded by muu-dancers. Inscriptions in these scenes compare the processions to a trip by boat. The dancers in the processions thus perform the same guardian function during funerals as the dancers perform in the statue processions.

Sons of Horus

The muu-dancers probably were fused with the Sons of Horus, the spirits who were directly connected to the canopic jars that held the viscera of the deceased. The Sons of Horus helped convey the funerary procession in the land of the dead. The Sons of Horus were also ferrymen and border guards, further connecting them to the muu-dancers.


The muu-dancers might also have represented the deceased’s ancestors. The muu-dancers were clearly part of a large group called the “Followers of Re.” This group rode in the sun-god Re’s boat that carried the sun from east to west in this world during the day and conveyed the sun through the land of the dead at night. Membership in the “Followers of Re” was available to all high officials after their death. The muu-dancers represented all the dead ancestors of the deceased that rode in the sun-god’s boat. This connection between the deceased’s ancestors and the muu-dancers also explains a line from The Story of Sinuhe. In the letter that the king wrote to Sinuhe inviting him to return to Egypt from the Levant, the king said, “The Dance of the Weary-ones will be performed at the entrance to your tomb.” The “weary-ones” was another name for all the deceased’s ancestors. The dancers at the tomb entrance certainly included the muu-dancers. Thus the muu-dancers and the ancestors can easily be equated.


Muu-dancers were a feature of Egyptian funerals for at least 1,500 years from the Old Kingdom through the New Kingdom. It is possible, though, that the muu-dancers were replaced by dancing dwarfs by the Twentieth Dynasty. The Egyptian national epic, The Story of Sinuhe, was recopied from its composition in the Middle Kingdom through the end of Egyptian history. A copy made near the time of composition is quoted as saying, “The Dance of the Weary-ones will be performed at the entrance to your tomb.” The word for weary-ones in Egyptian is neniu. In a Twentieth-dynasty copy of the same text it reads, “The dance of the dwarfs will be performed for you at the entrance to your tomb.” The word “dwarfs” in Egyptian is nemiu. Perhaps by the Twentieth Dynasty, the dwarf-god Bes joined the funeral procession. Bes was both a god of birth and re-birth as well as a dwarf. Thus Egyptian traditions could easily assimilate him into the funeral procession.

The Iba-Dance and Heby-Dance

Life and Death

The iba—dance and the heby—dance are two different names for the same dance. Old and Middle Kingdom artists used the word iba in captions to scenes depicting it, while New Kingdom scribes used heby in the same context. Artists portrayed the iba -dance and the heby -dance in tombs, suggesting they had some meaning for the deceased in the next life. Yet they portrayed the dancers performing while people ate meals, a quintessential part of daily life on earth. During the Old Kingdom, the tomb scenes show the deceased eating, often with a spouse. New Kingdom scenes portray a banquet with many guests in addition to the deceased and close family members both eating and watching the dance. Thus it seems likely that the Egyptians watched iba- and heby-dances while eating on earth and also expected to see them again after death. Nevertheless, the cultic connections between the dance and ritual are so close it is unlikely that these dances are truly secular.


Women danced the iba and heby, usually for men or a couple in the Old and Middle Kingdoms and for a larger group of men and women in the New Kingdom. The characteristic steps included arms raised above the head and joined to form a diamond shape. In a second step, the dancers raised the right hand in greeting as the left hand and arm pointed straight down. At the same time, both heels were raised from the ground, so that the dancers were resting only on their toes. The next step included raising the left hand and arm until it was parallel with the ground and simultaneously raising the left foot above the ground with the sole of the foot parallel to the ground. In tombs outside the capital regions of Memphis and Thebes, the dances included more lively and athletic steps that appear quite acrobatic. The dancers formed a bridge by leaning backward until the hands and head reached the ground. In the New Kingdom, the dancers sometimes played the lute as they danced in a more lively manner.


The women performing this dance during the Old and Middle Kingdoms wore a short skirt that ended just above the knees. They sometimes wore a band of cloth that encircled the neck and crossed between the breasts and over the back. Sometimes the women wore a headdress of lotus flowers. This costume was certainly less modest than the typical Old Kingdom dress for women. Women of all classes normally wore tight-fitting long dresses with straps over the shoulders and a V-neck; the singers and clappers are distinguished from the dancers by their wearing of this more traditional clothing. The short skirt clearly allowed the dancers to move more freely than they would while wearing the typical street clothes. Some scholars have suggested that this costume indicates the dancers were foreigners. Though foreigners could be members of the dance troupe, there is no evidence to support the belief that foreigners or foreign dress dominated Egyptian dance.

In Procession

In at least one case during the Old Kingdom, a tomb displays dancers doing the iba dance in a funeral procession rather than during a meal. The women dancing in the tomb of Akhethotep raise their arms to form a diamond shape with the hands apart. Perhaps this scene is a clue that the iba actually was a part of the tjeref funeral dance. The nature of the evidence makes it difficult to know exactly how these dances fit together.

Cult Dances


Cult dances were essential to worshipping the gods in Egypt. Just as the gods required food, clothing, and incense, they expected dances to be performed periodically at festivals. These dances are less studied than the dances associated with the funeral, perhaps because the scenes of these dances are less available for study in publications, requiring further research. The Egyptians worshipped Hathor, Amun, and Osiris with dance, along with other gods.

Leaping Hathor Dance

The goddess Hathor had many connections to dance and music. Scribes included inscriptions naming Hathor in depictions of a leaping dance and an acrobatic dance. In the leaping dance, a girl in a short skirt danced while swinging a mirror and a staff that she raised in her hand. Mirrors often depicted Hathor on the handle as an expression of her connection to female beauty. Two musicians surrounded her. They wore long dresses and manipulated the same two objects. A third girl dancing in a circle around the others also lifted a mirror and staff with another gesture. All the dancers wore the ponytail with disk hairstyle that associated the dancers with the sun-god Re. A very abbreviated text mentions Hathor, but it is too brief to allow translation.

Acrobatic Hathor Dance

In the tomb of Ankhmahor from Dynasty Six, artists depicted five women performing a distinctive acrobatic step. They raised one leg at a steep angle, while they leaned far back, dangling their ponytail with the disk weight on to the ground. They balanced on one foot, flat on the ground. They wore a short skirt with a band of cloth descending from the belt to below the hem and anklets. The accompanying inscription mentions Hathor, but is too abbreviated to translate. The artists included singers who clapped and kept time for the dancers. In New Kingdom representations of this dance, the singers held the menat, a percussion instrument also associated with Hathor.

Other Cult Dances

Blocks from a chapel built by Hatshepsut (1478-1458 B.C.E.) at the Karnak Temple depict dancers in a procession during the Feast of the Valley and the Feast of Opet. These two festivals were the god Amun’s main annual festivals. The Feast of the Valley included a procession between the god’s home in Karnak and the temples of deceased kings across the Nile river. The Opet Festival included a procession from Karnak to Luxor, the temple that represented the god’s harem. The dancers in both festival processions performed an acrobatic dance. Its major movement was the bridge where the dancers leaned back until their arms supported them. Characteristically for this dance, their hair surrounded their upper bodies. The women wore only long skirts and their hair was loose. The musicians played the sistrum and menat, two different kinds of ritual rattles. Both the sistrum and menat link the dance to Hathor, whose image was often included on these instruments.