Communication Through Music in Ancient Egyptian Religion

By Eleanor Simmance

1BH-LyreMusic is a particularly effective medium through which to communicate, as almost anyone can appreciate it and it comes in many forms. The study of ancient Egyptian music reveals that it is filled with elements of communication: for instance, imported types of instrument suggesting trade of ideas as well as objects (fig.1), and the art known as ‘chironomy’, whereby a series of hand-gestures would direct the musicians, akin to modern conducting.1 This essay shall focus on the use of music within religion. The two main aspects of communication in this context are seen between human and god, and between god and human. The two objects from the Eton Myers Collection, here studied, each serve as an illustration of one of these potential interactions. First of all, ECM282 is a faience sistrum, albeit a fragment (fig.2). Whilst it bears an image of a goddess, undoubtedly Hathor, this instrument represents communication from the human world to the divine. The second object, ECM1021, is a small amulet in the shape of Bes (fig.3). The dwarf-god holds and beats a tambourine at his left side and hence represents the performance of music by a god in order to communicate with, and benefit, humans.

The roles of the gods

There are a number of gods that have links to music. The most obvious would be Hathor and Bes, and yet the personification of music was a goddess named Merit.2 Ihy, one of the sons of Hathor, was also associated with music and is sometimes seen playing a sistrum, appropriate due to his mother’s connection to that instrument.3 There is also evidence from Greek and Roman commentators that suggest both Thoth and Osiris also had connections to music.4

The evidence for communication from god to human is far less common than for human to god; several gods have definite connections with music but very rarely are they seen performing themselves. We are told by Diodorus Siculus that Thoth invented the lyre, and yet Thoth is usually seen fulfilling his role as the god of writing and not playing an instrument. Here, of course, we may be dealing with a problem of cross-cultural labelling: a Greek writer using his own religion to create and explain the functions of the religion of another culture, through syncretism. However, it may provide an answer as to why gods are rarely seen performing music themselves: music, whilst they retain links to it, is more of a secondary element of their nature, and so they are more often shown in their primary function, as here in the case of Thoth. Hathor had many manifestations (especially once the distinction between her attributes and those of Isis became blurred from the Late Period onwards). Due to her assimilation with the lioness-goddess Sekhmet, she was potentially a bringer of destruction, and yet was also the goddess of music and drunkenness, whose festivals were wild affairs.5 Because of her many forms and therefore many different roles, perhaps the actual performance of music is left to the worshippers. This would also fit with Bes being the most common god to be seen with a musical instrument. He was a protective deity, used to ward away evil spirits, especially from pregnant and child-bearing women. He achieved this not only through his grotesque appearance, but also by the playing of music (creating noise in order to be frightening).6 Hence, Bes’ protective role was highly integrated with his role as a musician, explaining why he is often playing an instrument in his representations. But now to examine the two objects which form the basis of this essay.

The sistrum and its uses

 The sistrum, ECM282 (fig. 2 © IAA University of Birmingham), is an example of a so-called ‘arched-sistrum’, as opposed to the older type that took the form of a temple door (‘naos-sistrum’).7 Sachs believes that the sistrum was an Egyptian invention,8 although a very early type has been supposedly identified on a seal from Sumer, dated earlier than the first depiction in Egypt (of course, an earlier representation does not prove that Sumer invented it).9 The arched-sistrum became the preferred type in later Egyptian history, and was used in the Isis cults of the Graeco-Roman world.10 The holes in the loop, through which there would have been cross-bars to make the rattling sound, are very clear and quite large considering the size of the object as a whole. At the base of the loop is what seems to be a uraeus, on both sides, which appears to be part of the stylized headdress atop the goddess’ image. It is likely that this is a model instrument. The material, faience, does not necessarily rule out its actual use (though faience, of course, does not have great acoustic properties), since I would argue that the quiet rattling of a faience sistrum could be quite suitable for a religious ritual. However, the small size of this sistrum fragment, especially the loop, would make it almost useless for actual performance, and the original cross-bars would have been too small to accommodate enough additional plates (sometimes added to increase the rattling). So, it is probable that this instrument was never actually used, but it is nevertheless representative of the kind of music in existence. Votive sistra are not uncommon, and were used as offerings that could be performed magically for eternity, perhaps by non-human hands.11

The rattling of the sistrum was a way to invoke a god, and the instrument was used in a variety of cults, including that of the Aten. This is evident by the great number of representations, in both royal and non-royal tombs at Tell el-Amarna, of the Amarna royal family bathed in the rays of the Aten, with the princesses playing sistra,12 and also by the presence of two sistra in the funerary assemblage of Tutankhamun.13 It has also been suggested that the rattling of a sistrum during the cult activities of Hathor placated her and invoked her benevolent manifestations.14 The presence of her face on both sides of sistra has been said to represent her opposing aspects: dangerous and benign,15 which were therefore kept in balance by the shaking of the sistrum. The instrument is not restricted to priestesses – men are also seen playing it. For instance, a scene from a Middle Kingdom tomb at Kom el-Hisn in the Delta shows a man, apparently a teacher, instructing ten women in both sistrum-playing and hand-clapping.16 Also, the statues of the bald priests of Hathor, which begin to appear regularly from the Nineteenth Dynasty, often show the individual supporting a large object that recalls the naos-sistrum, bearing the face of Hathor.17 The priests themselves occupied an intermediary function between human and god, and it can be imagined that rituals for passing on messages from ordinary people to Hathor involved playing sistra.

Interestingly, Hathor is not only associated with the sistrum, and occasional representations, such as at the temple of Dendera, show priestesses in the garb of Hathor. They each beat a tambourine as the king makes offerings – they may be acting as the goddess’ representatives on earth, in order to communicate her messages to worshippers.18

The amulet and the importance of Bes

3-ECM1021The Bes amulet, ECM1021 (fig. 3), so small and yet relatively detailed, shows the god facing left (a typical representation in this kind of amulet), holding a round tambourine, also known as a frame drum, to his left and beating it with his right hand. It is possible that his left hand or fingers also beat the drum, but the amulet is simply too small to see such detail. The position of his legs, with right leg raised, suggests he is dancing. His beard can just be made out, as can the lion’s tail. The amulet is flat-backed and has a suspension loop, which indicates its use as an amulet worn around the neck. Bes would therefore be bestowing his protective properties upon the wearer, itself a kind of communication.19 Very similar objects have been recovered from the site at Tell el-Amarna, of the same form as the amulet from the Eton Myers Collection. One example, from the collection of H.M. Tudor and supposedly found in the royal tomb, is also flat-backed, but lacks a suspension loop, so it is suggested that it was used as a mummy amulet instead.20 The presence of Bes at Tell el-Amarna, the residents of which glorified the sun-disk Aten, is significant. It points to the lasting popular appeal of Bes as a personal deity, even to the extent that he resists the complete reorganisation of ancient Egyptian religion during the reign of Akhenaten.

The unusual appearance of Bes is partly because he is a dwarf. Dwarves seem to have had a significant role in the music and dance of ancient Egypt and appear as part of dancing groups.21 For instance, a scene in the tomb of Nunetjer at Giza shows a group of dancers holding sistra, including a female dwarf.22 A letter from the six-year-old pharaoh Pepi II to his official Harkhuf (recorded in the latter’s tomb), who was returning to Egypt from an expedition to the south of Egypt, states:

‘bring this dwarf with you…alive, prosperous and healthy for the dances of the god, to distract the heart and gladden the heart of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt…My majesty wishes to see this dwarf more than the produce of the mining region or of Punt.’23

Harkhuf apparently brought back a dwarf from his expedition and the young king demonstrated his eagerness to see this foreign oddity. This extract also implies the use of dwarves in religious dances as well as for entertainment.24 Perhaps such dwarves were also seen as human manifestations of Bes, and therefore the ancient Egyptians believed that the dwarf-god was communicating with them through these dwarves, or conveying an element of protection in some way by taking an actual human form. That the dwarf in this letter came from Central Africa is noteworthy as it seems to suggestthat the worship of Bes originated from those countries to the south of Egypt (Nubia).25

Melody or Rhythm?

The music represented by these two objects is percussive and therefore rhythmic, but the music found in a religious context can be melodic as well, either through the use of different kinds of instruments such as harps, or by singing. The presence of a solo, male harpist (often shown bald and with deformed eyes) is a common theme from the Old Kingdom, but it becomes more evident from the New Kingdom, and these extraordinary performers enjoy detailed representation especially in the Amarna Period.26 Bes is sometimes shown with stringed instruments such as a harp or lyre, dancing at the same time, which indicates that stringed instruments may have been made in portable sizes for such a purpose.27

Singing would have been a key element of expression in Egyptian religion, just as it is in many modern-day faiths, not least because it is a type of music available without additional equipment. A solo performer can also combine voice with other instruments, excepting wind instruments, of course, so the playing of both tambourine and sistrum could have provided a rhythmic accompaniment to song. Groups of multiple performers have greater variation at their disposal. One can easily imagine the hymns and incantations performed during rituals to be sung, as it could aid the process in more than one way. Firstly, song could simply facilitate recollection of the necessary words. Secondly I must refer to another use of music: at banquet scenes (in a funerary context), a popular theme from the Old Kingdom onwards.28 Such scenes not only showed the deceased person enjoying their funerary meal with friends and family, perhaps in the hope that he may enjoy such events in the afterlife, but also involved a group of musicians, presumably there for entertainment. However, it has been suggested that these musicians also served a magical purpose, transferring the depicted food items as offerings into the next world.29 If we then use this same idea for religious singing, the music may imbue the words with additional meaning, and assist their communication to the divine sphere, as well as magically transferring offerings.


It has been seen that the religious function of music can be used between god and human, and between human and god, though the latter is much more common. Apart from Bes, it would seem that the music employed by the gods themselves is not so much for the communication of messages, but more for the identification of that god with music. Bes actively uses music to show his connection with and enjoyment of human past-times, but also as part of his role to repel evil spirits. The music performed by humans communicated their religious devotion to the gods, but was also key for invoking the relevant deity during rituals, as well as a potential medium for the transmission of offerings.


1. Good examples of chironomy can be seen in the Old Kingdom tomb of Nenkheftka at Dishasha (Cairo Museum, CG 1533. The musicians have labels identifying their role or instrument) and in the tomb of Ti at Saqqara, the latter of which Hickmann (1961: 86) uses to summarise his theories as to the pitches indicated by these hand gestures.

2. Manniche 1991: 57. Merit never enjoyed cult worship in temples of her own, as her existence was intangible, in a similar way to the goddess ‘Sekhem’ (Power).

3. Teeter 1993: 68. At the Hathor Temple of Dendera, not only is Ihy playing the sistrum, but he is accompanied by the Roman emperors Augustus, Nero and Trajan (Anderson 1976: 824).

4. Plutarch (De Iside et Osiride 3): Hermes, with whom Thoth is syncretised, invented music; Diodorus Siculus (History I.16.1): Hermes (Thoth) invented the lyre, with three strings of different pitches representing the spring, summer and winter months. Also (I.18.4), apparently Osiris was ‘laughter-loving and fond of music and the dance’

5. Pinch 1982: 139.

6. For more information about the physical appearance of the God Bes, see the contribution by C. Graves in this project.

7. Compare, for example, two examples from the British Museum: BM 38172 (arched) and BM 38173 (naos).

8. Sachs 1942: 89.

9. Duchesne-Guillemin 1981: 289.

10.    Duchesne-Guillemin 1981: 289.

11.    Pinch 1982: 140 – votive sistra found at Deir el Bahri are of the faience arched type, like ECM282.

    See Davies (2004a; 2004b; 2004c) and Martin (1989).

13.    Manniche 1991: 86.

14.    Pinch 1982: 140.

15.    Pinch 1982: 140.

16.    Hickmann 1961: 50.

17.    For instance, the block statue of Ameneminet (Luxor Museum no.227) preserves almost the whole image of the sistrum (Clère 1995: 93).

18.    Blackman 1921: 23.

19.    For a full discussion of gestures as a form of communication, see the contribution by E. Millward in this project.

20.    Ogdon 1981: 179.

21.    Spencer 2003: 116.

22.    Spencer 2003: 115.

23.    Spencer 2003: 116-7.

24.    Representations of dancing dwarves can be seen in many contexts. Not only do they feature as part of tomb wall decoration, such as in the tomb of Niunetjer at Giza (for an illustration, see Spencer 2003: 114), but also appear on objects, such as the knife handle in the British Museum (1922,0712.5) showing a dancing dwarf with lotus flowers and a frog.

25.    Hickmann 1961: 36. Again for a full analysis of the origin of Bes, see the contribution by C. Graves in this project.

26.    Manniche 1991: 99.

27.    Hickmann 1961: 48.

28.    Manniche 1991: 24.

29.    Manniche 1991: 24.


Anderson, R. 1976. ‘Ancient Egyptian Musical Instruments. A Catalogue and Its Problems’, The Musical Times 117, 824.

Blackman, A.M. 1921. ‘On the Position of Women in the Ancient Egyptian Hierarchy’, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 7, 8-30.

Clère, J.J. 1995. Les Chauves D’Hathor, Leuven.

Davies, N. de G. 2004a. The Rock Tombs of El-Amarna Parts I & II: The Tomb of Meryra; The Tombs of Panehesy and Meryra II, London.

Davies, N. de G. 2004b. The Rock Tombs of El-Amarna Parts III & IV: The Tombs of Huya and Ahmes; The Tombs of Penthu, Mahu and Others, London.

Davies, N. de G. 2004c. The Rock Tombs of El-Amarna Parts V & VI: Smaller Tombs and Boundary Stelae; The Tombs of Parennefer, Tutu and Ay, London.

Diodorus Siculus, History, trans. C.H. Oldfather [Loeb Classical Library], 1 (London 1933).

Duchesne-Guillemin, M. 1981. ‘Music in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt’, World Archaeology 12, 287-297.

Hickmann, H. 1961. Ägypten, Leipzig.

Manniche, L. 1991. Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt, London.

Martin, G.T. 1989. The Royal Tomb at El-Amarna II: The Reliefs, Inscriptions and Architecture, London.

Newberry, P.E. 1893. Beni Hasan Part 1, London.

Ogdon, J.R. 1981. ‘A Bes Amulet from the Royal Tomb of Akhenaten at Tell el-Amarna’, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 67, 178-179.

Pinch, G. 1982. ‘Offerings to Hathor’, Folklore 93, 138-50.

Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, J.G. Griffiths (ed.) (Cardiff 1970).

Sachs, C. 1942. The History of Musical Instruments, London.

Spencer, P. 2003. ‘Dance in Ancient Egypt’, Near Eastern Archaeology 66, 111-121.

Teeter, E. 1993. ‘Female Musicians in Egypt’, in K. Marshall (ed.), Rediscovering the Muses: Women’s Musical Traditions, Boston MA, 68-91.