Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Dwarfs in Ancient Nilotic Culture

Alice C. Linsley

A famous dwarf in ancient Nilotic history was Seneb, a court official (c.2500 BC). His lavish burial arrangements suggest that his dwarfism was not an impediment to achieving high social rank. It appears that some dwarfs were thought to have magical powers.

The earliest known depictions of dwarfs in Egypt date to the early 1st Dynasty (c. 3100 – c. 2890 BC) and were found in the royal cemetery at Abydos. Royal dwarves were sometimes buried in subsidiary tombs around those of the kings. In fact, the rather high proportion of dwarfs in the royal cemeteries of the 1st Dynasty suggests their importance to early Nilotic rulers. 

According to a 1972 thesis published in "Department of Orthopedics and Orthopedic Diseases in Ancient and Modern Egypt", dwarves are depicted on the walls of at least fifty Old Kingdom tombs.

During the 1st Dynasty (c. 3150–2900 B.C.), dwarfs served the king and royal household in a number of capacities: cupbearers, tailors, zookeepers, etc. A unique relief from the mastaba of the high official Nyankhnesw (6th Dynasty) shows a dwarf taking a leopard for a walk.

Old Kingdom texts (c. 2980–2475 B.C.) mention Yam. Harkhuf', the governor of Aswan, made several journeys to Yam. On Harhuf's third trip to Yam, three hundred donkeys were brought back to Egypt. The inscription on Harkhuf's tomb explains: "The majesty of Mernere my lord, sent me, together with my father, the sole companion, and ritual priest Iry, to Yam, in order to explore a road to this country. I did it in only seven months."

Harkhuf headed four expeditions to Upper Nubia and Yam in the reigns of Merenre and Pepi II. Harkhuf traveled by land across the hill country of Irtjet northwards, and in his travels he was dependent upon the troops of Yam who accompanied him. On one of these ventures, he captured a pygmy, though he is called a "dwarf" in Breasted's translation. An excited pharaoh promised Harkhuf that he would be greatly rewarded if the pygmy were brought back alive. This letter was preserved as a lengthy inscription on Harkhuf's tomb:

Come northward to the court immediately; [...] thou shalt bring this dwarf with thee, which thou bringest living, prosperous and healthy from the land of spirits, for the dances of the god, to rejoice and [gladden] the heart of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Neferkare, who lives forever. When he goes down with thee into the vessel, appoint excellent people, who shall be beside him on each side of the vessel; take care lest he fall into the water. When he sleeps at night appoint excellent people, who shall sleep beside him in his tent, inspect ten times a night. My majesty desires to see this dwarf more than the gifts of Sinai and of Punt. If thou arrivest at court this dwarf being with thee alive, prosperous and healthy, my majesty will do for thee a greater thing than that which was done for the treasurer of the god Burded in the time of Isesi, according to the heart's desire of my majesty to see the dwarf. (James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part I 328ff)


It is evident from the Levitical code that dwarves were not regarded with the same respect among the Israelites (Jacob's clan). They were denied participation in the assembly along with hunchbacks, men with eye defects, eczema, scabs, or crushed testicles (Lev. 21:20).

This Bes figurine dates to between 1070 and 800 B.C.

The dwarf Bes was a popular figure of good fortune who appeared on coins and amulets all over the Levant during the reign of the Ptolemies. At the end of the 6th century B.C., images of Bes had spread across the Achaemenid Empire. Bes images have been found at Susa in ancient Persia and as far away as central Asia. Excavations at Ziyaret Tepe in southeastern Turkey uncovered the body of a man who was buried with a Bes figurine.

Dwarves as royal officials

Ancient records indicate that at least four dwarves held very high positions in ancient Egypt. They are Seneb, Pereniankh, Khnumhotpe, and Djeder. The image below shows Seneb with his high-status wife and his son and daughter. Seneb's son was Ankh-ima-Radjedef. Godfrey Musila has suggested that ima means honored or revered.

Archaeologists excavated the mastaba of Seneb in 1925-1926. The tomb has a truncated pyramid shape and was constructed of mud bricks. In a side room of the mastaba, archaeologists unearthed a statue depicting the Seneb and his family. That is now at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Note that Seneb and his son are dark from exposure to the Sun and his wife and daughter are painted white to represent the Moon. This conception of male and female rulers is very ancient. The concept is found in the Song of Solomon where the royal bride is described as "fair as the moon". The Sun-Moon binary set among the early Hebrew is a reference for a married royal couple. 

Joseph dreamt of his parents in those terms. When Joseph was seventeen years old, he shared with his brothers two dreams he had: in the first dream, Joseph and his brothers gathered bundles of grain, of which those his brothers gathered, bowed to his own. In the second dream, the sun (father), the moon (mother), and eleven stars (brothers) bowed before Joseph.

The Song of Songs speaks of two brides. One is "dark as the tents of Kedar" (1:5) and the other is "fair as the Moon" (6:10). This exalts Solomon's reign as divinely appointed since in the ancient world the High God's sovereignty was expressed by the journey of the Sun between the houses of his two wives.

This is typical of the territorial claims of high kings in the Ancient Near East. The brides represent the east and the west, the territorial boundaries observed by the solar arc, the symbol of the God’s High rule over the Earth. This was a way of identifying the authority of the high king with the authority of the High God.

Court dwarves served the royal persons of Europe from 1500-1700 A.D. and appear in some famous paintings, such as Diego Velázquez's 1656 Las Meninas (above) housed at the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

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