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Line drawing of Djer's label (Djer 2) possibly showing human sacrifice
Image © Caroline Seawright after Francesco Raffaele

Human Sacrifice in Ancient Egypt: Early Dynastic Evidence

by Caroline Seawright

Updated: January 31, 2014


Human sacrifice is not generally connected with ancient Egypt. There is little evidence of human sacrifice during most of the dynastic period of ancient Egypt, but there is some evidence that it may have been practiced in the Nile Valley during the 1st Dynasty and possibly also Predynastic Egypt.

The earliest known example of human sacrifice may perhaps be found in Predynastic burials in the south of Egypt, dated to the Naqada II Period. One of the discovered bodies showed marks of the throat having been cut before decapitation took place.

-- Kinnaer, J. 2009, Human Sacrifice

The two definitions of human sacrifice that could be applied to the very early development of ancient Egypt are:

* The ritual killing of human beings as part of the offerings presented to the gods on a regular basis, or on special occasions.
* Retainer sacrifice, or the killing of domestic servants to bury them along with their master.

-- Kinnaer, J. 2009, Human Sacrifice

Offerings to the Gods

Photo of Djer's label possibly showing human sacrifice

Image © Francesco Raffaele
One form of human sacrifices to the gods may have been in the form of slaying criminals and prisoners of war. Some early dynastic depictions of sacrifices have been found, showing a man holding a bowl, possibly using it to catch the blood of a victim who is seated in front of him. The man and the victim are normally before either gods or men of power, making it seem as if these scenes are of human sacrifices. Despite the pictures, there is not enough information as to why it was done, what happened with the blood in the bowl, or for whom it was done.

Other than the human sacrifice theory, there is another theory as to what is happening in the scenes:

Two slabs were discovered dating to the beginning of the 1st Dynasty, one in Abydos concerning King Aha and the other in Saqqara, concerning King Djer. Each slab depicts a seated person directing a pointed instrument to the throat or chest of another person who is kneeling backwards with his arms tied behind his back. Petrie, Emery and Zaki Saaed believed that this denotes human sacrifice whereas Vikentiesf and Hussain believe it to be a tracheostomy being performed. The latter view is more appropriate as the lancet is used as a determinative "to breath" rather than the habitual signs of the nose or the sail. In Aha's slab the sign Ankh is present; the way the scalpel is handled is more appropriately directed to the trachea than the neck vessels as obviously the best way for slaughtering was known even at prehistoric times!

-- Pahor, A. L. 2002, Medicine and Surgery in Ancient Egypt

Unfortunately, Pahor did not note where the ankh (`nkh) was depicted, and the three versions of the ritual (Aha 2a, Aha 2b, and Djer 2) do not seem to show an ankh. There is a ladder-like hieroglyph, which he may have mistaken for a series of ankh hieroglyphs.

Close-up of Djer's label (Djer 2) possibly showing human sacrifice

Image © Francesco Raffaele
Another theory suggests that the individual is the deceased king, and discusses the little understood proto-hieroglyphs as evidence:

The scene to the right may, as Ohshiro observes, denote an embalming ritual. The symbols above seem to denote an early form of the nsw-bty name with a clump of papyrus (M15) in place of the bee (L2) giving a name possibly denoted as nsw-mhw. Below the name is either (a) what is more likely sign O43, šsp, meaning 'receive' or possibly 'commencement' as part of an expression or (b) šsp for 'statue' or less likely (c) simply the name of Djer repeated.

There is an interesting parallel in a label of Aha ... which also contains the nsw-mhw sign with what may also be the šsp sign written below.

Combined with the symbol mounted on the pole, M44, spd for 'effective', this can be translated as 'Djer attaining effective' as his mummified ka becomes akh.


This label is a typical post mortem religious hk3w that celebrates and reinforces the deceased king's transformation from body to god and celebrates his victory in rebirth by positioning his place as rightfully beside the place of his ancestors.

-- Cintron, D. 2009, More on Decoding the Label of King Djer, pp. 2-3

The ladder-like hieroglyph is reminiscent of O43, which according to A.H. Gardiner in 'Egyptian Grammar' (1988, p. 497 & 595), is the Old Kingdom form of O42. It represents the fence surrounding a shrine, which suggests that the ritual took place within the shrine compound. Once the fully formed hieroglyph was used in words such as 'receive, accept', 'palm, a measure of length', 'image, statue, sphinx', 'daylight', 'room, chamber' and 'cucumber'. The reading may well have been different prior to the formation of the full development of the hieroglyphic writing system, but the use hieroglyph itself suggests that the space in which the activity took place was holy, and thus the activity was a ritual. This evidence makes it much less likely that a tracheostomy is being performed in these two scenes. While medicine and magic were often one in the same to the ancient Egyptians, it is unlikely that the ancient Egyptians would have performed unnecessary surgery on holy ground. It is even less likely, as the narrative in these pieces seems to surround the king's death and ascension into the heavens.

Whether this was a live human being executed being killed to providing the hk3w ('magic'), or the king's body being embalmed is still uncertain, as the meaning of these proto-hieroglyphs are very tentative. In either case, it is possible that the king's ka receives something through this ritual which allows it to become effective, and ascend the ladder to the sky. It may be that the hk3w was activated by either the sacrifice and the collected blood, or the release and capture of the king's bodily fluids during the embalming process allowed the same.

The ritual was no longer depicted after the reign of Djer, so was likely to have been abandoned during the early First Dynasty. Later in Egypt's history, Amenhotep II of the 18th dynasty claimed to have executed seven Syrian princes at the temple of Amen in Karnak, then displayed six of the bodies on the temple walls. Although he did not claim that it was a sacrifice to the gods, it shows that there is enough evidence that prisoners were killed at temples, making the depiction of Predynastic killings in front of deities likely to have actually happened.

The Cannibal Hymn

Ankhtifi, Nomarch of the 3rd Nome of Upper Egypt

Image © Alan M. Fildes
Not strictly an offering to the gods, the Cannibal Hymn of Unas and Teti talk of cannibalism to gain power from the gods in ancient Egypt. The Pyramid Texts have a section that seems to hint that in Predynastic times, the ruler could gain the magical powers of the gods through human sacrifice.

Utterances 273 - 274 of the Pyramid Texts, known as the Cannibal Hymn, describe the pharaoh as a god who cannibalises the gods - 'A god who lives on his fathers and feeds on his mothers ... who lives on the being of every god, who eats their entrails ... Pharaoh is he who eats men and lives on gods.'

It is a blood-thirsty text of the power of the pharaoh, talking of death and killing and devouring of body parts. This seems to combine ritual cannibalism with sacrifices to the gods, but there is no direct evidence that cannibalism was normally practiced in ancient Egypt.

There is, though, a suggestion that cannibalism may have occurred during times of great famine and drought. During the First Intermediate Period, there was a great famine, dust storms, plague, and political strife that affected the country for decades. Ankhtifi (Ankhtify), Nomarch (governor) of the 3rd Nome of Upper Egypt during this time, left on his tomb this message: "...the sky was clouded and the earth [...] of hunger on this sandbank of Apep... All of Upper Egypt was dying of hunger and people were eating their children, but I did not allow anyone to die of hunger in this nome."

Despite his boasting, Ankhtifi may not have be lying about people being reduced to eating their children to survive. Abdel-Latif Al-Baghdadi, a physician/scholar from Baghdad who was in Egypt between 1194 to 1200 AD, tells of people who habitually ate human flesh; parents even ate their own children. Graves were ransacked for food, assassinations and robbery reigned unchecked and noblewomen implored to be bought as slaves. These horrific scenes had been caused by a low Nile flood, two years running.

Human Heads in the Book of the Amduat

Human Headed 'Tombs' from a Coffin In the depiction of Seventh Hour from 'The Book of the Amduat' (Imydwat), are four rectangular shaped frames with a bed or a mound of sand inside, surmounted with two human heads, one at each end. E. A. Wallis Budge calls them the 'Four Tombs of Osiris', saying that the heads were supposed to come forth when they heard the voice of Ra as he travelled through that particular area of the underworld.

It was, no doubt, a custom in Predynastic times to slay slaves at the graves of kings and nobles in order that the souls of the slaughtered might protect them and keep away evil spirits. The human heads on the tombs of Osiris probably represent a tradition that, when Osiris was buried, human sacrifices were offered at his tomb for this or for some similar purpose.

-- Wallis Budge, E.A. 2003, The Gods of the Egyptians: Volume 1, p. 232

This may or may not relate to any human sacrifice. E. Hornung has a different description than Budge: "... we once again observe the [four] burial place[s] of the sun's [Ra's] corpse..." There are no references in the text to the killing of humans for the protection of Ra as he travelled.

E. A. Wallis Budge's translation of the Amduat can be found as 'The Book of Am-Tuat'.

Two Human Heads  on TombsFrom the Seventh Hour of the Amduat
Image © E. A. Wallis Budge

Retainer Sacrifice

The tomb of Anedjib

Image © Ibis Media Corp
This type of human sacrifice is generally considered to be linked to ancestor worship, which the Egyptians believed in through their history. The living would leave offerings for the dead, and the tombs would be painted with offerings which the deceased could use if the living ever forgot them. The rulers of the 1st Dynasty were not only buried along with food, drink and objects, but with people who had been sacrificed along with them, to be with them in the afterlife: The sacrificed retainers, servants, slaves or even nobles or family members all had their own burial pits as part of the Abtu (Abydos) tomb complex of each ruler of the 1st Dynasty. These people were thought to carry on their respective positions in the afterlife, for example the slaves and servants were killed so that they could continue to carry out their work for their master.

In the case of Aha, his tomb was looted in antiquity, but the bones scattered around the burial pits were all of young men and women aged 20-25 years old. This would indicate that they probably did not die from natural causes, but were selected for burial with Aha. The burial pits once held copper tools, stone vessels and ivory carvings, and some even had the name of the occupant inscribed on limestone stela. These stelae referred to servants, dwarfs, women, dogs and even a group of young lions.

The tomb of king Qa'a

Image © Dariusz Sitek
Djer, on the other hand, probably showed the peak of human sacrifice for burial with the king. He 318 burial pits surrounding his tomb, as well as a number of other burial pits at his funerary enclosure, about two kilometres away, which may have been a mortuary temple. Djer's tomb at Abydos was believed by Egyptians of the latter Middle Kingdom to be the tomb of Osiris himself, and this belief lasted even into the Roman period.

In the tomb of Queen Merytnit, most of the skeletons were found facing the same direction, but no signs of violence were found on the skeletons. This would suggest that they were not buried alive, since the bodies were all placed in the tombs in a specific direction for religious purposes, and that they had died previously to being buried. W B Emery, who unearthed tombs at Abtu, had a theory that suggested the people were killed by poison prior to being buried with the queen.

The tomb of king Den

Image © Su Bayfield
Human sacrifice was not only performed at Abtu, but in Saqqara as well. Originally it was believed that the rulers of the 1st Dynasty had two tombs - one at Saqqara and one at Abtu, but research has led to the conclusion that the Saqqara tombs were for nobles of the 1st Dynasty. Tomb S3500, the tomb of a noble during the reign of Qa'a, has the last of the sacrifices found in Saqqara:

Three of the four subsidiary tombs were found intact and the westernmost ones (n. 1 and 2) still had the dead bodies (a middle aged man and an old woman; head to the south facing west) wrapped in linen within the coffin; each one had a foreign flask and a wood cylinder seal (one unscribed and another one with faint painted inscribed).

-- Raffaele, F. 2002, Saqqara: Early Dynastic Monuments (Dynasties 1-3)

This practice was abandoned after the last retainer sacrifices by Qa'a, during the Second Dynasty, although it was replaced by representations of sacrificed retainers in the form of ushabti figures. There figures were meant to magically turn into servants, to carry out the work of the deceased in the afterlife. A small hint that the Egyptian people in later times reviled human sacrifice can be seen in the story of Khufu and the Magicians - Khentamentiu from a Label of Den

Image © Francesco Raffaele

Khufu then ordered a prisoner brought, thinking to lop off his head and see Djed-djedi's magic. Protesting, the magician said that he could not do so to humans. Instead, they found a goose Djed-djedi could work his magic upon.

-- Seawright, C. 2001, Heka: Tales of Magic in Ancient Egypt

Some rulers of 0 Dynasty, and rulers of the 1st and 2nd Dynasties were buried at Abtu. The local deity of the necropolis was Khentamentiu khntamntt mountains determinative (Khontamentiu, Khentamenti, Khontamenti, Khenty Amentiu, Khenti Amentiu), Foremost of Westerners, god of the dead who helped the deceased go to the Land of the West, pilot of the solar barque during it's nocturnal travels. The earliest temple found at Abtu was for Khentamentiu. He was later associated with Osiris, as Osiris-Khentamentiu, and with the jackal or wolf god Anubis.

The Tekenu

Tekenu from the tomb of Djehutymes

Image © Thierry Benderitter
Early Egyptologists believed the tknw tekenu (teknu) was a representation of the human sacrifices that the 1st Dynasty rulers were buried with. It seems to be a figure of a man, in a foetal or sitting position, shrouded in a bag, hides or a sack that was placed on it's own sledge during funeral processions. Current theories suggest that it contains the spare body parts that were left over during the mummification process, occasionally having a mask of the deceased where a face would be on the figure, and sometimes not looking like a man at all.

In the tomb of Rekhmire, the words relating to the tekenu say: "Causing to come to the god Ra as a resting tekenu to calm the lake of Khepri". This may be relating to a time when people were killed and thrown into a lake to appease Apep or Set. There is no evidence for this actually happening, or of the tekenu being thrown into any lake.

Egyptologist Greg Reeder shows a depiction in the tomb of Montuhirkhepeshef (Mentuherkhepshef) (18th Dynasty) at Waset (Thebes) actually shows a man lying on the sledge, being dragged along just as the tekenu was in the funeral procession. In the tomb of Rekhmire (18th Dynasty) the tekenu is finally placed in the tomb, on a chair or couch, with the head poking out of a bag. Then the man sits up on the couch in the 'Opening of the Mouth' scene, shown to be wearing shroud-like wrapping, yet obviously human and alive: Tekenu in the tomb of Duauneheh

Image © notteprimaesami

The possibility that the sem priest was a "shamanistic magician" helps explain many of the questions associated with the role of the tekenu. The latter would not, then, have been supplanted by the sem, as Moret believed, for the sem was the tekenu in an initial manifestation. Imitating the archaic burial by assuming a fetal position, he was variously enveloped (head/hands uncovered and covered) in a skinshroud, and while so covered he entered, somehow, a deep, cataleptic, trance-like dream-state, his body thus seeming lifeless and formless, and even appearing as Hornung's "shapeless, sack-like, black mass." While in this trance-condition, the tekenu-sem located the deceased in the spirit world and recognized him, following which he was awakened from his trance by the voice of the ami-as priest calling out. Thus, having visited the spirit world, the sem was imbued with powers which enabled him to perform the succeeding "Opening of the Mouth" ritual for the deceased. The tekenu was no more because he had been transformed into the sem.

-- Reeder, G. 1994, The Enigmatic Tekenu, p. 59

This is the speech of the Sem-priest, from the tomb of Rekhmire: Tekenu in a dark shroud on a sledge, from the tomb of Ramose

Image © franciscojaviertostado

Seclusion in the Gold Mansion: resting by the sem-priest
Speech of the sem-priest seated facing it
Words spoken: 'He has struck me'
The imy-is to stand behind it
Words spoken 'He has outlined me'
The imy-is - speech four times
Words spoken by the imy-is 'My father my father' 4 times
Waking the sleep of the sem-priest; the find of the imy-khent priests

-- University College London 2003, Opening the Mouth

Face of Unknown Man 'E'

Image © National Geographic Society
Unknown Man 'E'

Unknown Man 'E', found with the royal mummies in the Dier el-Bahri cache, is buried with such an horror-filled look on his face and in such a strange manner, that many believe that he was sacrificed and buried with the pharaohs. The Unknown Man 'E' is a man in his early 20s, his face seeming to silently scream. His coffin was white and undecorated, yet it was made from cedar wood, and expensive commodity in ancient Egypt.

He was unwrapped by Dr. Fouquet and M. Mathey in 1886, and discovered to have some unusual features for an Egyptian burial. He had been wrapped in white sheepskin, which Herodotus had said was ritually unclean to the ancient Egyptians. Dylan Bickerstaffe, who wrote an analysis on Unknown Man 'E' in KMT Magazine, pointed out that no other Dynastic burial had been found where sheepskin was used to shroud the body. Under the sheepskin was a layer of bandages, then a layer of natron-soaked bandages. When he was unwrapped, his body fat, which has been absorbed by the natron, emitted a putrid stench. The bandages were of high quality, yet they had been wrapped and knotted around his wrists, upper arms and lower legs so tightly that it imprinted his body. Under the bandages, his skin was coated with a very thick layer of natron, crushed resin, and lime - quicklime. His body still had his internal organs in place, as was the rest of his body. Even his gold earrings were still in place.

One of the popular theories is that because of the oddities in the burial, is that Unknown Man 'E' had been buried alive as punishment during the 18th or 19th Dynasty. Another theory is that he had been prepared and 'mummified' by non-Egyptians who were not familiar with the Egyptian mummification process: Body of Unknown Man 'E'

Image © Dariusz Sitek

The use of calcium oxide seems to point toward an ancient Greek influence. In Greek, the word "sarcophagus" means "flesh eater" and was used to designate the large stone receptacles filled with quicklime in which corpses were placed. Much more harsh in its desiccating properties than natural Egyptian natron, this chemical would have been avoided by Egyptian embalmers who wanted to preserve rather than destroy the tissues of the body. The Greeks who used this method of treating corpses mistakenly believed that Egyptian sarcophagi were employed for the same purpose ... Bickerstaffe points out that the Hyksos were buried with sheep, and that the Tale of Sinhue describes "Asiatics" as being buried wrapped in sheepskins. This again indicates that Unknown Man E was probably "embalmed" in a foreign country where sheepskins were cured and employed in a funereal context.

-- Miller, W.M. 2009, The Strange Case of Unknown Man E

The state of the quicklime on the body indicates that while it was applied, there was no struggle. The thickness also suggests that the quicklime was applied after the body had been dehydrated by other methods. This would suggest that Unknown Man 'E' was already dead, rather than sacrificed.

Unknown Man 'E' may have been an Egyptian noble or prince who held a high position in an Asiatic country, and who died there. The people there may have done their best, but been unable to make a mummy as the Egyptians did, and then sent their efforts back to Egypt. Yet in Egypt his body was not touched to correct these issues, despite being placed by the priests who moved royal mummies to a hidden cache along side pharaohs.

A new possible explanation may help explain why the priests left Unknown Man 'E' in this strange way.

Historically, Pentawere was the only son who revolted against his father in contrast to all his brothers. According to the Judicial Papyrus of Turin, Pentawere was involved in the harem conspiracy, was found guilty at trial, and then took his own life.

The unusual mummification process of unknown man E, including the ritually impure use of a goat skin to cover the body, could be interpreted as evidence for a punishment in the form of a non-royal burial procedure. Together with the genetically proven family relationship with Ramesses III, we therefore believe that unknown man E is a good candidate for Pentawere. Unknown man E's cause of death has to remain a matter of speculation. His inflated thorax and the skinfolds around his neck may point to violent actions that led to death, such as strangulation. However, the lack of further evidence for strangulation (such as fractures in the laryngeal skeleton) and the gas formation in the body caused by decomposition processes does not allow any clear conclusions regarding the cause of death of unknown man E.

-- Hawass, Z., et. al. 2012, Revisiting the harem conspiracy and death of Ramesses III: anthropological, forensic, radiological, and genetic study, p. 3

If he was Pentawere, and this was part of his punishment (or a cheap version of burial after his punishment), it would go a long way in explaining why later priests did not try to rebury him properly.

Human Sacrifice

There is evidence of human sacrifice in ancient Egypt during the 1st Dynasty, for the rulers and rich of the time. This possibly came from predynastic times, but no strong evidence has been found to prove this. The labels of Aha and Djer are pictures of men that may be being ritually killed, yet the people buried with the rulers do not seem to have been killed in that fashion - they were most likely poisoned before being buried with the rulers and nobels. There is also a possibility that predynastic people may have cannibalised others to gain their power, but without evidence this can not be proved - it may have just been a dramatic way of showing the strength and power of the king! Other than the killing of prisoners of war, no other evidence for human sacrifice, neither as offerings to the gods nor in the form of retainer sacrifice, has been found. Since the Egyptians gave up the practice during the Old Kingdom, they seemed to have come to object to the practice through the rest of their history.

The Seventh Hour from the Amduat
Image © Frans Vandewalle

Further Information about ancient Egyptian human sacrifice

Video about ancient Egyptian human sacrifice

A video about Human sacrifice in Ancient Egypt, by atlatlcauac:

© Caroline 'Kunoichi' Seawright 2003 - present

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