Thanks to Hollywood, superstition and folklore, many people have long held the belief that Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs regularly buried alive their retainers and household when they died. It’s a long standing fallacy perpetuated by blockbuster films and pseudo Egyptologists that the Pharaoh took his wives, servants and officials with him to the Afterlife. It’s a myth that needs to be debunked but where did this erroneous belief arise? What appears to have happened is that a grain of truth has been turned into the Gospel truth and the most likely explanation is the following: Ancient Egyptians DID practice retainer sacrifice but not throughout their entire nearly four thousand year history.
First, the obvious question…why?
There were two main forms of human sacrifice in Ancient Egypt:
1.) The offering of a human being to a cult. These victims were often criminals or prisoners of war and were used to re-establish ‘cosmic order and emphasise the role of the King as its main guarantor.’ In some cases, sacrifice was a ritualised form of the death penalty.
2.) The killing of the retainers (servants) after the death of the King so that they could accompany him to the Afterlife. This article focuses on the second of these two instances since its the myth most commonly peddled to the general public. Why did the early Pharaohs do this? One idea put forward was that this was a way to flaunt their power. Pharaohs were revered as Gods in human form so it would be impossible to persuade people to willingly give up their lives if they did not believe in life after death. The belief was that what belonged to the Pharaoh on Earth, also belonged to him in the afterlife. This didn’t just include material possessions but people, like servants. This belief enabled the Pharaoh to enjoy the same lifestyle in the Underworld as he did in the living world. There has been some suggestion that retainers agreed to be sacrificed to obtain eternal life and elevate their status, in much the same way that we see celebrities whose value increases once they’re dead. This idea, however, hasn’t been taken up as readily as the belief that they were selected against their will and murdered simultaneously.
The custom of retainer ritual sacrifice occurred at the beginning of Pharaonic Egypt. The earliest cases dated from late Egyptian Prehistory, in the reign of Naqada II (Gerzean) (3500-3200 BC) when Egyptologists discovered decapitated bodies found in several cemeteries. The evidence of human sacrifice is more clearly seen in the Early Dynastic Period of Egypt while the capital was still in Abydos. The burial chamber of King Hor-Aha contained thirty-six graves of males all aged 20-25 who had died from strangulation. Egyptologist Jacobus Van Dijk proposed that, ‘given the uniform age of death that these men were all killed simultaneously’. In addition to these retainers, there were also six more graves found containing the remains of court officials, more servants and artisans.
Commencing with King Hor-Aha, the Pharaohs Djer, Djet, Den, Semerkhet, Queen Merytneith and Pharaoh Qaa all had numerous retainer sacrifices found within their tombs. King Djet, the grandson of Hor-Aha had 318 sacrifices buried with him, but altogether, the estimates appeared to be much higher, a possible 580 sacrifices.
It seems impossible that all these individuals died at the exact same time of natural causes leading Egyptologists to believe they were sacrificed to join their kings in the Afterlife. However, it wasn’t just kings that practiced retainer sacrifice. The huge palace façade mastabas of the First Dynasty found at Saqqara may not have belonged to kings, and if they didn’t belong to kings, it would mean that even private individuals of the high rank could have retainer sacrifices with their burials. Mastaba 3504 at Saqqara, which is associated with King Djet and is nearly twice as large as the king’s tomb at Abydos, and contained 62 retainer burials. Mastaba 3503, associated with Queen Merytneith, also had 20 subsidiary burials which were largely undisturbed. They contained the remains of the sacrificed servants and ‘the objects denoting their particular service to their royal mistress, such as model boats with her shipmaster, paint pots with her artist, stone vessels and copper tools with her vase maker, pots of every type with her potter, etc.’ This means that during this period retainer sacrifice was not an exclusively relegated to the royal domain.
In the Second Dynasty, the Kings moved their burial grounds from the ancestral cemetery at Abydos to Saqqara. The viewpoint that the practice of human sacrifice ended after the First Dynasty is the most commonly held opinion amongst academics in the field. There are, however, other views regarding Ancient Egyptian human sacrifice. Some egyptologists discredit human sacrifice and ritual collective suicide entirely. The proximity of the subsidiary graves has often been used to prove retainer sacrifices existed but it’s also been noted that graves close to the king was a standard practice that continued well into the Old Kingdom. There has also been disagreement over the idea that all the graves were built simultaneously.
On the other side of the coin is the argument that retainer sacrifice carried on well into the Middle Kingdom. The argument being based on the one discovery of a decapitated foreigner inside the Middle Kingdom tomb in Migrissa, which was part of the Egyptian empire in Nubia. While sacrifice disappeared in certain regions when Nubia was ruled by the Egyptians, there is evidence their practices of ritual sacrifice continued well into the 5th and 6th century AD. Van Dijk mentions evidence of cultic retainer sacrifice in smaller numbers occurring at Migrissa. This was Nubian sacrifice, not Egyptian. This was not a case of ‘Egyptians extending such practices’ beyond their borders’. It was a Nubian practice that trickled away during Egyptian rule only to be revived when Nubian rule over Egypt ended in 657 BC. When Nubia was an Egyptian colony, Van Dijk maintains that “Slaves were protected from grim Nubian customs such as retainer sacrifice.”
Who Were the Retainers?
The retainers found in the tombs of this period were mainly young males. Those around the age of 20 who were most likely a part of the royal guard. The women buried in the tombs were most probably servants, concubines and wives. Unfortunately, we know very little about the lives of the sacrificed retainers. It remains an obstacle to uncovering why the practice was discontinued in Early Dynastic Egypt.
Most people assume that the retainers were the Pharaoh’s servants in life, but it has also been suggested that the victims were selected from among the elite families of Egyptian society. This would make it symbolic of group unity and strengthen social bonds. It cemented the belief that by sacrificing some of their servants they contributed to the prosperity of the state, and demonstrated their loyalty to the king. The most common forms of dispatching servants was via strangulation, poison, slitting their throats, and being buried alive.
Why Did Retainer Sacrifice Stop?
Why was the practice of retainer sacrifice discontinued after the First Dynasty? There is no easy answer. A common assumption is that in Nubia the practice of retainer sacrifice was initially abandoned after the Kerma period because of the political and cultural colonisation of the area by the Egyptians. They had not practised retainer sacrifice for well over a millennium. The revived the practice of retainer sacrifice after the end of the Egyptian domination. The final abandonment of the practice appears to have been the result of the introduction of Christianity in Nubia.
Another idea proposed is that retainers didn’t see the need to die to accompany their ruler into the next world. The decline has also been attributed to the creation of Shabti figurines. Shabti figurines were representatives of the deceased and there to do their bidding or any tasks Osiris may call them to do in the Afterlife. There is some circumstantial evidence that the practice continued into the Second Dynasty with the discovery of wall niches that look like they could’ve been used for retainer graves in Abydos. There has even been a suggestion that there were retainer sacrifices as late as the Middle Kingdom (1680-1660 BC) in Tell ed-Dab’a where a burial was found containing donkeys, three human bodies, and an ox. There are suggestions that they may have been purposely killed to accompany their masters into the Afterlife but that remains questionable because the skeletons predate the tomb in which they were found.
There were also economic considerations; sacrificed servants left a void for the surviving community. As Van Dijk points out, “The retainer burials excavated by Emery at Saqqara demonstrate that these people were not mere menial labourers but specialized servants, such as craftsmen, painters, potters, sailors etc., who were buried with the particular tools of their trade…These considerations are equally pertinent if, as seems likely, the sacrificed retainers were the deceased king’s own servants, for their deaths would then deprive his successor’s royal workshops of their expertise.” A conflict developed between the deceased king’s needs in the Afterlife and the economic considerations of his survivors. By the end of First Dynasty, the needs of the living outweighed the needs of the dead. Economics could’ve been the main reason for the decline in retainer sacrifice rather than ideological changes in Egyptian society.
This is still a hotly debated area amongst Egyptologists. It appears that Ancient Egyptians did sacrifice their servants to take them into the Afterlife but only in the very early portions of their vast history. This was not a regular practice as some would have the general public believe. Ancient Egyptians of later dynasties found meaningful, yet economically viable, means to assist their Pharaoh’s journey to the Afterlife with the creation of Shabti figurines. These figurines replaced the need for human sacrifice while needs of the living were taken care of and the religious needs of the dead were still satisfied.
1.) Van Djik, Jacobus. “Retainer Sacrifice in Egypt and in Nubia”, The Strange World of Human Sacrifice, Studies in the History and Anthropology of Religion, Vol. 1 (Leuven, Peeters, 2007), 135–155.
2.) Muhlestein, Kerry and Gee, John. “An Egyptian Context for the Sacrifice of Abraham”, Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 20/2 (2011): 70–77.
3.) Watrin, Luc. “Human Sacrifices in Predynastic Egypt:An Archaeological Mirage”, Grepal, January (2008)