Doctorate in preparation under the direction of Professor Jean-Claude Goyon
University of Lyon II Lumière




The ancient Egyptian sources provide us with a very broad range of information on the music and the musicians of this civilization. They are composed of very varied documents which come from various localities and cover all Egyptian history, from the predynastic time to the ptolemaïc period. The most significant part is formed by the iconographic representations of the tombs and the temples. The musical scenes which are depicted there belong either to everyday life or to religious events. Besides there are many hieroglyphic inscriptions, generally short, as one also finds on papyruses, headstones, statues, musical instruments, coffins, but also as a caption of the scenes illustrated on the walls of the tombs and the temples. We also have longer texts which were to be sung and/or to be accompanied by one or more instruments: " harpist's songs ", " love poetry " or certain " rituals ". There are still many items of everyday life decorated with musical scenes (spoons, cuts, boxes), like some rare statuettes, ostraca and amulets representing the instrumentalists, sometimes even under the features of musician animals. They are thus a few thousands of documents related to the topic but which are not all of equal interest. For example, on the few hundreds of musical instruments preserved in the museums, the great majority does not carry any decorative motif and were made at a late period. Some, nevertheless, date back to an earlier past and if the sistra, the cymbals and the clappers were preserved in greater number, some flutes, harps, lutes, trumpets and drums also reached us.

From the very beginning of the 19th century, the numerous sources about ancient Egyptian music aroused the interest of the scientists. The bibliography on the topic is impressive. Those who made these studies are primarily musicologists. The principal aim of their research was to add a chapter to the history of music and to define how the music of Ancient Egypt had been able to contribute to the genesis of Western music. They wished, in order to do this, to rediscover the musical system of the former Egyptians. In the absence of musical partitions, the tools for analysis developed by organology and ethnomusicology were to enable them to achieve the goal which they had set. But, these two sciences have not yet produced the expected results. They however allowed us to be more acquainted with the whole of the musical instruments used by the former Egyptians.


MoutAfter two centuries of publications about music in ancient Egypt, our intention is to question the ancient Egyptian sources with a new approach: that of the social and cultural history. Indeed, when one looks at this documentation from this point of view, many questions arise: what were the role and the function of music in the ancient Egyptian society? what kind of everyday life activities were associated with this form of artistic expression (cult, funeral, warfare, hunting, working, dancing, games, entertainments) and in which way? Can one define various musical repertories (sacred music, profane music)? Were there divinities particularly associated with music? Who were the male and female musicians? Did they play a part in society and did they have a particular status ? As for those who took part in the religious ceremonies, were they bound to a temple or did they move according to the calendars of the celebrations? Did the same people play in the religious festivities and the private banquets? Is it possible to talk about professional musicians and establish a hierarchy between the various titles that we know? What were their incomes? Was there a musical training? Who manufactured the musical instruments? Where did the raw materials used come from? Was an instrument dedicated to a specific use (the repertoire but also the place and hour of the day)? Were the acoustics of the temples favorable to sound demonstrations? Could one hear from outside the sacred enclosure the ceremony which was performed inside? Here are as many questions which have not been tackled up to now and for which the bibliography proves almost non-existent.

It will thus be necessary for us to set out again from the ancient Egyptian sources. To begin with, our knowledge of the Egyptian vocabulary concerning all that refers to music has to be more precise. Indeed, the translations suggested up to now do not account for the great variety of the Egyptian lexicon. Once the meaning of each word will be more clearly defined, we will be able more easily to make the most of the information given to us by the hieroglyphic inscriptions. Then, we will study the musical scenes which decorate the walls of the tombs and the temples within the broader framework of the context to which they are related. That will lead us to define all the fields where music intervenes in the ancient Egyptian society. The classification of the documentation will then make it possible to bring closer the scenes which illustrate the same activities. They will be able thus to bring light to one another and to lead us to a better understanding of the unfolding of a festivity as well as the moments when music intervenes: texts recited, sung or chanted according to the stages of the ceremony, choirs answering the priest, women dancing on the beat of the sistres, players of drums preceding the procession of the divine boat and so on. Lastly, so as to encompass better the role, the function and the status of the male and female musicians in the ancient Egyptian company, it will be necessary to analyze their titles, the texts which deal with them and to make an iconographic study on their clothes as well as on their gestures. We know that the Egyptian temple was an enclosed area and meant for an elite of priests. It would be thus interesting to know to which part of the temple a musician could have access. At the same time, we would learn which were the fields where music was allowed and which were the instruments played with. It will then be necessary to wonder which divinity was dedicated to this music as well as the significance of this offering.

This innovative approach of the subject will bring us new information about an art, a culture and a society which is several times thousand-year-old and finally will allow us to know the role, the importance and the status of music and the musicians of ancient Egypt.

Sibylle Emerit, Lyon, September 1999


Sibylle Emerit
Sibylle Emerit, Karnak, 1997

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