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Welcome to My Official Web Page!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Obesity & Airbrushing in Ancient Egypt

All the inscriptions and pictures of people in ancient Egypt are like this one- svelte Pharaohs, nobles, and gods, each individual equipped with rock hard abs and buns of steel. But was this the reality?

Heavens no!

I get a kick out of the Egyptians when it comes to body image- they were masters at airbrushing. In Hatshepsut's mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri there is a scene where her mother is being led to the birthing chamber, minutes away from Hatshepsut's glorious entrance into this world. The picture?

Yes, that little bump on Queen Ahmose's belly is the evidence that she was nine months pregnant. So cute, right?

However, meandering a little further down the temple, one sees a depiction of the queen of Punt, a land Hatshepsut reopened trade with and now believed to be somewhere near Somalia. The Egyptians were impressed with the myrrh trees and the Puntians (Puntites?) houses built on stilts. But they were even more impressed by corpulent Queen Ati, evidence of which was also preserved for eternity on Hatshepsut's temple. They recorded that it took six men to carry her around too.

She wasn't Egyptian so I guess they didn't feel the need to airbrush her. Poor Ati- one of the only images of obesity in all of ancient Egypt.

So what about Hatshepsut? Her mummy has been found (thank you Zahi Hawass!) and even Hawass was hesitant to identify that particular body with Egypt's greatest female Pharaoh Egypt until hard forensic evidence linked the two with irrefutable proof. Why? Because Hatshepsut's mummy was obese to the extent that she was likely diabetic and had to be eviscerated through a U-shaped incision in her abdomen instead of through the side as was customary. Zahi Hawass, Egypt's Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities described the mummy as a "very large, fat body with huge pendulous breasts."

I guess ruling a kingdom during its golden age takes its toll, eh?


Bane of Anubis said...

Great info -- interesting that the top civs of yesteryear were also ultra concerned w/ body image. Once again, history shows us that we haven't advanced as much as we'd like to think we have.

Wendy Sparrow said...

This was an awesome history lesson. Plus, I really want to use the word "pendulous" now.

Valerie Geary said...

Wow. Great info!!! Not something I've ever really thought about....

Amalia T. said...


So, did you keep the element of obesity in your book, or did you apply a literary airbrush?

Paul said...

Thanks for the great information. I always have associated ancient egypt with slim and trim. lol.

ps. I live in Alaska, too.

Gary Corby said...

So the question is, does knowing Hatshepsut was obese change your image of her and/or her achievements?

Susan R. Mills said...

So interesting. Thanks for sharing. I always thought Egyptians were thin people. I don't know, I guess I just figured it was because of their life style.

L. T. Host said...

Stephanie, as usual, you have taught me something new today :)

I kinda wish I was in school again so I could take a history class from you, haha... I've learned so much from your blog already!

Fascinating. Will you be incorporating this in your book?

Stephanie L. McGee said...

Yeah, Ancient Egypt wasn't too concerned with proportions in their depictions of royalty. (Well, not proper proportions anyways.) They had guides to follow. The head had to be so many fists, the body this many, the arms hit here. Not to mention the three-point perspective on the body. (I'm a nerd.)

Stephanie Thornton said...

Amalia, Gary, and L.T.- I think I'll have to do a separate blog post to answer your question. It's a long answer!

Paul- Yay for another Alaskan writer! Welcome!

Stephanie- I could do a whole post about artistic guides in ancient Egypt. As a matter of fact, I think I'll add that to the list!

Wendy- I thought the same thing when I wrote pendulous. Hmmm... Can I incorporate that into the story?

Bane- Pretty crazy, eh? I've always wondered about the depictions of Henry VIII with the whole body image thing. He didn't seem to have a problem with realistic depictions.

Valerie- A new wrinkle for your brain, eh? Hurray! :)

Amalia T. said...

Re: Henry VIII
I think being overweight meant that one was prosperous and powerful during his time. And Men have, it seems to me, always been able to be a bit more cavalier about body image than women. Maybe because women started at a disadvantage, so they had to use every trick up their sleeve...

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Hi! I've seen your photo as a follower at several other blogs, so I came to check things out. Awesome and informative site! I found myself completely sucked in by this info - fascinating. Like you, my husband is a H.S. history teacher, and I teach H.S. English.
I'll be back! :)
Shannon O'Donnell

Stephanie Thornton said...

Hi Shannon! High school teachers unite!

I'm glad you enjoyed the info and found your way over!

JaredMithrandir said...

I'd like to knwo exactly what's said of Ati. If she was explicitly called a Queen or people are just assuming that. Because I've read contradictory info on the matter.

What is pretty obvious is that she's Semitic not African.