Extended Egyptian Families: The Living and the Dead Together

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

A family in ancient Egypt was made up of a couple, their children, their parents and grandparents, and sometimes their sisters and brothers. The extended Egyptian families did not grow short in number after the death of parents and grandparents, as they were respectfully treated even after death!

Image depicting life in ancient Egypt.
Extended Egyptian families comprised of many children and the unmarried, divorced, widowed, or dead relatives. (Image: matrioshka/Shutterstock)

In an extended Egyptian family in ancient Egypt, every family member who lived under the same roof was provided with a houseroom. This included the grandparents, the unmarried ones, widowers and divorcees, and the dead members. A family had the duty of supporting and protecting its members under any circumstance. However, people did not live that long.

Learn More about being Egyptian.

Life Expectancy and Ageing

Life expectancy was low for both men and women, probably in the 30s. However, Egyptians tried to banish the effects of ageing through cures for balding and wrinkles. At the same time, they cared very much about how they appeared in public. Women used perfume, jewelry, and wigs, while men also used wigs from time to time on important occasions. Did the Egyptians do everything on their own, considering the short time they had?

Servants in Egyptian Families

Families with a better financial situation had servants who performed all manner of menial tasks and household chores. Were they slaves? There is no clear answer yet, but Egypt was in the Mediterranean zone where slavery was common from the time of early Bronze Age. However, despite the servants’ slave-like life, there is not much evidence confirming slavery.

The ancient pyramid of Chefren in Giza, Egypt.
Slavery was uncommon in Egypt, and even the pyramids are unlikely to have been built by slaves. (Image: Abrilla/Shutterstock)

Some scholars even believe that the people who built the pyramids were not slaves, and the images showing that, have no historical support. It is much more likely that the workers building the pyramids were willingly doing so. The administration conscripted a group of free Egyptians every year to clear the irrigation channels, mend the dikes, and probably also build the pyramids. Regardless of the family’s financial status and whether they had servants, the dead would stay with them.

Learn More about being an Egyptian worker.

The Dead in Extended Egyptian Families

The dead relatives were considered a living presence. Egyptians believed that the dead had the power to make good and bad things happen in the life of the living relatives. They constantly worshiped and prayed to the dead, took food and drink to their tombs, and tried to show how much they loved and respected them.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Several petitions to the dead have been found inscribed on papyri, stelae (stone shafts), and offering bowls. Egyptians usually requested their help or pleaded with them to withdraw their negative influence, if they suspected that the dead were responsible for a recent misfortune.

Mural with a scene from ancient Egypt.
The dead were akhu or mutu, and both could cause harm to the living family if they were upset with them. (Image: tan_tan/Shutterstock)

The petitions started with reminding the dead how much they are loved and respected, and hoping that gods take good care of them. Next, the request was written. The Egyptians believed that there were two kinds of the dead: the blessed (the akhu) and the damned (the mutu). The akhu also could cause harm, especially when they were offended by the living descendant’s behavior. However, the dead were not the only potential harm to the family.

Learn More about being a dead Egyptian.

Threats to an Egyptian Family

An Egyptian man was responsible for the whole family’s protection. Rats, snakes, scorpions, crocodiles, and hippopotami were the other threats to a family. Thus, the Egyptian ‘pillow’ was the curve of a wooden headrest several inches above the ground.

There was a scorpion charmer who cured scorpion and snakebites by magic and herbal remedies. Magic had a crucial role in ancient Egyptian society. It could cure pregnancy problems, snakebites, and even harm the enemies.

Another way to keep away rats and the like was having a pet cat or dog. Evidence shows that Egyptians treated their pets well and sometimes even buried them with rituals. The fact that all the houses were built on the ground and there was no multi-floor building made pests a common problem for all Egyptians.

The family was the bedrock of ancient Egyptian society. All the members of the family were respected and everyone was taken care of in all aspects.

Common Questions about Extended Egyptian Families

Q: What was the life expectancy in ancient Egypt?

For both men and women, the life expectancy was low,
probably in the 30s.

Q: Who all were considered to be a part of the family in
ancient Egypt?

A typical family included, a couple, their children, their parents, or grandparents. The dead were also considered a part of the family.

Q: Why were the dead venerated in ancient Egypt?

The Egyptians believed that the dead were very powerful.
Any misfortune in the family was linked to the deceased being unhappy. So, the people would periodically worship the dead requesting them to look after the descendants.

Q: Were slaves kept as servants in Egyptian homes?

There is no evidence that slavery was prevalent in ancient Egypt.

Keep Reading
Why Study the History of Ancient Egypt?
The Great Pyramid at Giza: A Marvel of Ancient Egyptian Engineering
Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World: Egyptian Pharaohs