Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Cannibalism in Roman Egypt

Historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

Funerary complex of the 5th Dynasty pharaoh Unas at Saqqara
Image courtesy of Wiimedia Commons.
King Unis is one who eats men and lives on gods,
Lord of messengers, who dispatches his messages;
It is ‘Grasper-of-Forelocks’ living in Kehew
Who binds them for King Unis. It is the serpent ‘Splendid-Head’
Who watches them for him and repels them for him.
It is ‘He-who-is-upon-the-Willows’
Who lassoes them for him.
It is ‘Punisher-of-all-Evil-doers’
Who stabs them for King Unis.
He takes out for him their entrails,
He is a messenger whom he (King Unis) sends to punish.

Shesmu cuts them up for King Unis
And cooks for him a portion of them
In his evening kettles (or ‘as his evening kettles = meal’).
King Unis is he who eats their charms,
And devours their glorious ones (souls).
Their great ones are for his morning portion,
Their middle(-sized) ones are for his evening portion,
Their little ones are for his night portion.
Their old men and their old women are for his incense-burning.
It is the ‘Great-Ones-North-of-the-Sky’
Who set for him the fire to the kettles containing them,
With the legs of their oldest ones (as fuel).
The ‘Dwellers-in-the-Sky’ revolve for King Unis (in his service).
The kettles are replenished for him with the legs of their women.
He has encircled all the Two Skies (corresponding to the Two Lands),
He has revolved about the two regions.
King Unis is the ‘Great Mighty-One’
Who overpowers the ‘Mighty Ones’

So, who is this bloodthirsty King Unas (Spelled Unis in the above translation)? As it turns out, he was the last of the fifth dynasty of Egyptian pharaohs. The above passage is part of the Cannibal Hymn included in the first copy of the Pyramid Texts ever found in his tomb in Saqqara.

I had never associated cannibalism with ancient Egypt before until I read about the sacrifice and consumption of a 2nd century CE Roman legionary serving in Egypt during the Boukoloi uprising of 171-172 CE. Our ancient source for this rather gruesome event is Cassius Dio.

"The people called the Bucoli [also spelled Boukoloi] began a disturbance in Egypt and under the leadership of one Isidorus, a priest, caused the rest of the Egyptians to revolt. At first, arrayed in women's garments, they had deceived the Roman centurion, causing him to believe that they were women of the Bucoli and were going to give him gold as ransom for their  husbands, and was then struck down when he approached them. They also sacrificed his companion, and after swearing an oath over his entrails, they devoured them." - Cassius Dio, Roman History LXXII.4

2nd century CE Roman Centurion in Egypt
Image courtesy of
I first read about this act of cannibalism in Adrian Goldsworthy's excellent book Pax Romana. I was quite literally astounded by his description of it and immediately began to wonder about the history of human sacrifice in ancient Egypt. The Cannibalism Hymn, quoted above, was among the first references to human sacrifice I encountered in my research. Like the spells in the Book of the Dead, though, I realized this hymn was probably mostly symbolic.

But as I researched further, I discovered that a cult grew up around King Unas, who was venerated as a local god of the Saqqara necropolis, that extended through the centuries all the way down to as late as the Late Period (664–332 BCE). This is attested to by the discovery of numerous scarabs bearing Unas' name found in Saqqara and dated from the New Kingdom (c.1550–c.1077 BCE) until the Late Period. Since King Unas lived and ruled during the mid-24th century BCE, there must have been something unique about his worship to endure over 2000 years after his death.

In his paper Sacred Violence: When Ancient Egyptian Punishment was Dressed in Ritual Trappings, Dr. Kerry Muhlestein, director of Brigham Young University's Egypt Excavation Project, points out, based on epigraphic evidence, institutionally sanctioned ritual violence in ancient Egypt centered around interference with a religious cult or rebellion.  Muhlestein considered an event to have ritual trappings if it mirrored that which was regularly experienced in Egyptian cultic activities.

"In other words, if the language used to describe an action matches the language used to describe cultic activity, or if an action took place in the same way it would in a cultic setting, we will consider that text or action to have ritual trappings...While the lack of ritually charged terminology does not mean that ritual trappings were not present and thus we must be careful in assuming that there was no ritual aspect, if terminology or actions are employed that were routinely part of a ritual, we can be sure that a ritual aspect was intended," Muhlestein explains.

Muhlstein says evidence for ritual killings is well documented in the Early Dynastic Period. Muhlestein points to an ivory label of King Aha that appears to depict a ritual slaying of a human being. Such labels were found in retainer burials associated with Early Dynastic kings including Aha and Djer.

He considers the strongest piece of evidence that ritual violence was employed in the Middle Kingdom is an inscription attributed to Senusret I.

"Senusret claims to have found the temple of Töd in a state of disrepair and desecration. The "guilty" parties were killed in a variety of ways, including flaying, beheading, and burning. The language of the inscription draws an intentional parallel with animal sacrifices. It states that these punishments were inflicted as sacrifices." Muhlestein observes.

Muhlestein says Harco Willems points to numerous inscriptions from the First Intermediate and New Kingdom Periods that make it clear interference with funerary cults could be met with ritual slaying with references to having one's neck severed like a sacrificial bird's.

But, even though sacrificed animals were usually consumed by temple priests, did this apply to human sacrifices as well? Amenhotep III decreed burning for any who interfered with the funerary cult of one of his favorite courtiers. Muhlestein thinks this refers to just burning the corpse thereby totally destroying a person eliminating the possibility of an afterlife but admits there are inscriptions that point to more than mere destruction of the body.

"For instance, First Intermediate Period (ca. 2130-2010 BCE) Assiut Tombs III and IV have inscriptions that say a desecrator will be burned, or cooked..."

He goes on to describe two ritual killings described in the Petition of Petiese (a petition for redress from the early fifth century BCE).

"Petiese felt that while others had been involved, the death of these two would suffice for the sake of justice, and that others did not need to be burned in a brazier. Burning in a brazier carries strong ritual connotations,and in this case it was clear that the crime which demanded such action was murder," Muhlestein observes.

He also mentions a literary tale from the 4th century BCE in which a murderer is burned on a brazier at the door of the palace.

"While the tale is fictive, it surely drew from situations with which its intended audience would be familiar, strongly suggesting that it was known that murderers were burned in a manner similar to other sacrifices, but perhaps at the palace rather than at the temple. These two sources make it clear that at least during later time periods, murder was punishable by burning, likely with ritual trappings."

Ritualized sacrifices related to rebellion are also epigraphically documented.

"Amenhotep II reportedly slew seven princes at his coronation festival. Ramesses III records slaying captured Libyans using language that mirrored the descriptions of sacrificial seems extremely likely that there were a number of ritual slayings of rebellious enemies by the kings of Egypt," Muhlestein states.

I noticed in his discussion of prisoner executions by Prince Osorkon after a rebelliion in Thebes that once again braziers were lit. You don't normally incinerate entire human bodies on a brazier. Braziers were used for heat and cooking.

So, it appears human sacrifice and in some cases possibly cannibalism were indeed practiced in ancient Egypt. Dio's description of the fate of that 2nd century legionary could have definitely been based in fact.

Teresa Bałuk-Ulewiczowa and Tomasz Polański of Jagiellonian University in their paper The Boukoloi Uprising, or How the Greek Intellectuals Falsified Oriental History, disagree, however.

They point to descriptions of the Boukoloi in the 3rd century Greek romances of Achilles Tatius and Heliodorus of Emesa saying "The novelists’ evidence mirrors ethnical prejudice, historical resentments, the Greeks’ cultural and linguistic alienation in the Orient. Here and there it also resounds with the slogans and images coined for the needs of war propaganda."

Achilles Tatius describes a horrific scene of human sacrifice while the Boukoloi priest sings a ritual hymn in Egyptian. In it the Boukoloi want to kill the innocent and beautiful Leukippe, rip her stomach open, roast and eat her entrails, with every detail of the macabre ritual performed under the supervision of the Egyptian priest singing hymns to their barbaric gods.

Polański and Bałuk-Ulewiczowa point to how Dio's account of the sacrifice of the legionary in the uprising of 171 CE compares to that of the novelists. With no other corroborating ancient sources, they then examine what can be gleaned from a wider historical and cultural context.

"...we are dealing with the problem of peripheral communities and cultures, tribal groups living at a remote distance from the centre of power, with their own local histories, not very well known to the outside world, and developing ‘outside the Roman establishment’...The Boukoloi belonged to all those freedom-loving peoples, nomadic tribes or highlanders, who lived on the peripheries of the Graeco-Roman world or within the borders of the Roman Empire, but were never subdued and never controlled."

"...The image of the Boukoloi is strongly blended with the Hellenic literary lore populated with the wicked aliens, monsters and ogres like Busiris, Antaios or Cyclops.  It is clear, for example, that the opening scene of Heliodorus’ Aethiopica with the Boukoloi, was modelled on Euripides’ Iphigenia Taurica. In the above-discussed context we should not forget about the standard view of Egypt and the Egyptians in the Graeco-Roman letters, which is a blend of literary convention on the one hand and of cultural and ethnic prejudice on the other."

Polański and Bałuk-Ulewiczowa do not totally dismiss the possibility that ritual violence including cannibalism could have occurred but point out that wars involving a native minority population and a prevailing military force of a powerful state often result in cruel, if not bestial, behavior with intensifying brutality.

As for my opinion, I think the events related by Cassius Dio could have happened as described. Considering the numerous examples provided by Muhlestein, we have a long history of ritual killings in Egypt, especially in the context of interference with cultic practices. The Boukoloi, living on the fringe of Greco-Roman Egypt on boats moored along the banks of the Nile in the Western Delta, were an isolated group who spoke Egyptian despite their relative proximity to Alexandria where Greek had been spoken since the Ptolemaic dynasty was founded in 305 BCE.  Likewise, there was a strong likelihood they may have practiced Egyptian religion based in more archaic traditions as well. We know the Boukoloi were at least perceived as a group that conducted human sacrifice as evidenced by the novels of  2nd century CE authors Achilles Tatius and Heliodorus of Emesa.

We also know that the Romans despised any cult practices that included human sacrifice.

"... the killing of humans offerings to the gods as a regular, required part of worship was sacrifice and it was generally unacceptable. It was foreign to Roman practice or, if we accept what the Roman themselves claimed, foreign to Roman practice in the historical period. The Romans did not tolerate human sacrifice among the peoples they conquered, forbidding the Bletonesii [a Celtic tribe living in the central part of the Iberian peninsula] from performing it and seriously curtailing (if not actually eliminating it) among the Carthaginians and among the Celts. Even so, the Romans were willing on at least three occasions to offer human victims to the gods. This type of ritual was permissable but only just barely, within the Roman religious tradition because it was enacted only as an extraordinary, or ad hoc, response to an exceptional circumstance. It was not part of regular worship, but was ordered, as Plutarch points out, by the Sibylline books." - Celia E. Schultz, The Romans and Ritual Murder

It is not much of a stretch to imagine a scenario in which the Romans could have observed a religious ritual of the Boukoloi and intervened. To a Boukoloi priest, like Isidorus, the appropriate response would be to ritually sacrifice the offending soldier or even use one soldier as a representative of the offending body of soldiers.

Additional resources: The Pyramid Texts Online


Sirry, M. (n.d.). The Pyramid Texts - Cannibal Hymn. Retrieved August 02, 2017, from
Translation by James Henry Breasted

Kerry Muhlestein. (2015). Sacred Violence: When Ancient Egyptian Punishment was Dressed in Ritual Trappings. Near Eastern Archaeology, 78(4), 244-251. doi:10.5615/neareastarch.78.4.0244

Bałuk-Ulewiczowa , T., & Polański, T. (n.d.). The Boukoloi Uprising, Or How the Greek Intellectuals Falsified Oriental History [Scholarly project]. In Retrieved July 31, 2017, from

Schultz, C. (2010). The Romans and Ritual Murder. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 78(2), 516-541. Retrieved from