5 Popular Misconceptions about Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt is so familiar to us — hieroglyphs, pyramids, strange gods, and we all know about the mummy’s curse. Yet, many popular ‘facts’ are not actually true.

Aug 8, 2023By Claire Gilmour, MLitt Museum & Gallery Studies, MA(Hons) Archaeology & Celtic Civilisation, DipHE Egyptology

ancient egypt popular misconceptions


Ancient Egypt is eternally popular and has found its way into our own cultures in the present day, with movies, exhibitions, fashion, and much more. Writing, burial practices, religion, and art are instantly recognizable, but we are often responding to an idealized, or generic, image of Ancient Egypt. Hieroglyphs, mummification, and animal worship were not as widely practiced as they seem, and as for curses … they were not what we think. This article dips into some of the more well-known misconceptions.


Please note that this article contains images of mummified human remains.


1. The Curse of Tutankhamun

seal cord third inner shrine
Seal and cord from third inner shrine by Harry Burton, 1924, via the Griffith Institute, University of Oxford.


The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 was the first largely intact ancient Egyptian royal tomb to be found. An ancient king in a long searched-for tomb full of fascinating objects laden with mystical and primeval meaning. The story captured the public’s imagination, and newspapers at the time capitalized on that interest with a tale of a curse.


‘Death will come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the king’ does not actually appear anywhere in the tomb. There are curses, but this was not one of them. Tutankhamun’s curse stemmed from a media battle for readership.

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The Times had the exclusive rights for reporting on the excavation, so speculative stories were published by other newspapers, including the rumors of a curse. This played on post-Victorian familiarity with spiritualism, an interest in the gothic in literature, the growing obsession with Ancient Egypt and the trend for travelers’ souvenirs, which often included mummified remains or other objects from tombs.


Readers bought into the idea of a curse with relish. There were also a series of illnesses, accidents, and other events which the papers attributed to the opening of the tomb. The most notable was the death of Lord Carnarvon, who funded the excavation, on April 5, 1923. The cause of death was an infected cut, but the media could not resist adding to the curse story.


More recent research has thoroughly debunked the idea that those present at the opening met an untimely end. Only a handful of people who were there at the opening died within the next decade and Howard Carter, who led the team to discovery and excavation, died in 1939, aged 64. Nevertheless, our love of a good story and our fascination with Ancient Egypt means that the ‘curse’ lives on.


2. Mummification Was Not for Everyone

ancient egyptian mummy
Ancient Egyptian mummified body, via Wikimedia Commons


Ask anyone about Ancient Egypt, and chances are that one of the first things they think of is mummified human remains in tombs. Perhaps it is surprising then, that the reality of burial for many people in Ancient Egypt was much less elaborate. Mummification was a complex process, refined over time, and allowed those who could afford it to be embalmed with style. We can think of the embalming industry as offering several levels of packages, with the ‘gold’ standard reserving the best materials and techniques for royalty and other high-status individuals.


Practices varied at different times but mummification generally consisted of several stages: washing and preparing the body by removing and discarding the brain, and extracting and preserving some internal organs (the heart was usually left in the body); a period of dehydration in natron (a naturally occurring mineral salt) for around seventy days; application of oils and resins to the skin, and packing of the body cavities; wrapping with linen, sometimes with amulets placed in the wrappings for protection; then a final application of resins before placing in a coffin. The ritual of mummification was sacred, and we have little direct evidence from the Ancient Egyptians themselves as they did not leave texts about the process, so we have mostly relied on the second-hand reports of the Greek historian Herodotus from the 5th c. BCE.


Elite customers could look forward to their afterlives in style, fully provisioned, but if you were not one of the privileged few, what could you expect in your burial? A simpler process was available and consisted of dehydration and wrapping of the body, with lesser quality oils and resins; minimal internal cleansing and extraction of the internal organs or dissolving them with oil. This, of course, meant that bodies treated in this way were more prone to deterioration.


Poorer people might have to make do with a basic internal purge and dehydration, and we find cemeteries of the poorest who have been merely buried in the sand. Ironically, this is one of the most efficient ways of preserving a body, as the sand and heat draw out the moisture.


sety i mummy
Pharaoh Sety I, c.1279 BCE, via Wikimedia Commons


Mummification was an unpredictable art at the best of times. Variables like the time span between death and the beginning of the preservation process, the skill of the embalmer, and the quality of materials on hand all affected the result. There are also modern concerns such as museum environmental control and storage facilities for conservation. Some exquisitely preserved mummified bodies, which retain a lifelike appearance, but others did not fare so well, even with the best attempts. The remains of some of the New Kingdom (c.1550-1069 BCE) pharaohs are the pinnacle of this art, a benefit of centuries of experimentation, like Sety I and his son and heir, Ramesses II (often known as Ramesses the Great). They lie serenely alongside other royals in the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, and visitors thrill at the privilege of seeing the ancient faces of some of the most famous names in history. However, this is the exception, not the rule.


3. The Reality Behind Hieroglyphs

luxor temple pillars egypt
Inscription in Luxor Temple, via Wikimedia Commons


One of the main things associated with Ancient Egypt is hieroglyphic writing but, like mummification, this was a skill only available to the privileged few. This might be surprising because writing is everywhere — on papyri, in tombs, on monuments — but the reality was that very few Ancient Egyptians could read or write. It is difficult to calculate an exact figure, but scholars generally estimate that literacy levels were only around 3-5%, with some putting that figure as low as 0.4%. We have an invaluable resource in the many texts from the royal tomb-workers’ village at Deir el-Medina, on the west bank of Luxor, but that is an unusual find. If you could not read or write yourself, you could hire someone else to do it for you, but how necessary was it, and who in society could actually do that?


Writing was an invention of necessity to allow cultures with increasing levels of social hierarchy, technological advancement, and group identity to manage records. The importance of writing can be seen not only in its constant presence but in its association with administration, religion, and art. In Ancient Egypt, words were sacred and magical — they were the speech of the gods (medu netjer, ‘divine words’), gifted by the creator deity Ptah. This quality is acknowledged by the Ancient Greeks, from whom we get the word hieroglyph (‘sacred carving’).


narmer palette
The Narmer Palette, c.3100 BCE, via Egyptian Museum, Cairo


The earliest evidence of writing in Ancient Egypt goes back some five thousand years and is connected with the emergence of the state. The Narmer Palette (c.3100 BCE) shows that even at this early stage, the representation of the king and associated ideas like dominance and authority are well-formed in images, enhanced with hieroglyphic signs. These include the king’s name, inscribed between images of a goddess and enclosed in a serekh (a symbol of the royal palace and an identifier of the early kings).


Education in Ancient Egypt was not for everyone, so few people learned to read and write. Occupations such as scribe tended to be passed down from father to son, and those who were literate were largely members of the elite in professions like courtier, priest, and treasurer. As writing is a tool of bureaucracy, this meant that access to knowledge and control over record-keeping and narrative was very restricted. Even the artists who worked on the beautiful hieroglyphic inscriptions were not all able to read or write, copying other inscriptions or being instructed by a literate foreman.


BM Book of the Dead Hunefer
The Book of the Dead of Hunefer, 19th Dynasty, via British Museum


The relationship between art and text in Ancient Egypt was very close, often combining to create an even stronger message, and we can see this in the beauty of form that is the hieroglyphic script. Formal hieroglyphs were reserved for inscriptions in temples and suchlike, carved in stone as a permanent statement suitable for such a prestigious place, while a more cursive script was used for everyday writing. Papyrus was expensive, so it was more common to use linen, pottery sherds, wood, or any other surface.


In terms of reading, we are used to being able to study Ancient Egyptian literature on paper, either in the original or in translation, but most people then would not have been able to access such texts, much less read them. Depending on the type of text, they may have been performed or pronounced.


hieroglyphs tomb seti i
Hieroglyphs from the tomb of king Seti I, c.1280 BCE, via British Museum


Furthermore, many of the inscriptions we see in ancient contexts were not meant to be seen. Temples were dark, exclusive places, and in some parts only the gods would see the words; the sacred act of writing was as important as the words themselves. Tombs had an accessible area, a chapel where people could come to visit and leave offerings, etc, but the burial chamber with all its texts on the coffin, funerary papyri, on the walls, was not meant to be accessed by anyone once it had been sealed.


4. Did the Egyptians Worship Animals? 

serapeum ruins photo
Granite sarcophagus for an Apis bull in the Serapeum at Saqqara, via Flickr/Richard Mortel


‘The Ancient Egyptians worshipped animals’ is a phrase often used, but was it true? In a sense, yes, but there was more to it. The people did not worship the animals themselves, but rather revered their connection to the gods. There were few exceptions, the most significant being the Apis bull, believed to be the ka (a concept roughly equivalent to the spirit or life essence) of the creator god Ptah, patron of craftsmen. Ptah’s cult center was at Memphis, with an avenue connecting it to a vast catacomb known as the Serapeum, where the bulls were buried.


The Apis bull was a very specific animal and was chosen by its markings. Certain features had to be present for it to be identified as the avatar of the god — a white flash on its forehead, a moon shape on its side, double hairs on its tail, vulture markings on its back, and a scarab mark under its tongue. When confirmed as the right animal, it was taken to the temple and installed as a figure of worship and an intermediary between the people and the gods, acting as an oracle through movements interpreted by priests. Occasionally, it was taken out on festival days. The mother of the bull was also installed in the temple and treated with reverence.


There was only one Apis bull at a time, and when it died it was mummified and buried with great ceremony in the Serapeum, in a massive sarcophagus with full honors and a stela marking its life. The cow which birthed the Apis was also revered as the mother of the sacred bull.


cat mummy
Mummified cat, Roman period, via British Museum


Bulls were one of the animals whose imagery was closely associated with the king from the earliest times, for its strength and fertility. Other royal animals included the lion (as seen in the Great Sphinx at Giza), falcon, and the snake. These qualities became associated with different gods and led to a vast mummification industry, the size of which eclipsed that for people.


Some gods attracted more offerings than others, such as Bastet, Anubis, and Thoth. As gods of family, death, and knowledge respectively, they had a strong presence in Ancient Egyptian religion and their cult centers became places of pilgrimage. Most people left a votive offering, usually a mummy of the animal most closely connected to them — in this case, cat, dog and ibis. There are literally millions of mummified animals and birds in these settings, as the cults lasted over centuries and became especially active in later times.


Not all mummies were complete — investigation has revealed that many were ‘fake’, consisting of mostly packaging, or just a part of the animal like a wing or a head. There is evidence of some unscrupulous priests being involved in a fake mummy scam, but for the most part this is not a fake in the sense of trying to swindle the pilgrims; rather, it was a case of supply and demand. The impracticality of rearing or catching some animals in particular (e.g. raptors), and the idea that a part represented the whole meant that it was more about the gesture and intention.


sarcophagus tamiut
Sarcophagus of prince Thutmose’s cat, Tamiut, via Egyptian Museum, Cairo


The temples maintained a breeding program, intended to supply the animal mummification industry, so it might seem surprising to us that the Ancient Egyptians were as clinical about this as we view them as animal lovers. However, they lived alongside their working animals and kept them well, and we do have evidence for genuine affection for some pets. A special case is that of prince Thutmose, who provided a stone sarcophagus for his beloved cat, complete with funerary inscriptions, imagery of offerings and her name — Tamiut. She even has her shabti (a figure representing a servant for the afterlife) image adapted to have a cat’s face rather than human.


It is not always easy to tell what an animal’s specific role in life or death was, but the Ancient Egyptian relationship with them transcended simple categorization, with the divine and the secular represented in their practices.


5. Akhenaton Was Not So Strange After All? 

akhenaten worshipping Aten
Akhenaten and Nefertiti offering to the Aten, via Egyptian Museum, Cairo


Akhenaten, tenth ruler of the 18th dynasty, has been called a misfit, a heretic, insane, and the cause of arguably the most problematic time in Ancient Egyptian history — the Amarna Period. Was he really that different to other kings?


Akhenaten began his reign as Amenhotep IV, but during his fifth year in power changed his name — marking an official change in his ideology. Amenhotep (‘Amen is content’) was now ‘the soul of the sun’. He also moved the state capital from Thebes to a previously unused site in Middle Egypt — modern day Tell el-Amarna — from which we take the name of that period. Ancient Akhetaten (‘horizon of the Aten’) was not connected to any other gods or kings, and its wind-swept plains were the ideal place to start building Akhenaten’s vision of kingship.


The Aten was the sun disk, and it was the focus for worship over the standard Egyptian pantheon in the new city. Contrary to popular belief about the absolute nature of Akhenaten’s decision, the other gods were not banned, but demoted; rather than monotheism, it would be more accurate to call it monolatry. Offerings were still made to deities like the Mnevis bull, and Re, though these were gods associated with the sun, so fitted in with Akhenaten’s plan.


akenaton sculpture
A sculptor’s model of Akhenaten, in Amarna style, c. 1353-1337 BCE, via The Louvre, Paris


Akhenaten maintained a campaign of hostility against Amun, going as far as to excise the god’s name wherever possible, but we should note that Amun, as the principal god of the old capital Thebes, was likely targeted for political reasons as well as religious. The cult of Amun was very powerful, with the high priests in control of many areas of government and bureaucracy, and this would have been one way to lessen their influence. The move away from Thebes, and Akhenaten’s alteration of the mode of worship also loosened their grip, as the only one permitted to make the required offerings and rites was the king himself.


Scholarship has accused him of being a detached king, willingly ignorant of political matters while he focused his time and Egypt’s resources on this new cult in Akhetaten. The Aten was in fact a very old deity who gained prominence during the reign of Amenhotep III, Akhenaten’s father, although it is without doubt that the Amarna Period was the peak of the cult.


Excavations at the city have revealed that huge amounts of materials, food for offerings, and manpower were used in this massive building project, with much of it focused on the royal palace and the Aten temples. Analysis of skeletal material from the cemeteries indicates that the inhabitants were worked hard and many were malnourished. Amarna perhaps just did not have the opportunity to grow into the beautiful city it was intended to be, as it was a short-lived endeavor, but the fact of mixed experiences of life there has added to the picture of Akhenaten as neglecting his people.


colossal statue akhenaten
Colossal statue of Akhenaten, Flickr/Gary Todd


One of the main discussions on Akhenaten is his appearance, and what it might represent. Theories have proposed genetic problems or illness, but these have largely been disproved. One of the stumbling blocks is the nature of Egyptian art, which conveys ideas and concepts rather than reality, so we cannot use it to determine what Akhenaten looked like. His statues are not portraits, but statements of ideology. His androgynous appearance with wide hips, breasts, and full lips is at odds with the classic images of Ancient Egyptian kings, but some of these features have already been seen in the iconography of his father. Many of his own images are in fact not the king himself, as closer examination of inscriptions reveals. As the sun disk, the Aten is neither male nor female and the intangibility of its being is captured in the form of Akhenaten.


akhenaton defaced coffin
Defaced coffin from tomb KV55, via Wikimedia Commons


The body in tomb KV55 in the Valley of the Kings is largely agreed to be the remains of Akhenaten, or a very close relative, and it falls within fairly normal parameters. However, the associated coffin has been damaged, mainly in the face and where the name would have been, so this suggests animosity from certain quarters. He may have gone against some peoples’ beliefs in what was meant by order, but he was still buried as a king even if it wasn’t in Akhetaten as he intended.


In terms of political connections, Akhenaten maintained communication with outside powers and vassal states, as seen in the Amarna Letters. This is an archive of documents found in the central city in the late 19th century, consisting of around 350 copies of letters inscribed on clay tablets in cuneiform. As well as Akhenaten, his father Amenhotep III and mother Tiye are mentioned in the letters, showing their involvement in international politics. Akhenaten has continued this, and also gave his Great Royal Wife, Nefertiti, equal standing. It is unusual for a king and queen to be on such level footing, but not unprecedented, and the involvement of the whole royal family in the cult of the Aten further alienates the priesthood and strengthens the king’s control of the city.


akhenaton nefertiti amarna statue
Limestone statue of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, c. 1353-1337 BCE, via The Louvre, Paris


Akhenaten’s death resulted in the dismantling of his city. His son, Tutankhamun (Tutankh-aten at birth), restored the old gods and Thebes became the capital once more. Unfortunately, Tutankhamun and his immediate successors, Ay and Horemheb, were still in the shadow of Akhenaten and tainted by association. The Amarna kings were omitted from records and Akhenaten’s name and image defaced, so it seems that he provoked strong feelings in the past and present. However, he was not as unorthodox as some might say.


Misconceptions about Ancient Egypt: Conclusion

akhenaten sphinx relief
Relief of Akhenaten as a Sphinx, from Amarna, via Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


These are just a few of the aspects of Ancient Egypt which are often misunderstood. It is useful to remember that we have a large preservation bias, i.e. the upper classes were the ones who could afford mummification, funerary papyri, elaborately painted tombs, and had the ability to access and control knowledge through writing. In the last few decades, excavation has revealed more evidence from the working classes, but we still have much to learn about them.

Author Image

By Claire GilmourMLitt Museum & Gallery Studies, MA(Hons) Archaeology & Celtic Civilisation, DipHE EgyptologyClaire Gilmour is a PhD candidate in Anthropology & Archaeology at the University of Bristol, researching the cultural and academic impact of the study of Ancient Egypt in Scotland. She teaches Egyptology, Archaeology and the Ancient Near East at the University of Glasgow, is Chair of Egyptology Scotland, and has worked in museum collections care for over twenty years. She is particularly interested in the history of Egyptology, museums and collecting, the life and career of Alexander Henry Rhind (1833-63), funerary archaeology (especially Ancient Egyptian tomb equipment) and the reception of Ancient Egypt. She is currently a committee member on the International Society for the Study of Egyptomania.