Reimagining Disability

Tomorrow is Yesterday: Disability in Ancient Egypt

When the public thinks of disabled people in the ancient world, associations are generally negative. Assumptions are that disabled people either did not exist or survive, or that they were poorly treated in an ancient world context. These beliefs are both an ableist and disablist interpretation of the ancient past. Ableism is discriminatory, oppressive, or abusive behaviour arising from the belief that disabled people are inferior to others. It can be described as the systemic and interpersonal exclusion and oppression of disabled people. Disablism refers to prejudice, stereotyping, or institutional discrimination against disabled people. The erroneous assumptions about the ancient world are perpetuated and reinforced in modern society. As historian Martha L. Rose sums up brilliantly: ‘Our assumptions about the place of people with disabilities in the present day have colored, often falsely, our interpretations about people with disabilities in the ancient world.’

I am a disabled Egyptologist who has researched disability in the pharaonic and Ptolemaic Periods of ancient Egypt. However, contrary to popular tropes, my research on Egypt has shown that whilst it was not a utopia, disabled people existed, thrived, and were incorporated into society. My research has since branched out to include examining how the ancient world has been incorporated and used in the disability rights movement. What follows is a brief overview of some of the evidence for disability in ancient Egypt, how it has been interpreted (or not) by other scholars, and more importantly why this is crucial to us as a society today. Cerebral Palsy has appeared in different mediums in ancient Egypt’s history. This is also the disability I have, and I will use it as a case study for the other numerous representations and histories of disability in ancient Egypt.

Our first example is Geheset, a noblewoman from the 13th dynasty (1795-1720 BCE). She lived, worked, and was an integral part of the pharaoh’s court. She also ran her household, and was married to a judge named Imeni. They lived together in Egypt’s capital city of Itj-tawy, and later moved to the new capital of Thebes. She might have been Nubian and lived to be approximately 50-60 years old. Geheset is believed to have had cerebral palsy. Archaeologists deduced this from examining her mummified remains. Her lower left arm is in a rigid position. The left side of her body, in particular her head, shows signs of having to work harder to function than her right side, and her teeth show evidence of her drooling and producing excess saliva. As examined by Kyle Lewis Jordan she was a married, functional, contributing member of society.

Later we also have the 19th dynasty pharaoh Siptah. He became a pharaoh when he was a child of either ten or eleven. We know that he ruled for six years and died in his teens. Egyptologists looking at his mummified remains, deduced that Siptah was around 5’2” and had red hair. He is also believed to have cerebral palsy because the arms of his body were in a non-traditional position and his foot was extended lengthwise. Unlike Geheset, his diagnosis is not as clear cut. Prior archeologists have stated that he had polio. This alternate diagnosis may be a result of unconscious ableist biases and biases of omission within the field. Polio is a more comfortable diagnosis since it is not as prevalent within society today, and cerebral palsy today is primarily thought of a children’s disability, especially in the medical field, with a lack of awareness that disabled children grow up and become disabled adults. Therefore, these modern biases likely led to this being missed initially. It also ties into my research with our next example, Harpocrates, where it took a lived embodied understanding of the disability to be able to recognize it.

There are numerous statues, figures, and amulets portraying the Greco-Egyptian hybrid god Harpocrates and his feminine counterpart Harpocratis. Harpocrates was described by the historian Plutarch as ‘prematurely delivered and weak/lame in his lower limbs.’ Harpocrates was recognised as the son of Isis, heir of Osiris, and son of the Ptolemaic god, Serapis, depending upon different myths. He was a child iteration of Horus, the sun god. Harpocrates was considered to be the god of secrets, confidentiality, silence, the embodiment of hope, and representative of the newborn sun. Later on, he was recognised as a protector of mothers and children. Harpocrates was also closely associated with the solar cult of Ptah-Sokaris, and the mortuary cult. His fertility aspect was most closely associated with the cult of Serapis.

The central image of the object here depicts the god Horus striding atop two crocodiles with the head of the protective god Bes above him. The figure of Horus is carved in high raised relief, with careful modeling of the body. He is nude, with the exception of his bracelets and neck collar, and maintains a side lock of hair on his right side to indicate his youth. In his hands, he is grasping several strong and dangerous desert animals (scorpions, serpents, lion, oryx) by their tails or horns.
Magical stela or cippus of Horus. Ptolemaic Period, 332–280 BC. Chlorite schist. Dimensions: H. 20.5 cm x W. 12 cm x D. 4.5 cm. Accession Number: 20.2.23, © Metropolitan Museum of Art

There are numerous artistic depictions of Harpocrates, most of which appear at first glance to show him as nondisabled, but in reality do show him and Harpocratis (the female form) as having signs of cerebral palsy. These have been overlooked or not recognised for what they are. I noticed them because of my personal physical embodiment with this impairment.  What initially stood out to me were the positioning of his legs and hands where he has been traditionally described as sitting, which did not match up with what I was seeing, and more closely resembled a crouch gait commonly seen in those with certain types of cerebral palsy. The more I looked, the more I ended up finding. These depictions include Greek or Egyptian style amulets and statues in which the gods are standing. There are statues in which they are either in a sitting or half crawling position, ones in which they are sitting or riding on the back of animal. Interestingly, there are only depictions of Harpocrates breastfeeding from the goddess Isis. Harpocrates was sometimes shown as a smaller statue depicted with his worshippers or priests as well. He is uniquely paired with another disabled god Bes, who had dwarfism, when they both functioned in their healing or protective capacity. The two gods are interconnected in that Bes was a healing and protective deity, disabled, and also had a feminine counterpart, Beset.

Harpocrates is depicted seated, finger to his lips, holding a crook and flail of kingship, with his leg out atop a lotus on a boat made from papyri. He is next to the god Anubis who approaches him arms raised in a respectful gesture. Two falcons are seated on either end of the boat.
Jasper intaglio: Harpocrates seated on lotus in papyrus boat. Roman, 2nd-3rd Century CE.  Green Jasper. Dimensions: 1.5 x 1.8 x 0.3 cm. Accession Number: 81.6.295, © Metropolitan Museum of Art

Finally, there is a remarkably humanising and joyful terracotta sculpture located in the British Museum. It is a later Greco-Roman representation that is thought to have come from Alexandria, Egypt. The sculpture depicts an older looking child using what appears to be an ancient walking aid. It shows someone with possible cerebral palsy, although it has again been alternately diagnosed as depicting someone with polio. Keith Armstrong previously suggested that this sculpture depicted a walking aid, as well as a representation of physical impairment. The child’s gender cannot be determined as they have a longer hairstyle. The child’s head is also tilted slightly to one side (in this case the left), something commonly seen in those with certain types of cerebral palsy due to muscle weakness. The child also has a posture of knees slightly bent and turned inwards, as is usual in cerebral palsy. The musculature on the right leg is more developed than on the left, which also is suggestive of cerebral palsy since muscle and posture weakness on one side of the body is typical. The walking aid has a triangular base, with wheels at each corner, a bar at the top to hold on to, and struts that drop vertically to the back wheels and at angle to the front wheels.

Terracotta figure of a child walking with the aid of a wheeled frame. The child has their head slightly tilted to one side and has a bright happy expression on their face.
Child with a Walker. Greco-Roman Period, 1st-2nd Century CE, Terracotta. Dimensions:H: 12 cm. Accession Number: 1996,0712.2, © The Trustees of the British Museum

The purpose of this art object is not currently known. However, it has been theorised as a visual depiction of part of someone’s biography. However, the sculpture is mould-made which implies that there was a mass market for this type of art. This object warrants closer examination in terms of its possible societal implications. The use of embodiment becomes a clarifying factor, and this example is demonstrative of how the default ableism present in the field has interfered with interpretation. If these statues were mass produced, then this also questions the commonality of infanticide in ancient society. This statue shows that representations of disabled people were possibly based on real life and desired on a mass scale. Since this art was mould-made, it also suggests that there was more than one walker. The gender of the sculpture in this case may be deliberately ambiguous as the client could then have it painted to specify a particular gender based on their preferences. This further implies that these people who utilized mobility aides were at least partially accepted into society in ancient Egypt. The Ptolemaic Period especially had a surplus of disabled war veterans countering the narrative that disabled people did not exist in ancient society.

These examples illustrate the potential dangers of approaching art and human remains from a default nondisabled perspective. These case studies demonstrate how the field can be inherently ableist and disablist, as opposed to actively ableist and disablist, and how these implicit and unconscious biases feed into one another. Signs of cerebral palsy were not actively dismissed, rather overlooked because no one with lived expertise understood what was being examined. The idea of ancient infanticide is enshrined in scholarly literature, and therefore also public consciousness and the disability rights movement. Therefore, it was missed because the default assumption is that this population did not exist. They were murdered. Therefore no one was actively looking for disabled people. This is perhaps an example of unconscious ableist bias, as signs of impairment can be ignored or missed, effectively erasing these people and gods from the historical narrative, or resulting in their being re-written as nondisabled. Disabled people have always existed, lived, thrived, and were incorporated into ancient Egyptian society.

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