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Myths About Ancient Egypt, Debunked

Updated September 23, 2021 3.9k votes 688 voters 91.4k views11 items

List RulesVote up the most shocking debunkings.

Extraterrestrial influencers, royal curses, and biblical enslavements - myths about ancient Egypt abound. Centuries of inaccuracies, lost sources, and popular fictions have sometimes misrepresented and fudged facts about ancient Egypt. So, what is true and false about the long-gone world of pyramids and pharaohs?

In the many millennia between 3100 and 332 BCE, pharaohs ruled over a sophisticated civilization. This was a world of organized medical knowledge and ancient Egyptian surgery, complex religious beliefs, and even ancient sex culture and birth control. But not everyone was free or equal; the divide between rich and poor was expressed in unexpected ways. Pharaohs claimed to be gods incarnate, and they built hieroglyph-laden pyramids and giant statues to show off their authority.  

Though plenty of historical and archeological evidence offer glimpses into ancient Egypt, not everything people believe about it is true. By debunking ancient Egypt myths, it's possible to get a clearer picture about the era in all its complexity.

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  • 1. MYTH: The Pyramids Were Built By Enslaved Laborers

    The Reality: The great pyramids of Egypt required a large force of roughly 10,000 workers per structure, but the workers probably weren't slaves. Instead, pyramids were constructed thanks to a form of labor built on obligation and exchange. Scholars believe pyramid construction crews perhaps comprised workers who labored for three months at a time.

    Why The Myth: The ancient Greek historian Herodotus was among the first to circulate the myth Egyptians relied on slave labor to build their elaborate pyramids. The belief stuck, and Hollywood films like The Ten Commandments brought the myth to wider audiences. 

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  • 2. MYTH: Ancient Egypt Was A Society Focused On The Afterlife

    Photo: Harry Burton / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Reality: Like in most societies, the ritualization of death in ancient Egypt was only one aspect of a rich and complex culture. For example, ancient Egyptians were beer lovers and women had more legal rights than their counterparts in subsequent eras. Even the ritualization of one's passing was ultimately about life: the elaborate tombs and mummies were created to help prepare and equip bodies for the everlasting afterlife. 

    Why The Myth: Some of the most enduring, evocative archaeological symbols of ancient Egypt are associated with grim matters: pyramids and mummies. This has contributed to the myth of the afterlife being the central focus of ancient Egyptian life.

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  • 3. MYTH: Pharaohs Always Slayed Their Servants So They Could Serve Them In The Afterlife 

    The Reality: Rulers in the First Dynasty did expect some servants to follow them into the afterlife: They were sacrificed and buried in the pharaoh's tomb. One of the earliest pharaohs King Djer, for example, may have sacrificed hundreds of servants. But this process quickly fell out of practice. Later pharaohs were buried with figurines to represent their servants and undertake work in the afterlife.

    Why The Myth: The myth that all pharaohs slayed and entombed their servants - or buried them alive - fixates on a limited era of Egyptian history and wrongly applies it to the entire ancient period. It also underscores the Hollywood-nurtured assumption that ancient Egyptian rulers were bloodthirsty. 

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  • 4. MYTH: Cleopatra Was A Beautiful Egyptian Pharaoh

    Photo: Louis le Grand / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Reality: Scholars generally agree Cleopatra probably wasn't physically stunning, but she was intelligent, quick-witted, charming, and the only Ptolemaic ruler to speak Egyptian, the language of her subjects. Moreover, she was descended from a Macedonian Greek family associated with Alexander the Great.

    Why The Myth: Cleopatra is one of the most mythologized women in history. Since many have imagined her to be a seductress, she is often depicted as beautiful. Hollywood films in the 20th century reinforced this belief: When starlets like Elizabeth Taylor played Cleopatra, they furthered the assumption that the queen was an alarmingly attractive woman.

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