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Weird History

The Dumbest Things We Believe About Ancient Egypt Thanks To Pop Culture

List Rules
Vote up the commonly believed cliches about ancient Egypt that aren't historically accurate.

Pyramids, cats, and the pharaohs - that's what you see when you catch a glimpse of ancient Egypt told through popular culture. Some ancient Egyptian tropes aren't wrong - they may just be a bit exaggerated or overstated. At the same time, ancient Egypt is still ancient and many true facts about it do seem fictional, making it difficult to get a clear grasp of what life was like along the Nile River thousands of years ago. 

There are some key movies that have set the tone for what people believe about ancient Egypt. During the 1950s and 1960s, The Ten Commandments and Cleopatra offered up a version of ancient Egypt that remains pervasive. More recently, The Mummy franchise(s) have put some new spins on the time period. Video games have weighed in to a certain extent, adding to heaps of misunderstandings or straight-up falsehoods about ancient Egypt. 

Unfortunately, some of the same foolish notions about ancient Egypt appear over and over again. Which one did you fall for, maybe more than once? 

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    1,482 VOTES

    Scarabs Are Dangerous, Flesh-Eating Monsters

    Scarabs Are Dangerous, Flesh-Eating Monsters
    Photo: The Mummy / Universal Pictures

    Representations of scarabs are pervasive in ancient Egyptian artwork, amulets, and seals. Egyptians believed scarabs to be sacred, associating them with the sun god Re. This was because scarabs rolled balls of dung to lay their eggs, essentially creating a ball from which new growth would soon appear. In hieroglyphics, the scarab or beetle translates to "to come into being." 

    Scarabs were worn as jewelry in all colors and sizes by Egyptians among the living and sent to the afterlife. Scarabs were even mummified like those found at the King Userkaf pyramid complex near Cairo in 2018. According to the secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, Mostafa Waziri, "The (mummified) scarab is something really unique. It is something really a bit rare... A couple of days ago, when we discovered those coffins, they were sealed coffins with drawings of scarabs. I never heard about them before."

    Despite the veneration of scarabs in the Egyptian world, the heralded dung beetles are usually presented as destructive, creepy, evil creatures in popular culture. The Mummy (1999) includes depictions of scarabs as dangerous, invasive, flesh-eating insects that crawl under peoples' skin - in no way an accurate depiction of the feces-focused crawlers.

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    788 VOTES

    The Pyramids Were Built During The Events Depicted In Exodus

    The Pyramids Were Built During The Events Depicted In Exodus
    Photo: The Ten Commandments / Paramount Pictures

    Pyramid building remains a common trope in movies about ancient Egypt, often lumped in with stories about Moses, the Ten Commandments, and the plight of the Hebrews contained within the Book of Exodus. The Ten Commandments (1963) and Prince of Egypt (1998) are both guilty of this anachronism, linking two historical traditions that took place at least a millennia apart. 

    Dating the Book of Exodus and the Ten Commandments remains difficult, but the earliest possible timeframe for its content falls around 1200 BC.  Even with that timeline, the Old Testament's stories about Moses, the Ten Commandments, and the Hebrew flight from Egypt still take place more than 1,000 years after the Great Pyramids of Giza were built.

    Construction of the largest pyramid, that of King Khufu (2589-2566 BC), took place during the 26th century BC. The remaining two structures at Giza - the pyramids of Khafre (2558-2532 BC) and Menkaure (2532-2503 BC) - were also built during their reigns. 

    By about 2000 BC, the prosperity of Old Kingdom Egypt waned and massive pyramid-building activities declined. The New Kingdom (1550-712 BC) - which corresponds with the earliest possible dates for the stories in the Book of Exodus - saw no pyramids on the scale of those built during the New Kingdom. 

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    589 VOTES

    The Book Of The Dead Was A Literal 'Book' With Supernatural Powers

    The Book Of The Dead Was A Literal 'Book' With Supernatural Powers
    Photo: The Mummy / Universal Pictures

    The Book of the Dead - the ancient Egyptian text that helped a soul successfully traverse the afterlife - was neither a book nor the supernatural work pop culture portrays it to be. The Book of the Dead was written on papyri, produced by one or more scribes, and then rolled and placed in one's burial chamber or tomb.

    Unlike books, there was no mass production of the Book of the Dead - rather each version was unique and served as a manual of sorts for one individual. Near the end of their life, a person would have a book written with guidance and spells that directly addressed their impending needs in the afterlife. The ultimate goal of the Book of the Dead was to lead the deceased to paradise, but in order to get there, he or she had to know what to say, when to say it, and how to present themselves in the land of the dead.

    Egyptologists have identified 192 spells. No Book of the Dead includes them all, but there were some consistent spells that appeared in many versions. Spell 125, for example, features a script for meeting Osiris and other judges in the Hall of Justice:

    The correct procedure in this Hall of Justice: One shall utter this spell pure and clean and clad in white garments and sandals, painted with black eye-paint and anointed with myrrh. There shall be offered to him meat and poultry, incense, bread, beer, and herbs when you have put this written procedure on a clean floor of ochre overlaid with earth upon which no swine or small cattle have trodden.

    The earliest Book of the Dead dates to the 12th Dynasty (c. 1990-1800 BC), derived from inscriptions and paintings previously featured on tomb walls. By 1600 BC, the Book of the Dead was split into chapters, increasing in popularity through the New Kingdom (1570-1069 BC). The wealthier the deceased, the more elaborate one's Book of the Dead could be.

    The Book of the Dead is the key player in movies like The Mummy, where it's used to resurrect the deceased. The phrase "Book of the Dead" has also been found in the Evil Dead franchise, among others, confusingly presented in conjunction with the Necronomicon or some comparable book of magic used to cast spells and bring people back to life.

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    712 VOTES

    Every Single Thing Written By The Egyptians Was In Hieroglyphics

    Every Single Thing Written By The Egyptians Was In Hieroglyphics
    Photo: The Mummy Returns / Universal Pictures

    Hieroglyphics make their way into many pop cultural depictions of ancient Egypt (or at least they falsely appear, as in the case of the 2017 movie, The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise).

    Meaning "sacred carvings," hieroglyphics developed between roughly 3150-2613 BC. Made up of symbols that represented words and ideas, hieroglyphics were used by scribes. The complexity of these symbols meant using hieroglyphics took a lot of training, time, and work, leading to the development of a simplified version called hieratic writing. 

    There was another type of writing used in ancient Egypt, as well. Demotic writing, or "popular" writing, was used by the seventh century BC. Called a sekh shat, the script literally meant "writing for documents." Business, literary, and comparable nonreligious texts were produced in demotic script. It was only with the influx of Greek influence during the fourth century BC that it declined.