Walk Like an Egyptian

Sunday marked the beginning of Black History Month, a time
when people of African descent, especially those in the United States, remember
and are remembered for their achievements and impact on greater society. Last year, GladiatHers chose to participate
in Black History Month by recognizing some of the great African American women
of the past who broke barriers as athletes and as Americans. This year, I’m taking it back…way back…back
to ancient times. While American history
often starts Black history at the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, Black history
actually starts at the beginning of civilization. The continent of Africa birthed great
civilizations of men and women who were inventors, rulers, travelers, doctors,
orators, warriors, statesmen and everyday people. In honor of Black History Month and the
African Diaspora, this month will be filled with posts that provide a glimpse
at women in ancient African civilizations and how they participated in sports
and maintained fit lifestyles. These
women, along with women in other ancient civilizations, were the precursors to
the modern female athletes and deserve to be esteemed and remembered as they
paved the way for Serena Williams, Skylar Diggins, Gabby Douglas and the
millions of other black girls who participate in sports. So, let’s start at the beginning in ancient

In Egyptian society, women enjoyed a freeness that did not
exist for women in many other ancient or modern cultures. They worked alongside men, owned property, and made many of their own decisions.  They were celebrated for
their roles as mothers and wives but were also allowed to be active
participants in society as a whole. It
is no surprise then that ancient Egyptian women (like their male counterparts)
participated in sports. Though there is
little evidence to suggest that women were professional athletes in today’s
sense or participated to the extent that men in their society did, drawings and
writings suggest that the women of ancient Egypt were physically active and
public participants in sports. Many
drawings portray the female figure as being both slender and feminine, a
celebration of the woman as being simultaneously physically fit and
sensual. Various depictions, such as the
one on a relief at the temple of Hatshepsut in Karnak, show women as acrobats
and gymnasts. Texts and drawings also
support that women participated in fowling, swimming and rowing. Additionally, a relief from a tomb at Sakkara
and a mural from the tomb of Cheti at Beni Hassan provide evidence that ancient
Egyptian women also played ballgames and juggled. One of the most telling depictions of women
and sports in ancient Egyptian society (shown below) is that of Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut, who referred to herself as pharaoh
(the male term for king) and ruled under her own name, is depicted as running in
Heb Sed, a ceremony in which the pharaoh celebrated his/her continued reign and
power. While her participation in Heb
Sed does not necessarily mean that ancient Egyptian women were avid runners, it
does suggest that it was acceptable to celebrate strength and power in women in
their culture.

Ancient Egypt may not have produced any Hall of Fame women
athletes, but it did allow women to exist relatively freely. Women were able to find satisfaction and be
respected as nurturing mothers and wives but also as individuals who exerted
their physical strengths for fun and as competitors. Ancient Egyptians found beauty in
strength. It is amazing and disheartening
that thousands of years later, our modern society somehow struggles with
allowing women to be simultaneously beautiful and strong.


–Women’s Sports: A History by Allen Guttmann

–BBC History online. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/women_01.shtml

–Encyclopedia Britannica online. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/258986/Heb-Sed

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