In their well-known inscriptions, Ahmose Pennekhbet (Louvre C49) and Amenemhab Mahu (TT85) of the Eighteenth Dynasty described their many adventures (participating in military campaigns, killing and capturing numerous enemies, hunting animals), emphasising just how fantastic they were. They also described receiving many gifts from the kings they served: slaves, weapons, gold jewellery, but also golden flies. As many pendants in the form of flies (made of both gold and other materials) have been discovered in Egypt, it is assumed that these inscriptions refer to them.
Receiving fly pendants may seem rather bizarre, but in 1911 Kurt Sethe suggested an interpretation: he assumed that, as flies are extremely persistent, golden flies were given as military awards to symbolise bravery and determination in battle. In fact, he believed that they were part of an honour called the Order of the Golden Fly, and this has subsequently become the standard explanation.
However, this interpretation does not take into consideration the wider context, in particular the fact that many fly pendants have been found in Egyptian tombs buried with women and children, who are unlikely to have been associated with military activity. Also, even if Ahmose Pennekhbet and Amenemhab Mahu did receive their golden flies as a military award, does that necessarily mean that all fly pendants should be interpreted in this way? Moreover, the perception of flies as annoying and persistent is a modern association, and the Egyptians may not have thought of flies in the same manner. (Consider the Egyptian association of dung beetles with the sun, of grasshoppers with deceased spirits, and of bees with the king.) In other words, the current interpretation flies in the face of the evidence… sorry, had to get that in!
The best-known golden flies are those of Queen Ahhotep, and they have come to represent the archetype, even though they are in fact exceptional in appearance and size. These flies also create a paradox for the interpretation of golden flies as military awards, because they were found with a queen, and queens are not normally associated with military activity in ancient Egypt. A somewhat circular argument is normally given for this:
• Ahhotep is believed to have had golden flies because she was a ‘warrior queen’.
• This reputation for being militarily active is based on her golden flies, and on her having been described as such on a stela CG 34001, originally from Karnak.
The golden flies were originally found with a significant quantity of other objects made of gold and other valuable materials, in a pit at Dra Abu el-Naga on the West Bank of Luxor. The pit also contained a gilded coffin that was inscribed with the name and titles of Queen Ahhotep of the early Eighteenth Dynasty. However, as demonstrated in my previous article (see AE 89), there is nothing in the burial that supports a military reputation for Ahhotep. For example, while there were some weapons made of gold and silver, the appearance of weapons in the burials of the elite is quite normal – especially for royal women (as seen in the Twelfth Dynasty burials of princesses at Dahshur) – and not necessarily indicative of military activity.
Likewise, the inscription of Ahhotep on stela CG 34001 has been misinterpreted as describing military activity. This stela consists of a long eulogy to King Ahmose, praising the king and representing him as a god and ruler of the world. It includes two lines that praise Ahhotep. Some earlier translations of these lines suggested that she was being described as a warrior who attacked groups of people, but more detailed translations (such as my own and that by Claude Vandersleyen) have shown that Ahhotep is instead being presented as a powerful queen who brought people together. While the king went off to war, she ruled and brought peace to the land – so she is more Queen Elizabeth II than Boudica.
There are no implications that she was a warrior queen, and to suggest that she was undermines her real achievements. Specifically, this is the first time in Egyptian history that a woman and queen took on imagery that was traditionally held only by the king. This may have resulted in Ahhotep establishing a precedent, paving the way for an era of powerful queens – none of whom were warriors, but who were shown as politically active. Going back to our golden flies, there is no evidence that Ahhotep had a military role and thus no reason to assume that these flies were given to her as military awards.
Following my research, I identified 83 strings of golden flies, containing 538 individual flies. The first examples date to the First Intermediate Period, and there are some from the Middle Kingdom, but the majority date to the New Kingdom, especially the Eighteenth Dynasty. While most golden flies are physical representations, there are also textual and iconographic examples:
• An image in the tomb of Dedi (TT 200) shows him wearing a collar with two lions and two flies around his neck;
• In TT 92, Suemniut is seen wearing a collar decorated with two lions and a fly;
• A limestone statue from Edfu of an unknown sailor (JE 49565) depicts him wearing two flies.
In general, golden flies are A-shaped and are mostly formed of three parts: a triangular head, trapezoid thorax, and rectangular/triangular wings. These parts can be designed and decorated differently, for example with vertical or horizontal markings. There are also some unique examples, such as Fitzwilliam E.67a.1939, which is formed of flat, back-to-back flies and inlaid with semi-precious stones. These different designs are significant evidence against golden flies being military awards, as the whole point of an award is for it to have a consistent and recognisable form.
Perhaps most importantly, although not all golden flies have been found in burials, where they have, and we know the sex of the deceased, the majority (71%) have been found with women. In fact, not a single physical golden fly has been found with a man – instead, their flies are textual or iconographic. The archaeological data therefore suggests it is extremely unlikely that golden flies were military awards.
In those cases where golden flies were given by the king to favoured officials, it is noteworthy that all of the officials received other expensive and gold objects too, including the iconographic examples. Furthermore, the associated texts do not emphasise the soldiers’ achievements – only that these officials were close to the king. They are therefore highly similar to the well-known genre of self-presentation texts, where officials describe their renown and relationship to the king. The objects that they were given thus symbolise that relationship, and in this context should be interpreted as gifts and not awards (as previously suggested by Susanne Binder, in The Gold of Honour in New Kingdom Egypt).
The theory that golden flies are unlikely to be military awards can be supported by the existence of fly pendants made of other materials. In total, we know of 770 non-gold fly pendants, strung across 375 strings, dating from the Predynastic period to the New Kingdom. They were made of a variety of materials, with faience and carnelian examples first found in Naqada II, and then in every subsequent period. Bone and harder stones, such as serpentinite, steatite, and olivine, are only used in earlier periods; copper, lapis lazuli, and ivory are used from the First Intermediate Period; and the greatest variety of materials is found in the New Kingdom. Therefore, non-gold flies existed long before golden ones, and should therefore be considered as the primary form.
As is the case for the golden flies, these non-gold flies are formed of different shapes and designs. Most commonly, they are A-shaped, but there are also V-shaped, Y-shaped, and triangular ones, their designs and decoration altering significantly. There are some unique examples, such Birmingham W1351, which is a faience fly in the shape of a keyhole, and Glasgow 1914.64, which looks like the fly is wearing a top hat.
There are iconographic examples of fly pendants, and these appear to be ivory flies of the type that we otherwise find in Nubia and that are shown being worn by Nubian traders or captives. These images are strong evidence that fly pendants were not military awards, as it’s extremely unlikely that they would be given to Nubian prisoners of war. Similarly, if we examine the owners of fly pendants where they are known, they are predominantly children (47%). Some 33% are found with men, but this finding is skewed by one particularly large string consisting of 41 flies (UC 26039), and 10 examples are iconographic. In fact, every textual and iconographic example of a fly pendant is shown with a man in a situation that could be ideological or artistic, which may distort the evidence. Regardless, this strongly suggests that they were not military awards, as we would otherwise expect them to be found predominantly with men rather than children.
As it is highly unlikely that fly pendants of any material were military awards, it makes little sense to say that they symbolised persistence. Hence, it is worth reviewing what the ancient Egyptians may have actually thought of flies. First, images of flies in ancient Egypt are not very common, but there are some examples on tomb walls, such as in the Sixth Dynasty tomb of Ankhmahor at Saqqara (S2727). It shows a bird-catching scene with a fly among the reeds, and thus its role was to help the viewer understand that this is a marsh, with the fly being presented as part of the natural environment.
Flies are also seen inscribed on the base of scarabs (such as Fitzwilliam E.GA.888.1943) and presumably their function is similar to those scarabs where the obverse is in the shape of a fly (e.g. Liverpool 1977.110.4) – that is, to provide protection for the owner/wearer in some form. In terms of textual references to flies, they are described in four ways:
• As part of the natural environment (e.g. writing tablet JE 37734);
• As metaphors for the deceased regenerating after death (e.g. Coffin Texts III.350);
• As protection against other insects (e.g. Coffin Texts II.94);
• As biting animals that can transmit diseases (e.g. p.Ebers 97.20-1).
In addition, there are some references in medical texts to what can be translated as ‘fly’s blood’ or ‘fly’s dung’, but this was probably propolis, which is collected by bees, and is not helpful to understanding flies. In summary, we can see that Egyptians never thought of flies as persistent, but rather as symbols of regeneration, protection or harm.
Golden flies have a variety of shapes and sizes but, most significantly, they do not have any recognisable/distinguishable features that could allow them to be recognised as awards. Furthermore, while iconographic evidence places all fly pendants with men, the archaeological evidence shows that they were more commonly associated with women and children. It is thus most likely that all fly pendants, regardless of material, were used as protective amulets.
There is no evidence that fly pendants symbolised persistence; it is more likely that they had the dual purpose of protecting against flies and the diseases that they can transmit, and symbolising regeneration after death. This paradox, where fly pendants would allow the wearer to assimilate the fly’s qualities and protect against them, may seem strange but is in fact typical in Egyptian culture (as we see with hippopotami and the gods Sekhmet and Seth).
Given this, the reason why golden flies were given by the king to favoured officials is not clear, but the fact that they are gold is probably more important than their form as flies in this context. Interestingly, however, Ahmose Pennekhbet, Amenemhab Mahu, Dedi, and Suemniut all are shown with golden lions too, and the only individual from ancient Egypt who is known to have had physical examples of both was Queen Ahhotep, a powerful queen who was venerated by the later Eighteenth Dynasty. As fly pendants were quite popular in the New Kingdom, it is possible that golden flies were part of a fashion trend, perhaps based on those of Queen Ahhotep.
In conclusion, golden flies were probably not military awards, but were instead powerful and expensive amulets to help their owners face the tribulations of life and death. In some contexts, they were given by the king to his favoured officials as gifts to symbolise his appreciation.
Further reading S Binder (2008) The Gold of Honour in New Kingdom Egypt (The Australian Centre for Egyptology 8), Oxford: Aris & Phillips. T Sidpura (2022) Flies, Lions and Oyster Shells: Investigating Military Rewards in Ancient Egypt from the Predynastic Period to the New Kingdom (4000-1069 BCE), PhD thesis, Manchester: www.bit.ly/SidpuraFlies.
Taneash Sidpura is an information security specialist and completed his PhD in Egyptology at University of Manchester in 2022. His specialist subjects include personal religion, shells, and foreign relations in ancient Egypt, and he has published a number of articles on Queen Ahhotep. You can read his article on the so-called ‘burial of Ahhotep’ in AE 89.