… every variety of fish and in numbers beyond belief … [supplying] abundant subsistence from fish freshly caught [and] an unfailing multitude for salting.The Nile, according to Diodorus
Classical authors agreed that Egyptian priests were forbidden to eat fish and, since the King was nominally High Priest of every cult, the prohibition extended to the Pharaoh himself. Herodotus’s anecdotal evidence for a priestly taboo on the eating of fish, a restriction which might have applied when he visited Egypt c. 400 BC, was perpetuated by later writers and interpreted as a tradition pertaining to the preceding four millennia of Egyptian history. Authors of early studies on fishing in ancient Egypt acknowledged their reliance on Classical sources, and their interpretations were often coloured by comparisons with their own cultural and religious practices. This led to the mistaken perception that all Egyptians were subject to a taboo or religious prohibition on the eating of fish, a belief perpetuated in many popular Egyptological works to this day.
The earliest Egyptian mention of a fish taboo is found in Piye’s Victory Stela (Twenty-fifth Dynasty), when the Nubian conqueror refused to receive the embassies of certain princes because
“… they were eaters of fish, which is an abomination to the palace”.
Previously, no such avoidance of or abstention from fish, for religious or cultural reasons, is attested for the general population, collectively or individually. The association between the Egyptians and fish is of great antiquity. In recent years, zooarchaeological analyses of organic remains have revealed patterns of fish consumption across all periods and all sectors of Egyptian society, showing that fish was a crucial source of dietary protein from early prehistory and throughout the Dynastic period.
That the Egyptians should have ignored the Nile’s ready abundance of fish seems contrary to the vivid images of fishing in private tombs from the Old Kingdom onwards. The largest fish from the drag nets are shown being distributed to the tomb-owner’s staff while smaller fish, like tilapia, are cleaned and split for drying.
Fish are rarely seen among the foods set out for the funerary banquet, even though the eating of fish seems to have been divinely sanctioned. The Teaching for King Merikara describes the Nile’s bounty as the gift of Ra-Atum, who created gods and humans and the
“plants and cattle, fowl and fish to sustain them”.
Spell 65 in the Book of the Dead suggested that the gods themselves lived on fish. Despite the inherent symbolism of tomb images, the artistic record alone demonstrates the significant contribution of fish to the national food supply.
Fish formed a large part of the Egyptian diet from as early as 20,000 years ago, as shown by substantial remains of fishing camps like Wadi Kubbaniya, in Upper Egypt, and Sebil near Kom Ombo. The sheer quantities of fish processing debris indicate that the huge numbers of fish landed in a single season could not all have been consumed immediately or locally. Most fish would have been preserved, almost certainly by drying, and analysis of skeletal remains at fishing camps at Esna and Makhadma (c. 12,000 BC) suggest that fish were decapitated, split dorsally and gutted immediately after landing, and consumed elsewhere. Fresh fish could only be transported over short distances if it was to arrive in edible condition, but dried, salted or smoked fish could be distributed more widely.
The lack of evidence for contemporary related settlements means that the destinations of fish processed in places like the seasonal fishing camps around Lake Fayum, or riverside landing places like Sais in the Delta, are largely unidentified.
By not representing fish among depictions of food offerings, the contamination of tomb or temple by the distasteful smell of decomposing fish was symbolically avoided. The Satire of the Trades describes fishermen as having the ‘worst of all jobs’, partly because they were tainted by the inescapable smell of their working environment. In The Dispute of a Man with His Ba, the man complains that his name (meaning reputation) stinks
“… more than a catch of fish on a hot day … more than the fishermen smell, more than the marsh-pools where they fish …”.
While the ancient method of fishing with a harpoon or bident spear was available to all, in Spell 125 in The Book of the Dead, the deceased declares that he has
“not trapped birds in the preserves of the gods … [nor] caught the fish of their marshlands”,
suggesting that some hunting areas were reserved for the supply of divine offerings.
In his Abusir sun-temple, Niuserra (Fifth Dynasty) was portrayed
“coming to the Delta in order to catch fish in the cool water”.
From the Old Kingdom onwards, images of tomb-owners indulging in leisure pursuits like fishing and fowling on their own estates, mimicked royal temple scenes.
The suggestion that hunting and fishing rights could be exercised by, or denied to, a landowner’s tenants is implied in The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, where the eponymous peasant complains that the lowly spear-fisher, providing food for his family, is robbed of his livelihood by the large-scale fishing, or ‘plundering’, of the river, allowed by the privileged landowner.
The images of food in temples and tombs reflect elite preferences and represent the diet which the upper classes considered appropriate to their dignity. The absence of fish from these images, compared with the apparent wide availability of fish as a food source, cannot convey the realities of fish consumption. Fishing represented the organised exploitation of wild resources by which any peasant, armed with a net, line or spear, augmented an otherwise predominantly vegetarian diet. Status was demonstrated by a hierarchy of consumption, with noblemen keeping the prime fish for themselves, or to give as marks of favour to their retainers, while providing quantities of smaller, less nutritious fish (such as the mud-dwelling catfish) for their estate workers. Despite the perceived luxury status of larger, open-water species, like Nile perch, in some areas they were readily accessible and consumed by all social groups.
Food procurement strategies in a non-elite context, and interactions between town-dwellers and the providers of essential food supplies, including fishermen, leave very little evidence. The existence of marketplaces where fish was traded for other necessities is implied by artefacts like the serpentine model of a basket of fish from Hierakonpolis.
Similarly shaped baskets are represented in later scenes of marketing, where fishmongers offering smaller fish – both fresh and dried – supplied a basic dietary need. The marketing scenes on the Unas Causeway were in close proximity to a scene of famine-stricken foreigners, emphasising the superiority of Egypt, where even the poorest had access to a sustaining diet.
Food choices, if available, can indicate rank, status and social identity. A rich man might choose not only the type but also the size, age and method of preparation of the animals he ate. A peasant’s main concern was whether he could eat or not.
Where such data is available, the distribution by size of fish across a settlement tends to correlate well with inhabitants’ status and wealth. The questions of what fish was consumed and by whom can only be answered in specific, limited circumstances. If evidence for elite consumption is largely circumstantial, proof that the kings ate fish is almost non-existent, but the most obvious answer to the question posed at the start of this article is that all Egyptians ate fish.
All images: Hilary Wilson, unless otherwise stated
Hilary Wilson is a retired Maths teacher and is Chairman of the Southampton Ancient Egypt Society. She is now a freelance lecturer and writer and is the author of several Egyptological books and articles as well as the previous Per Mesut series in Ancient Egypt magazine. Under the name Hilary Cawston, she writes fiction with an Egyptian theme.