weekly blog--one for the ages
With Passover approaching, we travel back in time to take a look at how the elderly were treated in ancient Egypt. From the age of the pyramids around 3000 B.C., Egyptian society had highly developed family life and religious beliefs in an afterlife. Sons were expected to care for elderly parents, especially the father, and to maintain their tombs. Living to 110 years was considered the reward for a balanced and virtuous life. Aging was associated with illness and health beliefs centered on cleansing the body with ritual sweating, vomiting and bowel cleansing. The customary greeting was “How do you sweat?”
The Sir Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus that was written in 2800-2700 B.C. is one of the most ancient existing medical documents. It contains the earliest known written remedy for aging featuring recipes for a special ointment and directions for its use: “It is a remover of wrinkles from the head. When the flesh is smeared therewith it becomes a beautifier of the skin, remover of blemishes, of all disfigurements, of all signs of age, of all weaknesses which are in the flesh.” In the margin is a note written in informal Coptic script by the scribe drawing the hieroglyphs: “Found effective myriad times.”
The hieroglyph indicating "old age" or "to grow old" is a bent human figure resting on a staff. It is the earliest known artistic depiction of an old person. The Sir Edwin Smith Surgical papyrus tells us that since the beginning of recorded history people have tried to minimize or avoid aging because of the diminishment of vitality and strength.
Another ancient Egyptian medical document, the Eber’s papyrus (c. 1550 B.C.), contains the earliest known attempt to explain the manifestations of aging. It describes urinary difficulties such as frequent urination and obstruction, cardiac pain, palpitations, deafness, eye diseases and malignancy. To the Egyptians, “debility through senile decay” was caused by “purulency of the heart.” This theory that some unknown process affects the heart and causes aging is reflected in other ancient cultures.
It was not until the Ptolemaic Period (305 B.C. to 30 B.C.) that dates for birth, marriage, death and sometimes burial, were recorded. The average age at death in Egypt at that time was 54 years for men and 58 for women.
In general, children, daughters as well as sons, inherited all possessions from their parents. If a couple was childless, they had the options of adoption, divorce and remarriage, and even polygamy. Divorce was fairly easy to accomplish; since there was no ceremonial wedding, the bond could be dissolved with no formality.
Regarding pensions…the state supported its soldiers, primarily by allotting them plots of land, together with agricultural workers. There is also evidence that elderly soldiers were given honorary positions in temples. One such was Maya, who served under Tuhtmosis III. He was given the "gold of honor" to reward gallant soldiers, and was awarded the title "governor and chief of the prophets." Another soldier named Amenemone, a general in the 18th Dynasty, was appointed steward of a funerary temple of Tuthmosis III.