Seneb the Egyptian Deneg December 4, 2015Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback
Seneb’s tomb in the Giza Necropolis offers the first realistic portrait in history of someone suffering from dwarfism. Seneb is sculpted seated to the left of his wife and where his feet would normally be shown coming down to the ground there are two of his three children; an unconventional touch. Size is often misleading in Egyptian art for the simple reason that size was a guide to status: in other words pharaohs were very big and gods were massive; Seneb, in fact, is elsewhere shown to be the same size or bigger than his servants. (Seneb was wealthy. He boasted of owning thousands of heads of cattle.) However, there is no question that Seneb was, indeed, a deneg or dwarf. Notice the slightly overlarge head: compared with his wife’s very conventional appearance. In fact, the very fact that Seneb was so unusual meant that the artist may have been more prepared to actually depict the original rather than give the formal ‘men’, ‘women’ found in so many Egyptian tombs: the ancient equivalent of the male/female signs on toilets. Indeed, this might be argued to be one of the first true portraits in history.
Dwarfs had a special status in Egypt: they were allegedly sexual supermen, were often set to use their supposed special gifts to look after animals and children, and some even took part in mythological pageants (there were Egyptian dwarf gods including Bes, the god of the hearth). Here is an extraordinary reference, quoted by John Nunn in his Ancient Egyptian Medicine . This is a letter from King Pepy II’s secretariat to one of his nomarchs:
You said that you sent a dwarf of the god’s dances… Please bring this dwarf with you… to do the god’s dances to gladden the heart of the king Pepy II. If he comes with you in the boat, arrange trustworthy people to be around him on the two sides of the boat, who shall guard him lest he falls into the water… For [the king] wishes to see him more than the gifts of Sinai and Punt!
It goes without saying that the builders of the pyramids and their heirs did not typically take such care over the welfare of their citizens. Pepy must have heard great things about the dancer. Let’s hope the deneg lived up to expectations.
Other remarkable dwarfs from the ancient world: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com