A Donkey Called Rameses

Jennifer Cromwell

In the village of Deir el-Medina, the home of the workmen who built the royal tombs of the Valley of the Kings, donkeys were big business. While scenes from the New Kingdom show pharaoh riding a horse-drawn chariot into battle, neither horses nor camels played a part in the day-to-day lives of villagers – camels weren’t even introduced into Egypt until a millennium later (see here). Donkeys were the principal beast of burden, and still play an important part in village life in Egypt today.

During the Ramesside period (ca. 1,295–1,069 BCE), a man called Sennefer had a short text drawn up on a limestone flake. On first sight, this text – a list – seems pretty innocuous, but it provides the first evidence that ancient Egyptians named their donkeys, just as we do today.

The donkeys of Sennefer:

Tamytiqeret daughter of Kyiry

Paounsou son of Tamytiqeret

Pasaiou son of Pasab

Paankh [son of?] Pakheny

Paiou son of Ramessou

oIfao 10044.jpg
Ostracon O.IFAO 10044 (from Grandet 2003)

All of these names have meanings. Tamytiqeret, the only female donkey, means ‘the excellent cat’ – and this isn’t the only animal name among the donkeys. Five of the other names belong to other four-legged beasts: Paounsou, ‘the wolf’; Pasaiou, ‘the pig’; Pasab, ‘the jackal’; Paankh, ‘the goat’ (or perhaps instead ‘the living’); and Paiou, ‘the dog’. Why give animals the names of other animals? Do they reflect the donkeys’ individual characters, behaviour, or appearances? As for the other names, Kyiry translates as ‘another companion’, Pakheny as ‘the rower’, and as for Ramessou, what was it about this donkey that reminded Sennefer of his king, Rameses?

Why did Sennefer have this list drawn up? Was he doing inventory? Or was he asserting his rights of ownership? In answering this point, it may be significant that all the donkeys are identified by their ancestors. At least three of the named donkeys are related: Kyiry sired Tamytiqeret, who gave birth to Paounsou. By demonstrating that he owned several generations of animals, Sennefer was asserting his rights to both rent or sell them. And the economic activity surrounding donkeys in Deir el-Medina is well-attested, with the majority of relevant textual evidence collected in Jac Janssen’s 2005 book on the topic.

Met Donkeys (11.150.8).jpg
Two Donkeys with Drivers, from Meir, Dynasty 11/12, ca. 2,030–1,850 BCE (c) Metropolitan Museum of Art (11.150.8)

Donkeys were hired by water-carriers, woodcutters, and washermen from workmen, scribes, and policemen in the village. Rental periods could last anything from a few days to a few months. Not all transactions would have been written down, and we know most about those situations when things went wrong. In the following text, from year 20 of the reign of Rameses III (ca. 1,164 BCE), the owner (whose name is not known) suffered problems with the unnamed water-carrier who rented his female donkey.

“After you have worked all day with the female donkey, you should bring her back. She [should spend the night] here with me, for her foal needs her.” When he had loaded her with grain in the evening, I sent Horemwia the son of Iyernef with the words: “Bring her back”. But he (the water-carrier) quarrelled with him and did not give her to him.

After two days, he came, saying to me: “She [died?]”, and he seized her foal, saying: “I will raise it”. And he was reported in the court, and the court (instructed?) the scribe Amenakhte son of Ipuy to condemn him.

The following part of the text has suffered some damage. The water-carrier’s punishment included recompense for the owner, which he did not pay, and then the provision of another donkey. At the time of writing, the owner hadn’t been provided with anything. He ends the text: “Now, I sit without until today, neither the female-donkey nor her foal.”

Donkeys were essential, for the practicalities of life in the Theban mountains and for the livelihoods of their owners. And some were important enough to name Rameses.

donkey in TT16 (Panehsy and Tarenu in Dra abu el-Naga).jpg
Scene from the New Kingdom tomb of Panehsy and Tarenu, TT16 (Dra Abu el-Naga)

Technical Details (Text 1):
Provenance: Deir el-Medina, Egypt
Date: Ramesside Period (Dynasties 20/21); ca. 1,295–1,069 BCE
Language: Late Egyptian (written in hieratic script)
Collection: Institut français d’archéologie orientale (Ifao), Cairo
Designation: O.IFAO 10044 = O.DeM 10087 (see The Deir el-Medina Database)
Bibliography: Pierre Grandet, ‘Les ânes de Sennéfer (O. Ifao 10044),’ BIFAO 103 (2003), pp. 257–265 (available online here); Pierre Grandet, Catalogue des ostraca hiératiques non littéraires de Deir el Médînéh X (Nos. 10001–10123) (Cairo, 2006), pp. 90–92.

Technical Details (Text 2):
Provenance: Deir el-Medina, Egypt
Date: Dynasty 20 (year 20 of Rameses III): ca. 1,164 BCE
Language: Late Egyptian (written in hieratic script)
Collection: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Designation: O.Ashmolean Museum 54 (see The Deir el-Medina Database)
Bibliography: Shafik Allam, Hieratische Ostraka und Papyri (1973), pp. 159–160 [#156]; Jaroslav Černý and Alan Gardiner, Hieratic Ostraca (Oxford, 1957), p. 15; Jac J. Janssen, Donkeys at Deir el-Medina(Leiden, 2005), pp. 30–31; Kyra van der Moezel, “Donkey-Transactions: Some notes on decontextualization and accountability”, in Ben J. J. Haring et al. (eds.), The Workman’s Progress: Studies in the Village of Deir el-Medina and Documents from Western Thebes in Honour of Rob Demarée(Leuven–Leiden, 2014), pp. 155–174 (esp. 168–170).

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

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