BMCR 1994.09.07

1994.09.07, Dasen, Dwarfs in Ancient Egypt and Greece

, Dwarfs in ancient Egypt and Greece. Oxford monographs on classical archaeology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. xxix, 354 pages, 80 pages of plates : illustrations ; 26 cm.. ISBN 9780198146995.

It suits the taste of our times to study attitudes towards the marginal and the different in Antiquity; yet for most physical abnormalities evidence is largely lacking. Véronique Dasen opens her book (a revision of her Oxford D.Phil. thesis) with the question: “In ancient Egypt and Greece physical beauty, defined in terms of proportion, was highly admired, even to excess. What happened to those who conformed neither to these ‘ideal proportions’ nor to norms of human appearance?” (1). She attempts to answer this question with particular reference to dwarfs. Dwarfism (defined as “an abnormally short stature over three standard deviations below the mean height of a population of the same age and sex” [7]) offers more favourable conditions for such a study than most physical abnormalities. It is comparatively common (D. quotes a rate of occurrence of 1 per 10,000 live births for all forms of dwarfism, 1 per 34,000 for the most common type, achondroplasia); and those afflicted have a good chance of living to maturity, and having normal mental development. It is visually distinctive (unlike, say, deafness), and easy for artists to represent; and it can be recognised in skeletal remains where these have been properly studied.

The book opens with a chapter on the typology of growth disorders, including a table of the main types of dwarfism and their clinical features. Although this is useful to introduce the modern reader to the technical vocabulary, its relevance to the main part of the book is limited. There is no sign in the literature D. quotes of any understanding, either in Egypt or Greece, of the nature of the disorder, or of the difference between the various forms. The iconographic conventions adopted for the portrayal of dwarfs sometimes give a very realistic rendering of the most striking characteristics of achondroplasia; the attempts (which D. discusses in chapter 4) to diagnose other forms of dwarfism on the basis of the artistic representations are very dubious. Analysis of skeletal remains (discussed in chapter 2) sometimes allows diagnosis, mostly of achondroplasia, occasionally of other conditions; but the number of examples well enough preserved and studied to be of value for palaeopathology is small (only one skeleton of a Greek dwarf is known, about 20, whole or in part, from Egypt). Chapter 1 also introduces a matter which complicates the study of both Egyptian and Greek dwarfs (and, for that matter, Roman): that of the central African pygmies. These are not always clearly distinguished from clinical dwarfs in either language, and it is clear that they had a considerable influence both upon the religious associations of dwarfs in Egypt, and upon the iconographic formulae. In Greek and Roman art, the most common scenes in which dwarfs are portrayed are those derived from the legends of the pygmies; representations of “real” human dwarfs are almost inextricably intertwined.

The section on Egypt opens with a discussion on the terminology. This is beyond the competence of this reviewer; D. distinguishes three words, dng, nmw, and hw’, but concludes that the differences between them are not clear, although dng (the earliest of them) appears to be used to denote a pygmy. The general chapter on iconographic conventions which follows is of value mainly for drawing attention to the problems of identification of dwarfs in an art such as Egyptian which uses hierarchical variations of scale. In most cases, the physical disproportions need to be shown clearly, which means that only the disproportionate forms of dwarfism can be recognised.

Three chapters (5-7) on dwarf gods follow, the longest devoted to Bes. The iconography of Bes has been thoroughly studied, and D. confines herself to a synopsis of the chronological development. More interesting for the present study are the questions of the functions of Bes and other dwarf gods, and their relationship to the major gods, since these are likely to have affected the position of human dwarfs. These functions are largely protective, in part because of fertility associations, in part as manifestations of the sun-god (and sometimes other deities). The specific role of dwarfism in these identities, however, remains obscure; D. acknowledges that the reason for the transformation of Bes from his original leonine form into a grinning dwarf is not clear, and can only suggest that it may “have incorporated a belief in dwarfs as familiar protective beings which goes as far back as the Predynastic Period” (83).

The chapter on Human Dwarfs (9) is based overwhelmingly on the evidence of art, for the most part funerary. Written evidence is very sparse. The art is spread over three millennia, though distribution between different periods is not even. Most informative for D.’s purposes are the Old Kingdom reliefs, where dwarfs are frequently represented as part of the household in royal and noble tombs, and conclusions can be drawn about the roles that they played, as personal attendants, tenders of animals, entertainers dancing and making music, and as jewelers. Captions in several cases give their titles. A few examples are known of higher-status dwarfs who appear themselves as the owners of the tombs. The best-known example is the tomb at Giza of Seneb, whose statue-group with his (normal-sized) wife and children forms the book’s frontispiece. He was also shown in reliefs from the tomb, which steer an uneasy compromise between the representation of his physical disproportions, and the requirements of rank which would portray him on a larger scale than his servants. Less informative about the actual status of dwarfs are the figurines which predominate in the Middle Kingdom, while there is a remarkable absence of dwarfs in household scenes from the New Kingdom, when in contrast the numbers of dwarf-gods increase. From the Late Period one exceptionally fine example is the sarcophagus of the dwarf Djeho, whose naked figure is carved in profile on the lid, with remarkably accurate rendering of the features of achondroplasia. Inscriptions relate that he belonged to the household of a high official, and that he performed sacred dances at the burials of the Apis and Mnevis bulls.

The Egyptian material is therefore heterogeneous, but does permit some conclusions about the status of human dwarfs. Examples exist which show dwarfs like Seneb thoroughly integrated into society, though they are few, and it is not clear what were the conditions which made this possible. The greater part of the evidence shows dwarfs as members of the households of the wealthy, used to mark the prestige of their masters and as entertainers, analogous to their role as jesters and pets in later periods. More enigmatic are the religious associations; it seems that they may have benefited from the association with the various dwarf-gods, and that they performed as dancers in ritual contexts. D.’s conclusion, that “ancient Egyptians welcomed short statured people”, perhaps goes beyond what the evidence will bear; but she is right in concluding that there are no signs of rejection or exclusion.

The Greek material covered by D. is very different in scope. She covers only the Archaic and Classical periods; Hellenistic and Roman dwarfs are excluded. The quantity of the material explains such an exclusion, but the result is somewhat lopsided. The reader will not find in this book any mention of the dwarfs from the late Hellenistic Mahdia shipwreck, for instance, probably the most striking dwarf representations to survive from Antiquity, nor any discussion of the development of “realism” or of caricature in Greek art after ca. 300 BC. This is regrettable, for one thing, because it excludes one of the areas where the two traditions discussed in the book may meet. The section on Egypt includes some mention of representations of Bes and other dwarf deities in the Ptolemaic and Graeco-Roman periods. The section on human dwarfs in Egypt ends with the statement: “In Hellenistic Egypt, human dwarfs appear only in objects in the Greek tradition. Some of these representations reflect Egyptian conceptions of dwarfism, but in a new iconography. I mention here the widespread motif of the dwarf dancer, often with an overlarge phallus, which expresses the traditional association of dwarfs with fertility and regeneration” (155). This is potentially rich ground, but it is not developed; the mention is left without connection with the second part of the book. This in turn refers to the position of dwarfs in the Hellenistic and Roman periods only in a brief dismissive statement at the very end, as “centuries of exclusion”, when “dwarfism is no longer distinguished by special religious associations” (247): an over-simplification, which omits precisely the question she had earlier raised. Cultic associations, with Isis and Dionysus, have indeed been suggested for some Hellenistic and Graeco-Roman dwarfs, including the Mahdia trio. 1

The Greek material that is covered here does not distribute itself evenly. Mentions of human dwarfs in literary sources are very sparse, with the exception of Aristotle; the medical writers, for instance, have nothing to say about the condition. Dwarfish figures occur in myths (chapter 13), principally in the guise of pygmies. D. examines the literary accounts of pygmies (not only those from the period under discussion) at some length, with much enquiry into the origins and functions of the myth, which she suggests answers archetypal fears about, for instance, “the geographic and the genetic unknown”. She concludes “The myth also accounts for the presence of pathological dwarfs at Athens. Physical abnormality becomes an exotic feature. Dwarfs appear thus as liminal, wild, but inoffensive beings, like powerless pygmies” (188). But in the archaic period pygmies are not shown as dwarfs, in any recognisable pathological sense; they are normally formed small men. The more interesting question, which D. does not answer, would appear to be why pygmies came to be identified by artists with pathological dwarfs (apparently in the early fifth century)—an identification which endured into the Roman period; archetypal fears are not necessarily relevant here.

The works of art discussed fall into two main groups. The numerically larger consists of figurines, almost all of terracotta, of East Greek type but found all over the Mediterranean. They date from a period of fifty years in the middle of the sixth century, and show fat, standing dwarfish figures. Some carry a smaller figure, probably a child, others a basket or a shield. D. identifies them as derived from Egyptian figurines showing dwarf deities, Bes or Ptah-Patoikos, which are found as votives at Greek sanctuaries from the seventh century onwards, and believes that they transmit the Egyptian notion of dwarfs as protective guardians of the family. The short-lived nature of the fashion, however, suggests that this notion did not go very deep. Secondly, there are the vase-paintings, predominantly Attic red-figure of the second half of the fifth century. These might seem to offer the best hope of answering the questions that really interest D., what were the normal attitudes towards dwarfs and their status in society; yet the material is recalcitrant. Only 39 vases are listed by D. as showing human dwarfs (as opposed to pygmies etc.). Some of these are extraordinarily fine studies of abnormal pathology, like the fragment of a stamnos by the Peleus Painter in Erlangen (pl.47.1); others are daubs, and the identification as dwarfs is by no means always clear. Only a few show the dwarf in a clearly identifiable context; even those that do, like the Clinic Painter’s aryballos where the dwarf attends the doctor’s surgery, give inadequate clues to his role: is he the doctor’s servant, or one of the patients? There are some scenes where the dwarf is clearly a servant or attendant, though this is never as explicit as in the Egyptian scenes. Others show them engaged in the same sorts of activities as normal-sized Athenians; but again interpretation of these runs into problems. Can one deduce from the scene of two dwarfs exercising with a punching-bag that dwarfs might be admitted to the palaestra like other citizens, or has the artist substituted them for comic or satiric effect? Are the dancing dwarfs entertainers, or are they komasts? D. can only conclude cautiously that they do not differ in clothing or behaviour from other citizens, but that there are signs of a liminal and ambiguous status.

The association of dwarfs with Dionysiac scenes seems at least to be clearer; the Erlangen fragment, for instance, shows its dwarf wreathed with ivy dancing among musicians, while a bell krater in Zurich has a dwarf dancing with a tympanon in the presence of Dionysus, a satyr, and maenads. Even so, the number of vases which explicitly associate dwarfs with Dionysus is very small. Their relationship to satyrs, with whom they share various iconographical features, leads D. to see them as deeply involved in the thiasos, capable of substituting for satyrs. This cultic role, she believes, will have further helped to bring about their integration into society.

It must be admitted that the evidence on which D. endeavours to base her picture of the status of Greek dwarfs is very thin, though she does her utmost to squeeze information from it. Some evidence is negative: that there is only one picture of a female dwarf (on a skyphos in Munich) does indeed imply that they were not accepted to the same extent as male—that the conventions of representation, for whatever reason, could not admit female deformity. Rather than stressing the unanswerable question of real-life status, perhaps it would be better to concentrate on the contributions of the artists. Because they were not subject to the same conventions as ordinary human figures, dwarfs offered the artists a freedom to experiment, to observe, to introduce variety: this was what they had in common with satyrs, and to some extent with foreigners. It is well known that the rendering of such liminal types provided opportunities for portraiture and for expression that were absent in more “normal” subjects. The best of the vase-paintings reveal a fascination with the observation of physical difference, of a man who did not appear quite human, which gives their dwarfs an infinitely greater liveliness than the stock “normal” figures who accompany them.

D.’s book is full of fascinating information; she has cast her net wide, and the material, textual and visual, that she has collected throws light on a wide range of questions, social, religious, artistic, and medical. This light tends to flicker; the nature of the evidence does not permit clear answers to all the questions that D. would like to ask. But despite the inevitable gaps, D’s book gives an engrossing insight into some very different aspects of the ancient world. 2

  • [1] E.g. H. Wrede, “Die tanzenden Musikanten von Mahdia und der alexandrinische Götter- und Herrscherkult”, RM 95, 1988, 97-114. [2] I am grateful to Mr Michael Garmaise, who is writing a thesis on Graeco-Roman statuettes of dwarfs, for discussing the book with me.