Barley in Ancient Egypt

Egyptian Name:

It, Nebu

One of the principal cereals of ancient Egypt, barley originated in Ethiopia and was grown in Egypt since Predynastic times. Barley was used to make beer and porridge, and it was also used in funerary rites. Barley was very rarely used to make bread - wheat was used instead. During the 10th Dynasty, the saying it-m-it ("barley as barley") became common. Prices, especially small sums, were often expressed by means of their equivalent value in barley. To avoid confusion when barley was the actual commodity exchanging hands, "barley as barley" (barley in the form of barley) was employed. The level of taxes that people had to pay was decided by the amount of barley that had grown that year.

Workers transporting grain using a barque

As a symbol of transformation and undying life, grain itself was thought to have magical properties. One of the steps of mummification involved rubbing the body with barley and wheat so that the deceased could live again. A Middle Kingdom royal ritual equates the god Osiris with barley and Set with the donkeys who thresh the grain by trampling on it. Images on temple walls show grain growing out of the body of the dead Osiris while his soul hovers above the stalks.

The ancient Egyptians were said to shed tears at the first cutting of the grain, and workers would chant a dirge, accompanied by a flute. The last sheaf to be cut was a moment of celebration. Osiris Beds, mummies of dirt seeded with barley and formed in the shape of Osiris, were placed in tombs to germinate in the darkness. An entire barley plant was left in the sarcophagus of Amenophis I. A necklace of germinated barley was found on the mummy of Kent.

According to Egyptian myths, wheat grew out of the body of a woman, while barley grew out of the body of a man. This explains an ancient pregnancy test: a woman who suspected that she was pregnant would urinate on a two piles of grain, wheat and barley. If the wheat sprouted, she would have a girl; if the barley sprouted, she would have a boy; and if neither sprouted, she was not pregnant. On the stela of Ramses II, the pharaoh states: "Lower Egypt rowed to Upper Egypt for you, with barley, wheat, salt, and beans without number."

The Grains of Ancient Egypt