Milk in Ancient Egypt

Egyptian Name:


The ancient Egyptians kept cattle and goats for their milk, and to a lesser extent sheep and donkeys. Milk was used to make cheese (gebna), yogurt, and butter. A number of scenes show men carrying pots of cream (labna), and in one Theban tomb from the 19th Dynasty we find a seated woman pulling white cones of butter or cheese out of a large vessel. Milk was kept in egg-shaped earthen jars, plugged with grass as a protection against insects.

The lactose intolerance of Asians and Semites does not seem to have affected the ancient Egyptians who, until they were weaned at age three, drank milk as their only food and continued to consume it all their lives. The Egyptians often used milk in their cooking, which may be the source of the prohibition in the Bible against cooking a mixture of milk and meat (Exodus 23:19.) In the ancient Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe the protagonist recounts: "Many sweets were made for me, and milk dishes of all kinds." The ancient Hebrews were keen to set themselves apart from their Egyptian neighbors and so forbid many Egyptian practices, such as wearing two different types of fabric and the eating of pork, shellfish, and desert game such as hares.

Milk was considered a delicacy by many. Senefer, a mayor of Thebes during the New Kingdom, wrote to the peasant Baki: "Order the herdsmen to get milk ready in jars before my arrival." Gargling with milk was thought to improve dental health, and it was used to treat wounds, eye ailments, and burns. Almost all Egyptian medicines contained honey, wine, or milk. Sacred animals, such as cats and ichneumons, were fed on bread and milk. Cows being milked and calves nursing are frequently depicted in tombs.

Ushabti model milking a cow

The Egyptians considered cow’s milk to be healing and a key element which helped the dead to be reborn. The Egyptian funeral procession was led by a priest sprinkling milk. Vessels of milk and amulets of cows being milked were buried with the deceased, to ensure that they had a fresh supply in the Afterlife. On the wall of tombs the dead are portrayed drinking from bowls of milk, if not nursing from the Great Cow herself, Hathor. Those who drank milk were "pure of mouth, like the calf the day his mother brought it into the world."

As the motherly cow, Hathor gave the king her divine milk, and protected him as a cow protects her calf. The image of Hathor the Divine Cow suckling the pharaoh was quite common in ancient Egyptian art. The cow goddess Hesat was also thought to have nursed the pharaohs, and well as several bull gods. The ancient Egyptians referred to milk as the “Beer of Hesat.” In a time when many women died in childbirth, the ability of cow’s milk to sustain a human baby was deeply appreciated.

Nursing from Hathor

According to Diodorus, there were 365 tables around the Temple of Osiris on the island of Bigge in Nubia, where daily libations of milk were placed. Ramses II is pictured on a stela offering milk to the god Amun. Thutmose III endowed the temple at Thebes with riches unheard of previously. Among them were "Three loan-cows of the cattle of Zahi; one loan-cow of the cattle of Kush; total four loan-cows; in order to draw milk thereof into jars of electrum each day, and to cause it to be offered to my father Amun." Child-gods, such as Ihy, Shed, and Khonsu, were regularly offered milk.

In their tomb art nobles are promised that they will be fed by the Milk of Isis and become "as enduring as stars." Neheb-Kau offered the “Milk of Light” to the deceased - "This brilliant white liquid, it protects you, you drink it, it descends into your stomach, it makes your body stronger. This sweet liquid, you drink it, and you are forever young." The cobra goddess Renenutet was thought to give children their ren (secret name-souls) with their mother’s milk, and cobra-shaped bowls, used for holding milk, have been found.

There were also vessels in the shape of the pregnant goddess Taweret, made for holding milk, with holes and plugs in each of her nipples for pouring. It has been calculated that each pot holds just over 4fl oz, roughly the equivalent of milk produced by one breast at one feed.

The Drinks of Ancient Egypt