Egyptian Footwork: Therapy, Beauty, Foot Rub or All Three

Photo credit Trudy Baker


How much attention was paid to the feet in ancient Egypt? What exactly were Egyptians doing to feet? And, could it be that artifacts show that we're doing the same things to feet today?

At least four clues have survived from ancient times to provide some answers to such questions. Three bas-relief carvings and a report from an ancient historian provide illustrations of Egyptian footwork:

Egyptologists study the placement of pictographs on tombs and temples to glean information about their meanings. (See below.) For reflexologists, however, a different meaning emerges. To reflexologists, who often find themselves fighting the battle of tired feet on behalf of foot sore clients, such pictographs conjure up the image of a moment in ancient times on some dusty path when a foot sore soldier needed help.

Looking back in time, it's easy to picture the need for a barefoot society -- ancient Egyptians went barefoot -- to pay attention to feet. But, somehow the image of Mark Anthony working on the feet of Cleopatra creates a picture of one person reaching out to another. While the Roman emperor who reported the event grouses that "it shows his pathetic enslavement to her,"[1] Modern-day reflexologists are familiar with reaching out with footwork to communicate with a loved one.

What does the Egyptian pictograph of work on feet from the Tomb of the Physician represent? Ask three different Egyptologists and you get three different answers -- pedicure, foot operation or foot rub.

Photo credit Trudy Baker

A Danish Egyptologist labels an illustration of the well-known pictograph of work on feet and hands as pedicure and manicure work.[2] One scholar declares that there is an instrument held in the working hands depicted in the pictograph thus supporting the pedicure/manicure theory. Another scholar notes that pictographs of work on feet and hands are common throughout the pyramids of Egypt's Old Kingdom. He reports that the commonly held belief among Egyptologists is that all depict pedicure and manicure work.[3]

One tour book author notes that "The significance of the reliefs on the left (of the entrance room to the Tomb of the Physician) is uncertain. Two men are having something done to their hand and feet. Various explanations include surgery, manicure and pedicure, and massage. But since the text reads. "Do not let it be painful, massage would seem to be ruled out."[4] (To reflexologists, accustomed to adjusting technique application to a client's comfort level, this comment has always served to confirm that a therapeutic footwork was being practiced.)

At least two Egyptian scholars, however, credit and defend a therapeutic aspect to the work displayed in the pictograph.

They note that the pictograph is displayed in bas relief, carved stone, at the entrance to the "Tomb of the Physician." "Other mastabas from the Sixth Dynasty are located further east, along the north side of the Teti wall. They were excavated by Victor Loret in 1899 and are not yet open to the public. The most well-known is that of Ankhmahor, who held the titles of vizier, 'first after the king' and Overseer of the Great House. This tomb is also known as the Tomb of the Physician, as his bas-reliefs depict a foot operation and a circumcision in addition to the usual scenes of daily life and funerary themes."[5]

"In the same ancient Empire tomb that displays the operation of circumcision, some reliefs illustrate care given to the hands and feet, and it has been suggested that they represent manicure and pedicure, in spite of the fact that the hand of the practitioner, applied to the shoulder in one figure and to the knee in another, rule out this possibility, and strongly suggest some form of massage or manipulation."[6]

Photo credit Trudy Baker

Ghalioungui and ElDawakhly argue that finger and toe nail care is depicted in relief illustrations at other tombs but that manicurists and pedicurists thus pictured are identified by title. "But nothing in Ankhmahor's tomb indicates that the men depicted at work bore such honorable titles. Should further proof be needed, we could find it, according to Prof. Clamminess of Copenhagen, in the position of the arm of the manipulator." Egyptians followed two particular positions when representing the arm in profile. "That both positions are shown in different persons of the same scene shows that the second position is not merely the result of an artistic convention designed no to mask the distant arm. ... The position adopted by the manipulator on these scenes is thus a correct rendering of the (massage) movement."

(Mohammed elAwany of Vision Travel and Tours notes that individuals who continue the ancient footwork practice may be found in some remote Egyptian villages.)

The pyramids served as burial chambers of the pharaohs. Over thousands of years, the grounds of Egyptian pyramids came to resemble graveyards with government officials, royal family members, and those who could afford it buried in individual tombs.

Photo credit Trudy Baker

The Tomb of the Physician, Ankhmahor, is located in the necropolis (city of the dead) of Saqqara. Saqqara was a burial ground of Egyptian pharaohs for over a thousand years from the time of the First Dynasty, the earliest organization of the civilizations of the upper and lower Nile Valley, in 2750 B. C. Saqqara Model, More on the Step Pyramid

The Tomb lies to the north of the pyramid of the pharaoh Teti. The tombs of Teti's two wives and other officials of his reign lie in the same area. Tombs of other officials are close by.

Ghalioungui and ElDawakhly note that "... in his tomb in Saqqara, Ptah-hotep is having his fingers and toes manicured." Ptah-hotep was the vizier and judge supervising the pyramids of recently dead pharaohs in the time of the eighth and ninth pharaohs of the Fifth Dynasty (2450-2321 B. C.), Djedkare Isei and Unas.

Another Egyptologist notes, "The chapel of Ptah-hotep('s tomb) in particular contains another series of lovely painted bas-reliefs, once more with offering scenes where original details can be noted (such as that the whippets under the owner's chair, and that of the servant who massages his legs)."[7]

Providers of such services held a special place in the culture of the times. Tombs were built for only a few private individuals. The Tomb of Niankhkhnumin and Khnumhotep "overseer of the manicurists in the Palace of the King, king's acquaintance and royal confidante" in Saqqara dates from the time of the sixth king of the Fifth Dynasty. [8]

A pictograph of work on feet of "tending" to the feet of foot soldiers on a military campaign involving a long march, the battle of Qadesh during the reign of Ramesses II. The battle is well known because it was commemorated by Ramesses in the building of at least eight temples that have survived.

Roman emperor Octavian noted Mark Anthony's "pathetic enslavement to her (Cleopatra) -- he even massaged her feet at dinner parties."

The statement adds an intriguing piece of information to a topic of interest to many reflexologists. The discovery of a pictograph of work on feet and hands by Ed Case at a display from the Tomb of the Physician Ankhmahor at the Papyrus Institute in Cairo in 1980 has served as a pictorial statement of ancient roots for almost a generation of reflexologists.

A statement about foot work during the reign of Cleopatra creates the potential for foot work to have spanned the whole of ancient Egyptian civilization. The Tomb of Ankhmahor dates from 2400 B. C. and Cleopatra lived from 69 B. C. to 30 B. C. She is called the "last pharaoh." At issue is whether or not foot work has been practiced continuously throughout at least some portions of human history. Or, has it reappeared now and again? The report of foot work in Cleopatra's lifetime adds to the possibility of continuous practice throughout two thousand years of Egyptian history.

Jim Ingram, friend of Ed Case and co-founder with Ed and their wives, Sally and Ellen of the Foot Reflexology Awareness Association, notes that the use of foot work for medicine and entertainment in ancient Egypt mirrors its use today.


[1] "Biography: Cleopatra," Arts & Entertainment Channel, February 16, 1996
[2] Save-Sonderbergh, Pharaohs and Mortals, Barnes & Noble, New York, p. 254
[3] Reeder's Egypt Page, the Internet
[4] West, John Anthony, The Traveler's Key to Ancient Egypt, Quest Books, Wheaton, IL, 1995, pp. 187-8
[5] Siliotti, Alberto, Guide to the Pyramids of Egypt, Barnes and Noble, 1997, p. 121
[6] Ghalioungui, p. and ElDawakhly, Z., Health and Healing in Ancient Egypt, The Egyptian Organization for Authorship and Translation, pp. 25-26
[7] Carpceci, Alberto Carlo, Art and History of Egypt, Bonchi, Florence, Italy, 1994, p. 81
[8] Reeder's Egypt Page, the Internet

Footwork Artifacts of Ancient Egypt
 


Egyptian Reflexology - 21 MAY 1998

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