And You Thought Your Neck Cramps Were Bad… (ca. 2000 – 30 BC)

By: The Scribe on Thursday, August 9, 2007

Several “pillow” headrests from ancient Egypt.

In the entire history of ancient Egypt, it’s a wonder that there aren’t more inscriptions or tomb paintings that depict the inevitable neck pain that must have ensued as a result of the use of Egyptian pillows. As seen in the image above, the ancient Egyptians did not use a pillow to sleep on each night so much as a headrest – and one that was uncomfortably high, no less.

Egyptian headrests were used each night to support the head while a person was asleep, and consisted of a curved upper section to cup the head on top, with one or two pillars leading downward to a flat base. These “pillows” could be made from a variety of materials, including ivory, marble, stone, ceramic or wood. There is some debate over whether or not a small cushion was placed in the curving part to make the headrest more comfortable, however there is no artistic nor written evidence thus far to support this idea.

Regardless of comfort, pillows were important both to the living and the deceased, since the ancient Egyptians tended to view death as an eternal kind of sleep – as a result, many of the headrests found in Egyptian tombs were inscribed with the owner’s name and epithets.

Headrest from the tomb of King Tutankhamun.

Another interesting feature of Egyptian headrests is that they were not only practical to get a good night’s sleep (regardless of how uncomfortable it might look to modern eyes), but they also had a religious association with the solar cult – one’s head was lowered at night and rose in the morning, just like the sun. A headrest from the tomb of King Tutankhamun illustrates this association: the base of the headrest is made up of two “lions of the horizon”, while the god Shu holds up the head’s cup, in the same manner as is seen in the Book of the Dead where the solar barque rests on a stand.

The only indication of something potentially more comfortable being used to support the head was an unusual artifact found in April 2006. It was a 4,000-year-old pillow that was made out of woven plant fibers encased in a wax coating – leading toward some speculation that perhaps some finicky Egyptian nobles eschewed the harder headrests in favor of softer comforts. Of course, this also reopened the debate over whether pillows like this were once placed overtop headrests to make things more comfortable, with all the other organic pillows simply degrading over time, leaving just the headrests for archaeologists to find.

An Egyptian pillow of woven plant fibers with a wax coating, much softer than the other hard curving headrests!

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Tomorrow: A Brief History of the German Language


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One comment so far

Gary at February 1, 2013

I think the Egyptian pillow needs more attention – obviously these folks knew what they were doing.

The first thing I notice is that it looks like a perfect place to support the neck – the head hangs over the back. This would stretch everything out and keep the air pathway open.

It would also protect fancy hair and head gear.

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