African Art · Ancient & Classical Art · Fun Facts

Don’t Walk Like an Egyptian, Because They Didn’t, Either! (a fun fact)

Why do people talk about “walking like an Egyptian”? This strange phenomenon, which became a cult hit at one point, involves an unnatural posture where your shoulders face the side while everything else faces the front. When people try it, they usually also add strange head and arm movements. There’s even a song about it.

Egyptian Wall Fragment Walk Like an Egyptian
Wall Fragment from the Tomb of Amenemhet and His Wife Hemet, Egyptian, Middle Kingdom, Dynasty 12 (1976 -1794 B.C.). Art Institute of Chicago. (Public Domain)

This idea comes from ancient Egyptian tomb paintings like the one pictured above, which often show people in this pose. However, there’s no reason to believe that ancient Egyptians walked any differently than the rest of us, particularly since what’s shown on the paintings would be a very awkward way to move. So, where does this posture come from?

As you’ve probably noticed, ancient Egyptian art didn’t focus primarily on naturalistic (or mimetic) representation. The idea of painting people, animals, plants, etc. with a high degree of realism wasn’t something that the Egyptians valued in this period. (In the time of Roman rule in Egypt, however, it was a different story.) Instead, indicating people, events, and ideas was more the goal. And when you indicate something, you want to show it in a way that makes it as quickly and easily identifiable as possible. Think of the “walk” symbol, which is shown below. It includes exactly as much visual information as is necessary to convey its message. Egyptian art is definitely more detailed and complex but also uses this idea.

Walk icon via Wikimedia Commons.

To depict a human figure in the way that’s easiest to identify, it’s best to show body parts at their most recognizable angles. For the torso, this is definitely a head-on view, but for the legs, a side view is better to show the feet and the movement of walking. For the head, a full-on face makes it easy to identify an individual, but the profile view is more legible for a generic face and has been preferred by many cultures up through the Renaissance. So, ancient Egyptian artists showed each section of the body at its most recognizable angle – legs and feet from the side, torso from the front, and head from the side. (Notice that the “walk” symbol of several millennia later does much the same thing.) The result is that twisted posture that people call “walking like an Egyptian”.

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