The New Kingdom of ancient Egypt saw the Pharaoh as the focus of societal stability: all power was, seemingly, vested in him. As Figure 1 shows, he had three interlocking roles:
- Pharaoh was a living god, Horus-Osiris, second only in the pantheon to Amun-Ra, the Sun god: see black loop in figure. As Horus-Osiris, Pharaoh was believed to oversee the judgment of the dead…He promoted the pursuit of eternal life, entry into which required that the citizen behave in an ethical manner during this life, else… no afterlife.
- Pharaoh was the ‘Uniter of the Two Lands,’ a traditional title showing his supremacy over both Lower and Upper Egypt; he owned all of the land, which he ruled via Viziers and nomarchs, (appointed provincial governors, or nobles, who acted with the power of the pharaoh); see blue loop. Pharaoh was also ultimately responsible for Ma’at, the ancient Egyptian concept of truth, (cosmic) balance, order, law, morality, and justice, to administer which he employed a middle class bureaucracy, a professional civil service throughout the land.
- Thirdly, Pharaoh was the Military Leader, ruler of the army, conquering all foreigners and securing all borders: see red loop. Pharaoh would publicize his military prowess on the walls of temples for all to see.
As Figure 1 also shows, there was an incipient flaw in the system: the widespread pursuit of eternal life placed the growing priesthood in an increasingly powerful position to accumulate wealth and possessions. Eventually they would become wealthier than the pharaoh – but for the time being, the societal system held together remarkably, in the firm-but-benevolent grip of the god-pharaoh. This was apparently successful societal systems engineering within a rigid class structure and without a vestige of democracy…suggesting that neither class mobility nor democracy may be quite the fundamental issues that today’s politicians and agitators avow…
Pharaoh was the focus for all matters spiritual and temporal throughout the Two Lands, while he was governed, in his turn, through his responsibility for Ma’at. Pharaoh had a psychological ‘whip hand:’ anyone who misbehaved in life would come before him in death, from which there was no escape. Good behaviour in life meant giving to the poor, protecting widows and children, etc. Having performed these social essentials in life was necessary, but not sufficient: additionally, dead souls had their hearts weighed against the ostrich feather of Ma’at (truth); if their hearts were lighter than the feather, they would gain entry to the afterlife…and, Pharaoh as Horus-Osiris was final arbiter; or so they believed.
Societal Stability and the Pharaoh in the New Kingdom
Causal Loop Model. Open arrows support: solid-head arrows resist…
An indication of the nature, character and sophistication of the people was the so-called Negative Confession, much rehearsed in life, which their spirits were required to make to Horus-Osiris upon entering the Hall of Judgement. See Table 1, which presents Spell 125 from the Book of the Dead, one version of the negative confession, from which it may be reasonably deduced that both social and spiritual balance were important in the functioning and well being of that society, over three and a half millennia ago.
Table 1. The Ancient Egyptians' Negative
Confession- Egyptian Book of the Dead,
…extracted from Spell 125 (Faulkner, 1985)
1. I have done no falsehood 2. I have not robbed 3. I have not been rapacious. 4. I have not stolen.
5. I have not killed men 6. I have not destroyed food supplies 7. I have done no crookedness.
8. I have not stolen the god’s-offering 9. I have not told lies 10. I have not taken food.
11. I have not been sullen. 12. I have not transgressed. 13. I have not killed a sacred bull
14. I have not committed perjury 15. I have not stolen bread 16. I have not eavesdropped
17. I have not babbled. 18. I have not disputed except as concerned my own property
19. I have not committed homosexuality 20. I have not misbehaved. 21. I have not made terror.
22. I have not transgressed 23. I have not been hot-tempered
24. I have not been deaf to words of truth 25. I have not made disturbance.
26. I have not hoodwinked. 27. I have neither misconducted myself nor copulated with a boy
28. I have not been neglectful. 29. I have not been quarrelsome. 30. I have not been unduly active. 31. I have not been impatient 32. I have not transgressed my nature, I have not washed out (the picture of) a god
33. I have not been voluble in speech. 34. I have done no wrong, I have seen no evil
35. I have not made conjuration against the king 36. I have not waded in water
37. I have not been loud voiced 38. I have not reviled God 39. I have not done…
40. I have not made distinctions for myself 41. I am not wealthy except with my own property
42. I have not blasphemed God in my city
The Negative Confession of the polytheistic ancient Egyptians stands in counterpoint to the more positive, Biblical Ten Commandments (Decalogue) of the monotheistic Jews and some Christians, e.g. “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not steal.” Nevertheless, both sets of admonitions address concern for social and spiritual well-being of indiduals, and may have been penned at much the same time; however, they also reveal societal and cultural differences… For example, there is nothing in the Egyptian Negative Confession about:
- honouring parents,
- coveting a neighbour’s wife, etc.,
…suggesting that such infractions of Hebrew Commandments would not have been heinous crimes to the Egyptians, either because they did not happen or they did not care. On the other hand, there is plenty about intemperance, interpersonal relationships, unfair-trading, purloining food, loud, excessive and antisocial behaviour, homosexuality and pederasty, religious observance, etc., suggesting the existence of widespread contemporary Egyptian social ethics and morality…
It is reasonable to assume that ancient Egyptian society was significantly less sophisticated than today’s: politics and economics had not been invented, neither had theology, since there was no separation into sacred and secular; all of life was seen as occurring in the presence of the gods. There was little difference in the standing in law between men and women. Boys learned their trade from their fathers, women from their mothers. Women could serve in the temples of Hathor and Isis, female deities, while men might serve in the male counterparts, temples of Amun-Ra, Sobek, etc. Health was a problem, with high maternal and infant mortality rates; while broken bones could be reset, problems with internal organs were not well understood, and the only antibiotic was honey, which was put on wounds to help them heal. (Aldred, 1961: Szpakowska, 2009)
Overall, during this second golden age of ancient Egypt, the impression emerges of a busy, occupied, largely unsophisticated population made up of many loosely-connected settlements and societies living up and down the Nile, getting on with the daily business of growing crops, raising cattle, praying to the gods for good Inundations, marrying, raising families, and so on… there seemed to be little for the average person to worry about outside of his and her absorbing everyday lives.
At the same time, there was a continuing outburst of creativity in architecture, literature, art, jewellery, and furniture, much of which still remains for us to admire: it seems that Egyptian society in the New Kingdom was motivated to be self-actualising at the highest level. We may tentatively deduce that their lives, which – apart from the upper class – revolved largely around trading, agriculture, husbandry, fishing, making clothes, and raising families, would have been a satisfying and absorbing one; for those concerned with fine arts, perhaps even more so. And, they had an abiding belief in life after death; that they would go, with their families, to an afterlife which would be similar to their everyday lives, but even more comfortable, suggesting that those everyday lives were more than acceptable.
Summary. Comparing life in present day UK cities with New Kingdom Egypt – in terms of standard of living and, particularly, the human condition – suggests that the ancient Egyptians may, on average, have been less sophisticated and rather happier. Of course, they had no telephones, TV, wireless, etc., and medical care was limited, but these modern manifestations count little toward human happiness, family, contentment, assurance of the hereafter, creativity, etc.; they appear – at a considerable distance, admittedly – to be have been content. This despite (or because of?) relative unsophistication, lack of science and engineering, and a vibrant society within a firm class structure in which there was a place for everyone, no social mobility and no democracy…
The following photographs show life as it is today in places on the banks of the Nile - little changed, perhaps, since the days of the Pharaohs, when villages were built on the remains of previous villages to keep them clear of the annual Inundation…
Aldred, C, (1961) The Egyptians, Thames and Hudson, London
Faulkner, R.O. tr. (1985) The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, University of Texas Press, Austin, TX.
Rice, Michael (1990) Egypt’s Making, Guild Publishing, London
Szpakowska, K, (2008) Daily Life in Ancient Egypt, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA