The Three Kingdoms



  • The Three Kingdoms
    • Predynastic, Archaic and Old Kingdom
    • The Three Ages of Ancient Egypt
    • Psychology - Duality and Archetype
  • Old Kingdom
    • The Rise of Culture
    • An Unusual, Widget-based Economy
    • Old Kingdom Collapse
  • New Kingdom
    • An Empire-based Socio-Economy
    • New Kingdom Collapse
  • Learning from ancient Egypt
    • Psychology of Social Change
    • Societal Individuation
    • During Societal Maturation...
    • Generalized Rise and Fall of Epochs

Predynastic, Archaic and Old Kingdom

    c.5000 BC to 2250 BC - isolated society - creative brilliance


…internal power struggles over failing economy

Middle Kingdom

2035 BC to 1668 BC - ethics, morals and literature


…failing economy, Hyksos intrusion, absorption

New Kingdom

1550 to 1070 BC - open society - military conquest


- failing economy, military losses, expanding Mediterranean cultures -a loss of confidence in the Egyptian Psyche

The Egyptians, Cyril Aldred

The following diagram charts the development of the ancient Egyptian civilization from its emergence into early dynastic times, where tools used to build pyramids were those of the Stone Age. Several terms are used from social psychology:-

  • Duality - the propensity to see everything in pairs, opposites which must inevitably be reconciled
  • Collective unconscious - inherited patterns of thought which connect all humans
  • Archetypes - characteristic roles and behaviour paradigms

These are taken from work by Carl Jung, who was interested in ancient Egypt, and the way in which a civilization emerged, "pulling itself up by its bootstraps" - since there was no model to follow. This early age of Egypt was the first, and therefore really the only, occasion in history when this happened.

The Three Ages of Ancient Egypt

Egypt Ages

The three kingdoms, from left to right, are the Old, the Middle and the New Kingdoms…

Psychology - Duality and Archetype

These themes recur in the following diagram. The figure refers to the original flowering of society, the emergence of archetypes, zoomorphs (e.g. the animal-form deities) and dualities.

The figure therefore relates to both the pre-dynastic and the early dynastic periods, and illustrates the curious features of nascent societal development.

The photographs shows the famous Narmer Palette, which marks the beginning of ancient Egyptian history. The palette shows King Narmer, or Menes, wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt on one side and the White Crown of Upper Egypt on the other, indicating that Narmer either was, or wished to be, king of all Egypt.

Old Kingdom

The Rise of Culture

In the following section you will see a number of Causal Loop Models (CLMs). Don't be put off by them. they are really quite easy to read and, once you have the idea, they say very simply what it would take pages of writing to explain. The trick is to read each arrow as "allows", "leads to", "enables", or even "causes". So, in the figure, Population (growth) "allows" social development, which "enables" Co-operation, which "leads to" Organized Irrigation, which "causes" Cultivated Land, which "enables" more food, which "enables" Population. This is a "positive feedback" loop which results in increasing population - provided, as the figure shows, the Inundation turns up and the Population does not exceed the Food supply. Read solid black arrowheads as ""opposes" or "diminishes". Try it for yourself - it is well worth the effort.

The figure shows how the truly unprecedented and phenomenal civilization that was the Old Kingdom emerged:-

  • Fertile arable riches came with the annual Inundation of the Nile, washing down black silt from the southern mountains
  • This flood came in the hot season, when there was little or no rain and the earth would otherwise have been scorched
  • The resulting wealth of food and game meant that individuals had spare time aplenty, a most unusual situation at that time in any climate, where man found himself usually fighting for existence
  • Trapping the waters of the Nile, irrigation, must have seemed obvious. it required the development of tools, of course, but more importantly it required social cooperation -
    • it took only one person's mistakes for the trapped irrigation water to be lost to many
  • The Nile also provided an ideal communication medium.
    • the tide, from south to north was not too strong
    • the prevailing wind blew from north to south
    • so, transport both up and down the river was straightforward

As the figure above highlights, the conditions were exceptionally suited for man to give rise to an unprecedented intellectual and artistic outpouring. At the same time, the conditions were ideal for the development of an enduring economy, of a rather special kind.

This is a stele of King Djed, showing the most exquisite artistic skill which was evident in the early dynastic period. Note how theserekhbearing the king's name is offset to the left to allow the hawk-tail of Horus to extend to the right. The purity and elegance of line here will contrast with later works shown below.

An Unusual, Widget-based Economy

The left-hand part of the figure is the same as the previous figure. At the right can be seen the basis for a thriving, enduring economy centred around the continuance of the Pharaoh. The feudal system provided a firm tax basis with which the priesthood maintained the spiritual integrity of the Nation, together with the Pharaoh as its central icon and, of course, themselves.

Apart from food, this theocracy vested its efforts in religious and ritual artefacts. By today's standards, these would be widgets, i.e. functionally irrelevant, but to the ancient Egyptians they seem to have fed the soul.

Stone architecture came alive in the Old Kingdom, starting with the Stepped Pyramid built by Imhotep for King Djoser. In addition to the pyramid, below, the complex contained a variety of buildings, mock temples, built in stone but using their experience with wood

The entrance passage is roofed with stone shaped as wooden logs:

Further inside, an avenue of pillars were built, with a pattern reminiscent of Greek Doric columns some 2000 years before their conception. The pillar design may have been based on the stems of plants. Note that the pillars are not free-standing, but attached to the main walls. The architects were not yet confident in their building

Below is one of the few, perhaps the only, figure of the Pharaoh Khufu, instigator of the Great Pyramid. This figure, only some 4 inches high, is in the Cairo Museum. Khufu is shown with an unusual headdress, and he holds what appears to be a frond in one hand, rather than the crosier and flail that would become standard later.

For more on the pyramids of the Old Kingdom, see:

Old Kingdom Collapse

The widget-based economy of the Old Kingdom lasted some 500 years - not bad by today's standards (which are, of course, inapplicable). When the system broke down, as eventually it had to, it came about because the Pharaoh granted special, eternal-life- privileges to his supporting feudal leaders (Nomarchs) who were also given land and the peasants who worked it.

This organization, redolent of King John and the Barons in mediaeval England, gave rise to internecine war between the Nomarchs over resources whenever there was a downturn in the economy caused by a series of failing Inundations. At the same time, each Nomarch now required his own priesthood to provide for his eternity. The Nomarchs thus became virtually autonomous, and the Nation fragmented.

Evidence for the gradual fall-off in the Inundation can be derived from the Palermo Stone. The graph shows the heights of the Inundation during the Old Kingdom, and the exponential regression line shows an inexorable reduction of nearly 50 per cent over the period shown.


New Kingdom

An Empire-based Socio-Economy

The photograph shows the rock-cut statues of Ramses II at Abu Simbal.

As the figure below shows, by the time the Thutmoses and Ramessides, the nature of society and the economy had both changed radically. The nation was no longer closed - the Pharaoh ruled a vast empire, from which it demanded tribute and beyond which it undertook forays to subdue and expand its boundaries.

Socially, the feudal state, if not the agricultural economy, had been dismantled and replaced with non-hereditary viziers and mayors, loyal to Pharaoh and unable to operate autonomously. When not campaigning abroad, Pharaoh spent much of his year travelling up and down the Nile visiting the various Nomes (regions), maintaining national cohesion. A spirit existed that a later civilization dubbed "noblesse oblige", that the better off had a duty to support the poorer. As the figure above shows, Pharaoh was the hub of 3 social structures:

  1. Pharaoh as the invincible military leader, head of the Army, conquering all, and bringing tribute and wealth back to Egypt
  2. Pharaoh as the man-god, Horus-to-become-Osiris, the supreme priest, the one who could intercede with the Gods on behalf of the people
  3. Pharaoh as the uniter of the two lands, the overall manager, administrator and justice throughout Egypt

Note from the figure how these 3 causal loops, united through the Pharaoh, were also connected via two dotted lines:

  • Ma'at, the concept of truth, justice, harmony and eternal cosmic order, provided a pattern of "proper" behaviour to all, man and pharaoh alike, and Ma'at insisted on good behaviour in this life as a necessary passport to the afterlife
  • Increasing national wealth led more people, further down the social ladder, to seek eternal life
  • The two bullets above taken together implied a nurturing social environment in which the rich and powerful cared for and protected the less well off, the widow, the orphan

Only two clouds marred this otherwise perfect vista:

  • The priesthood were becoming progressively more powerful, owning ever more land and, importantly, shipping. Their developing independence would create problems
  • Nations surround Egypt were themselves developing and becoming more able to defend themselves against, and even attack, Egypt.


New Kingdom Collapse

The New Kingdom failed gradually, more with a whimper than a bang. Surrounding cultures were developing, better able to challenge Egyptian supremacy

Egypt was conquered by a succession of nations, each eager to rule as Pharaoh, but each eager to introduce their own culture too. The eventual slide of the once great civilization coincided with the advent of Christianity, which initially faced a vigorous resistance. Christianity overcame, in the end, and reactively eradicated the ancient religious practices, including the worship of Osiris and Isis, and forbad the use of hieroglyphs.

The architecture of the period was quite distinctive and its decoration in particular was continually evolving, particularly into the Late Period. The picture above left shows the Kiosk of Kertassi, and at right above is a Late Period representation of the Ba, one aspect of the human spirit.

Art developed distinctively, too. At left is a representation of Sobek, the crocodile god from Kom Ombo, while at right is a view of Horus, from the Louvre

Learning from ancient Egypt

The record of ancient Egypt shows that each of the three phases of civilization broke down for different reasons, although it seems that a downturn in their economy was an associated factor in each case.

Is it possible to learn from their pattern of social evolution? Well, possibly...but it would be easy to overlook important factors such as the change in environment between then and now, the social evolution that has occurred in that time.

On the other hand, we find it virtually impossible to analyse today's complex social dilemmas, if only because there are so many variables and unknowns. If wecouldlearn from other societies' failures - and successes - then it might prove very useful.

Of all the precedents we might choose to examine, ancient Egypt has to be the most interesting. Here was a society, virtually isolated by the desert on either side of the Nile, which emerged from the Stone Age and flowered into perhaps the most impressive, expressive, artistic, theocracy of all time. The first age was, even to later Egyptians, a truly Golden Age.

Psychology of Social Change

  • Collective unconscious explains many less rational, otherwise inexplicable, apprehensions of human psyche at its most profound level
  • Change, and resistance to change, relate to the psyche of the individual and the group.
  • Collective unconscious...
    • common psychological inheritance of all men living from all men of the past
  • ...and individuation
    • progress towards maturity experienced by the self in which the self acquires awareness of its own individuality. Marks the transition from collective experience/unconscious to identification by the individual of specific responses to his environment

C G Jung

Societal Individuation

  • Personal individuation may be usefully compared with individuation of a Society/Culture
  • Need a Pristine Society, one with chthonic inheritance untainted by foreign intrusion, for valid analogy
  • To understand cultural behaviour, essential to see it in context of degree of societal individuation - early in process, there is extended group behaviour, little individual personality

Michael Rice -Egypt's Making

By extension, this Pristine Society presents archetypal models of societal behaviour at various stages which we may apply to today's societies, companies, businesses...

Generalized Societal Behaviour

  • Societal behavioural response changes with time and individuation - maturation process
  • Early on, group cohesion high - group change rate high (c.f. shoaling fish?)
  • Young societies exhibit great energy, co-directed toward the extended-group-shared aim
    • plastic and mouldable as an extended group
    • need time for intellectual development to chart new waters, see new horizons - little time spent on bureaucracy
    • time of great creativity and innovation
    • early development of cannon, schools of thought
    • reverence for stability and tradition

During Societal Maturation...

  • Schools lead to specializations, to artisans and artists, to adherence to cannon and tradition
  • Gradually, maturation leads to interests in power, to individuation, to challenge of cannons and traditions
  • With individuation come factions, energy absorption in internecine struggle, resistance to change, uncontrolled change, breakdown
  • Avoiding loss of control - leader's guide:-
    • avoid promotion of subordinate, self-ruling groups
    • create and manage infrastructure
    • appoint/replace bureaucrats on merit, not inheritance

Generalized Rise and Fall of Epochs

  • Epochs initiated by powerful leaders
  • "Style" of epoch set by initial leader
  • Epoch stability depends on:-
    • iconic, synergistic leadership
    • sound economy and infrastructure
    • shared collective unconscious / experience
    • group social ethics, morals and widely held beliefs
  • Epoch breakdown caused by:-
    • fluctuating economy; degradation of spirit, loss of ethical, altruistic spirit
    • internecine struggle, often leading to group weakness and invasion /takeover


D K Hitchins 2015