Daily Life in Ancient Egypt
Geography and Agriculture
The geography of Egypt is deeply important in understanding why the Egyptians centered their lives around the Nile. Both before and during the use of canal irrigation in Egypt, the Nile Valley could be separated into two parts, the River Basin or the flat alluvial (or black land soil), and the Red Land or red desert land. The River basin of the Nile was in sharp contrast to the rest of the land of Egypt and was rich with wild life and water fowl, depending on the waxing and waning cycles of the Nile. In contrast, the red desert was a flat dry area which was devoid of most life and water, regardless of any seasonal cycle.
The Nile in it's natural state goes through periods of inundation and relinquishment. The inundation of the Nile-a slightly unpredictable event- was the time of greatest fertility for Egypt. As the banks rose, the water would fill the man-made canals and canal basins and would water the crops for the coming year. However, if the inundation was even twenty inches above or below normal, it could have massive consequences upon the Egyptian agricultural economy. Even with this variability, the Egyptians were able to easily grow tree crops and vegetable gardens in the lower part of the Nile Valley, while at higher elevations, usually near levees, the Nile Valley was sparsely planted.
Agricultural crops were not the mainstay of the ancient Egyptian diet. Rather, the Nile supplied a constant influx of fish which were cultivated year around. In addition to fish, water fowl and cattle were also kept by the Egyptians. Flocks of geese were raised from the earliest times and supplied eggs, meat and fat. However, the domestic fowl didn't make its appearance until Ramesside times, and then in only very isolated places. The Egyptian farmers, in their early experimental phase, also tried to domesticate other animals such as hyenas, gazelles and cranes but gave up after the Old Kingdom. Cattle were also part of the staple diet of the Egyptians, suggesting that grazing land was available for the Egyptians during the times when the Nile receded. However, during the inundation, cattle were brought to the higher levels of the flood plain area and were often fed the grains harvested from the previous year.
The Egyptian diet was by no means limited to tree crops and vegetables, nor was it limited to an animal or fish diet. The Egyptians cultivated barley, emmer wheat, beans, chickpeas, flax, and other types of vegetables. In addition, the cultivation of grains was not entirely for consumption. One of the most prized products of the Nile and of Egyptian agriculture was oil. Oil was customarily used as a payment to workmen employed by the state, and depending on the type, was highly prized. The most common oil (kiki) was obtained from the castor oil plant. Sesame oil from the New Kingdom was also cultivated and was highly prized during the later Hellenistic Period.
Ancient Egyptians believed that after death a judge would ask them three questions before admitting them to eternal life. They would have to swear that they had not murdered, robbed, or built a dam during their time on earth. This does not mean that the Egyptians were opposed to irrigation. On the contrary, they did everything they could to take advantage of Egypt's limited water supply. That's why no individual was allowed to build a dam; the government strictly regulated every drop of water.
The very first Egyptian farmers waited for the natural overflow of the Nile to water their crops. However, as early as 5000 BCE they had begun to figure out ways to control the great river. In doing this, they invented the world’s first irrigation systems. They began by digging canals to direct the Nile flood water to distant fields. (One of the first official positions in the Egyptian government was that of “Canal Digger”.) Later, they constructed reservoirs to contain and save the water for use during the dry season. The first reservoir in Egypt, and the first in the world, was at Fayum, a low-lying area of the desert. During flood season the Fayum became a lake. The Egyptians built about 20 miles of dikes around Fayum. When the gates in the dikes were opened, the water flowed through canals and irrigated the fields. The tops of the dams were leveled and used as roads. During the flood season the dams were broken so that the river could pour into the canals.
The ancient farmers also invented a device for moving water from the canal to the fields. Some crops had to be watered continually and since the 16th century BCE the Shaduf came into use. This was a long pole balanced on a horizontal wooden beam. At one end of the pole was a weight and on the other was a bucket. The weight made it easier to raise less than three liters of water for irrigation or drinking.
Some historians believed that the Egyptians were also the first people to use a plow. Early tomb paintings show a bow-shaped stick that was dragged along the ground. Later, human beings were harnessed to the plow. One wall painting showed four people pulling and one directing the tool. By 2000 BCE, the oxen had taken over the heavy work. The harness was first slipped over the animal’s horn; eventually a neck collar was invented that did not interfere with the animal’s breathing.
Hoeing was another way of loosening the soil. Because the handles of the hoes were very short (a feature of these tools even in southern countries), this was backbreaking work. The sower walked ahead of the team, a two-handled woven basket tied around his neck, his hands free for sowing. The plough covered the seeds with earth. Driving hogs or sheep over the field might serve the same purpose. Herodotus once said,
“It is certain however that now they gather in fruit from the earth with less labor than any other men and also with less than the other Egyptians; for they have no labor in breaking up furrows with a plough nor in the hoeing nor in any other of those labors which other men have about a crop; but when the river has come up of itself and watered their fields and after watering has left them again, then each man sows his own field and turns into it swine, and when he has trodden the seed into the ground by means of the swine, after that he waits for the harvest, and when he has threshed the corn by means of the swine, then he gathered it in” (Herodotus, histories 11).
Harvest time was a time of intense labor. People worked from sunrise to sunset, taking occasional breaks for drinking and eating. If they were working for somebody else, an overseer would see to it they did not dawdle. The payment for the harvest season’s work was generally the amount of grain a worker could reap in one day.
To harvest wheat, wooden flint sickles were used and the wheat was left on the ground. Thus, the reapers did not have to bend over low. Women followed them gathering the sheaves into baskets. The local poor, mostly women and children, trying to pick up all the grain missed by the others and begging the reapers for alms, followed these in their turn.
People or donkeys were used to transport the grain to the threshing floor, but mostly it was carried by two men in a sack, fastened to a wooden frame and connected to five meter-long carrying poles. The threshing floor was carefully cleaned and sheaves were raked into a thick carpet. Men wielding whips, treading the kernel out of the husks, drove cattle or sheep over the floor. Emmer, the first sort of wheat widely grown in Egypt, was more difficult to dehusk than the later wheat varieties. The straw was swept away with brooms and the wheat winnowed by throwing it into the air with a wooden scoop and letting the wind carry off the lighter chaff. The grain silos were in walled enclosures, carefully plaster-coated on the inside and whitewashed on the outside. In order to store the grain, the worker had to climb stairs to a small window near the top of the cone, carrying baskets. Through a little door at the bottom the grain could be taken out.
Scribes measured the harvest and recorded it on their tablets. A surveyor measured the field with a measuring rope in order to calculate the quantity of grain owed as taxes. Egyptian scribes were good at calculating area and subsequent taxes, even if their way was of calculating was somewhat cumbersome.
Completion of the harvest was a time for thanking the snake goddess Ranuta. Sheaves of wheat, fowls, cucumbers and watermelons, loaves of bread and fruits were offered to her. Pharaoh himself thanked the fertility god Min with a sheaf of wheat in front of great crowds during the festivities in the first month of Shemu, the season of harvest. Local gods all over Egypt were not forgotten. At Asyut, the first of the wheat gathered was sacrificed to the local god, Wapwait.
It appears likely that most of Egypt’s adult population spent some time farming. Although there were full time farmers, during and immediately following inundation most men were drafted through corv’ee (forced labor by the government as taxation) to increase the personnel available for dredging irrigation canals, surveying land boundaries, and preparing the ground for planting. Avoidance of corv’ee carried stiff penalties for the individual and sometimes his family. Noblemen and scribes, the literate upper class, were the only people consistently excluded from the corv’ee. Most noblemen were automatically involved in the agricultural system, however, because they owned farms and supervised royal or temple agricultural land.
Nubia and Egypt
Nubia was a region south of Egypt, which was divided by the Nile nearest the 2nd Cataract. The products of Nubia and Kush added greatly to the wealth of Egypt, particularly by providing gold, ivory, ebony, cattle, gums and semi-precious stones. Cattle were one of the major contributions made by Nubia suggesting that grasslands were more extensive in the time of the Old Kingdom. In addition, the Nile Delta below Memphis has always been one of great fertility, flanked on its eastern and western borders by wide meadowlands where goats, sheep and cattle were raised. The fertility of Nubia and it's products enriched both Egyptian and Nubian cultures which lived along the Nile.
Mythology is defined as a collection of interrelated stories of a given culture. Myths tend to describe the creation of the world and give a culture an understanding of the events of nature and the world around them. Myths are also generated to tell the story of the first people to inhabit the earth. These people are elevated to gods and goddesses, which usually associate them as having supernatural and special powers. Myths also express the values or beliefs of a culture, and every culture studied has their own myths distinctive to their group.
Ancient Egyptians tried to understand their place in the universe and their mythology centers itself on nature, the earth, sky, moon, sun, stars, and the Nile River. Heliopolis, the City of the Sun, is located in the ruins of Yunu in northeast Cairo. This is where the cosmic creation of Egyptian myth began. Ancient Egyptian mythology states that in the beginning of time everything began with Nu. Nu is the description of what the planet was before land appeared. Nu was a vast area of swirling watery chaos and as the floods receded the land appeared. The first god to appear out of this watery mess was Atum. This myth was probably created because of the large source of water from the Nile River. In one interpretation, Atum is credited with the fertile land that springs up when the water's of the Nile River recedes, because he was the first to arise out of the watery mess.
Atum emerged from Nu as the sun god at the beginning of time and is the creator of the world. Since Atum was all alone he chose to mate with his shadow. The god Atum was known as the `Great He-She', and a bisexual. The ancient Egyptians found this act acceptable, as they found all types of sexual orientations acceptable. Atum gave birth to two children by spitting out his son (Shu) and vomiting up is daughter (Tefnut). Shu represented the air and the principles of life and Tefnut represented rain and principles of order. The three remained in the watery chaos of Nu and after some time Atum was separated from his children. When they were finally reunited, Atum wept with tears of joy. When his tears hit the ground men grew and he then began to create the world. Shu and Tefnut later gave birth to Geb, the god of the earth in which the throne of the Pharaoh would be decided. Nut was also born from Tefnut and Shu as the Goddess of the sky, the separator between earth and Nu. Geb and Nut then gave birth to Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. In ancient Egyptian mythology there is an established kinship of the gods and goddesses. Atum is known also as Khepri, the great scarab beetle, Ra-Harakhte, the winged-solar disk, Ra, the midday sun, Aten, the solar-disk, or Horus on the Horizon. By whatever name you call him Atum, is the one and only creator in the universe. The sun god Atum travels along Nut during the day and then is swallowed by Nut at night. At dawn it is seen as Nut giving birth to Atum as the sky opens up to the light.
One of the most famous Egyptian myths is the myth of Osiris. Osiris has been credited with many different titles, god of fertility, king of the dead, god of agriculture, and god of the underworld, controller of the Nile floods, and the rising and setting of the sun. All of these titles have one thing in common: life, death, and rebirth because the myth of Osiris is attributed to his life, murder, and eternal life after death. The myth of Osiris begins when he sets out to spread law and order across the land and to teach people how to farm. Because Osiris was a powerful king and popular with the people, his jealous brother lured him into a coffin and sealed his fate with molten lead. Seth then sent him down the Nile River in the coffin. Later the coffin washed ashore in Lebanon and a tree encased it. A king of Lebanon was impressed by the size of the tree and cut it down and put it in his palace.
Isis was the wife and sister to Osiris who gave birth to Horus and was the protector of the dead. When she received the news of Osiris's death, she knew the dead could not rest without a proper burial. Isis searched and found Osiris' body and brought it back to Egypt. Seth found this unacceptable and cut Osiris into many pieces and scattered them throughout Egypt. Isis set out again and had all the pieces she found made into wax duplicates. All the wax duplicates were placed in the temple to be worshipped. Isis preserved his body with linen bandages, used her magic and breathed life back into Osiris. Osiris then rose as a God-King and he chose to rule the underworld. This is where the roots of mummification and rebirth into the afterworld began.
Ancient Egyptian gods:
Amen (Amon): Amen has his origin in Thebes. He is known as Lord of Creation and Protector of the Poor and Weak. His name means “The Hidden One.” He is considered the father of all gods; thus he does not have a mother or father but is husband to Mut, the Great Mother. During the Middle Kingdom, Uast became the state capitol of Egypt and since Amen was the central god of Uast, he became the state god and was later combined with Ra (another creator god) to become Amen-Ra, and worshipped as the King of Gods. Egyptians represent him in art and statue as man or the sun. His sacred animals were the ram and the goose, which were bred and kept at all of his temples throughout Egypt.
Bastet: The Egyptian cat-headed goddess, Bastet was strictly a solar deity until the arrival of Greek influence on Egyptian society, when she became a lunar goddess due to the Greeks associating her with their Artemis. Dating from the 2nd Dynasty (roughly 2890-2686 BC), Bastet was originally portrayed as either a wild desert cat or as a lioness, and only became associated with the domesticated feline around 1000 BC. She was commonly paired with Sakhmet, the lion-headed goddess of Memphis, Wadjet, and Hathor. Bastet was the "Daughter of Ra", a designation that placed her in the same ranks as such goddesses as Maat and Tefnut. Additionally, Bastet was one of the "Eyes of Ra", the title of an "avenger" god who is sent out specifically to lay waste to the enemies of Egypt and her gods. Geb: Geb was the “Father Earth” or the earth-god. He is said to live forever below his wife Nut, the goddess of the sky. He is the brother and husband of Nut and together they had five children. Geb's sign is the goose, which is thought, according to the mythological creation story, to be the form that the creator took on the day of creation. Geb is thought to be the first ruler of Kemet and some of the ancient king-lists have Geb and his immediate descendants as actual physical kings.
Horus (Heru, Haroeris, Harpocrates): Horus is the son of Isis and Osiris. When Osiris was killed by Set, Horus set out to avenge him. He is the god of the living and lord of the heavens. His name means “He who is above.” Horus is represented as a falcon or hawk-headed deity because of his status as god of the sky and horizon. There are several myths about the eye or eyes of Horus. One source says that Horus gave up his right eye in battle and that it represents strength, vigor and self-sacrifice. Another source simply says that one of his eyes represents the sun and the other represents the moon. During the time he was worshipped in Ancient Egypt, his cult-centers were Behdet in Lower Egypt, and Hierakonpolis and Edfu in Upper Egypt.
Ma'at (Maat): Ma'at was the goddess of truth, justice and harmony. Ra, the sun god, was her father. Offerings were often made of Ma'at to the gods by the pharaohs to show that they wanted to keep harmony and justice on the earth. Ma'at is represented as a woman with an ostrich feather on her head. A vizier, who was a high official in the government and advisor to the pharaohs, were often known as “priests of Ma'at”.
Nut (Nuit): Nut was the goddess of the sky. She created the casing over the earth with her body. She was the sister and wife of Geb, the god of the earth. Shu, the god of air, separated nut and Geb when he lifted Nut up to become the canopy over the earth. Ancient Egyptians believed that in the evenings, Nut would swallow Ra, the sun god, and in the mornings give birth to him. Nut appears as a goddess wearing a blue dress covered in stars.
Ptah: Ptah is the creator god of Memphis, the capital of the dual Kemetic for most of its history. Ptah is symbolized as a mummified man wearing a skullcap and holding the symbols of life, power, and stability in his arms. Ptah is sometimes seen as an abstract form of the self-created one, who effected creation through the actions of his heart and gave all things the breath of life with his tongue. Ptah represents the sun at the time when it begins to rise above the horizon and or right after it has risen. As early as the Second Dynasty, he is regarded as a creator god. He is the patron of painters, builders. architects, artists and sculptors. It was Ptah who built the boats for the souls of the dead to use in the afterlife. In the Book of the Dead we learn that he was a master architect, and responsible for building the framework of the universe. It was said that Ptah created the great metal plate that was the floor of heaven and the roof of the sky. He also constructed the supports that held it up. Some creation legends say that by speaking the names of all things, Ptah caused them to be.
Ra (Re): Another deity represented in human form with the head of a falcon, like Horus. Ra, like Amen, is also thought to be a god of creation. His cult-center is Heliopolis, where he is known as the sun god and supreme judge. Ra is also known as the father of kings and the most important gods. Followers of Ra believe that life on earth was created from the tears of Ra as he wept at the beauty of mankind and his creation. He is considered a living god during the day and a dead one at night. He is born at dawn as a small child, an adult in prime at midday and an old man at sunset. He dies at dark and is reborn again at next dawn.
Seth: Seth was the god of wind and storms and ruler of the deserts. He is seen as the one who brings chaos to Egypt and is the enemy of Osiris and Horus. Nephthys is the wife to Seth and sister to Osiris, Isis, and Seth. She is usually depicted as a protector of the dead. From Osiris and Isis comes Horus, the King of Egypt.
Tawaret (Thoeris, Taurt): Tawaret, or “The Great One”, is the goddess who protects women during their pregnancy and childbirth. Often temples were built to honor gods and goddesses but Tawaret was a goddess who was worshiped by ancient Egyptians in their own homes. Often an amulet of Tawaret was worn or at least kept in a person's home to keep them safe from evil spells or actions. Tawaret has the head of a hippopotamus and arms and legs of a lion. She has the back and tail of a crocodile and the breasts and stomach of a pregnant woman.
These are the gods with whom ancient Egyptians had a relationship for thousands of years. By careful study of the gods and the myths that surround them, we can develop a picture in our own minds of what the ancient Egyptians were like as emotional beings. We know what they did on an everyday basis. We know what kind of jobs they worked, how they ate, their medical technology, their government, and how they created their magnificent monuments. But within the hieroglyphs containing the myths of the gods we can learn what motivated the Egyptians spiritual lives. We can learn why they did the things that they did, what the purpose of the pyramids were, their relationship with the pharaoh, their burial practices and their belief in the afterlife. Maybe the ancient Egyptians knew something about the afterlife or the realm of the spirits that we don't know, or will never know, unless we take the time to understand their mythology as they understood it.
According to the Heliopolitan Tradition, the world began as a watery chaos called Nun, from which the sun-god Atum (later to identified with Re) emerged on a mound. By his own power he engendered the twin deities Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture), who in turn bore Geb (earth) and Nut (sky). Geb and Nut finally produced Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys. The nine gods so created formed the divine ennead (i.e. company of nine) which in later texts was often regarded as a single divine entity. From this system derived the commonly accepted conception of the universe represented as a figure of the air-god Shu standing and supporting with his hands the out-stretched body of the sky-goddess Nut, with Geb the earth-god lying at his feet.
The second cosmological tradition of Egypt was developed at Hermopolis, the Capital of the Fifteenth Nome of Upper Egypt, apparently during a time of reaction against the religious hegemony of Heliopolis. According to this tradition, chaos existed at the beginning of time before the world was created. This chaos possessed four characteristics identified with eight deities who were grouped in pairs: Nun and Naunet, (god and goddess of the primordial water), Heh and Hehet, (god and goddess of infinite space), Kek and Keket, (god and goddess of darkness), and Amun and Amunet, (god and goddess of invisibility).
These deities were not so much the gods of the earth at the time of creation as the personifications of the characteristic elements of chaos out of which earth emerged. They formed what is called the Hermopolitan Ogdoad (company of eight). Out of chaos so conceived arose the primeval mound at Hermopolis and on the mound was deposited an egg from which emerged the great sun-god. The sun-god then proceeded to organize the world. The Hermopolitan idea of chaos was of something more active than the chaos of the Heliopolitan system; but after the ultimate triumph of the latter system, a subtle modification (no doubt introduced largely for political reasons) made Nun the father and creator of Atum.
The third cosmological system was developed at Memphis, when it became the capital city of the kings of Egypt. Ptah, the principal god of Memphis, had to be shown to be the great creator-god, and a new legend about creation was coined. Nevertheless, an attempt was made to organize the new cosmogony so that a direct breach with the priests of Heliopolis might be avoided. Ptah was the great creator-god, but eight other gods were held to be contained within him. Of these eight, some were members of the Heliopolitan Ennead, and others of the Hermopolitan Ogdoad. Atum, for example, held a special position; Nun and Naunet were included; also Tatjenen, a Memphite god personifying the earth emerging from chaos, and four other deities whose names are not certain. They were probably Horus, Thoth, Nefertum, and a serpent-god. Atum was held to represent the active faculties of Ptah by which creation was achieved, these faculties being intelligence, which as identified with the heart and personified as Horus, and will, which was identified with the tongue and personified as Thoth.
Ptah conceived the world intellectually before creating it 'by his own word'. The whole Memphite theology is preserved on a slab of basalt now exhibited in the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery. It was composed at an early date, and committed to stone during the Twenty-fifth Dynasty by the order of King Shabaka. Unfortunately, this stone, the so-called 'Shabaka Stone' was subsequently used as a nether mill-stone and much of the text has been lost. The document known as the Bremner-Rhind Papyrus includes, among other religious texts, two monologues of the sun-god describing how he created all things.
The priesthood of ancient Egypt has a far reaching and deep history, rooted within the traditions of Ancient Egypt. Unlike the orthodox priesthoods usually found within Western society, the role of the Egyptian priest or priestess was vastly different within the society as a whole. Rather than seek the divine and develop a rapport with the gods, the role of the priest was akin to an everyday job. For, as the pharaoh was seen as a god himself, the priests and priestesses were seen as stand-in's for the pharaoh; as it was the greater job of the priests and priestesses to keep Egyptian society in good order, as is the case with most theoretically based societies. The mystical attributes of the priests and priestesses take on a secondary role, when one considers the heightened role religion played within Egyptian society. Not only was religion a way to attain the ethereal and basic needs of the Egyptians, but it also served as a mechanism to order society, to create a hierarchy, and to preserve the culture for future generations. As such, the role of the priests and priestesses was both functional and mystical on both levels.
A priest or priestess in ancient Egypt was generally chosen by either the king, or attained their post by hereditary means. In either case, the priests who received their positions hereditarily and through the king were not set apart from mundane life. In fact, such priests were made to embrace the mundane life to keep Egyptian society functioning properly (and as stated above it was a job of fairly high status). Though the priesthood had started out simply, with relatively few temples, in the later dynasties the temples expanded into the hundreds. With such growth, a large bureaucracy was needed to keep the temples in good standing; and thenceforth, the small priesthood's of the Egyptians grew from an estimated hundred priests into the thousands, and with it came a priestly hierarchy.
The daily life of a priest or priestess depended on their sex and also their hierarchical standing within the priesthood. Priests were often rotated from position to position within the priestly hierarchy and were integrated in and out of mundane society. This rotation system generally went, that a priest would enter into temple life one month, at three times a year. This rotation system had a direct connection to the often stringent purity rites of the priests. Regardless of what status the priest was, there were numerous taboos and tradition's a priest had to or could not partake of. Of these taboos and traditions, a priest or priestess could not eat fish (a food thought to be ascribed to peasant life), could not wear wool (as nearly all animal products were unclean), were generally circumcised (only common among the male priests), and it was not uncommon for priests to bathe three or four times a day in "sacred" purificatory pools. It was also not uncommon for the "oracle" tending priests (one of the most sacred positions), to shave off all of their body hair, partially to get rid of lice, but partially for purificatory functions. These "oracle" priests symbolically gave food to the statues of the gods, clothed the statues of the gods, sealed the temple chamber in the evening, and were known as stolists. As can be seen from the example of the stolists, the need for purity extended not only upon the mundane level, but also held true within the afterlife as well. Further, from such purificatory rites the priests were often times known as the "pure ones" regardless of status within the temples.
The hierarchy of priests consisted of a milieu of offices and duties. At the top of the hierarchy of priests was the high-priest, also known as the sem-priest, and as "the First Prophet of the God". The high-priest was often very wise in years, and old. Not only did he serve as political advisor to the pharaoh, but he was also a political leader for the temples he belonged to as well. The high-priest was in charge of over-seeing magical rites and ceremonies as well as advising the pharaoh. Maintaining a fairly ceremonial position, the high-priest was often times chosen by the pharaoh as an advisor, however, it was not uncommon for a high-priest to have climbed through the ranks to his official status.
Below the high-priest were a number of priests with many specialized duties. The specialization of these second tier priests ran from "horology" (keeping an accurate count of the hours through the days, extremely important during the time of the sunboat worshippers, but also for agricultural reasons as well), "astrology" (extremely important as well to the mythology of Egypt as well as to the architectural and calendrical systems of Egypt), to healing. As is obvious by the specialization of the priests, the cycles of the cosmos were extremely important, as they decided when crops would be planted, when the Nile would wax or wane, and further when the temple rites were to begin in the morning. The result of these Egyptian priests studies can be seen in both the mythological studies of Egypt, as well as within the agricultural practices, which rival even the modern Caesarian Calendar still used within the western world today.
In addition to the political administration, the priests and priestesses took on both magical and economic functions, however set apart from the hierarchy of priests are the lay magicians who supplied a commoners understanding of Egyptian religion. Through the use of magic and their connection to the gods, lay magicians provided a service to their community, usually consisting of counseling, magical arts, healing, and ceremony. Lay magicians who served within this last and final caste of the Egyptian priesthood belonged to a large temple known simply as "The House of Life". Laymen would come to "The House of Life" to meet with a magician, priest or priestess to have their dreams interpreted, to supply magical spells and charms, to be healed and to counteract malevolent magic, and to supply incantations of various types. Though the House of Life provided it's Laymen with many prescriptive cures for common ills, it was largely shrouded in mystery in ancient times. In fact, the library of The House of Life was shrouded in great secrecy, as it contained many sacred rites, books, and secrets of the temple itself which were thought could harm the pharaoh, the priests, and all of Egypt itself. Though the magicians of The House of Life, were seen as another step from the ceremonial duties of the priests, they were by no means less important, and as is evidenced by the presence of many magical wands, papyri text, and other archeological evidence, The House of Life took on a role direly important to the way of life of Ancient Egyptians.
One final position within the priesthood highly worthy of mention is that of the Scribes. The scribes were highly prized by both the pharaoh and the priesthood, so much so that in some of the pharaoh's tombs, the pharaoh himself is depicted as a scribe in pictographs. The scribes were in charge of writing magical texts, issuing royal decrees, keeping and recording the funerary rites (specifically within The Book of The Dead) and keeping records vital to the bureaucracy of Ancient Egypt. The scribes often spent years working on the craft of making hieroglyphics, and deserve mentioning within the priestly caste as it was considered the highest of honors to be a scribe in any Egyptian court or temple.
Finally, worthy of mention, though there is considerable historical evidence telling of the role of priests within the priestly hierarchy, the status of the priestesses was at times equal if not mirror to that of the male priesthood. The female priestesses held the main function within the temple's of music and dancing. At Thebes, however, the chief-priestess of Amun bore the title of ‘god’s wife’; she was the leader of the female music-makers who were regarded as the god’s harem and were identified with the goddess Hathor, who was associated with love and music. In the Twenty-third Dynasty and afterwards such priestesses were practically rulers of the theocracy, their duties centering around the reverence of Isis, and many other female and male goddesses and gods.
Ancient Egyptian Idea of the Soul
The Ancient Egyptians believed that the "soul" is made up of three parts; the Ba, Ka, and Akh. One part of the soul couldn't live without the other, i.e. if one died they all died. The purpose of mummification was to keep all of the soul's three parts alive.
Ba: The Ba was depicted as a human headed bird. It represented the personality, character, or individuality of the deceased. The Ba lived inside the tomb, but was allowed to leave the tomb and come back at will. It could visit the land of the living where it could take on any form.
Ka: The Ka was a double of the person. It was sometimes represented as a human figure with raised arms, or just a pair of raised arms (David, 140). The creator god "Khnum" fashioned the Ka at the time a person was conceived. It was an exact physical and emotional replica of an individual, that was imprisoned within the living heart, and was only expelled by death. It had to stay close to the body at all times and could never leave the tomb. It was believed that the Ka could not live unless the body was preserved. If the body was not preserved properly the ka could live inside a picture of the body that was depicted on the wall of the tomb. The Ka was dependent on the objects and offerings that were left in the tomb. It could not survive without nourishment. It required food, drink, and clothing. It was up to the friends and family of the deceased to leave regular offerings at the tomb. Dried fish and fowl were some of the foods left by relatives to nourish the Ka.
Akh: The Akh represented the immortality of the deceased. And, like the Ba, it was sometimes depicted as a bird. The Akh made the journey to the underworld so that it could eventually take its place in the afterlife.
Preparing a body for the afterlife in ancient egypt was a very long and complicated process. The Egyptians believed that preserving the body in death was important to keep their soul alive. The Embalmers were priests who were trained in the mummification process. Mummification was a ritual, so the priests who participated were trained to perform the process with both surgical and ritual precision. The embalmers were required to work and labor outside of the town in a workshop called a “Wabet” or a clean place.
The head priest that supervised the ritual wore a terra-cotta mask in the form of Anubis. Anubis was the chosen god for surgeons, and for priests performing the mummification process. By wearing the mask of Anubis it symbolized Anubis watching over the mummification process to guide the priests in the ritual. It was important that the priest did not make any unnecessary cuts in the body, because if the spirit could not recognize the body it would be doomed to wonder across the Earth and possibly haunt the priest responsible.
The first step in the process was to make a cut in the abdomen, below the ribs, on the left side of the body. This first incision was done with a special flint knife, and all other cutting was done with an ordinary metal blade. They had to cut into the body so that they could take out special organs. Once the organs were removed they were placed in canopic jars, which were carved out of alabaster and inscribed with spells that would one day enable the organs to rejoin the body when it was resurrected. The organs that were placed in the jars include: stomach, lungs, intestines, and liver. Once inside the canopic jars each organ was protected by the one of sons of Horus whose head graced the lid.
Next the brain would be extracted through the nose and then thrown away. Resin was then poured through the nose and into the skull with the use of a funnel, to keep the head from collapsing. The heart was left in place because later in the underworld Anubis would weigh the heart and guide the soul through the underworld. During the embalming process every part of the body was saved and either placed in the tomb with the body or given to the relatives of the deceased. Then, the body and organs were preserved with spices and dried out with natron salt. The spices that were used in the preservation process made the body look brown and leathery.
The entire preservation process took about 70 days. After the process was complete, the body was wrapped in linen. Death masks were placed on the head of the mummy around the bandages to be used as a replacement head incase something happened to the real skull. Special amulets were placed within the wrapping of the mummy to protect it. Finally, a “mummy tag,” similar to our toe tags, was placed around the mummy’s neck to help identify it for burial.
Animal worship in ancient Egypt is part of the culture of daily life of Egyptians. Animals of every kind were respected and revered, as they were in close contact with deities and gods that the average Egyptian could not reach.
The cat in ancient Egypt, or miw (to see), was a sacred and respected beast. These small companions fascinated the Egyptians, and were venerated by all. It was in Egypt that the cat was first domesticated 4,000 years ago and where they were held in the most admiration and respect. There is evidence of wild felines around the banks of Egypt, but it was not until around 2000 BCE that the fully domesticated cat was brought into the houses of Egyptians.
The first domesticated Egyptian cats in Egypt were more than likely used for warding off the common asp and other snakes, and the typical chasers of rodents. Slowly though, the cat became more to the Egyptians than just a normal animal, the cat became a god.
During the New Kingdom (1540 to 1069 BC), there were many tomb scenes that started showing cats as part of everyday life. The ancient Egyptians took their cats on hunting excursions instead of dogs, The most popular excursions being the marshes where cats may have been trained to retrieve fowl and fish. Another very common scene in tomb paintings was the picturing of a cat seated underneath a woman's chair. Children had become known in their family as Mit or Miut, showing great affection not only for the child but for the cat as well. Statues of cats were placed outside the house to protect the inhabitants and to ward off evil spirits. This showed scientists that the cat had become an integral part of the ancient Egyptian family life.
Mafdet was the first Egyptian feline deity, sometimes depicted as a lynx, but the most famous cat goddesses in the world, first revered by the ancient Egyptians were Bastet (also known as Bast, Pasch, Ubasti) and the lion-headed Sekhmet.
Bastet had the roles of fertility, protector of children and the protector of all cats. Bastet became so popular infact that she became a household goddess. This goddess was called Bastet when in full cat form, and Bast when only having the head of one and the body of a beautiful woman. Bastet's counterpart was the goddess Sekhmet who represented the cat goddess' destructive force. Sekhmet is known as the goddess of war and pestilence. Together, Bastet and Sekhmet represented the balance of the forces of nature in Egypt.
In Bubastis, or Tell Basta, the cats lived a lavish life as the `embodiment' of Bastet in her temples. Here they were served upon and taken care of until they passed away, and it was here that their bodies were mummified and given as offerings to Bastet. Bubastis contains the remains of over 300,000 cat mummies. Upon being inspected, some feline mummies had severe trauma to the head or neck, signifying that they were killed on purpose, perhaps to lower the growing population or for offerings for Bastet. Giza, Abydos, and Dendereh were also feline tomb cities other than Bubastis.
When a cat died their former owners and occupants of the house would go into deep mourning and shave their eyebrows as a sign of grief. People are not the only mummies in Egypt, as the cat was also mummified significantly. The process of feline mummification had six steps:
In the tombs of the cats were set bowls of milk along with mice and rats.
Cats were not only protected by almost every occupant of Egypt, but also by the law. So extreme infact was the devoutness of the Egyptian culture to the cat, that if a human killed a feline, either intentionally or unintentionally, that human was sentenced to death. Laws were set that also forbid the exportation of cats, though more often than not, many were smuggled to the neighboring Mediterranean countries. Documents state that armies sometimes were set out to recapture these cats from the foreign lands.
Herodotus stated a story once about a fire in a house in Egypt. The men from the house stood outside in a line to protect the cats from harm and danger. Another statement from Herodotus explains even greater the significance of the cat to Egypt. Herodotus begins with the Egyptians in war with Persia. The Persian general had decided to collect as many cats that his men could find or steal, knowing the great importance of the cat to Egypt. The soldiers then returned to the town of Pelusium and set the cats free on the battlefield. Horrified, the Egyptians surrendered the city to the Persians rather than harm the cats.
The cat held a powerful spot in the history of Egypt. While she protected his land and his people, she also protected the mystique that is and was the cat in ancient Egypt.
Amon (Amen, Amun): the great god of Thebes of uncertain origin; represented as a man, the sun, and sometimes as ithyphallic; identified with Re as Amen-Re; his sacred animals were the ram and goose.
Anat: goddess of Syrian origin, with warlike character; represented as a woman holding a shield and an axe.
Anubis (Anpu): the jackal-god, patron of embalmers, healers, and surgeons; in both healing and mummification ceremonies, Anubis was the patron deity which prepared the dead and healed the living. Anubis is considered to be the great necropolis-god.
Anukis (Anqet): goddess of the cataract-region at Aswan; wife of Khnum; represented as a woman with a high feather head-dress.
Arsaphes (Herishef): ram-headed god from, Heracleopolis.
Astarte (As-start-a): goddess of Syrian origin; introduced into Egypt during the 18th Dynasty. She is also known as The Queen of Heaven and her cult often times overlapped with Isian worshipers.
Aten: god of the sun-disk, worshipped as the great creator-god by Akhenaten.
Atum (Tum): the original sun-god of Heliopolis, later identified with Re; represented as a man.
Bastet (Bast): A cat-goddess whose cult-center was at Bubastis in the Delta; in the Late Period regarded as a beneficent deity. She was seen as the patron of cats, of women, and protection.
Bes: A dwarf-deity with leonine features. Seen as a domestic god, protector against snakes and various terrors; helper of women in child-birth.
Edjo (Wadjet, Buto): the cobra-goddess of Buto in the Delta; tutelary deity of Lower Egypt, appearing on the royal diadem, protecting the king.
Geb: the earth-god; husband of Nut; member of the ennead of Heliopolis; represented as a man.
Hapy: god of the Nile in inundation; represented as a man with full, heavy breasts, a clump of papyrus on his head, and bearing heavily laden offering-tables.
Haroeris: a form of Horus, the 'Elder Horus'; identified with the falcon-god and particularly the patron of the king.
Harpocrates (Hor-Pa-Khred): A late form of Horus in his aspect of being son of Isis and Osiris; represented as a naked child wearing the lock of youth and holding one finger to his mouth.
Harsiesis: A form of Horus, specifically designated 'son of Isis'.
Hathor: Goddess of many functions and attributes; represented often as a cow or a cow-headed woman, or as a woman with horned head-dress; the suckler of the king; the 'Golden One'; cult-centers at Memphis, Cusae, Gebelein, Dendera; the patron deity of the mining-region of Sinai; identified by the Greeks with Aphrodite. She was sent by Re to cleanse the land of disbelievers. After slaying all who opposed Re, she asked to rest, and became the equivalent to the Greek form of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, fertility, women, and also their protector. There are many myths surrounding the goddess Hathor.
Hat-mehit: Fish-goddess of Mendes in the Delta; sometimes represented as a woman with a fish on her head.
Heqet: Frog-goddess of Antinoopolis where she was associated with Khnum; a helper of women in child-birth.
Horus (Haroeris, Harpocrates, Harsiesis, Re-Harakhty): The falcon-deity, originally the sky-god, identified with the king during his lifetime. Known more importantly as the son of Osiris and Isis. Horus was also the avenger of his father Osirius, who was killed by Set. The eye of Horus came from a myth of his battles where Horus gave up his right eye in battle. Since then the Eye of Horus, has come to represent strength, vigor, and self-sacrifice. His cult-centers were in many places, Behdet in the Delta, Hierakonpolis and Edfu in Upper Egypt.
Imhotep (Imouthes): The deified chief minister of Djoser, and architect of the Step Pyramid; in the Late Period venerated as the god of learning and medicine; represented as a seated man holding an open papyrus; equated by the Greeks with Asklepios.
Isis: Isis is known as the divine mother, and as wife of Osiris and mother of Horus; Isis is one of the four great protector goddesses (Bast, Nephythes, and Hathor), guarding coffins and Canopic jars. Isis is sister of Nephthys with whom she acted as a divine mourner for the dead, and is divinely represented by the Ankh. In the Late Period Philae was her principal cult-center. She is also known as The Queen of Heaven (similar to Astarte), and rules over all matters concerning life, mothering, and sorcery. In the origin myth of Re and the world, it was written that she found out Re's name by enchanting a poisonous snake to bite him. The snake bit Re, and Isis could only heal him by knowing Re's true name. By knowing Re's name, she then had power equal to him and was then given all of her magical power and was thenceforth known as the divine sorceress. Another of the Isian myths concerns, both Isis, Osiris, and Horus. In this myth, Set kills Osiris and scatters his body in fourteen pieces around the world. Isis goes to find these pieces. After she find all of the peices, she reassembles Osiris and he comes back to life for one night during which Isis conceives their son, Horus. Osiris then becomes Lord of the Dead. Horus was given birth to and was committed to avenging his fathers death by killing Set. Isis from then on lived as the divine mourner on earth and in heaven.
Khepri: The scarab-beetle god, identified with Re as a creator-god; often represented as a beetle within the sun-disk.
Khnum: Ram-headed god of Elephantine, god of the Cataract-region; thought to have molded man on a potter's wheel.
Khons: The moon-god, represented as a man; with Amun and Mut as father and mother, forming the Theban triad.
Maat: Goddess of truth, right, and orderly conduct; represented as a woman with an ostrich-feather on her head. It is said that in the judgement of the dead she holds the scales which weigh the human heart.
Min: The primeval god of Coptos; later revered as a god of fertility, and closely associated with Amun; represented as an ithyphallic human statue, holding a flagellum.
Month (Munt): Originally the local deity of Hermonthis, just south of Thebes; later the war-god of the Egyptian king; represented as falcon-headed.
Mut (Mutt): The divine wife of Amun; cult-center at Asheru, south of the main temple of Amen-Re at Karnak; originally a vulture-goddess, later represented usually as a woman.
Nefertum: The god of the lotus, and hence of unguents; worshipped at Memphis as the son of Ptah and Sakhmet; represented as a man with a lotus-flower head-dress.
Neheb-kau: A serpent deity of the underworld, sometimes represented with a man's body and holding the eye of Horus.
Neith (Net): Goddess of Sais; represented as a woman wearing the red crown; her emblem, a shield with crossed arrows; one of the four 'protector'-goddesses who guarded coffins and Canopic jars; identified by the Greeks with Athena.
Nekhbet: Vulture-goddess of Nekheb (modern El-Kab); tutelary deity of Upper Egypt, sometimes appearing on the royal diadem beside the cobra (Edjo).
Nephthys (Nebet-het): Sister of Isis; one of the four 'protector'-goddesses, who guarded coffins and Canopic jars; with Isis acted as mourner for Osiris and hence for other dead people; represented as a woman.
Nun (Nu): god of the primeval chaos, the Nu was also seen as the primeval water from which the gods, earth, and humans were created from, i.e. the chaos from which order was created.
Nut (Nuit): the sky-goddess, wife of Geb, the earth-god; represented as a woman, her naked body is curved to form the arch of heaven.
Onuris (Anhur): God of This in Upper Egypt; the divine huntsman; represented as a man.
Osiris (Asar): The god of the underworld, identified as the king of the dead; also a god of the inundation and vegetation; represented as a mummified king; principal cult-center, Abydos.Osiris is seen as the great judge of the dead.
Ptah: Creator-god of Memphis, represented as a man, mummiform, possibly originally as a statue; the patron god of craftsmen; equated by the Greeks with Hephaestus.
Ptah-seker-osiris: Composite deity, incorporating the principal gods of creation, death, and after-life; represented like Osiris as a mummified king.
Qadesh: Goddess of Syrian origin, often represented as a woman standing on a lion's back.
Re (Ra): The sun-god of Heliopolis; head of the great ennead, supreme judge; often linked with other gods aspiring to universality, e.g. Amen-Re, Sobk-Re; represented as falcon-headed. Seem as the father of the gods, it was from him that all the gods and goddesses were created. He is also known by three aspects, which correspond to the positions of the sun, Amen at dawn, Re in the evening, and Set at dusk.
Re-harakhty: A god in the form of a falcon, embodying the characteristics of Re and Horus (here called 'Horus of the Horizon').
Renenutet (Ernutet, Thermuthis): Goddess of harvest and fertility; represented as a snake or a snake-headed woman.
Reshef (Reshpu): God of war and thunder, of Syrian origin.
Sekhmet: (Sakhmet) A lion-headed goddess worshipped in the area of Memphis; wife of Ptah; regarded as the bringer of destruction to the enemies of Re.
Sarapis: a god introduced into Egypt in the Ptolemaic Perod having the characteristics of Egyptian (Osiris) and Greek (Zeus) gods; represented as a bearded man wearing the modius head-dress; the Egyptian writing of the (i.e. Osiris-Apis) may not signify the true origin of this god.
Satis (Satet): A goddess of the Island of Siheil in the Cataract-region; represented as a woman wearing the white crown with antelope horns; the daughter of Khnum and Anukis.
Selkis (Selkit, Selkhet, Serqet): A scorpion-goddess, identified with the scorching heat of the sun; one of the four 'protector'-goddesses, guarding coffins and Canopic jars; shown sometimes as a woman with a scorpion on her head.
Seshat: The goddess of writing; the divine keeper of royal annals; represented as a woman.
Seth (Set, Sutekh): The god of storms and violence; identified with many animals, including the pig, ass, okapi, and hippopotamus; represented as an animal of unidentified type; brother of Osiris and his murderer; the rival of Horus; equated by the Greeks with Typhon.
Shu: The god of air; with Tefnut, forming the first pair of gods in the Heliopolitan ennead; shown often as a man separating Nut (sky) from Geb (earth).
Sobk (Sebek, Suchos): The crocodile-god, worshipped throughout Egypt, but especially in the Faiyum, and at Gebelein and Kom Ombo in Upper Egypt.
Sokaris (Sokar, Seker): A falcon-headed god of the necropolis; cult-center in Memphis.
Sopdu: The ancient falcon-god of Saft el-Henna in the Delta; a warrior-god, protector of the eastern frontier; represented often as an Asiatic warrior.
Sothis (Sepdet): The dog-star Sirius (see the constellation Canis), defined as a goddess; shown as a woman with a star on her head.
Tatjenen: The primeval earth-god of Memphis; later identified with Ptah.
Tefnut: The goddess of moisture; with Shu forming the first pair of the Heliopolitan ennead.
Thoeris (Taurt, Taweret): The hippopotamus-goddess; a beneficent deity, the patron of woman in child-birth.
Thoth: the ibis-headed god of Hermopolis; the scribe of the gods, the inventor of writing, and the great god of all knowledge; the ape as well as the ibis are sacred to him. In the judgment of the dead he was the scribe who recorded the confessions and affirmations of the dead on his scrolls, and also kept a record of who went into paradise and who was eaten by the dogs of judgment.
Unnefer (Wenen-nefer, Onnophris): A name meaning 'he who is continually happy', given to Osiris after his resurrection.
Wepwawet (Upuaut): The jackal-god of Asyut in Middle Egypt; a god of the necropolis and an avenger of Osiris.
Most of our understanding of Egyptian astrology is contained within the Cairo Calendar, which consists of a listing of all the days of an Egyptian year. The listings within the calendar all take the same form and can be broken up into three parts: I, the type of day (favorable, unfavorable etc), II, a mythological event which may make a particular day more favorable or unfavorable, III, and a prescribed behavior associated with that day. Unlike modern astrology as found within newspapers, where one can choose whether to follow the advice there in or not, the Egyptians strictly adhered to what an astrologer would advise. As is evidenced by the papyrus of the Cairo Calendar, on days where there were adverse or favorable conditions, if the astrologers told a person not to go outside, not to bathe, or to eat fish on a particular day, such advice was taken very literally and seriously.
Some of the most interesting and misunderstood information about the Ancient Egyptians concerns their calendarical and astrological system. Of the greatest fallacy about Ancient Egypt and it's belief in astrology concerns the supposed worship of animals. The Egyptians did not worship animals, rather the Egyptians according to an animals astrological significance, behaved in certain ritualistic ways toward certain animals on certain days. For example, as is evidenced by the papyrus Cairo Calendar, during the season of Emergence, it was the advisement of the Seers (within the priestly caste), and the omens of certain animals they saw, which devised whether a specific date would be favorable or unfavorable.
The basis for deciding whether a date was favorable or unfavorable was based upon a belief in possession of good or evil spirits, and upon a mythological ascription to the gods. Simply, an animal was not ritually revered because it was an animal, but rather because it had the ability to become possessed, and therefore could cause harm or help to any individual near them. It was also conceived of that certain gods could on specific days take the form of specific animals. Hence on certain days, it was more likely for a specific type of animal to become possessed by a spirit or god than on other days. The rituals that the Egyptians partook of to keep away evil spirits from possessing an animal consisted of sacrifice to magic, however, it was the seers and the astrologers who guided many of the Egyptians and their daily routines. Hence, the origin of Egyptians worshipping animals, has more to do with the rituals to displace evil spirits, and their astrological system, more so than it does to actually worshipping animals.
Marriage and family ties among the common ancient Egyptians were not significantly different then those we see around the world today. The ancient Egyptians held marriage as a sacred bond. This has been made clear in the many statues and writings that depict men and women in a relationship where both depended upon each other. Many myths of the ancient Egyptian marriage practices have been found to be untrue. For a long time many people thought that the Egyptian man would take many wives. This has been proven largely untrue. Some kings would take many wives in order to produce an heir to his throne, however, the common man would take more then one wife only in the event that his wife couldn’t produce a child. Instances of child adoption have been documented in their history.
Instances of incest were once thought to be commonplace in ancient Egypt. This has been proven false with the discovery of the semantics of the Egyptian language. When the scholars were first deciphering the hieroglyphs they ran into many references of women and men referring to their spouse as their “brother” or "sister." The terms Brother and Sister reflected the feelings that two people shared, not the heriditary kinship relationship.
“My brother torments my heart with his voice, he makes sickness take hold of me; he is neighbor to my mother’s house, and I cannot go to him! Brother, I am promised to you by the Gold of Women! Come to me that I may see your beauty.”
The basic family unit in ancient Egypt was the nuclear family. The family was broken down into roles that each would play in order for things to run smoothly. The father was the one who would work all day. In smaller households the mother was in charge of all things pertaining to the house. Cooking, cleaning and watching the children were all her responsibilities. In some larger homes servants served as maids and midwives to help the mother.
Ancient Egypt was a patrilineal society with people’s histories being traced through their father’s background. Legal documents have shown that and and property was inherited through the males of the family.
The calendar system of ancient Egypt is unique to both the cosmology of the Egyptians and their religion. Unlike the modern Julian calendar system, with it's 365 days to a year, the Egyptians followed a calendar system of 360 days, with three seasons, each made up of 4 months, with thirty days in each month. The seasons of the Egyptians corresponded with the cycles of the Nile, and were known as Inundation (pronounced akhet which lasted from June 21st to October 21st), Emergence (pronounced proyet which lasted from October 21st to February 21st), and Summer (pronounced shomu which lasted from February 21st to June 21st).
The beginning of the year, also called "the opening of the year", was marked by the emergence of the star Sirius, in the constellation of Canis Major. The constellation emerged roughly on June 21st., and was called "the going up of the goddess Sothis". The star was visible just before sunrise, and is still one of the brightest stars in the sky, located to the lower left of Orion and taking the form of the dogs nose in the constellation Canis Major.
Though the Egyptians did have a 360 day calendar, in a literal sense they did have a 365 day calendar system. The beginning of the year was marked by the addition of five additional days, known as "the yearly five days". These additional five days, were times of great feasting and celebration for the Egyptians, and it was not uncommon for the Egyptians to rituals, and other celebratory dealings on these days. The Egyptian calendar also took on other important functions within Egyptian life specifically in dealing with the astrology of the people.
Egyptian hieroglyphics had been used by the Egyptians for thousands of years. However, a particularly bleak period of Egyptian history is the conquest of Egypt by Persia. The Egyptians were dominated by Persian intruders. The events that changed the nature of Egypt were not the Persian conquest but rather the war between Persia (the rulers of Egypt) and the united Greek city-states. Greece had originally been united by Philip of Macedon and then ruled effectively by Alexander the Great. Alexander defeated the Persian forces and then took his army to Egypt. There he was welcomed as a conquering hero by the Egyptians because he brought an end to Persian rule. He was made a god by the Egyptians as well as a pharaoh. He, however, had other campaigns to wage and took his army off to the Middle East and the Indus River Valley leaving a regent in charge of Egypt.
After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, his empire was divided among his three most trusted and powerful generals. The throne of Egypt fell to Ptolemy I, the son of Lagus. Ptolemy took Alexander’s preserved body in a jar filled with honey back to Alexandria. Ptolemy ran Egypt like a business, strictly for profit. . He was welcomed by the Egyptians as part of Alexander the Great’s family. Ptolemy then became the pharaoh, Ptolemy I. By so doing, he set the name standard for the 32nd Dynasty which turned out to be the last of Egypt’s great dynasties. All of his male successors were called Ptolemy and all of his female successors were called Cleopatra.
As we move to the end of this Greek Dynasty, there was increasing involvement with the Roman Empire. The Roman civil war between Caesar and Pompeii indirectly involved Egypt. Pompeii lost this war and turned to Egypt for shelter and young Ptolemy (several generations below Ptolemy I) had him executed and delivered to Caesar. The young Ptolemy, thinking this would ingratiate him with Caesar was totally incorrect. His sister, Cleopatra, who was vying for the throne had other ways of ingratiating herself with Caesar - they had children together. Caesar was unfortunately assassinated while visiting Rome and his empire was divided up between General Marcus Antonious and his adopted son, Octavian. Marcus Antonious was better known as Marc Antony. Marc Antony took rulership of that part of the Empire that contained Egypt and that resulted in his inheriting Cleopatra. They, too, had children. His relationship with Octavian broke down and resulted in a war which Marc Antony lost. Antony was killed and Cleopatra committed suicide. Their male children were executed and their female children were probably married off to local princes. The Egyptian dynastic system was ended and a Roman Governorship was established.
During the Ptolemic dynasty, Egyptian and Greek languages were used simultaneously. During the Roman Governorship only Latin was used and occasionally Greek. Within a hundred years the Egyptian hieroglyphics were no longer used or understood by anyone and even the Roman authors of the time suggested that hieroglyphics was not even a language. In the truest sense this is now a dead language.
Ultimately the Roman Empire fell and the Middle Ages "came about". Nevertheless, there existed a constant contact between Europe and Egypt such that hieroglyphics were consistently known by the European elite. The reason for this is that medical practices of the Middle Ages resulted in the prescription of bitumen, ground up mummies as a cure for various kinds of diseases. Thus, there was a trade in whole mummies which resulted in examples of hieroglyphics coming into Europe throughout the Dark Ages.
As a result, there were some early attempts at translation of hieroglyphics. In 1633, a Jesuit priest named Anthanasius Kircher, whose specialities were the humanities, science, language and religion translated the word ‘autocrat’ or in Greek ‘autocratur’ into German and did so by substituting ideas for the images. His translation read "the originator of all moisture and all vegetation whose creative forces is brought into this kingdom by the holy mukta" (is this a ‘bureaucrat’?)
The history of the deciphering of the Egyptian hieroglyphics during the 16th and 17th centuries took small steps toward final interpretation. Some scholars thought that the hieroglyphics were the origin of other languages. Some believed that hieroglyphics spelled nothing at all. Yet others believed that the hieroglyphics were an indication of social stratification or social significance.
This speculation would have continued had not a political event interceded. The almost constant warfare between Britain and France resulted in a major change in the understanding of hieroglyphics. The French under Napoleon Bonaparte decided that they could defeat the British by attacking Egypt and subsequently controlling the rich food supply from along the Nile.
In August of 1798, 13 French ships landed near Alexandria at Aboukir Bay in Egypt and marched inland to fight the British near Cairo. The night before the battle, Napoleon exhorted his troops on by saying something like "Soldiers, from the tops of these pyramids, forty centuries are looking down at you." The French ground forces won the conflict but the British navy, under the command of Lord Horratio Nelson, defeated the French navy. Napoleon believed that he would be in Egypt for only a few months, but he and his men were stranded there for three years with no way to return home. Napoleon had brought with him between nearly 1000 civilians including 167 of whom were scientists, technicians, mathematicians and artists who studied the art, architecture, and culture of Egypt during their "extended vacation." From 1809-1828, they published a 19-volume work called Description of Egypt. Their observations, drawings and illustrations were circulated throughout Europe and created a tremendous interest in antiquities of Egypt.
The soldiers continued to "dig in" and they reconstructed forts as most soldiers had done during previous centuries by using building stones previously used by earlier peoples. In 1799, while extending a fortress near Rosetta, a small city near Alexandria, a young French officer named Pierre-Francois Bouchard found a block of black basalt stone. It measured three feet nine inches long, two feet four and half inches wide, and eleven inches thick and it contained three distinct bands of writing. The most incomplete was the top band containing hieroglyphics, the middle band was an Egyptian script called Demotic script (he did not know that), and the bottom was ancient Greek (he did recognize the bottom band). This stone was called the Rosetta Stone. He took the stone to the scholars and they realized that it was a royal decree that basically stated that it was to be written in the languages used in Egypt at the time. Scholars began to focus on the Demotic script, the middle band, because it was more complete and it looked more like letters than the pictures in the upper band that were hieroglyphics. It was essentially a shorthand hieroglyphics that had evolved from an earlier shorthand version of Egyptian called Heiratic script.
Material from Egypt was continuously coming into Europe. In order to display their status, the European gentry and nobility normally had some Egyptian relics in their possession, perhaps an art object on a table or if one were quite rich, they might have an obelisk in the front yard of the estate. Material containing hieroglyphics continued to enter Europe at a reasonably accelerated rate.
The first to make any sense of the Demotic script on the Rosetta Stone was a French scholar named Silvestre deSacy. deSacy was an important and skilled French linguist. He identified the symbols which comprised the word ‘Ptolemy’ and ‘Alexander’ thus, establishing a relationship between the symbols and sounds. Johann Akerblad who history records as a Swedish diplomat, looked at the Rosetta Stone with an additional knowledge of Coptic. Coptic was the language used by the Coptic church of Egypt, an early Christian group who preserved the language which was used as early as the 4th century. Coptic was written with the Greek alphabet but utilizes seven additional symbols from the Demotic script. Akerblad’s knowledge of Coptic allowed him to identify the words for ‘love,’ ‘temple’ and ‘Greek’ thus, making it clear that the Demotic script was not only a phonetic script but it was also translatable.
The earliest translation of the Greek text on the Rosetta Stone into English was done by Reverend Stephen Weston in London in April 1802 before the Society of Antiquaries . About this time, both deSacy and Thomas Young, attempted to decipher the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone. Young was successful in determining that foreign names could not be represented by symbols because symbols are based upon the words used in a given language. Thus, foreign names had to be spelled phonetically. In hieroglyphics there are groups of symbols that are separated from other symbols. These encircled inscriptions are called cartouches. Thomas Young determined that the cartouches were proper names of people who were not Egyptian like the names of Ptolemy and Alexander which in Greek were Ptolemaios and Alexandrus. He successfully deciphered 5 cartouches. His publication on this matter was far reaching.
At this point there is involvement by a young French historian and linguist named Jean-Fracois Champollion. Champollion had mastered many Eastern languages. In 1807, Champollion went to study for two years with noted French linguist Francois Antoine-Isaac Silvestre deSacy. Later in his career, Champollion had compiled a Coptic dictionary and read Thomas Young in 1819. Looking at Young’s writing on the subject of hieroglyphics, he realized that what Young had actually proven was that all of hieroglyphics were phonetic, not just those hieroglyphics that were contained within the cartouches. Utilizing hieroglyphics from an estate at Kingston Lacey in Britain, Champollion correctly identified the names of Cleopatra and Alexandrus and verified Ptolemeus which had previously been identified by Young He published his results and continued his research. In 1822 new inscriptions from a temple at Abu Simbel on the Nile were introduced into Europe and Champollion had correctly identified the name of the pharaoh who had built the temple. That name was ‘Ramses.’ Utilizing his knowledge of Coptic he continued to successfully translate the hieroglyphics opening up an understanding of the Ancient Egyptians.
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