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The Ethics and Morality of the Kemits
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The Ethics and Morality of the Kemits

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Ethics and Morality of the Kemits

Ethics and Morality of the Kemits

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  • 1. Maat, kneeling and with wings spread. The goddess personifying truth, order and cosmicbalanceMorality and Ethics are always interesting historical topics. To our modern minds, what isbasically ethical and moral sometimes seems relatively clear, such as not cheating or stealing,working hard to earn a living, etc., but even today in some societies, that is not always soobvious. Yet most ancient societies certainly had standards of conduct in one form or another.In Kemet, in order to understand morality and ethics, one must have a basic knowledge of theterm, maat. Maat was the ethical conceptions of "truth", "order" and "cosmic balance". Theseprincipals were also personified in a goddess named Maat. This goddess represented the Thegoddess Maat spreads her protective wings in the tomb of Nefertari in the Valley of the Queenson the West Bank at ancient Thebes divine harmony and balance of the universe, which wasthought to affect every aspect of the ancient land of Egypt. Particularly in the most ancient oftimes, it should be noted that the people of Egypt had an obligation to uphold maat throughobedience to the king, which doubtless added in the formation of the early state.In Kemet, there was probably never a theoretical framework as such that dealt with theseissues, but the concept of what the Egyptians considered correct moral conduct can be deducedfrom various written sources, particularly autobiographies and texts that we now refer to aswisdom literature. We must be aware that such texts, and especially those intended forposterity, do not always present us with what we would consider as objective truth. They werefrequently written to provide their gods with a resume of sorts, setting out the good and finedeeds of the writer, often in tombs, as judgment day approached. However, they do tell us whatthe ideal was perceived to be, even if this ideal was not always achieved.
  • 2. Autobiographies provide us with our earliest source for ethical values. They mostly date fromthe 5th Dynasty onward, and appear to be written for the tomb owners descendents. Forexample, an official by the name of Nefer-seshem-re tells us that: I have left my city, I have come down from my province, having done what is right (maat) for its lord, having satisfied him with that which he loves, I spoke maat and I did maat, I spoke well and I reported well.... I rescued the weak from the hand of one stronger than he when I was able; I gave bread to the hungry, clothing [to the naked], a landing for the boatless. I buried him who had no son, I made a boat for him who had no boat, I respected my father, I pleased my mother, I nurtured their children.Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead deals with the judgment before the god of the underworld,Osiris. It is very useful to our understanding of what was and what was not acceptable behavior.The text includes two declarations of innocence in which the deceased denies having committedvarious crimes. These include some very generalized statements, such as "I have done noinjustice to people, nor have I maltreated an animal" or "I have done no wrong (isfet)", but it alsorecords some very specific faults: * Crimes of a cultic nature: blasphemy, stealing from temple offerings or offerings to the dead,defiling the purity of a sacred place * Crimes of an economic nature: tampering with the grain measure, the boundaries of fields,or the plummet of the balance * Criminal acts: theft and murder * Exploitation of the weak and causing injury: depriving orphans of their property, causingpain or grief, doing injury, causing hunger * Moral and social failings: lying, committing adultery, ignoring the truth, slandering servantsbefore their master, being aggressive, eavesdropping, losing ones temper, speaking withoutthinking.It has been said that the modern Christian Bible can be summed up in two sentences. LoveGod. Love your neighbor. Clearly these standards are not new to that text, as most Egyptiansloved their gods, and the Kemetian obviously believed that looking out for his neighbors was ahigh point in his life. Other early texts, contemporary to that of Nefer-seshem-re include denialsof misconduct. We find lines such as "Never did I take the property of any person"; "Never did Isay a bad thing about anyone to the king (or) to a potentate because I desired that I might behonored before the god"; and "Never did I do anything evil against any person", all of which arerecognizable ethical standards to most of the modern world. The ideals expressed in suchbiographies, including justice, honesty, fairness, mercy, kindness and generosity, reflect thecentral concept of maat, the cosmic and social order of the universe as established by thecreator god.Ramesses VI offers an image of Maat to Amun-Re in his tomb at ThebesThe king played apivotal role in the matter of ethics and morality. One must remember the pharaoh wasconsidered an earthly god, and it was he who ultimately interpreted the concept of maat for theliving. When Nefer-seshem-re records that "having done maat for its lord, having satisfied himwith that which he desires", he is referring to the king who determines and upholds maat.However, ones fate after death depended on how one measured up to maat, the standard setby the living king. The traditional funerary prayer begins, "An offering which the king grants".
  • 3. Though the concept of maat underwent some modifications over time, the same ethical andmoral values expressed in the Old Kingdom texts continue to appear in later autobiographiesand other texts.However, wisdom literature from the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom seems toindicate a weakening of the kings influence over maat, linking it more directly with the creatorgod. For example, in the Story of the Eloquent Peasant, which dates to about the 9th or 10thDynasty, we find the line, "Do maat for the lord of maat" but here a god is inferred rather thanthe king. Further along in this text, the issue is clarified when the peasant claims that his wordsexpounding on maat "have issued from the mouth of Re himself". In another texts, known to usas the Prophecy of Neferti, we are told that the sun god Re upholds maat, and that if disorderprevails, it is because this god has not made his presence felt.This shift in emphasis from king to god can be linked with the failure of the rulers at the end ofthe Old Kingdom resulting in the First Intermediate Period. The king continued to have a centralrole in maintaining maat through the end of the pharaonic history. However, he did so as thegods representative on earth. Nevertheless, the king was fallible, and when dishevel did occur,the king was often held responsible for his failure to perform this duty.Hence, ethics and morals did not only affect ones own destiny in the afterlife, but the country asa whole. And while one was responsible for his or her own conduct, it would seem that whenupheaval in general occurred, it indicated that the gods were perhaps absent, or the king wasnot fulfilling his duty. In the Middle Kingdom, after the transition from the disorder of the FirstIntermediate Period, we can see in the wisdom text an attempt to reestablish the rule of maat. Itincludes a type of literature known as "Complaints", which lament a state of affairs in which thesocial hierarchy has been affected. For example, in the Admonitions of Ipuwer, we read that,"Behold, he who had nothing is now a possessor of riches... Behold, noble ladies [now travel] onrafts". This social disorder was thought to be a result of the breakdown of maat. Hence, thisdocument also notes that "Behold, offices are broken into, their records stolen...; behold, thelaws of the chamber are cast out, men walk on them in the streets, beggars tear them up in thelanes;...behold, the great council chamber is invaded.Though there are several terms that conceptualize the opposite value of maat, the mostcommon is "isfet", which is usually translated as "sin" or "wrong". The term appears as early asthe Pyramid Texts. Kha-kheper-re-soneb laments that "Maat has been cast out while isfet is inthe counsel chamber", and after (or at the end of) the Amarna Period, Tutankhamun is said tohave "drove out isfet throughout the two lands, Mat being established in her place". In chapter125 of the Book of the Dead, the declaration of innocence begins, "Oh wide of movements, whocomes from Heliopolis, I have not done isfet".However, the basic translation of maat is "truth", and so another common antonym is grg,meaning "lie". Thus, in chapter 126 of the Book of the Dead, the apes who sit at the prow ofRes boat are "ones who live from maat, who digest maat, whose ears are free of lies (grg),whose abomination is isfet; [the deceased asks] drive out my evil (dwt), remove my wrong(isfet)." It is important to note that, while isfet is used as an all-embracing term for "wrong", inKemet there was no concept of "general sin", a barrier between humankind and the gods whichis the result of the general human condition. Though there might be an all powerful god ofKemet, as Amun seems to have been considered during the New Kingdom, "sin" and "wrong"were not limited to humans.
  • 4. The Kemetians did believe that it was at least theoretically possible to lead a life free of isfet.Clearly, good Egyptians attempted to follow the way of maat, for in doing so they would prosperand society would function smoothly, while those who transgressed were doomed to automaticfailure. They found, in the teachings and instructions in wisdom literature, what behavior wascompatible with maat, but it was also the responsibility of the king to uphold maat and subdueisfet. Even so, there were times when the wicked would indeed prosper by their actions, and sothe ultimate evaluation of a person took place not in his life but in the hereafter, where thewicked would finally answer for their deeds.The Kemetian soul being weighed in the afterlifeInterestingly, chapter 125 of the Book of theDead is intended to equip the deceased to face the final judgment and even appeal to the use ofpowerful magic in his or her hour of greatest need. The fact that the deceased at leastattempted to use magic to overcome their shortcomings does not diminish the seriousness withwhich they viewed their moral and ethical behavior, nor should one automatically draw theconclusion that they were ready to use unethical means to reach their desired goal. Moreprobable is that they viewed life much the same as ourselves, knowing in their own hearts thattheir lives, no matter how well they attempted to live, were not sin free.During the New Kingdom, it becomes more obvious from text that mankind could not perfectlylive up to the standards they espoused. For example, in the Instructions of Merikare, there isindirect evidence for abuse of office among the royal officials who should uphold maat. Thistexts provides, "Make great your officials, that they keep your laws; he whose house is rich is not partial anda propertied man is one who does not lack. A poor man does not speak justly, one who saysWould that I had! is not upright. He is partial towards him whom he likes, favoring him whorewards (bribes) him".The fact that Egyptians in general and those officials specifically who were responsible formaintaining maat were fallible is better attested from surviving letters and documents from theworkers village at Deir el-Medina on the West Bank at Thebes (modern Luxor). From thesetexts, we find evidence at the end of the 18th Dynasty of a breakdown in standards as well asthe spread of corruption. In fact, during the 19th Dynasty, one papyrus contains a long list ofcriminal charges against a chief of workmen at Deir el-Medina who is accused, among othercharges, of having obtained his position by bribing the vizier. The latter vizier who heard thesecharges apparently himself was guilty of wrongdoing, for he was dismissed by the king. In apapyrus dating to the mid 20th Dynasty, large-scale embezzlement and misconduct wereevidenced against the personnel of the temple of Khnum at Elephantine, including oneunnamed priest. None of this should surprise us. That people in general are not sinless, andthat greed and corruption of power have always existed is not new to us in our modern world.Judgment of the deceased in the Hall of Justice from the 19th Dynasty Book of the Dead ofHuneferHowever, there was a reason in the New Kingdom that traditional Egyptian ethics and moralitybroke down. Maat came to no longer be the mediating principle between god and humankind.Instead of a direct correlation existing between success or failure and adherence to ortransgression against maat, in the later New Kingdom we find that success or failure dependedsolely upon the will of god. According to the Instructions of Amenompe:
  • 5. "Indeed you do not know the plans of god....Man is clay and straw, the god is his builder. Hetears down, he builds up daily; he makes a thousand poor by his will, he makes a thousand meninto chiefs".Thus, mankind appears to be relieved of his responsibilities through predestination. However,this is not entirely true during the New Kingdom, for Amenompe goes on to allow that "Maat is agreat gift of god, he hives it to whom he pleases". Now, it seems that maat was still present, butsubject to the will of the god.The social breakdown that occurred during the New Kingdom was perhaps more due to aconfusion that existed outside of the traditions. Wisdom literature and autobiographies continueto espouse the same ethical standards as the earlier sources and seem to be just as interestedin social cohesion, but the results of acting against these principals were less clear. Now,success in life was no longer absolutely and directly subject to maat, but to the will of god. Evenin the afterlife, maat seems to have become secondary to the gods, which might explain whythe will of God seems to be elevated above that of maat. People were not perfect, and couldnot perfectly live up to maat. Hence, their fate rested in the hands their god in the afterlife.Amenomope says that, "Happy is he who reaches the hereafter when he is safe in the hand ofgod". He goes on to say that it is imperative that one be "safe in the hand of god (for) man isever in his failure (and) there is no perfection before the god".  Ancient Gods Speak,: A Guide to Egyptian Religion, Redford, Donald B.  Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980  Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, Wilkinson, Richard H.  Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995  Life of the Ancient Egyptians,Strouhal, Eugen 1992  Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The,Redford, Donald B. (Editor) 2001  Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The,Shaw, Ian 2000

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