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  • Writer's pictureWendy Bradfield

Was Ancient Egypt a Violent Culture?

Kung Tut Smiting Pose
King Tutankhamun

On the surface, violence was integral to ancient Egyptian society, culture, religion, and politics.

Pharaohs resorted to violence to maintain social order, wage war, and express wrath.

But it was also used as a divine tool to enforce peace and maintain order, otherwise known as Maat.

Violence was also gendered, as it reflected and reinforced the power relations and roles of men and women in ancient Egypt.

Violence had its place in ancient Egyptian culture, but Maat, the concept of justice and cosmic order, was believed to be the power behind peace and order in the kingdom.

Violence and Law

Law was derived from custom, precedent, royal decrees, and oracular pronouncements.

Ancient Egyptian law was based on Maat, the cosmic order and justice that the king and the gods upheld.

Punishments for crimes and offenses were often harsh and cruel, involving mutilation, torture, execution, exile, or enslavement.

Punishments were also public and humiliating, intending to prevent others from committing similar acts.

Some sentences were symbolic, such as cutting off an adulterer's nose or a thief's hand.

Both acts were heinous, but without a nose, one could not hope to receive the breath of life for eternity - an unthinkable future hell spent unknown to the gods.

The worst act was considered grave robbing, especially of a royal. In this case, brutal acts of torture were enacted before paying the ultimate price - death.

Violence and War

Ancient Egypt was involved in many wars and conflicts throughout its history, both internally and externally.

War was a legitimate and necessary means of expanding territory, securing resources, asserting sovereignty, and defending against enemies.

War was also a source of prestige and glory for the king and the elite.

Warfare involved physical and psychological violence, such as raiding, sieging, looting, killing, enslaving, torturing, and mutilating enemies.

The famous "smiting pose" is a traditional depiction of the pharaoh used throughout Egypt's civilization.

Pharaoh in a smiting pose
Narmer, "Smiting Pose"

Violence in Egyptian Mythology

Violence was a prominent theme in ancient Egyptian mythology and cosmology.

Many myths involved violent conflicts between gods or between gods and humans, such as the battles between Horus and Set or between Ra and Apophis.

Violence was considered necessary for creation and renewal, such as the slaying of Osiris by Set or the dismemberment of Osiris by Isis.

Violence was a feature of the afterlife, where the deceased faced various dangers and trials before reaching the field of reeds (eternal bliss) or the fearsome jaws of Ammit (damnation.)

The most famous example is the judgment of the dead, where the heart of the deceased was weighed against a feather of Maat by Anubis.

If the heart were heavier than the feather, it would be devoured by Ammit, a monstrous hybrid of a crocodile, a lion, and a hippopotamus.

Truth, Justice, and Maat in Ancient Egypt

Maat was the ancient Egyptian concept of truth, balance, order, harmony, law, morality, and justice.

The goddess Maat personified these concepts and regulated the stars, seasons, and the actions of mortals and the deities who had brought order from chaos at the moment of creation.

Pharaohs were believed to rule through Maat's authority.

They were often depicted with the emblems of Maat to emphasize their roles in upholding the laws and righteousness.

So, was ancient Egypt a violent culture?

Not more than any other ancient civilization.

The pharaohs preserved Maat by ensuring they governed by divine and royal decree and dispensed justice to their subjects as only a pharaoh could.

I need coffee strong enough to wake up my ancestors! You can buy me one here if you enjoy my scribblings! Many thanks, xoxo

If you fancy this, you might like this:

Animal Cults in Ancient Egypt


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