Was Ancient Egypt a Violent Culture?
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.
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.
Truth, Justice, and Maat in Ancient Egypt
Maat was the ancient Egyptian concept of truth, balance, order, harmony, law, morality, and justice.
Pharaohs were believed to rule through Maat's authority.
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.