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  • Writer's pictureWendy Bradfield

Was Ancient Egypt a Violent Culture?

Updated: Dec 3, 2023

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 Ma'at.

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 Ma'at was believed to be the power behind peace and order in the kingdom.

Truth, Justice, and Ma'at in Ancient Egypt

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

The goddess Ma'at personified these concepts as she regulated the stars and seasons.

Violence and Law

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

The Gods maintained Ma'at, and the king was expected to do the same.

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.

Violence was considered necessary for creation and renewal, such as the nightly slaying of the great serpent, Apep, by Ra, the Sun God.

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

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

Pharaohs Ruled Through Maat's Authority

So, was ancient Egypt a violent culture?

Not more than any other ancient civilization.

But let's just say you wouldn't want to find yourself under the smiting pose of an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh.

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

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