Graphic Rule
Graphic Rule



With so much emphasis in the Pyramid Texts and the Book of the Dead on the magical means of reaching the hereafter, it must not be overlooked that the last act in the Osirian drama, the weighing of the 'heart' in the scales of Thoth, is after all an appraisal of a man's character, and it is interesting to note what deeds are deemed to counterbalance the symbolic feather. Information on this point comes from the Book of the Dead itself, from the one hundred and twenty-fifth chapter, called the Negative Confession. This chapter opens with a hymn of adoration to Osiris which, in some recensions, is followed by a preliminary and apparently archaic list of denials; then, in the form of an address to the gods of the nether world, is given the Negative Confession proper. The list of offenses given in different papyri vary, no doubt because these lists were drawn up by the scribes without the restraint or guidance of canonical literature, but all copies are alike in principle. Omitting the salutations, the declaration of innocence in the late papyrus of Nebseni (ca. 1600 B.C.) may be taken for examination. The transgressions number forty-two, one for each god in the Judgment Hall, each of whom had authority to punish a particular offense:




I have not done iniquity.



I have not committed robbery with violence.



I have done violence to no man.



I have not committed theft.



I have not slain man or woman.



I have not made light the bushel.



I have not acted deceitfully.



I have not purloined the things which belonged to the god.



I have not uttered falsehood.



I have not carried away food.



I have not uttered evil words.



I have attacked no man.



I have not killed the beasts which are the property of the gods.



I have not eaten my heart (i.e., done anything to my regret).



I have not laid waste ploughed land.



I have never pried into matters.



I have not set my mouth in motion against any man.



I have not given way to anger concerning myself without cause.



I have not defiled the wife of a man.



I have not committed transgression against any party.



I have not struck fear into any man.



I have not violated sacred times and seasons.



I have not been a man of anger.



I have not made myself deaf to words of right and truth.



I have not stirred up strife.



I have made no man to weep.



I have not committed acts of impurity or sodomy.



I have not eaten my heart.



I have abused no man.



I have not acted with violence.



I have not judged hastily.



I have not taken vengeance upon the god.



I have not multiplied my speech overmuch.



I have not acted with deceit, or worked wickedness.



I have not cursed the king.



I have not fouled water.



I have not made haughty my voice.



I have not cursed the god.



I have not behaved with insolence.



I have not sought for distinctions.



I have not increased my wealth except with such things as are my own possessions.



I have not thought scorn of the god who is in my city.


It is evident that the compiler had difficulty in finding as many transgressions as there were gods, the traditional number of which was probably derived from the number of nomes in predynastic Egypt, and consequently he had to resort to repetition. Violence is denied three times and deceit twice, while other denials are ambiguous and verge on duplication.

Nothing comparable to the one hundred and twenty-fifth chapter is known before the XVIIIth Dynasty (ca. 1500 B.C.), and on internal evidence this is taken to be later in origin than the introductory declaration of innocence. In the presumably older list, transgressions against the gods and the persons of others occupy the most prominent position, while in the Confession the most numerous transgressions are those of character and disposition. Were still earlier lists available, one might confidently expect to find an increased number devoted to primitive taboos against the supernatural.

The Negative Confession, in keeping with the rest of the Book of the Dead, is purely a magic ritual; by forestalling each god with an emphatic denial, the adverse decision of that deity is automatically averted. Since there were but forty-two gods, forty-two denials were all that were required to assure the suppliant of justification. Hence the list cannot be taken to represent a summary of contemporary ethics. There is abundant literary evidence that many personal and social virtues were highly esteemed which are not here enumerated: charity, hospitality, modesty, justice and incorruptibility, the obligations of marriage, filial duty, and respect for old age; nor is it to be argued that the Egyptians did not conceive these to be important in the Judgment. The chief value of the document consists in its forthright exhibition of the belief that morality has a supernatural virtue.

The use of morality to obtain celestial bliss is so removed from the ordinary, primitive methods of purification that the two were separated, it may be supposed, by a long period of development, a period falling within the late predynastic period and the Old Kingdom. The only literary material which may be assigned an older date than the Pyramid Texts is the so-called Memphite Drama, which dates from the Ist Dynasty and is the oldest written record of human thought. This document is written on a black basalt slab which was found in the ruins of the Temple of Ptah at Memphis. Long displaced from its honored position as a sacred stele, a modern Egyptian farmer had used it for a nether millstone and for years on end had ground his grain upon its inscribed surface. The stone itself dates only from the eighth century B.C., the period of the renaissance when the Egyptians were again turning in great reverence to the study of all the writings of the past. It was prepared by the Ethiopian Pharaoh Shabaka, who had found in the Temple of Ptah an ancient papyrus so eaten by worms that it was scarcely legible, and the Pharaoh, wishing to preserve 'the words of the ancestors,' had had them copied on to the stone so that they were 'more beautiful than before.' Internal evidence has satisfied all authorities that the archetype from which the copy was made must have been written at the opening of the dynastic period, or about 3400 B.C. The modern miller had drilled a hole in the center of the stone and cut channels which radiated to the edge like the spokes of a wheel; this mutilation, combined with the merciless grinding of the upper stone, has left only the first and last third of its precious text intact. What remains is a drama or miracle play such as the Egyptians loved, wherein Ptah of Memphis creates the world and its moral order. It is related that through his heart Horus came to Ptah, through his tongue Thoth came to Ptah, and the heart and tongue of Ptah brought forth all the other members of the Divine Company, which were as his teeth and lips. Through these in turn Ptah 'created the sight of the eyes, the hearing of the ears, the breathing of nose, that they may transmit to the heart [understanding],' and by pronouncing the names of things he brought into existence 'all gods, all men, all cattle, all reptiles, all living, while he thinks and while he commands everything that he desires.'

That Ptah, the spirit 'self-created, self-existent and living for eternity,' was a judge before whom the dead king must appear is clear from the surviving traces of his cult in the Pyramid Texts. Nothing remains in the Memphite Drama to reveal the specific nature of his favors, but here it is explicitly stated on what grounds these favors will be granted. The hieroglyphic inscription says frankly that 'As for him who does what is loved and him who does what is hated, life is given to the peaceful [literally, the one bearing peace] and death is given to the criminal [literally, the one bearing guilt].'

The Egyptians of the age of Ptah were not given to abstractions, and there is no mention here of 'good' and 'evil,' only 'he who does what is loved' and 'he who does what is hated.' 'What is loved' and 'what is hated' may be taken to refer to both men and gods, since the kingdom of earth and the kingdom of the hereafter were organized along entirely parallel lines. Man had been striving to do 'what is loved' by the spirits of trees, rivers and animals as long as he had been a thinking creature, for the simple reason that this precept had proved to be most successful in his relations with other men. The Egyptians were undoubtedly the first to elevate the precept into a broad principle of morality. They had a word for it, maat, which is usually translated as 'law,' but to which must also be given the meanings 'correct,' 'justice,' 'truth' and 'righteousness.' These several meanings can only be distinguished by the context as, for example, when correct and truth are meant in a factual or mathematical sense, when justice is meant in the legal sense, and when righteousness is meant in the moral sense. It is improbable that the Egyptians made any sustained effort to distinguish these several meanings, since with them the law of the land was the 'word' of the god-king, and mathematical truth was the 'foresight' or 'word' of Thoth, which itself comprised all 'truth' from astronomy to magic; while both were as incontrovertibly 'right' as the movements of the sun or river. Such distinction as was made, and this was chiefly in context, was in the use of the word maat in its special relation to morality.

Maat does not occur in the Memphite Drama but the omission may be accidental, for the concept of doing 'that which is loved' is the cardinal principle of Memphite morality and is identical with the usage of the word in subsequent centuries. By the Vth Dynasty maat was in common use and even appeared in the royal name of the first king of that dynasty, Userkaf, who called himself the 'Doer of Maat.' Shortly afterwards the principle of maat appears in the Osirian pantheon personified as a goddess of the same name. The symbol of this goddess, Maat, was a woman's head surmounted by a feather, though frequently the feather alone was used, as in the pan of the balance of Thoth or in the crown of Osiris. Accepting the usual interpretation of the word, one may for the Egyptians of the late Pyramid Age discount all other meanings and translate the name of this goddess as 'Righteousness.'

After the Memphite Drama, the oldest Egyptian treatise dealing with human conduct consists of a collection of maxims or proverbs called the Instruction of Ptahhotep. The existing papyrus, which is incomplete, dates from the Middle Kingdom, by which time the collection of maxims had come to serve as a model for the instruction of school children in wise conduct and good manners, as well as in rhetoric and the appropriate expression of ideas. Though the text had no doubt been re-edited, the attribution of the original authorship of the greater part of the work to one Ptahhotep who was vizier under King Issy about 2675 B.C. is generally accepted. The author, striving to attain a style characterized by subtlety and freshness of expression, frequently couched his thoughts in similes and metaphors which, though intelligible to the ancient Egyptians, are all but incomprehensible to modern readers. Enough of his meaning is clear, however, to reveal his wide experience with men and insight into character. According to tradition, Ptahhotep retired at 110 years of age after having served several kings. In his later life he had probably been richly rewarded by his monarchs and had spent much of his time in contemplation and in reducing his beliefs to writing. His 'wisdom' was unquestionably venerable even when he undertook its literary reduction. No doubt he had at hand many ancient manuscripts from which he selected such ideas as he esteemed, turning them into new phrases and metaphors, and instilling into them some of his own experience and profundity.

'Sire, my Lord,' he says in presenting the work to his monarch, 'when age is at the point and decrepitude has arrived, debility comes and a second infancy, upon which misery falls heavily every day: the eyes become smaller, the ears narrower, strength is worn out while the heart continues to beat; the mouth is silent and speaks no more; the heart becomes darkened and no longer remembers yesterday; the bones become painful, everything which was good becomes bad, taste vanishes entirely; old age renders a man miserable in every respect, for his nostrils close up, and he breathes no longer, whether he rises up or sits down. If the humble servant who is in thy presence receives an order to enter on a discourse befitting an old man, then I will tell thee the language of those who know the history of the past, of those who had heard the gods; for if thou conductest thyself like them, discontent shall disappear from among men, and the two lands [Upper and Lower Egypt] shall work for thee. Thus did old age offer its one lingering bit of usefulness, wisdom, to the present and the future, such wisdom of men and gods as should drive discontent and strife from out the land.

Less than half of Ptahhotep's admonitions deal with administrative and official duties, most of them being concerned with personal conduct. They inculcate gentleness, moderation and discretion, and are concerned with the relationship of husband to wife, son to father, servant to king, the dangers of another's harem and of strange women, and even with deportment at the table. Knowledge, he observes, is indispensable for getting on in the world, and he recommends the careful observation of men as well as the study of the priceless works of the past. As for advice to others, he says, 'Let thy mind be deep and thy speech scanty ... be silent, for it [silence] is better than teftef flowers. Speak thou when thou knowest that thou solvest difficulties. It is a craftsman who speaks in council and speech is more difficult than any craft.... Worthy speech is more hidden than greenstone, being found even among slavewomen at the millstone.'

Although Ptahhotep could doubtless recall nearly a century of Egypt's greatness, and there was available to him in written history or in legend a past that stretched away in the dimness of many centuries, he could not discern that the impressive national order of the Pyramid Age had come into existence out of the chaos of many warring forces. On the contrary it seemed to him that things had been going in the reverse direction, that 'in the beginning' there had been harmony, peace and plenitude, a 'Golden Age' which had been ended by the death of Osiris, by the strife between Set and Horus, by the rebellion of men against Ra. The mighty world state of which he was Grand Vizier was now held together only by certain modes of conduct, and in his inverted mirage of history he conceived that these modes of conduct had descended as moral mandates from the far-off time 'before death came forth.' Whatever was good must be a survival of the Golden Age, and whatever was effective must be an expression of the gods. Though he instructed youth to give attention to the temple, to make sacrifices to the gods, to observe the details of ritual, he conceived these to be formalities of minor import. His cardinal precept he might have taken from the Memphite text itself: 'Great is righteousness; its dispensation endures, nor has it been overthrown since the time of its maker; for punishment is inflicted on the transgressor of its laws.... Although misfortune may carry away wealth ... the power of righteousness is that it endures.'

Thus it might seem to one who lived in the Pyramid Age and had seen glorious kings pass on to immortality in the sun god's realm. The magnificent services, the expensive sacrifices, the songs, the dramas which were enacted in the temples of these tombs, all proclaimed that 'righteousness endures.' If we may believe the eulogies which the Egyptians who followed Ptahhotep inscribed upon their tombs, it was an age, and perhaps the first age, an human history when men were consciously striving to attain righteousness. One man says that no one who had worked upon his tomb was dissatisfied with the pay; another that he had made no man weep; a third that he had fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fed the wolves of the mountains and the fowl of the sky; that he was beloved of his father, praised by his mother, excellent in character to his brother and amiable to his sister. Such were the declarations inscribed on every grave for the reason, as the explorer Karkhuf (2600 B.C.) frankly admitted on his tomb, that 'I desired that it might be well with me in the great God's presence.' In broad perspective all this moral 'cleanness' is akin to the more primitive modes of purification, as is more frankly revealed in the self-eulogy of the scribe Nu, who says, 'I am pure. I am pure. I am pure. I have washed my front parts with the water of libations, I have cleansed my hinder parts with drugs which make wholly clean, and my inward parts have been washed in the liquor of maat. There is no single member of mine which lacketh righteousness.'

It would be inconsonant with every fact to impute to the people of the Old Kingdom any notions of good and evil more abstract than the words of the Memphite text: '... life is given to the peaceful and death is given to the criminal.' Impelled by the wish to go on living forever, the Egyptians had utilized to the utmost red and green pigments, cowrie shells and symbolic amulets; they had bent their every talent for carpentry, stonemasonry, architecture, sculpture, painting, the preservation of the body, to the service of the dead; and from the invention of writing to its fullest development this art was chiefly concerned with 'words of power.' When the priestly author of the Memphite text, and after him, Ptahhotep, attributed a magic power to those forms of conduct which, in the experience of the Old Kingdom, made for peace between man and man, or between man and his Pharaoh, and held that such conduct also made for peace between man and gods, it was but the addition of a new talisman. It appeared that righteousness might be a more powerful talisman simply because it was a new one, as the magic word had taken precedence over mummification, and mummification over simple burial, and burial over red and green pigments. That it failed to displace completely the more primitive methods of purification and to become the sole means of attaining eternal bliss was simply because there was no dramatic legend or rationalized theory of good and evil to give it force.


The Old Kingdom had been a period of almost uninterrupted political, social and artistic development. Its achievements, with justice, truth and righteousness, had been epitomized in the goddess Maat. It must have seemed to Ptahhotep, living at the peak of the Pyramid Age, that this sublime order of things would go on forever. He could not know that the day was just ahead when architecture and craftsmanship and engineering, all the ordered magnificence of the Old Kingdom, would fall into utter decay, while sages and social prophets would seek for maat in vain.

Within a few centuries of Ptahhotep's time the temple services had been abandoned and the buildings themselves entirely covered with blown sand. A Heliopolitan priest of the XIIth Dynasty, Khekkeperri-soneb, contemplating the misery that descended upon Egypt during the Feudal Period, wrote: 'Maat is cast out, iniquity is in the midst of the council hall. The plans of the gods are violated, their dispositions are disregarded. The land is in distress, mourning is in every place, towns and districts are in lamentation. All men alike are under wrongs; as for respect, an end is made of it.... When I would speak thereof, my limbs are heavy laden.... I am meditating on what has happened. Calamities come to pass today, tomorrow afflictions are not past.... Nobody is free from evil; all men alike do it.... The poor man has no strength to save himself from him that is stronger than he.'

The Feudal Period was the first great age of disillusionment, one that in after centuries the Egypuans were to remember as the bitterest time in their history. Yet the abandoned offering tables, the silence and desolation of the great tombs which stretched for sixty miles along the river did not stir in their minds any skepticism of the efficacy of massive masonry or of pigments, amulets, incantations and righteousness to purchase immortality. Rather in their disillusionment they banked more and more on the life to come, and attributed the catastrophe that had descended upon Egypt to the evil of men's ways. The scribe Ipuwer, harkening back to the Golden Age when the sun god was Pharaoh, says, 'Would that he had discerned their character in the first generation. Then he would have smitten evil. He would have stretched forth his arm against it. He would have smitten the seed thereof and their inheritance.'

About 2400 B.C., Khati II, a king of the IXth Dynasty, emulating the example of Ptahhotep of 500 years before, endeavored to put upon papyrus the wisdom of his years. In a manuscript called the 'Instruction addressed to Merikere,' who was presumably the king's son, the Pharaoh gives his advice on the nature of profitable conduct, and in doing so unwittingly records the changing complexion of Egyptian culture. A man should do maat, he says, that he may be established here, but the fortunes of this world, good or bad, are fleeting and unimportant. The son is admonished to think of the next world and the judges before whom even he, a king, will have to sit:


The court of judges who judge the unworthy, thou knowest that they are not lenient on that day of judging the wretched, in the hour of executing the writ.... Set not thy mind on the length of days, for they [the judges] view a lifetime as an hour. A man surviveth after death, and his deeds are placed beside him like mountains. For it is eternity, abiding yonder, and a fool is he who disregards it. As for him who reacheth it without having committed iniquity, he shall abide there like a god, striding on like the lords of eternity.... Adorn thy dwelling of the West [the tomb] and embellish thy seat in the necropolis, as one who hath been upright, as one who hath done righteousness.... Make enduring monuments for the gods, for it maketh live the name of the maker thereof. Let a man do what is profitable to his soul, the monthly purification, taking the white sandals and visiting the temple, unveiling the mysteries, entering the holy-of-holies, and eating bread in the temple.... Make enduring monuments according to thy fortune, for a single day is wont to yield eternity, and an hour may be enduring for the future. The gods know of the one who does any service for them.... More acceptable is the virtue of the upright man than the ox of him that doeth iniquity.... [Nevertheless] offer to gods that they may do the like for thee, with offerings for replenishing the offering table and with inscription, for that is what perpetuates thy name. The gods take knowledge of him that offers to them.


Khati lived in one of the most critical periods in Egyptian history, a turning point after which the skepticism of the Feudal Age was replaced by veneration for the past. As the Old Kingdom grew misty through the thickening years, it seemed that the peace, honesty, justice and prosperity that had marked that Golden Age were attributable to the wisdom of its great men, a wisdom embodied in the writings of Ptahhotep and other ancient sages. So from the ancient manuscripts Khati fashioned shackles for all men to come: 'Maat,' he says to his son, 'comes to thee well brewed, after the manner of the ancestors. Imitate thy fathers, for their words abide in writing. Read that thou mayest imitate their knowledge. Thus shall you too become wise and virtuous.'

Even as he admonished his son to imitate the ancestors, Khati's eyes must have rested upon one of the countless tombs lining the banks of the Nile for miles, wherein those ancestors had sought eternal life. A thousand years had gone by since the first mastaba had been built, two centuries had elapsed since the priests had abandoned the last temple to the care of the jackal who now alone inhabited its shadows. The abandoned offering tables, the prostrate columns and fallen architraves must have stirred in his mind a sincere doubt of the efficacy of amulets, tomb offerings, incantations and the like, as of the sheer force of massive masonry, to purchase immortality, but confidence in the talismanic power of righteousness remained unshaken:

'More acceptable is the virtue of the upright man than the ox of him that doeth iniquity. One generation passeth on to another among men, and the gods, who know character, have hidden themselves.... They confound by what is seen of the eyes.... Well bestead are men, the flocks of god [the Sun god, Ra]; for he made heaven and earth according to their desire, he quenched their thirst for water, he made the air that their nostrils might live. They are his likeness which came forth from his limbs. He rises in the sky according to their desire, he made for them plants and the animals, fowl and fish, to nourish them. He slew his enemies, he chastised his children, because of their plots in making rebellion. He made the light according to their desire, that he might sail the sky to see them. He raised a protection around them; when they weep he heareth. He made for them rulers in the egg [rulers predestined before birth] to support the back of the feeble.' Thus Khati, reacting to the pessimism of the Feudal Period, laid the foundations of the theory of a righteous universe. If righteousness is that which as loved by the gods, then the gods must themselves be righteous, and the cosmos must be such a gift from the gods to men as a righteous man would make to his beloved brother.

This remarkable document may fairly be said to mark the climax of Egyptian thought. The ancient manifold of physical and verbal magic, of amulets and incantations and sacerdotal formulas, ultimately engulfed Nilotic culture and smothered it entirely, but the maxim of the Memphite text, the wisdom of Ptahhotep and the reflections of Khati were destined to escape into new channels. A universe created for the special benefit of man, a resurrection and a blessed immortality, the notion of righteousness as the most powerful talisman, were to shape the subsequent culture of the Occident.


The political disorganization that existed during the invasion of the country by the Hyksos (1800-1580 B.C.) was brought to an end by Aahmes I, founder of the great XVIIIth Dynasty. Under Aahmes and his successors, Amenhotep I, Thothmes I, Thothmes II, Queen Hatshepsut and, greatest of all, Thothmes III, Egypt became an empire that in power and geographical extent, in wealth and art and brilliance, was the greatest the world had seen, or was to see for another millennium. Conquests in Syria and Mesopotamia directed to the Nile a steady flow of gold, silver, jewels, precious woods, perfumes, metals, slaves and other riches until Egypt grew rich beyond her dreams. A considerable fraction of this wealth was given to the god Amen of Thebes, whose priests appropriated to their deity many of the legends and all the important attributes of the ancient sun god, and began calling him Amen-Ra.

The powerful military forces set up by Thothmes III served his son, Amenhotep II, so well during his twenty-seven years of rule that he scarcely perceived the growing danger of Hatti, the country north of Mitanni, from which a rude barbarian people, the Hittites from the highlands of Anatolia, were casting jealous eyes upon Egypt's Asiatic outposts, and he died in peace and was buried in the Valley of the Kings in a rock-hewn tomb whose roof of blue was spangled with golden stars.

Under the next king, Thothmes IV, the Hittite danger became more evident, and the Pharaoh decided that it would be the course of wisdom to protect Egypt by a closer alliance with the buffer state of Mitanni. In due course, the Mitannian princess went to Egypt to become Thothmes's secondary wife, Mutamuya. It may be that Mutamuya carried with her the seed of the monotheism that was soon to destroy the great military empire of the Nile.

This marriage was apparently the first instance of a Pharaoh's wedding the daughter of a foreign sovereign. The great Thothmes III, one imagines, would have foreseen and done something to prevent the coming storm; but his grandson, Thothmes IV, was neither a fighter nor a prophet, and it probably seemed to him that a diplomatic marriage would serve well enough to keep the barbarians off Egypt's soil. Thothmes reigned but a few more years and was succeeded by Mutamuya's son, who was the third Pharaoh to take the name of the Theban god.

So resplendent now was Egypt's glory that Amenhotep III has been called the Golden Emperor. He was chiefly interested in hunting boars and lions, in building magnificent buildings and in surrounding himself with splendor. Like his father he went in for marital innovations: while still in his early teens he took as his great royal wife an Egyptian woman, Tiy, who was not of solar birth, a marriage that was against the long-established tradition of the Pharaohs; and for a second wife, ten years later, he followed the precedent of his father and chose the Mitannian princess, Gilukhipa, no doubt intending thereby to further strengthen Egypt's Asiatic affiliations. Confident that this bond would ward off the Hittites, he gave no more attention to his borders.

Amenhotep III apparently favored his divine namesake, for on a stele which was to become notable in history chiefly because a later Pharaoh, Merenptah, appropriated it and on it engraved the first mention of the Israelites, the king declared his piety towards Amen-Ra in generous terms. But what is more significant, Amenhotep elevated a strange god, Aten, to royal favor. One of the king's many architectural efforts was a new palace on the western bank of the Nile at Thebes, and on the royal grounds he constructed a great artificial lake, and on the lake he placed a barge named 'Aten-gleams' -- the name Aten being that of an unimportant god of Thebes of whom almost no one had heard, but who in the very near future was to bring about a theological revolution. It would seem that Aten was favored by his wife, Queen Tiy, and the barge was so named to humor her, there being no evidence that the king himself was an Aten worshiper.

In the reign of Amenhotep III, Egypt reached the peak of her wealth and glory. From Nubia and the Sudan, from Cyprus, Sinai, Palestine and all of Syria, riches had been pouring into her coffers for nearly a century. Merchants and couriers laden with wealth traveled between the Nile and the Euphrates or Orontes with a degree of safety that has perhaps not been equaled since. Chiefs speaking a dozen tongues wrote to the king on baked clay tablets in the cuneiform script of the East, pledging their undying allegiance. It was an age characterized by copious international correspondence, and the scribes filed countless letters from Babylon, Hatti and Carchemish in the House of Rolls at Thebes, with admirable care for their preservation but deplorable negligence of their contents. If an occasional prudent governor sounded an alarming note about a rebellion of Armorites on the Phoenician coast, about marauding bands of Khabiri (Hebrews) in Palestine, or about the perfidy of men who, even as they wrote servile letters to the king, were conniving in rebellion with the Hittites, he was probably reprimanded for disturbing his majesty with unpleasant things. One quick stroke of the sword and the Armorites would no doubt have fallen to their knees, the Khabiri and the Hittites would have retired respectfully. But the Golden Emperor was not the striking kind; he had, as Baikie put it, but one prayer: "Lord, grant peace in our time," and he died in the midst of pomp and magnificence, leaving the crisis to his son, Amenhotep IV.


Of Amenhotep IV it can be said that he involves more mystery and has evoked more heated controversy than any other individual in ancient history. He ascended to the throne of the greatest empire on earth at an age probably no greater than fourteen, a physiologically abnormal child who was more at home with the women of the harem than with men. To Queen Tiy, who was a strong-willed and independent woman, a weakling son must have been more a source of chagrin than pleasure and it is quite likely that she early abandoned him to the other women of the harem. In this strange coterie there were possibly his grandmother, Mutamuya, and his elder stepmother, Gilukhipa, both of whom may have survived long enough to influence him, as well as the youngest stepmother, Tadukhipa, whom he himself later married. Was it only because of the long-established custom by which a Pharaoh inherited his father's harem that Tadukhipa became his wife? Or did a bond of affection, fostered by the relatively slight difference in their years, develop between them while they were together in the harem? In accordance with tradition, for his royal wife and queen he chose his sister Nerfertiti ('The Beautiful One has come'), but this fact, combined with the accidental preservation of two magnificently sculptured busts which well prove the merit of her name, seems to have promoted this beautiful woman to an overexalted role. Behind the formal life in which Nerfertiti is the dominant figure lies the unfathomable but not insignificant mystery of one, two or perhaps three Oriental women who might shield and form the character of a misfit, royal waif.

The first inscription of Amenhotep's reign characterized him as High Priest of Aten, and shortly afterwards he erected a temple to this god at Karnak. Karnak was a stronghold of Amen-Ra, and it must have offended the wealthy followers of that god to have the king erect a temple to this upstart deity. Perhaps Queen Tiy wanted to see her god publicly honored among the many gods of the ancient pantheon, but certainly she was not solely responsible for Amenhotep's new affection. Somewhere he was picking up new ideas.

One possibility is that the new theology which the king was advancing stemmed from the priests of Ra. Back in the time when Amenhotep's great-great-grandfather, Thothmes III, had been expanding the boundaries of empire, theological ideas had been expanding in a parallel manner. The gods of the Nile, arising as local deities, had until that time retained their provincial interests and the widest extension of their domain had never reached beyond the valley and the delta. Gradually as the military power of the Pharaoh spread eastward into new lands, the power of the Egyptian deities followed in its train and Amen-Ra was spoken of as a 'lord of the whole world,' as 'seeing the whole earth.' His priests boldly asserted that he shone on Babylon, Carchemish and Thebes alike, and that all men, of every nation, were equally dependent on him. This came close to truth, for Amen-Ra had been enriched by a succession of great Pharaohs who never forgot to dedicate a portion of their spoil to the deity to whom they owed their victories; the god controlled a very substantial fraction of all the arable land in Egypt; his coffers were full of gold, silver and precious stones, and he owned vast herds of cattle and commanded a huge staff of officials and slaves who cared for his temples and his lands. The High Priest of Amen-Ra at Karnak was virtually director of the priesthoods of all the Egyptian gods. Indeed, Amen-Ra was worshiped in Canaan as the equal of Baal and Ashtoreth, and possessed temples there as well as in Syria and Palestine. This rapid gain in power of Amen-Ra, whom the priests of Ra considered to be an interloper, had caused them deepest concern. They had every reason to be jealous of him, and it was very much to their interests to break his power, if not by a return to the old ritual, then by the substitution of a new one closely affiliated with the ancient solar tradition. So it may have been secretly in the temples of Ra that the new Aten was conceived.

Or it may have been secretly in the harem that Mutamuya, Gilukhipa or his stepmother-wife, Tadukhipa, infected Amenhotep with Oriental abstractions foreign to the Nile.

Whatever his origin, the new god emerged in glory when Amenhotep, after a few years on the throne, suddenly set about establishing a theology of his own. The god Aten had originally represented merely the physical sun, but now Amenhotep stripped that body of all the gross theological conceptions which had been linked with it ever since the Pyramid Age and endowed it with new esoteric meaning. The ancient symbols of Ra -- the pyramid, the falcon, the lion and cat -- he replaced by a simple circle representing the sun's disk from which diverging beams radiated downward, each ray ending in a human hand. Presumably this symbol was conceived to indicate the new sun god's power to reach out and touch with his beams every aspect of life, every man, every country in the world; perhaps the king thought that such a symbol would appeal as strongly to the people of the Sudan and Syria as to the dwellers along the Nile for whom alone such archaic figures as the pyramid or falcon had any meaning. To revise the sun god's name and symbol was not enough: the king insisted upon the abandonment of all the magic rituals and temple sacrifices to which Egyptians of every creed were long accustomed; and when the priests of Amen-Ra, Osiris and other gods, and even the people themselves, proved obdurate, he forcibly closed the temples of the other gods, punished the priests and confiscated their property and revenue, and forbade the people to worship any deity but Aten. In the sixth year of his reign he changed his own name Amenhotep, 'Beloved of Amen,' to Akhnaten, 'It is well with Aten,' while he suffixed to Nerfertiti's name, Neferneferuaten, 'Beautiful are the Beauties of Aten.' He had the plural word 'gods' erased from all the monuments and obliterated the hated name of Amen wherever it might appear. He even insulted the memory of his father and robbed the Golden Emperor of his hope for immortality by hammering out the name of Amenhotep III on that king's tomb.

Finding Thebes, the stronghold of Amen-Ra, encumbered with too many temples and polytheistic traditions, he abandoned the capital outright and built himself a new city at a site, now called Tell el-Amarna, which he named Akhetaten, 'Aten is satisfied.' He was at this time probably not even twenty one years old. Here he repaired with his wife and daughters, his court and priests, and tried to build a new life that should be unprofaned

Something of the nature of Akhnaten's dream is revealed in his sacred title, Ankh-em-Maat, 'Living in Truth.' One aspect of the new scheme of things can be learned from the art of the period, for here as in theology he broke completely with the past. 'Living in Truth' apparently meant for Akhnaten the acceptance of reality with no conventional gloss. What was, was right; its propriety was evident by its very existence. He had his family depicted in scenes that lacked the conventional reserve of Pharaonic decoration. In one scene the royal couple are shown sitting side by side, their arms lovingly twined round one another, while two daughters play the role of fan bearers and another sits informally at her parents' feet. In another, in which the king and queen are driving in a chariot, the queen has turned around to kiss her husband. The public display of affection between the king and queen was below the dignity of a Pharaoh, and it was unprecedented for them to be formally portrayed in the kissing act. In a dinner scene the king is gnawing on a great bone with obvious pleasure, while Nerfertiti grasps a whole roast duck in her right hand; the king and queen and the queen mother are drinking wine out of generous cups as one young princess leans against her mother and another slyly helps herself from a cake plate. A statuette of the king shows him kissing a small daughter who sits upon his knee. It is almost as though the artists had received a royal command to exhibit the intense affection that existed between the king and his family. The more one considers all the circumstances, the more one suspects the emphasis.

If his portraits are to be trusted, Akhnaten was himself deformed -- his head was oversize, his buttocks enlarged and his breasts well developed. But on the principle that what was, was right, the king had himself depicted with no sparing of these abnormalities. It is probable that the effort at truthful representation overshot itself and that in later portraits the king's unusual figure was grossly exaggerated, for in some instances even the indubitably beautiful queen and her children were depicted as monstrosities. Perhaps what was 'true' for the Pharaoh must by convention be 'true' for his family and everyone else.

Meanwhile, Akhnaten's governors were writing letter after letter warning him of the troubled condition of the east. It had been twenty years since Amenhotep III had made his single expedition into Syria, and the provinces had grown indifferent to Thebes; everywhere they were restive and in some places the local officials openly refused to send the usual tribute to the west. The Amorites were conniving with the Hittites in an anti-Egyptian movement. The Canaanites were becoming insubordinate, while Khabin tribes were invading Palestine. Governors of the Asiatic provinces were reiterating their dire plight in every message. The emissary in Byblos warned the king that "the whole land is going to ruin"; that of Tunip cried, "Your city weeps, and her tears are running, and there is no help for us. For twenty years we have been sending to our Lord, the King, the King of Egypt; but there has not come to us a word from our Lord, not one"; while the emissary in Beth-Ninurta (which was later called Jerusalem) warned that "If there are no troops this year, let the King send an officer to fetch me and my brothers, that we may die with my Lord, the King." There are reasons to think that some of these messages never reached Akhnaten but were intercepted by the interpreters in Egypt who either wanted to spare themselves trouble or who were actually conniving with Syrian traitors. Be that as it may, Akhnaten continued to rely for protection on the kinship of himself and his wives with the king of Mitanni, any fear of invasion that he may have had being quieted by the repeated assurances of that potentate's friendship and power. He carefully filed his emissaries' messages in his new House of the Rolls at Tell el-Amarna, and devoted himself with increased fervor to the worship of Beauty and Truth. He succeeded in converting his official retinue to the new cult by lavishing favors upon them, and apparently he erected temples in several Syrian cities, as well as in Nubia, Hermonthis, Memphis and Thebes. Artists and musicians were encouraged to prepare magnificent murals or to devise new dances, and poets were called upon to write majestic hymns and prayers, all extolling Aten's beneficence and grandeur.

The only certain information on Akhnaten's doctrines is that obtained from fragments of these hymns and prayers as they were inscribed in the tombs which the king built for himself, his family and his courtiers at Tell el-Amarna. It is a meager source, for in the reaction that followed the king's death almost everything pertaining to Aten was destroyed. The surviving fragments have been made to do excessive duty in interpreting Aten's nature, but there are certain points which stand out beyond argument.

Atenism was a solar doctrine transformed by the substitution of abstractions and universals for gross details and local human myths. Aten was the single divine being who had created all things. Beautiful, glittering, high over every land, his rays touched the earth at every point and shone in the face of men, although his footsteps, his way of going, remained unseen. His works were manifold, even if hidden from the eyes of men. He sent winter to bring coolness, lest men might taste too much of his power; he sent rain as waves upon the mountains to water their fields; he created the germ in woman, the seed in man, and nursed the son in the womb. The fledgling in the egg chirped because he gave it breath and brought it forth at term. When he rose in the east, darkness was driven away, men stood upon their feet, raised their arms in adoration and set about their work. The cattle in their pastures, the trees and plants, the birds fluttering in the marshes, the antelopes that danced upon their feet, every creature that flew or walked lived because he shone upon them. Aten was god not merely of the Nile valley, but of all the world. In far-off Babylonia, Syria and Kush, as in the land of Egypt, he set every man of every color in his place, supplied his necessities and reckoned his days.

It is generally agreed that Akhnaten was the first to achieve the idea of monotheism. As the end product of a solar doctrine which had been undergoing rapid transformation in parallel with the expanding empire, its universalism probably had its origin in the military consolidation of Egypt and the Asiatic provinces. Where Aten differed from Ra was in his jealousy of other gods, his abhorrence of sacred images of any kind, and in forthright condemnation of all other forms of worship. Akhnaten's doctrine is distinctively monotheistic chiefly because of this unprecedented eruption of iconoclasm and intolerance. Further differences between Aten and the old solar beliefs are to be found in the abstract nature and affective attributes of the godhead: Ra of the Pyramid Age had pursued a carnal life in the solar heavens, drinking wine, stealing women, killing other gods and eating their vitals in order to obtain the Red and Green; and he had in time grown senile and had been forced to abdicate by Isis's theft of his magic power. Not even Amen, god of wind, had escaped anthropomorphic materialization and had perforce been identified with Ra in order to justify his claims. But abruptly in Akhnaten's hands the carnal aspects of the deity disappear entirely; Aten possesses only the intangible, immaterial qualities of light, heat or radiance: he has not even an image apart from the disk with radiating arms of light. If not truly an abstract deity, he is at least extraordinarily dematerialize. At the same time he apparently drops magical devices of every kind. There is an altar on which incense is burned and offerings are placed, but there are no amulets or words of power except as talismanic potency is transferred to the almost personal hymns of praise and prayers. Paradoxically, as the deity loses human outlines he acquires in increased degree the human traits of love and beneficence. Akhnaten, as at were, destroyed the ancient carnal gods in order to sublime from their remains a divine attar of affection.

Perhaps it was because he was so moved by emotional exuberance, so engrossed with love of nature and concerned with beauty, that there is in Akhnaten's hymns and prayers, at least so far as they have been preserved at Amarna, little emphasis on righteousness. The king explicitly identifies himself with maat in his royal name and in several utterances, but translators here interpret this word as 'truth.' If Aten was at all concerned with human bahavior it was with its affective rather than its moral pattern. His chief priest, Akhnaten, was so suffused with this affection that the sordid necessities of living in this world and the best methods of winning to an eternal blessedness in the next were forgotten as completely as black shadows were dispelled by Aten's brilliant light. The Judgment was forgotten, magical amulets and incantations were cast aside, the coffin tests were replaced by hymns of praise, and the heart scarab no longer bore a spell to avert an unfavorable decision before the tribunal of the gods, but a simple prayer in the name of Aten for a long life and a happy one.

Akhnaten has received more than his share of extravagant praise and blame. There can be no doubt that he was natural and spontaneous, with little respect for the ancient conventions and traditions of his time; history records no individual before him, and few after him, so capable of throwing tradition bodily overboard. That he was a poet, a dreamer, an idealist possessed with an illusion of the sweet reasonableness of creation, is evident. What manner of man he was otherwise remains something of a mystery. Breasted calls him a 'god-intoxicated man,' 'the first Individual in history,' 'a lovely idealist ... ecstatic in his sense of the beauty of the eternal and universal light.' Budge uses the adjectives 'clever, unusually precocious, fearless, courageous and obstinate,' and speaks of his 'religious madness.' 'Satisfied with his religion and happy in his domestic circle he passed several years in playing the priest and directing the choral services in his temple, and the religious dances, and the acrobatic performances in which his followers delighted.' Shorter speaks of him as an 'unbalanced genius,' one who 'possessed the mind and outlook of a fanatic.' Elliott Smith examined a mummy which was believed to have been the king's -- the point has never been settled -- and concluded that he suffered from an endocrine disease some of the characteristics of which are infantilism, feminization of the body and character, and not infrequently profound mental disbalance. But the mummy is claimed by later authorities not to be that of Akhnaten, and much better evidence, which possibly will never be forthcoming, would be required to appraise accurately the make-up of this exotic king.

What can be accepted is that Akhnaten's esoteric doctrines proved to be wholly abominable to the Egyptians. His richly, endowed priests, drawn from the previously obscure Aten cult or from his own court, were a source of jealousy to the deposed priests of Amen whom he had treated as criminals. The common run of men mistrusted a deity who loved their enemies as much as themselves. Long familiar with the picture of Ra riding across the sky in his magnificent bark, and with the resurrection of Osiris in the growing grain, they failed utterly to comprehend the movements of the sun and the prosperity of the crops in terms of the beneficence of an almost immaterial being. They could not understand why the sacred holiday feasts, the stirring dramas of the temples, the daily rituals and customs that were the very heart of communal life should suddenly become iniquities. The mourners who left their dead in the cemeteries of the plateau were denied the comfort of Osiris; they could not even place in the coffin a few spells to help the dead on his journey to the nether world, for the scribes had been forbidden to copy the Book of the Dead. The shepherd who protected his flocks by leaving a small offering for the goddess of the tree or spring, the fisherman who threw overboard a handful of his catch to appease the crocodile, the mother who used a spell to cure her sick babe, were commanded to put aside these well tried customs in which they had every confidence and to place their trust in a new god who was a total stranger. It was as though the people had been ordered to throw themselves from the highest cliffs of the valley in the faith that Aten's rays would carry them safely to the earth.

In the meantime, first the Amorites and then the Hittites gained control of Syria, and Egyptian authority in the north came to a quick and humiliating end. In the south, city after city was captured, sacked and burned by the Canaanites and Khabiri, until the collapse of the Asiatic provinces was revealed for the major disaster that it really was. Faced with the dismemberment of the empire, the nobles of Akhnaten's court deserted him and filtered back to Thebes. Surrounded only by a few friends, the king died in 1358 B.C., knowing no doubt that he had failed not only in what he most wanted to achieve, the establishment of his god of love, but also in the responsibilities of a Pharaoh.

Immediately after Akhnaten's death the discontent and bitterness which he had excited set into a violent reaction. He was succeeded by his son-in-law, who died within two years; and then the double crown went to Tutankhaten, the husband of Ankhsenamen, Akhnaten's third daughter, who was probably not over twelve years old, and possibly no more than nine, at his succession. Putty in the hands of the priests of Amen-Ra, Tutankhaten (Beautiful-is-the-Life-of-Aten) quickly changed his name back to Tutankhamen (Beautiful-is-the-Life-of-Amen) and permitted the deposed deity to pay Aten back in kind: Amen-Ra's temples were rebuilt and their wealth returned and Aten's wealth was confiscated.

In subsequent years the bitterness engendered by Akhnaten's persecution of the priests of Amen-Ra and Osiris, by his loss of Syria, and by his esoteric doctrines generally, became so great that all inscriptions referring either to his god or himself were utterly destroyed, thus damning him to annihilation beyond the tomb as well as in this world. The city which he had built at Tell el-Amarna was abandoned and soon fell into decay. Covered by mud and sand it remained lost from history for thirty-two centuries, until an old woman was found one day in Cairo peddling at a shilling the basketful some cuneiform tablets which she had found in the desert -- the relics of the 'House of the Rolls' where Akhnaten had filed his records of state and those of his father, the Golden Emperor. History has a queer way of serving its disciples, for much of the invaluable literature of the New Empire, correspondence touching every corner and every affair of the civilized world of the 14th century B.C., was sold to tourists and lost before its value was recognized, while the tomb of Akhnaten's son-in-law, Tutankhamen -- a 'tenth-rate Pharaoh of a decadent Egypt' -- simply because in the reaction which followed Aten's fall it had been carefully hidden beneath the sand, was destined to remain intact for the modern tomb robbers who have deciphered Egypt's history. Tutankhamen was a mere child at his death and by no means a rich Pharaoh, yet the gold and jewels and exquisite art which his tomb contained have provided the most complete and magnificent example yet known of the splendor of a Pharaoh's grave.

Though later kings were momentarily to recapture the country beyond the Isthmus, Egypt's frontiers were broken and she remained henceforth in almost unceasing conflict with the armies of Hatti, Assyria and Babylonia. The priests of Amen, restoring themselves to power under Tutankhamen, soon elevated the office of high priest to a place inferior only to that of the king, and by 100 B.C. the chief priest had become the king. From this time on, with few interruptions, Egypt remained a theocracy. Amenism became the state church, the high priest became the head of both state and church, and the fortunes of the nation were decided by the temple oracles. In the restoration of 700 B.C. the people of the Nile momentarily became conscious of their great past and scribes sought out the ancient papyri and carefully copied them. But in this process of conserving and exalting the sacred words of the ancestors, who three millenniums before had laid the foundations of civilization, they only sank deeper and deeper into fetish worship, into the innumerable rituals and incantations of a sacerdotal state, until they seemed to Herodotus to be 'the most religious people in the world.'

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