Ancient Egyptian Law & Order
As with most other aspects of life, ancient Egyptian law was closely tied to religious beliefs. The gods were involved, moral codes were taken from divine decrees, and even myths and legends would underline the importance of obedience to the pharaohs and gods.
Although we have many historical records about certain crimes, criminals and their subsequent punishments, we don’t have any codified record of ancient Egyptian law and order.
Through the bits and pieces of information, we can gather some conclusions about how the legal system operated in ancient Egypt and how it evolved over time.
There was also ancient Egyptian wisdom literature, which offers us some insight on what “good conduct” was thought to be during certain periods, though these were not laws either.
But before delving into the first part of this series about ancient Egyptian law, I think it’s important to acknowledge this:
The oldest surviving written legal code comes to us from amazing Mesopotamia. The Code of Ur-Nammu is a set of tablets with laws written on them in Sumerian. They date from around 2100 BCE.
Also from Mesopotamia is the more famous Code of Hammurabi, from around 1754 BCE. It consists of 282 laws and covers social and familial laws such as inheritance and divorce.
If you haven’t read about them, I highly recommend it. But now onto Ancient Egyptian Law…
Maat’s Truth & Justice
Maat was more of a concept than a goddess – she was the representation of truth, justice and order (both cosmic and social).
In fact, during the weighing-of-the-heart ceremony, the deceased were judged by having their hearts weighed against Maat’s feather of truth, checking whether they had conducted themselves honorably during life.
If their hearts were found heavier, they were damned to eternal oblivion.
One way to know what kinds of things ancient Egyptian society saw as wrong or immoral is to read through the 42 Declarations of Innocence, also called the Negative Confessions of Maat.
Through them, the deceased proclaimed as evidence that he/she conducted their lives with integrity.
They are like an ancient Egyptian version of the Ten Commandments.
These declarations varied slightly from individual to individual, but here is a sample from the Papyrus of Nu:
I have not committed sins against men.
I have not opposed my family and kinsfolk.
I have not acted fraudulently in the Seat of Truth.
I have not known men who were of no account.
I have not wrought evil.
I have not made it to be the first [consideration daily that unnecessary] work should be done for me.
I have not brought forward my name for dignities.
I have not [attempted] to domineer servants.
[I have not belittled God].
I have not defrauded the humble man of his property.
I have not done what the gods abominate.
I have not vilified a slave to his master.
I have not inflicted pain.
I have not caused anyone to go hungry.
I have not made any man to weep.
I have not committed murder.
I have not given the order for murder to be committed.
I have not caused calamities to befall men and women.
I have not plundered the offerings in the temples.
I have not defrauded the gods of their cake-offerings.
I have not carried off the fenkhu cakes [offered to] the Spirits.
I have not committed fornication.
I have not masturbated [in the sanctuaries of the god of my city].
I have not diminished from the bushel.
I have not filched [land from my neighbour’s estate and] added it to my own acre.
I have not encroached upon the fields [of others].
I have not added to the weights of the scales.
I have not depressed the pointer of the balance.
I have not carried away the milk from the mouths of children.
I have not driven the cattle away from their pastures.
I have not snared the geese in the goose-pens of the gods.
I have not caught fish with bait made of the bodies of the same kind of fish.
I have not stopped water when it should flow.
I have not made a cutting in a canal of running water.
I have not extinguished a fire when it should burn.
I have not violated the times [of offering] the chosen meat offerings.
I have not driven away the cattle on the estates of the gods.
I have not turned back the god at his appearances.
Execution of Ancient Egyptian Law
As pharaohs were thought of as reincarnations of gods on Earth, they had the privilege to decree certain rules and laws. They would add to or change somewhat the laws formed previously.
But still, as free as they were to do so, they were responsible for upholding the laws of the gods, including those of Maat. Some would also wear emblems of the goddess as a show of this.
After the pharaoh, the vizier was in charge of ancient Egyptian law and was given the title of Priest of Maat. Later, during the New Kingdom, judges and high officials would wear images of the goddess as well.
Ancient Egyptian law and order were not separate from the overall administrative system. In fact, there were no designated court-houses or a person whose sole role was to be a judge.
Officials that had other administrative positions carried out legal duties alongside their other work.
In some important cases, officials would come together in a concentrated effort, such as in the trial of the harem conspiracies.
As there were no set rules written, the system was more like a common law system where legal decisions were made on a case-by-case basis.
It seems also to be how the pharaoh would adjust ancient Egyptian law, depending on what he saw as necessary changes to the legal affairs of his time.
Under Maat’s universal justice it was a given that all ancient Egyptians were dealt with equally in the eyes of the law, and so even the rich or elite were not exempt from the harshest of punishments for their crimes.
Though it must be stated that slaves were put in a different legal category.
Another loophole was how sometimes the family of a convicted criminal would be exposed to punishment as well, such as being exiled.
Ancient Egyptian police were charged with the role of keeping the peace and calm and apprehending criminals. Though, like other law enforcement officials, their roles were sometimes quite loosely defined.
During the Ptolemaic Period, ancient Egyptian law was still operating alongside ancient Greek law. But when the Romans came, they imposed their laws as the sole legal system in the country.
This was especially constricting for ancient Egyptian women, who had enjoyed more freedoms and independence than their Greek or Roman counterparts. And so when Roman law became the only law, the rights they had enjoyed were taken away.
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Thanks and take care!