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Balance & the Law in Ancient Egypt › Origins

Ancient Civilizations

Author: Joshua J. Mark

Egyptian law was based on the central cultural value of ma'at (harmony and balance) which was the foundation for the entire civilization. Ma'at was established at the beginning of time by the gods when the earth and universe were formed. According to one version of the story, the god Atum emerged from the swirling waters of chaos to stand on the first dry land, the primordial ben-ben, to begin the act of creation. The force of magic ( heka ) was with him, personified in the god of magic Heka, and it was this force which gave power to ma'at, the principle which was later personified as the goddess of the same name. Ma'at allowed the universe and life on earth to function as it should – in balance – and heka was the power which sustained ma'at. Egyptologist Richard H. Wilkinson writes:
For the Egyptians, heka or 'magic' was a divine force which existed in the universe like 'power' or 'strength' and which could be personified in the form of the god Heka...his name is thus explained as 'the first work.' (110)
Heka's first "creation" was ma'at, and so the concept of balance and harmony as an essential aspect of life became the most deeply held conviction of Egyptian society from the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150 - c. 2613 BCE) onwards. Although the personification of Ma'at as a goddess does not appear until the Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BCE), the value she represented – as well as the magic which sustained that balance - seems evident in architecture and carvings of the Predynastic Period in Egypt (c. 6000 - c. 3150 BCE), establishing this value as the core foundation for the society which then developed.



If people had been able to recognize the benefits of living their lives in accordance with ma'at, there would have been no need for laws, but since selfish desires frequently override common sense, people acting in their own self-interest – and at the expense of others – needed to be punished and examples and precedent set for others who might be tempted to do the same.
Although some form of a law code seems to have existed, archaeologists have not uncovered any document similar to a codified set such as the Code of Ur-Nammu or that of Hammurabi of Babylon. The Egyptian literary work known as The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, from the Middle Kingdom (2040 - c. 1782 BCE), establishes that a law code and an administrative judicial system had been in place long before this time. Some rudimentary law code existed during the Predynastic Period (c. 6000 - c. 3150 BCE) but an actual legal system had to have been in place by the Early Dynastic Period in Egypt (c. 3150 - c. 2613 BCE) because it was already in use in the early years of the Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BCE).
The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant also establishes that justice and fair treatment for all – no matter one's social class, age, or gender – were highly prized concepts for the Egyptians. It is clear from works such as The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, from notes, letters, judgments, and revisions concerning the law made by later kings that judges and magistrates were working from a standard set of laws but the specifics of such a document are unknown.
It is also clear, however, that the law was based on ma'at and operated from a principle of precedent: a judgment on a particular crime in the past would establish the basis for future sentences. What made a judgment legal and binding, however, was not necessarily the skill or wisdom of a judge or magistrate but how closely a legal decision aligned with ma'at.


The principal responsibility of the king was to uphold ma'at ; once this was understood as a ruler's primary role, all other responsibilities of the throne would fall into place. A central observance of a king's inauguration ceremony, in fact, was his offering the spirit of ma'at – personified in a statue – to the other gods as a promise he would maintain universal balance.

The Offering of Ma'at

In time, the concept came to be personified as a goddess with a white ostrich feather who became so important to the culture that she appeared with the gods Osiris, Thoth, and Anubis in the Hall of Truth after a person's death where the heart of the deceased was weighed against her white feather of truth. If the heart was found lighter than the feather, the person was allowed to go on to eternal life in the Field of Reeds; if the heart was heavier, it was dropped to the floor where it was eaten by the monster Amut and the soul of the person ceased to exist.
One's heart would be lighter if one had lived in accordance with ma'at. Ma'at was the spirit of all creation in harmony and, if a person was in accord with that spirit, they lived well on earth and also had good reason to hope for eternal peace in the afterlife; if one refused to live in accordance with the principle of ma'at, then one suffered the consequences – in life and after death - which one would have brought upon one's self.
If a person decided to break the law by stealing grain from another, the thief had not just deprived someone of their property but had disrupted the balance which allowed the world to function as it should. Egyptologist and historian Margaret Bunson comments on this, writing :
Ma'at was the model for human behavior, in conformity with the will of the gods, the universal order evident in the heavens, cosmic balance upon the earth, the mirror of celestial beauty. Awareness of the cosmic order was evident early in Egypt ; priest-astronomers charted the heavens and noted that the earth responded to the orbits of the stars and planets. The priests taught that mankind was commanded to reflect divine harmony by assuming a spirit of quietude, reasonable behavior, cooperation, and a recognition of the eternal qualities of existence, as demonstrated by the earth and the sky. All Egyptians anticipated becoming part of the cosmos when they died, thus the responsibility for acting in accordance with its laws was reasonable. Strict adherence to ma'at allowed the Egyptians to feel secure with the world and with the divine plan for all creation. (152)
No one could feel secure, however, if ma'at were ignored and people were allowed to behave in any way they pleased. The laws of Egypt were created – and a judicial system set in place – to ensure there were immediate and unpleasant consequences for upsetting the balance of society. These laws applied to everyone from the peasant to the king because it was understood that everyone in society had a part to play and a role assigned them by the gods; if a magistrate or judge or vizier should play favorites or judge unfairly, they would be just as guilty of disrupting ma'at as a thief, robber, or murderer.


To ensure that justice was provided for everyone in the country – regardless of social class – only the best men were chosen for positions of legal authority. The vizier of the land had to meet stringent requirements for the position, and these included moral and ethical aspects as well as administrative and intellectual. The position of the Egyptian vizier in the present day is usually understood as comparable to "king's counselor" but he was actually the moral compass and chief administrator of the entire country.

Vizier Rekhmire Receiving Offerings

A famous vizier of the New Kingdom of Egypt, Rekhmira (also given as Rekhmire), served under the pharaohs Thutmose III(1458-1425 BCE) and his son Amenhotep II (1425-1400 BCE). He is best known for the text Installation of the Vizier (also known as the Instruction of Rekhmira ) which describes the duties of the office, how one is chosen for the position, and how a vizier should comport himself. The text emphasizes mercy and compassion but the overall focus is balance – harmony – in trying to better the lives of the unfortunate and relieve people's suffering:
I defended the husbandless widow. I established the son and heir on the seat of his father. I gave bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, meat and ointment and clothes to him who has nothing. I relieved the old man, giving him my staff, and causing the old woman to say, "What a good action!" I hated inequity, and wrought it not, causing false men to be fastened head downwards. (van de Mieroop, 178)
Since the law was based on the divine principle of ma'at, it was considered perfect in origin and should not be misused for one's personal ends. A judge or any other legal authority who was found guilty of abusing his power faced punishments ranging from amputation of the hands to drowning. The law applied equally to everyone in Egypt and corruption was not tolerated even toward the end of the New Kingdom when corrupt practices from the top of Egypt's hierarchy to the bottom were rampant.


The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant illustrates the Egyptian value of justice clearly. In the story, a peasant named Khun-Anup is beaten and robbed by Nemtynakht, a rich landowner, who tells him there is no use in complaining because no one in authority will value a peasant's word against that of a wealthy landsman. Khun-Anup refuses to believe this, however, and presents his case to the local magistrate.
The magistrate, Rensi, is moved by the peasant's case but finds his speech so eloquent that he reports the situation to the king, and the king, intrigued, directs Rensi to keep the peasant talking and record his speeches. Rensi does as he is instructed, refusing to address the complaint of Khun-Anup but providing him (as well as his family back home) with food and drink. Finally, after Khun-Anup has made nine petitions – all of which have been recorded by Rensi's scribes – he is rewarded with justice: all the lands belonging to Nemthnakht are given to him and, further, he is honored by the king who considers him a master of rhetoric.

Tale of the Eloquent Peasant

The story was popular with audiences from the Middle Kingdom of Egypt through the New Kingdom, and probably later periods, but increasingly failed to reflect how justice was administered or how society was actually living the tale's ideals.Toward the end of the New Kingdom, balance was lost during the reign of Ramesses III (1186-1155 BCE), was never fully regained, and led to a number of significant problems.
The time of Ramesses III was the period of decline for the Egyptian Empire of the New Kingdom. The invasion of the Sea Peoples in 1178 BCE necessitated an enormous expenditure in defense, and even though Egypt was victorious, the effects of this event sent ripples through the governmental bureaucracy which maintained society. The immense loss of life from the invasion resulted in a depleted labor force, which meant fewer people to work the land and a poor harvest. This situation was worsened by weather conditions, and the regular distribution of grains and goods from the land, regularly handled by the efficient bureaucracy, broke down as resources became scarcer and officials more corrupt.
Although Ramesses III was a good king – considered the last effective pharaoh of the New Kingdom – he failed to maintain ma'at as the prime directive of his office. His insistence on maintaining the tradition of the pharaoh's 30-year jubilee celebration, in spite of the difficulties the country faced, caused significant resources to be directed to the court, and this decision meant that others, further down on the hierarchy, would have to do without.

Ramesses III

Problems became apparent in c. 1159 BCE when payment to the tomb workers at Deir el-Medina was late and, in an unprecedented move, they went on strike. No workers had ever gone on strike before in Egypt; it was literally unthinkable.Everyone in the social structure had a place and a responsibility, and one could not simply decide one day to ignore that.When the workers struck, the officials were unable to handle it and, lacking any kind of experience with this sort of situation, tried to buy the workers off with pastries from the local temple.
The situation was finally resolved and the workers paid but the strike was the result of a problem no one knew how to address: a breach in the observance of ma'at by a reigning king. It was the king's responsibility to model behavior for his people but, in this case, the tomb workers were forced to remind the king of his obligations and his transgression. The strike itself was a disruption of balance which called attention to the greater transgression of the ruler.
By the time of Ramesses XI (1107-1077 BCE), the empire had fallen and slowly drifted into the era known as the Third Intermediate Period of Egypt (c. 1069-525 BCE). Although a story like The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant may still have been popular during this time, it no longer reflected the practical administration of justice. Offices as high as that of the vizier down to the street level of police officers were corrupt and works like The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant or the Instruction of Rekhmirawere no longer relevant because few people were living by those principles anymore. Once the value of ma'at was compromised, balance was lost, and the legal system founded on divine harmony began to decline.

Alphabet › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Jan van der Crabben

The history of the alphabet started in ancient Egypt. By 2700 BCE Egyptian writing had a set of some 22 hieroglyphs to represent syllables that begin with a single consonant of their language, plus a vowel (or no vowel) to be supplied by the native speaker. These glyphs were used as pronunciation guides for logograms, to write grammatical inflections, and, later, to transcribe loan words and foreign names.
However, although seemingly alphabetic in nature, the original Egyptian uniliterals were not a system and were never used by themselves to encode Egyptian speech. In the Middle Bronze Age an apparently "alphabetic" system known as the Proto-Sinaitic script is thought by some to have been developed in central Egypt around 1700 BCE for or by Semitic workers, but only one of these early writings has been deciphered and their exact nature remains open to interpretation. Based on letter appearances and names, it is believed to be based on Egyptian hieroglyphs.
This script eventually developed into the Proto-Canaanite alphabet, which in turn was refined into the Phoenician alphabet. It also developed into the South Arabian alphabet, from which the Ge'ez alphabet (an abugida) is descended. Note that the scripts mentioned above are not considered proper alphabets, as they all lack characters representing vowels. These early vowelless alphabets are called abjads, and still exist in scripts such as Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac.
Phoenician was the first major phonemic script. In contrast to two other widely used writing systems at the time, Cuneiformand Egyptian hieroglyphs, it contained only about two dozen distinct letters, making it a script simple enough for common traders to learn. Another advantage of Phoenician was that it could be used to write down many different languages, since it recorded words phonemically.

Ogham Script: Consonants

The script was spread by the Phoenicians, whose Thalassocracy allowed the script to be spread across the Mediterranean.In Greece, the script was modified to add the vowels, giving rise to the first true alphabet. The Greeks took letters which did not represent sounds that existed in Greek, and changed them to represent the vowels. This marks the creation of a "true" alphabet, with both vowels and consonants as explicit symbols in a single script. In its early years, there were many variants of the Greek alphabet, a situation which caused many different alphabets to evolve from it.
The Cumae form of the Greek alphabet was carried over by Greek colonists from Euboea to the Italian peninsula, where it gave rise to a variety of alphabets used to inscribe the Italic languages. One of these became the Latin alphabet, which was spread across Europe as the Romans expanded their empire. Even after the fall of the Roman state, the alphabet survived in intellectual and religious works. It eventually became used for the descendant languages of Latin (the Romance languages) and then for the other languages of Europe.

Altamira › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Lidia Pelayo Alonso

Altamira is a Paleolithic cave located in Santillana del Mar (Cantabria region), in the north of Spain, and was declared World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1985. The cave was inhabited for millennia and, so it contains remains of the daily activities of the population. Nowadays, the cave is 270 m long and the archaeological site can be found inside the cave, near the entrance, however, there are also remains in the outside since the original entrance fell down. The cave can be divided into three sections: the entrance, the great room or polychrome room and the gallery. First, the entrance is the part where people used to live; archaeologists found there remains of animals bones, ashes belonging to continuous fireplaces and flint objects such as knives, axes, and flint fragments, indicating human activity in this part of the cave. Given the fact that archaeologists have found this type of remains located in different layers of sediments, it seems reasonable to assume that the cave was inhabited for long periods of time. The so-called polychrome or great room, painted in several colors, can be found in the inner part of the cave, where there is no natural light. The entrance and the polychrome room form a great hall, but since the cave is a narrow gallery there is little room for large spaces, except for the larger chamber. The end of the cave is a narrow gallery with difficult access, but it also contains paintings and engravings.


The cave was discovered in 1868 by a hunter, Modesto Cubillas, who told Marcelino Sanz de Sautola, a nobleman in the region, about it. However, Sanz de Sautola did not visit the cave until 1875 and started the first excavation works on the site in 1879, when he found objects made with flint, bones and horns, as well as colourants, fauna, and shells that allowed the cave paintings' dating. These works only took place at the entrance of the cave. Sanz de Sautola published his Breves apuntes sobre algunos objetos prehistóricos de la provincia de Santander ("Notes on some prehistoric objects in the Santander region") a year later. At the time of the discovery, the main research on Prehistory was carried out in France by scholars who did not accept the authenticity of the paintings since they did not show the same patterns and features of those caves studied in France. Hence, Sanz de Sautola was considered a liar and Altamira was forgotten. In 1902, E. de Cartailach, a French prehistorian, published Les cavernes ornées de dessins. La grotte d'Altamira, Espagne. «Mea culpa| d'un sceptique ("The caves decorated with drawings. The cave of Altamira, Spain. «Mea culpa| of a sceptical") and, from that moment, the cave gained a key role in the international prehistoric research.
Later, in 1903, H. Alcalde del Río continued the excavations and discovered two consecutive levels: one from the Upper Solutrean and other from the Lower Magdalenian, both of them belonging to the Paleolithic. These data were confirmed in the excavations made by Hugo Obermaier in 1924 and 1925, and J. González Echegaray and LG Freeman in 1980 and 1981, where they discovered a bigger complexity of the archaeological register. The studies and dating of the C14-AMS made in 2006 showed the different stages of human occupation of the cave. Eight levels were distinguished, from Middle Magdalenian (15,000-10,000 BCE) to Gravettian (25,000-20,000 BCE).


Based on the archaeological research, experts assume that the paintings and engravings of the cave were made by the people who inhabited the cave during the different periods. Most of the paintings and engravings of Altamira, ranging from animals to hands, are located in the polychrome room. The oldest paintings are located on the right of the roof and they include horses, positive and negative images of hands, and a series of dots; mostly drawn by using charcoal. There are also 'masks' created by drawing eyes and mouth to the bumps on the walls, which have been dated to the Lower Magdalenian period. However, the majority of the paintings from this period represent deer.
On the right of the roof, we can find the 25 coloured images of the cave (mostly in red and black): big representations of horses and bisons, as well as a female deer that measures more than two meters. The drawing technique employed was engraving the wall with a flint object and, then, drawing a black line using charcoal. Afterwards, it was coloured with red or yellow. The details, such as hair, were made with a charcoal pencil while elements like eyes or horns were engraved. Although they may seem simple figures, bumps and cracks on the roof were purposely used to give volume to the animals.

Paleolithic Cave Painting in Altamira Cave

The narrow gallery contains a special set of masks representing animal faces, for instance, deer and bison. The technique employed is simple and astonishing at the same time. The artist took advantage of the walls bumps and the perspective to create a whole face with simple elements such as ayes and lines representing the mouth or the nose.


Nowadays, Altamira cave is closed to the public due to its preservation problems. As said before, the entrance fell over and covered the cave, creating a stable climate inside that ensured the preservation of the paintings, but when it was discovered, the air started entering form the outside and caused changes in humidity and temperature. Furthermore, during the 20th century, walls and paths were built inside the cave to accept hundreds of thousands of visitors. All these changes affected the paintings, as well as the human presence. Between 1997 and 2001, measures were taken to control the state of the cave. In 2002, the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) started an exhaustive conservation plan and, from 2011, an international committee of experts studies the feasibility of giving access to a restricted number of visitors without affecting the preservation of the paintings.
Even though the original cave cannot be visited, archaeological studies and experts made possible a recreation of the cave that can be visited as well as its museum which contains a permanent collection of objects from Altamira and other surrounding caves.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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