Ancient Egypt (Rawlinson)/The People of Egypt

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Where the Egyptians came from, is a difficult question to answer. Ancient speculators, when they could not derive a people definitely from any other, took refuge in the statement, or the figment, that they were the children of the soil which they had always occupied. Modern theorists may say, if it please them, that they were evolved out of the monkeys that had their primitive abode on that particular portion of the earth's surface. Monkeys, however, are not found everywhere; and we have no evidence that in Egypt they were ever indigenous, though, as pets, they were very common, the Egyptians delighting in keeping them. Such evidence as we have reveals to us the man as anterior to the monkey in the land of Mizraim Thus we are thrown back on the original question--Where did the man, or race of men, that is found in Egypt at the dawn of history come from?

It is generally answered that they came from Asia; but this is not much more than a conjecture. The physical type of the Egyptians is different from that of any known Asiatic nation. The Egyptians had no traditions that at all connected them with Asia. Their language, indeed, in historic times was partially Semitic, and allied to the Hebrew, the Phœnician, and the Aramaic; but the relationship was remote, and may be partly accounted for by later intercourse, without involving original derivation. The fundamental character of the Egyptian in respect of physical type, language, and tone of thought, is Nigritic. The Egyptians were not negroes, but they bore a resemblance to the negro which is indisputable. Their type differs from the Caucasian in exactly those respects which when exaggerated produce the negro. They were darker, had thicker lips, lower foreheads, larger heads, more advancing jaws, a flatter foot, and a more attenuated frame. It is quite conceivable that the negro type was produced by a gradual degeneration from that which we find in Egypt. It is even conceivable that the Egyptian type was produced by gradual advance and amelioration from that of the negro.

Still, whencesoever derived, the Egyptian people, as it existed in the flourishing times of Egyptian history, was beyond all question a mixed race, showing diverse affinities. Whatever the people was originally, it received into it from time to time various foreign elements, and those in such quantities as seriously to affect its physique--Ethiopians from the south, Libyans from the west, Semites from the north-east, where Africa adjoined on Asia. There are two quite different types of Egyptian form and feature, blending together in the mass of the nation, but strongly developed, and (so to speak) accentuated in individuals. One is that which we see in portraits of Rameses III, and in some of Rameses II.--a moderately high forehead, a large, well-formed aquiline nose, a well-shaped mouth with lips not over full, and a delicately rounded chin. The other is comparatively coarse--forehead low, nose depressed and short, lower part of the face prognathous and sensual-looking, chin heavy, jaw large, lips thick and projecting. The two types of face are not, however, accompanied by much difference of frame. The Egyptian is always slight in figure, wanting in muscle, flat in foot, with limbs that are too long, too thin, too lady-like. Something more of muscularity appears, perhaps, in the earlier than in the later forms; but this is perhaps attributable to a modification of the artistic ideal.

As Egypt presents us with two types of physique, so it brings before us two strongly different types of character. On the one hand we see, alike in the pictured scenes, in the native literary remains, and in the accounts which foreigners have left us of the people, a grave and dignified race, full of serious and sober thought, given to speculation and reflection, occupied rather with the interests belonging to another world than with those that attach to this present scene of existence, and inclined to indulge in a gentle and dreamy melancholy. The first thought of a king, when he began his reign, was to begin his tomb. The desire of the grandee was similar. It is a trite tale how at feasts a slave carried round to all the guests the representation of a mummied corpse, and showed it to each in turn, with the solemn words--"Look at this, and so eat and drink; for be sure that one day such as this thou shalt be." The favourite song of the Egyptians, according to Herodotus, was a dirge. The "Lay of Harper," which we subjoin, sounds a key-note that was very familiar, at any rate, to large numbers among the Egyptians.

    The Great One[1] has gone to his rest,
      Ended his task and his race;
    Thus men are aye passing away,
      And youths are aye taking their place.
    As Ra rises up every morn,
      And Turn every evening doth set,
    So women conceive and bring forth,
      And men without ceasing beget.
    Each soul in its turn draweth breath--
    Each man born of woman sees Death.

    Take thy pleasure to-day,
      Father! Holy One! See,
    Spices and fragrant oils,
      Father, we bring to thee.
    On thy sister's bosom and arms
      Wreaths of lotus we place;
    On thy sister, dear to thy heart,
      Aye sitting before thy face.
    Sound the song; let music be played
    And let cares behind thee be laid.

    Take thy pleasure to-day;
      Mind thee of joy and delight!
    Soon life's pilgrimage ends,
      And we pass to Silence and Night.
    Patriarch perfect and pure,
      Nefer-hotep, blessed one! Thou
    Didst finish thy course upon earth,
      And art with the blessed ones now.
    Men pass to the Silent Shore,
    And their place doth know them no more.

    They are as they never had been,
      Since the sun went forth upon high;
    They sit on the banks of the stream
      That floweth in stillness by.
    Thy soul is among them; thou
      Dost drink of the sacred tide,
    Having the wish of thy heart--
      At peace ever since thou hast died.
    Give bread to the man who is poor,
    And thy name shall be blest evermore.

      * * * * *

    Take thy pleasure to-day,
      Nefer-hotep, blessed and pure.
    What availed thee thy other buildings?
      Of thy tomb alone thou art sure.
    On the earth thou hast nought beside,
      Nought of thee else is remaining;
    And when thou wentest below,
      Thy last sip of life thou wert draining.
    Even they who have millions to spend,
    Find that life comes at last to an end.

    Let all, then, think of the day
      Of departure without returning--
    'Twill then be well to have lived,
      All sin and injustice spurning.
    For he who has loved the right,
      In the hour that none can flee,
    Enters upon the delight
      Of a glad eternity.
    Give freely from out thy store,
    And thou shalt be blest evermore.

On the other hand, there is evidence of a lightsome, joyous, and even frolic spirit as pervading numbers, especially among the lower classes of the Egyptians. "Traverse Egypt," says a writer who knows more of the ancient country than almost any other living person, "examine the scenes sculptured or painted on the walls of the chapels attached to tombs, consult the inscriptions graven on the rocks or traced with ink on the papyrus rolls, and you will be compelled to modify your mistaken notion of the Egyptians being a nation of philosophers. I defy you to find anything more gay, more amusing, more freshly simple, than this good-natured Egyptian people, which was fond of life and felt a profound pleasure in its existence. Far from desiring death, they addressed prayers to the gods to preserve them in life, and to give them a happy old age--an old age that should reach, if possible, to the 'perfect term of no years.' They gave themselves up to pleasures of every kind; they sang, they drank, they danced, they delighted in making excursions into the country, where hunting and fishing were occupations reserved especially for the nobility. In conformity with this inclination towards pleasure, sportive proposals, a pleasantry that was perhaps over-free, witticisms, raillery, and a mocking spirit, were in vogue among the people, and fun was allowed entrance even into the tombs. In the large schools the masters had a difficulty in training the young and keeping down their passion for amusements. When oral exhortation failed of success, the cane was used pretty smartly in its place; for the wise men of the land had a saying that 'a boy's ears grow on his back.'"[2]

Herodotus tells us how gaily the Egyptians kept their festivals, thousands of the common people--men, women, and children together--crowding into the boats, which at such times covered the Nile, the men piping, and the women clapping their hands or striking their castanets, as they passed from town to town along the banks of the stream, stopping at the various landing-places, and challenging the inhabitants to a contest of good-humoured Billingsgate. From the monuments we see how the men sang at their labours--here as they trod the wine-press or the dough-trough, there as they threshed out the corn by driving the oxen through the golden heaps. In one case the words of a harvest-song have come down to us:

    "Thresh for yourselves," they sang, "thresh for yourselves,
    O oxen, thresh for yourselves, for yourselves--
    Bushels for yourselves, bushels for your masters!"

Their light-hearted drollery sometimes found vent in caricature. The grand sculptures wherewith a king strove to perpetuate the memory of his warlike exploits were travestied by satirists, who reproduced the scenes upon papyrus as combats between cats and rats. The amorous follies of the monarch were held up to derision by sketches of a harem interior, where the kingly wooer was represented by a lion, and his favourites of the softer sex by gazelles. Even in serious scenes depicting the trial of souls in the next world, the sense of humour breaks out, where the bad man, transformed into a pig or a monkey, walks off with a comical air of surprise and discomfiture.

It does not, however, help us much towards the true knowledge of a people to scan their frames or study their facial angle, or even to contemplate the outer aspect of their daily life. We want to know their thoughts, their innermost feelings, their hopes, their fears--in a word, their belief. Nothing tells the character of a people so much as their religion; and we are only dealing superficially with the outward shows of things until we get down to the root of their being, the conviction, or convictions, held in the recesses of a people's heart. What, then, was the Egyptian religion? What did they worship? What did they reverence? What future did they look forward to?

Enter the huge courts of an Egyptian temple, or temple-palace, and you will see portrayed upon its lofty walls row upon row of deities. Here the king makes his offering to Ammon, Maut, Khons, Neith, Mentu, Shu, Seb, Nut, Osiris, Set, Horus; there he pours a libation to Phthah, Sekhet, Tum, Pasht, Anuka, Thoth, Anubis; elsewhere, it may be, he pays his court to Sati, Khem, Isis, Nephthys, Athor, Harmachis, Nausaas, and Nebhept. One monarch erects an altar to Satemi, Tum, Khepra, Shu, Tefnut, Seb, Netpe, Osiris, Isis, Set, Nephthys, Horus, and Thoth, mentioning on the same monument Phthah, Num, Sabak, Athor, Pasht, Mentu, Neith, Anubis, Nishem, and Kartak. Another represents himself on a similar object as offering adoration to Ammon, Khem, Phthah-Sokari, Seb, Nut, Thoth, Khons, Osiris, Isis, Horus, Athor, Uat (Buto), Neith, Sekhet, Anata, Nuneb, Nebhept, and Hapi. All these deities are represented by distinct forms, and have distinct attributes. Nor do they at all exhaust the Pantheon. One modern writer enumerates seventy-three divinities, and gives their several names and forms. Another has a list of sixty-three "principal deities," and notes that there were "others which personified the elements, or presided over the operations of nature, the seasons, and events." The Egyptians themselves speak not unfrequently of "the thousand gods," sometimes further qualifying them, as "the gods male, the gods female, those which belong to the land of Egypt." Practically, there were before the eyes of worshippers some scores, if not some hundreds, of deities, who invited their approach and challenged their affections.

Nor was this the whole, or the worst. The Egyptian was taught to pay a religious regard to animals. In one place goats, in another sheep, in a third hippopotami, in a fourth crocodiles, in a fifth vultures, in a sixth frogs, in a seventh shrew-mice, were sacred creatures, to be treated with respect and honour, and under no circumstances to be slain, under the penalty of death to the slayer. And besides this local animal-cult, there was a cult which was general. Cows, cats, dogs, ibises, hawks, and cynocephalous apes, were sacred throughout the whole of Egypt, and woe to the man who injured them! A Roman who accidentally caused the death of a cat was immediately "lynched" by the populace. Inhabitants of neighbouring villages would attack each other with the utmost fury if the native of one had killed or eaten an animal held sacred in the other. In any house where a cat or a dog died, the inmates were expected to mourn for them as for a relation. Both these and the other sacred animals were carefully embalmed after death, and their bodies were interred in sacred repositories.

The animal-worship reached its utmost pitch of grossness and absurdity when certain individual brute beasts were declared to be incarnate deities, and treated accordingly. At Memphis, the ordinary capital, there was maintained, at any rate from the time of Aahmes I. (about B.C. 1650), a sacred bull, known as Hapi or Apis, which was believed to be an actual incarnation of the god Phthah, and was an object of the highest veneration. The Apis bull dwelt in a temple of his own near the city, had his train of attendant priests, his harem of cows, his meals of the choicest food, his grooms and currycombers who kept his coat clean and beautiful, his chamberlains who made his bed, his cup-bearers who brought him water, &c., and on fixed days was led in a festive procession through the main streets of the town, so that the inhabitants might see him, and come forth from their dwellings and make obeisance. When he died he was carefully embalmed, and deposited, together with magnificent jewels and statuettes and vases, in a polished granite sarcophagus, cut out of a single block, and weighing between sixty and seventy tons! The cost of an Apis funeral amounted sometimes, as we are told, to as much as £20,000. To contain the sarcophagi, several long galleries were cut in the solid rock near Memphis, from which arched lateral chambers went off on either side, each constructed to hold one sarcophagus. The number of Apis bulls buried in the galleries was found to be sixty-four.

Nor was this the only incarnate god of which Egypt boasted. Another bull, called Mnevis, was maintained in the great temple of the Sun at Heliopolis, and, being regarded as an incarnation of Ra or Tum, was as much reverenced by the Heliopolites as Apis by the Memphites, A third, called Bacis or Pacis, was kept at Hermonthis, which was also an incarnation of Ra. And a white cow at Momemphis was reckoned an incarnation of Athor. Who can wonder that foreign nations ridiculed a religion of this kind--one that "turned the glory" of the Eternal Godhead "into the similitude of a calf that eateth hay"?

The Egyptians had also a further god incarnate, who was not shut up out of sight like the Apis and Mnevis and Bacis bulls and the Athor cow, but was continually before their eyes, the centre of the nation's life, the prime object of attention. This was the monarch, who for the time being occupied the throne. Each king of Egypt claimed not only to be "son of the Sun," but to be an actual incarnation of the sun--"the living Horus." And this claim was, from an early date, received and allowed. "Thy Majesty," says a courtier under the twelfth dynasty, "is the good God ... the great God, the equal of the Sun-God. ... I live from the breath which thou givest" Brought into the king's presence, the courtier "falls on his belly," amazed and confounded. "I was as one brought out of the dark; my tongue was dumb; my lips failed me; my heart was no longer in my body to know whether I was alive or dead;" and this, although "the god" had "addressed him mildly." Another courtier attributes his long life to the king's favour. Ambassadors, when presented to the king, "raised their arms in adoration of the good god," and declared to him--"Thou art like the Sun in all that thou doest: thy heart realizes all its wishes; shouldest thou wish to make it day during the night, it is so forthwith.... If thou sayest to the water, 'Come from the rock,' it will come in a torrent suddenly at the words of thy mouth. The god Ra is like thee in his limbs, the god Khepra in creative force. Truly thou art the living image of thy father, Tum.... All thy words are accomplished daily." Some of the kings set up their statues in the temples by the side of the greatest of the national deities, to be the objects of a similar worship.

Amid this wealth of gods, earthly and heavenly, human, animal, and divine, an Egyptian might well feel puzzled to make a choice. In his hesitation he was apt to turn to that only portion of his religion which had the attraction that myth possesses--- the introduction into a supramundane and superhuman world of a quasi-human element. The chief Egyptian myth was the Osirid saga, which ran somewhat as follows: "Once upon a time the gods were tired of ruling in the upper sphere, and resolved to take it in turns to reign over Egypt in the likeness of men. So, after four of them had in succession been kings, each for a long term of years, it happened that Osiris, the son of Seb and Nut, took the throne, and became monarch of the two regions, the Upper and the Lower. Osiris was of a good and bountiful nature, beneficent in will and words: he set himself to civilize the Egyptians, taught them to till the fields and cultivate the vine, gave them law and religion, and instructed them in various useful arts. Unfortunately, he had a wicked brother, called Set or Sutekh, who hated him for his goodness, and resolved to compass his death. This he effected after a while, and, having placed the body in a coffin, he threw it into the Nile, whence it floated down to the sea. Isis, the sister and widow of Osiris, together with her sister Nephthys, vainly sought for a long time her lord's remains, but at last found them on the Syrian shore at Byblus, where they had been cast up by the waves. She was conveying the corpse for embalmment and interment to Memphis, when Set stole it from her, and cut it up into fourteen pieces, which he concealed in various places. The unhappy queen set forth in a light boat made of the papyrus plant, and searched Egypt from end to end, until she had found all the fragments, and buried them with due honours. She then called on her son, Horus, to avenge his father, and Horus engaged him in a long war, wherein he was at last victorious and took Set prisoner. Isis now relented, and released Set, who be it remembered, was her brother; which so enraged Horus that he tore off her crown, or (according to some) struck off her head, which injury Thoth repaired by giving her a cow's head in place of her own. Horus then renewed the war with his uncle, and finally slew him with a long spear, which he drove into his head." The gods and goddesses of the Osirid legend, Seb, Nut or Netpe, Osiris, Isis, Nephthys, Set, and Horus or Harmachis, were those which most drew towards them the thoughts of the Egyptians, the greater number being favourite objects of worship, while Set was held in general detestation.

It was a peculiar feature of the Egyptian religion, that it contained distinctively evil and malignant gods. Set was not, originally, such a deity; but he became such in course of time, and was to the later Egyptians the very principle of evil--Evil personified. Another evil deity was Taour or Taourt, who is represented as a hippopotamus standing on its hind-legs, with the skin and tail of a crocodile dependent down its back, and a knife or a pair of shears in one hand. Bes seems also to have been a divinity of the same class. He was represented as a hideous dwarf, with large outstanding ears, bald, or with a plume of feathers on his head, and with a lion-skin down his back, often carrying in his two hands two knives. Even more terrible than Bes was Apep, the great serpent, with its huge and many folds, who helped Set against Osiris, and was the adversary and accuser of souls. Savak, a god with the head of a crocodile, seems also to have belonged to the class of malignant beings, though he was a favourite deity with some of the Ramesside kings, and a special object of worship in the Fayoum.

The complex polytheism of the monuments and the literature was not, however, the practical religion of many Egyptians. Local cults held possession of most of the nomes, and the ordinary Egyptian, instead of dissipating his religious affections by distributing them among the thousand divinities of the Pantheon, concentrated them on those of his nome. If he was a Memphite, he worshipped Phthah Sekhet, and Tum; if a Theban, Ammon-Ra, Maut, Khons, and Neith; if a Heliopolite, Tum, Nebhebt and Horus; if a Elephantinite, Kneph, Sati, Anuka, and Hak; and so on. The Egyptian Pantheon was a gradual accretion, the result of amalgamating the various local cults; but these continued predominant in their several localities; and practically the only deities that obtained anything like a general recognition were Osiris, Isis, Horus, and the Nile-god, Hapi.

Besides the common popular religion, the belief of the masses, there was another which prevailed among the priests and among the educated. The primary doctrine of this esoteric religion was the real essential unity of the Divine Nature. The sacred texts, known only to the priests and to the initiated, taught that there was a single Being, "the sole producer of all things both in heaven and earth, himself not produced of any," "the only true living God, self-originated," "who exists from the beginning," "who has made all things, but has not himself been made." This Being seems never to have been represented by any material, even symbolical, form. It is thought that he had no name, or, if he had, that it must have been unlawful to pronounce or write it. He was a pure spirit, perfect in every respect--all-wise, almighty, supremely good. It is of him that the Egyptian poets use such expressions as the following: "He is not graven in marble; he is not beheld; his abode is not known; no shrine is found with painted figures of him; there is no building that can contain him;" and, again: "Unknown is his name in heaven; he doth not manifest his forms; vain are all representations;" and yet again: "His commencement is from the beginning; he is the God who has existed from old time; there is no God without him; no mother bore him; no father hath begotten him; he is a god-goddess, created from himself; all gods came into existence when he began."

The other gods, the gods of the popular mythology were understood in the esoteric religion to be either personified attributes of the Deity, or parts of the nature which he had created, considered as informed and inspired by him. Num or Kneph represented the creative mind, Phthah the creative hand, or act of creating; Maut represented matter, Ra the sun, Khons the moon, Seb the earth, Khem the generative power in nature, Nut the upper hemisphere of the heavens, Athor the lower world or under hemisphere; Thoth personified the Divine Wisdom, Ammon perhaps the Divine mysteriousness or incomprehensibility, Osiris the Divine Goodness. It is difficult in many cases to fix on the exact quality, act, or part of nature intended; but the principle admits of no doubt. No educated Egyptian conceived of the popular gods as really separate and distinct beings. All knew that there was but One God, and understood that, when worship was offered to Khem, or Kneph, or Maut, or Thoth, or Ammon, the One God was worshipped under some one of his forms or in some one of his aspects. He was every god, and thus all the gods' names were interchangeable, and in one and the same hymn we may find a god, say Ammon, addressed also as Ra and Khem and Turn and Horus and Khepra; or Hapi, the Nile-god, invoked as Ammon and Phthah; or Osiris as Ra and Thoth; or, in fact, any god invoked as almost any other. If there be a limit, it is in respect of the evil deities, whose names are not given to the good ones.

Common to all Egyptians seems to have been a belief, if not, strictly speaking, in the immortality of the soul, yet, at any rate, in a life after death, and a judgment of every man according to the deeds which he had done in the body while upon earth. It was universally received, that, immediately after death, the soul descended into the Lower World, and was conducted to the "Hall of Truth," where it was judged in the presence of Osiris and of the forty-two assessors, the "Lords of Truth" and judges of the dead. Anubis, "the director of the weight," brought forth a pair of scales, and, placing in one scale a figure or emblem of Truth, set in the other a vase containing the good actions of the deceased; Thoth standing by the while, with a tablet in his hand, whereon to record the result. According to the side on which the balance inclined, Osiris, the president, delivered sentence. If the good deeds preponderated, the blessed soul was allowed to enter the "boat of the Sun," and was led by good spirits to Aahlu (Elysium), to the "pools of peace" and the dwelling-place of Osiris. If, on the contrary, the good deeds were insufficient, if the ordeal was not passed, then the unhappy soul was sentenced, according to its deserts, to begin a round of transmigrations into the bodies of more or less unclean animals, the number, nature, and duration of the transmigrations depending on the degree of the deceased's demerits, and the consequent length and severity of the punishment which he deserved or the purification which he needed. Ultimately, if after many trials purity was not attained, then the wicked and incurable soul underwent a final sentence at the hands of Osiris, Judge of the Dead, and being condemned to annihilation, was destroyed upon the steps of heaven by Shu, the Lord of Light. The good soul, having first been completely cleansed of its impurities by passing through the basin of purgatorial fire guarded by the four ape-faced genii, was made the companion of Osiris for a period of three thousand years; after which it returned from Amenti, re-entered its former body, and lived once more a human life upon the earth. The process was repeated till a mystic number of years had gone by, when, finally, the blessed attained the crowning joy of union with God, being absorbed into the Divine Essence, from which they had emanated, and thus attaining the true end and full perfection of their being.

Such a belief as this, if earnest and thorough, should be productive of a high standard of moral action; and undoubtedly the Egyptians had a code of morality that will compare favourably with that of most ancient nations. It has been said to have contained "three cardinal requirements--love of God, love of virtue, and love of man." The hymns sufficiently indicate the first; the second may be allowed, if by "virtue" we understand justice and truth; the third is testified by the constant claim of men, in their epitaphs, to have been benefactors of their species. "I was not an idler," says one; "I was no listener to the counsels of sloth; my name was not heard in the place of reproof ... all men respected me; I gave water to the thirsty; I set the wanderer on his path; I took away the oppressor, and put a stop to violence." "I myself was just and true," writes another: "without malice, having put God in my heart, and being quick to discern His will. I have done good upon earth; I have harboured no prejudice; I have not been wicked; I have not approved of any offence or iniquity; I have taken pleasure in speaking the truth.... Pure is my soul; while living I bore no malice. There are no errors attributable to me; no sins of mine are before the judges.... The men of the future, while they live, will be charmed by my remarkable merits." And another: "I have not oppressed any widow; no prisoner languished in my days; no one died of hunger. When there were years of famine, I had my fields ploughed. I gave food to the inhabitants, so that there was no hungry person. I gave the widow an equal portion with the married; I did not prefer the rich to the poor."

The moral standard thus set up, though satisfactory, so far as it went, was in many respects deficient. It did not comprise humility; it scarcely seems to have comprised purity. The religious sculptures of the Egyptians were grossly indecent; their religious festivals were kept in an indecent way; phallic orgies were a part of them, and phallic orgies of a gross kind. The Egyptians tolerated incest, and could defend it by the example of the gods. Osiris had married his sister; Khem was "the Bull of his mother". The Egyptian novelettes are full of indecency and immorality, and Egyptian travellers describe their amours very much in the spirit of Ferdinand, Count Fathom; moreover, the complacency with which each Egyptian declares himself on his tomb to have possessed every virtue, and to have been free from all vices, is most remarkable. "I was a good man before the king; I saved the population in the dire calamity which befell all the land; I shielded the weak against the strong; I did all good things when the time came to do them; I was pious towards my father, and did the will of my mother; I was kind-hearted towards my brethren ... I made a good sarcophagus for him who had no coffin. When the dire calamity befell the land, I made the children to live, I established the houses, I did for them all such good things as a father does for his sons."

And, notwithstanding all this braggadocio, performance seems to have lagged sadly behind profession. Kings boast of slaying their unresisting prisoners with their own hand, and represent themselves in the act of doing so. They come back from battle with the gory heads of their slain enemies hanging from their chariots. Licentiousness prevailed in the palace, and members of the royal harem intrigued with those who sought the life of the king. A belief in magic was general, and men endeavoured to destroy or injure those whom they hated by wasting their waxen effigies at a slow fire to the accompaniment of incantations. Thieves were numerous, and did not scruple even to violate the sanctity of the tomb in order to obtain a satisfactory booty. A famous "thieves' society," formed for the purpose of opening and plundering the royal tombs, contained among its members persons of the sacerdotal order.

Social ranks in Egypt were divided somewhat sharply. There was a large class of nobles, who were mostly great landed proprietors living on their estates, and having under them a vast body of dependents, servants, labourers, artizans &c. There was also a numerous official class, partly employed at the court, partly holding government posts throughout the country, which regarded itself as highly dignified, and looked down de haut en has on "the people." Commands in the army seem to have been among the prizes which from time to time fell to the lot of such persons. Further, there was a literary class, which was eminently respectable, and which viewed with contempt those who were engaged in trade or handicrafts.

Below these three classes, and removed from them by a long interval, was the mass of the population--"the multitude" as the Egyptians called them. These persons were engaged in manual labour of different kinds. The greater number were employed on the farms of the nobles, in the cultivation of the soil or in the rearing of cattle. A portion were boatmen, fishermen, or fowlers. Others pursued the various known handicrafts. They were weavers, workers in metal, stone-cutters, masons, potters, carpenters, upholsterers, tailors, shoe-makers, glass-blowers, boat-builders, wig-makers, and embalmers. There were also among them painters and sculptors. But all these employments "stank" in the nostrils of the upper classes, and were regarded as unworthy of any one who wished to be thought respectable.

Still, the line of demarcation, decided as it was, might be crossed. It is an entire mistake to suppose that caste existed in Egypt. Men frequently bred up their sons to their own trade or profession, as they do in all countries, but they were not obliged to do so--there was absolutely no compulsion in the matter. The "public-schools" of Egypt were open to all comers, and the son of the artizan sat on the same bench with the son of the noble, enjoyed the same education, and had an equal opportunity of distinguishing himself. If he showed sufficient promise, he was recommended to adopt the literary life; and the literary life was the sure passport to State employment. State employment once entered upon, merit secured advancement; and thus there was, in fact, no obstacle to prevent the son of a labouring man from rising to the very highest positions in the administration of the empire. Successful ministers were usually rewarded by large grants of land from the royal domain; and it follows that a clever youth of the labouring class might by good conduct and ability make his way even into the ranks of the landed aristocracy.

On the other hand, practically, the condition of the labouring class was, generally speaking, a hard and sad one. The kings were entitled to employ as many of their subjects as they pleased in forced labours, and monarchs often sacrificed to their inordinate vanity the lives and happiness of thousands. Private employers of labour were frequently cruel and exacting; their overseers used the stick, and it was not easy for those who suffered to obtain any redress. Moreover, taxation was heavy, and inability to satisfy the collector subjected the defaulter to the bastinado. Those who have studied the antiquities of Egypt with most care, tell us that there was not much to choose between the condition of the ancient labourers and that of the unhappy fellahin[3] of the present day.


  1. Nefer-hotep, a deceased king.
  2. Brugsch, "Histoire d'Egypte," p. 15.
  3. A fellah is a peasant, one of the labouring class, just above the slave.