From the earliest times the sacred rules of behaviour were based on an intuitive sense of what was agreeable and therefore right, and what was unacceptable and therefore wrong. Anything that occurred consistently and was accepted by the community was passed on from generation to generation until behaviour patterns were automatically adhered to for the simple reason that ‘it was always done that way’; because it was Maat (good or right or just). Maat was an abstract quality developed by usage and made traditional by strong national observance. The first reference to it is in the Memphite Drama where ‘justice was given to him who does what is liked; injustice to him who does what is disliked’. In other words Maat at first implied accepted behaviour within the community. The concept developed, with the creation of a God-king, into the spirit of national guidance, for the Egyptian pharaoh was the head of state and the law. Therefore Maat embraced the state machinery and became ‘truth’ and ‘justice’. Maat gave stability and authority to the state just as it provided discipline and respect in the family.
The Egyptian Old Kingdom sages or ‘wise men’, Imhotep, Kagemni and Ptahhotep, whose instructions and proverbs were quoted for thousands of years after their deaths, provide the earliest formulation to be found in any literature on right conduct. On the question of Maat, Ptahhotep wrote: ‘Great is “Maat”; 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 “Maat” is that it endures, so that a man may say: It is a possession of my father which I have inherited.’
It is from such wholesome wisdoms, addressed from father to son, that we learn most of life in these remote times. It is too common simply to observe the ancient Egyptians’ apparent preoccupation with death; it is quite another thing to know of their social experience and learn of their high ethical values, which centred round the family, manners and correct behaviour. To make a long list of the ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt and consequently label the society as ‘pagan’ is to overlook the heights of their philosophical, social and ethical experience.
The Teachings (Wisdom Literature) in the Egyptian Old Kingdom were ethical but not religious. Religion (Pyramid Texts) was theological and political, but taught no ethics. What was regarded as correct behaviour was taught by rote within the confines of the family household: Kagemni instructed his children to ‘recite it as it is written . . . and it seemed good to them beyond anything in the whole land . . The priests, on the other hand, endeavoured to capture a wide audience to promote national unity and economic control under the regarded as correct behaviour was taught by rote within the confines of the family household: Kagemni instructed his children to ‘recite it as it is written . . . and it seemed good to them beyond anything in the whole land . . The priests, on the other hand, endeavoured to capture a wide audience to promote national unity and economic control under the pharaoh. The ethics of the Instruction literature only appeared in religious texts in the Middle Kingdom (in the form of the ‘Negative Confession’).
Representations of gods were entirely absent from the private tombs of the Old Kingdom. This is not to say that the ancient Egyptians did not believe that ultimately their conduct on earth would be judged by the ‘Great One’. Frequently good deeds were inscribed in tombs. Harkhuf of Elephantine recorded: ‘I gave bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked, I ferried him who had no boat ... I am a worthy and equipped Glorious One ... As for any man who shall enter into (this) tomb as his mortuary possession, I will seize him like a wild fowl; he shall be judged for it by the Great One.’ And the Steward Meni also warned above the doorpost of his tomb: ‘Even him who does anything against it [my tomb]. It is the Egyptian Great God who shall judge [him].’ Two things are clear from these texts: first, that the threat of final judgement before the Great God was a deterrent against unacceptable conduct, and secondly, that a man’s motive for declaring worthy deeds on earth was ‘that it may be well with me in the Great God’s presence’. In other cultures in other lands the distinction between good and bad was not to come for the next 2,100 years.
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