Having It Both Ways

So I’m slowly working my way through Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice (edited by Byron Shafer) in odd moments in between being covered in small children. Specifically, I’ve been working on John Baines’s contribution, “Society, Morality, and Religious Practice”, which is primarily focused on one of my primary realms of interest: ordinary-people religion.

Baines notes that there is something of a division in tomb inscriptions between the “career” sections, in which lists of titles, ranks, and the like place an elite tomb-owner in relationship with the king, and the “biography” sections, in which that tomb-owner describes their moral relationship with the less fortunate.

There was therefore tension in Egypt between the inequality of society, which the elite took to be natural while claiming to have mitigated its effects in individual cases, and the equally natural feeling that everyone should have some well-being. The king conformed with this morality in many respects and on occasion proclaimed his concern for the everyday social order. On another level, however, he stood outside human society as the protagonist of the cosmic order. This separate status enabled him to distance himself from normal human morality. Thus the grosser royal or state exploitations involved in building the pyramids and similar undertakings might have been justified peremptorily, by reference to the cosmic needs of the king or of society.

and then

Unlike the title strings, the “biography” hardly relates to the king. It is the part of elite display in which people claimed moral stature. Although members of the elite ascribed success in their careers to royal favor (and their own abilities), they presented their moral actions toward subordinates as separate from the royal sphere. This presentations suggests that they aspired to moral authority in a community that included all but the king.

So there is a tension here. Those lists of titles, all that career stuff, including the reputation gold of temple association and work, those are all affiliated with the king. (Which of course makes a lot of sense, as theologically speaking the king is the only one authorised to perform these transactions. All others are deputies.) It is good to be seen to serve the gods, and so on.

But the moral actions, the care and looking after the well-being of others, are framed as non-royal to Baines’s analysis, divorced from career and prestige and cult practice. This is a more intimate morality, much more akin to the personal judgement in the Hall of Maati, one more tied to a life lived, rather than accomplishments listed.

Why this separation, though? If all of this is bound by ma’at, surely it is seamless and can be traced through the systems one way or another.

But I think one becomes entangled with power systems and their maintenance when one starts dealing with the royal sphere – here distinguished from the cosmic one. I am not an adherent to the “power corrupts” aphorism by a long shot, but I again quote Baines:

The fictitious royal authors of these instructions expound general moral principles, which they shared with the elite, of caring for people and promoting the public good, but they also emphasize the social and moral isolation of their role, into which they thus incorporated some of the cosmic implications of cult and mythology. The king was educated with members of the elite, whom he should not later kill, perhaps in recognition of this solidarity (Merikare, ll. 50-51; compare 139-40). But men who acquired large factions or became as wealthy as the king should be killed or driven into exile (ll. 23-27).

Emphasis mine.

Now, of course this leads me to Merikare, a text of which I appear to have three translations, only one of which is I think as clear-cut as Baines suggests.

Faulkner’s rendition of the critical lines 23-27 in The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, and Poetry (ed. Simpson, 1973) goes:

A talker is a mischief-maker; suppress him, kill [him], erase his name, [destroy] his kinsfolk, suppress the rememberance of him and his partisans who love him.
A violent man is a confuser of the citizens who always makes partisans of the younger generation. If you now find someone belonging to the citizenry […] and his deeds have passed beyond you, accuse him before the entourage and suppress [him], for he is a rebel indeed; a talker is a mischief-maker.

A footnote clarifies “his deeds have passed beyond you” to mean “have gotten beyond your control”. Here, the passage appears to refer to a rabble-rouser, potentially a treasonous one.

Miriam Lichtheim’s rendition in Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume I: The Old and Middle Kingdoms (1975, but on a 1973 copyright) appears to start at line 25 and is:

The hothead is an inciter of citizens,
He creates factions among the young;
If you find that citizens adhere to him,
Denounce him before the councillors,
Suppress [him], he is a rebel,
The talker is a troublemaker for the city.

“Hothead” here (again referring to a footnote) might more literally be rendered inflamed-heart, hnn-ib. (This is the h with the line under it, not the plain or the one with the dot, by the way.)

The 2001 Ancient Egyptian Literature: An Anthology, John L. Foster’s translation, has the same rough sequence:

If you find a man who is without family–
a man the citizens do not know–
Whose followers are many in the crowd,
who serve him for his wealth,……..
Who sidles into hearts, struts before his underlings
to sow disorder–that man is a traitor!
Destroy him! Kill his children!
Obliterate his name! Wipe out his associates!
Erase the memory of him and those who serve him!
Such an agitator will confuse the citizens–
and he can turn his followers into troops.

Much more like what Baines is suggesting (though the Baines work was completed by 1991 and thus cannot be referencing this particular translation), though, again, it is not merely wealth and power that lead to the death and destruction result, but applying those in a manner deleterious to the power of the crown.

At the same time, the fact that dealings for treasonous behaviour, however defined, encompass the relatives of the person taking the action leaves me profoundly uncomfortable. (Hell, I have profound distaste for the way the families of political candidates are considered actual relevant points in the power struggles of my modern nation, and hardly anyone proposes such violence directed towards them.) Bloodfeud, perhaps, is prevented that way, by destroying anyone who might hold a grudge – but I come back to the concept of ma’at as connective justice, and wonder at the holes that might be ripped through communities of ordinary people by such things.

You know, the ordinary people referenced in the biographies of the elite, the widows and divorcees looked after, the boatless emboatened, the naked clothed and hungry fed. Those people. Merikare’s instruction has a thought on this – that when an enemy is common-born, one should show leniency, so that the transmutation of fear of horrible consequences into joy at reprieve may defang revolution.

Back to Baines:

These instruction texts cannot report fully on royal morality and on the king’s presentation of his role to the elite and the rest of the people. They are, however, suggestive in giving a diverse and complex range of possibilities for royal action. Moral “double standards” would allow the ruler to break “human” rules while remaining largely accountable on human terms. […] It would be inappropriate to look for consistency here. Different conventions applied in different contexts and for different audiences.

He also notes that modern tendencies to pull all sources into the same pot and check them against each other for consistency would not illuminate any ruler well, which is a thing to consider quite strongly.

But still:

In Egypt, official religious practice reinforced the elite’s position in society more or less without qualification, but natural morality highlighted inequality. In addition, natural morality separated elite and people from the king, creating overlapping allegiances that helped to bond groups that otherwise had diverging interests–king and elite, elite and the rest. This ambiguity is emphasized on early elite monuments by the absence of royal, and, especially, divine motifs such as images of gods. The elite give the appearance of having been nearly as much deprived of central religious symbols as their social inferiors.

In this context, “natural morality” is the stuff put forward in biographies and often in wisdom texts – the urge to care for the elderly, the infirm, the deprived, and in general the less fortunate. (As a matter of social pragmatism, the concerns of natural morality have to be incorporated into the functionality of the system, otherwise there is the risk that people sufficiently deprived will decide to establish a new system.)

So here’s where I wind up actually kind of disturbed by this.

The temples were functionally a royal system, not merely as functional arms of the state in many ways, but in the sense that only the king was “officially” doing the rituals, all priests serving were delegates acting in his name. All of the formal religious bits we have are a legacy of the royal-elite system, which (in Baines’s interpretation) was full of the impulse to maintain the elite status of the elites, which includes the royal family.

And the stuff from which we can suss out actual day-to-day livable moralities, from biographies, from wisdom texts, from didactic writings, from the many versions of the Negative Confessions, is cast in a different sphere than the royal one. While the framework of morality was explicitly religious – many of these texts refer to what “the god sees” and what is “beloved of the god”, after all – there is very little reference to formal religion there. (Baines notes Ptahhotep’s instruction as being particularly intimate in the blend of piety into everything including table manners, and in my quick scan of my copy in Lichtheim I saw no reference to priestly work at all.)

So there is a royal-cosmic sphere containing formal ritual which is separated from the concerns of natural morality (and table manners), and there is the spiritually-infused moral mandates of good behaviour, and these are constructed almost as if they were separate buildings? According to Baines at least. Which raises questions of how tightly bound the cosmic is to the … let’s call it the more Machiavellian logic of the levers of power, and how to appropriately separate it from the legacy of those mechanisms and potentially affiliate it with the “natural morality” of ordinary people, out in the plebian world where people’s religious participation was festival-oriented, not cult-oriented.

Not just for the onion-hoers of the world, but for those people who wish to pursue the formal rites, too. The cosmic rites have to connect with the world in which the hungry need food, and there is no longer an apparatus of the state with its granaries and redistributions to do the practical heavy lifting on that front. If that connection is broken, then there is no relationship, no connection, and I am extremely fond of Assman’s description of ma’at as connective justice.


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