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The Ancient Egyptian Afterlife Was a Bureaucracy Comparable to the DMV

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“Few people have turned the collection of rents and gathering of taxes into subject matter for sacred art.” — Barry J. Kemp, Ancient Egypt, Anatomy of a Civilization

Egyptian Grinding Grain

Servant woman grinding grain, Fifth Dynasty, Egypt
Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme.

If Sumer is like a fire — hot, unmistakeable, elemental, and immediate — then Egypt is like a bolt of lightening — blinding, cool, and remote. The majesty of its monumental architecture and its vivid icons often possess a timeless quality that feel strikingly inhuman. But it only struck me while reading one of the “coffin texts” just how alien Egyptian values were from my own.

The coffin text was a short-lived genre of writings in the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties, inscribed on tombs, offering testimony on behalf of the deceased. They often include prayers, spells, and invocations to aid in judgment before the gods and to ease existence in the afterlife. This particular coffin text was a putative autobiography of one Weni, who served as an administrator in the court of Pepy I. The text is surprising in its prosaic details, as though hagiography best consists of recounting promotions and enumerating the people in one’s support staff. A representative excerpt from this short text:

“His Majesty appointed me as sole companion and overseer of the officials of the palace, and four officials of the palace who were there were dispossessed. I acted so that His Majesty praised me in carrying out bodyguard service, in preparing the royal road, and in carrying out the (royal) stations. I acted to perfection, so that His Majesty praised me because of it more than anything.”

This text, engraved on the man’s coffin, was written for the gods. Presumably, then, these facts were believed to be of interest to those immortals who would decide how to dispose of the man’s souls for eternity.

That’s when I realized that the depraved mind of the Ancient Egyptian conceived of an afterlife more dreadful than the shadow-eternity of the Norseman or Dante’s hell. Entry into heaven itself required submission of the proper form in triplicate, or you were out of luck.

As I uneasily considered this hypothesis other facts fell into place. For example, some royal tombs have been excavated which contain magical statues called “shubti” which could be ensorceled to serve as substitute laborers for their owner in the land of the dead.

What the … ? What kind of eternity is this?

According to Egyptologist Barry Kemp, the pyramids are best viewed not as icons of royalty in the Old Kingdom, but as triumphs of bureaucracy. The laborers conscripted to build the Great Pyramids of Giza were probably coerced not through the lash, but primarily through the distribution of rationed food resources which were controlled by the central bureaucracy.

Work within the bureaucracy itself was considered a blessed occupation. Not only were its scribes and accountants among the few literate members of the society, but their work allowed them to avoid the menial labor that was the lot of the majority of Egyptians. “Be a scribe,” ran a proverb. “It saves you from toil, it protects you from all manner of labour. Your limbs will be sleek, your hands will grow soft.”

Egyptian spiritual writings revolve around the concept of ma’at, variously translated as law, justice, truth, or order. Similar to the me of Sumer, the dharma of the Bhagavad Gita, the Logos of Heraclitus and Luke, or the Tao of Lao Tsu, ma’at represents a cosmic ordering principle of which the high gods and pharaohs are agents. Each culture gives its own unique flavor to this idea. Could it be that in the legacy of the ancient Egyptian we see a cosmogony of cubicles? An afterlife tiled in institutional gray?


Written by Mesocosm

May 18, 2010 at 3:09 am

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