The Ethics and Morality of the Ancient Egyptians

The Ethics and Morality
of the Ancient Egyptians

by Jimmy Dunn writing as John Warren

Ma'at, kneeling and with wings spread. The goddess personifying truth, order and cosmic balance

Ma'at, kneeling and with wings spread. The goddess personifying truth, order and cosmic balance

Morality and Ethics are always interesting historical topics. To our modern minds, what is basically ethical and moral sometimes seems relatively clear, such as not cheating or stealing, working hard to earn a living, etc., but even today in some societies, that is not always so obvious. Yet most ancient societies certainly had standards of conduct in one form or another.

In ancient Egypt, in order to understand morality and ethics, one must have a basic knowledge of the term, ma'at. Ma'at was the ethical conceptions of "truth", "order" and "cosmic balance". These principals were also personified in a goddess named Ma'at. This goddess represented the divine harmony and balance of the universe, which was thought to affect every aspect of the ancient land of Egypt. Particularly in the most ancient of times, it should be noted that the people of Egypt had an obligation to uphold ma'at through obedience to the king, which doubtless added in the formation of the early state.

The goddess Ma'at spreads her protective wings in the tomb of Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens on the West Bank at ancient Thebes

In ancient Egypt, there was probably never a theoretical framework as such that dealt with these issues, but the concept of what the Egyptians considered correct moral conduct can be deduced from various written sources, particularly autobiographies and texts that we now refer to as wisdom literature. We must be aware that such texts, and especially those intended for posterity, do not always present us with what we would consider as objective truth. They were frequently written to provide their gods with a resume of sorts, setting out the good and fine deeds of the writer, often in tombs, as judgment day approached. However, they do tell us what the ideal was perceived to be, even if this ideal was not always achieved.

Autobiographies provide us with our earliest source for ethical values. They mostly date from the 5th Dynasty onward, and appear to be written for the tomb owner's descendents. For example, an official by the name of Nefer-seshem-re tells us that:

I have left my city, I have come down from my province,
having done what is right (ma'at) for its lord, having satisfied him with that which he loves,
I spoke ma'at and I did ma'at, I spoke well and I reported well....
I rescued the weak from the hand of one stronger than he when I was able;
I gave bread to the hungry, clothing [to the naked], a landing for the boatless.
I buried him who had no son,
I made a boat for him who had no boat,
I respected my father, I pleased my mother,
I nurtured their children.

Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead deals with the judgment before the god of the underworld, Osiris. It is very useful to our understanding of what was and what was not acceptable behavior. The text includes two declarations of innocence in which the deceased denies having committed various crimes. These include some very generalized statements, such as "I have done no injustice to people, nor have I maltreated an animal" or "I have done no wrong (isfet)", but it also records some very specific faults:

  • Crimes of a cultic nature: blasphemy, stealing from temple offerings or offerings to the dead, defiling the purity of a sacred place
  • Crimes of an economic nature: tampering with the grain measure, the boundaries of fields, or the plummet of the balance
  • Criminal acts: theft and murder
  • Exploitation of the weak and causing injury: depriving orphans of their property, causing pain or grief, doing injury, causing hunger
  • Moral and social failings: lying, committing adultery, ignoring the truth, slandering servants before their master, being aggressive, eavesdropping, losing one's temper, speaking without thinking.

It has been said that the modern Christian Bible can be summed up in two sentences. Love God. Love your neighbor. Clearly these standards are not new to that text, as most Egyptians loved their gods, and the ancient Egyptian obviously believed that looking out for his neighbors was a high point in his life. Other early texts, contemporary to that of Nefer-seshem-re include denials of misconduct. We find lines such as "Never did I take the property of any person"; "Never did I say a bad thing about anyone to the king (or) to a potentate because I desired that I might be honored before the god"; and "Never did I do anything evil against any person", all of which are recognizable ethical standards to most of the modern world. The ideals expressed in such biographies, including justice, honesty, fairness, mercy, kindness and generosity, reflect the central concept of ma'at, the cosmic and social order of the universe as established by the creator god.

Ramesses VI offers an image of Ma'at to Amun-Re in his tomb at Thebes

The king played a pivotal role in the matter of ethics and morality. One must remember the pharaoh was considered an earthly god, and it was he who ultimately interpreted the concept of ma'at for the living. When Nefer-seshem-re records that "having done ma'at for its lord, having satisfied him with that which he desires", he is referring to the king who determines and upholds ma'at. However, one's fate after death depended on how one measured up to ma'at, the standard set by the living king. The traditional funerary prayer begins, "An offering which the king grants". Though the concept of ma'at underwent some modifications over time, the same ethical and moral values expressed in the Old Kingdom texts continue to appear in later autobiographies and other texts.

However, wisdom literature from the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom seems to indicate a weakening of the king's influence over ma'at, linking it more directly with the creator god. For example, in the Story of the Eloquent Peasant, which dates to about the 9th or 10th Dynasty, we find the line, "Do ma'at for the lord of ma'at" but here a god is inferred rather than the king. Further along in this text, the issue is clarified when the peasant claims that his words expounding on ma'at "have issued from the mouth of Re himself". In another texts, known to us as the Prophecy of Neferti, we are told that the sun god Re upholds ma'at, and that if disorder prevails, it is because this god has not made his presence felt.

This shift in emphasis from king to god can be linked with the failure of the rulers at the end of the Old Kingdom resulting in the First Intermediate Period. The king continued to have a central role in maintaining ma'at through the end of the pharaonic history. However, he did so as the god's representative on earth. Nevertheless, the king was fallible, and when dishevel did occur, the king was often held responsible for his failure to perform this duty.

Hence, ethics and morals did not only affect one's own destiny in the afterlife, but the country as a whole. And while one was responsible for his or her own conduct, it would seem that when upheaval in general occurred, it indicated that the gods were perhaps absent, or the king was not fulfilling his duty. In the Middle Kingdom, after the transition from the disorder of the First Intermediate Period, we can see in the wisdom text an attempt to reestablish the rule of ma'at. It includes a type of literature known as "Complaints", which lament a state of affairs in which the social hierarchy has been affected. For example, in the Admonitions of Ipuwer, we read that, "Behold, he who had nothing is now a possessor of riches... Behold, noble ladies [now travel] on rafts". This social disorder was thought to be a result of the breakdown of ma'at. Hence, this document also notes that "Behold, offices are broken into, their records stolen...; behold, the laws of the chamber are cast out, men walk on them in the streets, beggars tear them up in the lanes;...behold, the great council chamber is invaded.

Though there are several terms that conceptualize the opposite value of ma'at, the most common is "isfet", which is usually translated as "sin" or "wrong". The term appears as early as the Pyramid Texts. Kha-kheper-re-soneb laments that "Ma'at has been cast out while isfet is in the counsel chamber", and after (or at the end of) the Amarna Period, Tutankhamun is said to have "drove out isfet throughout the two lands, M'at being established in her place". In chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead, the declaration of innocence begins, "Oh wide of movements, who comes from Heliopolis, I have not done isfet".

However, the basic translation of ma'at is "truth", and so another common antonym is grg, meaning "lie". Thus, in chapter 126 of the Book of the Dead, the apes who sit at the prow of Re's boat are "ones who live from ma'at, who digest ma'at, whose ears are free of lies (grg), whose abomination is isfet; [the deceased asks] drive out my evil (dwt), remove my wrong (isfet)." It is important to note that, while isfet is used as an all-embracing term for "wrong", in ancient Egypt there was no concept of "general sin", a barrier between humankind and the gods which is the result of the general human condition. Though there might be an all powerful god of ancient Egypt, as Amun seems to have been considered during the New Kingdom, "sin" and "wrong" were not limited to humans.

The ancient Egyptians did believe that it was at least theoretically possible to lead a life free of isfet. Clearly, good Egyptians attempted to follow the way of ma'at, for in doing so they would prosper and society would function smoothly, while those who transgressed were doomed to automatic failure. They found, in the teachings and instructions in wisdom literature, what behavior was compatible with ma'at, but it was also the responsibility of the king to uphold ma'at and subdue isfet. Even so, there were times when the wicked would indeed prosper by their actions, and so the ultimate evaluation of a person took place not in his life but in the hereafter, where the wicked would finally answer for their deeds.

The ancient Egyptian soul being weighed in the afterlife

Interestingly, chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead is intended to equip the deceased to face the final judgment and even appeal to the use of powerful magic in his or her hour of greatest need. The fact that the deceased at least attempted to use magic to overcome their shortcomings does not diminish the seriousness with which they viewed their moral and ethical behavior, nor should one automatically draw the conclusion that they were ready to use unethical means to reach their desired goal. More probable is that they viewed life much the same as ourselves, knowing in their own hearts that their lives, no matter how well they attempted to live, were not sin free.

During the New Kingdom, it becomes more obvious from text that mankind could not perfectly live up to the standards they espoused. For example, in the Instructions of Merikare, there is indirect evidence for abuse of office among the royal officials who should uphold ma'at. This texts provides,

"Make great your officials, that they keep your laws; he whose house is rich is not partial and a propertied man is one who does not lack. A poor man does not speak justly, one who says 'Would that I had!' is not upright. He is partial towards him whom he likes, favoring him who rewards (bribes) him".

The fact that Egyptians in general and those officials specifically who were responsible for maintaining ma'at were fallible is better attested from surviving letters and documents from the workers village at Deir el-Medina on the West Bank at Thebes (modern Luxor). From these texts, we find evidence at the end of the 18th Dynasty of a breakdown in standards as well as the spread of corruption. In fact, during the 19th Dynasty, one papyrus contains a long list of criminal charges against a chief of workmen at Deir el-Medina who is accused, among other charges, of having obtained his position by bribing the vizier. The latter vizier who heard these charges apparently himself was guilty of wrongdoing, for he was dismissed by the king. In a papyrus dating to the mid 20th Dynasty, large-scale embezzlement and misconduct were evidenced against the personnel of the temple of Khnum at Elephantine, including one unnamed priest. None of this should surprise us. That people in general are not sinless, and that greed and corruption of power have always existed is not new to us in our modern world.

Judgment of the deceased in the Hall of Justice from the 19th Dynasty Book of the Dead of Hunefer

However, there was a reason in the New Kingdom that traditional Egyptian ethics and morality broke down. Ma'at came to no longer be the mediating principle between god and humankind. Instead of a direct correlation existing between success or failure and adherence to or transgression against ma'at, in the later New Kingdom we find that success or failure depended solely upon the will of god. According to the Instructions of Amenompe:

"Indeed you do not know the plans of god....Man is clay and straw, the god is his builder. He tears down, he builds up daily; he makes a thousand poor by his will, he makes a thousand men into chiefs".

Thus, mankind appears to be relieved of his responsibilities through predestination. However, this is not entirely true during the New Kingdom, for Amenompe goes on to allow that "Ma'at is a great gift of god, he hives it to whom he pleases". Now, it seems that ma'at was still present, but subject to the will of the god.

The social breakdown that occurred during the New Kingdom was perhaps more due to a confusion that existed outside of the traditions. Wisdom literature and autobiographies continue to espouse the same ethical standards as the earlier sources and seem to be just as interested in social cohesion, but the results of acting against these principals were less clear. Now, success in life was no longer absolutely and directly subject to ma'at, but to the will of god. Even in the afterlife, ma'at seems to have become secondary to the gods, which might explain why the will of God seems to be elevated above that of ma'at. People were not perfect, and could not perfectly live up to ma'at. Hence, their fate rested in the hands their god in the afterlife. Amenomope says that, "Happy is he who reaches the hereafter when he is safe in the hand of god". He goes on to say that it is imperative that one be "safe in the hand of god (for) man is ever in his failure (and) there is no perfection before the god".

See also:






Reference Number

Ancient Gods Speak, The: A Guide to Egyptian Religion

Redford, Donald B.


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-515401-0

Atlas of Ancient Egypt

Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir


Les Livres De France

None Stated

Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, The

Wilkinson, Richard H.


Thames & Hudson, LTD

ISBN 0-500-05120-8

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul


Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

Life of the Ancient Egyptians

Strouhal, Eugen


University of Oklahoma Press

ISBN 0-8061-2475-x

Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The

Redford, Donald B. (Editor)


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 581 4

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2