The Ancient Egyptian Concept of Fate

The Ancient Egyptian Concept of Fate

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Jefferson Monet

The Seven Hathors from Dendera

The Seven Hathors from Dendera

Today, many Egyptians continue to believe, as they have for some 4,500 years, that fate plays a big part in their lives. While one might hear in the west concerning a possible promotion that "I hope I get it, I sure worked hard for this promotion", one is more likely to hear in Egypt, simply "inshallah", meaning "if God is willing". Of course, fate is actually very interwoven with religion, and the more religious a people are, the more likely that they are to believe that their destiny is not in their own hands. Even many modern Christians believe in preordination, that the thread of their life is already laid out by God, and hence their fate is sealed.

Hence, in the Story of Sinuhe, the protagonist describes his flight to western Asia as a "fateful flight". However, earlier in the story, he refers to the journey by saying that, "I do not know what brought me to this country; it is as if planned by god". Clearly the notion of a divine plan and that which has been fated are synonymous.

The ancient Egyptians believed that, from the beginning of life, an individual was surrounded or assisted by powers that affected his destiny in many ways. Demons of fate were present at his side throughout his life, and accompanied him after death. However, in any culture, fate is a much more complex issue then one might at first imagine, and there were many facets of contradiction in how the ancient Egyptians viewed their fate.

The ancient Egyptian term for fate was derived from a word meaning "ordain" or "fix" and referred generally to the action of a deity. The word is first attested to as early as the end of the Old Kingdom and just as the Arabic word inshallah is frequently uttered from the mouths of modern Egyptians, so too does the term for fate appear regularly in the ancient texts. This is particularly true of Wisdom Literature.

Early on, we find fate and death closely associated in these texts. From the 6th Dynasty Instruction of Ptahhotep we find references to inevitable death, when it is stated that "His time does not fail to come; one does not escape what is fated", and again in the Admonitions of Ipuwer we are told that "Death is a kindly fate". In fact, in Hieratic script, the word for fate was sometimes written with the sign for death. Egyptians also thought that foreigners, including their enemies, were likewise effected by fate. Hence, concerning the Nubian enemy Aata, Ahmose son of Abana reports that, "His fate brought on his doom. The Gods of Upper Egypt grasped him."

Re -Horakhty right

Fate apparently was thought to effect ones time as well as manner of death, which was ordained at birth. Thus, in the Story of Two Brothers, the king of the gods, Re-Horakhty, instructs Khnum to create a wife for Bata. However, the seven Hathors are present and together they proclaim that, "She will die by the knife". These seven Hathors, sometimes referred to as the "old ladies", played a role akin to that of European witches. They were supposed to state, at the moment of birth, all the events (usually bad ones) that one would have to face during life.

Fate determined life and its outcome, which becomes apparent in the story of the birth of the three children of Ruddedet in the Westcar Papyrus. In this story, Re sends Isis, Nephthys, Meshkhenet (Meskhenet), Heket (Heqet) and Khnum to assist in the birth of the triplets. He tells them to, "Please go, deliver Ruddedet of the three children who are in her womb, who will assume this beneficent office in this whole land. They will build your temples. They will supply your altars. They will furnish your libations. They will make your offerings abundant." Hence, the three children are preordained to their fate of becoming kings, building temples and providing for their offerings. It was actually Meshkhenet who proclaims of each child that "A King who will assume the kingship in this whole land". This text demonstrates that the other deities are acting on Re's behalf, and from this we find that fate was instrumental in the elevation of an individual to kingship.

A relief of the cobra goddess Renenutet

Another aspect of fate was material possessions, which was associated with the goddess Renenet. She was responsible for fertility and the harvest and hence with endowing individuals with material possessions.

Therefore, we may say that there were three forces, or deities associated with one's fate, at least by the New Kingdom. The seven Hathors were responsible for one's lifespan and manner of death (as well as other bad events of one's life). Meshkhenet (Meskhenet decided one's status or work, while Renenet (Renenutet) ordained an individual's material fortune or misfortune. However, it should be noted that Renenet and her companion Shai (Shay), ("Destiny") are also attributed with providing life spans, and which according to some scholars, could be lengthened or shortened by good or bad deeds. By now, the word for "fate" could be written with a deity determinative, as if the word were personified or deified itself, perhaps because of its association with particular deities.

One important question remains, however. Could fate be changed? In the Report of Wenamun, the prince of Byblos refers to his sending Egyptian envoys back to Egypt with timber "so as to beg for me from Amun fifty years of life over and above my allotted fate". Apparently, this might indicate that, while fate was ordained, they at least hoped that Amun could or would make alterations. We also know that magic spells were invoked to close the mouths of the seven Hathors and prevent them from foretelling the future.

An artist representation of Meshkhenet

One of the most notable instances of altering one's fate comes from the Story of the Doomed Prince. In this story, the Hathors announce that "He will die through the crocodile, or the snake, or the dog." Having three possible manners of death are unusual, and there is notably no mention of when death will occur. At first, the prince spends his life worrying which of these entities will bring his demise. Yet he asks his father for a pet puppy, which is reluctantly granted to him. Then, after years of living reclusively in the hope of avoiding his fate, the prince announces, "To what purpose is my sitting here? I am committed to Fate. Let me go, that I may act according to my heart, until the god does what is in his heart.".

Afterwards, he sets off in his chariot, along with his dog, to Naharin. There he marries a princess, to whom he discloses his three possible manners of death. His wife urges him to kill his pet dog but the prince refuses. We are told that a crocodile has followed him from Egypt to Naharin, but it is prevented from killing the prince by a protective demon or water spirit. At a different time, a snake enters the prince's bedroom but is killed by the princess. She then announces, "Look, your god has given one of your fates into your hand. He will protect [you from the others also]". Afterwards, the prince makes an offering to Pre, who has delivered him from this fate.

While walking with the dog one day, the animal tells him that it is he who will determine the princes' fate. The prince tries to escape the dog by running down to the lake, where the crocodile that was earlier prevented from killing the prince snatches up the dog and carries it off "to where the demon was". The crocodile returns to inform the prince that it is he who will determine the princes' fate, but offers to spare him if he will help kill the crocodile's enemy, the water sprit. Regrettably, the end of the papyrus is missing, but scholars generally believe that the prince manages to escape his fate and lives happily ever after. Basically, the message of this story is that one could, by divine intervention, alter their fate with a longer lifespan and perhaps another means of death.

There is little question that the ancient Egyptians did not attempt to cheat their fate. For example, the Egyptians had a calendar of lucky and unlucky days. The scholar F. T. Miosi believes that "There is no convincing grounds for positing an 'astrological' basis to the Egyptian concept of fate, destiny or whatever other term one wishes to use". Yet, why would the ancient Egyptians create such a calendar if they felt that they had no control over fate? Though James K. Hoffmeier advises us that "There is certainly nothing in the literature to suggest that amulets and other forms of magic had a role in altering one's fate", then why did this protective jewelry exist? It is even possible that prophetic name formulas such as "deity X says he/she will live" may have been given to children born on an unlucky day, in fact, to specifically alter the child's fate.

In the final analysis, people of course were not informed of their divine fate, and the stories we have from ancient text are those told mostly after an event occurred in a person's life, rather than as a prediction. One might know if he or she were born on an unlucky day, or were subject to other bad omens and could take steps meant to attempt to mitigate such problems. However, the ancient Egyptians apparently believed that, while fate might be altered, it was a rare occurrence to be granted such divine intervention. One reason for this is, of course, because man did not know his fate, and as the Story of Sinuhe suggests, "Is there a god who does not know what he has ordained, a man who knows how it will be?".






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