Morality concerns in ancient Egypt

In modern Western thought it is far too easy to slip into thinking that moral thinking originated with Jesus or at best the Ten Commandments. This post draws on the Declaration of Innocence in ‘The Judgement of the Dead’, from the late Old Kingdom to early Middle Kingdom in Egypt – at least 1700 BCE.

The principal concern of the declaration may be summarised as “bringing Maat” (line 12) The passage expands on what “bringing Maat” might mean in practice, revealing a preoccupation with not causing interpersonal harm against one’s fellows in society, as well as avoiding behaviour that might anger the gods.

This can be further distilled into distinct areas of concern. In regards one’s relationship with others, there are base cautions against murder, violence, causing pain and the like. Noticeably absent are actions that we in modern times would place towards the top of such a list – for example, rape. Instead, a great deal of the ‘interpersonal’ type of immorality in Chapter 125 is the stress on other people’s property: “cheating in the fields”, “exacting more than my due”, “holding back water in its season”. Quite a few other interpersonal crimes listed are mercantile in nature – “reducing the measure”, “diminishing the arura” (a land measure), “adding to the weight of the balance”.

Similarly, whilst there are general cautions against doing ill against the gods – “blaspheming a god”, or “stopping a god in his procession”, for example, many others are, as with other people, concerned with the gods’ property rights. Examples are “neglecting the days of meat offerings” and “detaining cattle belonging to the god”.

It is noticeable, coming from a Western culture which has historically placed a large emphasis on sexual immorality, that the Declaration of Innocence contains only one sexual matter: “I have not copulated nor defiled myself”. The Declaration to the Forty-two Gods contains warnings against adultery and “copulating with a boy”; however, the two passages are otherwise devoid of sexual concerns.

The Declaration to the Forty-two Gods contains a range of interpersonal matters that we might regard as trivial misdemeanours – sulking, spying, prattling, winking, haste, boasting and haughtiness, for example.
As with Christianity, it contains several catch-all clauses to ensure that it is virtually impossible to live a totally righteous life – “I have not done any harm”, “I have not caused tears” in the Declaration of Innocence. Or, in the Declaration to the Forty-two Gods, “I have not been false”, “I have not sinned, I have not done wrong”, or “I have not raised my voice”.

It seems that the two passages in ‘The Judgement of the Dead’ reflect a particular time-period in the evolution of morality in ancient Egypt. As well as right actions in people’s dealings with each other, there is quite some emphasis on avoiding behaviour that would upset the gods. In contrast, Lichtheim (1997) in particular concentrates on right action in everyday affairs and has little reference to the religious context of those right actions. The application of ‘The Judgement of the Dead’ is fairly universal – it could apply equally to a high-born or a commoner (Indeed, most of the vows remain objectives of modern-day Western morality). However, Lichtheim and Ockinga place moral injunctions more in the context of the duties of, or to, the king. The inscriptions quoted by Lichtheim reflect the morality of high-born officials. For example, “the royal officials placed saying-the-good at the top of their rightdoing and viewed calumny as its most noxious opposite” [Lichtheim (1997, p. 20]. Ockinga places such observations in the context of the ebb and flow of dynasties, and the developing realisation that the gods, not the king, determined maat; yet, the gods’ application of justice could seemingly be fickle, as the wicked were observed to prosper. [Ockinga, p. 485].

Finally, the concern in ‘The Judgement of the Dead’ is solely the after-life reward/punishment resulting from actions in this life. In Lichtheim’s stele quotes the gods do not really play a role – the people quoted are seemingly not concerned with God’s judgement, but with how posterity will remember them.
Ockinga and Lichtheim contextualise ‘The Judgement of the Dead’ by showing that there were other lines of moral thought in ancient Egypt and that moral thought developed over the eons rather than remaining static. ‘The Judgement of the Dead’ is the midpoint in this process, not the beginning or the end.


Ockinga, B. (2001), ‘Ethics and morality’, in DB Redford (ed.) The encyclopedia of ancient Egypt, vol. 1, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 484-487.

Lichtheim, M. (1997), ‘Knowing good and evil’, Moral values in ancient Egypt, University Press, Fribourg, Switzerland, pp. 19-28.

Lichtheim, M. (1976), ‘Ch. 125: The judgement of the dead‘,  Ancient Egyptian literature: The New Kingdom, University of California Press, Berkeley, pp. 124–127.

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