How the Ancient Egyptians Understood the Role of the Pharaoh

The Egyptian pharaoh was seen as nothing less than the sole intermediary between the gods and his people. With one foot in the human sphere, and one in the divine, he moved in both circles, yet was fully a part of neither. Like an ordinary man, he was born, he lived, and he died; like a god, he exerted a metaphysical effect on the life of his nation, and after death, he was capable of joining the gods in the afterlife, even in the earliest phases of Egyptian history, when the afterlife was not necessarily generally accessible. The pharaoh stood at the heart of what “Egyptian” meant in the ancient world, and even today, we define the flow of Egyptian history by the state of its monarchy.

From the earliest attested phases of Egyptian history, the pharaoh has always been viewed as both a man and a god. The fact that he was depicted both in grander scale – physically dwarfing his subordinates and enemies – and in a variety of forms, such as that of a bull and a falcon, demonstrated the aura of divinity which was attributed to him. At the same time, no one had any illusions about his mortal nature. Indeed, the development of the mortuary cult reinforced the duality of the king. By preparing for his mortal decease, his followers emphasized what was eternal in his nature.

It was because of this dual nature that he was able to serve as the intermediary between gods and men. He could approach the gods, because he was one of them, and ask them for their blessings in the human sphere; he could even compel divine cooperation, at least in theory. Conversely, he could speak to his people with the full authority of the gods, and when the monarchy was healthy, this assertion seems to have been accepted at face value.

It is worth mentioning at this juncture that the existence of a large and powerful priesthood does not undermine the validity of these statements. The priesthood in Egypt was not a divine vocation; it was simply one aspect of the bureaucracy. Scribes often held “secular” and religious offices simultaneously, and important positions in priestly office were key stepping-stones of a scribal career. The essence of such office is the same in both contexts: the delegation of the king’s authority to those capable of reading his commands and passing them down to the next in the chain of command. Scribes were empowered to serve as the pharaoh’s representatives, because the king himself could not be everywhere at once, and this applied to human administration and to divine service equally. Throughout Egyptian history, the official fiction was retained, despite its factual impossibility, that it was the pharaoh himself who made offerings to the gods in all of their temples. This fiction became magical fact by the representations, on the walls of the temples, of the pharaoh performing the rites that, in reality, were performed by his delegates. To the Egyptians, the image made the reality, and so the pharaoh was indeed in all temples at once.

His divine nature meant that his role in the well-being of the state was not limited to the wisdom of his rule and the effectiveness of his discernment of the qualities of his subordinates. He was, in fact, the protector of Ma’at in the kingdom, and this means many things. Ma’at is one of those amazing words that is so resonant in the original language that no translation does it justice. It means Truth, Justice, Order and Good Behavior, as well as the goddess who is the repository of all of them. This goddess was the daughter of Ra, and is therefore the product of the divine order; it was the role of the pharaoh to safeguard this gift of the gods in the human sphere by protecting all of those things that are under the goddess’ purview.

Such a mighty task requires mighty tools. The Egyptians believed that the gods made a gift of the powers of magic, Heka, to mankind, choosing to permit humans to compel their aid under certain circumstances, and the pharaoh was in principle the greatest magician of all. One reason for this stems from the concept that spirits and even gods will obey the magician because the magician has successfully masqueraded as one of the gods. The pharaoh’s claim in this arena is more effective than for others, in part because it is less of a masquerade. The king is not just a divinity of a lesser order in his own nature; he is also in some senses an extension of the gods, individual but not wholly separate.

The pharaoh, after all, was held to be the living Horus as long as he lived, even in the most ancient periods of Egyptian history. Through him, the original ruler-god still ruled. Upon his death, he ceased to be Horus, but became instead Osiris. (This last identification was not to remain uniquely a royal prerogative; beginning around the First Intermediate Period, anyone might become identified with Osiris in death, and gain thereby the chance for everlasting life in the lands to the west.) From the Third Dynasty onwards, the king is also the son of Ra, and in the New Kingdom he becomes a metaphysically begotten son of Amun. The Egyptians dealt with this apparent contradiction in characteristic fashion: they assimilated the two trains of thought by merging Amun, the Hidden One of Thebes, and Ra, the visible and omnipresent, into a single divinity, Amun-Ra.

Very little was abandoned in Egyptian history; for the most part, the Egyptians found some way to reconcile opposing viewpoints and to redefine obsolescent ideas so that they could carry on. The pyramids themselves, quintessential symbols of pharaonic power that they are, demonstrate this principle. When pyramids of stone became too expensive for the state to build, the kings of the Middle Kingdom turned to brick as a cheaper substitute. When such a visible tomb became a positive risk due to the depredations of tomb robbers, the pharaohs of the New Kingdom took instead to concealed tombs in the Valley of the Kings, carved into the living rock in the shadow of a naturally pyramidal peak. The Egyptians would have approved of our saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This adage reflects both concepts of eternity in Egyptian thought, often known as the masculine and the feminine aspects of eternity. The first is the idea of something remaining the same forever; the second is the notion of a cycle that forever comes back around to the starting point. Both exist at once, and like the Egyptian calendar, eventually they synchronize with each other.

Even today, the pharaohs define what Egypt means to us. While we no longer take seriously the assertions of his divinity, the historical belief in his divine status is much on our minds, and usually helps to fire our imaginations rather than cooling our interest. We define Egyptian history with the state of the monarchy as our touchstone, breaking it up into Predynastic, Proto-dynastic, and Dynastic phases; and within the last and lengthiest period, we see Egyptian existence as a cycle of royal strength followed by central collapse, seeing an Old, Middle and New Kingdom (as well as a Late Period) punctuated by Intermediate Periods characterized by lawlessness, feudal control and the imposition of unwelcome foreign rule.

The wealth of Egypt’s written record means that we see the Egyptians through their own eyes to a greater degree than with any other ancient civilization before the Greeks. Because of this, we can only separate our understanding of ancient Egypt from our understanding of the pharaohs with the greatest of difficulty.


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