Humans are compulsive organizers; we love compartmentalizing things, drawing differences and setting boundaries. We also love to know what our place in society is, where we fit in and what we should do with the people around us. We love asking questions, seeking truths and solving puzzles, but rarely do we find answers to them. Some of us speak to the Gods, others look to Google! Yet still, humanity continues its search.
But what if there was a manual that answers all of our questions?
Imagine a manual that answers all of your questions like how to find love, how to treat your spouse, parents and enemies, what is life after death and more! Wouldn’t it be nice? Truth be told, these manuals exist. All across human history, civilizations have tried to establish rules, law and order and statements of culture within their societies. One such example is our law today. Laws govern our behavior and how we interact with each other within a nation. Meanwhile, religious texts like Bibles, Qurans and manuscripts instruct different religious factions on the right moral values. The establishment of ‘how to live right’ can simply be known as ‘Wisdom’ and this pursuit of ‘Wisdom’ dates back to ancient Egyptian realms where it was known as the ‘Sebayit’ - an ancient Egyptian word translated as “instructions”. 1
- Sebayit, an ancient Egyptian word translated as “instructions”, is one of the most significant genre from ancient Egypt (c. 3100 BCE to 330 BCE). The Sebayit provides knowledge about long-lived tradition, languages and practices of wisdom in the Egyptian culture (Fontaine, 1981, p.155) ↩
As we attempt to better order our world today, let us look back on our pioneers and learn who they were and how they lived. For the Egyptians, Sebayit contributed to social order, gender (in)equality and reveals their beliefs and values.
The Origins of Wisdom
The first of the Egyptians’ beliefs was the importance of an effective succession. For many of the monarchs, it was of prime importance that an “appropriate successor” take over the wisdom1established by a “dignitary” (Fontaine, 1981, p.155). The recording and handing down of Sebayit ensured that practices were safeguarded and examined for the future use of regulating the court or the country as a whole in a systematic way (Fontaine, 1981, p.155). Eventually, this ensured the succession of ‘Wisdom’ to be passed down.
- Wisdom is known as the accumulation of knowledge and experiences over the years, which was highly looked upon in the Egyptian society. ↩
It must also be highlighted that the fundamental theory of Egyptian wisdom literature is directly related to the understanding of goddess Maat (Fontaine, 1981, p.156). What exactly is Maat and how is it relevant to this context? As we’ve explored in Class 3, Maat signifies “both cosmic order and social harmony” as well as “order, justice and truth in the human sphere.” (Fontaine, 1981, p.156) Such an emphasis clearly indicates that prosperity, peace and harmony is appreciated in this society. Therefore, it was necessary to ensure that the upcoming generations inculcate acceptable and civilized behaviour in respect to goddess Maat as well as for their own sake to lead a contented and prosperous life. Thus, expecting them to follow the path of the Sebayit.
Women as Emblems of Morality
(also read: Men, this is how to treat your wives)
Egyptian wisdom literature’s provision of frameworks for a successful life also identified the proper ways to treat women, therein revealing their importance to society and regarded virtues of the time.
Early Sebayit such as the Instruction of Ptah-hotep provided contrasting treatments for women. Men were advised to “love” their wives, “fill her belly”, “clothe her back”, “make her joyful as long as” they “live”, and “not have her judged” as she is “a field, good for her lord”. However, they were also told to “remove her from power, suppress her”, and “restrain her” (Parkinson, 1998, p. 257). This text might have been describing women on two opposite sides of the spectrum, the first being an ideal woman who bear children for her man like how a field cultivates crops. The second being a woman who is volatile in nature and unfaithful- ‘when one enquires after her, she has flown away’ (Parkinson, 1998, p. 257). This suggests that fertile women were cherished back then and loyalty was seen as a virtue.
Meanwhile, The Satire of Trades instructs not to ‘tell lies against your mother, the magistrates abhor it’ (Lichtheim 1975, p.191), acknowledging the importance of mothers and encouraging respect towards them. It also encourages readers to ‘praise god for your father and your mother who set you on the path of life’ (Lichtheim 1975, p.191). This emphasizes on how filial piety was of prime importance in Egyptian wisdom literature.
These various instructions uncover the Egyptian’s commitment to upholding virtuous behaviour and having good moral values.
Rise of Feminism?
Interestingly, it is also possible to track the changing perspectives towards women across the three time periods of the Egyptian Kingdom – the Old Kingdom (2700-2200 BCE), Middle Kingdom (2100-1800 BCE), and New Kingdom (1500-1000 BCE) period. Each time frame had several texts assigned offering differing portrayals of women; they seemingly held more power and authority as time passed.
Initially, women appeared to have little to no say in society. Writings from the Old Kingdom period (2700-2200 BCE) primarily offered a husband’s duty over his wife, symbolising a dominant patriarchal society. Repeated specific instructions were given for men to rule over or care for their spouses as seen from the Instruction of Ptah-hotep above. Men possessed the authority to judge their spouses. This trend noted a shift in Middle Kingdom (2100-1800 BCE) Sebayit toward honouring women as figures of authority (mothers) who deserved respect. Finally, the Instruction of Ani assigned to the New Kingdom(1500-1000 BCE) encouraged men against “control(ing) their wife in her house” and to “recognise her skill”, signifying a greater diffusion of power in the household (J. Archer, Fischler, & Wyke, 1995, pp. 44 - 45).
Such a trend suggests that the Egyptians could very much be like us in the progression towards an utilitarian society. However, it is worth noting that men were still the dominant recipients of the instructions, thereby bestowed with the responsibility of ensuring succession of wisdom. This means that it was still a patriarchal society.
Good Kingship = Good “Kind-ship”
Last but not least, adequate care for the vulnerable (who were characterized as widowed, orphaned, poor or elderly) was repeatedly emphasized as the hallmark of a successful kingship.
This was first observed in the beginning of the Middle Kingdom and later repeatedly mentioned through to the New Kingdom. According to several researchers (Bennett, 2002; Fensham, 1962; Malchow, 1996), the patriarchal society propagated a belief that widows and orphans require a male figure to ensure their protection. Since their male counterparts were no longer around, the ruling power subsumed these duties and watched out for them. In the Teaching for King Merikare, the longevity of a king depended on his just treatment of women and orphans; he “must not oppress the widow” or “annex the property … inherited from his father”. Further on in the Instructions of Amenemhet, a good king was characterized by “charity to the poor” and “elevation of minors” (Fensham, 1962, p. 132). The constant repetitions in these writings reveal the deep-seated compassion of the Egyptian community to look out for the more susceptible classes of society.
Such a trend prevailed through the ages and is too witnessed in the famous Instruction of Amenemope of the New Kingdom. In Chapter 2, 4,10, it is declared, “Beware of stealing from a miserable man … raging against the cripple, do not stretch out your hand to strike an old man … lift him up, give him your hand … fill his gut with your own food” (Simpson, Ritner, Tobin & Wente, 2003, pp. 226 – 227). As one would imagine, a King or Monarch would already possess numerous tasks and responsibilities to govern a community. Given that treatments of the vulnerable are given specific, special mentions highlights the essentiality of these traits in Egypt. It allows us to infer that the Egyptians valued kindness and charity.
All in all...
In conclusion, Wisdom Literature is an immense topic in the Egyptian civilization and provides great insights into the way a community lived. It is a representation of their way of life as well as individual development through instructions. Understanding that most texts tend towards the concept of Sebayit, it can be seen that each generation’s experiences and pitfalls were lessons that are considered wisdom. These teachings in the form of experiences were given all due respect as it was contributing to every aspect of one’s life in a detailed manner. As our generations continue to pursue the grand question: how to live right, perhaps we can learn a thing or two from the Egyptians; we can start compiling a book of experiences and pass down the legacy to our successors (i.e. children and mentees) and hope that they too will continue the good practice of transmitting the great virtue, Wisdom.
Archer Leonie J, Fischler Susan, & Wyke, Maria. (1995). Women in Ancient Societies: An Illusion of the Night. The Journal Of Roman Studies, 31, 44-45. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/301071
Bennett, Harold V. (2002). Injustice Made Legal: Deuteronomic Law and the Plight of Widows, Strangers, and Orphans in Ancient Israel. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
Fensham, F. Charles. (1962). Widow, Orphan, and the Poor in Ancient near Eastern Legal and Wisdom Literature. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 21(2), 129-139.
Fontaine, Carole R. (1981). A Modern Look at Ancient Wisdom: The Instruction of Ptahhotep Revisited. The Biblical Archaeologist, 44(3), 155-160. doi:10.2307/3209606
Hartwig, M. K. H. M. (2014). A Companion to Ancient Egyptian Art. Chicester: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/buffalo/detail.action?docID=4034178
Lichtheim, Miriam (1975). Ancient Egyptian literature (1st ed.). Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.
Malchow, Bruce V. (1996). Social Justice in the Hebrew Bible: What is New and What is Old. Liturgical Press.
Parkinson, Richard Bruce (1998). The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems, 1940-1640 BC. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 131. doi:10.2307/3822228
Simpson, William Kelly, Robert K. Ritner, Vincent A. Tobin, and Professor Edward , Jr. Wente. (2003). The Literature of Ancient Egypt. New Haven: Yale University Press.