16 October 2007

Crime & Punishment:
Crime Didn't Pay in Ancient Egypt

Jean Adams
By Jean Adams

It didn't pay to be convicted of a crime in ancient Egypt.

A criminal had to think it was worth the risk not to stay on the straight and narrow. If officialdom didn't get you and torture you, then the gods would. And their justice was far harsher than any punishment people could mete out.

When someone died and went west (a term we still use today) to join the gods, their heart would be weighed against Ma'at's feather on the scales of justice. Ma'at was the goddess of truth and justice. She represented the divine harmony and cosmic balance of the universe. If the heart weighed heavier than the feather, they were turned over to Ammut, the Devourer who ate the dead soul, ensuring that they were totally annihilated and would wander the netherworld forever. Not an ideal way for an Egyptian to end his days. It was enough to keep many people on the straight and narrow although the criminal element seemed to have no fear of the justice of the gods.

It is very useful for us to know what was and what was not acceptable behavior. Biographical texts include two declarations of innocence in which the deceased denies having committed various crimes. These are many, known as The Negative Confessionin, such as "I have done no injustice to people, nor have I maltreated an animal" or "I have done no wrong" 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.

These standards are not new. As in the Christian Bible, most Egyptians loved their gods, and the ancient Egyptian believed that looking out for his neighbors was a high point in his life. Other early texts, 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 biographies, including justice, honesty, fairness, mercy, kindness and generosity, and reflect the central concept of Ma'at, the cosmic and social order of the universe as established by the creator god.

Not so the criminal. Two crimes were considered worse than others. Attempted assassination of the pharaoh was seen as an attack on the divine god. The lowest classes could be impaled on a stake on the edge of the desert until they begged to die, or they could also be thrown to the crocodiles.

Annihilation was feared more than anything by most Egyptians. Others didn't seem to care. The most heinous crime was tomb robbing. Tomb robbing was seen as pharaoh's annihilation and since they were buried with all the riches of home for their journey through the afterworld, amulets made of gold, jewels and semi precious stones were wrapped in their funerary bandages so the gods would know he was a man of substance. These amulets were choice pickings for tomb robbers, who would break into the new tomb, unwrap pharaoh's body and help themselves to the gold.

This was mostly accomplished by tomb workers who knew where all the passages and escape routes were. They were,however, often caught, but not until after they had spirited away the loot.

If a lord or high official was proved to be involved in tomb robbery, they were given a choice. They could be put to death, ordered to commit suicide or life with horrific mutilation.

Clearly it didn't pay to indulge in crime in ancient Egypt. It caused chaos, another word that has come down to us from them. It upset their sense of order and balance which was all the good Egyptian wanted in his life.

Jean Adams

She found the love of her life, 3000 years too late!
ETERNAL HEARTS, Highland Press, Spring 2008
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