Egypt's pharaohs delivered divine justice from beyond the grave

Whether alive or dead, pharaohs were the source of all law and order in ancient Egypt.

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Shown here on a lintel from the Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak, Amenhotep I became a god after his death, and his followers consulted him on questions of justice.
Photograph by DEA/Getty Images

Egypt's pharaohs delivered divine justice from beyond the grave

Whether alive or dead, pharaohs were the source of all law and order in ancient Egypt.

Egypt’s first laws emerged when the Upper and Lower kingdoms were unified, according to tradition, under King Menes around 2950 B.C. From then on, different pharaohs would bring their own approaches to law and order. Although rulers would change, the unifying principle of the monarch’s sovereignty did not. Pharaohs held supreme authority in settling disputes, but they often delegated these powers to other officials such as governors, viziers, and magistrates, who could conduct investigations, hold trials, and issue punishments. Unlike the legal Code of Hammurabi, developed in the 18th century B.C. in Mesopotamia, ancient Egyptian law was not set in stone, and although power always flowed from the pharaoh, Egypt’s laws were rather like the Nile: fluid, organic, and changing with the times. (See also: The truth behind Egypt's female pharaohs and their power.)

In Egyptian cosmology, the goddess Maat embodied the concepts of order, truth, and justice. Viziers often wore a pendant in the form of the goddess, who is often shown with an ostrich feather on her head. Egyptians believed that living according to her precepts—honesty, loyalty, and obedience to the king—would keep chaos at bay. Egyptian kings were not exempt from living by Maat’s principles. They too were expected to uphold order through wise rule, just decisions, and humility before the gods. This belief united commoners and kings in the responsibility for maintaining balance and harmony in society, which may have led to fewer periods of civil unrest in Egypt’s long history.

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Native Egyptians were not the only ones subject to the king’s severe justice. The first pylon of the Mortuary Temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu depicts the pharaoh seizing foreign enemies by the hair in preparation for their collective smiting.

Crimes in ancient Egypt tended to be divided into two categories: crimes against the state and crimes against individuals. Desertion, treason, and slandering the pharaoh fell into the first, while acts such as homicide, injury, robbery, and theft fell into the second. Much of what is known about ancient Egypt’s legal system comes from the New Kingdom period (ca 1539-1075 B.C.) and the archaeological site of Deir el Medina, across the Nile from Thebes. Located there was a village of artisans and workers, who labored in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, building tombs for pharaohs and their families. Digs at Deir el Medina have yielded more than 250 papyri and some ostraca (fragments of stone and potsherds) containing detailed accounts of legal matters at all levels of society. (See also: National Geographic to host exhibition "Queens of Egypt.")

Divine justice

The texts reveal the different ways that people could seek justice. One of the most popular was the use of divine oracles. In and around Thebes the oracular voice was attributed to a deceased pharaoh, Amenhotep I, the focus of an important Theban cult. The second king of the 18th dynasty, Amenhotep I consolidated Egyptian power following his father’s expulsion of the Hyksos invaders from Lower Egypt. Although his own tomb has not been found, Amenhotep I is believed to have started the tradition of rulers being buried in the Valley of the Kings. He and his mother, Ahmose Nefertari, are also credited with founding the village at Deir el Medina and were worshipped as patron gods there. (See also: We may now know which Egyptian pharaoh challenged Moses.)

Although it was common for especially renowned pharaohs to become the center of cults after their death, Amenhotep’s is among the most popular and enduring. Egyptians believed that his spirit resided in his oracular statue and proper ceremonies could summon it. Residents often turned to the statue to settle legal disputes.

Bearing Amenhotep I’s statue on their shoulders, priests would carry it out of the temple during processions and on feast days. A crowd would gather around it, and litigants would present their cases to the statue. Each side would present its case or question, either verbally or in writing. The god’s answers were interpreted by its swaying movements.

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Officials beat a man with sticks, probably for failing to fulfill his tax obligations, in a detail from a painting in the New Kingdom tomb of Menna.

The workers consulted the statue for centuries. One fragment from the Deir el Medina site dates to the 20th dynasty. It records the request of a workman, Nekhemmut, who asked the statue to reveal the identity of a person who was stealing from him. From the records found among the ostraca, most inquiries were similar, mundane matters, centering on real estate and personal property.

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The flail and scepter found in the tomb of the boy king, Tutankhamun. The flail was a symbol of the pharaoh’s judicial authority.

Oracular statues were also consulted in other parts of Egypt during the New Kingdom. Located close to Thebes, a statue of the god Amun was also consulted on legal matters. Sometimes, those accused by an oracle would protest against the verdict, and ask for the matter to be put before another oracular statue for a second opinion. Inscribed during the reign of Ramses III, papyrus 10335 (now in the British Museum) recounts the theft of five dyed tunics from a temple storehouse. The crime was brought before an oracle. The statue’s answers fingered one suspect from a list of names as the guilty party. The accused vociferously denied the charge and requested a second and then a third opinion. After his last request, the patience of the gods, and the crowd, ran out. He was found guilty, beaten on the spot as punishment, and forced to restore the stolen goods to the temple.

Trial by jury

In addition to the oracles, there was another, more formal method of resolving legal disputes during the New Kingdom. The kenbet (secular court) most closely resembles the approach of modern trials by jury. Two major kenbets were located in Memphis and Thebes and functioned like a high court. The major kenbet juries consisted of higher-ranking members of society, such as scribes of the vizier of Thebes or police chiefs. There is evidence that access to the kenbet service was surprisingly democratic, and that petitioners of higher social status were not given preferential treatment.

The kenbet typically handled civil issues such as nonpayment for goods or services, disputes and quarrels between neighbors, theft, injuries, and calumnies. The kenbets were empowered to administer punishments for the minor offenses that came before them, which usually entailed the guilty party suffering a beating. In a few cases, when a kenbet could not reach a decision, it would recommend that the question be submitted to the oracular statues for resolution.

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A silver statuette of a New Kingdom pharaoh holds an icon of Maat. In dispensing justice, the king mediated between heaven and earth. Louvre Museum, Paris

Lesser kenbet councils sat in the region’s smaller towns, like the builders’ village. They would hear complaints of local residents and decide their cases. Scholars believe that juries consisted of craftsmen and artisans, who would sit in judgment over their fellow workers. If a serious crime originated in the lower kenbet, it would be moved up the legal system to the major kenbet councils, which reported directly to the vizier, the pharaoh’s principal minister.

Famous among historians, one case originated in the local kenbet near Deir el Medina. The accused, a woman called Heria, was initially charged with stealing a cup from a resident. The lower kenbet ordered that Heria’s house be searched for the missing property. The search revealed not only the cup but also goods missing from the temple of Amun. Theft from a temple was a more serious crime. The kenbet found Heria guilty of stealing the cup and then passed the matter of the stolen temple goods to be judged by the vizier. When passing off the case, the kenbet sent a letter to the vizier noting its thoughts: “Heria is a great fraud who deserves to die.”

High crimes

The vizier was one of the most powerful officials in Egypt. Second in power only to the pharaoh, he oversaw the administrative functions of the government. For serious crimes, the vizier served as judge and could dole out punishments or grant pardons. (See also: 25 captivating photos of Egypt.)

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On the west bank of the Nile, the site of Deir el Medina was home to the New Kingdom masons and craftsmen who built the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Systematically excavated from the early 1900s, it has yielded much information about the workings of justice under the pharaohs.

A papyrus known as Salt 124 details a case from the 20th dynasty that was heard by the vizier. The case was brought by Amennakht, a worker at Deir el Medina, against another worker, Paneb. The list of crimes was long: Amennakht charged Paneb with theft, looting tombs, death threats, bribery, misappropriation of tools belonging to the government, bullying the villagers, sexual assault, blasphemy, and murder. Paneb defended himself by claiming that Amennakht was seeking revenge because he felt Paneb had stolen a job from him.

The case most likely came before the vizier because of the charges of tomb raiding. Stealing from one’s neighbor was a crime for the kenbet. Stealing from the royal dead or from Egyptian temples was a much graver offense.

Facing punishment

When people were convicted of crimes, the penalties depended both on the severity of the offense and their level of involvement. The typical penalty for stealing was returning the stolen object and paying its rightful owner double or triple its value. If someone stole from a temple, however, the punishment was more severe: it could include paying a hundred times the value of the object, corporal punishment, or even death.

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Officials punish a wrongdoer. Third-millennium B.C. relief on the tomb of Mereruka in the necropolis of Saqqara

Little evidence has been found for imprisonment in ancient Egypt. Criminal punishment tended to be administered immediately rather than by means of a long sentence. Forced labor was common, and criminals were also threatened with exile to Nubia, where scholars believe they were put to work in mines. Corporal punishment was also common in the form of public beatings, brandings, or mutilations.

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Terra-cotta seal of Pharaoh Amenhotep I, Louvre Museum, Paris

The most serious crimes, like treason, were punishable by death. One of the most famous occurrences of the death penalty resulted from the harem conspiracy against Ramses III in the early 12th century B.C. The Judicial Papyrus of Turin documents the plot and how the king’s secondary wife, Tiye, conspired to kill Ramses and install her son, Pentawere, on the throne.

Part of Tiye’s plot succeeded: Analysis of Ramses III’s mummy revealed that his throat had been slashed, and he did not survive the attack. The other part of Tiye’s plot failed: The conspiracy was uncovered before Pentawere could take the throne. Ramses IV quickly shored up his power as the new king and turned to punishing his father’s assassins.

The Judicial Papyrus extensively details the charges, trials, and punishments of those involved in the wide-ranging conspiracy, who held positions at all levels of Ramses III’s court, from harem officials to servants. Penalties ranged from death to mutilation. Tiye’s chief conspirator received a harsh sentence:

The great criminal Paibekkamen . . . had been in collusion with Teye [sic] and the women of the harem; he had made common cause with them . . . He was placed before the great officials of the Court of Examination; . . . his crimes seized him; the officials who examined him caused his punishment to overtake him.

How the law dealt with Queen Tiye is unknown, but her son Pentawere was allowed to commit suicide. Scholars believe the lesser conspirators were put to death by impalement. The pharaoh’s justice was unrelenting because his role in keeping order, according to Maat’s principles, was critical to preserving the well-being of Egypt.

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Egyptologist Irene Cordón has written extensively on the ancient tomb-building community of Deir el Medina in Egypt.