Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Egyptian kingship

The supreme achievement of the people of the Nile Valley in the late fourth millennium BC was the vision, ultimately brought to reality, of the political unity and coherance of the entire Valley, from the First Cataract to the Mediterranean. The river itself was the catalyst which gave life to this unprecedented and audacious concept, which had no parallel in any other part of the world at the time. The Valley was an entity by reason of the common way of life which the river made possible for its people as riverine agriculturalists. The bounty of the river was common to all; from it all drew their means of living at a level of prosperity probably otherwise unknown in the late Neolithic world.

The river gave generously but it could also withhold its bounty. The cycle of the seasons induced a sense of the regularity of nature and of the advantage of order. To ensure the fertility of the land required a degree of organisation, discipline, technique and social responsibility not to be found in any other part of the world at the time.

From the Valley people’s recognition of their common destiny, expressed through their sharing of the Valley’s unique resource, emerged in due time the political construct which was its logical, perhaps inevitable, outcome: the nation state. It is perhaps unlikely that anyone, even an Egyptian of the sort of genius with which the Valley seems at this time to have been quite disproportionately endowed, ever articulated such a concept so specifically. Nonetheless, the creation of the nation state was the irresistible consequence of the processes which came surging up out of the Valley people’s collective unconscious at this time.

It may be said (though such a suggestion is unlikely to go wholly unchallenged) that early Egypt’s unique contribution to the human experience was the recognition and naming of the archetypes which go to make up an ordered human existence. Of such archetypes the most enduring and universal was undoubtedly the concept of the kingship.

It cannot be said with absolute certainty when the kingship first emerged in Egypt. The historiographical and Egyptological convention is to define the historical period in Egypt, beginning around 3150 BC by identifying a series of ‘Dynasties’ into which the rulers of the unified country are grouped. Such dynastic groups may or may not be directly related familially; frequently they were, and certainly in the earliest periods the succession seems usually to have been in the direct line.

It is assumed that the original political structure of the Valley was a network of greater and lesser principalities or chieftaincies, each with its ruling family, customs and tutelary divinities. Certainly, in historical times the Valley showed a pronounced tendency to fragment into local centres of control whenever the central authority of the kingship weakened, as happened not infrequently over the course of the next three thousand years. Equally, there was always a degree of competition amongst the entities whom we call ‘the gods’, with otherwise quite obscure local divinities, through the vagaries of politics and the rise to power of a family of regional magnates, achieving the status of national, even perhaps, universal divinities: a situation not unknown in later, less illustrious cultures than Egypt’s.

The kings of the First Dynasty established the capital of the notionally united country at the point where the two principal divisions of the country, Upper and Lower Egypt, the southlands and the north, met, near the modern capital of Cairo, at the city which the Greeks knew as ‘Memphis’. From the earliest times the kings seem to have claimed sovereignty over the entire Two Lands, though the actual process of unification took a long time to be realised.

The arrival of the First Dynasty of kings marks an absolute change in the nature, organisation and iconography of Egypt. There are some indications in the Predynastic period of the forms which later will come to be regarded as immemorially Egyptian, but the differences between Egypt in the times before the kings and Egypt during dynastic times are far greater than any similarities which can be identified. The creation of the Egyptian kingship was so momentous an event that the world was never entirely to be the same after it, for the naming of the archetypes had identified and released them into the common consciousness of humanity. From this time onwards, from the end of the fourth millennium BC, the pattern established in Egypt was to be repeated in many regions of the world, the product not of diffusion but of a similar response to similar social needs and opportunities and the demands of each people’s collective unconscious.

Certain conventions began to surround the king, evidently from the very earliest days of his recognition. He assumed special ROYAL NAMES, in addition to his own birth name. Initially three, later five in number, these were of profound significance, each with its own deep resonances. He wore or carried special regalia, including a diversity of CROWNS with considerable symbolic significance. All of these marked him out from the generality of humankind.

In no case was the king of Egypt’s essential difference from all other men more pronounced than in the singular fact that he was a god; indeed in the early centuries he was presumed to be the god, the Master of the Universe, by whose will the sun rose, the Nile flooded and the stars turned in their motions. It was a breathtakingly audacious concept and it has to be seen for the paradox that it represents, that the most intensely creative people of antiquity, capable of raising superb monuments and of devising one of the most subtle and complex societies of which we have knowledge, invested the Chief Officer of their state with the quality of divinity despite what must sometimes have been the all-too-obvious evidences of his human nature.

The King of Egypt was the entire centre of the life of Egypt; he was the reason for Egypt’s existence, and the Two Lands were the heavenly mansions brought down to earth because of him. Everything that could secure the life, prosperity and health of the king contributed to the perpetuity of Egypt. If the king lived, Egypt lived.

The king was god because he was the incarnation of the archetypal god of kingship, Horus; he was Horus because he was king. There has been much misunderstanding of the adoption of the persona of Horus by the King of Egypt. In later times, after the kingship had been in existence and had flourished for a thousand years, Horus was represented as the son of Osiris, a latecomer into the Egyptian corporation of divine entities, but who came to symbolise the king-after-death. But there was a much more ancient Horus who was perpetually reincarnated in the living body of the king.

At his coronation, a wonderful event full of allusive panoply and the interplay of a multitude of different forces, the king assumed the DOUBLE CROWN and rose from the throne a god. The throne was personified by the goddess Isis, who in later times was identified in consequence as the mother of Horus. But Horus the king was immensely more ancient than his alleged parentage by Osiris and Isis; as with some of the most ancient of Egypt’s gods, he must probably be seen as selfbegotten, from before time. At a particularly beautiful moment in the coronation, all the birds of the air flew off to the four corners of the earth to proclaim the return of the Horus-King. On this occasion the role of Isis was crucial in conferring the divine kingship on the reincarnated Horus by contact with her lap; the importance of the daughters of the king, who conveyed the kingship from one generation to the next, is a reflection of Isis’ part in the divine transmission of the kingship to earth.

Even at the beginning of the First Dynasty, when the lineaments of the royal Egyptian culture were being laid down, the king was Horus; indeed his great royal style was ‘The Horus X’ and throughout Egyptian history the Horus-name was the most sacred that the king possessed. It was the source of his power, as king and as god.

The king was not merely the equal of the gods; at certain occasions he was their master and they deferred to him. Always they were to be found in his train, attendant on him on the great occasions of state, when to mortal eyes they would be impersonated by the great officers of the kingdoms and the High Priests of the temples, though they were believed only to perform their offices as surrogates of the king himself. The king was the supreme priest of Egypt, himself performing a perpetual round of ceremonies, consecrating himself to himself. It was a melancholy fact, however, that the power and prestige of the King of Egypt was eventually to be undermined by the power of the clerical bureaucracies which rose out of the temple servants originally appointed to serve and glorify the king. The corrupting influence of religious bureaucracies, first manifested in Egypt, was to become a familiar if no more welcome experience for the societies which were to follow Egypt, down to the present day.

It is one of the most singular characteristics of the emergent Egyptian state which began to coalesce around the person of the king in the latter part of the fourth millennium BC that, from the outset, he was surrounded by a court of state bureaucrats, with well defined roles and titles of considerable complexity. Many of those who served the king and who are known, for example from the great MASTABA tombs in which they were buried, bore titles which it is hard to believe were invented summarily but which rather must have had a far greater antiquity, reaching back to some structure which existed before the accepted appearance of the monarchy. This is another of the many enigmas which are associated with the origins and formative influences of the Egyptian state.

The kings of Egypt are the first true individuals known to history. Despite the sparseness of the surviving records there is no doubt of the power and achievements of the early kings. Whilst the king was, in a profound sense, ‘The Great Individual’, he was also the soul of Egypt, through whom Egypt lived.

As time went by, so the nature of the Egyptian kingship underwent adaptation and change. For the whole course of the Archaic Period and the Old Kingdom the king enjoyed a unique and absolute paramountcy, when he was regarded as an imminent divinity. The very success of the institution, however, was its undoing. As the kingship became involved in more and more elaborate state enterprises, of which the building of pyramids was but one example of many, the king came to depend more and more on his partisans, in the court and the temple. The employment of short-term expediencies, beloved of all politicians in every generation with no concern for those who would follow them, was a device first practised by the Egyptian monarchy in the closing decades of the Old Kingdom, to secure the loyalty of the great magnates by bestowing on them more and more royal lands and showering them with privileges and exemptions which eventually were to cripple the state.

That the kingship was the archetypal Egyptian political institution, however, was unmistakeably confirmed at the restoration of a coherent political structure in the Valley which was the particular triumph of the kings of the Eleventh Dynasty and their immediate predecessors, so skilfully built on by their successors in the Twelfth Dynasty. The Middle Kingdom restored the power of the kingship after the pressures which it underwent at the end of the Old Kingdom, though it was subtly altered; the king was a god but, more important, he was the Chief Executive of the Two Lands. He was as formidable in this role as he had been in the early centuries of the kingship when his divinity was his dominant nature, to the exclusion of all other considerations.

So immense was the span of Egyptian history, in all its forms enduring for more than three thousand years, that its institutions, including the kingship, altered as the world outside the Valley altered; sometimes influences percolated into the Valley which provoked dramatic change, as when Semitic-speaking peoples or Africans from the south ruled the country. These altered states could be greatly beneficial to much of the historic Egyptian persona as, for example, the kingship mutated into a prototypical oriental imperial monarchy, resulting in the splendour and rich diversity of the New Kingdom, which endured in its own right for half a millennium.

The Egyptian kingship was a unique institution, the first of its kind anywhere on earth. The kings were always represented as being more than mortal and, as the Lands’ presiding genius, the earlier generations of the kings perhaps achieved a more enduring set of consequences, of more lasting worth, than any other group of individuals known to history.

Further reading

Clayton, P.A. (1994) Chronicles of the Pharaohs, London.

Frankfort, H. (1948) Kingship and the Gods, Chicago IL.

Hoffman, M. (1980) Egypt Before the Pharaohs, London.

Kemp, B.J. (1989) Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization, London.

Rice, M. (1990) Egypt’s Making, London.

Spencer, A.J. (1993) Early Egypt: The Rise of Civilisation in the Nile Valley, London.

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