Ancient Egyptian Law

See, also, Ma'at, Egyptian Goddess of Justice.

Not unlike some religions, the ancient Egyptians worshipped death.

Society was built around this fascination and so a concern for life before death took a back seat to death after life.

Further, papyrus was the medium of choice for record-keeping, a paper-like product with a relatively short shelf-life; certainly not something to last thousands of years except under the most precise of conditions.

The word for law in ancient Egyptian was hp.; the symbols being the goddess Ma'at and the ostrich feather. The hieroglyphic language also recognized royal laws, which European archaeologists prefer to call decrees.

Horemheb's steleSuch a successful and organized society must of had law to create and sustain order but any Egyptian law code – a national, Egypt-wide set of laws – had evaded archaeologists.

According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, there are only two Egypt-wide decrees, one being Horemheb’s anti-corruption decree and the other being that of the pharaoh or King Sety II (circa 1280), also found at Karnak (Luxor, Egypt) in which he prohibits religious bribery.

Otherwise:

"... the existence of true (Egypt-wide) law codes cannot be demonstrated."

Consistent with the fascination with death and a belief in an afterlife, most of the existing piecemeal decrees dealt with the protection of burial sites, especially pyramids.

But there were several specific decrees throughout the history of ancient Egypt that have been uncovered and since, roughly translated.

All of them are pronouncements from the pharaoh (king) who was considered a god (there was no deliberative assembly). This fact may have discouraged systematic code-making because if the law ever had to be known, the answer was as simple as an audience with the current pharaoh. Any pharaoh worth his salt would recognize the disadvantage associated with a law code set in stone or, as it were, on papyrus.

The anti-corruption law decrees of Horemheb are set out at Horemheb (d.1315).

Other than the host of law decrees which deal with the formalities of death and funerals, and the protection of burial grounds, papyrus collections held in museums around the world can be pasted together to give a glimpse of ancient Egyptian law.

In terms of estate and inheritance, the basic rule1 was:

"... It is to the one who has buried (the deceased) that the goods (of the deceased) shall be given."

When disputes relating to farmland were raised, they had to be resolved within three days if the disputed land was in proximity to the judge. Otherwise, the deadline was two months

ancient Egytian hieroglyphicsSlavery had a decided Egyptian flavour to it, significantly different, in law, to the Roman model. The essence of slavery existed – one being required to serve another for life – but other aspects were different. In ancient Egypt, it seems that the master owned the slave’s labour but not his or her person or property. For example, one stone inscription2 records he sale of land from two "slave" girls to their master.

On women rights, according to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt:

"Like slaves, women, either married or widowed had, during the New Kingdom (1600 to 1100 BC; and probably before) complete legal authority to manage their own assets....

"They were allowed to sell, buy or bequeath anything they owned without their husband’s approval. They could (act as) witness to an agreement or a will. If there was no will at their father’s or their mother’s death, the shares of the estate inherited by the daughters were equal to those of the sons.

"(But) it was the husband who had the right to manage The property acquired by a couple during marriage.

"Should (the husband) die or repudiate (his wife), the wife received a third of all property belonging to the couple."

Judicial centres were established in Thebes and Heliopolis.

On at least two occasions, under Pepy I (circa 2250 BC) and later under Ramses III (circa 1150 BC), extraordinary commissions of inquiry were established to take witness statements under oath. Some historians place some doubt as to the inquiry ordered by Ramses III but other documents show that he ordered the inquiry to look into an alleged conspiracy within his own harem. The inquiry did not end well for all the commissioners. Four of them were seduced by the wives of the suspects and when this was discovered, Ramses III took away their titles and had the commissioners mutilated.

Egyptian courts were not just judicial; they served as notarizing agencies as well, where land transfers and important contracts could be formally recorded. In this way, Court scribes would authenticate legal documents on behalf of a mostly-illiterate population.

A person found by the court to be in breach of his agreement had to pay compensation by a specified day or he would be publicly beaten and handed a fine of double the original award against him.3

In criminal matters, all the court had to do was determine guilt and if guilty, it was up to the king (pharaoh) to decide upon punishment, usually amputation or death.

REFERENCES:

  • Allam, Shafik, "Egypian Law Courts in Pharaonic and Hellenistic Times", Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Volume 77 (1991), pages 109-121.
  • Cairo Papyrus #58092 (note 1)
  • Cairo Stela #27-6-24-3 (note 2)
  • Chicago Ostraca #12074 (note 3)
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Horemheb (d.1315)
  • Redford, D., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, Volume 2 (Oxford: University Press, 2001), pages 114-116

Published: Thursday, June 18, 2009
Last updated: Monday, November 11, 2013
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