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Egyptian Mythology's Impact on the Ancient Egyptian Legal System Paper

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Paper type: Essay

Assess the extent to which Egyptian mythology influenced the Egyptian justice system. Crime and punishment within ancient Egypt was heavily influenced by Egyptian mythology and religious belief. The various deities embodied different values and codes of conduct. This was significant as it had a major influence on the severity of the punishment for various criminal activities, depending on the importance and status of the God or Goddess. Ma’at was the most influential God overall on the Egyptian justice system as she symbolised truth, balance and justice and was the daughter of Re, the creator of the world in the eyes of the Egyptians.

Meretseger, another Goddess, made a significant impact on tomb robbing, with the myths of her power to punish and heal wrongdoers and thieves based on their actions or amendments. The Pharaoh, was the personification of Gods on Earth, and as guarantor of the law, he influenced decisions and had a major role in monitoring the judicial system. Bastet primarily emphasised the connection between human beings and felines in the Egyptian world. This impacted the severity of punishments for their mistreatment or murder, whether it be accidental or intended.

Mythology immersed daily life and cultural beliefs, therefore impacting on the law and civil rights. In addition, we see the importance of female deities and the essential role that they played reflected in Egyptian society, proving through arts, texts and archaeological records, that women were equal to men. This ensured that Egyptian law, protected, to some degree, the rights of women, making it vastly different to other cultures of the time, and some contemporary societies. Mythology shaped the rules and penalties of the ancient Egyptian legal system, from Gods and Goddesses to religious practices and the role of the Pharaoh.

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Ma’at was the Goddess of truth and justice, and represented the divine harmony and cosmic balance of the universe within ancient Egypt (Jean Adams, 2007). Her power was strengthened through her relationship with Re, the creator God and the fact that she was an integral, authoritative Goddess. This affected the severity of the punishments if one were to ‘break Ma’at’. Murder, sacrilege, attempted assassination of the Pharaoh and spying were considered to be breaking Ma’at and those who did this were served the death penalty which was carried out through beheading, sacrifice or drowning in the Nile in a closed sack.

The ancient Egyptian legal system was heavily affected and influenced by Ma’at due to her values of balance, justice and equity. The balance implied by Ma’at, allowed peasants to challenge rich and powerful men in a court of law, especially in cases of civil law as they were taken very seriously in Egypt. Many ancient cultures thought little of peasants or of the rights of the individual, but due to Ma’at and what she represented, the rights of property and personal safety were followed strictly, bringing justice to the lower class of Egypt.

Ma’at also played a role in the fate of an Egyptian’s afterlife. When someone died, his or her heart would be weighed against Ma’at’s feather on the scales of justice. If their heart was heavier than the feather, they believed it to be full of sin and they were turned over to Ammut, who was the devourer who ate the dead soul. This would mean that the Egyptian was annihilated and would wander the netherworld forever, a very undesirable fate in Egyptian culture. This fear, engendered by mythology, was a strong influence on the behaviour of Egyptian citizens and often kept them on the straight and narrow.

This was a major contributor to social harmony and civil obedience. Meretseger was a protective deity that was greatly feared in ancient Egypt. She had tremendous powers and could do as much damage to a person as she could heal them. Since Egyptians were buried with all their worldly possessions of value for their journey into the after-world, tomb robbery was a common problem that Meretseger greatly affected. Annihilation was the greatest fear of any Egyptian; therefore tomb robbing was the most heinous crime there was, because if an Egyptian’s tomb were robbed, they would have nothing in the afterlife.

Meretseger increased the severity of this crime through the myth that she would strike down anyone who desecrated a tomb. It was also believed that she would do this to anyone who committed a crime or broke an oath. It was thought that she could cause instantaneous blindness and impose a snake or scorpion bite on anyone of guilt. While she was believed to be merciful and would cure anyone who regretted their transgressions and swore to make up for them, she subsequently influenced an individual’s choice to break the law and the physical punishments that would happen if one did so.

If a lord or high official was proved to be involved in tomb robbery, they could be put to death, ordered to commit suicide or live with horrific mutilation. Meretseger dictated the severity of the legal consequences for tomb robbery. The Pharaoh appeared as an authoritative figure placed on the earth by gods to rule Egypt on their behalf, as Pharaonic power was viewed as a manifestation of divine power. Due to this belief, the Pharaoh was the official head of the legal system in Ancient Egypt and was responsible for enacting laws, delivering justice, and maintaining law and order (abiding by Ma’at).

The relationship between mythology and the Pharaoh, and the Pharaoh and the legal system practically meant that the Gods ruled the justice system. The running of the courts would work by the Pharaoh picking judges to rule trials. Both sides would present evidence but the accused had to prove their innocence, leaving the defence with the burden of proof. Although Egyptian law was based on a common sense view of right and wrong, mythology and religion still played a role and had enormous influence. Oracles often had a part in the legal system and trials and would ensure justice in civil and criminal cases.

Oracles were represented by several priests who would be asked a yes or no question concerning the correctness of an issue and their decision would result in the punishment or freedom of the accused. The Pharaoh, as a representation of Gods on Earth, had complete control over the legal system and was sure to enforce the word of Ma’at, strengthening the connection between mythology and the law. The Goddess Bastet, while not directly related to the justice system, primarily emphasised the connection between human beings and felines in the Egyptian world.

Her worship started around 3200 BCE and she is depicted as having the body of a woman and the head of a domestic cat. She embodied the moon in its way of making a woman fertile and was the Goddess of pleasure, music, dancing and joy. The people of ancient Egypt turned to Bastet for protection and for blessing, as she was the protector of women, children and domestic cats. The cat was central to Egyptian religion and they were considered to be sacred and semi divine. They earned this status by killing rats, mice, poisonous snakes, and other vermin that would eat the royal ranaries. Bastet strengthened the value of cats due to representation of a half feline and extended the belief that cats were the personification of deities on Earth. This made the legal penalties for killing or injuring a cat most severe and on many occasions it could be punishable by death. The legal connections to the protection of cats were so intense that anyone who even discovered a dead cat would have to thoroughly mourn the cat to ensure that they were not blamed for its death.

Part of the reason the rules regarding felines were so strict was that only the semi-divine Pharaoh could own a cat, hence hurting one was treasonous as the Pharaoh was the personification of Gods on Earth. If someone were to steal a cat, that usually being foreigners, the Pharaoh would order all of his troops to be on the lookout for cats when campaigning abroad so they could be brought back to Egypt. Diodorus Siculus, a Greek Historian, stated that a Roman soldier was killed by a mob of Egyptians for accidentally killing a cat. Cats even had the honour of being mummified after death to ensure them a safe travel into the afterlife.

It is without a doubt that the mythology surrounding the belief of the divinity of cats and Bastet caused many laws and legal implications in the Egyptian justice system, once again reiterating the connection between Egyptian mythology and the law. Due to Egyptian Mythology incorporating Goddess’s as equal and central roles, men and women were treated equally in Ancient Egyptian society. Women participated in the political, economic and judicial system equally as men, making their laws very different, and relatively advanced to ours in this regard. ‘Egyptian women’s rights extended to all legally defined areas of Egyptian civilization.

Women could manage, own, and sell private property, which included slaves, land, portable goods, servants, livestock, and money. ’ (Joyce Tyldesley) They could resolve legal settlements, appear as a contracting partner in a marriage or divorce contract, execute testaments, free slaves, make adoptions and were also entitled to sue. This allowed Egypt’s legal system to be very advanced to many of the other cultures at the time and even to ours now, all because of the images and values portrayed through Mythology. Ancient Egypt’s legal system was very heavily influenced by mythology and the belief in religion and deities at the time.

While Ma’at had the most influential role within the law as Goddess of balance, harmony, equity and justice, many other Gods and Goddesses impacted varying aspects of what Egyptians believed to be right and wrong. The fear of Ammut, the soul eater, and the power of Meretseger affected the punishments regarding breaking the law and the ethics and behaviour of the average Egyptian. The value of cats within Egypt is undoubtedly related to their semi-divine status and the representation of half feline, half human Goddess Bastet explaining the reason for the severity of laws regarding their protection and proper treatment.

The Pharaoh’s connection to the Gods and to the legal system undoubtedly connects the influence mythology had on the ancient Egyptian legal system, disallowing us to believe there are no ties between the two. By the Pharaoh ruling the legal system through the word of the Gods, mythology proves to have an overruling command on justice and punishments within Egypt. The treatment and equity between men and women in a court of law due to the behaviour surrounding Goddesses in the mythological world reaffirms this connection. Mythology had a clear affect on ancient Egyptian way of life, morals and ethics and, of course, the law.

Without the myths surrounding deities and religion, the legal system of Egypt could have been far less advanced and incontestably significantly different. Bibliography: Adams, J. Updated 16th October 2007, Accessed 18th June 2013, Crime and Punishment: Crime Didn’t Pay In Ancient Egypt, Unusual Historicals, http://unusualhistoricals. blogspot. com. au/2007/10/crime-punishment-crime-didnt-pay-in. html Crime and Punishment by Jean Adams was an incredible insightful website. It described the Goddess Ma’at and the feather ceremony along with the negative perceptions and practises of Ammut.

Adam’s main argument is that ‘it doesn’t pay to be a criminal in ancient Egypt’ as she stresses the crimes and punishments that were considered to be most horrific. She refers to relatable texts and compares other religions to backup her point. Adam’s also discusses acceptable and inacceptable behaviour, and the values of Mythology, Gods and Goddesses, and ideals in ancient Egypt. Annihilation and tomb robbery (relatable to Meretseger), are also glanced at, informing the reader of the severity and punishments of this crime and how it varies depending on the status of the criminal. This source is reliable, valuable, nformative and thoroughly helped me to investigate my topic. Benac, Eric. Accessed 5th July, Laws of Ancient Egypt, eHow, http://www. ehow. com/list_6896627_laws-ancient-egypt. html#ixzz2WWnLO3fe David O’Connor, Ancient Egyptian Society, Published in 1990 by The Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh. While Ancient Egyptian Society was a fascinating short book packed full with rich information, it unfortunately gave little information on my topic in particular. O’Connor very deeply explains family life, community, status and social systems, but only briefly glances at my topic, the connections between mythology and the law.

O’Connor describes oracles and their involvement within local counsels to determine non-criminal cases within ancient Egypt. He also describes the functions and levels of Egyptian law and the gravity at which they were taken, especially if the crime was an infraction against the state. Ancient Egyptian Society, however, does explore Pharaonic power and the relationship between the Pharaoh and the Gods and the Pharaoh and the law more deeply which provided me with a clearer understanding of the role of the Pharaoh, especially within the legal system.

Ancient Egyptian Society is undeniably a credible source as it was written by David O’Connor, an associate curator in the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, and published by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Hill, J. Updated 2010, Accessed 25th June, Meretseger, Ancient Egypt Online, http://ancientegyptonline. co. uk/meretseger. html Joyce Tyldesley, Accessed 16th July, The Status of Women In Egyptian Society, Cornell Library, Resource One http://www. library. cornell. edu/colldev/mideast/womneg. tm The Status of Women in Egyptian Society by Joyce Tyldesley is a really interesting paper, which thoroughly focuses on the legal rights of women within ancient Egypt. Tyldesley discusses the allowances of women in Egypt in incredible depth and compares them to Greek women’s rights at the same time, which were most unfair. She reiterates the extent of equity between men and women, especially within the law, listing numerous ways in which women had the same legal ability as men of the same status.

While she does not link this topic to Mythology and the impacts that caused women to be seen and treated as equals (as they should be) in Ancient Egypt, she provides much concise, thorough information to the topic. I do not doubt that Tyldesley is a credible source and writer as she has had other known, published works in the past, including Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt. Leigh T. Denault, Accessed 16th July, Life In Ancient Egypt, http://www. watson. org/~leigh/egypt. html#gods Author Unknown, Accessed 5th July. Mythology: Cats in Ancient Egypt, Feline Forever, Updated 2008. ttp://felineforever. com/cat-mythology-egypt. html Author Unknown, Accessed 5th July, Ancient Egyptian Legal System, Crystalinks. http://www. crystalinks. com/egyptlegalsystem. html Author Unknown, Accessed 5th July, The Sacred Status Of Cats In Ancient Egypt, Environmental Graffiti, Updated 2010. http://www. environmentalgraffiti. com/cultures/news-cats-ancient-egypt Author Unknown, Accessed 5th July, Death Penalty: When Life Generates Death (Legally), Oracle ThinkQuest Education Foundation. http://library. thinkquest. org/23685/data/ancegypt. html

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