Ancient (kemetian)Egyptian Society

The ancient Kemetian(Egyptian) civilisation spanned tens of thousands of years, and was both complex and fascinating.The ancient Egyptian(Kemetian) civilisation has captured the imagination of many people in different times and from different philosophical viewpoints and some incredible facts have been uncovered regarding the origins and the extent of their knowledge.

Burial Practices in Ancient Egypt

The process of mummification is so closely associated with ancient Egypt, that a number of misconceptions are widely believed. Egyptians were not to only people to mummify their dead, and full mummification was really only an option for wealthy Egyptians at certain periods of Egyptian history. Over time, there was an evolution in the process of mummification. Mummification involved complex rituals and numerous amulets, such as the Heart Scarab.

The Egyptian belief that “To speak the name of the dead is to make him live again” is certainly carried out in the building of the tombs. The king’s formal names and titles are inscribed in his tomb along with his images and statues. Beginning with the 18th Dynasty and ending with the 20th, the kings abandoned the Memphis area and built their tombs in Thebes. Also abandoned were the pyramid style tombs. Most of the tombs were cut into the limestone following a similar pattern: three corridors, an antechamber and a sunken sarcophagus chamber. These catacombs were harder to rob and were more easily concealed. Construction usually lasted six years, beginning with the new reign. The text in the tombs are from the Book of the Dead, the Book of the Gates and the Book of the Underworld.

Prehistoric Burials
Tomb 100; The Painted Tomb
Ancient Egyptian funerary figurines known as Shabti (Shawabti, Ushabti) were often placed in tombs to serve the deceased in the afterlife. Thousands of examples of these beautiful statuettes made from a variety of materials have been recovered from ancient Egyptian sites.

The people of ancient Egypt wanted to be sure that they could enjoy all of the good things in life in the afterlife. To ensure this, they inscribed the offering formula in their tombs on false doors and on offering tables which were placed in their tombs.

During the funeral the mummy (and often a statue of the deceased) were “reanimated” by the “Opening of the Mouth” ritual so that they could see, hear and enjoy food offerings. Then the mourners would enjoy a mortuary feast (wake) and the family and friends of the deceased were entertained by musicians and dancers. The lyrics of the “Song of the Harper” (or “Harper’s Song”) were inscribed in many tombs. They were intended to cheer the bereaved but also satirised the building of large tombs and burial of provisions for the afterlife and reminded the listeners to live for the moment and enjoy life.

Mummification was not a process which was reserved to people in ancient Egypt. In fact, we have discovered several million more animal mummies than human mummies! Animals mummies come in four main types; the mummy of a sacred animal, the mummies of pets, animals mummified as offering to a god who was associated with that animal, and mummies which were burial provisions placed in or near the tomb of a deceased person.

Jewellery, Perfume and Incense

As life in an ancient city could be rather smelly, they also developed beautiful incense and perfume which was thought to have medicinal qualities and was associated with the gods. The most famous and popular incense was Kyphi (Kapet). They also used essential oils in massage, reflexology and aromatherapy.

Tutankhamun’s scarab
All Egyptians wore jewellery, and some beautiful pieces have been recovered from burial sites. Jewellers were called “neshedi nubi” (goldsman) and “hemu nub” (gold artisan). Their craft was highly valued in Egyptian society. Find out more about Bracelets, Necklaces and Collars.

The ancient Egyptians used beautiful pigments and colours to enhance their art and jewellery. As well as artistic considerations the meaning of colour in ancient Egypt was also important. Each colour had a symbolic aspect which gave a further level of meaning to the finished object or painting. The basic palette centered around six colours; red, blue, green, yellow, white and black.

Clothing, Crowns and Regalia

The ancient Egyptians generally wore white linen clothing, well suited to the heat of the desert. Find out more about ancient Egyptian clothing.

The pharaoh carried many additional items which acted as emblems of royal power and had a number of different crowns for different occasions.

Egyptian society was structured like a pyramid. At the top were the gods, such as Ra, Osiris, and Isis. Egyptians believed that the gods controlled the universe. Therefore, it was important to keep them happy. They could make the Nile overflow, cause famine, or even bring death.

The Egyptian social pyramid
In the social pyramid of ancient Egypt the pharaoh and those associated with divinity were at the top, and servants and slaves made up the bottom.

The Egyptians also elevated some human beings to gods. Their leaders, called pharaohs, were believed to be gods in human form. They had absolute power over their subjects. After pharaohs died, huge stone pyramids were built as their tombs. Pharaohs were buried in chambers within the pyramids.

Because the people of Egypt believed that their pharaohs were gods, they entrusted their rulers with many responsibilities. Protection was at the top of the list. The pharaoh directed the army in case of a foreign threat or an internal conflict. All laws were enacted at the discretion of the pharaoh. Each farmer paid taxes in the form of grain, which were stored in the pharaoh’s warehouses. This grain was used to feed the people in the event of a famine.

The Chain of Command

Egyptian woman with mirror
Ancient Egyptian royalty, nobility, and clergy enjoyed lives of wealth and comfort while farmers and slaves struggled to subsist.

No single person could manage all these duties without assistance. The pharaoh appointed a chief minister called a vizier as a supervisor. The vizier ensured that taxes were collected.

Working with the vizier were scribes who kept government records. These high-level employees had mastered a rare skill in ancient Egypt — they could read and write.

Noble Aims

Right below the pharaoh in status were powerful nobles and priests. Only nobles could hold government posts; in these positions they profited from tributes paid to the pharaoh. Priests were responsible for pleasing the gods.

Egyptian gods found etched in a tomb
Religion was a central theme in ancient Egyptian culture and each town had its own deity. Initially, these deities were animals; later, they took on human appearances and behaviors. Seated here is Thoth, the god of learning and wisdom, carrying a scepter symbolizing magical power.

Nobles enjoyed great status and also grew wealthy from donations to the gods. All Egyptians — from pharaohs to farmers — gave gifts to the gods.

Soldier On

Soldiers fought in wars or quelled domestic uprisings. During long periods of peace, soldiers also supervised the peasants, farmers, and slaves who were involved in building such structures as pyramids and palaces.

Skilled workers such as physicians and craftspersons made up the middle class. Craftspersons made and sold jewelry, pottery, papyrus products, tools, and other useful things.

Naturally, there were people needed to buy goods from artisans and traders. These were the merchants and storekeepers who sold these goods to the public.

The Bottom of the Heap

At the bottom of the social structure were slaves and farmers. Slavery became the fate of those captured as prisoners of war. In addition to being forced to work on building projects, slaves toiled at the discretion of the pharaoh or nobles.

Farmers tended the fields, raised animals, kept canals and reservoirs in good order, worked in the stone quarries, and built the royal monuments. Farmers paid taxes that could be as much as 60 percent of their yearly harvest — that’s a lot of hay!

Social mobility was not impossible. A small number of peasants and farmers moved up the economic ladder. Families saved money to send their sons to village schools to learn trades. These schools were run by priests or by artisans. Boys who learned to read and write could become scribes, then go on to gain employment in the government. It was possible for a boy born on a farm to work his way up into the higher ranks of the government. Bureaucracy proved lucrative.

Administration

The Egyptians were skilled administrators. The pharaoh was the central authority but the country was divided into Nomes or provinces whose local government helped everything to run smoothly. There was also the ancient division between Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt which was preserved thoughout Egyptian history.

Ancient Egyptian scribes worked in every area of society, calculating tax revenues, perpetuating the written culture, recording legal decisions and supporting the work of architects, priests and managing foreign affairs. The ancient Egyptian calendar was developed at an early stage because it was necessary to be able to predict the coming of the inundation and because it allowed the development of their bureaucracy. The calendar also had a religious connection as months were named after gods and goddesses and the calendar fixed the relative dates of festivals to honour the gods.

Military

The Egyptians were a powerful military force for much of their history. Martial prowess was an important attribute of the pharaoh who was often shown riding his chariot into battle or smiting enemies.

Animals in Ancient Egypt

Animals played an important part in the economy, religion and society of the ancient Egyptians. Many gods were closely associated with one or more animals and certain animals were considered to be living incarnations of a deity. Find out more about: cats in ancient Egypt and ancient Egyptian bull cults.

Diet

The Egyptians had a varied diet including ; bread; meat and fish; fruit and vegetables; nuts, seeds and beans; and numerous herbs and spices. Beer was an important part of their diet and they also made wine and milk. Make your own food with these fun ancient Egyptian recipes.

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