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Ancient Egypt was an historical period in Egypt spanning from about 3000 BCE to 332 BCE, at which point its kings became decidedly Macedonian. During this period, the Nile River Valley became the birthplace and center of one of the oldest civilizations in the world, and a sophisticated one at that. A surprising amount of ancient Egypt's material culture has survived to the modern day, including the only surviving "Wonder of the Classical World", the Great Pyramid at Giza, and The Sphinx of Giza, which forms a part of the same complex. In addition to monumental architecture, a large number of documents and burials have also been preserved, thanks to the arid desert climate of the region.
Advancements in writing
Egyptian hieroglyphics were one of the world's earliest writing systems. For a long time, they remained a mystery to modern scholars, despite various fanciful attempts to interpret the writing as some sort of hermetic symbolism. The reality was much more mundane; hieroglyphs simply stood for sounds (like the Latin alphabet) or words (like Chinese writing systems) depending on context. A Proto-Sinaitic script derived from or inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphics is a likely candidate for the origin of the Phoenician alphabet, and as such Egyptian hieroglyphics would represent the ultimate ancestor of all the major alphabetic scripts currently in use, including the Latin, Greek, Arabic, and Brahmi-derived scripts of South Asia.
In Egyptian society, women generally married around their first menses, while men usually married between the ages of 16-20. There was no taboo against premarital sex, and because marriage was more of an economic institution than a religious one, no-fault divorce was allowed, and could be initiated by either partner. Both genders inherited wealth equally and separately from each parent. The end of childhood was marked by the first menses in girls and circumcision in boys at age 13. Careers in ancient Egypt were hereditary, so only the male children of scribes could expect classroom educations; as administrators of the kingdom, scribes also did not have to pay taxes. The common method of payment across all professions was in grain. Beer was a prized invention of the ancient Egyptians, while their favorite board game, senet, invoked the journey into the underworld.
Pyramid construction methods
Although Herodotus described the pyramids as being built by slaves at the crack of a whip, a tomb for builders was found near the Giza pyramids, which had been stocked with food supplies for the afterlife. Labor for most Egyptian state projects was provided by a system of corvée labor, where Egyptian peasants were drafted to work and paid in bread and beer. (While the work was hard, having an assured constant food source could be preferable to having to depend on one's own subsistence farming.) The pyramid builders at Giza worked in three-month shifts, and the 10,000 laborers would consume 21 cattle and 23 sheep each day, for 30 years.
Some people like to believe that aliens helped Egyptians build the pyramids, but if they did, the aliens were, frankly, terrible both at basic architecture and at taking credit for their work. The first pyramid built in Egypt, the stepped Pyramid of Djoser, was credited to an architect named Imhotep and not to extraterrestrial visitors. The king Sneferu had to take three tries before he built a pyramid that didn't either fall down or have a rather embarrassing bend halfway up. One hundred years after Djoser's first pyramid, Khufu managed to make the Great Pyramid of Giza, which is a pretty good achievement for a Bronze Age civilization, but rather pitiful for most interstellar civilizations.
The term pharaoh comes from the name for the royal palace, but became associated with the king itself the same way one might say "The White House" or "10 Downing Street" today. (As a term, pharaoh was only used starting relatively late in ancient Egyptian history, but it's used today to refer to any Egyptian king.) According to ancient Egyptian belief, the king was descended from the Egyptian gods, and was the living embodiment of Horus on Earth. As living gods, Egyptian kings could sometimes get a little wild, such as the First Dynasty's penchant for sacrificing royal servants to accompany the king, or the Eighteenth Dynasty's tradition of marrying their sisters, with all the results one would expect. (But what better way to make sure you don't have any annoying nephews trying to take your throne?)
There were a number of women who ruled Egypt, most notably Hatshepsut, though there were other women rulers before her. Ancient Egyptian language didn't quite have a word equivalent to "queen" as it's used today; the masculine word nswt, which referred to the ruler of Egypt, was thus used to refer to female rulers as well. While the Egyptian ideology of kingship put a lot of stock in the masculine nature of the king, it was flexible enough to allow women to rule at times, though as it seems, always as an exception to the rule.
Prior to World War II, Americans would occasionally use the insult of "pharaoh" for their political opponents in speeches or the press, [note 1] since almost everyone would have been familiar with the story of the Pharaoh in Exodus and the negative connotations.
Ancient Egyptian religion and magic
From the RationalWiki perspective, the most salient feature of ancient Egyptian religion involved its funerary cult, and its associated practice of mummification. The Egyptians believed that the preservation of the body was vital to the soul's survival in the afterlife, and they buried at least their upper class dead in elaborate tombs that contained grave goods and carved servants (ushabti) that would be animated to wait upon the deceased in the afterlife. The Book of the Dead was a collection of texts — there was no single standard version — that were meant as a guidebook and instruction manual informing deceased Egyptians how to navigate the Egyptian afterlife, pass its trials and avoid its hazards, and come to rest by identification with the dying and resurrected god Osiris.
Because of this belief that the dead needed material goods to take with them to the afterlife, the tombs of ancient Egyptians attracted grave robbers seeking to plunder the grave goods they contained. Many Egyptian tombs were therefore plundered (especially the ones with great big pyramids on top of them), even in antiquity. Some were left relatively undisturbed, though, such as the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun (which had been hidden by rubble from a nearby tomb, protecting it from robbers.) To discourage the practice, some Egyptian tombs contained inscriptions proclaiming curses on the heads of these thieves; one such curse reads "Cursed be those who disturb the rest of a Pharaoh. They that shall break the seal of this tomb shall meet death by a disease that no doctor can diagnose." These curses live on in contemporary legend and popular culture; one such curse has Lord Caernarvon, backer of the excavations, succumbing to Tutankhamun's curse because he died from sepsis from a self-inflicted cut six months after the opening of the tomb. Another mummy's curse legend blames the sinking of the Titanic on the presence of an Egyptian mummy in the hold.
Egypt's reputation as a haven of occult magic extends back to the ancient world; the presence of the Library of Alexandria on Egyptian soil made Alexandria the largest center for learning in the ancient world. Ptolemy had his home there, and a great many magical texts in a mixture of late Egyptian and Greek have been preserved on papyri, making them the largest body of magical texts preserved from the ancient world. A great many of these texts deal with themes of late paganism that are not specifically Egyptian, such as the Mithras Liturgy.
The Egyptian deities Isis, Horus, and Osiris (often under the name Serapis) were widely popular throughout the Greco-Roman world; Isis had shrines as far away as Roman Britain, and Serapis, a god which merged aspects of Osiris, Apis, and elements of Greek culture, was massively popular in Greco-Roman Egypt. Isis was worshipped as part of Greek and Roman mystery religions.
Lucius Apuleius's magical novel Metamorphoseon, often known in English as The Golden Ass, is also not specifically Egyptian in its content, but at its climax, its hero Lucius is rescued from having been transformed into an ass by the Egyptian goddess Isis. The invocation of Isis from Apuleius's novel has had a large influence on contemporary occultism and neo-paganism. It is the chief ancient source for the claims of the Goddess movement. This movement holds that all of the diverse female deities worshiped in antiquity were guises of a single goddess, from the Virgin Mary to pagan Celtic deities. Another common aspect of Isis imagery is the Veil of Isis, in which the veiled goddess acts as a metaphor for all that is mysterious.
The Eye of Horus is another commonly-found symbol dating back to ancient Egypt. It relates to myths that Horus lost an eye in one of several ways and had it magically restored; it now represents sensory powers, health, protection against evil, and all kinds of other magic, and is often painted on things to summon its protective power. There are also legends that it embodies secret mathematical ratios but these are now thought conclusively disproved. A very common theme in conspiracy theories is that the Eye of Horus or anything related to Egyptian mythology is part of the Illuminati. For example, if an Egyptian casket is found at Whitney Houston's funeral, it suddenly has everything to do with the Illuminati and anyone who tries to debunk this is a shill.
Egypt's status as an early civilization with many well-preserved artifacts attracts a great deal of woo. An attempt to claim ancient Egyptian forebears as a part of the heritage of contemporary African Americans is a recurring feature of Afrocentric pseudohistory. The African-American Baseline Essays published by the Portland, Oregon school system, tell us that in ancient Egypt, psi was an "exact science". Elsewhere, the essays credit an Egyptian physician named Imhotep with discovering heredity, claiming that Imhotep discovered that "a child acquires qualities of the parent through the semen of the father; this was the basis of the royal family's selective marriage policies." Not only was Imhotep wrong about this, assuming he said any such thing; but incest was remarkably common in Egyptian royal lineages. The essay also claims that Egyptian medicine was based on contemporary New Age ideas about psychic powers, which were apparently linked to a psychic network whose power source was the Pharaoh:
“”The ancient Egyptians call this creative energy "za" (known as "prana" to the Hindus and "chi" to the Chinese), which human beings, under special conditions, could manipulate. The god Heka was also the personification of this energy. They understood man's vital essence, the spirit, to be contained in a net of energy: the body. Thus, in the process of healing, the psi-physician/priest actually sought to restore the energetic integrity and harmony of the ill person. By the laying-on-of-hands, he or she could transfer their "za" which they received from the Pharaoh, who in turn received his "za" from the sun, to the patient.
Egyptian images have also been appropriated wholesale by Western occultists in general, although the solar imagery of Egypt has become less popular in recent years, being largely supplanted by earth-based imagery. According to Antoine Court de Gébelin's Le Monde Primitif ("The Primitive World"), an attempt at harmonizing the world's several mythologies, the Tarot card deck is of ancient Egyptian origin. His successor and plagiarist, the hairdresser and cartomancer Etteilla followed suit, and named the Tarot as the "Book of Thoth", an ancient Egyptian deity. Etteilla somehow determined in 1788 that the word tarot comes from ancient Egyptian roots TAR and RO, meaning "royal road"; since Jean-François Champollion's decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs was some thirty years in the future, the conclusion seems suspect, particularly because Tarot was invented in Italy in the 15th century.
The Theosophical Society (founded in 1875) has its roots in an earlier occult organization, the "Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor" (also founded in the 1870s). Likewise, the Rosicrucian organization operates a Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California. A great deal of pseudohistory and pseudoarcheology has attached itself to the pyramids and the Sphinx of Giza. Tamara Siuda's House of Netjer purports to be an attempt to reconstruct the ancient Egyptian religion.
An often repeated but false claim by Afrocentrists, is that the Library of Alexandria existed prior to Hellenistic times. The Alexandrian library and museum were founded and maintained by the long succession of Ptolemies (of Greek origin) in Egypt from the beginning of the 3rd century BCE. There is no evidence of any library on the site prior to the founding of the city by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE.
- Joseph was Imhotep, a special little theory
- John F. Healey, The early alphabet; (University of California Press, 1990, ISBN 978-0-520-07309-8), p. 18.
- See the Wikipedia article on Egyptian pyramid construction techniques.
- See the Wikipedia article on Meidum.
- See the Wikipedia article on Bent Pyramid.
- See the Wikipedia article on Ancient Egyptian retainer sacrifices.
- Roger Highfield, "Ancient Egyptian female pharaohs", Daily Telegraph, 27 June 2007
- Brian Palmer, Before Hitler, Who Was the Stand-In for Pure Evil?, Slate (2011)
- E. A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Ideas of the Future Life (1908); not an entirely reliable source.
- The Book of the Dead
- Valley of the Golden Mummies, Zahi A. Hawass, p. 94–97, American University Press in Cairo Press, 2000, ISBN 977-424-585-7
- Cursed Mummy on the Titanic, snopes.com
- See the Wikipedia article on Greek Magical Papyri.
- Lucifer Rising: Review, Senses of Cinema, 2015
- Isis, Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University
- Lucius Apuleius, The Golden Ass l. XI
- What Every Catholic Should Know About Mary, Terrence J. McNally
- See the Wikipedia article on Veil of Isis.
- Eye of Horus, Ancient Origins
- See the Wikipedia article on Eye of Horus.
- What the eye in every conspiracy theory actually means, Business Insider, Mar 19, 2018
- Hunter Havelin Adams, "African and African-American contributions to science and technology, The African-American Baseline Essays (1987), pp. 41-42
- Jack Goody, "The Labyrinth of Kinship". New Left Review (2005)
- Adams, supra, p. 44
- See generally Brian Brown, The Wisdom of the Egyptians (1923)
- See generally Erik Hornung, The Secret Lore of Egypt (Cornell, 2001)
- The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum