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gods king’s god maat

The king of Egypt was the only living person who possessed the status of a netjer (“god”). He could be called “the good god,” the “great god,” or simply “god.” Because of the king’s special status, he could serve as the link between the world of the gods and men. The king was the only mortal who could directly approach the gods. The temples throughout Egypt show only the king performing the rituals. This was a polite fiction, because in reality the king commissioned the priests to act in his stead. The king’s “divinity” (for lack of a better word—"netjer-hood" would be more appropriate, but is too cumbersome), however, is different from that of the gods. The king’s divinity was an acquired status, bestowed when he ascended the throne. Beginning with his coronation, and extending throughout his reign, the king participated in rituals designed to reinforce and strengthen his divine status.


The Egyptians had many ways of describing the king’s unique nature. He could be called a god, the son of a god, the image of a god, or he was described as like a god. For example, one text describes Merneptah (r. 1213–1204 B.C.E. ) as “the good god that lives on Maat … son of Kheperi [a form of the sun], descendant of the Bull of Heliopolis [probably a reference to Amun, Re, or Atum], … born of Isis.” A text describes Redjedef (r. 2560–2555 B.C.E. ), the third king of the Fourth Dynasty and the successor of Khufu, as the first king to be called the Son of Re. From this point on, every king has a “Son of Re” name, usually his birth name, which was one of the king’s two names enclosed in a cartouche (an oval or oblong figure enclosing the king’s names). This king’s status as the son of a god is explained in the text called Khufu and the Magicians , where the first allusion to the myth of the king’s divine birth are found. The text contains references to Ruddedet, the wife of a priest of Re, who was impregnated by Re himself. She gave birth to triplets who grew up to be the first three kings of the Fifth Dynasty (2500–2350 B.C.E. ). Later, in the Eighteenth Dynasty, Hatshepsut (r. 1478–1458 B.C.E. ) had a set of reliefs carved in her temple at Deir el Bahri depicting the myth of her divine birth. The myth relates that the god Amun, in the guise of her father Thuthmosis I, visited her mother one night. As a result of their union, Hatshepsut was conceived. The myth of the divine birth of the king was not confined to only Re and Amun. An inscription from the time of Ramesses II (1279–1213 B.C.E. ) states that Ptah engendered the king in his form of Banebdjed, a ram god.


The king could be equated with any number of deities when he was said to be fulfilling the function of those gods. From the earliest periods of Egyptian history, the king was thought to be the embodiment of the ancient sky god Horus. Amenemhet I (r. 1938–1909 B.C.E. ) is described as “driving out evil when he appears like Atum.” Sesostris III (1836–1818 B.C.E. ) was described as Sekhmet, a fierce lion goddess representing the fiery heat of the sun, when attacking the enemies who trespassed on the borders of Egypt. The Loyalist Inscription describes King Amenemhet III (r. 1818–1772 B.C.E. ) as Sia (goddess of perception), Re, Khnum, Bastet, Hapi, Montu, and Sakhmet. Here the king was not the incarnation of these deities, but equating the king with these gods described his roles as warrior (Montu), provider (Hapi), protector (Sakhmet), and father figure (Khnum).


According to an Egyptian text that scholars call The King as Sun Priest , Re established kingship in Egypt for four purposes: “judging men, for making gods content, for creating truth (maat), and for destroying evil (isfet).” The first of these duties, judging men, refers to the king’s civil duties as the source of law and justice. The second, making the gods content, refers to the king’s responsibility to see to it that temples to the gods were built and maintained throughout Egypt, and that in them the gods received the necessary offerings and the required rituals were performed. The third and fourth duties, creating maat and destroying isfet, go together. Maat has been translated as truth, order, justice, or righteousness. It refers to the order established by the gods at creation, when a space was established in the chaos of Nun for life to take place. It refers to the natural order as well as to the social order, and embraces the concepts of duty, responsibility, social justice, and ethical behavior. It was the way the Egyptians thought things ought to be. It was the king’s responsibility to ensure that maat was preserved and that its opposite, isfet (evil, disorder, injustice) was overcome. One of the king’s most important duties was to present maat, represented as a small figure of the seated goddess with her legs drawn up, to the gods in their temples daily. In this way, the king reaffirmed that he was fulfilling his duty of preserving maat.


H. Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).

David O’Connor and David P. Silverman, eds., Ancient Egyptian Kingship (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1995).

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