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king evil justice author

The exact cause of the collapse of the central government at the end of the Old Kingdom between 2170 and 2130 B.C.E. remains the subject of debate. Nevertheless, it is clear that the central government located in Memphis gradually surrendered its control to local rulers of the provinces during this forty-year period. From 2130 to about 2003 B.C.E. , Egypt experienced decentralized, local government with each province ruled separately by local noble families. This is the period Egyptologists call the First Intermediate Period. When Mentuhotep II restored the central government about 2008 B.C.E. , the newly re-established central bureaucracy, composed of the literate class, generated a literature sometimes called the literature of pessimism. The theme of these works, mostly composed in the early Twelfth Dynasty, is a reproach or accusation against the gods for allowing chaotic conditions between the end of the Old Kingdom and the establishment of the Middle Kingdom. The texts include laments about the insecure state of society and nature, and assert the hopelessness of discussing these problems. In general, the authors wrestle with the problem that reality does not match the Egyptian ideal of justice. The list of texts included with the pessimistic literature comprises The Admonitions of Ipuwer , The Complaints of Khakheperre-sonb , The Dialogue of a Man with his Ba , The Eloquent Peasant , The Teachings for Merykare , The Prophecy of Neferty , and The Teachings of Amenemhet . These seven texts, all written during the Twelfth Dynasty (1938–1759 B.C.E. ), form a group unified by theme, if not a distinct literary genre. They thus reflect an intellectual position which was probably widely held among the literate class during this time period. They shared a fear of two things: disrespect for traditional wisdom and the loneliness of the individual without an ordered society. At least some of the authors of these texts recommended trust in the king and his government as the only antidote to these severe social problems. No authors are known and the exact order and date of composition remains difficult to ascertain. Yet they all share important themes: accusations against the gods, the insecure state of the world, and, by contrast, the nature of a secure world.


An insecure world serves as the setting for the seven works of pessimistic literature. Each author describes the world slightly differently, but they all touch on similar ills that they find in it. First, they acknowledge a threat to or loss of important political, economic, and religious institutions that leads to chaos. The threatened institutions include an effective king who controls an operating government and administers swift justice, a functioning economy, proper religion, and a permanent funerary cult. The Teachings of Amenemhet, for example, begins by narrating the assassination of a king by his trusted advisors. In the Teachings for Merykare , a king either colludes in grave robbing or is powerless to stop it. False friends threaten both Amenemhet and Merykare. The result of ineffectively functioning kings is a chaotic world defined by abandoned fields, empty granaries, and hungry people and animals. Trade breaks down because robbers stalk the highways while corrupt officials act arbitrarily; local rulers fight each other, fomenting civil war. According to the German Egyptologist Elke Blumenthal, the authors of Ipuwer , Neferty , and Khakheperre-sonb regard all of these circumstances as equally important, with none assigned more weight than another. None of the authors specifically diagnose the cause to be a weak or ineffective king because no author is willing to state unequivocally that the king is responsible for chaos in the world. Yet the implication can easily be read between the lines of the text. Thus the author seems to say that a weak king is just another circumstance on the same level as the prevalence of hunger, robbers, and corrupt officials. No author willingly condemns the king’s weakness.


The king was responsible in Egyptian ideology for guaranteeing the integrity of divine rituals, both for the gods and for the dead. Yet in spite of lengthy descriptions of inadequately supplied temples, desecrated altars, the destruction of the sun-god Re’s temple at Heliopolis, the expulsion of priests, the profanation of holy texts—all apparently everyday occurrences in this group of texts—none of the authors of the pessimistic literature even mention the king’s role as protector of order. The king also guaranteed that the mortuary cult would be effective, according to Egyptian belief. Even though the king supplied financial help with burial only to high-level officials, funeral prayers all assume that the king will provide offerings for everyone throughout all time. Yet the pessimistic literature portrays kings’ cults as defiled. The rabble disturbs the king’s mummy in its tomb or during the embalming and throws it in the river. Yet even the current king is not directly blamed in the literature. No author is willing to charge the king directly with responsibility for chaos and disorder, even though this clearly is the implication of the author’s words.


The roots of the world’s troubles include ungrateful royal advisors, the king’s weakness, and men’s greed. Yet no author can specifically accuse the king of weakness. The Admonitions of Ipuwer suggests that there is a being responsible for this state of affairs: the creator god Atum. Atum never recognized people’s capacity for evil and never inhibited people’s attempts to be evil, according to the narrator. From this idea grew the accusations against the gods found mixed with complaints about chaos among men in the pessimistic literature. The god is both guilty and withdrawn from the world. Not only has the god allowed injustice, but also has become unjust himself by betraying the very justice he created. Neferty goes even farther than Ipuwer, claiming, “Creation is as if it were never created. Re should begin creation anew.” Yet this view was not universal among Egyptians. In Coffin Text 1130, a text commonly inscribed on Middle Kingdom coffins, the sun-god Re describes four acts of creation that he performed in the world. He made the wind so people could breathe. He made the Nile flood to benefit both the humble and the great. He also claims that he created all people to be the same. He never told anyone to act in an evil way. Thus acting in an evil way contradicts the gods’ wishes. Finally, Re claims that people were created to carry out the mortuary cult. This text thus shows that there was a debate about mankind’s nature and whether men were inherently evil because of the gods or were themselves responsible for their actions. The origin of evil and the degree to which humans’ actions are fated occupy much of the pessimistic literature.


The debate over the origin of evil and human fate can also continue within a single work. Thus descriptions of the secure world can also be found within works that accuse the gods of creating evil. The Prophecy of Neferty is structured as a series of antithetical statements contrasting the evil world of the First Intermediate Period with the better world to come during the Twelfth Dynasty. Rebellion will end, foreign enemies will be subdued, people will celebrate, and the king will restore justice. The contemporary literary texts called “teachings” also provide a method for subduing evil through practicing justice. The Teachings for Merykare discusses how a king can act to create a better world for all. Merykare receives advice on how to handle each class of people including officials, soldiers, rebels, and criminals. His father in the text urges reliance on tradition, the daily divine cult, and the mortuary cult in order to foster justice. Even the very pessimistic The Teachings of Amenemhet seems to anticipate better from the reign of his son Senwosret I in his teachings. The author of The Eloquent Peasant is also able to describe a world with justice, appropriate punishments, and the merciful treatment of the weak that is all part of the Egyptian idea of justice. In The Dialogue of a Man with his Ba , the next world contains many of the elements of justice that are missing in the world of the living, including properly provisioned temples and punishment of evildoers.


The pessimistic literature shows that the Egyptians contemplated many of basic problems facing mankind. They were particularly concerned with the origin of evil, the proper way to combat evil, and the proper way to promote justice in an insecure world.


Elke Blumenthal, “Die literarische Verarbeitung der Ubergangszeit zwischen Altem und Mittererm Reich,” in Ancient Egyptian Literature: History and Forms . Ed. Antonio Loprieno (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1996): 105–136.

Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature . Vol. I (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).

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