Different Facets of Egyptian Society and the Daily Life of Its People

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE OTHER SIDE OF HISTORY: DAILY LIFE IN THE ANCIENT WORLD

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

The Egyptian society was intensely conservative and traditional. Tradition being the watchword, whose high point was the Fourth Dynasty when the power of the pharaoh was at its peak. After that, things went downhill. Explore this extraordinary journey of the land of natural gifts, tranquility, conservatism, and wealth of literature.

Picture of Hieroglyphic carvings
One of the facets of ancient Egypt was the art that Egyptians did not think to improve before but during the Old Kingdom, it evolved and remained consistent. (Image: Vixit/Shutterstock )

Conservative Society of Egypt

Egypt was a very conservative society, with not many opportunities to better themselves. Being a scribe or in the Army did offer some opportunity for social and economic mobility, but the vast number of Egyptians had no chance whatsoever of bettering their lives.

Tranquility in Egyptian Society

During the period of the pyramids, there was extraordinary stability and tranquility in Egyptian society. For example in Egyptian art, a fixed, canonical style evolved at the beginning of the Old Kingdom and remained remarkably consistent throughout Egyptian history, only an expert could detect any changes over hundreds of years.

Learn more about what is it like to be an ancient Egyptian.

Egyptian Conservatism

Picture of Egyptian art on a stone
There was no place for originality or individuality in the Egyptian society to represent art. (Image: Andreas Praefcke/Public domain)

There was no place for individualism, originality, or creativity in Egyptian art or Egyptian society. Unlike the Greeks, who learned so much from them and were constantly changing the way they did art, as Egyptians, they saw no need to change the way of representing the world. The language of Egyptian art was constructed on axial symmetry, proportion, geometrical shapes, principally the rectangle and the square, and on the frontal and the profile viewpoint. All that in itself argued for the conservatism of their art.

But art was just one manifestation of Egyptian conservatism. The gods established their world for all eternity. They just did what their fathers and forefathers had always done, the best way to guarantee their future. They kept free of foreign influences as foreigners had nothing to teach them. There was no point in traveling abroad unless someone was engaged in international trade.

Understanding Maat

Egyptians believed in beauty, proportion, balance, order, eternal truth, and repose called maat, often represented by an upright feather and personified as a goddess. The accidental, the ugly, the obscene had no part in their idealized vision of the world. They cultivated their senses and enjoyed the good things of life and were keen observers of animals and nature, venerated animals in an impressive way. The practice of mummifying cats provided compelling evidence of their affection for felines.

Picture depicting Maat who was often personified as a goddess.
The belief of Egyptians in proportion, beauty, balance, order and eternal truth is called Maat, considered a goddess. (Image: Louvre Museum/CC BY-SA 2.0 /Public domain)

But not everyone living in Egypt throughout the period of 3,000 years, thought that way. It was easy to depict ancient Egypt as a static, monolithic culture but eventually, Egyptians were no longer able to remain aloof from the people around them.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Hieroglyphic Script

The Egyptians left enough information about their daily lives than any other ancient people, also due to the dry sands of Egypt, which preserved scenes of daily life depicted in their tombs where delicate objects, like papyrus paper and fabrics, too have survived. Another reason is that the Egyptians were highly literate, or at least there was a group of Egyptians, the scribes, who were literate. Ordinary Egyptians for the most part could not read or write.

The script which scribes wrote in was called hieroglyphic, derived from two Greek words meaning, ‘sacred carving’. Many of the surviving texts in hieroglyphic accompanied paintings and relief sculptures in tombs and temples. The hieroglyphic script was a combination of ideograms and phonetic signs, different from cuneiform, which was there due to the influence of Mesopotamia.

Ideograms were signs that depicted objects like man or river; whereas, phonetic signs represented either a part of the whole of a spoken word. The hieroglyphic script probably began to be used around 3500 B.C. and continued in use for about 4,000 years, written from left to right or right to left or top to bottom.

Learn more about the Egyptian religion as an hierarchical affair.

The Last Inscription

The last piece of hieroglyphic writing was a short inscription on one of the walls of the temple of the goddess Isis that formerly stood on the island of Philae. The inscription, dated 24th August A.D. 394.

Knowledge of hieroglyphics died out until 1822 when a Frenchman called Jean-François Champollion deciphered the script, thanks to the Rosetta Stone, a trilingual inscription in Greek, hieroglyphic, and demotic. The inscription dealt with tax concessions for Egyptian priests.

Rosetta Stone

But its decipherment opened up a whole world about daily life in Egypt. Rosetta Stone was one of those contested treasures that scholars and governments argued over endlessly. It was carved by the Egyptians in 196 B.C., discovered by the French in 1799, and purchased from the Ottomans by the British in 1801. It had a short inscription in a fourth language, English, that read, ‘Captured in Egypt by the British army, 1801’. Since then it’s on display in the British Museum, raising questions about its rightful home.

Wealth of Literature

A wealth of Egyptian literature in a variety of genres survived, along with other writings including advice on how to reach the afterlife, magical texts, private correspondence, business documentation, and so on. There were romances often with a moral attached, teachings on how to become wise, meditations upon the transitoriness of life, love poetry, victory hymns, hymns and prayers to the gods.

Learn more about the lives of an ordinary Egyptian family.

The Theme of Carpe Diem

Be of good cheer. Forgetfulness is advantageous to you. Follow your heart’s desire all your life. Anoint your head with myrrh. Clothe yourself in fine linen. Do things while you are here on earth. Do not grieve until the day of lamentation overtakes you. Enjoy life and do not grow weary of it. No-one takes his possessions (out of this life) and no-one who has departed returns.

This was the carpe diem theme, associated primarily with the Roman poet Horace. Enjoy the day; seize the day, the theme was invented by an unknown Egyptian 2,000 years earlier.

Land of Natural Gifts

Egyptian civilization was the gift of climate and geography, as Herodotus first observed. As well as fertilizing the land, the Nile was a major thoroughfare for communication, travel, and transport. It was a society that was literate, enabling them to reconstruct the pattern of their daily life in a way that was impossible in a society that was illiterate.

Common Questions about Ancient Egypt

Q: What was ancient Egyptian culture like?

Egyptians had keen appreciation and awareness of death. In Egyptian culture, people believed that the gods presided over their health and welfare, and land as a whole. The priests would proceed with the rituals to win god’s favor.

Q: What does Maat mean in Egyptian?

Maat in Egyptian means a belief in beauty, proportion, balance, order, eternal truth, and repose, often represented by an upright feather and personified as a goddess. The accidental, ugly, obscene had no part in Egyptian society of idealized vision of the world.

Q: Why is Nile valley regarded as the true gift to Egypt?

Nile valley is regarded a true gift to Egypt because it fertilized the land, and was a major thoroughfare for communication, travel, and transportation in ancient Egypt. Flooding in the Nile also bought with its minerals and nutrients that helped fertilize the soil.

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