ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egypt: The pharaoh - man, ruler and god
Main menu Main Index and Search Page History List of Dynasties Cultural chronology Mythology Aspects of Life in Ancient Egypt Glossary of ancient Egyptian terms Herodotus on the pharaohs Ancient Egyptian texts Apologia and Bibliography
  For best results save the whole web page (pictures included) onto your hard disk, open the page with Word 97 or higher, edit if necessary and print.
  Printing using the browser's print function is not recommended.


The pharaoh - man, ruler and god

Horus giving pharaoh crown     The term pharaoh, pr-aA [22] - lit. great house, in the sense of palace, goes back to the Old Kingdom [19]. As part of the royal titulary it came into use only in the early first millennium BCE, in monumental inscriptions possibly as late as the reign of Sheshong III.

Horus giving the Double Crown to Pharaoh
Temple of Ramses II at Abydos
Source: V. Easy

Ideally, for most of Egyptian history, one should not refer to the king as pharaoh, but as the kingship remained basically unchanged for millennia until the advent of Christianity and the abandonment of the traditional world view, referring to this intrinsically Egyptian institution as pharaonic is reasonable, even if at times anachronistic.
    The pharaohs were often referred to as nswt,[35] translated as 'King', and Hm, rendered as 'Majesty'.[25] Thus the official Sia-Khufu described himself in a rockinscription in the Upperegyptian Eastern Desert as
jrj-jx,t-nsw.t   (custodian of the king's property)
jrr mrrt Hm=f   (who does what His Majesty loves) [24]

The royal titulary

    The Egyptians perceived clearly that their overlord fulfilled a number of essentially different roles. From the late Old Kingdom on the pharaoh bore five titles which reflected some of his functions:
  • The oldest was the Horus name written inside a serekh, which he assumed when acceding to power as the heir to Horus, ruler of the world (i.e. Egypt)
  • The name of the Two Ladies, the protective goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt, since the first dynasty
  • The Golden Horus name
  • The name of enthronement as the king of the "sedge and bee", used since the fifth dynasty, it became the main name by which a pharaoh was known in antiquity. This name and the given name (see below) were written inside cartouches
  • His given name as the son of Re (since the fourth dynasty, has become the name by which pharaohs are known today and to which we add ordinal numbers if needed)
These five names were the titulary which were often recorded in full at the beginning of royal texts. Horemheb for instance is referred to in his coronation inscription as
[Horus: Mighty Bull, Ready in Plans
Favorite of the Two Goddesses: Great in Marvels in Karnak
Golden Horus: Satis]fied with Truth, Creator of the Two Lands
King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the Two Lands: Zeserkheprure, Setepnere
Son of Re, Lord of Diadems: Beloved of Amon, Harmhab
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Three, §24
    People who came into contact with the king were aware of this complex presence. Sennefer, an 18th dynasty mayor of Thebes wrote of himself in his tomb:
He who filled both ears of the Horus in his palace,
The great confidant in the house of the king,
who has access to his lord in single audience
After Gundlach, Rolf, Horus im Palast
in Mitteilungen der Residenzen-Kommission der Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen,
Werner Paravicini (ed.), Sonderheft 7, Kiel 2005, p.25

The god

Horus, Source: Jon Bodsworth     The king deputized for Horus, the divine ruler over the whole of Egypt. From the second dynasty onward he derived his power from the sungod Re who, by then, was the pre-eminent creator god. In this role he had to keep his people safe, dispense justice, ensure the adequate rising of the Nile, care for the continued existence of those in the beyond by bringing them offerings to feed on, i.e. he had to uphold the divine order, Maat and fight Isfet.

Source: Jon Bodsworth

    It was, perhaps, not so much the man who was identified with Horus himself, but rather the ka of the pharaoh, which, created as the body's twin, was an expression of the life force, rather than just an aspect of his person. He was not the equal of a god in the Heavens, a Great God, nTr aA, but rather a representative of the divine.
His majesty is Horus, assuming his (i.e. Horus's) kingdom of myriads of years
Thutmose I inscription
Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 73
Grant that he rest upon thy throne as Horus, the Mighty Bull, beloved of Mat
Papyrus Harris
Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 351
He was above all the carer of his people, the netjer nefer (nTr nfr), generally translated as the Good God
The Good God praised me, Sekhem-kheperre-sotpenre
Statue inscription of Djedkhonsefankh, 21st dynasty
M. Lichtheim III, p.15,
The Good God, beloved of gods, The Son of Re, who acts with his arms, Piye beloved-of-Amun
M. Lichtheim III, p.68
and the Good Shepherd, a role often also played by Amen [6]
He (Re Harakhte) appointed me shepherd of this land, knowing him who would herd it for him
Senusret Kheferkare
M. Lichtheim I, p.116
    Oaths were sworn by the gods, but also by the pharaoh, a sign that people relied at least as much on the temporal powers of a living king as on the distant gods to avenge perjury:
Cause thou that the oath be established in the name of my majesty, born of the king's mother, Seniseneb, who is in health
Thutmose I, coronation decree
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, §58
    During the Old and Middle Kingdoms once a deceased pharaoh had joined the gods in the skies, he was worshipped in temples adjoining his pyramid. The cults of some pharaohs went on for long periods, though most were forgotten soon after their death [16] and their cults discontinued. Ptolemy II had himself and his wife Arsinoe II deified some two decades into his reign and was worshiped at the shrine of Alexander the Great at Alexandria, and all his successors did likewise after acceding to the throne. But unlike most of the earlier pharaohs, they continued to play a role as guardian deities after their death.[23]
    Basically, during most of history the Egyptians seem to have thought of their pharaohs as touched by the divine, sons and servants of the gods rather than equals of Re or Amen: they were mediators between humans and gods. They were also the first humans to achieve eternal life after death, becoming stars in the heavens [18], possibly after having been cleared of wrongdoings in a divine judgment. By the New Kingdom any Egyptian could hope to perpetuate for eternity the immortal constituents of his being, thanks to the rituals developed for his kings in the Old Kingdom.

The king

The ruler

Akhenaten holding the symbols of pharaonic power, flail and crook; (Source: Egyptian Museum, Cairo)     The king was set apart from his subjects. He was surrounded by servants and dignitaries, sat on a throne, displayed the insignia of his divine office: the crook, the flail [7], a false beard [8]; and covered his head with a variety of head dresses [9], very much as the ruling gods did.

Akhenaten holding the symbols of pharaonic power, flail and crook
Source: Egyptian Museum, Cairo

    He was the embodiment of all aspects of the Egyptian state [21]: he was the chief arbiter over all humans, protecting the weak from the powerful, [36] the head of the administration, be it 'civil' or 'religious', [31] the representative of the country toward foreign powers, and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He often led his armies in person, taking part in the fighting. Sometimes his eldest son and heir deputized for him.
    The king was responsible for the welfare of his people, just as nomarchs saw themselves as the carers of the inhabitants of their nome, and heads of smaller domains looked after their dependants.
I have filled the magazines, I widened the stores, giving things to the one who has not, and being friendly (?) with the rich, that people would be strong through his plans, who cultivates the wheat, beloved of the corn, master of bread. He fills every belly so that none should pass the night being hungry in his time; all the land is in joy because of his nourishment, (namely) the king of Upper and Lower Egypt Menmare, son of Re, Seti Merenptah.
Stela of Seti I
Labib Habachi, The Two Rock-Stelae of Sethos I in the Cataract Area Speaking of Huge Statues and Obelisks
BIFAO 73 (1973), p.121
    The king and his insignia were untouchable to ordinary mortals [12]. Petitioners and ambassadors approached him with due reverence, which during the New Kingdom meant (in the words of Yapahu of Gezer) to prostrate oneself seven times and seven times both upon the belly and back. Fulsome praise of the king could not hurt anybody and was forthcoming unsparingly, as was self-abasement. The Late Bronze Age rulers of Canaan liked to compare the pharaoh to the sun and themselves to the dust under his feet. [32]
    There may also have been the need for ritual purification. The Kushite pharaoh Piye apparently thought so, when he refused all rulers of Lower Egypt who had opposed him, with the exception of Namart, access to his palace, despite their having legs as the legs of women which may - according to a somewhat speculative assumption - refer to their legs having been ritually shaved, because they were unclean - whatever that entailed:
as for these kings and princes of the Northland who came to behold the beauty of his majesty, their legs were as the legs of women. They entered not into the king's house, because they were unclean and eaters of fish
Stela of Piye
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, §882

[Image: official approaching pharaoh]     Those who were in constant contact with the king must have obeyed special, abbreviated ceremonials, but little is known about this [11].

Official approaching Akhenaten
Tomb of Ramose, 18th dynasty
Source: V.Easy

    The Egyptian kingship was based on divine right. Re created the pharaohs for the purpose of ruling his land.
I will settle firm decrees for Harakhty.
He begat me to do what should be done for him,
to accomplish what he commands to do,
He appointed me shepherd of this land,
knowing him who would herd it for him.
He gave to me what he protects,
what the eye in him illuminates.
He who does all as he desires
conveys to me what he wants known.
I am king by nature,
ruler to whom one does not give.
I conquered as a fledgling,
I lorded in the egg,
I ruled as a youth.
[Mine is the land], its length and breadth,
I was nursed to be a conqueror.
Mine is the land, I am its lord,
my power reaches heaven's height.
I excel by acting for my maker,
pleasing the god with what he gave.
[I am] his son and his protector,
he gave me to conquer what he conquered.
Building Inscription of Sesostris I, Middle Kingdom
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 1, pp.116f
    By the Late Period child deities worshipped in the mammisi began to replace the pharaohs as sons of the god. If the king had previously been the enforcer of the law as the living son of the creator god Re without needing to justify himself, he became more and more subjected to it, and the fate of his kingship was decided by the piousness and lawfulness of his behaviour. The 29th dynasty king Hakor, who stood up to the Persians, does not appear ultimately to have measured up, for
He was toppled because he forsook the law and did not concern himself about his fellowmen.
The Demotic Chronicle [36]


    Every ruler has his own style of conveying his wishes to his underlings; and absolute potentates–such as the Egyptian pharaohs who were bound only by Maat–are subject to few constraints. It might take the form of peremptory orders or of encouraging hints and suggestions at times close to flattery, as in the case of the Old Kingdom pharaoh Isesi Djedkare writing to his vizier Rashepses:
Decree of the King to the Vizier and overseer of scribes of the King's documents Rashepses.
My Majesty has seen this most beautiful letter which you have sent to the palace on this beautiful day, on which the heart of Isesi was indeed delighted by that which he really loves. What my Majesty wishes more than anything is to see this letter of yours. You know what to say what my Majesty loves more than anything. Your speech is more pleasant to me than anything. My Majesty knows that you love to say that which my Majesty wishes.
O Rashepses, I am telling you this a million times: 'One who is loved by his Lord and praised by his Lord, a favourite of his Lord and keeper of the secret of his Lord.
I do know that Re loves me, because he gave you to me. As truly as Isesi shall live eternally, you shall tell every wish of yours to my Majesty, as in your present letter on this day. My Majest will have it fulfilled immediately.
Letter from Isesi Djedkare to his vizier Rashepses, [26]
5th dynasty
    In a letter to Senedjemib, his Overseer of Works, Isesi gently reminds him that he has acted perfectly millions of times, but asks:
<O>, can it really be that [my heart] will be satisfied with it? This is not just talk, (but) something to <really> gladden the heart of Isesi
Letter from Isesi Djedkare to his Overseer of Works Senedjemib [27]
Both Senedjemib and Rashepses were so pleased with these royal letters, that they had them copied on the walls of their tombs.
    When writing letters to high officials personal feelings were at times expressed, as in the letter of Pepi II to Harkhuf, when the excited child king could not wait to see the dwarf Harkhuf's expedition was bringing back, or the king describes what he was doing. Amenhotep II wrote his vice-roy on the Feast of the Appearance of the King, i.e. coronation day, giving him some pieces of advice and confessing:
Copy of the decree, which his Majesty has made with his own two hands //// [of pharaoh] life, prosperity, health, while he was sitting, spending the day drinking ///
Letter from Amenhotep II to User-Satet [28]
    If his majesty was not pleased he was not above threatening an office-holder with dire consequences, unless he mended his ways. Seti I wrote an official to fulfil his orders immediately or one would interpret his failure to do so as a crime of death[29]
    The more powerful an official was, the more the king, above all a weak one, had to be careful how to word his orders. In the declining years of the New Kingdom Ramses XI had problems asserting his authority and implementing his policies. He sent the King's Son of Kush Pa-nehesi an order accompanied by a veiled threat, though, given the political situation, a somewhat empty one:
Do not disregard this order I send you. Behold, I send (it) in order to instruct you. This is a missive to let you know that the King's House is safe and healthy.
Letter from Ramses XI to the vice-roy of Kush, Pa-nehesi in the year of the reign 17, month 4 of akhet, day 25
pTurin 1896 [30]


    Continuity was the hallmark of ancient societies when they, like the Egyptian, succeeded in catering for the basic needs of even the lowliest of their members. Unless a catastrophe occurred nobody wanted revolutionary change which, very likely, would be for the worse. [33] The foundation of Egyptian society and guarantor of prosperity, was the kingship, an immortal, divinely ordained institution:
The kingship is a goodly office; it has no son and it has no brother who shall make its monuments endure, yet it is the one person who ennobles the other; a man works for his predecessor, through the desire that what he has done may be embellished by another who shall come after him.
    On a more mundane level the kingship was passed on by inheritance from father to son [14], generally the eldest surviving son of the main wife. If a pharaoh had seized power illegally he (or she, as in the case of Hatshepsut [10]) often stressed his divine descent and showered the gods, i.e. their temples and priests, with gifts.
    From the Middle Kingdom onward the crown prince was sometimes made familiar with his future position by appointing him co-regent. If the right of accession to the throne of the father was in doubt [15], this conferred on the son some legitimacy and, even more importantly, a great deal of knowledge of how to wield royal might.
    The enthronements of new kings were occasions for celebrations. They were thought to be new beginnings, when everything would be made right again and evil and injustive would disappear. The following poem stresses above all the social changes, but the restoration of Maat affected the whole world, driving out Isfet in all its aspects:
Rejoice, all the land!
The good times have arrived.
A lord, may he live, be hale and healthy, has appeared in all lands.
Maat has returned to its place.
All you just ones, come and behold:
Maat has vanquished injustice.
The evil ones have fallen on their faces.
Thr greedy ones are all despised.
The water stands and does not dry up.
The inundation rises high.
The days are long, the nights have hours
The moon appears at the right time.
The gods are pacified and satisfied.
One lives in laughter and wondering.
pSallier I
After Jan Assmann, Ma'at: Gerechtigkeit und Unsterblichkeit im alten Ägypten, C.H.Beck, 2001 p.222
    Changes of power were not always peaceful or in accord with tradition. During the first and part of the second Intermediate Period any semblance of political order on a national level disappeared, and local rulers vied with each other for supremacy. But there are indications that even during the apparently settled times of the Kingdoms, when the threat to the central authority was small, there were a few attempts against the divine ruler.


  • 6th dynasty - Teti (Horus name: Sehetep-tawi , i.e. the two lands are pacified, which seems to point to a reunification of the country or the like) assassinated by his bodyguards according to Manetho
  • 6th dynasty - Pepi I ascended the throne only after entering into an alliance with Upper Egyptian nomarchs, possible harem conspiracy led by the great king's wife
  • 11th dynasty - Coup attempt against Nebkheperure-Intef by the nomarch Teti: Coptos Decree of Nebkheperure-Intef
  • 11th dynasty - The last Mentuhotep was possibly overthrown by Amenemhet I
  • 12th dynasty - assassination attempt against Amenemhet I: Teachings of Amenemhet
  • 17th dynasty - Tao II, who fought the Hyksos, died from head wounds, which may have been inflicted by a murderer.
  • 18th dynasty - The popular conjecture that Tutankhamen was assassinated by Ay seems to be unfounded.
  • 20th dynasty - An attempt against Ramses III's life by members of the court and harem was severely punished: Judicial Turin papyrus
  • 26th dynasty - In a period characterized by rebellions of mercenary forces, Ahmose II deposed Wahibre: Herodotus on Apries
  • Unrest was frequent under the Ptolemies, such as the revolt of Harwennefer against Ptolemy IV.
    Ahmose II had Wahibre buried with full honours after deposing him, but generally a person would have done well not to incur the king's wrath. Sehetepibre served under Senusret III and Amenemhet III and wrote on his stela:
He whom he (i.e. the king) hates will bear distress.
Fight for his name, respect his oath,
Then you stay free of [betrayal (?)].
The king's beloved will be honored,
His majesty's foe has no tomb,
His corpse is cast into the water.
Do this, then you prosper,
it serves you forever!
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, p.128

The priest

    The pharaoh was the foremost servant of the gods, and he never completely surrendered his sacerdotal role to the priests appointed to be his every-day substitutes. But the control over the temple administrations slipped from his hands. After the demise of the 20th dynasty the Amen-Re priesthood headed by a military clique was strong enough to start running the whole of Upper Egypt, and later during the periods of foreign rule the temples, despite being lavishly endowed with goods by the occupiers, were often centres of discord.

The politician

    While the pharaoh wielded great power over his people, it was not absolute, although in theory there could be no rightful opposition to the enforcer of Maat. Kings always act in political contexts, woo power groups for their support and try to neutralize the influence of their opponents. Most people can be bought with gifts of power or possessions, and pharaohs lavished favours on the social groups which could help them to achieve their political aims: the military high command, the priesthood and the scribal elite.
  • When Horemheb needed a successor to continue his aggressive policy toward Hatti, he turned to the army and appointed a general to become king, Ramses I. A generation later Ramses II turned on his generals and accused them after the débâcle at Kadesh of having neglected their duty, instituting the change of the traditional, confrontational Egyptian policy vis-á-vis Hatti which yielded a peace treaty 16 years later.
  • The priesthood seems to have fared best when there were legitimacy issues and the pharaoh needed divine approbation. This became blatant during the New Kingdom when local princes toppled the, albeit foreign, Hyksos pharaohs, when regents tried to hold on to power after their charges had grown up, or when generals were appointed to the throne. A backlash against the increasing influence of the priesthood, above all that of Amen-Re, began under Amenhotep III who showed support for the hitherto unimportant Aten cult and reached a climax when his son Akhenaten removed the sources of income of the Amen temples, and created a new centre of power at Akhetaten. After Akhenaten's death Ay supervised the restoration.
  • For the day to day administration of the country the king relied on civil servants. In the Middle Kingdom Instructions of Merikare the king is exhorted to treat his servants well. Conversely, Horemheb in his Great Edict tried to curb corruption by promulgating harsh laws against offending officials.
    Buying support did not always work, as Amenemhet I warned his son in 'his' Teaching[34] The top was a lonely place and not even family bonds ensured loyalty.
Be on your guard against all who are subordinate to you when there occurs something to whose terrors no thought has been given; do not approach them in your solitude, trust no brother, know no friend, make no intimates, for there is no profit in it. When you go to rest, guard your own heart, for no man has partisans on the day of trouble. I gave to the poor man, I cherished the orphan, I caused him who had nothing to attain (to wealth) like him who was wealthy, but it was he who ate my bread who raised levies; he to whom I had given my hand created terror thereby; those who wore my fine linen looked on me as a shadow; and they who smeared on my myrrh poured water under (me).

The man

Growing up

Ramses II. Source: Jon Bodsworth     Nurses like Maya [1], wet nurse to Tutankhamen, raised royal children and enjoyed a high social status. Senay [2], nurse of Amenhotep II, was the wife of the mayor of Thebes. She bore the titles of royal nurse and favourite (ta-Sps.t) [13]. Sat-re [4], whose statue shows her holding Hatshepsut as a child, was called Great Wet-nurse of the Lady of the Two Lands and was buried in the Valley of the Kings.

Ramses II
Source: Jon Bodsworth

    Some nurses may have replaced mothers which had died during childbirth, a common occurrence in all social circles, but many noblewomen had nurses looking after their children as a matter of course.
    Men were also involved in education. Hatshepsut's daughter Neferure was looked after by Senenmut [3], royal tutor, who was the queen's confidant and fulfilled many executive positions.
    The education of the future king was seemingly in the hands of a number of people. Much of it, certainly in the child's earlier years took place in the harem, but as the boy grew up, he was shown the workings of government at first hand and probably also given ever growing administrative responsibilities.
He (i.e. Harakhte) advanced me to Lord of the Two Parts,
a child yet wearing swaddling clothes.
Building Inscription of Sesostris I
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 1, p.116
    When a young boy acceded to the throne a regent was appointed to run the country in his name. This was generally a close relative, mostly the mother (e.g. Neithotep for Djer, Merenith for Den, Queen Iput for her son Pepi I, and seemingly Ankhenesmerire II for Pepi II), or occasionally someone else like a step-mother (Hatshepsut for Thutmose III) or an uncle (Ay whose relatedness to the ruling family is not quite clear, apparently for Tutankhamen).
    Sometimes the king decided to give his son practical experience in running the country by appointing him co-ruler. But whether he was invested with real power before the death of his predecessor or not, young crown princes were aware of their destiny from an early age. Thutmose III writes about his childhood
I am his (i.e. the god's) son, whom he commanded that I should sit upon his throne, while I was one dwelling in his nest
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 138
    Similarly Ramses II relates in the Great Abydos Inscriptions how the great men of his country humbly submitted themselves when he was still at a tender age:
The All-Lord himself made me great, while I was a child, until I reigned. He gave to me the land while I was in the egg; the great smelled the earth before me, when I was installed as eldest son, as hereditary prince upon the throne of Keb
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Three, § 267
    Children brought up in the company of the future king bore the title of Foster Brother (or Sister) of the Lord of the Two Lands.
.... in the time of Menkaure; whom he educated among the king's children, in the palace of the king, in the privy chamber, in the royal harem; who was more honored before the king than any child; Ptahshepses.
... in the time of Shepseskaf; whom he educated among the king's children, in the palace of the king, in the privy chamber, in the royal harem; who was more honored before the king than any youth; Ptahshepses
    With the accession of her son to the throne his mother was given the title of mut nesu (mwt nsw) [13], King's Mother, which she wore together with her previous titles, such as Hemet nesu (Hmt nsw), King's wife, or Hemet nesu uret (Hmt nsw wrt), Great King's Wife etc. Sometimes the son would bestow upon his mother the title of Great King's Wife even if she had not held it when his father had been alive; Thutmose III's mother Isis, for instance, may not even have been a King's Wife.

The family

    Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their daughters Historical sources are either silent or conventionally formal where the relations of royal fathers and mothers to their offspring are concerned. An exception is the Amarna Period. Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti are often depicted with their daughters, caressing them and playing with them. They appear to have been doting parents. In the words of Akhenaten:
My heart rejoices in the great royal wife and her children, and old age be granted to the great royal wife, Nefer-nefru-aten Nefertiti, living forever, in these millions of years, she being in the care of Pharaoh, and old age be granted to the princess Meretaten and to the princess Meketaten, her children, they being in the care of the Queen their mother ...
Boundary Stela
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 2, p.50

    Most kings and queens probably treated their children like this. Tales, while they are in all likelihood mirroring the lives of the educated scribal classes, who wrote and enjoyed reading them, rather than the lives of noblemen, generally describe royal parents as loving and sympathetic to the wishes of their children. In the following passage from the Tale of Princess Ahura, the girl relates how she got married to the one she loved, her brother Naneferkaptah:
We were the two children of the King Merneptah, and he loved us very much, for he had no others; and Naneferkaptah was in his palace as heir over all the land. And when we were grown, the king said to the queen, "I will marry Naneferkaptah to the daughter of a general, and Ahura to the son of another general."
And I was very troubled, and did not behave as I used to do. And the king said to me, "Ahura, have you sent some one to me about this sorry matter, saying, 'Let me be married to my elder brother?'"
I said to him, "Well, let me marry the son of an officer, and he marry the daughter of another officer, as it often happens so in our family."
I laughed, and the king laughed. And the king told the steward of the palace,"Let them take Ahura to the house of Naneferkaptah tonight, and all kinds of good things with her."
So they brought me as a wife to the house of Naneferkaptah; and the king ordered them to give me presents of silver and gold, and things from the palace.
And Naneferkaptah passed a happy time with me, and received all the presents from the palace; and we loved one another.
    In Pepi I's Pyramid Texts the different attitudes and hopes mothers and fathers had (and often still have today) towards their children are given expression: "Good one" said his mother, "Heir," said his father. The fear of not having a son, who would continue one's line, inherit one's position [5] and take care of one's mortuary offerings, was universal.
    Some pharaohs were little favoured by popular opinion. Khufu is described in ancient stories as having scant compassion for strangers; according to a tale Herodotus relates, he did not treat his own daughter any better:
Cheops moreover came, they said, to such a pitch of wickedness, that being in want of money he caused his own daughter to sit in the stews, and ordered her to obtain from those who came a certain amount of money (how much it was they did not tell me)
Herodotus, Euterpe
    In ancient times all parent must have lived in constant worry that their children would not survive into adulthood. Taharqa implores Amen-Re
Cause my children to live; keep death away from them for my sake.
Inscription of Taharqa
After Pascal Vernus, Inscriptions de la troisième période intermédiaire, BIFAO 75 (1975), p.31
    Diseases and accidents killed every second child, and there was little one could do in way of prevention. If the tale of The Doomed Prince is any indication then the Egyptians doubted that one should take extraordinary measures such as curtailing the freedom of the child for the sake of protecting him from what was ordained. In the story the king is warned of the fate threatening his son:
Once upon a time there was a king in Egypt whose heart was heavy because that he had no son. He called upon the gods, and the gods heard, and they decreed that an heir should be born to him. The seven Hathors greeted the prince and pronounced his destiny; they said he would meet with a sudden death, either by a crocodile, or a serpent, or a dog.
The king, in an attempt to protect his son, removed him from possible dangers by bringing him up in a lonely place, far from crocodiles, snakes and dogs. But, growing up, the prince chose to take upon himself the risks of human existence to lead a full life.
    Well-born infants were better nourished than most and therefore more likely to be able to resist disease, and better looked after and therefore less prone to being killed in accidents. Still, Merneptah had had thirteen older brothers who had died before their father did and did not accede to the throne.


Pharaoh slying lion     Diodorus Siculus described the life of the Ptolemaic pharaohs as highly regimented, where every move the king made was prescribed. Of course, our modern western view of life as being neatly divided into a work period set by the clock and an evening of leisure would have appeared strange to anybody living before the industrial revolution. Pharaohs did not stop being kings when they left their audience hall. Their "after-work" activities are not as well documented as their "official" deeds, but the records we have reflect the importance they attached to what happened to them, be it spending time with their close ones or pursuing their hobbies.
  • Akhenaten seems to have enjoyed his family life hugely, and is often depicted in the company of his wife and daughters.
  • Other kings thought of hunting in heroic dimensions -- the killing of wild animals was, apart from being no mean proof of their own strength and dexterity, also a victory over the forces of chaos -- and left descriptions and reliefs of massive slaughterings of animals on the walls of their temples.
    Behold, he (Thutmose IV) did a thing that gave him pleasure upon the highlands of the Memphite nome, upon the southern and northern road, shooting at a target with copper bolts, hunting lions and wild goats, coursing in his chariot, his horses being swifter than the wind; together with two followers, while not a soul knew it.
    The Sphinx Stela, first half of the 1st millennium BCE
    J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 813
  • Amenhotep II was proud of his physical prowess and his achievements in the martial arts, and he wanted people to know that nobody was his equal at shooting with bow and arrow (cf. The Amada Stela).
  • Ramses III playing senet The pharaohs also played games. Boards have been found in tombs and depictions on the walls of pharaohs indulging in a game of senet.

    Ramses III playing senet

  • Listening to stories has been a favourite pastime since people learned how to talk. While there are no official records of pharaohs enthralled by a good yarn (apart from Ramses II listening to the Hittite spies at Kadesh), there are tales about them. The Westcar Papyrus contains a number of stories, purportedly told to Khufu by his sons. They describe activities kings are sure to have indulged in: obsessing about unfaithful wives, going on boating trips with beautiful girls, or watching magicians perform tricks.
  • Overeating, binge drinking and generally making merry may have been somewhat unsuitable for god-like creatures. But, if popular stories are anything to go by [20], some pharaohs appear to have paid little heed to social niceties. In the Demotic tale of Ahmose and the Sailor the pharaoh, having drunk a great deal of wine the night before and waking up with a bad headache in the morning, did not feel like doing any work that day:
    The pharaoh spoke: "I have a great hang-over. I'm not able to conduct any business. But look whether there is somebody among you who can tell me a story I may delight in."
    After a German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website


    While apparently anybody who came into contact with a pharaoh boasted in his tomb inscriptions that he had been his bosom friend, sole companion or king's confidant, the monarchs themselves were much more reticent on this subject. Like all powerful men throughout the ages they must have found it difficult to make friends, as they could not accept any of their subjects as equals, or completely trust that their affection was without ulterior motives.
    Still, living close to other people, even 'divine' pharaohs must have become attached to them. The fifth dynasty pharaoh Neferirkare, if the inscription is to be believed, was profoundly shocked when his vizier died suddenly, and returned to his private rooms for prayers. Later he took care of his vizier's earthly remains. The New Kingdom tale King Neferkare and General Sasenet describes a relationship between Pepi I and one of his generals, which appears to have gone beyond mere friendship [20].


Jan Assmann, Ma'at: Gerechtigkeit und Unsterblichkeit im alten Ägypten, C.H.Beck, 2001
Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt, Metropolitan Books, New York 2002
Joceline Berlandini-Grenier, "Varia Memphitica I", BIFAO 76 (1976)
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Chicago 1906
Diodorus Siculus, Historische Bibliothek translated into German by Julius Friedrich Wurm, Stuttgart 1827
K.Dyroff-Pörtner, Ägyptische Grabsteine und Denksteine aus süddeutschen Sammlungen 2, München-Strassburg 1904
Raymond Oliver Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts Translated into English, Clarendon Press, 1969
Rolf Gundlach, "Horus im Palast" in Mitteilungen der Residenzen-Kommission der Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, Werner Paravicini (ed.), Sonderheft 7, Kiel 2005
Labib Habachi, "The Two Rock-Stelae of Sethos I in the Cataract Area Speaking of Huge Statues and Obelisks", in BIFAO 73 (1973)
Bettina Hackländer-von der Way, Biographie und Identität, Dissertation, 1999, University of Zürich
Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, University of California Press 1973-1980
Donald Mackenzie Egyptian Myth and Legend, Gresham Publishing Co. 1907
Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1914
William Kelly Simpson (ed.), The Literature of Ancient Egypt, New Haven and London, 1973
Pascal Vernus, "Inscriptions de la troisième période intermédiaire," BIFAO 75 (1975)

[5] To a king the fulfillment of his duties was paramount
As for any son of mine who shall maintain this border which my Majesty has made, he is my son, born to my majesty. The true son is he who champions his father, who guards the border of his begetter. But he who abandons it, who fails to fight for it, he is not my son, he was not born to me.
Boundary Stela of Sesostris III
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 1, pp.119f
[6] Valiant shepherd (Amen as Harakhte) who drives his flock, Their refuge, made to sustain them.
Lichtheim II, p.88
Ploughing peasant [7] Fly-whisks are still used as insignia of power in East Africa, but whether that is the origin of the Egyptian royal flail, is unknown. Just as the crook is quite obviously a herder's implement, flails too may have been agricultural, perhaps a threshing flail, or a whip as the image on the right may suggest. A crook is used to guide and control, while a flail or whip drives or punishes.
[8] Even Queen Hatshepsut took to wearing a false beard after her successful coup.
[9] Ordinary Egyptians, apart from occasionally wearing wigs, went about bareheaded.
[10] A whole mythology was invented for Hatshepsut:
Utterance of Amon-Re, lord of Thebes, presider over Karnak. He made his form like the majesty of this husband, the King Okheperkere (Thutmose I). He found her as she slept in the beauty of her palace. She waked at the fragrance of the god, which she smelled in the presence of his majesty. He went to her immediately, coivit cum ea (had intercourse with her), he imposed his desire upon her, he caused that she should see him in his form of a god. When he came before her, she rejoiced at the sight of his beauty, his love passed into her limbs, which the fragrance of the god flooded; all his odors were from Punt.
Utterance of Amon, Lord of the Two Lands, before her: "Khnemet-Amon-Hatshepsut shall be the name of this my daughter, whom I have placed in thy body, this saying which comes out of thy mouth. She shall exercise the excellent kingship in this whole land. My soul is hers, my [bounty (?)] is hers, my crown [is hers (?)], that she may rule the Two Lands, that she may lead all the living //////.
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two. §§ 196ff
[11] Those close to the king seem to have had special privileges, like immediate access to their sovereign:
The sealers who are in the royal house
and the living of the palace gate saw
that I was introduced into the royal house
and was made one who had access (to the king)
without being called.
Mortuary stela from the period of Senusret I or Amenemhet II
After K.Dyroff-Pörtner, Ägyptische Grabsteine und Denksteine aus süddeutschen Sammlungen 2, München-Strassburg 1904
[12] This rule was probably not strictly enforced for the king's companions. But even close relationships outside the royal family were mostly ritualized:
I was made one of the Ten Great Ones of Upper Egypt...
(am) one who was made lector priest, and a Great ...
(and) I was made a companion
who moistens the feet of the King at the feast of the year.
Mortuary stela from the period Amenemhet III
After Bettina Hackländer-von der Way, Biographie und Identität, p.44, Dissertation, 1999, University of Zürich
[13] A few explanations concerning the transliteration and pronunciation of ancient Egyptian.
[14] According to Manetho (ca. 3rd century BCE) a pharaoh named Biophis -- according to Eusebius -- or Binothris -- according to Africanus -- , apparently the second dynasty Ninetjer, made it into law that women too could accede to the throne. The rarity of female pharaohs raises doubts concerning the existence of such a law.
[15] During the Middle and New Kingdoms a significant number of accessions seem to have raised legitimacy issues:
-Amenemhet I appointed Senusret I as co-regent ensuring his chosen successor would be in power at the time of his, Amenemhet's, demise.
-Thutmose I was of non-royal descent and derived his legitimacy through his wife Ahmose, daughter of Ahmose-Nefertari
-Hatshepsut became regent for her stepson Thutmose III and assumed pharaonic titles and power. She created a birth legend justifying her assumption of power.
-Amenhotep III created a birth legend
-Ramses IV: in the Harris papyrus Ramses III invokes the gods to lend his son their support:
Crown my son as king upon the throne of Atum, establish him as mighty bull, lord l.p.h, of the two shores, king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the Two Lands: Usermare-Setepnamon...
J. H. Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, ?246
and in his Great Abydos Stela Ramses IV declares: I am a legitimate ruler, I have not usurped. I am in the place of him who has begotten me as the son of Isis.
[16] The pharaohs of the fourth dynasty were not forgotten, but neither were they venerated. They became rather unpopular figures in folk tales (Cf. Tales from the Westcar Papyrus[17]
[18] The oldest records mentioning the king's immortality are the Pyramid Texts:
O! you who die not because of any dead, the King will not die because of any dead, for the King is an Imperishable Star, son of the sky-goddess who dwells in the Mansion of Selket. Ra has taken this King to himself to the sky so that this King may live, just as he who enters into the west of the sky lives when he goes up in the east of the sky;
Hymn 571
R. O. Faulkner: The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts Translated into English
The west of the sky where the sun sets was the beginning of the realm of the dead through which the deceased had to pass before he could rise again in the east, like the sun-god Re.
[19] An Old Kingdom Giza tomb inscription dating to Neferirkare ends as follows:
His majesty (Hm.f) had a document made thereof, written in the presence of the king (nswt) himself in the (scribes') quarter of the palace (pr-aA) in order to write down according to what was said in his grave which is in the necropolis.
Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website
Gisa, Grabkomplex des Kaiemankh (G 4561), Grabkomplex des Rawer (PM III 265-269), Relief- und Stelenfragmente, Biographische Inschriftenstele
During the reign of Ramses I or Seti I the scribe Meh in his letter to Yey referred to the king, apparently as the embodiment of the royal administration, as Pharaoh, l.p.h. (Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website)
[20] People often mistake ancient stories for evidence. While they do reflect social mores of the times they were conceived in, they are not necessarily historical resources.
[21] As such the king was the originator of all the state did, even if he personally had no knowledge of it. In the Instruction of Merikare the king expects retribution for the desecration of tombs his army committed during a campaign:
A mean act was committed in my reign; the territory of Thinis was devastated. It indeed happened, but not through what I had done; I knew of it only after it was done. See, the consequences exceeded what I had done, for what is damaged is spoiled, and there is no benefit for him who restores what he (himself) has ruined, who demolishes what he has built and embellished what he has defaced; beware of it! A blow is repaid by the like of it, and all that is achieved is a hitting.
[22] pr-aA - often read today as 'per-a-a', 'per-o' or the like. (Cf. a few explanations concerning the transliteration and pronunciation of ancient Egyptian). The Hebrew par'o is derived from it, as is the Greek pharao.
[23] Watson E. Mills, Roger Aubrey Bullard, Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, Mercer University Press 1990, p.750
[24] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch => Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Felsinschriften => Ostwüste Oberägyptens => Wadi Hammamat => Hammamat G 36
[25] Hm was also used for gods, thus in The contendings of Horus and Seth :
Dd.jn Hm n StX n Hm n Hr... — Now the majesty of Seth (Hm n StX) said to the majesty of Horus (Hm n Hr)...
Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch  Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften => literarische Texte => 1. Erzählungen => Horus und Seth (Mittleres Reich) => pKahun VI.12 = pUC 32158+32150A+32148B
It has been suggested that, rather than 'majesty' as Breasted and others translated it, Hm refers to the incarnation of the god.
[26] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website  Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe des Alten Reiches und der 1. Zwischenzeit => Briefe des Königs => Brief an Raschepses von Djedkare-Isesi (Kopie im Grab), I. Hafemann ed.
[27] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website  Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe des Alten Reiches und der 1. Zwischenzeit => Briefe des Königs =>  1. Brief an Senedjemib von Djedkare-Isesi (Kopie im Grab), I. Hafemann ed.
[28] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website  Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe des Neuen Reiches => Briefe vom/an den König => Boston MFA 25.632 => Brief von Amenophis II. an User-Satet, I. Hafemann ed.
[29] pAnastasi V.1-1a, A. Gardiner, Late Egyptian Miscellanies, BAe 7, Brussels, 1937, 46-47 [H]
[30] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website  Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe des Neuen Reiches => Briefe vom/an den König => pTurin 1896 => Auftrag des Königs an den Vizekönig von Kusch Pa-nehesi, I. Hafemann ed.
[31] The ancient Egyptians did not make our distinction between the secular and the clerical.
[33] The so-called Prophecies of Neferti draw a frightening picture of Egypt fallen into chaos, where the divine order, Maat, is in abeyance, but they are no longer considered to be descriptions of the actual conditions reigning in Egypt during the First Intermediate Period as was once thought.
[34] There is no evidence, that Amenemhet I wrote the instruction called after him by himself or ordered it to be written.
[35] nswt, from sw.t, sedge, which represented Upper Egypt.
[35] Jan Assmann, Ma'at: Gerechtigkeit und Unsterblichkeit im alten Ägypten, C.H.Beck, 2001, p.214
[36] Assmann 2002, p.379

- -The administration
-[32] The Amarna Letters: Letters from Canaanite rulers
-Index of topics
-Main index and search page
Offsite links   (Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the content of these sites
-The skull of Tao II
-[1] First lion mummy found in tomb near King Tut
-[2] Sennefer and Senay
-[3] Senenmut
-[4] Sat-Ra
-[17] Joceline Berlandini-Grenier, Varia Memphitica I, BIFAO 76 (1976), pp.301-316
-Amenemhat III: La vida íntima de un faraón by Lic. Prof. Alejandra R. Cersósimo
Feedback: please report broken links, mistakes - factual or otherwise, etc. to me. thanks.

© October 2004
Minor updates:
October, January 2010
December 2009
November, October 2008
May 2008
March 2007
November, July, April 2006
July, June, April, January 2005