ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian institutions: The House of Life
   Institute of higher learning
   Registry Office
People associated with the House of Truth
The House of Life in literature

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Per-ankh: The House of Life

    Present day understanding of the roles of the House of Life, pr-anx [1], the Mansion of Life, Hwt-anx, and of libraries like the House of Books, pr-mDA.t [33], and the differences between them are still somewhat sketchy. They were–with the possible exception of the Mansion of Life–centres of knowledge run by priests, some of them at least belonging to temples; in the words of Jan Assman: the House of Life was the center of cultural endeavor to preserve and ensure the ongoing progress of cosmic, political, and social life.[2] Some think of the libraries in the Houses of Life as much larger and wider ranging than those in the Houses of Books,[32], accepting the tiny Edfu temple library as typical for the latter institution.


Plan of the House of Life at Akhetaten     Houses of Life are known to have existed at Abydos, Akhmim, Esna, Edfu, Koptos, Memphis, and Akhetaten, the last the only one to have been identified as such by archaeologists [3] thanks to pr-anx seal impressions on the bricks of the building's walls.[4] Despite the small number of known Houses of Life, it has been suggested that all sizable towns and major temples had one.[5][6]

Plan of the House of Life at Akhetaten. It was adjacent to the archives of the royal administration

    There were seemingly Houses of Life which were part of temples and others which were at least physically separated from any temple. At Akhetaten it was close to the Storage Chamber of Documents of Pharaoh, where the royal administration kept its correspondence, some distance apart from the Aten temples.[7] But a papyrus from the first half of the sixth century BCE containing the rituals performed during the Feasts of the Earth at a temple in the Delta, possibly in Heliopolis, seems to suggest that the House of Life was part of a temple, unless it was considered a temple itself with its own temenos:
Stopping by the king at the chapel of the House of Life, which is in the Great Seat [8].
For Amen-Re, Lord-of-the-Throne-of-both-Lands, Horus Who-is-in-Shenut, Horus, Lord-of-the-Cult-of-the-House-of-Life, Horus, Lord-of-the-House-of-Life, Sekhmet Who-is-above-her-fire-cauldron-in-the-House-of-Life, Isis, Mistress-of-Magic-in-the-House-of-Life, Khnum, Foremost-of-the-House-of-Life, Seshat in the temple of Seshat, the royal ka of pharaoh l.p.h.
Sacrifices for the gods who are in the court of the House of Life.
pBrooklyn 47.218.50,[9]
    More explicit in placing the House of Life firmly inside a temple is the stela of Horwennefer, who lived under the Ptolemies and bore the title of
learned in every chest of the House of Life which is in the Min temple [10]
    The Late Period papyrus Salt 825, concerning which it has been suggested it could be entitled "Ritual of the House of Life", contains liturgical texts the purpose of which is the conservation of life.[30] It gives a description of the Houses of Life, where the sacred books, at that time referred to as Souls (bA.w) of Re, were kept. [29] In the following translation Houses of Life is rendered as Mansions of Life. This description, although quite detailed, would have been of little use to a scholar in real life, trying to locate these repositories of knowledge:
The Mansion of Osiris at AbydosThe booth of Osiris in the courtyard of the House of Life at Abydos [30]
pSalt 825
There are four mansions of life at Abydos, (each) is built four stories high and is internally waistcoated with palm wood. There are four mansions of life, Osiris is master thereof. The four houses are Isis, Nephthys, Seb and Nu. Isis is placed in one, Nephthys in another, Horus in one, Tahuti in another, at the four angles: Seb is above, Nu is below, The four outer walls are of stone. It has two stories, its foundation is sand, its exterior is jasper, one is placed to the South, another to the North, another to the West, another to the East. It is very hidden, unknown, invisible, nothing save the solar disk sees it. It escapes men that go there. The Sun's librarians, the Treasure Scribes are within.
pSalt 825 [28]


    The House of Life was an ancient institution. The first appearance in writing of the term dates to the late Old Kingdom, when the requirements of a House of Life connected to a temple of Min are mentioned in decrees of Pepi II.[10] Nowhere is there a description of the institution's functions, but these can be guessed at from many literary references throughout history and seem to have included the storing and production of books, and the teaching of scribes and priests.
    The oldest connection known between the House of Life and writing is made on a Middle Kingdom stela which gives a certain Keku the title of scribe of the House of Life. At the same time another scribe had the title of Chief Physician which points to the institution having had medical aspects such as the reproduction of medical texts and the formation of healers throughout its history, more so as during the Late Period the scribes Peftauawyneith and Wedjahorresnet, both bearing the title of Chief Physician, were involved in the restoration of the House of Life.[7]


    As is only fit for an institution of learning, the god Khnum and the goddess of writing Seshat both bore the epithet of Foremost of the House of Life.[7] There was a hall or booth, a zH (zH), where offerings were presented to the gods of the House, among whom were Amen-Re, Isis, Horus. and Sekhmet, goddess of healing. A slaughterer was attached to the House of Life, who, by slaughtering bulls, would increase the life force of the place,[11] or decrease evil by ritually butchering animals embodying evil during execration ceremonies.[5]
    Its priests were servants of the creator god Re and were thought to be inspired by him. The House of Life contained secret, magical writings which they had composed or copied and which were said to have the power to renew and sustain life and further the rebirth of Osiris at his annual festival.[6] The significance of the House of Life and the rituals performed there was universal. Like the temples it stood for the whole creation, just as the reborn Osiris symbolized eternal life in general.[34]
    As a holy place the House of Life had to be entered respectfully and unauthorized persons kept out:
It shall be very, very hidden.
No one shall know it, no one see it.
Apart from the sundial
(i.e. the sun disk) that gazes on its secret.
The officiating priests ... shall enter silently, their bodies veiled,
So that they shall be protected against sudden death.
The Asiatic may not enter, he may not see anything.
From a Late Period book of rituals [12]


    According to tradition, time and again people went to the House of Life to consult ancient writings, when they needed answers to problems of their day. Thus Imhotep, the 3rd dynasty sage, did not send an expedition to the sources of the Nile to find the causes for a great drought, but–according to the Ptolemaic Famine Stele–rather studied the sacred texts, discovering that Khnum was in charge of the source of the Nile, deemed to be at Elephantine, and needed to be placated.
    Ramses IV is known to have studied the Annals of Thoth in the House of Life at Abydos:
Lo, this Good God, excellent in wisdom, like Thoth he has entered into the annals [/// ///], he has perceived the records of the house of sacred writings...
First Hammamat Stela [13]
    According to another inscription in Wadi Hammamat he put Ramses-eshehab, a scribe of the House of Life, in charge of an expedition to quarry bekhen stone for monuments he wanted to erect at the Place of Truth. Accounts of such expeditions were apparently archived in the House of Life for future reference.[14]
    House of Life libraries were sizable and encompassing, if the subject range of the papyri found at Tebtynis, which probably belonged to the temple of Sukhos, is anything to go by. Sukhos was just a regional god and if all these papyri discovered there belonged to his House of Life, the wealth of Egyptian texts existing in all the Houses of Life even at this late stage under Roman occupation, must have been impressive.[32]


    Copying old books was one of the main raisons d'être of the House of Life. The so called Books of the Dead were since the New Kingdom among the most often reproduced pieces of writing. But the scribes were experts in matters religious and magical and were rarely content with producing carbon copies, but often edited the texts, dropping some old contents and adding new ideas.
    Apart from working in the scriptorium itself, the House's scribes were also commissioned to compose inscriptions and outline them in tombs, on statues and on stela for the artisans to carve or paint in. A forebear of the sixth century BCE priest Pediese wanted to erect some stelae in his home town of Teudjoi:
He went through the Southland, inspecting. He reached Elephantine. He had cut a stela of the stone of Elephantine and two blocks for statues of vmgj-stone. He had them brought to Teudjoi. He sent for the masons, the sculptors, the scribes of the House of Life and the draughtsmen. He had them write on the stela all the favours he had lavished on Teudjoi.
    Such an opportunity to create a resounding title was too good to pass up. And sure enough: we know of two scribes of the House of Life, the 19th dynasty Amenwahsu and his son Khamipet who were entitled 'one who outlines the inscriptions of all gods in the House of Life'.[10]
    As behooves any orderly bureaucracy, the House of Life had its own hierarchy, the scribes, hierogrammateis (writers of sacred writings) as the Greeks called them, had their superiors, though there are not enough records to enable us to figure out the ranking system. At any rate, Iha, the overseer of the private rooms of the king, bore the title of 'overseer of writing in the House of Life, a man to whom all sacred matters are revealed', and Mentuhotep, a subject of Senusret I, was 'keeper of secrets of the House of Life'. [10]

Institute of higher learning

    The House of Life was more than a library and a scriptorium. It contained a community of educated men and occasionally, when no answers to a question could be found in the existing literature, discussions must have arisen which might then lead to the composition of completely new texts.[15][3] Still, compared with modern science, new ideas took a very long time to come to fruition in ancient Egypt.
    According to Lichtheim [t]he principal subjects studied and practiced by the members of the House of Life were medicine, magic, theology, ritual, and dream interpretation,[16] with the focus on liturgy and ritual.[5][17] So for instance it was the scribes of the House of Life who had enough magical lore to ritually inspect and approve sacred bulls, such as the Buchis,[11] and the Houses of Life at Abydos and at Sais were known medical centres.[35]
    In the temple of Seti I at Abydos one of the rooms has niches, which may have served to store scrolls and the ceiling is carved with painted astronomical symbols. A room in the Ramesseum has a similar ceiling, though no niches in the walls.[6] These rooms may have served a library or a House of Life, but the significance of the astronomical knowledge engraved in the ceilings has not been explained. Astrology did not play a large part in Egyptian soothsaying, but the stars were observed and their movements influenced both the view of the afterlife as the development of the calendar.


    Some of the scribal education at last, probably the more advanced studies, seems to have taken place in the Houses of Life. The literary Wunderkind Si-Osire, who at the age of two was perceived to have an IQ of 150–the story goes: When he was two [years] old, (people) said, "He is three years old"– appears to have done extraordinarily well at school:
The ch[ild Si-Osiri] grew (and) [he] began (?) to learn magic (?) with the scribes of the House of Life in the temple of Ptah (?) [made] wonder [of] the world at him... [18]
and being exceptionally gifted Si-Osiri soon outstripped his teachers.
    But this was hardly the experience most teachers had, when trying to instill some knowledge into their charges' minds. Ancient Egyptian schooling consisted to a large part of rote learning and copying of texts. One of the main 'pedagogical' devices was a stick applied to the back of inattentive pupils, another the bad-mouthing of all other vocations. Whether there was a need for this kind of motivational approach when teaching more mature students is unknown, but occasionally at least they seem to have preferred visiting the taverns to applying themselves to their letters, much to the displeasure of their somewhat grouchy elders and betters.

Hesire, scribe and physician Hesire, scribe and physician

    The theoretical and possibly also some of the practical, surgical training [31] of students wanting to become healers may have taken place there as well, but opinions among experts differ.[15][11] Whether scribes had to take examinations to prove their proficiency at the end of their education is unknown,[20] but a physician had better know his art or he might find himself in trouble after making a mistake in diagnosing or treating a patient.
    Most students left the House of Life once they had finished their studies, becoming lector priests, public scribes, administrators, or the like. A few joined the House of Life, a prestigious position if the sixth century BCE Petition of Pediese is anything to go by, where Pediese, son of Wedjasematawi is being persuaded by flattery into accompanying the king on a military campaign:
It is you who is qualified to go with the pharaoh to the land of the Syrians. There is no one in this city who could go to the land of the Syrians, except you. After all, you are a scribe of the House of Life. There is nothing they could ask you to which there is no answer.
Likewise, when–according to the Bentresh Stela dating to the Persian or Greek period–Ramses II needed an expert in magic to be despatched to the court of Bekhten he ordered:
Bring to me those in charge of the writings of the House of Life and the officials of the court
The Bentresh Stela[21]
to chose the one best suited from among these most accomplished scribes of the land.

Registry Office

    The Egyptian bureaucrats were avid collectors of data, above all those relevant to levying taxes. They must have stored registers concerning the population, the allotted land, and owned chattels somewhere, but records are vague. During the Roman period when one Nemesion died, his father hurried to have him legally registered as dead and struck off the poll tax register. But he addressed himself to the village scribe asking him to inform the proper authorities, apparently uncertain as to who these authorities were. Sambas, too, was certain that there was a death register:
To Ptolemaios, village scribe of Karanis, from Sambas, son of Pakysis and Tketis, grandson of Petaus, of the above-mentioned village of Karanis. My aforesaid father Pakysis, son of Petaus and Tamystha, grandson of Teos, who had been released from the poll-tax in the same village as being over-age, died in the month of Hathyr of the present 15th year of the Emperor Caesar Nerva Trajan Augustus Germanicus Dacicus. Therefore I hand in this memorial, so that his name may be listed in the list of deceased persons.
P.Mich.inv. 2841, Roman period[23]
    Examples like these do not tell us where such registers were kept. but from pharaonic times there is literary testimony concerning them: It is told in the 11th century BCE tale of Princess Ahura that after the birth of a prince he was named and then registered in the book of the House of Life. Such details in stories generally reflect usages of the day, as they do not affect the plot and are therefore not likely to be invented. There were apparently registers in the House of Life, the question which cannot be answered is, whether they were just for the listing of royal births or served more general purposes. Wherever they kept the records, the administration registered births, deaths and marriages.[22]

People associated with the House of Truth

    A number of scribes of the House of Truth are known to us. A few have become immortal because of their learning or ability, such as the Scribe-of-God's-Books-in-the-House-of-Life, skilled in his office, who composed the Onomasticon of Amenemipet.
    Some were known benefactors of the House of Life: Peftauawyneith under Wahibre and Wedjahorresnet during the reign of Dareius I who put the House of Life in order and restored it to its former glory.
    Of others all that connects them with the House of Life is their title: the Scribes of the House of Life Amenwah and Iny who lived during the New Kingdom, or the Chief Lector-Priest Nakhthorheb who was 'director of the masters of heka (words of power) in the House of Life'.[10]
    But there were also black sheep among this scribal elite. Two scribes of the House of Life, Messui and Shedmeszer, became infamous because of their involvement in the Harem conspiracy against Ramses III. They were found guilty and forced to commit suicide.

The House of Life in literature

    The House of Life is mentioned in literary works occasionally. One of these instances is a Second Intermediary Period tale tentatively called Tale of the Palace and the House of Life,[24] but too little remains of it to make much sense of. Writings generally refer to the House of Life as a depository of wisdom and knowledge and its scribes as versed in magic. The Papyrus of Nu, one of the Books of the Dead, begins with the words Book (mDA.t) of the comprehension of the words of the House of Life.[25] In the tale of Prince Khamuas and Si-Osiri the scribes of the House of Life are involved in a fight between magicians, and in the Tale of Princess Ahura a scribe of the House of Life divulges to Naneferkaptah the whereabouts of the lost books of Thoth.
    Amennakht, son of Ipuy, who lived during the reigns of Ramses III and his successor Ramses IV, is ascribed an instruction, the Teaching of Amennakht, a fragment of one version of which begins
Beginning of the instruction, the sayings of the (correct) road of life, which the scribe of the House of Life Amennakht has composed.
oKairo without number [26]
and a scribe of the House of Life is a more likely composer of a wisdom text than some of the people other sebayit are said to have been written by. Amennakht. like other authors, is a champion of learning and his counsels are hardly unexpected:
You shall become a scribe and you shall pass through the House of Life (or perhaps: so that you can go about in the House of Life)
oKV 18/3.614+627 [27]
but his advice:
Become like a chest of books
ibidem [27]
has, at least to a bookworm, a certain surprising charm. It is doubtful though that many people, even those looking nostalgically back at their schooldays, will agree with his claim that
... beatings at school are pleasurable.
ibidem [27]
the exaltedness of the House of Life as an institution notwithstanding.
[1] per-ankh, also written without the initial pr-hieroglyph, transliteration pr-anx, Wb 1, 515.6
[2] Assmann 2003, p.73
[3] Dunand & Zivie-Coche, 2005, p.102
[5] Sauneron 2000, pp.132ff.
[6] David 1999, pp.203f.
[8] Great Seat, s.t-wr.t, the Holy of Holies, here probably rather the temenos
[9] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => späte Ritualbücher => Tempelbibliotheken => Bibliothek eines Tempels im Delta (Heliopolis?) => pBrooklyn 47.218.50 ("Confirmation du pouvoir royal au nouvel an") => 1. Ritual(handlungen) des 'Grossen Sitzes', die während der Feste der Erde vollzogen werden
[10] accessed 11 August 2009
[11] Gordon & Schwabe 2004, p.166
[12] Assmann 2006, p.130
[13] Breasted 1906, Part Four, § 460
[14] David 2008, p.70
[15] David 2008, pp.185f.
[16] Lichtheim 1980, Vol. III, p.36
[17] Davies et al. 2000, p.1034
[18] A somewhat impenetrable translation. Lichtheim 1980, Vol. III, p.139, renders it as All who heard him thought him] the wonder of the land.
[19] Griffith 1900, p.147
[20] David 1999, p.336.
[21] Breasted 1906, Part Three, §437
[22] Montet 1981, pp.59f.
[23], accessed 12 August 2009
[24] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften => 1. Erzählungen => Mittelägyptische Erzählungen => Erzählung von Palast und Lebenshaus => pBM EA 10475 => Verso: Erzählung von Palast und Lebenshaus
[25] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Totenbuchprojekt, Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften => pLondon BM EA 10477 (pNu) => Tb 101
[26] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften => 3. Weisheitslehren => Neuägyptische Weisheitslehren => Die Lehre des Amunnacht => 05. oKairo ohne Nr. => Die Lehre des Amunnacht
[27] P. Dils ed., Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften => 3. Weisheitslehren => Neuägyptische Weisheitslehren => Die Lehre des Amunnacht => 01. oKV 18/3.614+627 => Die Lehre des Amunnacht
[28] S. Birch, "Egyptian Magical Text" in Records of the Past, Vol. VI
[29] Loprieno 1996, p.398
[30] Derchain 1959, p.74
[31] Kolta & Schwarzmann 2000, p.153
[32] Osing 1998, pp.22f.
[33] transliteration pr-mDA.t, Wb 1, 515.12; 2, 187.8
[34] Derchain 1959, pp.76f.
[35] Gordon & Schwabe, p.154

Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs, Harvard University Press 2003
Jan Assmann, Religion and Cultural Memory: ten studies, transl. Rodney Livingstone, Stanford University Press, 2006
S. Birch, "Egyptian Magical Text" in Records of the Past, Vol. VI
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Chicago 1906
Ann Rosalie David, Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press 1999
Ann Rosalie David, Egyptian Mummies and Modern Science, Cambridge University Press 2008
William David Davies, Louis Finkelstein, William Horbury, John Sturdy, The Cambridge History of Judaism: The early Roman period, Cambridge University Press, 2000
Philippe Derchain, "Le papyrus Salt 825 (B.M. 10.051) et la cosmologie *eacute;gyptienne", in BIFAO 58 (1959), pp.73-80
Françoise Dunand, Christiane Zivie-Coche, Gods and Men in Egypt: 3000 BCE to 395 CE, Cornell University Press, 2005
Andrew Hunt Gordon, Calvin W. Schwabe, The Quick and the Dead, Brill 2004
F. Ll. Griffith, Stories of the High Priests of Memphis; The Sethon of Herodotus and The Demotic Tales of Khamuas, Clarendon Press Oxford, 1900
Kamal Sabri Kolta, Doris Schwarzmann-Schafhauser, Die Heilkunde im alten Ägypten: Magie und Ratio in der Krankheitsvorstellung und therapeutischen Praxis, Franz Steiner Verlag, 2000
Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, 3 volumes, University of California Press 1973-1980
Antonio Loprieno, Ancient Egyptian literature, Brill 1996
Pierre Montet, Everyday Life in the Days of Ramesses the Great, University of Pennsilvania Press 1981
Jürgen Osing, Hieratische Papyri aus Tebtunis I, Volume 1, Museum Tusculanum Press, 1998
Serge Sauneron, The Priests of Ancient Egypt, Cornell University Press 2000, trans. David Lorton

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