ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egypt: Suicide
    The evidence
      Historical records
      Literary testimony
      Suicide note or existentialist treatise
    Attitudes towards suicide
    Incidence and methods
    Reasons for suicide

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Suicide in ancient Egypt

The evidence

    There is no direct archaeological evidence for suicide in ancient Egypt nor for any discriminatory treatment of people who died at their own hand; archaeologists may more cautiously speak of there being few physical clues in tombs to treatment of suicide as exceptional.[1] One will therefore have to rely on the almost as rare written records as to incidence and methods of suicide, and attitudes towards it.

Historical records

    The three millennia long history of ancient Egypt yields records of just a handful of suicides. In the aftermath of an assassination attempt against Ramses III a number of the conspirators, among them Queen Tiye's son, Prince Pentawer, were condemned to death, but, as a special mark of leniency, were given the option to commit suicide.
Persons brought in because of their crimes and because of their collusion with Pebekkamen, Peyes, and Pentewere. They were placed before the nobles of the court of examination in order to examine them; they found them guilty; they left them in their own hands in the court of examination; they took their own lives; and no punishment was executed upon them.
    Pebes on the other hand was not condemned to death for carousing with women of the harem accused of conspiring against the king. His punishment was to have his nose and ears cut off, but he killed himself, probably unable to bear his shame:
This great criminal, Pebes, formerly butler. This punishment was executed upon him; he was left (alone); he took his own life.
    When with their fall from power the pride of the mighty was hurt, they may have preferred to put an end to their life and not suffer further ignominy. Queen Cleopatra VII, last of the Hellenist Ptolemies, committed suicide in order not to be shamed in Octavian's public triumph in Rome, after she had lost her bid to keep Egypt independent.
    More is known about suicide in Graeco-Roman times than in the preceding three millennia of Egyptian history, but even those records are scarce. Among them is an official complaint by the relatives of a man driven to suicide by persecution:
To Apollonios, strategos of the Arsinoite nome, from Pakebkis, son of Horos, and Kollouthos, son of P[- - -];[- - -] of the same village [- - -] them of false accusations and assaults in regard to which each of those who have suffered wrong has made his complaint. Even then the same accused with his customary daring attacked another of the residents of the same village, Kronion, son of Petesouchos, who is also called Chales, wishing to ruin him by penalties, so that, because of his needy condition, Kronion laid hands on himself and perished. Wherefore, acting not unwisely, Petesis, the brother of Kronion, and Kronion's own wife, Tephereus, daughter of Sigeris, laid the complaint at that time in accordance with what they declared to Tiberius Claudius Chrysermos, the former strategos, about these occurrences in the petition. Since, then, the matter has become evident from the . . . of the accused Orses [- - -] we shall appear as plaintiffs wherever our lord Gnaeus Vergilius Capito shall hold the assizes of the nome to the end that through his judgment he (i.e. the accused) may meet with the punishment he deserves. Farewell. [2]
    Of another suicide which occurred in 173 CE just the plain facts about how he died are known, as the demosios iatros, the public physician, Dionysos reported to the strategos:
Today I was ordered by tour servant Herakleides to inspect the dead, hanged body of Hierax and to inform you about the conclusion I would come to with respect to it. Therefore I inspected the body in the personal presence of the servant in the home of Epagathos, son of ...ymeros, son of Sarapion, in the Broad Street and I found it hanged with a noose. Thus I report. [3]
    Threats of killing oneself as calls for help were also made in antiquity. A woman called Isidora, worried about the ill health of her child, wrote to her husband Hermias:
Do anything, postpone everything, and come. preferably tomorrow. The baby is ill. It has become thin. It is already two hundred days [since you went away(?)]. I fear it will die in your absence. Know for sure: if it dies in your absence, be prepared that you do not find me hanged. [4]

Literary testimony

    Ancient literature, even in the form of histories, should not be mistaken for historical records. It can throw light on attitudes held, it may repeat historical memories transmitted by folk tales or as part of scribal traditions, but unless there are independent archaeological sources confirming it, anything quoted as a fact in such writings should be taken with a grain of salt.
    Diodorus Siculus retells the lives of various ancient kings, among them one whom he calls Sesoösis, who killed himself when he became blind after a long reign:
And after a reign of thirty-three years he deliberately took his own life, his eyesight having failed him; and this act won for him the admiration not only of the priests of Egypt but of the other inhabitants as well, for it was thought that he had caused the end of his life to comport with the loftiness of spirit shown in his achievements.
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History [5]
    Serving a king could lead even the wise into moral quandaries, from which the only exit may have been death. Josephus Flavius recounts that Manetho told a story about a king by the name of Amenophis who wanted to see the gods. The advice of his counsellor Amenophis, son of Paapis, was to cleanse the country of all lepers. The king followed this advice, isolated 80,000 infected persons in the stone quarries east of the Nile, where they had to break stone.
Among them, Manetho adds, there were some of the learned priests, who had been attacked by leprosy. Then this wise seer Amenophis was filled with dread of divine wrath against himself and the king if the outrage done to these persons should be discovered; and he added a prediction that certain allies would join the polluted people and would take possession of Egypt for 13 years. Not venturing to make this prophecy himself to the king, he left a full account of it in writing, and then took his own life.
From Josephus, Contra Apionem[6]
    In the Tale of Princess Ahura Naneferkaptah, preoccupied with his quest to retrieve the Book of Thoth, kills himself after allowing his wife Princess Ahura and their son Merab to drown:
... he said to his heart, "Shall I not better turn back again to Koptos, that I may lie by them? For if not, when I go down to Memphis, and the king asks after his children, what shall I say to him? Can I tell him, 'I have taken your children to the Thebaid and killed them, while I remained alive, and I have come to Memphis still alive?' "
Then he made them bring him a linen cloth of striped byssus; he made a band, and bound the book firmly, and tied it upon him. Naneferkaptah then went out of the awning of the royal boat and fell into the river. He cried on Ra; and all those who were on the bank made an outcry, saying, "Great woe! Sad woe! Is he lost, that good scribe and able man that has no equal?"
Tale of Princess Ahura [7]
    In these tales there is no condemnation of the act of suicide as morally wrong. The Debate between a man tired of life and his soul is more critical of it.

Suicide note or existentialist treatise: The Debate between a man tired of life and his soul ?

    The Debate between a man tired of life and his soul, the only known copy of which dates from the twelfth dynasty, was composed during a period when the certainties about life and its rewards in an eternal afterlife as they had come to be conceived from the end of the Old Kingdom on, had given way to hedonism, to looking for satisfaction in the here and now–in the words of a Harper's song from the tomb of King Antef: Revel in pleasure while your life endures.
    The text is incomplete and difficult to understand.[8] It describes a man deeply unhappy with life. He disputes with his ba who refuses to acknowledge his suffering and threatens to leave him, a frightening prospect as this would prevent his resurrection and a blissful existence in the beyond. The man exposes his anxiety and in the end his ba agrees to remain with him. He displays a mental state characteristic of a suicide: low self-esteem, self hatred, social isolation, hope of release from suffering by death and a better life in the beyond; and it has been suggested that this might have been a suicide note.[9]

Attitudes towards suicide

    Sources about ancient Egyptian attitudes towards suicide are few and ambiguous, which leads some to call them varied,[10] similar to those in ancient Greece and Rome, changing over time, from place to place,[11] and from person to person. Some claim that suicide was seen as a humane way to escape intolerable hardship and depression,[12] while there are those who think that it was forbidden.[13]
    The claim has been made that suicides cut themselves off from the gods.[14] If that had been so, the peasant in the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant who threatened to take his complaint before Anubis, i.e. to commit suicide and then ask Osiris for justice at his Judgment of the Dead, which might well have repercussions for a magistrate refusing to mete out justice,[15] would hardly have done so, nor would the magistrate have taken the threat seriously.
    The fact that some condemned conspirators against Ramses III were given the option of killing themselves, when others, apparently less favoured, suffered a terrible death probably by impalement which is thought to have prevented them from entering eternal life, may be considered evidence that suicides were still able to enjoy afterlife.[16]
    More is known about the attitudes of the Hellenists, who came to dominate Egyptian life from the third century BCE onwards. Among the Greeks there was no religious law against suicide, though Aristotle and Epicurus, in contrast to the Stoics, the Cynics and the Platonists, opposed it. But only Pythagoreanism held it to be morally wrong.[17]
    The philosopher Hegesias, who lived in the third century BCE seems to have richly deserved his nickname Peisithanatos which means 'Death Persuader.' He propounded that human beings were driven by pleasure and the avoidance of pain, and he rejected any inherent value of such commonly acknowledged virtues as friendship, kindness and gratitude.[18] By dying one did not lose anything of worth, but rather gained being free from evil.[19] According to Cicero and others Ptolemy Lagi forbade his lectures at Alexandria after many of his listeners had committed suicide.[20]
    As Christianity took hold in Egypt, suicide became a crime. Augustine of Hippo [21] based this view on the sixth commandment, "Thou shalt not kill", which included oneself.[22]

Incidence and methods

    Little is known about the incidence of suicide among the upper classes and practically nothing about it among the voiceless masses, but it is thought to have been rare.[28] As to how people killed themselves, tales mention a variety of methods. Herodotus retold a story he had heard about the Ethiopian queen Nitocris in his History:
They said that she (Nitocris) succeeded her brother; he had been king of Egypt, and was put to death by his subjects, who then placed her upon the throne. Bent on avenging his death, she devised a cunning scheme by which she destroyed a vast number of Egyptians. She constructed a spacious underground chamber, and, on pretence of inaugurating it, contrived the following:- Inviting to a banquet those of the Egyptians whom she knew to have had the chief share in the murder of her brother, she suddenly, as they were feasting, let the river in upon them by means of a secret duct of large size. This and this only did they tell me of her, except that, when she had done as I have said, she threw herself into an apartment full of ashes, that she might escape the vengeance whereto she would otherwise have been exposed.
Fire is possibly the least prepossessing way of killing oneself, though some of the other methods mentioned, like throwing oneself before crocodiles or drowning oneself,[28] may be scarcely more appealing. Poison might provide a way out, as was proven by Queen Cleopatra, the popular story being that she let an asp bite her.[24]
    As interesting and exotic these methods may have been, research of records of suicide in the ancient world concluded that hanging was apparently the manner most frequently chosen.[25]

Reasons for suicide

    Under the first dynasty high officials were apparently sacrificed upon their king's death, at first by the hundreds. Under the last kings of the dynasty the number of sacrifices was down to about a tenth and later the custom disappeared completely.[26] It has been suggested that these royal servants were forced into self-immolation,[27] in order to serve the king in the hereafter. Similarly, the conspirators against Ramses III committed suicide because they did not have much of a choice, the alternative being a good deal worse.
    Then as now depression was probably the most important cause for suicide. The composer of the Debate shows many of its signs in his work, and some followers of Hegesias must have felt the absence of purpose in their existence deeply to end their lives. Whether some people despaired of the state of Egyptian society after the collapse of the Old Kingdom to such an extent, that they killed themselves as some suggest,[29] cannot be verified.


Albert I. Baumgarten, Jan Assmann, Gedaliahu A. G. Stroumsa (eds.), Self, soul, and body in religious experience, Brill, 1998
Paul Carrick, Medical Ethics in the Ancient World, Georgetown University Press, 2001
John R. Catan, A History of Ancient Philosophy: The systems of the Hellenistic Age, SUNY Press, 1985
Frederick Charles Copleston, A history of philosophy, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003
Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, vol.1, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1933
Eleanor Goltz Huzar, Mark Antony, a biography, U of Minnesota Press, 1978
Pamela Rae Heath, Jon Klimo, Suicide: what really happens in the afterlife?, North Atlantic Books, 2006
Herodotus, Euterpe, translated by George Rawlinson, New York 1885
Anton J. L. van Hooff, From autothanasia to suicide: self-killing in classical antiquity, Routledge, 1990
Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, University of California Press 1973, vol.1
Erich H. Loewy, Textbook of medical ethics, Springer, 1989
Donald McCormick, The unseen killer; a study of suicide: its history, causes and cures, Muller, 1964
Alexander Murray, Suicide in the Middle Ages: The curse on self-murder, Oxford University Press, 2000
Margaret Oldroyd Hyde, Elizabeth Held Forsyth, Suicide: The Hidden Epidemic, CompCare, 1989
William Matthew Flinders Petrie, Religious life in ancient Egypt, Constable, 1924
H. D. Rankin, Sophists, Socratics, and Cynics, Taylor & Francis, 1983
Helaine Selin (ed.), Encyclopaedia of the history of science, technology, and medicine in non-western cultures, Springer, 1997
John H. Taylor, Death and the afterlife in ancient Egypt, British Museum Press, 2001, p.41
Upendra Thakur, The history of suicide in India: an Introduction, Munshi Ram Manohar Lal, 1963
Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, Vol. III: Egypt, Africa, and Arabia, Houghton Mifflin Boston, 1914
Chris Thomas, "First suicide note?" in British Medical Journal, July 1980, pp.284f.
John Albert Wilson, The culture of ancient Egypt, Oriental Institute essay, Chicago University, University of Chicago Press, 1956

[1] Murray 2000, p.585
[2] P.Mich.:5:231, ca. 47-48 CE, APIS record: michigan.apis.2786
[3] van Hooff 1990, p.156
[4] van Hooff 1990, p.155
[5] Diodorus, 1.58.3
[6] in Manetho, with an English translation by W. G. Waddell, Harvard University Press 1964, p.125
[7] Petrie in Tappan 1914, pp.55
[8] Lichtheim vol.1 1973, p.163
[9] Thomas 1980, pp.284f.
[10] Oldroyde & Held 1989, p.36
[11] Oldroyde & Held 1989, p.39
[12] McCormick 1964, p.33
[13] Selin 1997, p.665
[14] Loewy 1989, p.145
[15] Baumgarten et al. 1998, p.389
[16] Taylor 2001, p.41
[17] Carrick 2001, p.94
[18] Rankin 1983, pp.202ff.
[19] Catan 1985, Volume 3, pp. 40ff.
[20] Copleston 2003, Volume 1, pp. 122f.
[21] also called St Augustine, 354-430, Bishop of Hippo (in today's Algeria), one of the most influential church fathers.
[22] Heath & Klimo 2006 p.33
[23] Herodotus, 2.100
[24] Goltz 1978, p.227
[25] van Hooff 1990, p.72
[26] Petrie 1924, p.35
[27] Thakur 1963, p.127
[28] Murray 2000, p.585
[29] Wilson 1956, p.11

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