CRIME, PUNISHMENT AND VIOLENCE IN ANCIENT EGYPT

CRIME AND POLICE IN ANCIENT EGYPT


Mentuhotep, chief of police in Thebes

Mark Millmore wrote in discoveringegypt.com: During the Old and Middle Kingdoms order was kept by local officials with their own private police forces. During the New Kingdom a more centralized police force developed, made up primarily of Egypt’s Nubian allies, the Medjay. They were armed with staffs and used dogs. Neither rich nor poor citizens were above the law and punishments ranged from confiscation of property, beating and mutilation (including the cutting off of ears and noses) to death without a proper burial. The Egyptians believed that a proper burial was essential for entering the afterlife, so the threat of this last punishment was a real deterrent.” [Source: Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com ^^^]

It seems that most crime was of a petty nature. One 18th Dynasty texts reads: “They went to the granary, stole three great loaves and eight sabu-cakes of Rohusu berries. They drew a bottle of beer which was cooling in water, while I was staying in my father’s room. My Lord, let whatsoever has been stolen be given back to me.” ^^^

Categories with related articles in this website: Ancient Egyptian History (32 articles) factsanddetails.com; Ancient Egyptian Religion (24 articles) factsanddetails.com; Ancient Egyptian Life and Culture (36 articles) factsanddetails.com; Ancient Egyptian Government, Infrastructure and Economics (24 articles) factsanddetails.com.

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Discovering Egypt discoveringegypt.com; BBC History: Egyptians bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt ancient.eu/egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt ancientegypt.co.uk; Egypt’s Golden Empire pbs.org/empires/egypt; Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris louvre.fr/en/departments/egyptian-antiquities; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt kmtjournal.com; Ancient Egypt Magazine ancientegyptmagazine.co.uk; Egypt Exploration Society ees.ac.uk ; Amarna Project amarnaproject.com; Egyptian Study Society, Denver egyptianstudysociety.com; The Ancient Egypt Site ancient-egypt.org; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East etana.org; Egyptology Resources fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

Murder and Violent Crimes in Ancient Egypt

Kerry Muhlestein of Brigham Young University wrote: “Rape, domestic violence, and even murder are attested at the village. These illicit acts of violence were viewed, at least by some, in a negative light, for we learn about them in the form of complaints. From three letters of the Late Ramesside era we recover hints of a plot to kill two Medjay apparently in order to keep them from testifying in some manner against the perpetrators. The secrecy of the plot makes it clear that this act would be looked upon most unfavorably, even though people of power were involved. Record s of legal proceedings also hint at violence, such as the acts attempted in connection with the harem conspiracy in the reign of Ramesses. These records may give us a clue as to what Weni, an Old Kingdom official, meant when he enigmatically spoke of hearing a secret matter in the harem, but we cannot know. Similarly, the Persian Period Petition of Petiese outlines a case of murder, giving us a small insight into violent events that must have happened throughout Egyptian history. Royal decrees can provide traces of violent acts among non-royal individuals. [Source: Kerry Muhlestein, Brigham Young University, 2015, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“For example, when the 21 st Dynasty Banishment Stela stipulates that murder was worthy of death, we may safely assume that murder was not an unknown act. Similarly, a Demotic literary tale, which culminates in the burning of murderers, implies that such things happened in reality as well, as does a literary tale from the 21 st Dynasty, which recounts the murder of a woman and scattering of her children. Other literary tales portray violence in a negative light, such as when a minor official is portrayed as beating a peasant in such a way that the beating is clearly viewed as unjustifiable and wrong. One of the most profitable sources for learning about violence are oracular texts. For exam ple, we can read of death being decreed by oracle for embezzlers. <>

“When trials were decided by appeals to oracles, often the deeds of the accused were either written on a text presented to the oracle, or the oracle’s decision was writt en down. From these kinds of texts we learn of two boys who were beaten to death and of the execution of their murderers. In another we learn of two men who had been caught in illegal acts trying to murder the man who had discovered them before he could tell anyone. While the official writings of Egypt do not present us with the illicit violence that could be a part of lived experience, such acts become more apparent in their laundry lists. <>

“Clearly murder, or killing someone who was innocent, was viewed as wrong. Piankhy forbade certain men from entering a temple because they “did a thing which god did not command should be done, they conceived evil in their hearts, even slaying one who was without guilt”. “While it is clear that such killing was outside of what the divine and mortal realms sanctioned, it is curious that the punishment, apparently for attempted or at least plotted murder, appears to be so mild. At least in this writing the only punishment listed was a prohibition from entering the temple. This may be due to Piankhy’s concentration on purity, for he emphasized that these men had done the killing within the very temple they were forbidden to enter. In a literary na rrative, the Tale of the Two Brothers , even a king killing one who was innocent is portrayed negatively. The Myth of the Eye of the Sun more clearly depicts the negative view of those who murdered. In one conversation it is recorded that th ose who kill should be killed, and that those who go unpunished will never have the blood removed from them and will be punished eventually, even if it is in the next life. <>

“While in formal complaints or actions, grievous offenses such as adultery were not typically punished by violence, some texts might imply that this could happen on occasion, and a few wisdom texts intimate that it was not unheard of for the wronged spouse to seek illicit retribution.” <>

Crimes Worthy of Execution in Ancient Egypt


stuff in the tomb of Tutankhamun (King Tut), looting of royal tomb in Ancient Egyptian times was a crime punishable by death

Kerry Muhlestein of Brigham Young University wrote: “It appears that death for stealing or damaging state property was also fairly uniform, though it is difficult to assess this with confidence since we only have evidence from a few time periods, such as the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period. Similarly, one would assume that execution for murder would have been invariable, but we only have evidence for murder from the Third Intermediate Period forward. Desecration of sacred land could be grounds for execution. Runaway (royal?) slaves could be deemed worthy of death. [Source: Kerry Muhlestein, Brigham Young University, 2015, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“Desecration of royal tombs was viewed as a capital offense. Also, death was sometimes the punishment decreed for interference with mortuary cults, rendering false rulings, rendering false oracles, non-royal tomb desecration, interfering with temple cults, embezzling cultic proceeds, diverting corvée labor, issuing false documents, or stealing state property . In some decrees these acts are deemed worthy of death, and in others they are given lighter, though still violent and harsh, punishments. Even within the same decree the punishments vary without appar ent rhyme or reason. For example, in Seti I’s Nauri decree, he stipulates various beatings, wounding, and restitutions for embezzling and reselling temple estate goods. Yet if these crimes were committed by a k eeper of hounds or keeper of cattle, they were to be impaled. The inconsistency of punishments in the decree is hard to explain. <>

“The most famous cases of sanctioned violence stem from the texts recording the trial of harem conspirators under Ramesses III and those recording the trials of those involved in tomb robbery in the late 20th Dynasty. In both cases those directly responsible for the crimes met death. In the harem conspiracy, almost all those who were merely aware of the consp iracy were put to death or were allowed to commit suicide. Despite the arguments of many scholars, there is no apparent pattern to explain why some individuals were put to d eath while others were permitted to commit suicide. <>

“Numerous texts indicate that capital punishment for unspecified criminal activity was an ongoing practice that continued throughout Egyptian history. Attestations of this are fou nd in graffiti, which speak of desecrators’ “flesh...burning together with the criminals,” or being cooked with the criminals. A Coffin Text descendant of the spell from the Pyramid Texts often termed the “Cannibal Hymn” also mentions burning criminals. The transformation of the Cannibal Hymn into this Coffin Text suggests it is based, to some degree, on a continuing reality, for the text seems to have pres erved the idea of its original Pyramid Text form, yet contains within it elements, which appear to have incorporated dynamic changes to the event it describes. The dynamic elements indicate that at the time the Coffin Text was created, some evolved form of a practice continued. We cannot determine if the crimes referred to in this type of reference are those noted above or if they refer to a specific type of crime in addition to those listed above that was deemed worthy of death. Some have argued that killing was sanctioned in the case of a cuckolded husband in regards to the man with whom his wife had slept. The arguments for this are speculative and the evidence is inconclusive.” <>

Women and Crime in Ancient Egypt

Peter A. Piccione wrote: “These ordinary and extraordinary roles are not the only ones in which we see Egyptian women cast in ancient Egypt. We also see Egyptian women as the victims of crime (and rape); also as the perpetrators of crime, as adulteresses and even as convicts. [Source: Peter A. Piccione, College of Charleston,“The Status of Women in Ancient Egyptian Society,” 1995, Internet Archive, from NWU *-*]

“Women criminals certainly existed, although they do not appear frequently in the historical record. A woman named Nesmut was implicated in a series of robberies of the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings during the Twentieth Dynasty. Examples of women convicts are also known. According to one Brooklyn Museum papyrus from the Middle Kingdom, a woman was incarcerated at the prison at Thebes because she fled her district to dodge the corvee service on a royal estate. Most of the concubines and lesser wives involved in the harim conspiracy against Ramesses III were convicted and had their noses and ears cut off, while others were invited to commit suicide. Another woman is indicated among the lists of prisoners from a prison at el-Lahun. However, of the prison lists we have, the percentage of women's names is very small compared to those of men, and this fact may be significant.” *-*

Ancient Egyptian Looters

Nearly all the tombs of pharaohs and ancient Egyptian noblemen and priest have been looted, many of them soon after they were built. Many are believed to be have been much grander than the tomb of King Tutankhamun and contained much more impressive funerary objects. The grand objects were found in Tutankhamun’s tombs even though it most of its rooms had been looted.

A fragment of 3,000-year-old papyrus in Turin, Italy recounts the trial of a thief who confessed after torture to breaking in to the tombs of Ramses the Great and his children. During the 20th and 21st dynasties, looting was quite common. In some cases the mummies of pharaohs were moved to new locations and looters left behind graffiti that helped archaeologists place when the deeds were done.

The looters pry open sarcophagus, unwrapped mummies and smashed everything in efforts to find hidden treasures. Mummies often had huge holes hacked in the chests and their face that were in all likelihood made by looters in search of treasures.

In the age of the pharaohs, the tombs were guarded by priests and the punishment for looters was being impaled alive, condemned to the "flame of Skehment" or "f**ked" by donkeys. Still some looters took the risk.

Ramesside Tomb Robberies


Tomb of Ramses II

The Ramesside tomb-robbery papyri, Papyrus Turin 1887 records the “Elephantine scandal.” It shows in detail the complex network of complicity between the thieves and government officials and sheds light on the realities of life in ancient Egypt, where crimes and despicable acts don’t seem that unusual. One of the robbers melted stolen gold in the house of an accomplice, a priest of Ptah. [Source: Juan Carlos Moreno García, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org ]

On the text, J.H. Breasted wrote: “These two documents are the court records of the prosecution of the tomb-robbers, whose names are recorded on the back of the Papyrus Abbott, in the first year of Ramses X (nineteenth of Ramses IX), and of others in the next year, eight months later.” The second text “follows the trial of five men, with the usual formulae, only slightly varied from” the first one. “The tomb which they were accused of robbing is not mentioned. All five were found innocent. The prosecutions...do not refer to any particular tombs, but they are followed in turn by a list, headed: "Year 2, first month of the first season, day 13; the names of the robbers of the tomb of Pharaoh." This list contains the names of twenty-two persons (two women), among whom are some of those prosecuted.

“After a gap of a few lines Column 8 proceeds with an important trial, of which the beginning is lost in the gap....After enumerating some of the things stolen, in response to a question of the vizier, the examination of the next man shows him to have been innocent. The fisherman who carried the thieves over to the west side is next examined and discharged; and of the three men whose trial follows, one was innocent. A list of twenty-five thieves fills the next column which is headed: "The thieves of the cemetery whose examination was held, concerning whom it was found that they had been in the tombs." Column 11 contains a similar list entitled: "The thieves of the tomb, in the second month, tenth day," while the margin bears a list of "the women who were imprisoned," being eleven of the wives of the thieves. The document then closes with proceedings in which some of the accused in the first trial reappear. The second document (Papyrus Mayor B) is in a different hand, but records proceedings of the same sort. In a connection which is not entirely clear, the tomb of "Amenhotep III, the Great God," is mentioned, and it is evident that it had been robbed.”

Ramesside Tomb Robberies Texts

The Ramesside tomb robberies in The Mayer Papyri; the first text reads: “Year 1, of Uhem-mesut (whm-ms.wt), fourth month of the third season, day 13. On this day occurred the examination of the thieves of the tomb of King Usermare-Setepnere (Ramses II)... in the treasury of "The-House-of-King-Usermare-Meriamon (Ramses III),-L.-P.-H.", concerning whom the chief of police, Nesuamon, had reported, in this roll of names; for he was there, standing with the thieves, when they laid their hands upon the tombs; who were tortured at the examination on their feet and their hands, to make them tell the way they had done exactly. -

“The Aaa, Paykamen (pAj-kAmn), under charge of the overseer of the cattle of Amon, was brought in; the oath of the king, L. P. H., was administered to him, not to tell a lie. He was asked: "What was the manner of thy going with the people who were with thee, when ye robbed the tombs of the kings which are [recorded (?)] in the treasury of"The-House-of-King-Usermare-Meriamon,-L.-P.-H."? He said: "I went with the priest Teshere (tA-Srj), son of the divine father, Zedi, of 'The House;' Beki, son of Nesuamon, of this house; the Aaa, Nesumontu of the house of Montu, lord of Erment; the Aaa, Paynehsi of the vizier, formerly prophet of Sebek of Peronekh (pr-anx); Teti (tA-tj) [///] who belonged to Paynehsi, of the vizier, formerly prophet of Sebek of Peronekh; in all six."

“The chief of police, Nesuamon, was brought in. He was asked: "How didst thou find these men?" He said: "I heard that these men had gone to rob this tomb. I went and found these six men. That which the thief, Paykamen, has said is correct. I took testimony from them on that day. The examination of the watchman of the house of Amon, the thief, Paykamen, under charge of the overseer of the cattle of Amon, was held by beating with a rod, the bastinade was applied to his feet. An oath was administered to him that he might be executed if he told a lie; he said: 'That which I did is exactly what I have said.' He confirmed it with his mouth, saying: 'As for me, that which I did is what [they] did; I was w[ith the]se six men, I stole a piece of copper therefrom, and I took possession of it.'"


Tomb of Ramses II

“The Aaa, the thief, Nesumontu,was brought in; the examination was held by beating with a rod; the bastinade was applied on (his) feet and his hand(s); the oath of the king, L. P. H., was administered to him, that he might be executed if he told a lie. He was asked: "What was the manner of thy going to rob in the tomb with thy companions?" He said: "I went and found these people; I was the sixth. I stole a piece of copper therefrom, I took possession of it." -copper: Breasted: mAjw, with determinative of metalThe watchman of the house of Amon, the Aaa, Karu (qA-rw), was brought in; he was examined with the rod, the bastinade was applied to his feet and his hands; the oath of the king, L. P. H., was administered to him, that he might be executed if he told a lie. He was asked: "What was the manner of thy going with the (sic !) companions when ye robbed in the tomb?"

“He said: "The thief, the Aaa, Pehenui, he made me take some grain. I seized a sack of grain, and when I began to go down, I heard the voice of the men who were in this storehouse. I put my eye to the passage, and I saw Paybek and Teshere, who were within. I called to him, saying, 'Come!' and he came out to me, having two pieces of copper in his hand. He gave them to me, and I gave to him 1½ measures of spelt to pay for them. I took one of them, and I gave the other to the Aaa, Enefsu (an.f-sw). The priest, Nesuamon, son of Paybek, was brought in, because of his father. He was examined by beating with the rod. They said to him: "Tell the manner of thy father's going with the men who were with him."

“He said: "My father was truly there. I was (only) a little child, and I know not how he did it." On being (further) examined, he said: "I saw the workman, Ehatinofer (aHAtj-nfr), while he was in the place where the tomb is, with the watchman, Nofer, son of [Merwer {Mr-wr)] and the artisan, in all three (men). They are the ones I saw distinctly. Indeed, gold was taken, and they are the ones whom I know." On being (further) examined with a rod, he said: "These three men are the ones I saw distinctly."

“The weaver of "The House," Wenpebti (wn-pHtj)... was brought in. He was examined by beating with a rod, the bastinade was applied to his feet and his hands. The oath of the king, L. P. H., was administered, not to tell a lie. They said to him: "Tell what was the manner of thy father's going, when he committed theft in the tomb with his companions." He said: "My father was killed when I was a child. My mother told me: 'The chief of police, Nesuamon, gave some chisels of copper to thy father, then the captains of the archers and the Aaa slew thy father.' They [held ] the examination, and Nesuamon took the copper and gave it to [me ]. It remains [in the possession of ] my mother."

“A Theban woman, Enroy (jn-n-rA-j), the mistress of the priest, Teshere, son of Zedi, was brought in. She was examined by beating with a rod; the bastinade was applied to her feet and her hands. The oath of the king, L. P. H., not to tell a lie, was administered to her; she was asked: "What was the manner of thy husband's going when he broke into the tomb and carried away the copper from it?" She said: "He carried away some copper belonging to this tomb we sold it and devoured it."

The second text reads: Fourth month of the third season, day 17; was held the examination of certain of the thieves of the cemetery....He was again examined by beating with a rod. They said to him: "Tell what were the other places which thou didst break into."...He said: "I broke into the tomb of the King's-Wife, Nesimut."...He said: "It was I who broke into the tomb of the King's-Wife, Bekurel (bk-wr-n-rA), wife of King Menmare (Seti I), L. P. H., in all, three (tombs)."

Murder Attempt by Ptolemaic-Era Twins


sculpture of the god Orisis making Isis pregnant after he was murdered

John Ray of Cambridge University wrote for the BBC: ““The lives of Tawe and her twin sister Taous are known from a remarkable series of papers written in Greek and Egyptian during the middle years of the second century B.C. The texts were found in the sands of Saqqara-some of those concerning the twins are in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. [Source: John Ray, Cambridge University, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“Thanks to this archive, we know some details of the sisters' early life. At first, they lived with in Memphis. Their mother left their father for a Greek soldier, named Philippos. The couple plotted to murder the father, and staged an attempt on his life. The father escaped, but went back to his home in Middle Egypt, where he died of grief. The mother was wealthy, but sold the family home and evicted the twins. |::|

“Rescue came from a Macedonian Greek named Ptolemaios, an intriguing character who spent much of his life as a recluse near the temple of the Serapeum, at Saqqara. He persuaded the temple authorities to give the twins jobs as temple acolytes, where their duty was to impersonate the sister-goddesses Isis and Nephthys. Even this was not the end of their troubles, since their half-brother, aided by the malicious mother, embezzled their salary. |::|

“We have a large number of Ptolemaios' papers, many concerned with the problems of the twins, who feature even in his dreams. Another person important in their lives is Ptolemaios' brother Apollonios, a volatile adolescent with an ambiguous attitude towards the beliefs of his relative. Sometimes Apollonios seems a model of piety, at other times he rejects the gods in a way that seems utterly modern. Apollonios had the gift of making enemies among the Egyptians who peopled the area of the Serapeum.” |::|

An “account of a dream shows many of the preoccupations of Tawe and her sister. The figure of the mother, the setting of the riverbank murder-attempt, the subject of marriage, and the question of mutual affection, are all themes. The papers of Ptolemaios, Apollonios, and the temple twins are the most intimate records to come down to us from antiquity, and they deserve to be known, not merely by scholars, but by people worldwide.” |::|

Violence in Ancient Egypt

Kerry Muhlestein of Brigham Young University wrote: “Throughout time, Egyptian sources display divergent attitudes towards violence expressing the belief that some situations of violence were positive and to be encouraged, while others were to be avoided. Sanctioned violence could be employed for a variety of reasons—the severity of which ranged from inflicting blows to gruesome death. Violence was part of the preternatural realm, notably as Egyptians attempted to thwart potential violence in the afterlife.While the average Egyptian was supposed to eschew violence, kings and their representatives were expected to engage in violent acts in many circumstances. Improper violence disturbed order while sanctioned violence restored it. While the types of sanctioned violence employed and the reasons for employing it changed over time, some attitudes about violence remained constant. more about later periods rather than earlier. We must use caution when retrojecting later views about violence to earlier periods, though often, all we have is later evidence. These considerations notwithstanding, when we examine all the data available, we can accumulate a fair view of Egypt’s attitude towards and experience of violence. [Source: Kerry Muhlestein, Brigham Young University, 2015, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]


slave beating

“The earliest religious texts are replete with references to preternatural violence, a practice which remains consistent throughout Egyptian civilization. The Pyramid Texts contain numerous references to the violence of gods, many of which pertain to incidents for which we have later narratives. Even among the gods we are presented with a bifurcated view of violence. According to many texts, th e first act to disturb order was an act of violence, whether it be the slaying and mutilation of Osiris or some kind of rebellion among mankind and a consequent violent response from a deity. These unsanctioned acts of violence were abhorrent, yet they were set aright by a violent response. In the case of Osiris’ slaying, order was eventually restored after Horus defeats Seth in a violent battle that, in some versions, included spearing, decapitation, gouging eyes out, rape, and threats of killing other gods . Mankind was punished for its rebellion by near-destruction (the Myth of the Heavenly Cow). <>

The Instructions for Merikara tell us the creator slew his own children when they contemplated rebelling against him. Texts about deities are replete with descriptions of driving away or slaughtering enemies of gods, with frequent reference to the slaughterhouse of the gods as a place to send these enemie s (e.g., the Book of the Dead : BD 1B). While such violent enemies represent chaos, their violent destruction represents a restoration of order. This battle often becomes personified, such as the ongoing battle between Apophis and the Sun God, or as in accounts of Seth stabbing and spearing the Chaos serpent.” <>

“However violent reality was, it pales in comparison to the violence potentially experienced as part of the afterlife. From the earliest funerary literature to the latest, the afterlife was depicted as a place fraught with violence. Thus, the texts appropriately contained instructions and spells aimed at avoiding it. There are repeated references to divine slaughterhouses and to gods slaughtering men. A frequent theme is wishing to avoid those who beat with sticks, or who cut off heads, stab, entrap, or mutilate. Frequently in the afterlife, gates present fearsome guardians with knives who await those who are unprepared. Ultimate violence, the second death, was an afterlife possibility all sought to avoid. Yet these texts si multaneously depict the need for violence, such as various gods, or even the dead, slaying multifarious enemies on behalf of themselves or others. Violence filled the afterlife, but the potential for an individual to avoid this violence was also present. <>

“Our greatest barrier to understanding violence in ancient Egypt is the reticence, which sources express towards the recording of illicit acts of violence. This in and of itself indicates something of attitudes towards violence. In general, while we know violence existed, private actions were supposed to avoid violence. Undoubtedly, however, sanctioned violence, or violence deemed as appropriate, permeated most aspects of Egyptian society. This led to a higher level of reg ular violence than in many modern cultures. While sanctioned violence was seen as a regular and necessary part of life, and illicit violence obviously occurred, Egypt’s stated cultural values of eschewing unsanctioned violence, or even anger, is a clearly held value that influenced society.” <>

Beatings and Mutilations — Sanctioned Violence in Ancient Egypt


leg or Horus

Kerry Muhlestein of Brigham Young University wrote: “The dichotomy between acceptable and unacceptable violence was also manifest among humankind. Clearly there were many situations in which violence was viewed as appropriate, even desirable. Sanctioned corporal punishment was prevalent. Old Kingdom tomb scenes frequently show people being beaten, sometimes with sticks that are shaped to look like a man’s hand, often while tied to a post. According to tomb captions and the Satire of Trades , one of the more frequent reasons for beatings was a failure to pay taxes . The Instructions of Amenemope seems to indicate that being among the chronically dependent poor could lead to violent punishment, even possibly execution. Beatings and inflicting open wounds were among the most common forms of punishment and could be inflicted for crimes such as failure to pay a debt, theft, improper appropriation of state workers, bringing charges against a superior , spreading rumors, not prosecuting crimes , unauthorized contact with sacred elements, interference with fishing and fowling , false legal action, libel, or inappropriate entrance of a tomb. The most common beatings consisted of either 100 or 200 blows, and in more se vere punishments were commonly accompanied by five open wounds.[Source: Kerry Muhlestein, Brigham Young University, 2015, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“Schoolboys could also be beaten for faulty scribal work. This leads to the assumption that beatings would have been viewed as an appropriate disincentive for unworthy behavior or performance in other forms of training. While not extreme, such a practice must have created a somewhat regular feature of mild violence throughout a person’s youth. <>

“Undoubtedly there were cases in which the violence did not remain mild. Beatings were also used during interrogations. Such a beating, if it produced a confession, could be followed by more beatings or worse punishments. For instance, one man was beaten to get his confession and then beaten with 200 blows of palm rod as punishment. It is possible that the threat of drowning, or perhaps the use of water in torture, were also part of interrogations. Divorce was punishable by beating in one case, though this seems to be an anomaly. <>

“Mutilation was another common form of violent punishment, most frequently manifested in cutting off the nose or ears. This could happen for various crimes, including encroachment on founda tion fields (agricultural property dedicated to supporting cultic or royal undertakings), interfering with offerings, select thefts, and even for involvement in the harem conspiracy recorded in the reign of Ramesses III. In the latter case, the mutilation of one man was shortly followed by his suicide, perhaps because the mutilation was either too painful or too humiliating to bear.” <>

Executions in Ancient Egypt


Kerry Muhlestein of Brigham Young University wrote: “While beatings, open wounds, and mutilation were difficult and severe punishments, execution was the most extreme violence of the penalization repertoire. The reasons for and types of execution varied over time, but sanctioned violent death remained an invariable part of Egyptian society . [Source: Kerry Muhlestein, Brigham Young University, 2015, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“Death by burning was a consistent type of violence employed throughout Egyptian history, though the evidence for it increased sharply after the end of the Ramesside Period. Decapitation was one of the more frequent to ols of death early in Egyptian history, but appears to have declined from the Ramesside era on. Slaying in a ritual context (i.e., sanctioned killing that involved demonstrable ritual trappings) was consistently employed over time. Drowni ng was also sometimes employed. Impalement was infrequently used, except during the Ramesside era, when it seems to have been the preferred form of punishment. <>

“While in many cases we know that either the king or vizier approved of executions, we do not have enough evidence to know if this was always the case. We are also unable to determine why some methods of killing were preferred vis-à-vis others in various time periods. <>

“Similar to the methods of execution, the reasons for execution also demonstrate both consistency and change over time. While it is difficult to detect a consistent pattern, one small repetitive theme is that the disruption of cult could often result in ritualized execution. Other than this, our sources are generally silent as to why capital punishment was deemed necessary, a notable exception being in the harem conspiracy, wherein those being executed understood that it was because they had committed “the abomination of every god and every goddess”. Yet the general (and surely simplified) pattern indicates that capital punishment was usually a result of crimes, which were deemed to be against the state or the gods . <>

“These types of crimes were viewed as disruptive of order, inviting chaos. These acts were typically (though not uniformly) painted as some sort of rebellion, such as the many tomb inscriptions that labeled anyone who violated the tomb as a rebel. On the part of the state, violence was employed in the service of order. It was designed to rectify unacceptable situations or, in other words, to return to the order of the original creative state.Execution for the rebellious was a constant.” <>

Ritual and Royal Violence in Ancient Egypt


Pharaoh smiting an enemy at Bet el-Wali

Kerry Muhlestein of Brigham Young University wrote: “Violence was a real part of cultic practice and many rituals employed violent actions. Most of this violence, however, was enacted against animals or inanimate objects. In these rituals, t he animals or objects were often seen as substitutes for humans. Sometimes the objects were anthropomorphic in form, as with the many clay, stone, and wax figures used in execration rituals. During the ceremonies, these figures were smashed, decapitated, mutilated, stabbed, speared, burned, and buried. Violence against mortals and against preternatural enemies was often combined in the rites. At least two execration rituals, one at Mirgissa during the Middle Kingdom and one at Avaris during the early 18th Dynasty, almost certainly used humans as the objects of the ritual. [Source: Kerry Muhlestein, Brigham Young University, 2015, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“Early Dynastic labels appear to depict violent rituals, such as a Djer label illustrating some kind of royal festival, part of which depicts a bound man seemingly being stabbed by a priest . Some form of ritual violence continued throughout Egyptian history, for such early iconographic evidence is matched by later philological evidence. The language used to describe several sanctioned killings implies that they took place in a ritual context, while other texts are explicit about the ritual nature of the slaying. For example, Senusret I slayed offenders at the temple of Tod, Ramesses III captured and killed Libyans in a ritual context , and Prince Osorkon burned rebels in the temple of Amun at Karnak. In all of these cases ritual language is employed to describe the killings. For example, the text of Osorkon records the punishment of rebels: “Then he struck them down for him, causing them to be carried like goats on the night of the Feast of the Evening Sacrifice in which braziers are lit...like braziers at the going forth of Sothis. Every man was burned with fire at the place of his crime”. <>

“There is some evidence that the stereotypical smiting scene at times may have been an actual ritual. Undoubtedly Amenhotep II smote captives as part of his coronation ritual. Several late New Kingdom non-royal stelae represent the king smiting prisoners within temple grounds, perhaps indicating that the owner of the stela had witnessed the ritual. Some have disagreed with this interpretati on, such as Ahituv, while others, including myself , have supported Schulman’s claims, showing faults with the arguments of his detractors, such as illustrating that Ahituv was wrong in stating there was no corroborating evid ence for kings actually smiting prisoners, or demonstrating the illogic behind concluding that if Syrian prisoners were spared in the palace, none of them could have been smitten. <>

“Some texts describing Ramesses III’s dealings with captives can be taken to indicate that he subjected them to ritual smiting, such as when a captive prince and his visiting father engendered distrust in Ramesses and he “came down upon their heads like a mountain of granite”. Moreover, a number of specialized a nd individualized smiting scenes imply that these were based on real events, such as the depiction of a man with a unique physical deformity being struck by the king. While we cannot be sure, it is quite likely that smiting enemies was a royal ritual.” <>

Violent Imagery in Ancient Egypt: Piles of Hands, Arms and Penises


Ramses II slaying his enemies

Kerry Muhlestein of Brigham Young University wrote: “Whether smiting scenes represented real or purely symbolic events, they serve as the flagship of violent iconography. Clearly even real forms of violence also carried symbolism, but in this case the question is whether smiting scenes were ever carried out on real humans. From the Predynastic Period through the Roman era, smiting enemies was a prevalent and imposing form of iconographic violence. These scenes occupied larger-than-life positions on temple structures. Smiting scenes occur on a variety of media, from vases to signet rings to funerary equipment. War scenes were also ubiquitous displays of violence from at least the early New Kingdom. Scenes depicting prisoners bound with cords or symbolic plants are also a standard component of official ideology. Foreigners are invariably the victims of violence in these contexts. While we cannot know how accurate the portrayals are, the images present an iconography of domination, subjugation, and humiliation. If there is some degree of accuracy in depictions of how prisoners were bound, then often the binding was done in a way, which would have caused severe and painful damage to muscles and joints . Depictions frequently portrayed positions possibly leading to asphyxiation. Elbows, knees, necks, and ankles particularly were portrayed in awkward and painful positions.[Source: Kerry Muhlestein, Brigham Young University, 2015, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“Frequently the violence portrayed was compounded by violence done to the image. Some images were broken, mutilated, or decapitated. Another class of bound prisoner images was continually placed where they would be wal ked on, such as tiles of a palace floor, the sill of the window of appearance, on sandals or on footstools. An Early Dynastic tomb has a bound prisoner as the pivot point for a door, so that each time the door moved it ground on the prisoner’s back. New Kingdom chariot wheels could be constructed so that each revolution furthered the torture of an iconographic enemy. Tutankhamen’s bow was decorated with prisoners whose necks were bound by the bow string, thus further strangling them with each arrow shot. Enemy heads formed the oar stops on a barque of Amun, causing the enemies to be struck with each stroke. Thus an ongoing kinetic violence was often a component of violent iconography. War and Aftermath Iconography also highlights the violence of war. Besides the gruesome violence that was part of the fighting itself, the binding and smiting of prisoners demonstrates the continuation of violence after the battle was over. The taking of a hand or an arm wa s often attested as a battle trophy. <>

“Depictions show piles of hands, arms, or penises as a part of battle aftermath. Amenhotep II slew a number of prisoners, hung their bodies from the prow of his boat (it is not clear if the killing was before o r after the hanging), and then displayed them in Egypt and Nubia. Thutmose I did the same, although again it is not clear if the prisoner he displayed had been killed during or after the battle. Various finds and depictions imply that such practices were common over most of Egypt’s long history. Moreover, Akhenaten is said to have impaled 225 Nubian prisoners of war after the battle. Merenptah impaled a great number of Libyan prisoners after one battle, and burned many more after a Nubian campaign. Ramesses III slew captives on more than one occasion. Osorkon burned captive rebels. The end of a battle did not end the violence inflicted on Egypt’s enemies. Violence done to real foreigners and to inanimate representations was aimed at defeating forces of chaos. These were two prongs in the s ame weapon wielded by the servants of order against chaos.” <>

Justification of Violence in Ancient Egypt


Egyptains attacking Nubians

Kerry Muhlestein of Brigham Young University wrote: “In most of the iconography and texts that depict violence, it is the king who is the perpetrator. Most violence we know of is royal violence. However, even royal violence was viewed with ambivalence. Kings both decried violence among others and extolled their own violent exercises. They claimed to have avoided violence, yet publicly portrayed it. For example, Sinuhe describes Senusret I as “a lord of kindness, great of sweetness. He conquered through love.” Yet lines later Senusret is reported to be a “vengeful smasher of foreheads, one who subjugates countries, slaying with only one blow, and one who will strike Asiatics and trample sand dwellers”. Were this a singular reference, it might be ascribed to the literary nature of the work, but it is just one example of a long tradition of juxtaposing the violence and non-violence of the king, such as in the Loyalist Instruction. Thus, in one decree, th e late 18th Dynasty king Horemheb claims to repel violence (or aggressive oppression, Adw ) and decrees death for those who are false in office. [Source: Kerry Muhlestein, Brigham Young University, 2015, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“In the Cannibal Hymn from the Pyramid Texts, the king is depicted being violent towards even the gods, an accolade of violence however symbolic the reference may or may not be. Formulaic texts expressed the proclaimed ideal of the king and culture, yet could also be contradicted by other formulas expressing contrary ideals. For example, many of the same kings who employed some form of the negative confession in their funerary accoutrements, wherein they claim not to have slain men nor to have ordered them to be slain, nor even to have been violent, also slew men or ordered them to be slain, and repeatedly bragged of being violent, such as when Ramesses III describes himself at Medinet Habu as “a violent ruler, Lord of the Two Lands”. This phrase is used to describe pharaohs from the time of Senusret I through the Ptolemaic era. Kings regularly and formulaically proclaimed their violent acts and abilities. <>

“Thus we are presented with an understandable paradox. Clearly, there was a proper time for the king and his kingdom to be violent. Yet at other times he and his subjects were supposed to eschew violence. Violence is often portrayed negatively. Weni proudly proclaims that he did not allow anyone to attack another. At Deir el-Medina, some foremen were punished for being too violent, indicating that perhaps a certain level of violence was acceptable but not to be exceeded. The classical author Diodorus Siculus reports that an individual could be punished for not helping someone who was being attacked. <>

“Priests were instructed not to hit because it could bring about too much ha rm. Tomb inscriptions boast of their protagonist’s restraint: “never did I beat a man so that he fell, I didn’t sleep in anger”. But some inscriptions simultaneously decry and espouse violence, such as an Old Kingdom official who claims both to have pacified the angry so that violence was avoided and to have sent some to the great house to be beaten. The First Intermediate Period nomarch/warlord Ankhtifi proudly proclaims he did not allow the heat of strife, and yet decrees violence for those who do not follow his wishes. These and a multitude of other sources make it clear that there were situat ions in which violence was to be used, and others in which it should be avoided. Violence was even an appropriate means for stamping out violence. <>

“The Egyptians themselves dealt with this apparent (and natural) contradiction by juxtaposing the two ideas, e specially in regards to royalty. For example, a non-royal inscription describes Senusret III as “Bastet protecting the Two Lands. He who adores him will escape his arm. He is Sakhmet toward him who transgresses his command. He is calm to those who are satisfied”. The appropriateness of the king’s violence mirrors that of the gods. According to the Pyramid Texts, before mankind rebelled was the time “before there was strife”. After the rebellion the creator slew his own children. Likewise, pharaoh, the gods’ representative on earth, had to employ violence as part of the attempt to bring the world back to the order it had enjoyed before violence had erupted. Of Amenemhet I it was said, “his majesty came to drive out isfet , appearing as Atum himself, setting in order that which he found decaying. <>

“. . . since he loves maat so much”. Tutankhamen “drove out isfet so that he could reestablish maat , as it had been in sep tepi [or the first moment of creation]”. A royal ritual text states that the purpose of having a king on earth was “so that he may bring about maat , so that he may destroy isfet ”. As the king paralleled his divine counterparts in his use of violence against Chaos, he was assisted by a number of supernatural elements, such as the divine crowns, the uraeus, the eyes of Ra or Horus, and various gods. In these efforts the king was often compared to the gods, such as when Ramesses II says “I was like Ra when he rises at dawn. My rays burned the flesh of the rebels”. <>


torture by caning the soles of the feat


“In general, the ideal was that violence was to be avoided. Yet when isfet needed to be destroyed, violence was the appropriate response. While a study examining the changes in all forms of violence over time remains to be done, we do know something of these changes for sanctioned killing. When allowing for changes in the availability of evidence, we see that sanctioned ki lling remained fairly consistent throughout Egyptian culture. As for the manner of inflicting it, decapitation appeared to drop in use over time while burning rose. Impalement arose largely from the New Kingdom on. Ritual slaying appears to have remained constant. Evidence supporting reasons for sanctioned killing suggests that executing rebels was consistent, but it also indicates that slaying because of damaging or stealing state property, or for murder, was a later phenomenon, though this may be due to a change in the kinds of sources available and the types of events it was thought appropriate to record. Non-sanctioned Violence Despite the ideology of avoiding violence outside sanctioned domains, undoubtedly Egypt had its share of violent citizens. However, very few genres or occasions would have called for the recording of violent acts. When we do learn of non-sanctioned violence, it seems to be largely due to the accident of preservation. Letters and ostraca are one source for learning of such violence. From these we know that some in Deir el-Medina beat their inferiors, and even that one man was beaten for reporting that a superior had slept with his wife.” <>

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com; Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.