By Michelle Hounslow
If it is possible for humans to have a drive – perhaps even an instinctual one – to be generous and philanthropic, then it bears reason that there should be examples of philanthropic activities happening all over the world and all throughout history. This paper will explore the possibility of the existence of philanthropy in ancient Egyptian civilization – a civilization known for its pioneering thought, spectacular advances and magnificent beauty.
The religion of the ancient Egyptians was polytheistic, and it affected every aspect of their culture. The focus of daily life was on the interaction between humans and the divine realm; a person’s actions would affect both the state of the terrestrial world as well as their fate in the afterlife. After death, the Egyptians believed each person to be judged by the “weighing of the heart”, a process in which the gods scrutinized the actions of the deceased to determine whether they had behaved in accordance with Ma’at, and deciding if they could proceed to the afterlife.
Ma’at was a concept of truth, balance, order and justice, personified in Egyptian culture as a goddess. An individual could violate Ma’at by their actions, but so too could the nation as a whole. The ancient Egyptians believed that failure to maintain Ma’at as a country could result in divine intervention in the form of floods, famine, enemy incursions and scourges on crops – the king, acting as intermediary between humans and gods, was the key to upholding Ma’at, both by maintaining justice and harmony in human society and by sustaining the gods with temples and offerings.
Although Ma’at was seen to transcend ethics – which was considered a utility of the human world – it was entwined with it. Ma’at was the immutable moral standard by which a person could judge right or wrong. However, establishing Ma’at was not a natural phenomenon and something the individual was required to constantly work towards; it was believed that the natural tendency of things is deterioration towards the opposite of Ma’at: evil, chaos and injustice.
There are documented examples of giving in ancient Egyptian civilization related to religion. Temples, being central to Egyptian society and requiring vast resources devoted to their upkeep, regularly received donations from the monarchy. Pharaohs often put resources towards the expansion of temples as part of their obligation to honor the gods. Egyptians frequently donated goods to be offered to the temple deity and objects inscribed with prayers to be placed in temple courts.
Greed was condemned; selfishness, jealousy and the desire for possessions was seen as an incurable illness of the heart and a danger to the societal balance. It was seen as being contrary to Ma’at to be an unfair employer who jeopardized the independence or subsistence of their labourers with unremunerated work. Inscriptions found in tombs have noted examples of individuals that gave to those in need (i.e. bread, clothes, boats), as well as those who prided themselves on protecting orphans and defending widows. I even found reference to “charity” in ancient Egypt as being perceived as an inner disposition toward fellow human beings, and a way to propitiate the gods for the purposes of achieving immortality.
It would seem that ancient Egypt was a generous and philanthropic society, correct?
What has not been mentioned is that ancient Egyptian society was highly polarized: the chasm between rich and poor only growing more pronounced with the passage of the centuries. A diminutive upper class ruled – with the help of scribal administration and a good dose of religious fear – over the masses of Egyptian farmers and peasants living barely above subsistence level, exacting huge taxes on them (on average, 20% of their crops) and ruthlessly punishing them when they couldn’t pay.
A recent archaeological excavation in the news in November, 2010 found the burial site of 400 lower class Egyptian people, dating somewhere between 2,700 and 2,000 years ago on the Giza plateau in Egypt. Research shows that these individuals were malnourished, with high incidence of blood disorders present, suggesting a sub-standard diet for this population.
Does this revelation change the way you think about the ancient Egyptians and their generosity? You decide!
“An Overview of the Ancient Egyptian Religion”
“Ancient Egyptian Religion”
“Ancient Egyptian Society and Family Life”
“Egyptian Temples – Part 1”
“Egypt’s Orphans Day: Looking to the Future”
“Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt:” http://books.google.ca/books?id=PG6HffPwmuMC&pg=PA909&lpg=PA909&dq=ancient+egypt+corvee&source=bl&ots=VeVRuLPTyK&sig=J0A7EyFbshYfzBs7cX7
“Living in Maat – the Natural Order”
“Ma’at, Goddess of Truth, Balance, Order”
“Paupers and the Pyramids: 400 poor burials unearthed near Giza” http://www.archaeologydaily.com/news/201011265627/Paupers-and-the-pyramids-400-poor-burials-unearthed-near-Giza.html
“The Life of Ancient Egyptians”
“The Widow and Orphan in Egypt – Before the New Kingdom” http://www.akademiai.com/content/x1668355870m1590/fulltext.pdf?page=1