Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt

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[Pg 46] but records are extant of expeditions sent out by the king for the purpose of obtaining foreign rarities. A great deal of Egyptian trade was in the hands of foreigners. The Phœnicians evidently opened up communication with Egypt as early as the Third Dynasty. In later times an extensive trade was carried on with Greece, and Psammetichus I (c. 570 B.C.) founded the town of Naucratis as the centre of Greek trade in Egypt.


Agriculture was the backbone of Egyptian wealth; the nature of the soil—rich, black mud, deposited by the Nile, which also served to irrigate it—rendered the practice of farming peculiarly simple. The intense heat, too, assisted the speedy growth of grain. Cultivation was possible almost all the year round, but usually terminated with the harvests gathered in at the end of April, from which month to June a period of slackness was afforded the farmer. A great variety of crops was sown, but wheat and barley were the most popular; durra, of which bread was made, lentils, peas, beans, radishes, lettuces, onions, and flax were also cultivated. Fruits were represented by the grape, pomegranate, fig, and date. Timber was scanty and, as has been said, was mostly imported. In early times it was probably more abundant, but the introduction of the camel and the goat proved its ruin, these animals stripping the bark from the trees and devouring the shoots. Wine was chiefly made in the district of Mareotis, near Alexandria, and appears to have possessed a very delicate flavour. The papyrus plant was widely cultivated from the earliest times; the stem was employed for boat-building and rope-making, as well as for writing materials.

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Legal Code

Egyptian law appears to have been traditional, and no remains of any specific code have come down to us. Royal decrees and regulations were promulgated from time to time, and these were usually engraved on stone and carefully preserved. In the Ptolemaic period travelling courts were instituted, which settled litigation of all descriptions; but the traditional law of the country appears to have been well known to the people and fully recognized by their rulers. A favourite way of having a grievance redressed was to petition the king or one of the great feudal princes. Courts sitting to hear specific cases were nearly always composed of royal or territorial persons in early days, and in later times of officials. The right to appeal to the king existed. Evidence was given upon oath, a favourite oath being "By the king" or "By the life of the king." Only occasionally was torture employed for the purpose of extracting evidence. Penalties were various. In many instances the accused was allowed to take his own life. For minor crimes the bastinado or disfigurement by cutting off the nose, banishment or fine, were the usual punishments. During the Old Kingdom decapitation was the usual means of inflicting death. The drawing up of contracts was universal, and these were, as a rule, duly witnessed. From the time of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty these are discovered in abundance, and usually refer to sales or loans. Although a woman could inherit property, she had not the entire right of dealing with it, but, if divorced, her dowry could not be forfeited. Many of these ancient documents deal with the buying and selling of slaves. It is not clear, however, whether or not the consent of a slave was necessary to his sale.

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Knowledge and learning of every description were, of course, subordinated to the religious idea, which was the paramount consideration in Egyptian life. With architecture we have dealt elsewhere. It would seem that scientific operations of all sorts were carried out, not by means of any given formulæ, but merely by rule of thumb. Wonderful results were obtained by the simplest means, and the methods by which the pyramids were raised are still somewhat of a mystery. The dates of festivals were astronomically fixed; and it has been stated that the pyramids and other large buildings were orientated in the same manner. The beginning of the inundation of the Nile was marked by the rising of the star Sothis or Sirius. A great many Egyptian inventions appear to be of considerable antiquity, but the inventive faculty of the race would seem to have been stunted or altogether lost in later times. Attempts at progress were absolutely unknown even when the Egyptians came into contact with foreigners, and all innovations were looked upon askance.

The Peasantry

It is uncertain to what extent the people followed the nobility in the very rigorous religious programme that these had set themselves. That they were as deeply superstitious as their betters there can be little doubt; but that they regarded themselves as fit subjects for the same otherworld to which the aristocracy were bound is unlikely in the extreme. Probably at the best they thought they might find some corner in the dark realm of Osiris where they would not be utterly annihilated, or that at least their kas would be duly fed[Pg 49] and nourished by the offerings made to them by their children. The Egyptian peasant was pre-eminently a son of the soil, hard-working, patient, and content, with little in the way of food, shelter, and raiment—not at all unlike the fellah of the present day. The lot of the Egyptian peasant woman was, like that of her husband, one of arduous toil. She was usually married about the age of fifteen, and by the age of thirty was often a grandmother. The care of her dwelling and children was not, however, permitted to occupy all her time, for at certain seasons she was expected to assist her husband in the field, where she probably received more blows than thanks. Justice was not very even-handed, and redress for any individual of the peasant class was not easily obtained; it is strange that the conditions under which the peasantry dwelt did not foment rebellion. Probably the only reason that such outbreaks did not take place was that the condition of servitude was too deep and that, like most Orientals, the Egyptians were fatalists.


The fashion of apparel differed considerably with the dynasties. As we have already noted, the Pharaoh possessed a peculiar attire of his own, upon which that of the upper ranks of society was to some extent modelled. The climate did not permit or encourage the wearing of heavy material, so that fine linen was greatly in use. The upper portions of the body were only partially covered, and amongst the nobility in ancient times a species of linen skirt was worn. The women's dress from the earliest times was a dress reaching from the armpits to the ankles, with straps over the shoulders. The men's dress was usually a form of loin-cloth. The wearing of wigs was practically universal, and originated in[Pg 50] prehistoric times. At some early period native ritual had prescribed that the head must be shaved, so that the fashion of the long peruke, or the close-fitting cloth cap with ear-lappets, became practically a necessity. We find, however, that some ladies refused to sacrifice their hair, and in the well-known statue of Nefert we notice the bands of natural hair, neatly smoothed down over the brow, peeping out beneath the heavy wig she is wearing. Practically all classes wore sandals of leather or plaited papyrus.

In general appearance the Egyptian was tall, being considerably above the European average in height. The race were for the most part dolichocephalic, or long-skulled, narrow-waisted and angular. In later life they frequently became corpulent, but during youth and early manhood presented rather a 'wiry' appearance. They had, however, broad shoulders and a well-developed chest-cavity. The examination of thousands of mummies by Dr. Elliot Smith has proved that in later times the Egyptian race greatly improved in physique and muscular qualities. In character the Egyptian was grave, and perhaps a little taciturn, being in this respect not unlike the Scot and the Spaniard; but, like these peoples, he had also a strain of gaiety in his composition, and his popular literature is in places eloquent of the philosophy of laissez-faire. It is probable that the stern religious code under which he lived drove him at times to deep disgust of his surroundings. The Egyptian peasant's amusement at times took the form of intoxication, and pictures are extant which show the labourer being borne home on the shoulders of his fellows. Among the upper classes, too, it cannot be denied that a philosophy of pleasure had gained a very strong hold, especially in later times. They probably thought that if they[Pg 51] committed the Book of the Dead to heart they were sure of a blissful future, and that in this lay their whole moral duty. As regards their ethical standpoint, it may be said that they were rather