Ancient Egypt 2675-332 BCE: Philosophy

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2005.



The Egyptian philosophical view of existence was based on the idea that all existence was either orderly or chaotic. Order was called maat while chaos was called isfet. Maat encompassed the physical world, political conditions, and ethical conduct. In the physical world maat meant that the sun rose and set in a regular pattern. Maat also meant that the Nile flooded Egypt on a regular schedule and provided fertility to agricultural fields. In politics, maat meant that the true king sat on the throne and ensured order within Egypt. In Egyptian thought, maat depended on correct personal conduct. In fact correct personal conduct ensured loyalty to the king, which, in turn, supported an orderly physical world. For individuals, maat also meant telling the truth, and dealing fairly with others in addition to obedience to authority. Ultimately an individual who supported maat through his actions could enter the afterlife as a reward.

King’s Role

The king’s primary duty was to maintain maat in the world. If the king behaved correctly, the physical world behaved in a predictable way. This was important due to the Egyptians’ dependence on crops and the food and clothing they provided. The king’s conduct could affect the regular rising and setting of the sun, necessary for crop growth. The fertility of the soil was the result of the annual Nile flood that deposited rich new silt on Egypt’s fields annually. The Egyptians believed that the height of the flood and the subsequent success of the crops depended on the king performing maat. The individual’s primary duty was to obey the king. In fact obeying the king allowed him to perform maat, and thus maintain order in the physical world. This world view led to an extremely stable political structure.


In the New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.E.) kings performed the ritual of presenting maat to other gods as a means of stressing that they had maintained maat in their actions. Maat was personified as a seated goddess who wore a feather in her hair. A depiction of a feather was one way of writing the word “maat” in hieroglyphs. Hatshepsut (1478-1458B.C.E.) was most likely the first ruler to depict herself presenting a statuette of maat to the gods. Large numbers of representations of the presentation of maat to the gods date to the reign of Akhenaten (1352-1336 B.C.E.) when it appeared to be the major ritual act that the king and the queen performed. During the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties (1292-1075 B.C.E.), temples often displayed relief scenes showing the king offering maat to the gods. The priestess called the God’s Wife of Amun performed this function in the Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth Dynasties (760-525 B.C.E.). The ritual served to legitimize kings in the eyes of the ruled. It was a physical expression of the king’s obligation to uphold maat in the world.

Royal Names

Many kings took throne names that included maat or epithets, self-descriptions included with a name, that claimed they were possessors of maat. The earliest use of the epithet “possessor of maat” was most likely Sneferu of the Fourth Dynasty (r. 2625-2585 B.C.E.). In the New Kingdom Hatshepsut (1478-1458 B.C.E.) took the throne name Maat-ka-re, “the soul of Re is maat.” Amenhotep III (1390-1352 B.C.E.) called himself Neb-maat-re, “Possessor of the maat of Re.” Sety I (1290-1279 B.C.E.) took the throne name Men-maat-re, “the maat of Re is firm.” All of these names are attempts to associate the king with maat. These kings also presented their own names to the gods as way of cementing the association between the king and maat.

The Deity

As a deity, Maat was the daughter of the sun god Re. She also constituted Re’s eye, making her integral to the god’s body. The other gods claimed to “live on Maat,” meaning that they ate Maat to sustain themselves. Maat was thus a food offering for all of the gods. The scribal god Thoth was often paired with Maat, showing their close connection. Before the New Kingdom, there was no temple dedicated to the goddess Maat. The first known temple was in Karnak and was in use in Hatshepsut’s time. In texts there are references to a temple of Maat in Memphis, Egypt’s political capital, and in Deir el-Medina, the workman’s village across the river from modern Luxor. Hatshepsut’s coronation took place in the temple dedicated to Maat. In the late Twentieth Dynasty there is some evidence that criminal investigations took place at the temple of Maat. There is also some evidence that there were priests of Maat and an overseer of the domain of Maat. The existence of these officials suggests that the temple held land and other resources. There are few examples in art of Maat accepting offerings. This would be the usual Egyptian way of indicating that Maat’s cult possessed resources on earth as did other gods.

Legal Justice

Justice, a tenet of any philosophical system, was also part of the right order that maat guaranteed. The prime minister, whose job included dispensing justice, was a priest of Maat. The law code of King Horemheb (1319-1292 B.C.E.), inscribed on a stele standing in front of the tenth pylon at the Karnak Temple, ordained punishments in the name of Maat. Court decisions also found one party to be “the one who is performing maat,” and therefore the innocent party. Maat also meant protecting the weak. Tomb autobiographies that describe the deceased’s life as the pursuit of maat usually claim that he performed acts of charity for the impoverished, including distribution of food, drink, and clothing. Any official was expected to do justice by conforming to maat.

Teaching Maat

A written definition of maat in Egyptian texts has not survived. Yet surviving texts do describe the ideal life of living through maat in a series of texts scholars call instructions. Instructions exist from the Middle Kingdom (2008-1540 B.C.E.) through the Roman Period (332 B.C.E.-395 C.E.). The earlier texts stress guidelines for correct behavior in specific situations. They could include the proper way to behave on the street, in a public dispute, when appearing before a magistrate, as a houseguest, or as the head of a household. Maat also dictated proper relations with a wife, superiors, friends, and servants. In instructions formulated for princes, political advice also took the form of how to conform to maat. The Egyptians typically concentrated on specific situations rather than formulating broader guidelines.

Active Pursuit

Though obeying authority was integral to maat, not all forms of maat were passive. The instructions recognize that individuals must pursue maat actively. Otherwise the forces of chaos could overwhelm the world. Chaos, according to the pessimistic literature written following the First Intermediate Period (2130-2008 B.C.E.), had temporarily triumphed between the Old and Middle Kingdoms when there was no strong central government. Only with active effort can chaos be contained according to these texts.


In the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties (1292-1075 B.C.E.) some writers doubted whether humans had any control over maat. In the Instruction of Any, the author linked maat with the god’s capricious will. The Teachings of Amenemope calls maat the god’s burden. Amenemope suggests that the gods give maat without any clear explanation of why some receive it and others do not. Yet even these two authors stress that humans must try to follow maat.

Maat and Afterlife

If an individual lived according to maat, access to the afterlife was assured. In Coffin Texts Spell 816, a ritual for ensuring entry to the next life utilizes the power of maat. Maat also is integral to Book of the Dead Chapter 125. In this chapter the deceased describes in detail the actions he took and avoided in order to comply with maat. The illustrations for this chapter include weighing the deceased’s heart against the symbol of maat. If the two are in balance, the deceased is able to enter the afterlife. Maat also played a role in uniting the deceased with the sun god Re, another goal for all Egyptians. Many hymns recorded in New Kingdom tombs stress the association of maat and Re. The Egyptians ultimately associated maat with the cemetery itself. It came to be called the “Place of Maat.”

Cosmogony: The Origin of the World

Sep Tepi

Much of philosophy as well as religion focuses on theories of creation. Egyptians described the world’s origin with the phrase, sep tepi (“the first time”). This phrase suggests that creation was not a single isolated event. Instead they saw it as an event that was endlessly repeated, though it had had one original enactment. The Egyptologist Erik Hornung suggested that this vision of creation allowed the Egyptians to conceive the world as repeatedly new and that this was a source of their personal creativity.


In the early periods of their history, the Egyptians did not write one connected account that described creation. At the end of their history, in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods (332 B.C.E.-395 C.E.), some accounts were carved on the walls of temples. In the Pharaonic period (3000-332 B.C.E.), the Egyptians left only isolated statements and allusions to a creation myth. Many of these allusions speak of the separation of the earth and sky as the primal event that occurred in sep tepi. But the Egyptians had more than one explanation for how the earth came to be. In one version the god Atum used his own seed to create the world. In a second account, the god Ptah used speech to create everything.

Before Creation

The Egyptians conceived of a time before creation. According to allusions in the Pyramid Texts, the funeral ritual carved inside late Fifth- and in Sixth-dynasty royal pyramids (2371-2194 B.C.E.), before creation all was a watery darkness. The blend of darkness and water was the essence of the unformed, chaotic state before creation. It was also the opposite of creation, distinguishing the previous times through the lack of the things that now exist. The period before creation was defined by its lack of gods, people, heaven, earth, day, and night. There was neither life nor death. When the Pyramid Texts state that even strife did not yet exist, it refers to the on-going mythical battle between the legitimate heir to the throne, Horus, and his evil uncle, Seth.


Somehow from the watery darkness, a hill of mud emerged. This hill provided a resting place for the creator. The Egyptians based this hill on the reality of the way that the earth emerged from the annual flood. Firm ground separated from the watery mass and created a place where the god could work. Here the god separated into four pairs of divinities including primeval flood, the hidden ones, endlessness, and the undifferentiated ones. The sun then emerged from these beings. The first sunrise signaled the beginning of creation. Many Egyptian symbols refer to this emergence on a hill. The pyramid shape is a model of the hill but also points toward the sun. The lotus blossom that floats on the water comes to symbolize the birth of the sun god. A cow goddess can also emerge from the water with the sun between her horns. The best-known form of this goddess is Hathor. All these symbols were another way for the Egyptians to state that emergence was the beginning of creation.

Creator Gods

The creator god took numerous forms. It could assume the form of a bird, a human, or a snake. The god could be a benu-bird, a heron sometimes associated with the Greek phoenix. This bird’s shriek signaled that the sun would hatch from an egg the bird had laid. The bird was also the first living creator to alight on the mound that emerged after the dark water subsided. In human form the creator was Atum, Ptah, Re, Neith, or Khnum. Atum’s name means “undifferentiated.” There are several versions of how Atum created the world, but all deal with a body fluid he emitted in order to create. He would either spit, cough, or masturbate to produce seed. From Atum’s moisture the first sexually differentiated couple, a divine pair called Shu and Tefnut, came into being. They are unique in not being the offspring of a couple. The Coffin Texts affirm that Shu was not formed in an egg, like other beings. The first couple created through sexual procreation were Geb and Nut, the son and daughter of Shu and Tefnut. The following generations included the gods Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. This group of nine deities formed the Ennead of the city of Heliopolis. Ptah, also known as Ptah-Tatenen, was the local god of Memphis. Ptah used language to create. First he thought of what the world should be, then said it out loud in order to create it. The text called the Memphite Theology—dating roughly to 716-702B.C.E., though scholars once thought it had been copied from an Old Kingdom (2625-2170 B.C.E.) text—describes the process. The sun god Re was also a creator. In the Pyramid Texts, the sun god creates through planning and speech as did Ptah. However, he adds the concept of magic power to animate his planning and speech. The texts describe Re’s relationship with these three powers by saying that they travel in his boat with him. The goddess Neith created the world through seven statements. These statements were later called the seven-fold laugh of the creator god. Neith’s connection to creation seems to come from her relationship to a cow goddess called Mehetweret. This cow emerged from the watery darkness with the sun lodged between her horns. The Egyptians also associated this cow with the goddess Hathor. Finally, Neith could be a scarab beetle, another source of creation. Later the Egyptians identified the scarab with Khepri, a form of the morning sun. Neith thus lost her primary connection with creation through the increased importance of Hathor and Khepri in the later periods. Yet it appears that early in Egyptian thought, she was an important figure in creation of the world. Khnum was a ram-headed god worshipped at temples in Esna and in Elephantine, both in Upper (southern) Egypt. As a creator, Khnum worked with his hands to create mankind, the primal egg from which the sun hatched, and the earth itself. He fashioned all of these things on a potter’s wheel. In some versions, Ptah performed these same tasks on a potter’s wheel after he had planned and spoken creation.

Unified System

For many years Egyptologists have tried to organize all of this information about creation into a coherent whole. They have suggested that certain traditions were local and believed only at certain temples. They have tried to organize these stories chronologically, seeing some as more primitive than others and proposing that the sophisticated versions evolved from the primitive stories. The Egyptologist Erik Hornung suggested, on the contrary, that the Egyptians saw each of these stories as mutually re-enforcing, adding detail and complexity rather than contradicting each other. No story was dogma that excluded the possibilities of another story. Yet he has identified certain common themes found in all the stories.


The creator gods all share certain characteristics that are themes of the story. All the creators are self-created and pre-date sexual differentiation. All the creators were what the Egyptians called, kheper djesef, “what came to exist by itself.” A hymn to the god Amun suggests a male creator “formed his egg himself.” These creators acted as both father and mother in the process of self-producing. But Hornung stressed that this individual was able to reproduce so that many now exist. The important point is that one became many. The Coffin Texts refer to Atum and the time when “he gave birth to Shu and Tefnut in Heliopolis, when he was one and became three.” Diversity, in other words, grows out of a unity. In a New Kingdom hymn, Atum is “the one who begat his begetter, who engendered his mother, who created his own hand.” Here both of the prime characteristics of the creator are in evidence. The creator is an individual who creates the many alone.


The Egyptian image that summarizes the story of creation also makes clear that the Egyptians saw creation as a movement from the one to the many. In the Egyptian language, a distinction was made among singular (one), dual (two), and plural (three or more). Thus three represents the many. In the images of the separation of earth and sky, three gods are pictured. The sky goddess Nut hovers above the earth god Geb. Between them, separating earth and sky is Shu, the god of air. Thus, once the primal unity separates, it becomes three, the symbol for many.

Creating Humans

In many creation stories, the creator made humans from tears. The initial relationship between divine tears and humans is in the sound of the words that describe them. Tears in Egyptian are remy. People in Egyptian are remetj. Thus the connection is based on a pun. But Erik Hornung believed the connection is even deeper than the word play. He suggested that humanity sprang from a blurring of the god’s vision. The Coffin Texts suggest that “humans belong to the blindness behind” the creator god.

Earliest World

In the earliest world, according to Egyptian belief, the sun god Re served as king. When Re was king, the sun never set and people had access to the sun at all times. The fact that there was no night meant that there was no death. The Egyptians thought people lost this perfect sun-filled world through the aging process. In the Book of the Celestial Cow, the author explains that the youthful freshness of the world eventually faded. The sun god himself grew old. As he aged, the sun god’s power began to fail and he lost control. As control waned, forces of opposition challenged the sun god. Humans devised attacks against Re and thus they were punished. At first Re sent his eye, a ball of fire, to destroy mankind. In the end Re allowed a remnant of people to live. However, Re also retreated from the world riding on the celestial cow and forced people to live in a much less ideal world. For one thing, it was now dark. When humans tried to survive in the dark, they turned against each other. This strife among humans caused the other gods to retreat from the earth. Osiris took charge of the new land of the dead, which was lit during the nighttime hours by the sun. On earth war and violence become part of humanity’s fate. Only in death could people regain the perfect world in the presence of the gods. This early myth of the god Re gave the Egyptians the philosophical idea of renewal. Renewal was only possible through the cycling of the sun. Thus every sunrise represented a new creation and renewal of the earth. Every sunset represented the death of the day. Sunrise was a time for rejoicing. Sunset suggested that though the sun disappeared into the land of the dead, it would return and recreate the world anew the next day. This is similar in many ways to later philosophical ideas of redemption and reconciliation.

Return to One

The Egyptians feared the possibility that the world would return to one watery darkness. The Book of the Celestial Cowdetails the efforts of man and god to keep the sky from collapsing into the earth. If the sky and earth reunited, the original watery darkness would be restored. Chaos would then rule, and human life would be impossible. Yet the Egyptians believed that eventually the world would end and the watery darkness would return. In the Egyptian end of time, a snake will emerge when the sky collapses into the earth and recreates watery darkness. The snake will return to the chaos where he originated. Though Egyptian expressions of belief in the end of time are rare, they give symmetry to Egyptian beliefs about the beginning. Thus Egyptian ideas of creation falls naturally into a series of cycles. Though creation’s “first time” was an important, pristine event, the Egyptians believed that creation would repeat infinitely, making it possible to have an endless cycle of rebirth and death.

Teaching Philosophy

Types of Text

Egyptologists have identified ancient texts that teach the Egyptian idea of philosophy. These texts divide into more than one ancient literary type. Many of them are instructions, identified in Egyptian with the word seboyet. But other texts that discuss philosophy include complaints, prophecies, and testaments. Some scholars refer to these texts as a group as “didactic literature,” the literature the Egyptians used to teach philosophy. Many of the texts identified as didactic literature combine more than one literary type within them. The Eloquent Peasant, for example, begins as the story of a farmer bringing his crops to market. He encounters a corrupt official who attempts to rob the farmer. The majority of the text is a series of orations on the nature of maat (“right conduct”). These orations amount to a treatise on the nature of maat. The narrative or frame story enhances the treatise by giving a concrete example of what happens when maat is ignored. Both the frame and the treatise mutually reinforce each other and thus the reader learns more about the nature of maat. Additionally, the orations themselves amount to an example of Egyptian rhetoric.


Teachings are the only Egyptian literary category that regularly names the author. The named author might not actually be the person who wrote the text, however. For example, the text attributed to Ptahhotep of the Fifth Dynasty (2500-2350 B.C.E.) was likely written in the Twelfth Dynasty (1938-1759 B.C.E.). Yet copies of teachings, no matter when they were written or re-copied, maintain a connection with an author. By the New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.E.), authors associated with teachings were the classic writers. Men whose names were attached to teachings such as Ptahhotep, Hordjedef, Khety, Ipuwer, and Neferty were named in a New Kingdom document as immortals. The New Kingdom text claims that their writings are better guarantees of immortality than their tombs.

Right Order

The central subject of all the didactic literature is the nature of maat. The teachings describe specific cases that allow a person to live according to maat. The complaints and prophecies describe the world that lacks maat. The absence of maat is the central cause of disorder, injustice, and social ruin. The farmer in The Eloquent Peasant compares his own situation with the presence and absence of maat. Royal teachings, written for princes, also discuss the political implications of adhering to maat.

Frame Stories

Most of the teachings have frame stories. These stories introduce the dramatic situation where usually a father speaks to his son or all his children so that he can explain the nature of maat. Often the father is an old and famous person who has reached the end of his career. He clearly states that he wants to share the knowledge he has gained in the course of a long life. In The Teachings of Ptahhotep the speaker is the prime minister of King Djedkare Isesy (2415-2371 B.C.E.), though the text was probably actually composed by someone else nearly 500 years later. In the frame story, Ptahhotep asks the king’s permission to share his knowledge. The king’s agreement indicated to an ancient Egyptian that the knowledge and philosophy contained in the text was important and should be shared with the sons of all officials. Many other teachings specifically describe the speaker talking to his own son or children.

Wise Men

The frame stories help scholars determine who could be a wise man or philosopher in Egyptian thought. Ptahhotep was a prime minister, the highest political office available to a commoner. A New Kingdom instruction names Amenemope, who held a title placing him in charge of agriculture for all Egypt. Thus he was also a very high official. Much of his advice centers on agriculture. These men derive their authority from success in their careers. They also speak about the way to gain success in public life. Their concerns include the proper way to debate and how to behave at important social events. They enumerate different ways of pleasing a superior and generally how to get ahead in life. But other texts name only “a man” as the speaker. In this case where the father may not have been as great a success as Ptahhotep or Amenemope, he tells his son that loyalty to the king is the best way to advance in life.


The earlier texts such as Ptahhotep speak mostly of practical tips for advancement and equate these tips with maat. The Teachings of Amenemope, which dates to the New Kingdom, additionally includes many examples of moral behavior. Yet it is not clear that this change in subject matter is a true example of development. So few texts have been preserved from antiquity that it is not fair to say that the moral dimension was lacking in the earlier period. Perhaps texts similar to Amenemope existed in the earlier period but have not survived. Yet it is clear that Amenemope includes virtues not discussed by Ptahhotep. It integrates wider human experience into the text and promotes a way of life rather than just isolated behaviors.

Ideal Man

Much of the didactic literature describes an ideal man that the Egyptians called the ger (“silent man”). The opposite type was the shemem (“heated man”). The silent man is not only silent, however. His silence comes when he thinks before he reacts. He is thoughtful, temperate, and judicious. He reflects before answering a “heated man,” a man ruled by his emotions. The contrast between the silent man and the heated man is most fully developed in Amenemope. The silent man is truthful, honest, straightforward, open, respectful, circumspect, diligent, generous, caring, and sympathetic. Amenemope compares him to a tree growing in the sunlight that flourishes in the garden. He contrasts this tree with the heated man, a tree planted in dark. Without sunlight, he withers and dies. The gardeners remove him and burn him on the rubbish heap. Here it is clear that the silent man earns eternal life for his virtues, while the heated man cannot achieve the afterlife.

The Teachings of Ptahhotep

The didactic literature includes a wide variety of texts, though the majority of them are teachings. The Teachings of Ptahhotep is the most complete of any ancient Egyptian philosophical teaching. Thus it is the standard of comparison. The frame story depicts the prime minister, Ptahhotep, requesting and receiving the king’s permission to share his wisdom. In the course of the request Ptahhotep speaks of old age and its frailties. But attaining old age also allows Ptahhotep to attain wisdom. He then states 37 maxims that summarize his understanding of maat. He stresses the proper conduct needed for success. He also enumerates the qualities a successful man needs: honesty, judiciousness, respect for superiors, and moderation. Then Ptahhotep speaks of the good son, one who is obedient. His obedience leads him to imitate his father and eventually become a wise man himself.

Teachings of Any

Any’s teachings date to either the Eighteenth or Nineteenth Dynasty. Any’s title is not included in the text and he concentrates more on personal life than official life. He gives his son, Khonshotep, advice on marriage, managing a household, and living a virtuous life. In an unusual twist, Khonshotep answers his father at the end of the text and suggests he might not be able to reach his father’s high standards.

The Teachings of Amenemope

In his teachings, Amenemope identifies himself as a high official of the department of agriculture. He addresses his words to his youngest son Horem-maakheru. Amenemope grounds his description of living a life according to maat in religious belief, making his reasoning seem familiar to modern readers. He emphasizes that his son should follow the “way of truth” as he pursues his career. He also closely examines the differences between the “silent man” and the “heated man,” or the controlled man versus the emotional man.

The Teachings for Merykare

Merykare was a king of the Tenth Dynasty (2130-1980 B.C.E.) and his teaching is set in his father’s reign in the town of Herakleopolis where the family lived. This family was a major opponent of the Theban family that eventually reunited Egypt during the Eleventh Dynasty (2008 and 1980 B.C.E.). Surprisingly, the text was recopied during the New Kingdom when another Theban family ruled Egypt after reuniting and establishing a central government. Only the New Kingdom copies of the text remain. The text includes advice on good government, historical speculation, and a testament where the king describes his own life to his son. It ends with a hymn to the creator god Atum. It is unclear whether this text is truly useful for constructing a history and philosophy of the Tenth Dynasty. It is also unclear why later Egyptians took an interest in Merykare’s father’s advice.

The Teachings of Amenemhet

The narrator of The Teachings of Amenemhet is Amenemhet I (1938-1909 B.C.E.). Yet he speaks after his own death to his son Senwosret I (1919-1875 B.C.E.). Amenemhet gives Senwosret advice on ruling Egypt, especially in view of his own difficulties. Amenemhet was assassinated, probably by his own courtiers. Amenemhet tells Senwosret not to trust anyone. He also justifies his own policies. In the end Amenemhet reassures Senwosret that his spirit will help his son rule.

The Teachings of Sehetepibre

The Teachings of Sehetepibre survives in several versions from the Twelfth and Eighteenth Dynasties. As a whole it is also known as the Loyalist Teachings, though one early stele names the speaker as Sehetepibre. The narrator tells his children to be loyal to the king and heaps praises upon him. The second part provides advice on managing servants. Together, the two parts of the text discuss giving and receiving loyalty.

The Teachings of Khety

From the Eighteenth Dynasty, The Teachings of Khety is a defense of education narrated by Khety for the benefit of his son Pepi. Khety describes the occupations that people without education perform and stresses their discomforts. He contrasts the fate of the uneducated with scribes who have an education. The scribe, Khety points out to Pepi, is everyone’s boss. Thus, Pepi should study hard at scribe school, be a success, and follow the wisdom of the ancestors.

The Admonitions of Ipuwer

The Admonitions of Ipuwer laments the chaos the narrator sees around him. The setting is most likely the First Intermediate Period (2130-2008 B.C.E.), though most modern commentators believe the author composed it in the Twelfth Dynasty (1939-1759 B.C.E.). Ipuwer speaks at length of chaotic social conditions, especially that the formerly poor have replaced the rich in power. Since the text lacks both a beginning and an ending, it is difficult to know Ipuwer’s predictions or conclusions.

The Eloquent Peasant

The Eloquent Peasant tells a story but also contains a treatise on the nature of maat. The story concerns the unjust arrest of a farmer traveling to market with his goods. The evil official who arrests him for trespassing allows the farmer to appear in court nine times to defend himself. The nine orations that the farmer makes are eloquent discussions of the nature of maat. They are both rhetorically complex and elegant in their language. In the end, the king rewards the farmer for his eloquence with full restitution of his goods.

The Complaints of Khakheperre-Sonb

The narrator of The Complaints of Khakheperre-sonb finds social conditions intolerable. Yet he spends nearly half the text describing his efforts to find adequate language to describe this low point in history. Oddly, the text was composed in the Twelfth Dynasty, a period of social stability. The only copy dates to Dynasty 18, another period of relative stability. Perhaps this text constitutes criticism of the current regime, though it is not specific enough to have meaning for the modern reader. It fits well in the Egyptian tradition of laments for the lack of order.

The Dialogue of a Man with His Ba

The Dialogue of a Man with His Ba is a discussion between a man and his own soul. The man argues that life is not worth living and that traditional funeral rites are useless. His soul responds that people must live their whole natural lives and that following his death he will reap his reward. The end of the text is not preserved, so it is unclear how the discussion ends.

The Prophecy of Neferty

In The Prophecy of Neferty, the prophet Neferty describes to the Fourth-dynasty king Sneferu (2625-2585 B.C.E.) the horrors of the First Intermediate Period (2130-2008 B.C.E.). Neferty also knows that these horrors will end with the appearance of Amenemhet I (1938-1909 B.C.E.). Thus most scholars believe the text was composed in Amenemhet’s reign. The discussion of disorder argues that the lack of maat is the cause of social chaos. When the proper king arises, maat is automatically restored.

Fragmented Teachings

Several other teachings exist in fragments. One such fragment is The Teachings of Hordjedef, referred to by one New Kingdom text as a classic. Not enough of the text survives to translate its maxims, although a surviving frame story places the action in the Fourth Dynasty (2625-2500 B.C.E.). Another work known principally by its frame story rather than by its maxims is The Teachings of Kagemni. Only the conclusion survives, but the frame story places it in the reigns of Huni (Third Dynasty, before 2625 B.C.E.) and Sneferu (2625-2585 B.C.E.) though this is the setting and not the time of composition. While less is known regarding the speaker, setting, or time period, The Teachings of a Man for his Son is written in the language of the Middle Kingdom and includes maxims typical of the teachings and statements about loyalty to the king.


The large number of texts that discuss maat and promote ways of recognizing it attest to Egyptian confidence that the young can learn maat and the philosophies behind it. Tremendous effort was expended to define, teach, and propagate this core value in Egyptian life.

Secret Knowledge

Greek Beliefs

Ancient Egypt’s neighbors in Greece wrote of their belief that Egyptian priests and magicians possessed secret knowledge. Greek belief in Egyptian secret knowledge is one strand of Greek philosophy that contributed to the modern belief that the Egyptians perfected mysticism, astrology, and magic.

Because of this Greek belief, a wide variety of modern truth seekers have looked to the Egyptians for inspiration. They include the freemasons, Rosicrucians, theosophists, anthroposophists, and Afrocentrists. These groups share a belief that the Egyptians both created the first civilization and that their knowledge has only recently been rediscovered by modern science. Many of these modern groups also believe that Egyptian spiritual knowledge far exceeded the knowledge that can be gleaned from the surface of hieroglyphic texts. Though most nineteenth and twentieth centuryC.E. Egyptologists rejected this approach to Egyptian culture, a scientific, rationalist, and text-based study of Egyptian spiritualism has recently added Egyptological knowledge to the mix of data on Egyptian secret knowledge. The Egyptologists Jan Assmann and Erik Hornung made important contributions to this debate, finding the roots of the idea of secret knowledge in Egyptian society itself.


In the Old Kingdom (2675-2170 B.C.E.) the Egyptians regarded the god Thoth as a violent deity who helped the king defeat enemies. But in the Middle Kingdom (2008-1630 B.C.E.) the Egyptians identified Thoth as the author of The Book of the Two Ways, a text that described the afterlife. All preserved copies of this text come from the town of Hermopolis in central Egypt. There the local deity was Thoth and thus he received credit for this first statement of knowledge of the next life. The Coffin Texts—spells inscribed on Middle Kingdom coffins—refer to the “divine books of Thoth” and to this god as the “lord of wisdom.” In the New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.E.) Thoth continued to develop as a god of culture and invention. The Egyptians regarded Thoth as the author of many sacred writings. In the Book of the Dead—spells meant to guide the deceased to the next life—the deceased identified himself with Thoth and claimed that knowledge justified his entrance to the afterlife. Thoth was regularly the other gods’ scribe, responsible for divine documents, letters, and decrees. The Egyptians now described Thoth as “lord of divine words,” that is, the hieroglyphic writing system. Thoth became responsible for regulating the calendar and measuring time. At the judgment of the dead, Thoth recorded the final verdict for each individual. In general, Thoth was increasingly viewed as the god who controlled knowledge and the recording of knowledge, and hence was also the ruler of philosophy.

Thoth and Akhenaten

Though King Akhenaten (1352-1336 B.C.E.) banned the worship of all gods except for Aten, the disc of the sun, his new capital at Amarna was located in Thoth’s home province. Perhaps for that reason, a statue now excavated in Amarna shows a scribe sitting at Thoth’s feet recording his wisdom. The artist who created the famous bust of Nefertiti also found at Amarna was named Thutmose, “Thoth is born.” This name had been common earlier in the Eighteenth Dynasty, but it is striking that the name was tolerated at Amarna. Perhaps this indicates that even in Amarna, Thoth’s connection to wisdom and philosophy was recognized.

Thoth After Amarna

Immediately after the Amarna Period with the restoration of the old gods, Thoth assumed an important place. King Horemheb (1319-1292 B.C.E.) recorded a Hymn to Thoth that called the god “one who knows the mysteries” and gave him responsibility for informing the sun god of all that occurred on earth. King Ramesses IV spoke in an inscription of his ability to read the writings of Thoth and that he learned about Osiris from Thoth’s books located in the temple library. Thoth thus continued to grow in his role as the source of knowledge and philosophy.

Thoth in the Late Period

In the Late Period (664-332 B.C.E.), Thoth became the god responsible for magic. Thoth helped deceased people enter the next world by writing letters of recommendation for them. According to Late Period belief, Thoth also wrote a new guide to the land of the dead called The Book of Breathings with the help of the goddess Isis. Thoth’s stature continued to grow with a new epithet, “twice great,” first known from the reign of King Apries (589-570 B.C.E.). By the time of Darius I (521-486 B.C.E.), Thoth’s epithet increased his greatness to “very, very, very great.” The Greeks later identified Thoth with their own god, Hermes, whom they gave the epithet “Trismegistus” or “thrice great.” In Greek belief, Hermes Trismegistus was a major source of ancient Egyptian secret knowledge. It seems likely that at least the tradition of Thoth as the keeper of secret knowledge had Egyptian roots in the Late Period.


The Egyptians believed that Thoth invented hieroglyphic writing. The nature of Egyptian picture writing also played a role in Greek beliefs about the supposed secret knowledge and philosophy contained in these writings. Hieroglyphic writing was basically phonetic with each picture standing for a sound or group of sounds. Yet the final picture in each word had no sound but rather stood for a category. For example, the picture of walking legs at the end of the phonetic writing for the verb “to go” placed it in the category “verbs of motion.” Thus on one level these signs, called determinatives, could bear a symbolic meaning. Some signs such as a billowing sail for “breath” or “air,” a flamingo for “red,” a taut bow string for “strong,” and an egg for “within” thus leant themselves to extended symbolic meanings.

Scribe’s Puzzles

Beginning in the New Kingdom, scribes invented scholarly puzzles with hieroglyphs as a form of intellectual entertainment. They used whole pictures with new phonetic values that would amaze other scribes by their creativity. A picture of jackals towing the god’s boat in the tomb of Ramesses IX (1126-1108 B.C.E.) substitutes for the old and simple phonetic writing of the verb “to tow.” Or the verb “to vanquish” which could easily be written and recognized with a phonetic writing, instead was written with a king smiting the heads of foreign enemies. These intellectual games became increasingly popular in the Ptolemaic Period (332-30 B.C.E.) when Greek-speaking kings ruled Egypt. At the temple in the town of Esna in Upper (southern) Egypt, a scribe wrote a hymn to Khnum, a ram god, writing only ram signs that could each be read with a different phonetic value and thus could represent different words. Another hymn was written entirely with crocodile signs that had seven different phonetic values. At this temple, there were 143 different ways of writing the god Khnum’s name. The name of the god Osiris could be written 73 different ways. These games then led to the Greek belief that hieroglyphs were only to be interpreted symbolically rather than phonetically.

Hieroglyphic Symbols

By the fifth century C.E. the Egyptians had stopped writing hieroglyphic inscriptions. But the Greek writer Horapollo, who lived in Egypt, wrote a book called The Hieroglyphs that attempted to explain the symbolic meanings of Egyptian writing. Even when Horapollo knew the correct phonetic reading of a hieroglyph, he gave a symbolic explanation for it. For example, the picture of the Egyptian hare has the meaning “to open” because the Egyptian word for “hare” and the Egyptian word for “to open” share the same consonants. But Horapollo had a different explanation. He claimed that the Egyptians wrote the verb “to open” with a hare because hares sleep with their eyes open. He also claimed that the vulture represents the word “mother” in hieroglyphs because there are no male vultures. Egyptologists understand that the word for vulture and the word for mother shared the same consonants. Thus Horapollo set the stage for Greek and later Roman authors to apply a completely symbolic approach to reading hieroglyphs. And this symbolic approach supported the idea that hieroglyphs contained mystical knowledge and philosophical secrets rather than being an ordinary symbol system for representing language. Horapollo eliminated the boundary between hieroglyph and symbol. This boundary was not restored until the nineteenth century C.E. when J.-F. Champollion read the Rosetta Stone and deciphered hieroglyphs for the first time in modern history.


In ancient Greek cults, initiation was the norm. Initiation consisted of secret rites, ceremonies, ordeals, or instructions used to allow a member to enter a sect or secret society, usually one that held a certain philosophy about Egyptian life and the gods. The Greeks assumed that Egyptian cults also had initiation. The mysteries of Osiris of Abydos are the most frequently cited example of initiation in the Greek sense. Yet the festival route in Abydos, as with festival routes in other Egyptian towns, points to a public ceremony with processions to public shrines, singing, dancing, and general rejoicing as integral to the festival. As late as 200 C.E. the Christian writer Minucius Felix knew that the Abydos festival was public rather than private. Egyptologists believe the festival is a re-enactment of the myths associated with Osiris, his wife Isis, and their son Horus. The vast numbers of people involved in the Festival of Opet in Karnak also shows that it is unlikely that these festivals were secret initiations. Yet the Greeks developed their own cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis that incorporated typically Greek religious ritual, including initiation. There were three degrees of initiation. The person who wished to join the cult had to experience a symbolic death, confront the gods, and pass through all the elements. The most important part of the ceremony allowed the initiate to view the sun at midnight. This vision allowed the initiate to escape man’s fate and overcome death eternally.


The Egyptologist Erik Hornung suggested an Egyptian basis for the ideas behind initiation into the Greek cult of Isis. The ceremony suggests the Egyptian myth of the sun’s journey at night. The sun, according to Egyptian belief, entered the land of the dead after it set on this earth. Thus a person who was symbolically dead and in the land of the dead would see the sun at midnight and would have overcome death. Yet there was an important difference between Egyptian and Greek belief. The Egyptians believed that the dead eternally viewed the sun at night in an endless cycle. The Greeks believed that the initiate was released from fate and was no longer imprisoned in this world, even before death. A second important distinction between Greek and Egyptian ideas was the way knowledge of the gods could be acquired. In the Greek cult of Isis, knowledge of the goddess and release from fate was achieved through the mystical trial of symbolic death and the revelation of viewing the sun at midnight. The Egyptians, however, stressed study as the means of knowing truth. The Egyptian wisdom texts repeat many times that studying with the philosophers would lead to knowledge of maat (“right order”). The Egyptians also stressed the importance of learning to read and studying the words of philosophers as the means of enlightenment. There is no evidence that the Egyptians believed in mystical revelation of knowledge in the Greek sense.

The Fall

Many secret Greek cults were based on the premise that humanity had fallen from a previous paradise. According to these beliefs, people needed the cults to be saved and thus regain access to paradise. It is possible that later Egyptian ideas communicated to the Greeks originated with The Book of the Heavenly Cow. This text first appears in the reign of Tutankhamun (1332-1322 B.C.E.) after the Amarna Period (1352-1332 B.C.E.), when the Egyptians had briefly worshipped only the sun disc, the Aten. In this Egyptian version of mankind’s fall, man’s original state allowed people to have access to the sun’s light at all times. There was no night that separated people on earth from the sun’s rays. Yet humans rebelled against the sun god. At first the sun god tried to kill all people by sending his fiery eye against humanity. In the end, a small group was saved, but they were punished by having less access to the sun’s rays than they did previously. Now the sun retreated on the back of the Heavenly Cow. Thus the Egyptians also believed that an original paradise had been lost. Strife and death entered the world through people’s rebelliousness. These ideas continued into later texts such as are found in the temple of the town of Esna. The Esna texts were written at the same time as Greeks dominated Egypt. Thus these Greek ideas might have found some inspiration in Egyptian ideas.

Egyptian Basis

Thus there does seem to be an Egyptian basis for many ideas propagated by the ancient Greeks about Egyptian spiritual knowledge. Clearly, however, the Greeks interpreted much of what they saw in ancient Egypt to conform with their own ideas of spirituality, philosophy, and secret knowledge. Though there was an Egyptian basis for many Greek ideas about ancient Egypt, the Greeks’ distinctive interpretation led to many modern views of Egypt as the land of mystery, spiritualism, and secret knowledge.


Influence of Stars

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that the Egyptians invented astrology. Astrology is the divination of the supposed influences of the stars and planets on human activity and events on earth by their positions and aspects. Though the Egyptians indeed studied the stars, the belief that the stars influenced events on earth was probably a later development and not a major part of Egyptian philosophy. Yet it is clear that at varying points in Egyptian history, they did believe in power of the stars in terms of protection and future knowledge. It was Greek and Roman interpretations of these beliefs that created the field of modern-day astrology.

Knowledge of Stars

In Pyramid Text 1583, dating to the Old Kingdom (2675-2170 B.C.E.), the king after his death becomes a star in the sky among the gods. Yet this set of spells for a royal funeral stresses the role of the daytime sky and the sun over the stars in the royal afterlife. As Egyptian thought about the afterlife developed, the sun took the most prominent place and was the only celestial body found in the next world. The sun’s journey at night lighted the next world, according to Egyptian belief. Yet the Egyptians surely took some interest in the nighttime sky, especially to calculate the calendar and help measure time. During the First Intermediate Period (2130-2008 B.C.E.) and the Middle Kingdom (2008-1630 B.C.E.) some coffins include star charts that the Egyptians used to calculate the dates for celebrating holidays. In the New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.E.), star ceilings were painted in some tombs and temples. Senenmut, a high official in the reign of Hatshepsut (1478-1458 B.C.E.), had the Egyptian constellations painted on the ceiling of his tomb. The Ramesseum, a temple built by Ramesses II (1279-1213 B.C.E.) for his continued worship after his death, portrays the god Thoth at the center of the star ceiling. The stars’ role in establishing the calendar led to Thoth’s depiction here. Thoth was the god responsible for both time and for fixing the calendar. There are also scattered references in the New Kingdom to worshipping stars. In the Book of the Dead Chapter 135, an illustration shows the deceased praying before a blue nighttime sky filled with stars. The same scene is included on the walls at the tomb of Senedjem in Deir el-Medina (reign of Ramesses II, 1292-1213 B.C.E.). A stele in a museum in Hanover, Germany, shows Thoth as the moon god worshipped with two goddesses with stars on their heads. The text speaks of the moon and the stars of the sky. Yet none of these texts mention any influence the stars could have on life on earth. The planets had names formulated with the name of the god Horus. Yet even these names only appear in lists and never seem to play a role in religion.


The decans were 36 stars whose rising marked a night hour equivalent to forty minutes on the modern clock. Every ten days a different star marked the beginning of the night. The principal star was Sirius, already an important marker for the beginning of the New Year. All the decans disappear from the sky for seventy days then first return to view just before sunrise. This is called a star’s helical rising. Each star’s rising pinpointed the start of a new ten-day week on the civil calendar. Three of these weeks formed one month. After the star reappeared, it joined the others that were visible. At any one time there were eighteen visible stars. They were spaced in eighteen one-hour intervals across the sky. This system created a clock consisting of eighteen hours at night equivalent to the modern 12 hours. This system developed during the Middle Kingdom. Because the decans disappeared and reappeared on a regular basis, the Egyptians identified them as symbols of death and regeneration. In the New Kingdom, the king’s funeral temples included lists of the decans. Some officials’ tombs in the Ramesside Period (1292-1075 B.C.E.) included the decans on the ceiling. In the tomb of Ramesses VI (1145-1137 B.C.E.) the decans are represented worshipping the regenerating sun. Yet in the Twenty-first Dynasty (1075-945 B.C.E.) some officials believed it necessary to wear amulets to protect them from dangers caused by the decans. These amulets seem to represent a sudden change in attitude toward the stars.


The Egyptians recognized that a dangerous power could be either a threat or a protector. Though the Twenty-first Dynasty amulets suggest the decans are a threat to people, by the reign of Osorkon II (874-835/30 B.C.E.) there is evidence that the decans’ power had been harnessed to protect the king. Two arm-bands from Osorkon II’s tomb depict the decans with the gods Osiris, Horus, Thoth, Isis, and Nephthys. The decans are snakes with lion’s heads who now protect the king. This is due to the belief that the goddess Sakhmet had control of the decans in this period. Sakhmet was a lion-headed goddess responsible for sending illness to people but also capable of curing illness. Thus Sakhmet also has a clear connection with fate, as is further supported by the inscriptions on the armbands. The decans also appear on protective amulets and necklaces in this period. By wearing this jewelry, a person could claim their protection.

Expanding Influence

By the reign of Darius I (524-486 B.C.E.), the decans appear on the temple of Hibis in the Kharga Oasis. They also appear on a shrine of Nectanebo I (381-362 B.C.E.) and a chapel of Ptolemy VIII (ruled 170-163 and 145-116 B.C.E.). Though widely spaced in time, these monuments show that the decans continued to expand their influence. The shrine of Nectanebo I includes inscriptions that claim the decans can affect wind and water, bring fertility to the fields, and cause illness and sudden death. The decans also influenced specific parts of the body, an idea that would later receive much elaboration.

Later Views

The first millennium B.C.E. Egyptian view that the decans could influence certain phenomena on earth, including specific parts of the human body, was incorporated into heretical early Christian texts found at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. The Apocryphon of John includes ancient Egyptian names along with Greek and Semitic names. It also connects the decans and some constellations with influence over different parts of the body. A Coptic text also from Nag Hammadi describes the decans as many-faced demons associated with both death and the devil. These texts combined a Greek idea of fate and a theory of how an individual’s pre-assigned fate could be avoided. In Greek magical texts, the god Sarapis can help an individual avoid his fate through reciting the proper spell. This fate was assigned by the stars. Yet only one small part of this theory descends from ancient Egyptian sources, the decans and their ability to influence events on earth.


Two known Egyptian astrologers were active in the second century B.C.E. during the reigns of Ptolemy VI and Ptolemy VIII. One was Harchebis who claimed to know the mysteries of the stars and the mysteries of snakes. He also claimed in an inscription on his statue that he had observed the heavens, especially the planet Venus. The priest Petosiris claimed to be the author of an astrological handbook. Petosiris traced his own sources to the Twenty-sixth Dynasty (664-525B.C.E.), though it is not clear how reliable this information is. Thus the real origin of Egyptian astrology probably was in this mixed society, depending on both Egyptian and Greek sources for its information.


The zodiac certainly played a role in later Egyptian star study, yet it only became known in Egypt in the Ptolemaic Period (332-30 B.C.E.). The first zodiac in Egypt was carved in the temple located in Esna built in the reigns of Ptolemy III and Ptolemy IV (246-205 B.C.E.). The origin of this zodiac was most probably Babylon. It contains Babylonian forms of some signs such as the goat-fish for Capricorn, a two-headed winged horse for Sagittarius, a maiden with ears of wheat, and a crab to represent Cancer. Other signs were Egyptianized such as Aquarius as a Nile god. Some scholars have attempted to identify the whole zodiac with Egyptian symbols. But Erik Hornung suggested that the symbols became more Egyptian the longer they were used in Egypt. The origin appears to be Babylonian.

Roman Egypt

After the Roman conquest of Egypt (30 B.C.E.), astrology became even more popular. The emperor Augustus forbade private consultations with astrologers in 11 C.E., a sign that they had become increasingly common. Yet Augustus issued coins with his own zodiacal sign. The emperor Tiberius (r. 14-37 C.E.) took a great interest in astrology and executed those whose horoscope indicated they could be emperors. Egyptian astrologers were popular at the emperor Nero’s court (r. 54-68 C.E.). Nero appointed the astrologer Balbillus a prefect of Egypt from 55 to 59 C.E. All of this activity must have played a role in Egypt’s reputation for expertise in astrology. Yet it was relatively late in Egyptian history and had little to do with classical Pharaonic civilization.



Those who practiced alchemy claimed it was a science and speculative philosophy which aimed to change base metals into gold, discover a universal cure for disease, and prolong life indefinitely. The earliest al-chemical texts claim an origin in ancient Egypt. In fact, the oldest known alchemical text was written by Zosimus of Panopolis, who lived in the fourth century C.E. in a town in central Egypt now known as Akhmim. Zosimus claimed as his sources Persian and Jewish writers in addition to certain Egyptians named Peteese, Phimenas, and Pebechius. The best identified of his Egyptian sources was Bolus of Mendes who live in the third century B.C.E. In addition to these claims for the Egyptian origins of alchemy, a text called Physika kai Mystika written by Psudo-Democritus claims that alchemy was taught in Egyptian temples. He even attempted to derive the word “alchemy” from one of the ancient Egyptian names of the country, Kemi.

Greek Sources

The Egyptologist François Daumas believed that Ptolemaic Egypt would have been an intellectual milieu that would be conducive to the development of alchemy. Yet all early texts about alchemy, even when they have origins in Egypt, were written in Greek. The Greek sources, however, claim Egyptian origins and refer to the Egyptian gods Isis, Osiris, and Horus. They even claim that Khufu (2585-2560 B.C.E.), a king of the Fourth Dynasty who built the Great Pyramid, wrote an alchemical work.


Daumas’ claims for an Egyptian origin for alchemy are based on Egyptian views of stone and stone’s relationship with alchemy. The proper use of the philosopher’s stone was for alchemists the key to reaching their goals. Alchemists believed that this imaginary stone, properly used, could transmute base metals into gold. Daumas notes that the Egyptians understood stone to be dynamic. In Pyramid Text 513—a spell from an Old Kingdom (2675-2170 B.C.E.) royal funeral—lapis lazuli grows like a plant. In the Middle Kingdom (2008-1630 B.C.E.) an expedition leader to the Sinai commented on the constantly changing color of turquoise. The Egyptians believed that the weather could change the color of turquoise and that the best color was only available in the cool months. In an inscription at Abu Simbel carved in the reign of Ramesses II (1279-1213 B.C.E.) the god Ptah describes how mountains actively bring forth stone monuments and the deserts create precious stones. This view of stone as dynamic rather than inert is basic to alchemy.

House of Gold

The Egyptologist Phillippe Derchain connected the “House of Gold,” a section of the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, with the origins of alchemy. The room was used to prepare cultic instruments. The god in charge of this room was Thoth—whom the Greeks associated with Hermes—who was the god of knowledge and philosophy. The king was represented on the doorway of the room with the epithet “Son of Thoth.” Part of the mystery performed while making the cultic material here symbolically transformed grain into gold. Derchain believed that the border between symbolism and later alchemy that sought to transform materials into gold was still maintained here.

Horus of Edfu

The temple of Horus in the town of Edfu also dates to the Ptolemaic Period. The walls of the treasury of this temple depicts mountains offering gold, silver, lapis-lazuli, turquoise, jasper, carnelian, hematite, and other semi-precious stones. The ointments prepared at this temple for use in the ritual utilized these materials. They were prepared over long periods, with particular actions required on each day. The description of the preparations closely resembles alchemy with repeated heating and cooling of these stones in order to create something different. These second-century B.C.E.activities might be the origins of Egyptian alchemy.

Arabic Tradition

Two texts in Arabic highlight the connection between alchemy and Egyptian cult. They are the Risalat as-Sirr (Circular Letter of Mystery) and the Ar Risala al-falakiya al kubra (Great Circular Letter of the Spheres). In the Arabic tradition, alchemy was the science of the temples, and Egyptian temples were the places where its secrets were located. Zosimus had previously associated the hieroglyphs on temple walls with the secrets that Hermes and the Egyptian priests knew. The Risalat as-Sirr maintains that it too came from a temple in Akhmim. It had been hidden under a slab of marble in the crypt of a woman, perhaps a reference to the Egyptian goddess Isis. This text places its own finding in the ninth century C.E. The Ar Risala al-falakiya al kubra claims for itself a find spot under a statue of Isis-Hathor in the temple located in Dendera. It claims that Hermes wrote it at the instruction of Osiris. Both texts seem to have origins in the Ptolemaic Period, though such stories are similar to ancient Egyptian lore. The Book of the Dead in one tradition was discovered under a statue of Thoth. Thus it is possible that the Arabic tradition preserves some knowledge of Egyptian practice.

Egypt’s Heirs

Thus ancient Egypt’s heirs, both Greek and Arabic speaking, practiced alchemy. They attempted to connect this practice to Pharaonic knowledge with varying degrees of success. It is possible that both traditions preserve some aspects of Egyptian thought though it is not clear that alchemy truly was an Egyptian area of knowledge or philosophy.