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1. Introduction


To use parts of the body to act seems obvious. But indeed today the ‘Body as a Toolbox’ is no longer a matter of course. In fact we make use of tools to define our body. To optimize the body is not vitally important anymore but rather prestigious. Corporeality remains an important factor worldwide, although various civilizations in space and time have different perceptions of the human body. Therefore the topic of the Workshop ‘The Body as a Toolbox’ was an interesting subject for interdisciplinary discussions and it was a pleasure to participate in it.


The human body is the centre of an individual’s cosmos and consequently corporeality plays an important role in every culture. Because of its relevance the ‘Body as a Toolbox’ has long been an object of research in Egyptology. [1] This paper can discuss only some aspects of body conceptions in Ancient Egypt and will focus on few anthropological issues.

There are good reasons for inventing extra-corporeal tools. They work as extensions of the body or as substitutes for bodily deficiencies of human beings. This leads us to the question of human self-perception a) as creatures within the cosmos and b) as human beings in relation to other people. a) Human beings, compared to other creatures, are extremely lowly specialized; respectively – in a more positive way – they have ‘multi-functional capabilities’. These capabilities originate in the human’s capacity for reflection. b) Human beings as part of a social group, show ambivalent behavior patterns. Because of their incompleteness after birth they depend from the very beginning on other persons. This means that they are social beings (zoon politikon). On the other hand, they have a high potential for conflict because of their instincts, namely in driving to fulfill personal wishes immediately and without restriction. This cognition leads to the concept of the ‘imperfect human’.

2. Anthropology in Ancient Egypt


Although most civilizations share the idea of human imperfection, reaction to that for social coexistence, can vary a lot. The Ancient Egyptian anthropogony informs us about the attitude toward the question, why human beings lack the skills to live a good life, without help from the outside; both as creature and as zoon politikon! In Coffin Text 1130 the sun god – as primeval god – declares, that it was not his intention to create mankind as imperfect human beings.

Coffin Text 1130 [2]

iw iri.n=i si nb mi sn.nw=f

n wḏ(=i) iri=sn Isf.t

in ib.w=sn ḥḏi ḏd.t.n=i

‘I made every man like his ‘companion’

and I did not order that they do Isfet.

Their hearts are what injure, what I had said.’

The creator said that people should behave in a good manner in relation to Maat. Bad social behavior (Isfet) results from the genesis of mankind.

Coffin Text 1130 [3]


sḫpr.n=i nṯr.w m fd.t=i

iw rmṯ.w m rm.wt ir.t=i

‘From my sweat I created the gods.

But the human beings (rmṯ.w) are from the tears (rm.wt) of my eye.’

The reason for this failure lies in the particular circumstances during their conception.

Coffin Text 714 [4] ir.y=i pw m Ꜣd r=i

rmṯ.w n šp.w(t)

ḥr.iw-sꜢ=i sk<n>.w

‘I must weep ( because of the rage against me.

Thats why human beings (rmṯ.w) belong to blindness,

being in trouble with each other behind my back.’

It is no accident that the words ‘tears’ and ‘human being’ are homonymous. This indicates that there is a close relationship between both. Tears induce blindness. But while blindness was only a short term condition of the creator, it is the natural state of human beings which they have to overcome actively. In Coffin Text 1130 gods and human beings were created by the sweat and tears of the sun god. Creation, as emanation of the primeval god, is a well-attested phenomenon in Ancient Egyptian texts. In these cosmogonies the creator used his body as a toolbox. The cosmogony of Memphis is a further example of creation by bodily activity.

Before discussing this conception, a short explanation about the special kind and effects of human blindness will be presented. The negative connotation of blindness does not apply to physical inability to see. Blindness, in contrast to the ability to see, must be understood in a broader sense. Both represent the dichotomy between ‘Light and Darkness’ [5]:













Blindness is the root of Ignorance, which causes ‘wrong-doing’, as it was mentioned in Coffin Text 1130 above. Bad behavior leads to Chaos and destruction and accelerates the Death of an individual and of society as a whole. Therefore education is a never-ending task, because knowledge was not the natural state after birth.

Ptahhotep (41) [6]

nn msy sꜢw

‘Nobody exists, who was born wise. ’



Merikare (E 35-36) [7]

sni r it.w=k tp.iw-Ꜥ.w=k

bꜢ /// m rḫ ///

mk md.wt=sn mn.w m sẖꜢ.w

pgꜢ šdi=k sni=k r rḫ.w

ḫpr ḥmw.w m s{b}bꜢ.yw

‘Emulate your forefathers and your ancestors!

Work will be done (successfully?) with (their?) wisdom!’

Look, their words endure in writings.

Open, for you can read and you can emulate the wise man!

A skilled man becomes an educated man. ’


Ancient Egyptian anthropology postulated that human nature was characterized, not only by ignorance, but also by the ability to learn. Maat was the concept of order and served as the basis for overcoming chaos and destruction (Isfet). Maat-doing (iri MꜢꜤ.t) was the main duty of the pharaoh as representative of kingship. Maat was the guideline for all Egyptian society and therefore constituted its philosophy and purpose of education.

Ptahhotep (507-511)

ir sḏm=k nn ḏd.n=i n=k

wnn sḫr=k nb r ḥꜢ.t

ir sp n.i MꜢꜤ.t iri

špss=sn pw

rwi sḫꜢ=sn m rꜢ n.i rmṯ.w

m-Ꜥ nfr n.i ṯs.w=sn

If you listen to what I have told you,

all your affairs will advance.

According to the concept Maat thereto;

it is their (i.e. maxims) wealth and

the memory of them comes from the mouth of human beings,

because of the perfection of their maxims.’


Due to the complexity of the world in Ancient Egypt, multiple ideas on cosmogonies [8] arose. The cosmogony of Heliopolis worked in sexual practice, which appears to be an obvious way of bringing something into being. Creation meant ‘differentiation’ in Ancient Egypt: i.e. ‘the One became Many’. One of the main factors in the Ancient Egyptian worldview was the concept of dualism. The world can only exist because complementary contrasting pairs form dynamic units. Even the dimension of space was a result of the interruption of bodily union – and consequently of sexual intercourse – of heaven (body of Nut) and earth (body of Geb) by the god of the air (body of Schu).

In the cosmogony of Memphis, the primeval god Ptah brought everything into being by creative thought (siꜢ), which was in his heart (ib) and creative utterance (ḥw), which came out of his mouth (rꜢ). Therefore heart and tongue (nis) were metonyms for creative power.

The Memphite Theology (line 56) [9]

ntf ḏḏ pri Ꜥ nb

nis wḥm kꜢꜢ.t ḥꜢ.ti sw

‘It (i.e. the heart) is, what causes all decisions to emerge

and it is the tongue which realizes [10] what the heart devises.’

We see that parts of the body have specific functions. In Ancient Egypt the human being was considered as complex creature, but also he was more than the sum of his parts. [11]

3. Ancient Egyptian Aspects of Human Beings


The human body [12] is not restricted in corporeality. It is also the organ which perceives sensual and emotional phenomena. Even non-material realities are related to parts of the body which seem to show a particular reaction. The heart was not only a symbol but the residence of intellect and emotion in Ancient Egypt. As there was no strict separation between ‘body’ and ‘soul’, an overall view is indispensable. [13]

The complexity of human beings was described by means of different aspects. While each aspect was individually significant for the living, their perfect interaction was essential. Dying means to fall apart and the reunification of the dead by rituals was most important.

Only a condensed overview of these aspects can be presented here. [14]








Vital Force

Mental Energy

Intellect & Emotion

Sense-giving Function

(connected with the sun?)


Corporeality: Physical integrity remained important even after death (see the necessity of mummification). It functioned as a container, housing non-physical aspects. Physical abnormalities from which a human being might have suffered during his life, will heal by transformation during mummification, while the mummy becomes a ‘dignified body’ (sꜤḥ). [15] The body was an essential tool with which one could interact with the whole material world.


Ka  [16]: The Egyptian term Ka (kꜢ) concerning ‘to people’, refers to the vital force, which could be powered by food. Interestingly enough one term for food is also Ka, which alludes to the correlation between vitality and eating. Funeral offerings were made ‘for the Ka’ of the deceased. A word play making use of homonymy of the lexemes was not only intellectually stimulating, but gives explanations about ideas of coherence. [17] It is therefore not surprising that the name for a bull is again Ka. This vital force was not limited to physical strength but also to mental strength and it represented the attitude of a person. Attitudes could be transferred from one person to another by embracing. The Ka-hieroglyph (𓂓) shows two raised arms, for arms meant interaction, which will be discussed later (see paragraph 22).


Ba  [18]: Mental energy is translated as Ba (bꜢ). This important aspect was one of mobility: mental energy could transcend time and space while dreaming or reflecting. It could also get lost because of the lack of refreshment or anxiety so that people faint. Ba was written with the hieroglyph of a bird, which represents the mobility of the latter. In tombs the Ba of the deceased is often be portrayed by a bird with human head, which needed a libation to maintain the consciousness of the dead.


Heart  [19]: Intellect and emotions were located in the heart as mentioned in the ‘Memphite Cosmogony’. The heart was responsible for both reflection and affection. The struggle between Maat and Isfet took place in the human heart and determined whether someone was a social-being or a wrong-doer. Only people who practiced Maat were able to survive and to live in the hereafter. The deceased was justified when his heart was in balance with Maat. The ‘Book of the Dead’ shows a vignette of that judgment of the dead, by weighing the heart in one scale and Maat in another one.

Fig. 1: The ‘Book of the Dead’ of Hunefer (19th Dynasty, about 1300 BC)


Name  [20]: Names not only had a sense-discriminative, but also a sense-giving function. This means, their main function was not to differentiate between persons, but to represent the single individuum. God did not only look after mankind in its entirety, but looked after any individual, by knowing his name.

Merikare (E 138)

iw nṯr rḫ.w rn nb

‘For god knows every name.’

To speak out loud a person’s name, meant animating the name’s owner. The dead will continue to exist through cultural memory. The damnatio memoriae represents the converse. If a person’s name was eradicated, he died in social isolation. To erase the name of a deceased on a sepulchre-wall was to kill him (so he would die a second time), because the name represented the tomb owner and his individuality. The name was also affected by its owner’s good or bad reputation and also by misusing a person’s name.

A Man and his Ba (column 86ff.) [21]

mk bꜤḥ rn=i m-Ꜥ=k

r sṯi Ꜣs.w m hr.w šm.w

p.t tꜢ.ti

mk bꜤḥ rn=i m-Ꜥ=k ...

’See, my name reeks because of you (i.e. the Ba),

more than the smell of vultures on summer days,

when the sky burns.

See, my name reeks because of you (i.e. the Ba) ... ’

In this text a ‘Man tired of Life’ laments about defamation. He is depressed, because he feels deprived of his social integrity.


Shadow  [22]: The value of the shadow for a human being apparently lies in the connection between the sun and the living. As we have seen, light was an important factor for life. Only a standing (i.e. living) person throws his shadow on the ground. Although the shadow’s shape is equal to its ‘owner’, it moves according to the source of light, independently of the body of the person.


Ach  [23]: In contrast to the other aspects Ach was not an integral part of a human being by birth. If people perceived an effect without being aware of its source, the unknown power will be named Ach. [24] This effective force was extremely powerful. Its close relationship to light – hence to knowledge – is evident, and not only because of the Ach-hieroglyph (𓈌) which represents ‘the horizon’ (sunrise over two mountains). As we know: “Nobody exists, who was born wise” (Ptahhotep 41). Therefore it was a duty of everyone to improve himself by education, to overcome ignorance (i.e. imperfection as a natural state). The Ach-status must be acquired by becoming a social being in relation to Maat. The aspect Ach was not limited to the dead, but it became much more efficacious after the successful completion of the ‘judgment of the dead‘. The so-called ‘Letters to the Dead’ aimed to influence the deceased’s Ach in his activities.

4. The Human Body and its Connections to the World


Abstracta, creativity and competences were expressed by bodypart terms. When discussing the human body in Ancient Egypt, we will see that there was no clear cut distinction between physical and mental capabilities; in fact they were mostly intertwined.

The following figure illustrates associations between the cognitive, mental and emotional faculties and the human body. Although these associations apply almost to every human being, we must consider that the royal body (here Sethi I) is of particular nature. Due to the rites de passage coronation and enthronement the king became a container for divine power. [25] Thus his competencies are even more effectively.

Fig. 2: The Human Body and its Functionality (Sethi I offers Maat to the creator god)

4.1. Head ≈ Orientation


The body was perceived as the centre of the owner’s habitat. Thus, as is the case in most civilizations, the Egyptians described spatial location by means of bodypart terms, viz. ‘above’ by the head, ‘below’ by the feet, ‘behind’ by the back, ‘in front’ by the forehead and distance was measured by the lower part of the arm (i.e. an Egyptian ell is the combined length of the forearm and extended hand). This orientation equates to order. [26] The realm of the gods was in the sky. A political act was confirmed as legal and permanent by the expression ‘like heaven’ (mi p.t). In illustrations of the Egyptian world-view the sacred sphere was always depicted on top. To turn this orientation upside down causes chaos which must be avoided. The Coffin Texts 173 describe the “hell” as an inverted world of ‘walking on the head and eating faeces’.

Coffin Text 173 [27]

... ḥr

nn wnm=i n=ṯn ḥs

nn swr=i n=ṯn wsš.t

n hꜢy=i n=ṯn m sḫdḫd ...

‘… because

I will not eat faeces for you;

I will not drink urine for you;

I will not go upside down for you …’

At this point just an example of grammaticalization shall demonstrate how this works in classical Egyptian. [28] A noun or preposition can be transformed by the suffix -i (nisba) into an adjective, an adjective can become a substantive (again) only by fixing the singular or plural of the masculine and the feminine marker at the end of the word. This can for example be seen on the term ḥr which as a noun has the meaning ‘face’ which is also used for the preposition ‘upon’.

ḥr ’face’





‘being upon’



‘who is on the top = chief’ or ḥ ‘the top = the sky’

ḥr.iw ‘who is on the top’ is the name of the god Horus, whose habitat was the heaven and therefore the normative-sphere.

4.2. Eye/s ≈ Knowledge


Eyesight, as opposed to blindness, was closely related to knowledge (see paragraph 3). The light is the source for the eye to see. The absence of light makes a nuanced perception of the material world impossible. As a consequence darkness was noticed as an element of chaos, while order was a result of light. The eye became a metonym for the sun as ‘eye of the god’ and the crown with which the king must be united, was called ‘eye of Horus’. The Egyptian term for eye (ir.t) is homonymous with the expression for ‘acting’ (ir.t). Furthermore, in this case ‘eye’ and ‘acting’ were interrelated, insofar as acting must be guided by wisdom, which is represented by eyesight. [29]

4.3. Ears ≈ Participation


The hieroglyph showing the ear of a cow is also used for the term ‘hearing (sḏm)’. The ear is the part of the body with which a person can perceive sounds. Furthermore, the human ear represents in depictions, the phenomenon of ‘hearing’. To hear means to learn and to overcome ignorance. People who are deaf to education are not social beings. Like blindness, deafness, however, does not refer to physical inability to hear. To participate in social knowledge was not only a question of altruism, but a necessity for a successful life. Remember the words of Ptahhotep (507f. in paragraph 4): “If you listen to what I have told you, all your affairs will advance.” Once again it was the heart which decided whether a human being will live a life as a social being or as an egoist.

Ptahhotep (550-552)

in ib sḫpr nb=f

m sḏm m tm sḏm(.w)

Ꜥnḫ wḏꜢ snb n.i si ib=f

‘It is the heart which makes its lord

to someone who hears or to someone who does not hear.

Life, prosperity and health of a man is his heart.’

Listening in order to learn was an act of socialization for students who wanted to become members of society. But listening was not only a duty for learners. Even for Egyptians in high positions listening was a social act. They should lend an ear to what petitioners wished to communicate.

Ptahhotep (264-272)

ir wnn=k m sšm.y

hr sḏm=k mdw sprw

m gnf.w sw r sk.t ẖ.t=f

m kꜢi.t.n=f ḏd.n=f st

mrr ẖr.iw iꜤ.t ib=f

r iri.t ii.t.n=f ḥr=s

If you are a leader,

be patient while you hear a petitioner‘s speech!

Do not refuse him to sweep his body

by what he planned to talk about!

A distressed man loves to purify his heart

more than achieving what he came for.’

This verse from the ‘Instruction of Ptahhotep’ shows the interaction between parts of the body as reaction to emotional stress. Talking was an instrument for self-relief. Sweeping the body was purifying the heart.

Statues of Senwosret III show him with very big ears. These sculptures communicate to the viewer that he was aware of his responsibility as king and that he would listen to everyone’s problems. Thus such images must not be interpreted as accurate portrayals.


Fig. 3: Senwosret III (12th Dynasty, about 1850 BC)

Fig. 4: Ramesses III receives ‘life’ from the god Amun-Re (20th Dynastie, about 1150 BC)

4.4. Nose ≈ Life


Breathing through the nose is one of the main factors for survival.

Osorkon-Inscription [30]

ṯꜢw m ẖ.t rd.wi ḥr šmm.t

‘As long as breath is in the body the legs are walking.’

Because breath is not depictable it was represented by an Ankh which is the hieroglyph for ‘life, living’. That ‘breath’ and ‘life’ belong together was indicated by an Ankh held in front of a living person’s nose (s. fig.4).

The 'Tale of the Eloquent Peasant’ informs us about what supports human beings breathing.

Eloquent Peasant (BI 177) [31]

mri wꜢḥ mi ḏd

ṯꜢw pw n.i fnḏ ir.t MꜢꜤ.t

‘Wish to endure, as is said (saying!):

“Doing Maat is the breath of the nose”.’

4.5. Mouth [32] ≈ Creativity


Like the god Ptah in ‘The Memphite Theology’ mentioned above (see paragraph 5) the king must be creative to maintain order and to organize social cohabitation.

Leather Roll (II 1-2) [33]

ḥw rꜢ=k siꜢ m-ḫt=k

Hu is your mouth and Sia is behind you.’

Keep in mind that Hu was the creative utterance (ḥw) and Sia the creative thought (siꜢ). Both were creative forces competencies pertaining only to the gods and the pharaoh as the representative of the institution of sacred kingship, because of their mighty power. Of course, people outside of the sacred sphere may also have had power by command (wḏ). At least eloquence was the most appropriate and successful capacity to accomplish goals.

Merikare (E 32)

ḫpš pw n.i nsw ns=f

qni md.wt r ꜤḥꜢ nb

‘The sword of the king is his tongue.

Words are stronger than any weapon.’


Shipwrecked Sailor (15-18) [34]

mdwi=k n nsw ib=k m-Ꜥ=k

wšb=k nn niti.t

iw rꜢ n.i si nḥm=f sw

‘May you speak to the king by your heart is with you.

May you answer without stuttering.

It is the speech of a man which saves him.’

Because of the performative power of speech it was essential to use the own voice carefully. This makes the ‘silent one’ (grw) virtuous, because silence did not imply cowardice or a lack of eloquence.

4.6. Fingers ≈ Skillfulness


Shipwrecked Sailor (188)

... m sẖ.w sẖꜢ

iqr n.i ḏbꜤ.w=f

Imny …

‘... in the scripts of the scribe

excellent regarding to his fingers

Ameni ...’

This expression was a topos of skillfulness which promised good results and reliability. So it described not only a manual but also intellectual capacity.

4.7. Hand ≈ Control


David (Devouring the Enemy) - an important main specialist for categorization in Ancient Egypt - gives a vivid description of visual, textual and scriptural expressions for the domination of the pharaoh. The hand stands for control, which David outlines by the very well known topos and icon ‘Smiting the Enemy’ (Type 1 in her article). The raised hand illustrates also the UP-DOWN-category. [35]




Fig. 5: Menthuhotep II smites an enemy (11th Dynasty, about 1990 BC)


Also social interaction was performed by using hands. Senwosret III gives a helping hand to whoever needed it.

Hymn to Senwosret III (Papyrus Kahun II 15) [36]

..ibw pw tmm šꜢš.w d.t=f

‘...he is “an asylum”, his hand do not evade.’

4.8. Arm ≈ Interaction


Although the concepts of hands and arms are related, they shall be discussed separately. Using hands and arms means interaction. In embracing one another two persons would not only show their emotions, but it was also a way of transmission of values, spirit and the like. The vital force Ka (kꜢ) could also be transferred by embracing. It follows that it was not only food, which strengthened people. The king as Ka of the god Horus received this vital-force when the falcon-god put his wings around him. In figure 4 (see paragraph 17) the god Amun-Re embraces the king Ramesses III while he revives him. The king thereby shares in god’s holiness.

The same held true with regard to mankind. The close bond between two persons was recognizable by their embracing, more than by genealogy. [37] Even the natural father had to accept his child as his son by transmitting the Ka. As a consequence it was possible that persons became relatives even if there was no genetic relationship. To meet again close relatives includes body contact.

Shipwrecked Sailor (133)

...mḥ=k qni=k m ẖrd.w=k …

‘...than you will fulfill your embrace with your children ...’


Gods represented different functions with which they maintained cosmic order. These gods were not human beings but powerful forces. In order to make interaction with these forces possible the Egyptians displayed them as animal, in mixed forms (animal and human features intertwined) and/ or as human beings. Even if they have no anthropomorphic forms in total, their material manifestations used arms to make their activities visible.

4.9. Heart ≈ Mind/ Emotion


In addition to what is said in paragraph 10 some primary sources will be quoted. Let us remember that the ‘Instruction of Ptahhotep’ describes the heart as the central organ of human beings. “It is the heart which makes its lord to someone who hears or to someone who does not hear. Life, prosperity and health of a man is his heart.“ According to this statement the struggle between Maat and Isfet took place in the human’s heart. A social being owns a pure heart, which allows an individual to adjust his conduct to Maat. Therefore, it is obvious that a defective heart will cause serious problems for its owner. [38]

Ptahhotep (633-636)

mk sꜢ nfr n.i ḏḏ nṯr

rḏi ḥꜢ.w ḥr ḏd.t n=f ḫr nb=f

iri=f MꜢꜤ.t

iri.n ib=f r nmt.t=f

‘See; a perfect son, by the gift of a god,

who exceeds, what was said to him by his lord,

he realizes Maat,

because his heart has acted according to his (correct) procedure.’


On a stela which was erected in Nubia by Senwosret III, the king was described once again as a conscientious ruler.

Stela Berlin 1157/7-8 [39]

tm sḏr.w md.t m ib=f

ḫmt twꜢ.w ꜤḥꜤ.w ḥr sf

‘Who do not sleep as long as a matter is in his heart.

Who looks after the dependents, who rely on clemency.’


By contrast, a greedy heart may lead to satisfaction for a moment, but in the long run to social isolation.

Ptahhotep (91-97)

swꜢ.t pw m-ḥr n Ꜥwn-ib

in nḏ.yt iṯṯ ꜤḥꜤ.w

n pꜢ ḏꜢ.yt mni sp=s


wn pḥ.wi MꜢꜤ.t wꜢḥ ...

‘That is, what is missed for the greedy (lit. narrow-hearted).

It is baseness (i.e. Isfet) what seizes possession,

(but) crime never lands its misdeed.


In the end (only) Maat is what endures ...’

4.10. Belly ≈ Instinct


Pleasure and deprivation have an impact on the belly. Especially the feeling of hunger can cause an out-of-control reaction, which may pose a threat to public order.

Ptahhotep (481 + 484)

ḥḏ ḥr=k tr n wnn=k


srḫ.y pw šw m ẖ.t=f

‘Be benevolent (lit. bright-faced) as long as you live!


One whose belly is empty is an accuser.’


Merikare (E 43-44)

n ḏd.n šwꜢ.w m MꜢꜤ.t=f

‘A poor man cannot speak according to his Maat.’


A person who acted impulsively was called ‘the hot one’ in comparison, a person acted rationally was called ‘the cool one’. The former was an egoist and bad reputated in society, which suffer from his greed (Ꜥwn-ib, i.e. Isfet). A calm person recognized the benefit of solidarity (Maat). He was able to keep quiet and silent (grw).

Ptahhotep (350)

imi=k wḥm.w mski n.i md.wt

n sḏm=k sw

pri pw n.t tꜢ.w-ẖ.t

‘You should not practize slander by articulation,

nor listen to it.

This is what comes out of him whose belly is hot!’


Amenemope (IV 1+6) [40]

ir pꜢ šmm ...

tꜢ stꜢ tꜢ.y=f qr(s)y.t=f

‘As for the ‘hot one‘ ...

the flame is his burial. ’


4.11. Testicles ≈ Aggression/ Strength


The testicles are a cross-cultural symbol of sexual desire. Lack of control over that basic instinct involves the risk that people satisfy their lust or other needs by aggression. This potency might be destructive and destroy a society. The natural state of god Seth was chaotic energy. This was due to the unfortunate circumstances of his genesis, in which destructive forces (Isfet) were very active. He shared his origin with that of human beings (see paragraph 3) and for this reason both participated in the chaotic forces which made them imperfect. Consequently Seth bore the title ‘lord of darkness and storm’, who caused trouble. Because of his quick-tempered personality the testicles became his attribute, which made him equal with a bull and Seth was worshiped as the ‘god of strength (pḥ.ti)’.

Aggression was not only connotated with negative associations, is was also essential for survival. [41]

Hymn to Senwosret III (Papyrus Kahun II 9)


tꜢ.wi m pḥ.ti=k

mki.n=k inb.w=sn

‘How rejoice

the two land (i.e. Egypt) in your strength,

for you protected their walls. ’


Strength is the power which helps to avert danger. It must, however, be taken in mind that wisdom has to dominate over strength so that the latter is used in an appropriate manner. We will discuss this issue further below in paragraph 30.

4.12. Back ≈ Position


The upright position indicated not only stability but also steadfastness. [42] Not all people were able to guarantee stability for their own lives by themselves. Therefore the king had to act as supporter of those persons.

Merikare (E 135-136)

...iri.n=f n=sn ḥqꜢ.w m swḥ.t

ṯs.w r ṯsi.t m psḏ n.i sꜢ -Ꜥ

‘... he (i.e. the sun god) created 'rulers in the egg' (i.e. born ruler) for them (i.e. human beings),

leaders as a support for the back of the weak.’


The king was not only responsible for all the individuals but for the whole cosmos as well. As already stated he had to maintain order (i.e. Maat). Two rituals demonstrate that the pharaoh recognized and realized this role. One ritual is celebrating the Maat-offering to the creator god and therewith to the lord of Maat himself. A second ritual is very important for stabilizing the institution of kingship, which corresponds to living together peacefully. This ritual was called ‘Raising of the Djed-pillar’. The term Djed (ḏd) means ‘duration’ and is written by a hieroglyph, which represents the spinal column of an ox.








Fig. 6: Temple of Seti I in Abydos (19th Dynasty, 1290 about BC).

Fig. 7: The ‘Book of the Dead’ of Hunefer (19th Dynasty, 1300 about BC).

In figure 6 the ‘Djed-pillar’ (spinal column) was combined with the image of Osiris in his function as ‘Lord of Kemet (i.e. Egypt)’. This means Horus upholds the killed/ destroyed Osiris and in this way the Egyptian state. [43] The upright position is connected with life as was already mentioned. A person lying down is powerless because he is tired, ill, unconscious or even dead. That is why the mummy of the deceased was raised during the rite of ‘Opening of the Mouth’ (s. fig. 7) to re-animate the dead person. The straightening of the mummy was aligned to the sun (i.e. Ra). [44] At this point it is worth remembering, that a person in erect posture can throw a considerably better shadow than one who is lying on the ground.

4.13. Legs ≈ Action


The position of legs in Ancient Egyptian art signified an attitude. [45] A standing figure with both legs close to each other symbolizes duration and stability. This position was common feature of gods or the king as the representative of the gods. The stride-position demonstrates dynamism and activity, which is indispensable to obtaining stability because of the never-ending cycle of coming into being and decaying.

4.14. Feet ≈ Dominance


Being under someone’s feet meant being under his dominance. The king, who had to maintain order, must dominate chaotic forces.


Fig. 8.: The ‘Nine Bows’ under the feet of a queen (Late Period)

In the minds of the Ancient Egyptians it was quite clear that chaos and destruction could not be totally annihilated but only be banished for a while. The ‘Nine-Bows’ and the so-called Rechyt represented foreign and inner enemies of the Egyptian state. The king had to defend against attacks from the outside and put down rebellion inside the country. For example the enemies were depicted under Pharaoh’s feet which, standing on them, makes them ineffective. By means of textual and iconographical evidences David (Devouring the Enemy) shows that ‘to be under someone’s feet (ẖr rdwy) is to be in that person’s power’. [46]

Hymn to Senwosret III (Papyrus Kahun III 7)

ii.n=f ...

ptpt.n=f ḫꜢs.wt

ḥwi.n=f iwn.tiw

ḫm.w snḏ.w

‘He came, ...

after he trampled the foreign countries

and he smote the Iuntiw (one tribe of the Nine-Bows),

who had no respect.’

5. The Body as a Medium of Communication


An orchestrated body can be purposely used for communication. (Body-) posture, gestures and facial expression can transmit statements and attitudes. Special codes give information about social features, which affect inter-human behaviour. The body itself can function as an information medium when manipulated in appropriate ways (tattoos, scarification, shave). Also dresses, jewellery, make-up and hairstyle – as extensions of the body – encode social positions and attitudes. The ideal person as well as the one excluded from society was not only described by linguistic pictures (words), but also by physical characteristics (images). To behave like a ‘hot one’ or like a ‘cool one’ had an impact on the appearance of a person. A lack of body care or uncontrolled movements (frenzy) indicated an undisciplined personality, while a self-controlled personality kept its composure and gave off an orderly appearance. [47]

6. The Ambivalence of Human Beings


In paragraph 4 it was noted, that the Ancient Egyptians also believed in the ambivalent character of human beings. The struggle between knowledge and physical power for supremacy was explained on the basis of a myth.

The Struggle between Horus and Seth

In the created world something very significant happened: Seth killed his brother Osiris. After he had cut the corpse into pieces and scattered it throughout Egypt, Seth hoped to succeed him as king. Isis and Nephtys, the sisters of Osiris and Seth, gathered the parts of the corpse and joined them together again. Isis was able to get pregnant from her dead but reconstructed brother and husband Osiris. This means that Osiris begot Horus post-mortem who became a rival of Seth for the royal office.

The manner of fighting which took place is very fascinating. Horus took away Seth’s testicles, while he tore out the eye of Horus which injured the latter not only physically, since the eye was associated with knowledge. Because of his aggression Seth represents violence and testicles as symbol for physical strength are well-attested. Horus tried to take away the strength of Seth, and Seth wanted to destroy Horus’ capacity to act (ir.t). Once again homonymy attested an inner correlation between ‘acting’ and ‘eye’ (ir.t).

The god Thot who represented wisdom terminated the fight and restored the potencies of Horus and Seth. Finally the ‘judgment of the gods’ led to the decision that Horus became successor of Osiris and king of Egypt. Because Seth’s strength was very important for the kingship to function well, he should also play an important role. Integrated into Maat he fought against chaos and thus represents the legitimate form of power.


This myth clearly shows that the primary goal of the Egyptian society was to bring all different needs into harmony (i.e. Maat). Even an individual by himself must balance his divergent wishes by intertwining his body parts.

Ptahhotep (527-533)

in sr ḥr.i sp=f nfr

mnn(?) [48] ib=f ns=f

ꜤqꜢ sp.ti=fi iw=f ḥr ḏd

ir.ti=fi ḥr mꜢꜢ

Ꜥnḫ.wi=f twt ḥr sḏm Ꜣḫ.t n sꜢ=f


ir(i) MꜢꜤ.t šw m grg

‘Only the official who is the chief of his good deed

twines together his heart and his tongue;

his two lips are righteous when he is speaking.

His both eyes are seeing,

and his two ears in total are hearing what is effective for his son.

A doer of Maat is someone who is free of falsehood!’


In the view of Ptahhotep the body must be a toolbox for righteousness.

7. The Body in Comparison with Material Culture


Tools – as we mentioned in paragraph 2 as extension and/ or substitution of the body – remain closely linked with human creativity. The comparison between parts of the body and material objects aims to clarify competencies of the body.

The ‘Eloquent Peasant’ appeals to a high official to carry out his duties properly. In a eulogy he compares parts of the official’s body with a balance, which is the epitome of justice.

Eloquent Peasant (BI 189-200)

ꜤqꜢ.yt tꜢ ir.t MꜢꜤ.t

m ḏd.w grg iw=k wr.ti

m is.w iw=k dns.ti

m ḏd.w grg ntk iwsw

m tnbẖ.w ntk tp-ḥsb

mk tw m tp wꜤ ḥnꜤ iwsw

ir gsꜢ=f ḫr=k gsꜢ=k


tḫ pw ns=k

dbn pw ib=k

rmnw=f pw sp.ti=ki

ir ḥbs=k ḥr=k r nḫt-ḥr

nm irf ḫsf=f bw-ḥwrw

‘Earth’s righteousness is doing Maat.

Speak not falsehood, for you are great!

Be not light, for you are weighty!

Speak not falsehood; you are the balance!

Swerve not; you are the standard!

See, you are one (head) with the balance;

If it tilts, you may tilt.

Your tongue is the plummet;

your heart is the weight measurement;

your both lips are its arms.

So if you cover your face toward violence,

who then shall repel the evil?’


Different parts of the king’s body functioned likewise like tools as was said in the ‘Teaching for Merikare’: “The sword of the king is his tongue. Words are stronger than any weapon.” [49] And the body of a god can become a landscape or a building.

TT 32 (line 8) [50]

iri=f is r ḥꜤ.w=t

ẖ.t=t n mꜤḥꜤ.t=f

‘Indeed he built a hall to your body

and your womb is for his tomb.’


In the case of Osiris the body can become the whole land: When Seth killed Osiris, cut his corpse into pieces and scattered them throughout Egypt, the parts of his body became relics, which represent one of each 42 nomes of Egypt. The united body of Osiris corresponds to the unified kingdom. [51]

8. Conclusion


The human body is not only a container, which delimit the physical, mental and emotional individuality towards the outside. In Ancient Egypt the body was a structure, which intertwinded, linked and harmonized different aspects of the human nature inside and which served as a tool to come into contact with the outside world. In his materiality it gave orientation in the physical world (cosmos), serves for communication with the ‘Other’ and is a tool for creation. The same is true for its immateriality. Consciousness gave orientation in a complex world and interact as a creative power with practices. Emotions had an ambivalent character. For one thing it is the source of greed (Isfet), otherwise it makes empathy possible, which is the basis for responsible social behaviour (Maat). The heart was the residence for both reflection and affection. For that reason the Egyptian wisdom literature reminds people of ‘giving Maat into their hearts’ to make living together peacefully function well.


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List of Illustrations

1: ‘Book of the Dead’ of Hunefer – British Museum London (EA9901,3) © The Trustees of the British Museum

2: The outline drawing of Seti I. (relief of a Maat-offering) which served as a basis for figure 2, was prepared by H. Keel-Leu. Original: Calverley, A. M.: The Temple of King Sethos I. at Abydos IV, London 1958, pl. 10.

3: Statue of Senwosret III. – British Museum London (EA686) © The Trustees of the British Museum

4: Ramesses III in Medinet Habu – Nelson, H. H.: Medinet Habu, vol. IV, OIP 84, Chicago 1963, pl. 425B.

5: Menthuhotep II. smites an enemy – Habachi, L.: King Nehepetre Menthuhptep: His Monuments, Place in History Deification and Unusual Representations in the Form of Gods, in: MDAIK 19 (1963), p. 38 (detail of fig. 16).

6: Temple of Seti I. in Abydos – Photo by Olaf Tausch (CC 3.0

7: ‘Book of the Dead’ of Hunefer – British Museum London (EA9901,5) © The Trustees of the British Museum

8: Base of a statue of a queen, Late Period – Petrie Museum London (UC 16576) – Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin (CC 4.0

List of Abbrevations




















Archaeopress Egyptology

Analecta Orientalia

Bulletin of the Australian Center for Egyptology

Culture and History of the Ancient Near East

Carsten Niebuhr Institute (Publications)

Coffin Texts

Göttinger Orientforschung

Internet-Beiträge zur Ägyptologie und Sudanarchäologie

Journal of Egyptian Archeology

Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Kairo

Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis

Oriental Institute Publications

Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur/ Beihefte

University of California, Los Angeles-Encyclopedia of Egyptology

Wahrnehmungen und Spuren Altägyptens. Kulturgeschichtliche Beiträge zur Ägyptologie

Yale Egyptological Studies

Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde


[1] In her article ‘The Body’ for the UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology Riggs gives also an overview of the relevant literature. Nyord has recently published some studies on the conceptions of the body in ancient Egypt (see references).

[2] CT VII 463f-464b.

[3] CT VII 464g-465a.

[4] CT VI 344f-h. Although this text passage is corrupted, the content seems clear. It is probable to emendate the last line into sk<n>.w parallel to Ꜣd . I translated it as a pseudoparticiple (pl.) in attribution to ḥr.iw-sꜢ=i as a substantive which relates to the human beings.

[5] Only a few references to this issue can be given. To the various aspects of light cf. Assmann, Lux divina; to the dichotomy of light and darkness in particular see Hornung, Chaotische Bereiche; Ibid., Licht und Finsternis.

[6] Numbering according to Žába, Les Maximes de Ptaḥḥotep.

[7] Numbering according to Papyrus Leningard Eremitage 1116 A verso (E after Quack, Merikare). The text in line 35 is corrupt.

[8] An overview is given by Sauneron & Yoyotte, Ägyptische Schöpfungsmythen; Schulz, Die Erschaffung der Welt. See also Allen, Genesis in Egypt.

[9] To this cosmogony in particular see Iversen, The Cosmogony of the Shabaka Text.

[10] To the term wḥm (realise) s. Kootz, wḥm.

[11] On the necessity of completeness concerning to the body of the king and its functionality see Popielska-Grzybowska & Manfredi, Body as symbol?

[12] About the conceptualization of the body in Ancient Egypt see Riggs, The Body, who introduces in her article into the physical, social and metaphorical aspects.

[13] Assmann talks about different spheres where a human being exists, which he calls ‘body sphere’ and ‘social sphere’ (Tod und Jenseits, pp. 54-59.; translated by Lorton, Death and Salvation). See also Loprieno, Drei Leben nach dem Tod.

[14] On these aspects i.a. Assmann, Tod und Jenseits (esp. pp. 116-159); Hornung, Der Mensch; Meyer-Dietrich, Senebi und Selbst; Taylor, Death and the Afterlife, pp. 15-24 and 31-32.

[15] It is not possible to discuss the important subject of the so-called ‘Gliedervergottung (deification of the members)’ in Ancient Egyptian religious texts. Neither the functionality of body fluids can be a subject. More information about this and about body parts of the dead, is given by Nyord, Breathing the flesh (on ‘Divinization of the body parts’, pp. 510-523; ‘Body fluids’, pp. 321-331).

[16] A recently published article about ‘The concept of ka’ by Nyord offers a broader insight into this aspect. He states that “the ka advocated here as the potential of which the person is in actualisation” (p. 201).

[17] See Guglielmi, Funktionen des Wortspiels.

[18] The term Ba shows different semantics in various contexts. See Janák, Ba. In this paper we cannot talk about the Ba of a god, which is his perceivable manifestation.

[19] A number of studies on the ‘heart’ in Ancient Egypt were published. For detail see Toro Rueda, Das Herz in der ägyptischen Literatur.

[20] On this aspect of the name see Vittmann, Personal Names: Function and Significance.

[21] Transcription by Faulkner, The Man who was Tired of Life, p. 24. To interpret the second writing of the owl with the arm as preposition seems to be more appropriate than as a second particle mk in the midst of an adjectival-sentence including a comparative.

[22] On the ideas on shadow in Ancient Egypt see George, Zu den altägyptischen Vorstellungen zum Schatten als Seele.

[23] A comprehensive view is given by Janák, Akh.

[24] See Jansen-Winkeln, “Horizont” und “Verklärtheit”.

[25] See also Popielska-Grzybowska & Manfredi, Body as symbol?

[26] Orientational metaphors in ancient Egyptian kingship, which describe spatial orientations, are the main topic of Hsu’s paper, You up – I down. On the basis of Lakoff & Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (pp. 14-21) he discusses the domination (UP) of ancient Egyptian kingship over its enemies (DOWN). See also the interesting article from David, Devouring the enemy.

[27] CT III 47k-48b.

[28] For Coptic see Nyord, Conceptualizations of embodied space.

[29] More about the ‘Eye of Horus’ in opposition to ‘the Testicles of Seth’ see paragraph 30. A monograph on all aspects of the eye has been written by Grässler, Konzepte des Auges.

[30] Text B, column 8. See Caminos, The Chronicle of Prince Osorkon, p. 92 (§ 136 h).

[31] BI (pBerlin 3023) after Parkinson, The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant.

[32] To a further aspect of the mouth concerning the king see David, Devouring the enemy, pp. 91-93. Here the mouth is described as agency for appropriation, since eating is the metaphor for acquiring possessions.

[33] After the transcription of de Buck, The Building Inscription.

[34] Transcribed from papyrus Leningrad 1115 by Dessoudeix, Lettres Égyptiennes III.

[35] Domination of kingship (UP) over the enemy (DOWN) (compare paragraph 15).

[36] Line 15 on plate II; see Griffith, Hieratic Papyri from Kahun.

[37] See Assmann, Das Bild des Vaters, p. 96.

[38] In her article ‘Die Defekte des Herzens’, Windus-Staginsky collected those primary sources, which deal with the damage und the threat of the heart.

[39] The so-called Boundary-Stela of Senwosret III. from Semna; now in the ‘Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung’ (Stela 1157).

[40] Transcription by Budge, Facsimiles.

[41] Effland offers in her article ‘Aggression und Aggressionskontrolle’ a differentiated insight into both aspects of aggression.

[42] See also what is mentioned in paragraph 15; for example the stability/ durability of heaven.

[43] On Osiris as representative of Kemet see Kootz, State-Territory and Borders, pp. 34-36.

[44] See Assmann, Tod und Jenseits, pp. 418f.

[45] A brief overview to the different kind of statues can be found in Wildung/ Reiter/ Zorn, Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection, Berlin, pp. 56-79.

[46] David, Devouring the Enemy, p. 87. Because the act ‘Trampling the enemy’ (Type 2 in her article) was of aggressive nature, the king was mostly represented by an animal (lion, bull, sphinx and the like).

[47] On the topic of ‘body images of the ethical human’ in Ancient Egypt s. Moers, Ägyptische Körper-Bilder. Moers noted that ‘the less a body is marked, the more it represents the ideal’ (p. 20). In this sense, it is not about physical disabilities and handicaps. See also Riggs, Body (esp. pp. 4-7). Fischer-Elfert presented a study on the non-ideal character in ‘Abseits von Maat’ (on the ‘hot-one’ see pp. 91-158).

[48] Possibly mnn ‘winding’.

[49] See paragraph 19.

[50] Especially on the topic of the rocky landscape as the body of a goddess see Rummel, Der Leib der Göttin. This article includes a figure (1) with the text of TT 32. About body parts as metaphor for architecture and landscapes s. Wattler, Menschliche Körperteile, in the same volume.

[51] See also paragraph 26 and Kootz, State-Territory and Borders, pp. 34-36.




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