Egypt: Was Pharaoh Divine

Was Pharaoh Divine?

by Ken Humphries

Introduction Obviously the answer is No, the question is did the Egyptian in the street believe that he was and why was it necessary that he believed the religious teachings.

To understand the development of kingship and the belief in the divinity of the pharaoh we need to look at the development of the civilisation in the Nile Valley and compare it to the progress made elsewhere in the world.

Religion and religious ceremony was necessary to hold together the primitive civilisations and cultures that were beginning to form some 7,000 years ago or more. The great fear of the time was death and the blackness that this brought. The promise of life after death for those that believed and followed the true teachings was a big incentive to conform.

The country may have been unified under one ruler with one set of laws and a single legal and taxation system but the people would only be unified by a single religion. The various festivals, ceremonies and communal acts of worship were what really brought the people together as a nation.

Above: Celebrating the "Beautiful Feast of the Valley" at Thebes

We should not compare Ancient Egypt with current concepts of culture, law, morality or ethics. Holding a rich civilisation together with its growing population and rising economic prospects and holding off external forces that would love to conquer it was not any easy task. If we keep these factors in mind we will see why civilisations generally and Egypt in particular developed in the way they did.

Development of the State

It is surmised that the development of the state of Egypt closely follows that of other states in the area that developed at about the same time.

Originally the nomadic tribes were hunter-gatherers while the climate was suitable for the growth of wooded grassland. As it dried out tribes tended to migrate to oases and flowing rivers. Those tribes that could adapt survived and gradually changed to a farming way of life for most of their food. These tribes gradually grew in size and would have traded excess produce with neighbours.This would have resulted in some intermarrying and merging into larger units 2.

When a tribe found itself short of food or women a raid would be organised against other local tribes and eventually one tribe grew stronger, dominated the area and assimilated its neighbours.

As the tribe grew in influence the tribal leader became what we would call a warlord who eventually took on the mantle of king 1.

Development of the Leader

With the growing influence of the tribe so the influence of the leader grew. The leader would mostly be male and aggressive because the means of choosing a leader was usually by fighting between challengers. The leader would then gather a powerful group around him, consisting of other aggressive males, to reinforce his leadership. The leader would remain in power so long as he could command the loyalty of his men, which he did by giving them special privileges such as the best food and the choice of the women2.

The most able leaders would have realised that the strong-arm tactics that kept the populace in order did not bring as much prosperity and power as a growing economy. It was also wasteful because it took men away from work in order to enforce his leadership. The fewer men that this took the more produce and goods there would be available for trade.

The more intelligent leaders would therefore have selected some of the more able and thinking types to act as his advisors.

Brains gradually replaced brawn and the heavies would have been put in charge of the army and border guards while the king gathered about him a corpus of advisors who organised the different aspects of state affairs under his guidance. As the task grew larger and more complex these advisers would have gathered their own staff to help them.

Development of Religion

In parallel with the growth of the tribe and warlord/king, primitive forms of religion were developing, initially worshiping in some form the sun, the moon, particular star formations and even dangerous animals. This was an important step in the development of the state.

All civilisations developed their own creation myth naming all the gods necessary to do the work. They still thought of the gods in terms of human endeavour so the sun god for example had to have helpers. They were responsible for the weather, crop fertility, the river and all types of different human and natural activities.

The leader or king was expected to provide protection for his people and this would have extended to food storage against bad harvests. If he couldnt or hadnt provided enough he would send his army to annex his neighbour and steal their food stocks. If he lost he would be killed and his area of influence taken over by the victors or one of his generals.

Somewhere in all this it became a custom to thank the god/s for their support against their neighbours, then thank them for the harvest and the rain. It was only a short step to asking the gods for a good harvest or a victory. If there were continual victories or good harvests this would have been followed by the king saying that the gods looked favourably on him and his kingdom.

The more powerful kings obviously said that they had the support of the gods so no one could depose them or they would incur the gods displeasure. How the concept of divine-kingship developed is not known but there are two schools of thought. One is that a king, fearful for his position, spread the rumour that he had had a vision and the gods had told him that he was their representative or intermediary on earth. The second school thinks that a king may have returned home after a period of some months to find his queen pregnant. Her excuse was that a god, the kings father, had visited her and impregnated her to continue the line of god-kings,. This idea appears in so many ancient religions that it was obviously copied in the mythology of many countries.

The Pharaoh was central to Egyptian life. He encompassed both the secular and sacred which to Egyptians were one and the same. He settled legal disputes and led the religious rituals that sustained Egypt. The Pharaoh was not only a god-king but was responsible for holding the balance of maat, that was the rule of order over the chaos that was waiting to envelope the world. As long as king and commoner alike honoured the gods and obeyed the laws set down by them the balance was maintained and all would be well. Should the Pharaoh fail all the world would suffer and descend into the unthinkable state of anarchy.

Above: King with Crook and Flail crossing his chest

Even the Pharaohs ritual vestments were designed to show his power. The symbols of the gods were the kings tools of office. The crook, to reward the innocent, the flail, to punish the guilty, the dual crown, showing his authority to rule the two-lands, and the Ureaus Cobra or Eye of Ra seeing all that the Pharaoh did, good or evil.

The spirit of Horus, which entered into him at his coronation, was thought to reside within him to guide him along the path of maat. Then when he died his spirit was merged with Osiris from where he could guide his successors.

Why Divinity was Essential

As each kingdom grew each king had to be as great as the king of his neighbouring state otherwise his followers would defect to the superior king and oust the mortal. No one would want to be governed by an inferior king. So gradually this idea of divine kingship was developed. This was aided by the priests who found it to be in their own interest to support the king, who supported them in return, rather than risk getting the blame and being slaughtered for not propitiating the gods when things went wrong. The divine king then could not be deposed unless he lost the favour of the gods in which case he was no longer divine and could be replaced. As the head of the state and of divine origin he was also head of the religion and led the most important religious rites and services. This only served to reinforce his position.

Above: An image of the goddess,Hathor

The concepts of divine kingship and immaculate conception were of such importance in Egyptian belief that many of the kings had mammisi built showing their conception by Osiris and the shaping of the new-born by the god Khnum with the goddess Hathor present at his birth. A beautiful example of this can be seen in the forecourt of the Temple of Isis at Philae. Here we can see the story told in the Ptolomey I mammisi.

Above: the Temple of Philae

In many civilisations the divinity of the leader or strong juju-medicine was passed on to his supporters and soldiers who believed that no harm could come to them if they were true believers. (This was the case with the followers of The (Mad) Mahdi who sacked Khartoum and the Simbas in the Congo in the 1970s). As a result the army would follow the king into battle without fear. This idea may have been part of the reason why Ramesses II described the battle of Qadesh in the way that he did. His soldiers had supposedly deserted him so the invincible Pharaoh took on the opposing army single-handed and drove them off, thus saving the day for Egypt (more or less, according to the Egyptian story).

Conclusion The concept of divine kingship was central to the continuance of rule and civil order in Egypt. The Pharaoh was seen as the emissary of the gods and life was good as long as the religious rites were performed and maat was maintained. The kings notional strength came from the support of the gods and as long as this was maintained no ill could befall the country. Once this was lost, however, the kingdom was thrown into turmoil until a new strong king, who had the support of the gods, took the throne.

The importance of this was recognised by all the pharaohs up to Roman times and each new king perpetuated the myth of divine conception as a means of legitimising his (and sometimes her) claim to the throne.


  • Bronowski, Prof. J; The Ascent of Man
  • Kemp, Barry J; Ancient Egypt
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