Ancient Egyptian legal system is considered one of the oldest known in the human civilization. Although were few Ancient Egyptian sources of law remained preserved until this day, we can still recreate a general picture of legal norms and traditions that governed the society of Ancient Egypt based on historical records. The view that Ancient Egypt`s law served the despotic state regime of pharaohs who were the sole legislators with the power to create oppressive and unfair legal norms for its subjects is largely erroneous. The laws and legal customs of Ancient Egypt were based on the notions of equity and justice, such as the talion principle, which took its roots in the religious and mythological beliefs of ancient Egyptians. In other words, the law of Ancient Egypt for the most part was based on the religious principle of divine justice, which expressed itself in a variety of legal norms and customs.
The ancient Egyptian sources of law were customs, closely related to the prescriptions of mythical and religious norms. According to legend, the beginning of the ancient laws of Egypt put the god Thoth, who gave the Egyptian priests 42 holy books. In ancient Egyptian mythology, we can find a description of various legal procedures and symbols. It was the Egyptians who began to use scales as a symbol of justice. Of great importance as a source of law was the law of the pharaohs. It was very changing, and the Pharaoh was regarded as a permanent living source of its laws (Versteeg 375).
Ancient Egyptian laws contained detailed provisions on the right to property, classification of its forms (royal, temple, public, private property) types of ownership and disposition of real estate. Transactions of land, cattle, slaves were concluded by ritual participation of witnesses, including priests. Such contracts were usually formed in courts or temples. The agreements and conditions of sale were set out in writing with extreme precision and detail and then signed by many witnesses. Interest under the borrowed amount could not exceed the amount of the debt. Originally, the property was passed on the basis of a verbal agreement and in the presence of officials (local and metropolitan) and then shaped using special recording scribe (and this was done for a fee) (Versteeg 285). Subsequently, transfer of ownership was accompanied by a special religious ritual that included contract drafting and confirmation accompanied by solemn vows spoken "in the face of gods". Several innovations were offered by Pharaoh Bohorysom, the ruler of XXIV dynasty (720-715 years BC. E.), who went down in history as a great social reformer. He introduced a ban on the reversal of subjects into slaves for debt and forbidden to charge twice the amount of the loan. Finally, he established a rule according to which if the contract lacked recording, oath could serve as sufficient evidence of the contract (Watson, et.al. 34)
Egyptian law has known a wide range of acts, recognized as crimes. Thus, Ancient Egyptian criminal law has known such offenses:
- state crimes - treason, conspiracy, sedition, divulging state secrets
- religious crimes - killing of sacred animals, witchcraft:
- crimes against persons – murder;
- crimes against property – theft;
- offenses against honor and dignity - adultery, rape. The main purpose of punishment was deterrence.
Type of punishment depended on the social status of the offender and the gravity of the crime. Members of uprising were subjected to total annihilation. Other serious crimes could result in the banishment to the mines. Severe penalties were sanctioned for the robbers of royal tombs. Theft of temple property resulted in a fine of 100 times the size of stolen property while normal theft compensation was two or three times of the stolen amount. Forgery was punished by amputation of the hand. (Westbrook 62)
Considered the most grave, were attacks on political and social system (such as treason, conspiracy, rebellion, disclosure of state secrets). In such cases, the responsibility, along with the direct culprit, was carried by the whole family. Crimes of a religious nature were also punished severely. Among the crimes against persons, murder was one of the gravest: patricide was condemned and severely punished. A violation of the rules of medical art in the case of death of the patient was also considered a serious crime. Dishonor was regarded as a serious and shameful punishment. It was used for desertion from the army, disobeying a superior, etc. Criminal punishment resulted for those who gave in the as pledge of the promise the mummy of their ancestor. (Johnston 55)
Laws and customs especially protected religious structures and buildings: "Who spoil or damage the statue, painting, inscription or any funeral cult object - a curse be upon him who commit such crime the crocodile devours him, snake shall bite him. Nobody will pour them water, nor hold funeral ceremonies, the children will not take their place, they will remain hungry, their wives will be raped in front of their eyes." (Westbrook 74) Such threats were effective because the Ancient Egyptians were superstitious, naive, afraid of God's wrath, and feared the horrors of the afterlife punishments. In this regard, Egyptian Book of the Dead played an important role: it describes how every person will stand trial in the afterlife for what he had done in his life on earth. This book describes mythological, ritual as well as legal procedures of punishment. (Johnston 81)
As we can see, the religion and mythology has made a great impact on the laws and customs of Ancient Egyptians. They believed that the primary sources of law were given to them directly by gods and the adherence to the divine principles of justice and equity set out in those sources was a solemn duty of everyone. These principles affected practically every major aspect of Egyptian law. The presence of priests and saying of sacred oaths and vows “in the name of gods” was a mandatory condition of a valid contract. The institution of state and pharaohs was also considered as the gift of gods and was divine by its very nature. Therefore, the crimes against the state were also one of the gravest. Religious crimes were perhaps the gravest, and ordinarily resulted in a very harsh punishment for the perpetrator. The scales, as the symbol of justice, is particularly illustrative of the “godly” nature of Egyptian laws. The scales were the attribute of Anubis, Egyptian god who used them to weigh the virtues of men against their evil deeds in order to dictate the fate of their soul after death. Therefore, the scales as the symbol of divine justice have also become the symbol of “earthly” justice administered by priests, judges and the pharaoh himself as the embodiment of god on earth.
Johnston, Sarah I. Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004. Print.
VerSteeg, Russ. Law in Ancient Egypt. Durham, N.C: Carolina Academic Press, 2002. Print.
Watson, Alan, John W. Cairns, and O F. Robinson. Critical Studies in Ancient Law, Comparative Law and Legal History: Essays in Honour of Alan Watson. Oxford [England: Hart Pub, 2001. Print.
Westbrook, Raymond, and Gary M. Beckman. A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law. Leiden: Brill, 2003. Print