Ancient Egypt Redux: Chaos and Succession

In the ancient world as today, the ending of one government and the beginning of another was a serious event. Even in societies arranged around the orderly transfer of power, a certain amount of concern and confusion was to be expected. “A beginning is a very delicate time,” to borrow from Frank Herbert. And the manner in which the transfer of power is presented to the public does not necessarily match up with the reality of the situation.

In ancient Egypt, the royal succession was, with a few exceptions, as thoroughly expected, well-precedented, and calmly handled as the presidential succession in the modern United States. One can imagine that the death of Narmer, the first Pharaoh, was cause for panic—god-kings aren’t supposed to fall off their twigs, after all. But the notion of a divine monarch was new enough to leave room for retconning. It was swiftly established that the death and return of Pharaoh, the Perfect God, was religiously comprehensible and explicable, and not a sign of the end of the world. Seth, the god of Chaos, had slain his brother Osiris (the now-dead King). Chaos now ruled the world! But a new challenger appears: Horus, son of Osiris, is ready to take his father’s throne. The embodiment of Order casts out the embodiment of Chaos, and Ma’at (truth, justice, order, the general sense of things being As They Should Be) once again held sway.

And so it went, down through the millennia. Pharaoh followed Pharaoh, and with a few notable exceptions, no one got terribly fussed about it. But the religious aspect was always there, and had to be acknowledged. And so each new Pharaoh made an address to the public upon his accession to the throne. Each one formulaically intoned the expected phrases: that all had fallen into chaos and disrepair with the death of his predecessor; that hooligans and vandals and even foreigners had run wild in the streets; that temples and palaces had been knocked over and made the sport of would-be Banksies; that basically everyone was miserable and everything was awful. And then! Horus returned! The new Pharaoh took the throne, and put everything to rights again! He lifted up what had fallen into pieces, he put back what had been knocked off its shelf, he sorted the mail and alphabetized all the record collections. Or words to that effect. Specifically, these words:

Be at ease, the entire land, for good times have come again! The Lord has arisen over all lands and Ma’at has settled in place. A King of Upper and Lower Egypt, possessed of millions of years, with a kingship like Horus . . . one who will afflict Egypt with festivals, the son of Re, abler than any king. . . . Come and see! Ma’at has subdued evil, and wrong-doing has fallen flat! . . . The waters rise, they do not dwindle, and the Nile brings prosperity. Days are long and the nights have hours, and the moon rises regularly. The gods are contented and happy!

(Many thanks to my mentor in Egyptology, the Professor himself, Donald Redford, for the translation.)

The above is from what is known as the eulogy of Merenptah, a Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty. It is from the address given at his accession, informing one and all that chaos had been vanquished, the terrible times they had endured were over, and happy days were there again. There’s just one little problem: Merenptah succeeded not some failure of a Pharaoh, not some invader who had to be thrown out with war and bloodshed, but Ramesses II. You may know him by his other name, Ramesses the Great. All that chaos and poverty and drought and moons-not-rising general awfulness? That was arguably the highest point in the entire history of Egypt, when the Empire covered half the known world and, as the old proverb said, in Egypt gold was as plentiful as the dust of the ground.

The message didn’t have to make sense. It didn’t have to reflect reality. It just had to be framed a certain way in order to cement the new Pharaoh’s power and position as He Who Puts Everything Right, He Who He Alone Can Save You.

Sound familiar?

Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; . . . crime and gangs and drugs . . . . This American carnage stops right here and stops right now. . . . [T]hat is the past. And now we are looking only to the future.

Yep. It didn’t matter that Trump was actually taking power in the midst of resurgent American prosperity, with crime at an all-time low. True, the economic situation was imperfect, but it was a hell of a lot better than it had been, and certainly not a tombstoney landscape of defeat and despair.

The message didn’t have to reflect reality. It didn’t have to make sense. It just had to be framed a certain way.

Our leaders can lie to us, can state as a matter of truth and political reality and religious import outright falsehoods, and expect us to accept it all. Because that’s how the message works. And the message is more important than the reality.

The ancient world and the modern. Too many similarities.

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