At the beginning of the Old Kingdom, the pharaoh was "in theory omnipotent and- omnipresent (Brewer, 34)." The king dominated a highly centralized state whose apparent purpose was to insure the king's ascension into the afterlife. However, as the political institutions began to break down, the focus on religion became decentralized. Religion assumed a more democratic character as the pharaoh-centered theology waned. The power of the pharaoh in the Old Kingdom can most directly be expressed by the royal tombs.
The sheer magnitude of the tombs constructed in the Old Kingdom illustrates the cooperation of a very significant portion of the population. The state conscripted huge pools of man-power to accomplish these massive architectural feats. It is said that approximately 10, 000 men constructed the pyramid of Khufu. However, this figure does not take into account the massive support staff required to aid the artisans and craftsmen involved (34). From this we can assume that a large percentage of the population spent their whole lives ensuring that the king's final resting place was built properly. The emphasis on the king's divinity represented the primary focus of the Egyptian state.
The King's direct divinity figured significantly in the lives of his subjects and the survival of the state. Inscriptions from the Old Kingdom period make little to no distinction between the king and the gods. Some inscriptions call him the "good god" others say that he is gifted with the gifts of the gods; Hu (divine utterance), Sia (divine knowledge) and Hek a (knowledge of magic. (Shafer, 65) ) Weni, who served under king Tet i, praised his king and draws his own self worth from that association. In the Autobiography of Weni, for example, he says, "His majesty had a royal seal-bearer...
bring me a sarcophagus from Tura... Never before had the like been done for any servant- but I was excellent in his majesty's heart; I was rooted in his majesty's heart; his majesty's heart was filled with me (Lichtheim I, 19). The king's life on earth was so important that many private citizens recorded his deeds in their own private tombs. According the Lichtheim, the "most famous of the autobiographies of Old Kingdom officials (23) " is that of Hark huf.
When he received a letter from king Pep II, he had a copy of the letter carved into the walls of his tomb because the king honored him in it, and he wanted everyone to know of his relationship to the god on earth. The king and his officials used the state as a means of ascension into the afterlife. The ability of regular people to construct tombs was severely limited. The king's ascension to the afterlife and his immortality among his kin, the gods, was the central function of the state. The pyramid texts describe the king's journey into the afterlife.
It is significant that the cost prohibitive nature of these tombs seemed to prevent the average citizen from attaining the afterlife. The pyramids texts represent the only detailed instruction available for the navigation of the afterlife. They were centered around the king and outlined his trip after physical death. He is guided by the texts through his awakening in the tomb from the sleep of death, his assent into the heavens, his admission into the host of the gods. These texts also dealt with matters relating to food offerings, and spells for protection while on the journey.
However, as the political situation began to destabilize, so to did the king's exclusive grasp on the afterlife. The First Intermediate period reflected the first major challenge to a pharaoh-centered model of government. For almost one hundred and fifty years, until Mentuhotep II regained control of Egypt, regional nomarchs ruled the state. The leaders at Beni Hasan, Copt os, and Herakleopolis were the major nomarchs during this time.
The Akhtoys controlled the northern part of Egypt, while the Mentuhotep and Inyo tef families controlled the southern part (Brewer, 36). Many battles were fought between the families, and it was a very turbulent time for the state. This is best expressed through "The Lamentations of Ipuwer", which, depending on the source, may or may not have been written during the First Intermediate Period. In the "Lamentations", Ipuwer describes the land as being plagued, and "full of gangs."All is in ruin... blood is everywhere" and many rulers were vying for power (Brewer, 36; Lichtheim, 151). Though the state was politically in shambles, religious practices remained mostly the same.
The leaders of Herakleopolis were buried near the former king's tombs in order for them to gain legitimacy (36). However, a greater percentage of the people began to seek an afterlife modeled on that of the pharaoh. The Coffin Texts of the First Intermediate Period, represent the first attempt of non-royal citizens to prepare a place for themselves among the gods. The coffin Texts come directly from the Pyramid Texts with several of the spells directly quoted. The Coffin Texts, as a whole, are decidedly different in that they represent an odd dichotomy.
"Oscillating between grandiose claims and petty fears (Lichtheim I, 130) ", the texts guided the soul into union with the gods and prevented them from going hungry or not finding other dead family. The religious attitudes of the people recognized and accepted the decentralization of the pharaoh's power over the afterlife. The Middle Kingdom was a time of prosperity, and there was once again a single king who had reduced the control of the nomarchs, and consolidated the whole state under his rule. After the pharaoh assumed control, he employed an aggressive foreign policy which brought about a more cosmopolitan society.
Due to the incorporation of peoples from other states, the Egyptians were exposed to many other religious ideas. These ideas questioned the Egyptian pantheon and cosmology. Foreigners brought their own gods with them, with their own customs and rituals. This led to the diminished status of the king, as he was no longer deified by the people to the extent that he was during the Old Kingdom.
The kings still had pyramid tombs built for them, but they were not nearly as elaborate as they once were. The tombs were much smaller, and they did not take up the states resources in either money or man hours (Brewer, 37). "The Loyalist Instructions," which was written as a warning to the nomarchs, said "fight on behalf of his name... the one whom the king loves shall be provided for- for there is no tomb for anyone who rebels against his majesty; his corpse shall be cast into the waters (Brewer, 37)." The fact that the king felt the need to warn against someone trying to usurp his power is indicative of how tenuous his control over the people truly was. In the days of the Old Kingdom, when the king was still seen as a god on earth, no one would have dared attempt a coup.
The "Instructions," therefore, is an example of exactly how far the king had gone from being seen as a religious power. He had become less of a god, and more of a bureaucrat. The king kept the facade of intercourse with the gods, as described in "The Building Inscription of Sesostris." When the king made plans to build a temple, he "presides over the founding ceremony (Lichtheim, 116)." Here, the king is using the rhetoric of divinity, but in actuality is only acting as the head of state. By the time of the New kingdom, Egyptian bureaucracy and governmental forms had reached their fully mature state. The 18 th Dynasty represented the golden age of Egyptian society, characterized by stability, prosperity, and achievements in the arts. The king had, by this time, regained a large measure of his former secular and religious authority.
Amenhotep IV, who later changed his name to Akhenaten, tried to bring the people back to the Old Kingdom idea of the pharaoh being a god by renouncing all of the gods except for Aten, with whom he closely identified himself. This was short-lived, however, and after his reign, the kingship was more secular than ever. The new theology that Akhenaten tried to instate did not work for several reasons, but one of the most important drawbacks "was theabsense of a defined sense of the afterlife... that gave comfort and security to the elite and non-elite alike (Brewer, 46)." By the time of the New Kingdom, any and everyone had a place in the afterlife.
What was once revered as a place for only kings and high-ranking officials to go had become the afterlife of the common man as well. From the beginning of the Old Kingdom until the end of the New Kingdom, the role of the pharaoh had shifted from the divine earthly king to a simple bureaucratic ruler. In the New Kingdom, the kings no longer had pyramid tombs built for them at all. While the king's stature waned, however, that of the common man had moved up. Everyone had a copy of the Book of the Dead, which was the next evolution of the Pyramid and Coffin texts from the Old and Middle Kingdoms. The Book was filled with spells to ensure the bearer access to the underworld, and to keep them safe At the end of the New Kingdom, the people were gaining power through their voices.
Many more were learning how to read and write than in pervious periods, and so the desires of the common man were well documented at this time. Because of this, "the literature mirrors a society whose members lived in harmony with themselves and with nature... life was both hard and good (8).".