The Castes Of Ancient Egypt -- By: John W. May

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 009:35 (Jul 1852)
Article: The Castes Of Ancient Egypt
Author: John W. May

The Castes Of Ancient Egypt

John W. May1

If there is any opinion generally received, it is that the ancient Egyptian people was divided into castes devoted exclusively to special functions, which passed from parents to children in hereditary succession. On the one hand was the caste of priests; on the other, the military caste; while entirely distinct and separate, and below these two superior castes, were ranged the different professions; their functions being likewise subject to hereditary transmission, the children necessarily continuing in the condition of their fathers. Such is the idea of the ancient organization of Egyptian society.

From the earliest times this opinion has been at intervals reproduced. When Bossuet said: “The law assigned to each his office, which was perpetuated from father to son, and they could neither exercise two professions, nor change their profession,” he only reproduced an assertion a thousand times repeated before, and which is still repeated. It is also emphatically so stated by Meiners, author of a special work

upon the castes of Egypt. “The two orders (that of the priest and the soldier), were so circumscribed,” says the learned professor of Göttingen, “that the son almost always followed the steps of the father, and that he was accustomed or constrained to embrace the same kind of life with his ancestors.” In the classical manual of archaeology of Otfried Müller, it is said that in Egypt, “to each function men were hereditarily devoted.” I could cite a great number of similar passages. Rossellini alone, warned by the monuments, has ventured to raise a doubt; but the brief space which such a question could be allowed to occupy in his great work, and conclusions too vague, and founded, perhaps, upon insufficient data, did not permit him to give a prejudice, so ancient and so inveterate, a decisive blow. This, it is now my purpose to attempt.

I shall endeavor to show that the idea, which has so long obtained, that ancient Egyptian society was divided into castes, each one of which was set apart to a special, exclusive and hereditary occupation, is incorrect, and, of course, that the censure and the praise which that society has by turns received, on this account, were alike unfounded. I think I shall be able to establish with certainty:

1. That there were no castes at all in ancient Egypt, taking the word rigorously, in the sense, for example, in which it is applicable to India, although many of the learned, and, among others, Bohlen, have affirmed the contrary;

2. That many important professions, those of the priest, the sold...

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