How the Ancient Egyptians Understood the Role of the Pharaoh

The Sphinx and Pyramids on the Giza plateau, Egypt

In a world where the whispers of a democratic state have infiltrated nearly every nation, the concept of a successful centralized government with a divine ruler seems like an idea doomed to corruption and collapse. At its most basic level, this type of government most resembles the government currently destroying the people and traditions of North Korea. This grisly comparison makes the success of this government so intriguing. Though Ancient Egypt certainly had its share of social unrest and human rights violations, it managed to remain a powerful empire for about 3000 years in the ancient world.

While Ancient Egypt often had a very powerful military and the power to control its citizens through violence, it is important to understand that Egypt would not have been able to succeed as an empire with military force alone. Citizens can only be controlled through violence and tyranny for a time before they rebel. Egypt was able to keep a relatively stable control over its people through the combination of force and a very powerful ideology that held Egyptians together. The uniting factor of Egyptian society was the belief in the concept of a “Divine Kingship”. This was essentially the belief that the Pharaoh possessed the qualities of a god and a man, therefore making him an responsible for maintaining harmony on earth and in the cosmos.

In order to explain the divine aspect of the Pharaoh, a mythology developed in which the living pharaoh was an incarnation of the God Horus. When the pharaoh died in the mortal world he became the God Osiris, Horus’ father, and continued to live an eternal life. In the Egyptian mythology, the author WIlliam Ricketts Cooper describes the Horus myth as “…the doctrine of a Vicarious Deliverer of mankind in the person of a mysterious Being, who is at once both very God and very man.” Mr. Cooper, along with a multitude of researchers, has promoted the idea that the mythology surrounding the story of Jesus Christ in Christianity draws from this Horus myth. As the god representing civil order and justice among the Egyptians, it is easy to see how the early Christians may have chosen Horus as a template for their own savior. The dominance of the Christian religion throughout the world is a testament to the power of this part man, part god ideology.

As the man responsible for maintaining maat, or order both in the physical and metaphysical realm, the pharaoh had many roles in society. In order to provide economic stability, the pharaoh monitored and controlled the irrigation systems and their relationships to the annual flooding of the Nile. The pharaoh maintained a strong military presence within Egypt, and also used that military to defeat external foes and protect Egypt’s interests. Stable trade was important to a nation that relied on raw materials to support its empire. As the religious leader of the empire, the pharaoh ensured that all of the religious temples received all of the materials they needed. The construction of monuments for the gods and the pharaoh himself was also the ruler’s responsibility.

As long as the pharaoh was successful in preserving maat throughout the empire, the gods indicated their approval through a variety of “biayt” or marvels. These marvels included the conspicuous success of various enterprises of the pharaoh, as well as the appearance of signs and omens. These signs of approval were important since they showed the citizens of Egypt that their pharaoh still had the approval and support of the gods in the cosmos. These signs meant that the pharaoh was being successful in maintaining the balance as he was born to do.

Because the Ancient Egyptians were excellent at recording their day to day activities as well as their religious beliefs, Egyptologists have an excellent picture of how the society of Ancient Egypt was maintained. Without the translation of these hieroglyphics, it would be difficult to understand this complex empire. The Egyptian Pharaoh maintained his power by performing his role in society. By possessing the attributes of both a man and a god, the pharaoh essentially had all of the resources of heaven and earth at his fingertips. The awe he inspired as a god prevented many of the political dissension that has torn apart other empires, though this unification of religion and state may have also created an atmosphere where personal freedoms were practically nonexistent.


  1. Shaw, Ian. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000
  2. Cooper, William Ricketts. The Horus Myth in its Relation to Christianity. London: Hardwicke and Bogue, 1877