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Technical Terms in Ancient Egyptian

© 1999 by David Lorton

Introductory Note

What follows is not really a single essay, but rather extracts from two sources. Part I is taken from a book review of A. G. McDowell, Jurisdiction in the Workmen's Community of Deir el-Medina, Egyptologische Uitgaven 5 (Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten, 1990) published in Discussions in Egyptology 23 (1992): 99–109. I wish to thank Alessandra Nibbi, the editor of the journal, for granting me permission to re-"print" (I don't know what other term to use) the discussion here. Part II is from a manuscript in progress whose working title is Aspects of Amarna Belief.

My review of McDowell's book was a positive one. I was surprised, however, by the first two sentences of the first chapter, which are quoted at the outset of Part I below. The first flatly denies the existence of technical terms in legal texts, and the second states why. My initial reaction to these statements was one of surprise, and this surprise was all the greater when I reached the end of the chapter and realized that the presence or absence of these two sentences made no apparent difference to its content; the stance taken seemed gratuitous. I had always thought that Egyptian legal (and other) texts contained technical terms, but in the face of this denial, it seemed to me that it would be in place to think the matter through. There might well be fields of endeavor in which technical terminology and how to recognize it have been discussed, but I was pressed for time (I had to meet a deadline for submission of the review), and since this problem had not been discussed in Egyptology, to the best of my knowledge, I decided to look up the word "technical" in the dictionary. If nothing else, I could learn from it what a competent speaker of the English language ought to mean when using that word (this view of dictionary definitions was kindly supplied to me by a professor of philosophy). Looking at the definition, I felt it was adequate to permit me to address the question of what a technical term is as well as that of how to identify certain terms as technical terms in light of the nature of ancient Egyptian expression and the heuristic difficulties we face in dealing with the Egyptian language.

One of the heuristic problems just mentioned lies in the picturesque nature of much of Egyptian expression. Anticipating an example from Part I below, we can illustrate this problem with the help of the English word transcendent, which is derived from a Latin word meaning "to go, climb over." With this meaning in mind, it would be easy to react to the statement "God is transcendent" by picturing an old man with a flowing robe and beard climbing over the top of an Alp. Such an image would, of course, be entirely inappropriate: the word transcendent, in the sense of ontologically transcendent, invokes an abstract and highly technical concept.

In the case of this English word (and others as well), the picturesque image underlying the technical term is masked by the fact that the word is derived from another language. In ancient Egyptian, however, the abstract technical terms are not foreign borrowings, but are themselves Egyptian words and expressions, some of them indeed picturesque. It is an Egyptological practice to translate texts fairly literally, and I think that this practice, whatever its virtues overall, at least sometimes has the result of blinding us to the abstract and/or technical sense that some words and expressions can assume, at least in certain contexts. Sticking to the example already cited, it is as though someone translated the (hypothetical) Latin sentence Deus transcendens est as "God is climbing over"; the real, technical meaning would be utterly obscured.

The fact that we cannot question any native speakers of the Egyptian language, given that they have all long since perished, along with our tendency to translate literally, thus present us with very real heuristic difficulties. With regard to the genre of religious texts, significant progress was made by James P. Allen in regard to the term xpr, in this case not a vivid image, but rather an ordinary word meaning "to become." Allen has been able to show that in cosmogonical and cosmological contexts, it has a special sense that he prefers to translate as "to develop"; see Genesis in Egypt: The Philosophy of Ancient Egyptian Creation Accounts, Yale Egyptological Studies 2 (New Haven, 1988), pp. 29-33. Paraphrasing Allen's conlcusions, it seems to me that xpr refers to a dynamic kind of being that is always a becoming, or, in Aristotelian terms (appropriate, I think, even if anachronistic), an original and ongoing actualization of the potential.

While working on the theology of King Akhenaten's relationship to his god and its antecedents in traditional Egyptian religion, my attention was drawn to the term H'w, which we normally translate as "limbs" or "flesh." Though these renderings are often adequate, they yield no immediate sense in statements to the effect that the king emerges from the H'w of the sun god, the creator god, or the Ennead (a collective of nine deities). Looking at attested examples of these contexts, it occurred to me that this is yet another of these abstract, technical terms, and that in these cases, it is best rendered as "substance." The underlying theme of this discussion is so closely related to that in Part I that I thought it would be interesting (and, I hope, helpful) to include it here as Part II.

While the text that follows is not especially lengthy, you might find it convenient to print it out and read it from a hard copy.

Part I

At the outset of Chapter 1 (“Vocabulary”), McDowell writes, “The Egyptians did not have a specialized legal vocabulary. The phrases used in legal documents were almost all current in everyday speech, and there is no evidence that they acquired a more technical meaning when used in a legal context” (p. 13). This statement could be factually disputed—would not hp “law” count as a technical term?—but it is preferable to consider its implications from the perspective of definition.

Superficially, McDowell’s statement might seem to accord with the following definition of “technical”: “peculiar to or used only in a particular trade, profession, science, art, etc.; highly specialized, esp. in sense; as technical words.”[5] But in applying this definition to Egyptian vocabulary , we would first do well to clear away some chance for cultural bias. We have a certtain tendency to resort, as the Egyptians did not, to other languages for our technical vocabulary. Thus, if we speak of a “transcendent God,” we use “transcendent” in a highly specialized, technical sense, and in the process, we tend to lose sight of the fact that in Latin, this is an extended meaning of the present participle of a verb whose basic meaning is “to step, climb over.” Given that the Egyptians had recourse only to their own vocabulary to express specific concepts, a good parallel to the basic, even picturesque meaning of “transcendent” is afforded by the expression Xr Tbwty “under the sandals (i.e., of the Egyptian king),” which by its very ubiquity (on this point, see also below) in New Kingdom texts is clearly the technical term for the subject status of vassal kingdoms.[6]

Now, no one would deny that objects might have specific names, or that the same is true, for purposes of utility, for the various parts of a manufactured object, such as a chariot.[7] The issue raised by McDowell’s remarks is, rather, whether we may, in treating various areas of Egyhptian thought (in this instance the legal), speak of technical trerms for actions and abstract concepts, especially when these are expressed by such common and basic vocabulary items as “to report,” “to approach,” and “to bring.” The answer must be in the affirmative, and a single example is offered here in support of this view. The English verb “to present” is a common and basic one. But it has (or had) a techical sense of laying a charge against someone, and in medieval England, there were “juries of presentment,” which were the ancestors of the grand jury system (the latter survives in the U.S.A., though it has been discontinued in England).[8] It is just this sense that appears in the employment of the verbs iniI “to bring” and (i)T3y “to take” a person to court in Egyptian texts (the terms are discussed by McDowell, p. 15–16).There is some potential ambituity in the dictionary definition quoted above, for its first part would seem to imply that a technical term cannot have any usage outside its narrow, technical application, while its second part, in using the word “sense,” opens the door to other possibilities. But the first part of the definition is not one of “technical terms,” but rather a broad one of the adjective “technical,” taking into account such usages as “technical skill” and “technical school.” As stated in the definition, technical vocabulary has something to do with “sense,” and it should be clear enough that any given word might have various senses, including a technical one, as illustrated by the example of “to present.”

At this point, it should be evident that the quarrel here is with the criteria supplied by McDowell for what qualifies as “specialized” or “technical.” The inapplicability of the first criterion—that technical terms should not otherwise be “current in everyday speech”—has already been addressed. The second criterion, that technical terms should acquire “a more technical meaning” when used in a particular context, is open to two objections. The first objection is factual. Keeping to the examples already cited, implied in the legal sense of the verb “to present” is the added, technical meaning of presenting the person for the purpose of laying a charge of wrongdoing: clearly, and same added, technical meaning is also implied in the legal usage of “to bring” and “to take” in Egyptian. The second objection is to the criterion itself, for which McDowell cites no authority. The reviewer is uncertain whether all technical terms have extra meaning in their technical applications. But even if they do, there is an open question of cause and effect: are the terms technical because they acquire extra meaning, or do they acquire extra meaning because they are techical? In any case, the criterion is superfluous.

From the dictionary definition of the word “technical,” it should be clear that the primary criterion for a technical usage is context specificity: the “highly specialized . . . sense” of a term like “to present” is specific to a legal context. Specialized sense is the only criterion in this definition, which accords well with the tendency in modern languages to apply technical terminology rather rigorously. Egyptian scribal practice, however, permitted the substitution of non-technical terms for technical ones. Again keeping to an example already cited, the expression “under the sandals,” ubiquitous in royal texts of Dynasty XVIII, is clearly a technical term, but several variant exprssions also occur, though with far less frequency: Xr “under” alone, Xr rdwy “under the feet,” Xr st-Hr “under the supervision,” Xr sxrw “under the direction,” r rdwy “at the feet,” m 3mmt “in the fist,” m‘ “in the hand,” and m xf‘ “in the fist.”[9] From this, it follows that ancient Egyptian usage requires something further for the identification of a technical term, namely a statistical criterion, in the sense of relative frequency of occurrence.

The addition of a second criterion might seem to depart from the dictionary definition, but it can be argued that this is not really the case. The definition “highly specialized, esp. in sense” clearly implies that for a technical term to exist, there is a logically preexistent specialized (i.e. technical) sense. Aside from the logical proposition,m which is sufficient in itself, we can point out that from a practical point of view, this means that the desire for the intelligle communication of specific concepts leads to the development of specialized vocabulary or specialized uses of already existing vocabulary items. With the understanding that the definition of a technical term implies a technical sense, the addition of the second criterion for the purpose of studying ancient Egyptian terminology does not really alter the dictionary definition. By way of an example, the concept of sovereignty is a technical one, and in clear contexts of internatgional relations, the technical sense is present, whether a text states that all the lands are “under the sandals” of the jking, or whether it states that they are “in his fist” or “under his direction.”

Since we are at the mercy of the hazards of the preservation of evidence, the statistical criterion entails a problematic in the identification of a technical term, all the more so because it seems impossible to establish a specific number of occurrences that could serve to qualify a term as technical. It does not follow, however, that the task of identifying technical terminology is not worth undertaking. The contexts afforded by texts are clear more often than not, and even if it should turn out that a term has been incorrectly identified as technical, there is every likelihood that the investigator will have succeeded in identifying, from context(s), a technical sense. Further, it might turn out, upon investigation, that the problem raised by non-technical variants of technical terms is at least to some extent a question of text genre. Thus, technical manuals such as medical texts, or practical documents such as contracts or memoranda of cases at law, might well employ specialized terminology with more regularity than, say, royal monumental texts. The royal epithets and generalizing statements of the latter certainly include specialized senses and even specialized vocabulary; however, these texts were written with a propagandistic intent, and to that end, they were invested with rhetorical and sometimes even literary qualities,[11] so that we should not be surprised to find the kind of vocabulary substitutions noted above, evidently intended to create a flowery and impressive effect.[12] Notes [5] The definition is taken from Merriam-Webster’s Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1959 ed., p. 871. [6]See the reviewer’s treatment in The Juridical Terminology of International Relations in Egyptian Texts through Dyn. XVIII, pp. 129–131. [7] We happen to have the names of the parts of a chariot preserved to us; see now Schulman, JSSEA 16 (1986) 19–35 and 39–49. This single example is cited; every reader will be aware of scholarship on the terminology for objects such as minerals, pottery, plants, and architectural features. [8] For some historical information, the reader is directed to Judith A. Green, The Government of England under Henry I, pp. 101 ff. [9] See the reviewer’s treatments in Juridical Terminology, pp. 121–129, 117–118, and 107–109, respectively. [10] The last-mentioned expression introduces an interesting “complication,” as it were, because sxrw is itself evidently a technical term for royal “policy”; see the bibliography assembled by the reviewer in n. 66 (and see also n. 69) of “What was the Pr-nsw and Who Managed It? Aspects of Royal Administration in ‘The Duties of the Vizier’” forthcoming in SAK 18. The expression “under the direction/policy” is attested only three times in contexts of foreign relations in Dynasty XVIII (see Juridical Terminology, pp. 128–129), which is not necessarily enough to assure that it has its own status as a technical term, to which must be added the observation that it appears to be one of a complex of variants on the far better attested expression “under the sandals.” Nevertheless, the expression incorporates a technical term and thus conveys the specific nuance that in practical terms, Egyptian sovereignty entailed policy decisions.
The generalizing nature of royal monumental texts is such that foreign policy decisions are reately reflected, with the obvious exception of decisions to go to war. The Amarna Letters, however, shed light on the details of foreign relations, and from these, we can cite the well-known Egyptian refusal to respond to Rib-Addi’s request for military intervention. The possible reasons for this policy decision are explored in a forthcoming study by Galán in Studies in Egyptology in Honor of Hans Goedicke. [11] On these aspects of royal texts, see Bleiberg, BES 7 (1985/86) 5–14; Eyre, in Groll (ed.), Studies in Egyptology Presented to Miriam Lichtheim, Vol. I, pp. 134–165; and the reviewer’s remarks ibid., Vol. II, pp. 668–679. [12] Before taking leave of this topic, some note should be made of a similarity between technical terminology and “stock” phraseology (such as the conventions of letter-writing studied by Bakir, Egyptian Epistolography from the Eighteenth to the Twenty-first Dynasty, Bibl. d’Ét. 48), in that both were transmitted by an educational system that stressed study and memorization of lists and model texts. It would not follow from this consideration, however, that we should view all terminology as “merely” conventional and dismiss the possibility of a technical terminology. All technical terminology is conventional, in any case, and it must be memorized by those who will use it, even in contemporary society; yet, a term such as “transcendent” has quite a different status from “Sehr geehrter” or “Very truly yours.” It is possible that some of the technical terminology that we find in Egyptian texts was developed in everyday usage and found its way into the scribal schools, and it is also possible that some of it was developed in the schools themselves. But whatever its origin and however it was transmitted, terminology that was regularly used in specific contexts to convey specialized meanings qualifies to be called technical.

Part II

In the discussion above of the king’s emergence at Amarna, it was noted that the king was said to emerge from the god’s H‘w, a term generally rendered, in various contexts, as “body,” “flesh,” or “limbs.”[145] In pre-Amarna occurrences relating the king to the divine, the word “substance” might serve as a heuristic bridge to the sense of the word in these contexts, one that would apply to the Amarna occurrences as well. To cite some instances, in the White Chapel of Sesostris I, it is said to the king, “it is by his making you into a single substance with him that your father Re made your great rank of King of Upper and Lower Egypt,”[146] and the king is further called, “the one whom Atum has made from the substance of his Ennead”[147] and “the son of Atum, of his body, whom he has made from the substance of the Ennead.”[148] In Dynasty XVIII, we find reference to Thutmosis III as “the one whom Atum made from the substance of the Ennead,”[149] while Amun-Re calls him “the one whom I have begotten from the divine substance,”[150] and Amaunet calls him, “my [prov]ider, who emerged from the divine substance.”[151] Since the first passage cited from the White Chapel confirms that the divine and the king are of a single substance (H‘w), it should not be surprising to see the phrase H‘w-nTr “flesh/substance of the god, divine flesh/substance” used not only to designate the king’s source in the divine, but also the king himself, as when it is stated of Thutmosis III, “his is his [eldest] son, the divine substance that emerged from the All-lord (i.e., Atum or Re-Atum).”[152] And, this concept is also invoked at the beginning of the story of Sinuhe, in the description of the death of Amenemhet I: “Year 30, month 3 of the Inundation, day 7: The god entered his horizon, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Sehetepibre, he ascended to the sky, he being joined with Aton, the divine substance being merged with the one who made him (or possibly, “it”),”[153] a wording repeated almost in its entirety in reporting the death of Thutmosis III,[154] and somewhat paraphrased earlier in Dynasty XVIII in describing the death of Amenophis I.[155] In this passage from Sinuhe, with the juxtaposition of concepts represented by lexical items, the notions of “god,” “King of Upper and Lower Egypt,” and “divine substance’ all display an affinity with one another, as the latter two of these did in the first passage from the White Chapel cited above. What the passage from Sinuhe and the other texts report cannot be the funeral of the king, which took place only after the mummification period, nor can the H‘w-nTr refer to the king’s person or corpse, which of course remained on earth and was buried. Rather, they report the date of the king’s death and what happened at that time. From what has been noted, it should be clear that when the king died, a divinity with which he had been infused—expressed in the passage by the terms nTr “god” and H’(w)-nTr “divine substance”—left the king and returned to its origin, which is specified as solar (itn).[156] In the examples cited from Dynasty XVIII, which are only a random selection, only the statement of the goddess Amaunet is spoken by a deity who is neither Heliopolitan nor solar, though her speech does not explicitly relate the H‘w-nTr to herself, and she is the consort of Amun, who can himself be identified with the sun god Re. For purposes of the present discussion, it suffices to say that when the “divine substance” is specifically related to a solar god or a creator god with solar associations, the substance ought to be light. This is a reasonable enough inference, and it is borne out by the evidence from Amarna, where, as has been seen, the concept of the H‘w of the god is associated with his Ht “body” and his stwt “rays.”[157] Finally, it needs to be noted that the bare sDm.n.f forms and the sDmw.n.f relative forms in some of the examples just cited confirm what was suggested above, namely that the special relationship between the king and the divine was effected at some time in the past, presumably at the coronation.

In sum, it would seem that in this portion of his thought, Akhenaten drew on three separate but similarly expressed strands of traditional thought—namely, what was believed about original creation, what was believed about the king’s daily rebirth, and what was believed about an original substantial relationship between the king and the divine—manipulating the concepts so as to produce a new theology in which the king was reborn along with the god each day at sunrise, when he performed the daily ritual. But again, while there is novelty in the result, the elements of which it is constituted were not at all new.


[145] See Wb. III 37–39.

[146] Lacau and Chevrier, Chapelle de Sésostris Ier, p. 111, no. 303. There is a very similar statement from the reign of Hatshepsut: “I, indeed, am one substance with him, he having created me to cause that his fame be mighty in this land [as] lord of the [king]ship of Atum in his name [of] Kheperi, who made what is”; see Urk. IV 385.3–6.

[147] Lacau and Chevrier, Chapelle de Sésostris Ier, p. 124, no. 344.

[148] Ibid., p. 127, no. 355.

[149] Urk. IV 552.8.

[150] Ibid., p. 618.10.

[151] Ibid., p. 577.16.

[152] Ibid., p. 592.1-2. Since the statement is from one of the obelisks erected at Heliopolis to commemorate the king’s third sed festival, the Nb-r-Dr here ought to be the creator god of that city, as noted in E. Blumenthal, et al., Urkunden der 18. Dynastie, Übersetzung zu den Heften 5–16 (Berlin, 1984), p. 156.

[153] R. Koch, Die Erzählung des Sinuhe, BAe 17, pp. 4.1–5.7.

[154] Urk. IV 896.1–3.

[155] Ibid., p. 54.15–17. That itn is described as an actor (“who made him”) in this—and other—passages, clearly makes of this figure a deity and not just the physical sun in the sky, as has often been claimed; on this point, see G. Fecht, ZÄS 85 (1960) 113–114 and S. Tawfik, MDAIK 29 (1973) 77–78.
Tawfik makes the point that there are contexts, such as that in Sinuhe, in which the term itn clearly refers to a deity, notwithstanding the lack of a divine determinative, while in other contexts, the term clearly refers to the sun in the sky. Here, it can be suggested that one might possibly bridge the gap between these evidently disparate usages by positing that itn was in all instances a divine entity, but an unpersonified one, hence the writings without divine determinative. By way of further hypothesis, it can be suggested that the motive behind this usage was a desire to be able to talk about the sun as a divine power without the specificity entailed in mentioning one or another of the various solar deities with their individual cult places. It is interesting that of the three instances Tawfik cites (ibid., pp. 79–80) of itn written with a divine determinative, two are from the reign of Amenophis III. That from the reign of Thutmosis I is quite simply a puzzle; it might be a scribal slip, or it might be a harbinger of things to come. If these suggestions are correct, then the real aberration would be Amenophis IV’s original identification of Aton with Re-Horakhty and his use of the latter’s iconography, one which was progressively corrected by the early iconographic change and the later alteration of the didactic name; though his treatment is different from that offered here, Sethe was clearly aware of this issue when he wrote of the “contradiction” between the “old Heliopolitan sun god” and the “treatment otherwise of Aton in word and picture”; see Beiträge zur Geschichte Amenophis’ IV., p. 111.

[156] This belief is reminiscent of the theology of cult statues at a much later date, the Ptolemaic period, and its reversal in the text of the Bentresh Stela, when in a dream, the prince of Bakhtan sees the divinity in the statue of Khonsu leave it and fly off to Egypt; see A. de Buck, Egyptian Readingbook, p. 109.8–9. On these points, see the present writer’s treatment, in M. B. Dick (ed.), Born in Heaven, Made on Earth: The Creation of the Cult Image (Winona Lake, IN, 1999), pp. 199–200.

[157] While this special relationship with the solar god was reserved for the king in this life, in the afterlife, it was possible for any deceased. Thus, in various versions of chapter 133 of the Book of the Dead, we encounter such statements as, “Re regards this 3x as his own substance, having regarded him (as) like the Ennead,” “jubilations to N., the divine substance of Re,” “he is regarded in the necropolis as the rays (stwt) of Re,” and “he is regarded in the necropolis as the image (twt) of Re”; see Naville, Tb I, Pl. CXLVI, ll. 22–23 and II, p. 344.

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