The concept of kingship is a key to understanding the development of Egyptian civilization. In the Old Kingdom, kings were viewed as incarnate gods, the physical manifestation of the divine. They were the builders of pyramids, an enduring symbol of the pharaohs' absolute power. In the Middle Kingdom, the concept of kingship was revised. Rather than being gods, kings were considered divinely appointed representatives of the gods on earth. They were responsible for guiding their people. If they did not conduct the affairs of state in a wise and just manner, they would not be admitted into the celestial realm when they died.
Three papyrus fragments, written no earlier than
the end of the eighteenth dynasty, give insight into the role and
responsibility of a pharaoh. The text,
addressed to King Merykare, recommends that he be just and kind towards
the oppressed, since all his actions will be examined on the Day of
Judgement. The citation urges the king to be earnest and industrious,
reminding him that the "hidden creator" is the supreme judge of all.
The gods determined who would become the next
king. Through various means of divination and consultation of the
oracles, a new king would be identified. As he ascended the throne,
he was transformed into the living embodiment of the falcon-god, Horus. Upon his death, he relinquished
his position to his successor, who in many cases was his son (although
the eldest son did not always become the next king). Sometimes a person
unrelated to the king, such as a powerful vizier or a feudal lord,
became his successor, or a new line of kings arose following the
collapse of the former monarchy.
When the king died, he travelled to the underworld, where his deeds on earth were judged. If his heart was pure and light as a feather, he became an Osiris. In this way, the station of the king was passed from one generation to the next. The expression "the king is dead, long live the king" encapsulates the principle of kingship: the physical body of the king dies but lives into eternity; the office of the king lives on, being passed from one generation to the next.
The Egyptian concept of kingship echoes both the shamanic tradition of indigenous cultures and the divine right of kings in modern civilizations. Although the role of monarchs has declined considerably in the twentieth century, the belief in trusting the wisdom of political leaders (who have replaced monarchs) to guide the affairs of state is still very much alive in the modern world.