Tomb Inscriptions & Curses

Tomb Inscriptions and Curses

Most inscriptions in tombs tell the name of the deceased, and list his or her titles. Sometimes the inscription also tells us the names of the tomb owner's parents. Very few tell us of the events of a person's life, though some Sixth Dynasty tombs, such as those of Sebni and Harkhuf near Elephantine make thrilling reading with their accounts of exploration and adventure in Nubia. Stories such as these seldom mention specific gods, but biographies, and other writings from later in the Age of the Pyramids, do tell us about the moral ideas of the time.

It is quite common for people to assert that they have been honest, merciful and generous, as does Hotep-hiry-akhet, a priest of Neferirkare and of the Sun Temple of Neuserre at Abusir.

I have made this tomb as a just possession, and never have I taken a thing belonging to any person. Never have I done aught of violence toward any person. (Translated by James Henry Breasted.)

Harkuf, the great explorer, tells us of his kindness before he tells us about his great adventures:

[I was one beloved] of his father, praised of his mother, whom all his brothers loved. I gave bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked, I ferried him who had no boat. . . . I was one saying good things, and repeating what was loved. Never did I say anything evil, to a powerful one against any people, (for) I desired that it might be well with me in the great god's presence. Never did I [judge] in such a way that a son was deprived of his parental possessions.

Ecology makes an appearance in these inscriptions, with many people, including Harkuf, telling us that they have dug wells and planted trees. A local governor, Henku, from the XIIth Nome of Upper Egypt, tell us that he took care of the people of his district, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, but also, rather surprisingly, that, in time of famine, he fed the wild animals as well: I satisfied the wolves of the mountain and the fowl of the air with the flesh of sheep and goats.

The 'curses' placed on tombs in the Age of the Pyramids also reveal something about Egyptian ideas of religion.

Most tombs ask for prayers, and the owners promise to help the living if they will only say the offering prayer for the dead. The explorer Harkhuf is typical.

Oh you living people, who are upon the earth, [who shall pass by this tomb] going downstream or going upstream, say: "A thousand loaves [of bread] and thousand jars of beer for the owner of this tomb;" I will [do good] for their sakes in the Underworld. I am an excellent, well equipped spirit, a ritual priest, whose mouth knows [powerful spells].

Harkhuf's threat, or curse, is typical as well:

As for any man who shall enter into [this] tomb, ... [I will seize] him like a wild fowl; he shall be judged by the great god. Bad enough to be pecked on the neck by a wild goose, but imagine being taken to court! This threat, to bring a lawsuit against someone in the next world, before the Great God, is the most serious curse in tombs of the Age of the Pyramids. It tells us that the ancient Egyptians believed that the dead were close, could be helped by the living, and that there was justice in the afterlife.

Were the swashbuckling governors of the South, and the sophisticated courtiers of Memphis really such paragons of virtue as they appear in these inscriptions? We will never know the truth, but it's very useful to notice that these powerful men thought it was important for those who came after them, and the gods, to believe that they were kind, generous, honest, and merciful. They believed in a god who cared about such things, and they believed that they would not achieve an afterlife, no matter how beautiful their tombs, unless they could prove that they had been good and honourable.