Lexicon of heart, wisdom & religious concepts
in the Maxims of Good Discourse
(the number refers to the place were the concept is first used)

adjacent pages :

plain text of the Maxims
notes on the translation
hieroglyphic text of the Maxims

by Wim van den Dungen




"ib" - the heart


In Ancient Egyptian anthropology, the "ab" ("ib" or "heart") was caught in the "net" of the "khat" (physical body). 

The word "ib", written with as , or as a single hieroglyph representing a (mammal) heart + the determinative for "one" (a stroke), generally meant : middle, interior, intelligence, thought, attentions, intentions, disposition, will, wish, mind, ego.

The heart is the state, quality or "mental" condition which the Egyptians associated with the physical heart. This was a product of maternal education. The word "Hat" meant a member, the flesh of the physical body, the person in bodily form, a product of Earth.

Contrary to the physical body and the "Ka" or "double", the heart represented a state of consciousness rather than a vehicle or executive component of man. Its conservation was deemed necessary for the general mastery situated in the heart, responsible for the direction of the rudder, the navigation on the river of life. 

The heart also covered the main characteristics of what today is called "ego-consciousness", namely intention, mind, will & ego, associated with cognitive capacity, speech and the power of the word directed towards "body & belly". Many centuries later, depth-psychology described the coordinating influence of this personalized center of consciousness. The "ab" appears as the place of awareness, coordination and mental control (the mind).

The "ab" is the seat of the will and hence responsible for a person's evil deeds, which cause the heart to become heavy and dull (for everything said & done is recorded). In a good will, the heart steers the concert of physical, vital and emotional (imaginal) forces at work in the common human being well, and remains ever as light as a feather : flexible, strong but of nearly no weight (i.e. in accordance with Maat). In a sick heart, coordination is lost and so consciousness has no strong focal point. The will is weak and one's expectations are spoiled by fear (cf. the Discourse of a Man with his Ba).

In the Book of the Dead, the heart appears in the context of being without blame (i.e. in harmony with Maat). The deceased did not wish to loose his or her heart after judgment, for it was the seat of the "Ba". Judgment came after the mummy had been reactivated and adapted to its new (subtle) environment (cf. hylic pluralism) and it was decisive in order to enter heaven to have passed the trial of the balance in the Hall of the Double Truth. A heart found to be heavier than the Feather of Maat was devoured and with it the prospect of eternal life. Hence, the heart was also a "moral" center (cf. "conscience" or "super-ego" in depth-psychology). During life, the heart was closely related to the "Ka".

All Egyptian words in the Maxims followed by the determinative for "heart" are listed here. In the text, the word "heart" is always used to indicate and/or express subjective, internal, intimate, "states" or "conditions" of consciousness. In the context of the teachings, Ptahhotep summarized the phenomenology of the subjective, insofar as Maat is concerned and is used as a good example of her functioning. The awareness of each human of him or herself, of volitions, affections and cogitations, and the complex functions, organs, subdivisions and strata of the psyche and her implicate processes are part of the connotative semantic field of the word "heart" and its use. 

The fact that so many "states" are mentioned, is suggestive of the freedom enjoyed by the "heart" to turn to any side it desires. This implies that with the "heart", we touch upon Ancient Egypt's concept of "will" and "freedom". As we shall see, ante-rational philosophy did conceptualize "free will", implying that our precious philosophy of freedom was initiated before Augustine's "free movement of the soul" (so necessary in Christian morality - cf. my Against the Free Will). Moreover, to the ancients, a harmony existed which was established with the act of creation itself (a theme returning in the monadology of Leibniz). In Maat, freedom (the "ought") and the necessities of good order (the "is") were reconciled (and not identified, as Marxists, with their prejudicial views on antiquity, would like to read it).

As always, the Egyptian language of the Maxims captures the essence of the "state of heart" in a pictoral, metaphorical and poetical way, leaving room for many readings and an alternative "coupure" of the text. Instead of trying to give a good description, my translations mostly try to remain near the phraseology of the extant original. To understand an Egyptian concept one is advised to seek context before content. The latter may be isolated within a given set of connotative meanings, but is never defined beforehand as in the "geometrical" method developed by the Greeks (cf. Euclid).


(011) heart is weary : to be tired in body and mind ;
(013) the heart, ended : the cognitive faculties being absent, finished ;
(032) the exactness of (every) heart : the correct, precise information given ; 
(043) heart get big (or great) : an inflated sense of personhood ;
(050) directs the heart : to be able to conduct & control oneself, a powerful man ;
(052) seize your heart (against) : to act aggressively against someone ;
(057) control of heart : self-control, restraint of one's personal drives  ;
(066) aggressive of heart : the attitude of attacking another person ;
(068) relieve your heart : to undo oneself of a psychological burden ;
(069) wash the heart : to relieve oneself of feelings, whether they be anger or joy ;
(070) little heart : a man of weak cognitive abilities, an incompetent person ;
(071) your heart desires : what you like or wish ;
(080) the heart that robs : the greedy person, the thief ; 
(106) evil on his heart : evil intentions, negative feelings and/or thoughts ;
(108) please the heart : to satisfy oneself or another person ;
(150) follow your heart : enjoy your life, be happy, make a good life for yourself ;
(152) the time of 'follow-the-heart' : sum of all happy, joyful moments of life ;
(164) withdraw the heart : to separate oneself from a situation or a person ;
(186) reaches the heart : to enter consciousness, to become aware ;
(192) heart obeys his belly : the mind follows the instincts and the lower affects ;
(194) heart is denuded : sorrowful state of mind, degeneration of the sense of ego ;
(195) great of heart : great-hearted person ;
(197) swallowing the heart : to loose sight of reality, to falter, to forget ;
(220) calms the heart : to eliminate the harsh, unpolished sides of one's character ; 
(232) the heart rejects it : a person does not accept a thought, feeling or action ;
(237) greed of the heart : the vice of always wanting more material things ;
(261) gladden the heart : to make a person happy, joyful and serene ;
(292) whole heart together : to concentrate exclusively on something ;
(302) a high heart : to be haughty ;
(306) the hot of heart : a hot-heart or a hot-tempered, uncontrolled person ;
(308) sad of heart : a depressed, sorrowful person ;
(309) frivilous of heart : to be constantly light-hearted, gay and without concerns ;
(313) obeys his heart : to follow the rules one made one's own ;
(315) vex the heart : to make somebody furious ;
(352) the trust of your heart : the faculty of trusting something or someone ;
(367) lacks in heart : to be mindless, unconsiderate, disrespectful towards others ;
(372) water upon the heart : effeminate, unmanly thoughts, feelings & actions ;
(381) test his heart : to probe the authenticity of oneself or another ;
(411) unbound of heart : to be gay & joyful as a result of being without obligations ;
(415) joyful of heart : a positive, constructive attitude and a good sense of humour ;
(436) the heart twines his tongue : thought and speech match, are equal ;
(452) heart ... a listener or a non-listener : a person decides to listen or not ;
(453) life ... are a man's heart : the core of a person is alive, healthy & prospering ;
(467) valued by the heart : taken into consideration, given attention, be aware of ;
(511) immerge your heart : to be discreet, hide one's thoughts, keep to oneself ;
(517) be patient of heart : to be deliberate, take the time to collect one's thoughts ;
(528) his heart matches his steps : he lives & acts as he thinks and says, is straight ;


"sAA" - wisdom


In Ancient Egypt, "philosophy" was not a profession, nor a trade (as it would be in the Greece of the Sophists). Hence, there is no word for "philosopher" (the lovers of wisdom, "sofia"). Wisdom was regarded as something some people grew into. As nobody was born wise, we see wisdom appear, in the so-called "didactical literature" of the instructions, as an exponent of the process of acquiring a just perspective on life, i.e. the time of "follow-the-heart". Rectitude led to the state of veneration as a "noble dead" in the "Beautiful West", the hereafter. One survived without being immortalized. Only Pharaoh took the next step, namely that of a deification beyond the limitations of wisdom (the canon of Maat), and this by being a god (like Maat) and the sole mediator of order, justice & truth (without Pharaoh, the only god on earth, justice could not be offered to the creator -gods only conversed with gods- causing the righteous order to collapse). Pharaoh, contrary to Maat, existed before creation, and so participated in the first time (as did the magician) ! When he died, he rose up as a dreaded god to the Imperishable Stars. Indeed, wisdom was the best a non-royal aristocrat or a common intellectual (priest, scribe) could hope for. In the instructions, we can see it at work as the law of existence itself.

Insofar as we relate philosophy to the overall metaphysical question of the nature of the universe and humankind, Ancient Egyptian literature reveals itself to be a fertile ground. Besides the explicit presence of wisdom in moral teachings such as our Maxims, we find philosophical strands, elements & perspectives in creation-texts, resurrection-texts, songs of praise (hymns), funerary spells, tales, poetry, literature of despair & ante-scientifical texts (medical, astronomical & mathematical papyri). These considerations are always intermingled with the context at hand, but as soon as a broad comparative horizon emerges, one can not deny that the Ancient Egyptians had a philosophical inclination, albeit in an ante-rational format. That this "wisdom" was not the result of a free rational dialogue should trigger our interest to find out the silhouette of the Ancient Egyptian sage. He is not a disputant, but one who listens and acts out truth and justice.

Nevertheless, it is true that only in the "sapiental" genre, wisdom-teachings (i.e. knowledge which makes wise) appeared in a narrative format of their own and enjoyed a considerable popularity and historical continuity. Although the extant record of the sapiental teachings is slightly more extended than the usual instructions on papyrus (cf. Brunner, 1997), I limited myself to the translation & hermeneutical study of the following major, native wisdom-teachings : 

  1. The Instruction of Hordedef (OK, Vth Dynasty, ca. 2487 - 2348 BCE) ;

  2. The Intruction to Kagemni (OK, late VIth Dynasty, ca. 2348 - 2205 BCE) ;

  3. The Maxims of Ptahhotep (OK, late VIth Dynasty)

  4. The Instruction to Merikare (IX-Xth Dynasty, ca.2160 - 1980 BCE) ;

  5. The Instruction of Pharaoh Amenemhet (MK, early XIIth Dynasty, ca.1919 - 1875 BCE) ;

  6. The Instruction of Any (NK, XVIIIth Dynasty, ca. 1539 - 1292 BCE) ;

  7. The Instruction of Amenemope (NK, XIX/XXth Dynasty, ca. 1292 - 1075 BCE) ;

In the Maxims, wisdom is intimately linked with the process of transference of a wholesome tradition to posterity by way of patronizing speech (between father/son, master/disciple, teacher/pupil). This "didiactical" intent is not realized by means of a theoretical description (unavailable in Ancient Egypt), but solely through the use of the "good example", both in the sense of a "beautifiul discourse" (of the teacher) as well as "good actions" (of one's noble ancestors). Just as the great is known by his good actions, the knower is known by his wisdom. So, wisdom is the resplendence of knowledge, the surplus acquired after the long and fertile impregnation of the soil of knowledge, with the "food" of the rejuvenating "waters", which often inundated it. Good examples are vignettes of the living truth of Maat. The maxims are such drawings of exemplaric situations, conveying their benefits "de opere operato" to the son who hears.

The knower of truth, who is not ignorant nor foolish, feeds his inner soul (Ba) with what endures (goodness, beauty, perfection, accomplishment). Thus the knower makes his own soul happy on earth (the wise are not sad). Wisdom is hence more than knowledge without falling outside the realm of knowledge. It is the awareness of the one who knows to think, speak and act in accordance with truth & justice. In that sense, wisdom is the conscience of knowledge, the value of the known for the sake of the inner being of the knower and his context and not for the sake of knowledge (the latter is a theoretical persuit and hence lies outside the scope of ante-rational speculative thought).

In my reading of Ptahhotep's text, the distinction between "hearing" and "listening" is pertinent (see 3.1). The knower "hears" and may become a "master-hearer". This "expert" (or craftsman-hearer) is not necessarily somebody who has grasped the real, inner meaning of the words. He is like an artisan, but not yet an artist ... He follows the examples literally and is not able to discern the same law of rectitude at work in each one of them. Proto-rationality approaches abstraction by multiplying relevant, contextualized examples in the hope that the "file rouge" is discovered (but not expressed, for the logical principle of Maat is never defined as such). The listener is one who understands this. In every situation he witnesses Maat in action. Wisdom is erected upon this understanding : the good examples are to be "heard" well and properly "understood". The canon of this understanding is the double law of rectitude : human versus divine (macrocosmic), but also belly versus heart (microcosmic) and Upper versus Lower Egypt (political). The wise upholds the truth and so grasps the "meaning" behind the words, the "vital energy" (Ka) behind the material form, the inner being behind the outer manifestations. This is the "mystery" of wisdom so guarded by antiquity ... Because the wise wants to be happy on earth, he invests in what is enduring for his soul, namely doing Maat and perform great deeds in her name. He prefers silence to chatter, and speaks the good discourse.

Clearly the Egyptian sage is an intellectual and a thinker, but always within the form of the balance of truth and the judgment of the assessors. The time of "follow-the-heart" is not the liberation of thought out of the contextualities of city-states and the discovery of a Protagorian exclusivity (cf. the Greece of Protagoras), but the fulfillment of what exists, the "act of Maat", namely order, truth & justice. So the wise is always a "priest of Maat", a judge administering the living truth by the grace of his king, lord and god-man, Pharaoh, the archetypal teacher. But, both as a laconical observer of people's errors and their consequences as well as a good example to be followed by others, the Egyptian sage surpassed the contextuality of Egypt itself and then his wisdom was indeed for all ages.


(021) a 'Staff of Old Age' : usually taken as a metaphor for a son or a successor - in the context of an instruction, the latter seems indeed more to the point, although in Ancient Egypt, knowledge was primarily transmitted from father to son. Wisdom too ? Only as late as the New Kingdom did the instructions become "middle class". The setting of the Maxims is therefore aristocratic. The command is given by Pharaoh and executed by his servant, the vizier Ptahhotep. The "staff" may also refer to the teaching itself, the good discourse which is about to start. When old age has arrived, wisdom is what keeps one upright. Wisdom is the comforter, the aid, the "third" leg. The determinative is a man leaning on a stick (A19), which also occurs in words like "old", "eldest", "great one", "chief", "lean", "support oneself". Wisdom is the youth of old age. Wisdom is the command of elders and the proof of a true & just life.
(033) no one is born wise : wisdom is acquired, not given. At least three stages are given : the master-hearer, the master of what is good and the state of veneration.
(034) the maxims of good discourse : this also means : beautiful, accomplished, perfect discourse. To speak well is more than convincing an audience (cf. Greek rhetorics) : it is the manifestation (or transformation) of balanced thought as (into) sound. This "balance" is nothing less that truth & justice (Maat) and hence good discourse inspires respect, awe and admiration. Moreover, it is authoritative speech ("Hw") which bring into material manifestation that which it vocalizes.
(404) the good deed profits the son-of-man : the "son-of-man" is the "wellborn", i.e. of goods stock (in Aramaic & Hebrew the same connotation prevails). This wellborn is advised to do good deeds. The lesson being that goodness can be multiplied and fructified. If nobody is greedy, understands that belongings are relative & temporal and so shares with his neighbor, a larger good will be attained (cf. Jesus more than two millenia later).
(426) a master-hearer : before wisdom emerges, the pupil must be able to entirely concentrate on the teaching. He then works on what he heard like the artisan his artefact. The master-hearer heard his father speak to his posterity. 
(431) wisdom will be for all time : the examples of wisdom are perennial and endure as long as existence lasts.
(432) he who knows : he who attained the pyramideon of knowledge ;
(434) known by his wisdom : wisdom is based on knowledge ;
(444) master of what is good - (458) master of listening : after one has mastered hearing, one has to be able to grasp the inner meaning of what is said, pierce through the framework of the example and "see" the hidden, "universal" truth which is the final ground of wisdom ;
(472) knower wakes early to his lasting form : the "knower" is here the "wise" who is always aware of his essential, enduring being. Every moment he awakes in this being and realizes who he truly is ;
(473) the fool is hard pressed - (474) the fool does not listen : to hurry and grasp nothing is the way of the fool, the antipode of the sage ;
(488) reaches veneration : the ultimate realization attainable for the non-royal, aristocratic Egyptian (i.e. one who lived near Pharaoh) was the venerated state in the "Beautiful West", the place of the deceased in the kingdom of Osiris. In the Maxims, the wise old man "reaches veneration", meaning that he is so near that the state already reflects in his consciousness. However, he has not yet attained the venerated "place", his final station in the afterlife ;
(508) mastered the craft : again we read that wisdom is not automatic, but the result of long training in hearing & listening. These two make one speak the "good discourse" exceedingly well and rise above the accomplishments of the ancestors. This alone makes the "staff of old age", one's rejuvenation as an elder and one's long awaited death here and joyful rebirth there in the afterlife - wisdom saves ;
(537) the venerated place : in the afterlife, the "noble death" reached the heaven of Osiris without being deified (as was Pharaoh, the god-man).


"neter" - god


Ancient Egyptian theology did not adhere to a radical monotheism, neither to a disorganized polytheism. During its long history, it moved from a loose henotheism (with several, national "godheads" like Atum-Re, Ptah, Thoth & Osiris) to a strict henotheism (cf. Amun-Re in the New Kingdom). It never relinquished the pantheon, nor the sacred pictography of the "divine words".

In the Old Kingdom, the notion that behind the plurality of divine archetypes, a fundamental unity existed, was conceptualized by introducing preexistence : the self-created creator (Atum) stood before creation. At the tangent or singular alteration-point between what is not part of creation (negative existence) and what is (positive existence), i.e. "in the beginning", did the Egyptians perceive unity. In creation, the capacity to unite divisions was implicit in the rule of Pharaoh, the Lord of the Two Lands, and he was the son of the creator ...

In this early phase, Pharaoh's role was fundamental. Because he, as a god-man, was the only possible mediator between the sky (of the pantheon) and the earth (of Egypt and its temples), he guaranteed the stability & the unity of the world by offering truth & justice (Maat) to his father Re.

With the end of the pyramid age came the First Intermediate, a period characterized by an increased provincial, family-based individualism. The Middle Kingdom which followed, democratized ascension (everbody had a soul and was an Osiris NN), but also familiarized judgment (a soul could be annihilated). Amun-Re of Thebes became the national god, and with his worship a strict henotheism was born. At first these theologians placed Amun at the apex of the pantheon as "king of the gods" and "divine judge". In the New Kingdom (especially after Amarna), the Thebans intellectual elite understood the complete pantheon as so many manifestations, transformations, theophanies of the "great" and "one" Amun, hidden by nature but manifest in nature's millions of forms (cf. Amun). A sacerdotal theocracy was born. Although Amun listened to the prayers of the commoners (a novelty), everything was in his hands. After the New Kingdom, Egyptian theology no longer evolved, perhaps even regressed. In the Late Period (especially under the Ptolemaic empire), the influence of Hellenism became predominant. 

The confrontation between Greece & Egypt led to syncretism (Serapis), esotericism (of the native religion, focusing on Osiris & Amun-Re) and the explosion of the signary (only ca.15% of the 6000 attested hieroglyphs were in use before the Graeco-Roman period). Taking into account the influence of Judaism, both Hellenistic (with its Septuagint, the Greek version of the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament) as "traditional" (cf. the various Jewish desert sects, such as the Qumran-people, the Essenes) as well as the amalgam of cultural influx reaching Alexandria from the East (cf. Chaldeans, Fakirs, Buddhists), we may understand why it is very likely that Egyptian theology reached its ultimate, native expression in the late New Kingdom (cf. the Rammeside period). The synthesis achieved by Alexandrian Hermetism (cf. the Tabula Smaragdina & the Corpus Hermeticum) depended largely on Greek philosophy intermingled with traditional elements drawn from Ancient Egyptian, Hebrew and Greek sources. It is this formidable synthesis "of Hermes" which also influenced the subsequent formation of Jewish qabalah (cf. Sepher Yetzirah) and which was first assimilated by Christian and later by Muslim traditions (cf. the Corpus Dionysiacum and the integration of the Moon-religion of Harran in Islam). During more than two thousand years, an aura of mystery and awe surrounded this "Orientale Lumen" (cf. the influence of Hermetism on the storehouse of images of Freemasonery, Theosophy and the New Age). Qua contents (less perhaps qua form), these teachings were however firmly rooted in Ancient Egyptian theology.

In the Maxims, the divine order appears in number of ways. Foremost, the divine nature of Pharaoh is put into evidence. He is addressed as "majesty" and "this god", but as the apex of Ancient Egyptian society, he is simply called "god" whenever he or his representatives (the temples & administrators) are implied. Indeed, the Pharaonic State is divine because it is the emanation of Pharaoh's majesty (power) and divinity (justified rule). In all other cases, it is likely that the word "god" is used as a reference to the god of Memphis, Ptah. In a few cases, both satisfy the context, and we remain in doubt. The plural "gods" is used only once, and together with "they" and "theirs", is suggestive of the pantheon as a whole. Only three deities are invoked by their proper name : Osiris, but not actively but only as a metaphor of eternity, Horus (the old sky god is mentioned in an epithet) and Maat. The latter goddess appears often and receives (as Pharaoh) individual attention and activities.

(003) Majesty : the divine (Horus) power of Pharaoh, cause of great changes ;
(024) gods : the pantheon as a whole ;
(028) this god : besides his majesty, Pharaoh is the son of Re and hence a god ;
(035) god's father : one who instructs his son in wisdom, a guide, a tutor ;
(035) beloved of god : close to either Pharaoh and the deity of the nome, i.e. Ptah ;
(077) great is Maat : the "greatness" of a deity is its effectiveness & presence ;
(078) the time of Osiris : the order of eternity never perturbed by Seth ;
(085) Maat that lasts : since the dawn of creation, truth & justice prevailed ;
(088) god punishes : the system of justice set in place by Pharaoh is effective ;
(096) god's command : the edicts of Pharaoh were omnipotent ;
(098) they give : the pantheon seen as a whole : the will of the gods, fate ;
(115) under the plan of god : what happens is part of the great plan of Pharaoh ;
(123) keep to Maat : always maintain truth and justice ;
(128) god lets it prosper : Pharaoh's presence is what allows everything to grow ;
(137) god fosters : Pharaoh cares for his people and provides their needs ;
(140) be well with god : to please Pharaoh ;
(146) their laws ... they love : the gods ;
(148) god who makes him worthy : Pharaoh alone decides regarding one's dignity ;
(149) god protects him : the protective majesty of Pharaoh is continuous ;
(159) favour of god : the favour mentioned (a son), points to Ptah ;
(170) they disfavour : the gods ;
(172) they guide : the gods ;
(173) they make boatless : the gods ;
(182) god gives the seat : Pharaoh determines the proper protocol ;
(195) gift of god : the gift mentioned (being great of heart), points to Ptah ;
(245) applies Maat : behaves in accord with truth & justice ;
(271) favour of god : the favour mentioned (wealth), points to Pharaoh ;
(318) together with god : to act as Pharaoh, who provides for everybody ;
(353) gifts of god : the gifts mentioned (wealth), point to Pharaoh ;
(418) act of Maat : the work of truth and justice ;
(440) acting with Maat : speaking the truth and acting justly ;
(450) beloved of god : Pharaoh or Ptah ;
(451) hated by god : Pharaoh or Ptah ;
(486) Follower of Horus : Early Dynastic title of Pharaoh as an incarnation of Horus ;
(495) Maat stands firm : truth and justice never change ;
(526) gift of god : the gift mentioned (a good son), points to Ptah ;
(528) he does Maat : he only speaks the truth and acts in accord with the law ;
(536) doing Maat : living truth & justice as Pharaoh's servant.


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initiated : 15 X 2002 - last update : 13 XII 2010 - version n°1

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Antwerp, 2002 - 2014.