Code of Hammurabi and the Egyptian Book of the Dead: A Brief Comparative Analysis

Around 1792 BCE, the Babylonian King Hammurabi — whose military might and diplomatic prowess centralized state authority in the region — issued a set of 282 laws of social conduct, one of the oldest of its kind. Carved into a towering seven-and-a-half-foot stele, these rules established the way in which an array of everyday issues, from property rights to divorce, were “fairly” addressed, which in Babylonian society often resulted in death. Most considerably, the code provides insight into a civilization split into three distinct classes (the free, the dependents, and the slaves), within each existing a set of designated rights and responsibilities that both stratify and pacify the region. These sweeping inequalities were directly manifested in the Code of Hammurabi, especially in the vast disparities in the extent of criminal punishments across class and gender. For instance, while a man who knocked out the teeth of one in his own social strata would have had his own teeth knocked out as punishment, perpetrating the exact same crime against someone of a lower social strata would hardly merit monetary sanction. Gender disparities were also common, with marital infidelity primarily seen as the transgression of women. While men could engage in extramarital affairs with slaves and servants, adulterous women (along with their lovers) were thrown into the ferocious Euphrates where they met their demise. As such, Babylonian society was characterized by severe legal inequality, a hyper-awareness of mortality, and a conception of death as the ultimate punishment.

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Another culture in which conceptions of death were a part of everyday life was that of the ancient Egyptians. Instead of regarding it as an end to joyful life, they viewed death tutankhamun-death-mask-pharaonic-egypt.jpgas a transitional journey guided by both the righteousness of one’s actions and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. This compilation of commandments and magical spells exemplifies the tenets that one should strive to live by. The dead take the book with them on the road to the afterlife, where the proportion of their goodness to their sins determines their eternal fate. It is the Egyptian deference to Ma’at, the “cosmic balance” — whose preservation is the duty of the Pharaoh and assures the flooding of the Nile — that seals the fate of the dead. Because Egyptians believed in divine intervention, pleasing the gods was thought to be rewarded in an abundance of resources. It was therefore a great misdeed to hold “back the [Nile’s] water when it should flow,” or to drive “cattle from their pastures.” These environmental considerations reveal a society obsessed with self preservation and everlasting life, painting the picture of ancient Egypt as “the most river focused of the river basin cultures.” The very perception of the Nile’s fruitfulness as directly dependent on the will of the gods made Egypt’s political structure hierarchical, with the pharaoh stationed at the pinnacle of Egyptian life, ensuring the smooth continuity of nature’s forces.

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Ultimately, both the Code of Hammurabi and the Egyptian Book of the Dead were written far before any comparative literature, and the appearance of writing in these regions as early as 3500 BCE shows the vast extent to which Egypt and Mesopotamia were scribal in nature. Even with alternate attitudes surrounding death, both cultures were marked by omnipresent social stratification, and adherence to a manual of moral conduct. Pledged to their respective codes of ethics, citizens of each culture recognized the unchecked supremacy of their gods, and appeased them to ensure fruitful existence.

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