The principal Egyptian word for fate was šʒy/šʒw, which derives from the word šʒ, meaning “ordain” or “fix,” generally the action of a deity. Divine predetermination is found in the Story of Sinuhe. The protagonist describes his flight to western Asia as a “fateful flight.” Earlier in the story, Sinuhe refers to his journey in a slightly different manner: “I do not know what brought me to this country; it is as if planned (sḫr) by god” (Lichtheim 1975, p. 225). Clearly the ideas of a divine plan and that which has been fated are synonymous.
Šʒw is first attested toward the end of the Old Kingdom and continues to be used down to the Late period. It appears with some regularity in texts, especially in the Wisdom Literature. From the sixth dynasty occurrence in the Instruction of Ptahhotep, it seems that šʒw has to do with death, and that it is inescapable: “His time does not fail to come; one does not escape what is fated” (Lichtheim, 1975, p. 72). “Death is a kindly fate” (Lichtheim, 1975, p. 196) well reflects the pessimism of the Admonitions of Ipuwer, but it clearly connects šʒw with one's demise. In fact, the writing of šʒw is at times determined by the Hieratic sign for “death.” There is textual evidence that fate was also believed to govern non-Egyptians, even enemies. Concerning the Nubian enemy Aata, Ahmose son of Ibana reports: “His fate brought on his doom. The gods of Upper Egypt grasped him” (Lichtheim 1976, p. 13).
Apparently various aspects of one's fate, such as time and manner of death, were ordained at birth. In the Story of Two Brothers, Re-Horakhty, king of the gods, directs Khnum to create a wife for Bata. The seven Hathors are present, and together they proclaim, “She will die by the knife” (Lichtheim 1976, p. 207). In the story of the birth of the three children of Ruddedet in the Westcar Papyrus, Re sends Isis, Nephthys, Meshkhenet, Heket, and Khnum to assist in the birth of the triplets. The sun god announces, “Please go, deliver Ruddedet of the three children who are in her womb, who will assume this beneficent office in this whole land. They will build your temples. They will supply your altars. They will furnish your libations. They will make your offerings abundant” (Lichtheim 1976, p. 220). No indication is given here of the time and manner of death, but Re does disclose that these three will become kings, build temples, and provide for their offerings. After their delivery, it is actually Meshkhenet who declares of each one; “A King who will assume the kingship in this whole land” (Lichtheim 1976, p. 220). This latter text demonstrates that the other deities are acting on Re's behalf, and that the idea of fate goes beyond lifespan to include foretelling the kingly office they will hold. The statement in Story of Two Brothers, on the other hand, discloses the instrument by which death will come. A third aspect of fate is associated with the goddess Renenet. Because of her association with fertility and harvest, Renenet appears to be responsible for endowing individuals with material possessions (Miosi 1982, p. 76).
This would mean that there were three forces (or deities) associated with one's fate in the thought of the New Kingdom: Šʒw, who is closely associated with the seven Hathors and is responsible for one's lifespan and manner of death; Meshkhenet, who decides one's status or work; and Renenet, who settles one's material fortune or misfortune. By the New Kingdom, the word for “fate” could be written with a deity determinative, as if šʒw were personified or deified, perhaps because of its association with particular deities.
A number of critical questions regarding the Egyptian understanding of fate must be asked. Was it absolutely fixed? Could it be altered or manipulated? If so, how could it be changed? In the Report of Wenamun, the prince of Byblos refers to sending Egyptian envoys back to Egypt with timber “so as to beg for me from Amun fifty years of life over and above my allotted fate” (Lichtheim 1976, p. 228). This statement suggests that the Egyptians believed in a divinely ordained lifespan, and that they thought (or hoped) that Amun could extend it.
The Story of the Doomed Prince offers the most notable instance of altering one's fate. At the time of his birth, the Hathors announce, “He will die through the crocodile, or the snake, or the dog.” The time of death is not announced, and, Untypically, three possible instruments of death are introduced. The ill-fated prince thus spends much of his life not knowing which of these entities will bring his demise. Nevertheless, he asks for a pet puppy, which his father reluctantly gives him. After years of living reclusively in hope of avoiding his fate, the prince announces: “To what purpose is my sitting here? I am committed to Fate (šʒw). Let me go, that I may act according to my heart, until the god does what is in his heart” (Lichtheim 1976, p. 200). So he sets off on his chariot, believing that he cannot alter his fate, and arrives in Naharin. It is not clear whether the prince thinks that by leaving Egypt he may prolong his life, but he takes his dog with him.
In Naharin he marries a princess, to whom he discloses his three deadly fates. The horrified wife wants the pet dog killed, but the prince feels this dog could not cause his death because he has raised it. A crocodile has followed him from Egypt to Naharin, but it is prevented from killing the prince by a demon or water spirit (nḫt). On another occasion, the wife kills a snake, which has entered the prince's bedroom. She then announces: “Look, your god has given one of your fates into your hand. He will protect [you from the others also]” (Lichtheim 1976, p. 202). This fate being averted, the prince made an offering to Pre, who has delivered him from this fate, but two fates remain.
One day while strolling with his dog, it discloses that it is his fate. The prince tries to escape by running down to the lake, only to have the crocodile snatch the dog and carry it off “to where the demon was” (Lichtheim 1976, p. 202). The crocodile returns to tell the prince that it is his fate, but offers to release him if he will help kill its nemesis, the water spirit. Unfortunately, the end of the papyrus is missing, but it is generally throught that the prince manages to avoid this final fate and lives happily ever after. The Story of the Doomed Prince certainly shows that one could not avoid one's fate by leaving Egypt; however, with divine intervention, life could be extended and the fated means of death perhaps changed.
It is unclear whether the calendar of lucky and unlucky days relates to one's fate. F. T. Miosi concludes, “There is no convincing grounds for positing an ‘astrological’ basis to the Egyptian concept of fate, destiny or whatever other term one wishes to use” (1982, p. 73). There is certainly nothing in the literature to suggest that amulets and other forms of magic had a role in altering one's fate. However, amulets may have been used in connection with unlucky days. Similarly, prophetic name formulae (e.g., djed + deity + ʿnḫ.f/s = “deity X says he/she will live”) may have been used when a baby was born on an unlucky day. It is unlikely that the use of such names was an attempt to negate one's šʒw, because people did not know their fate. On the other hand, a parent would know if the birthday had a bad omen and might select a name that expressed the hope that the child would live.
Thus, one's fate appears in a sense to have operated on two tracks: the šʒw was set by the sun god and announced at birth by the Hathors (at least in folkloristic tales); and the lucky or unlucky days were determined by mythological precedent. How these two were interrelated is uncertain, but people would not have known their ordained fate unless it was divinely revealed in some manner, whereas they would have known if they faced an ill-fated mythological omen. Prophylactic steps could be taken in the latter case, but a person could apparently do little to alter šʒw, as a statement in the Story of Sinuhe suggests: “Is there a god who does not know what he has ordained, a man who knows how it will be?” (Lichtheim 1975, p. 227).
- Grumuch-Shirun, I. “Schicksal.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 5: 598–600. Wiesbaden, 1981.
- Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature. 2 vols. Berkeley, 1975, 1976.
- Miosi, F. T. “God, Fate and Free Will in Egyptian Wisdom Literature.” In Studies in Honour of Ronald J. Williams, pp. 69–111. Toronto, 1982.
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- Morenz, Siegfried. Egyptian Religion. Ithaca, N.Y., 1969.
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James K. Hoffmeier