In Genesis 3.1–7, all creation is divided into two categories, good and evil; the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden would, if eaten, then provide the insight and means to distinguish between the two. The Egyptians looked on their universe in terms of a similar dichotomy. The concept bwt, which bears a certain resemblance to some definitions of the term “taboo,” was the mechanism through which the two categories were differentiated.
“Taboo” is one of the few Polynesian words to be incorporated into European language and thought. Careful distinction must be made between at least three uses of the term. First, there is the everyday, casual application to various phenomena (things, persons, notions) that should be avoided. Those subject to the violation of this form of taboo may experience emotions ranging from offense to anger, while feelings of agonizing guilt may plague the perpetrator of the violation.
A second use of the term is found in the various technical definitions that historians of religion and anthropologists have worked out, based on comparative material from a great number of cultures. Here we find numerous reports on, and analyses of, prohibitions and “taboos,” and even a cursory inquiry into the material will show clearly that there is a striking uniformity as to what is declared “taboo” in the most diverse societies at the most diverse times. The key words are “impurity,” “contagion,” “penalties,” and similar expressions. Thus, for example, menstruation taboos are among the most universal, and the Egyptian material is no exception. The fate of the laundrymen is pitied in the Instructions of Dua-Kheti; their position in the social hierarchy is so humble that they have to wash the clothes of menstruating women. References to menstruation seem to show that contact with women during this time might even be dangerous. This would explain why the menstruation of wives or daughters was accepted as a legitimate cause for a worker to stay at home, as is documented in the well-known absentee lists from Deir el-Medina. The phenomena that form the substance of this group are prohibitions of which we are conscious. We know when we violate these taboos, and we know that their violation will make us “taboo” as well. Depending on the specific cultural circumstance, we may also be cleaned of our impurity. What may pass for a taboo in ancient Egypt often comes under this heading.
Third, there is the mechanism—prominent among the features known from the Polynesian material—whereby taboos are used as a means of establishing and maintaining social strata. Thus, appropriation of property and power was accomplished by declaring something taboo, and the political power of a person was delimited by the taboos he could impose. Taboos could be rendered invalid only if overruled by the taboos of a superior of the original instigator of the taboo. In Egypt things were different, but the king, as god, could make something bwt. He could not, however, exercise this power indiscriminately or at will, but only in order to reestablish the original, primeval order of the world (maat).
The development of the ancient concept bwt can be followed for more than two millennia. At the end of this time, which coincides with the Greco-Roman period, bwt is often used in a sense that comes close to some of the technical definitions of taboo produced by the historians of religion, but the core meaning of bwt was very different, because it was an integral part of the Egyptians view of the universe as the result of a process of differentiation. In Egypt, the world was created according to, and by means of, maat, a word that is often rendered as “world order” or “truth,” but which also implies plenty and abundance—of food, for example. Creation resulted from the transformation of a part of nonexistence, or potential existence. In the Egyptian conception of being, the continuity of existence required repeated, cyclical contact with nonexistence. Yet at the same time, the latter had to be combatted, because it embraced not only potential being but also all the forces antagonistic to maat that were commonly part of true and immutable nonexistence. In theory, an Egyptian might commit acts that would cause him to die the “second death,” which meant being forever associated with those same evil, uncreated, maat-antagonistic forces. Violating a bwt would bring this about, because bwt served to define all that was not of maat.
In order to understand better the nature of the Egyptian dichotomy between what might be labeled “good” and “evil,” we must look at the earliest evidence for an expression of the opposition between maat and bwt. Here, at first it seems surprising to find hunger, thirst and feces as prototypes of things bwt; but on second thought, if in the earliest times the epitome of good, maat, was abundance of food, then lack of food would be bad. If nourishment is maat, then excretion becomes bwt. Further, these bwt things also applied to the realm of the dead and gods. The deceased declares in his funerary inscriptions that he has had no contact with feces, just as visitors to tombs and temples were admonished not to enter after having had contact with things which were bwt—not because this would be detrimental to the visitors themselves, but because of its harmful impact on the dead or the gods.
The ultimate concern of the Egyptians was salvation, which meant participation in the eternal cycle of life and death of the created world. Dying, in the normal sense of the word, led to other and more varied forms of existence. Death was an element of existence and, as such, it was within the realm of maat. Life emerged from death. However, in order to attain the desired state of a spirit or god in the afterworld, the deceased must have acquired a detailed knowledge of the essential properties of the hereafter. This implied a rejection of the idea of the afterworld as a reversed world—a world where, for instance, nourishment is feces and where the inhabitants move about upside down—as envisioned by demons representing the realm of nonexistence. In other words, the deceased must know the difference between what is of maat and the phenomena classified as bwt. And thus, whereas in Genesis knowledge was damning, in Egypt it was a prerequisite for salvation.
We may hypothesize that food and excrement played this role in the conception of the world because they are of such vital importance for life. These two categories further attained their status as prototypical symbols of good and evil because sharing food is the principal act of social incorporation in all societies. The dead is in a state of transition, and in that so-called liminal phase, he is subjected to a number of trials and tribulations. Interrogations are one of the ordeals that the dead must go through in order to prove himself a god. By virtue of its metonymic character, food is one of the principal means of putting his ability to the test. He is in a state of want and, still in terms of metonymy, hunger, and is therefore encouraged to eat what purports to be the lifegiving food of the afterworld. However, only by choosing the right kind of food in the afterworld could the dead become one of its blessed inhabitants.
The historical experience of the Egyptians, especially that of the painful transition between the Old and Middle kingdoms, provoked renewed reflections on the characteristics of evil, and the time-honored categories of excreta were inadequate to articulate the complex relationship between good and evil. During the Middle Kingdom, a process of rethinking was initiated. From the standpoint of the great dichotomy, the rest of the history of Egypt was a period of intensifying preoccupation with the problem of evil, reflected in the ever-increasing number of phenomena that were classified as bwt.
In this process, the contact with a bwt became harmful also to the living. The body's orifices and their counterpart, the thresholds of buildings, retained their status as being marked by bwt, and eventually the concept of bwt gave rise to numerous injunctions and prohibitions. Thus, access to temples required abstinence from sexual activity, observance of rules of cleanliness, and avoidance of certain types of food, such as pig, fish, or honey, depending mainly on the local cosmology (customs already seen inscribed on tomb walls of the Old Kingdom). In fact, each nome had its specific bwt, and each god had his bwt. The concept of bwt was further used to delimit acceptable moral standards, even to the extent that the Egyptians distinguished between various forms of dying and killing: a man could be killed and still be “alive,” but if he died as a result of having been smʒ-killed, he would be annihilated—that is, die the “second death.” In the Late period there is finally some evidence that one could be cleansed of a bwt.
- Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London, 1966. Author of the hypothesis that taboo is a universal and indispensable means of establishing classificatory systems; the phenomena that are at the periphery of or fall between clear-cut categories are tabooed.
- Frandsen, Paul John. “BWT—Divine Kingship and Grammar.” In Akten des Vierten Internationalen Ägyptologen Kongresses München 1985 Studien zur altägyptischen Kultur, Beihefte, 3, pp. 151–158. 1989. Works out the present definition of bwt.
- Frandsen, Paul John. “Tabu.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 6: 135–142. Wiesbaden, 1985. Discusses major groups of taboos.
- Kadish, Gerald E. The Scatophagous Egyptian. Journal of the Society of the Studies of Egyptian Antiquities 9 (1979), 203–217. Follows Douglas in his interpretation of a certain type of texts.
- Montet, Pierre. “Le fruit défendu.” Kêmi 2 (1950), 85–116.
- Steiner, Franz. Taboo. London, 1956. Excellent survey and critique of earlier research.
Paul John Frandsen