Egyptian Temples, part VI: The House of Life
'The House of Life' could well be called a library. It was that part of the temple where all records and texts were kept and stored. These papyrii encompassed many different fields of learning as well as the accountings on the daily and yearly economics and proceedings that went on in the temple compound.
This position of the House of Life emphasized the temples to be not only a center of worship of the local or national deity. They were also the seat of teaching, of keeping of records and all kinds of texts, from the ancient myths of creation to the everyday accounts of grain. Thereby they served both as the community archives and the center of science and culture as well as provided the highest center of education.
The original function of the 'House of Life' is believed to be a sort of storage for grain or food, perhaps for necessary supplies, i.e. a center for life support on the material level and could perhaps explain the care with which records were kept of everything that went out of and came into the temple compound. This however, was soon developed to encompass also non-material needs so that the House of Life indeed served its name.
Several temples were large compounds with many thousands of employed. They had the disposal of large estates, cattle, houses, boats and other assets and the administration of these were taken care of at the House of Life. Great temples and mortuary buildings were managed by the temples, which demanded a high level of skill on the part of the artisans and the architects. Papyrus Harris, dating from 1198-1166, speaks of the assets and economics of some of the largest temples; at Thebes there were at this time over 80.000 employees, there were 433 gardens, 83 boats and 46 building sites, numbers which tell us a great deal of the level of organization and skill required to run and maintain these structures.
Besides crafts like sculpture and painting, which were used to embellish and decorate the temples, the topics that were pursued and taught in the House of Life were widespread: astronomy, astrology, dream interpretation, geography, history, mathematics, music and liturgy.
The art of reading and writing were of course basic, and young people (mostly boys) were sent to these temples to become educated as scribes. It is known that up to the age of about four years, the children were kept close to their mothers, then the fathers became responsible for their education, and at the age of about seven, those whose parents could afford it, were sent to the temple school to learn to read and write. Others attended the village school and girls were mostly kept at home. Children were expected to follow the same trade as their fathers, and so some of them stayed in the temples schools where were trained for certain disciplines.
But not only reading and writing belonged to the curriculum. Even sports like swimming, wrestling, ball games, shooting with bow and arrow were taught. The pupils were also instilled values like good manners, morals, self-control and adjustment to their society. From early childhood the ancient Egyptian was taught the value and importance of living with Ma'at on all levels of life.
Only those who were intended for priesthood and for administrative posts seem to have been put to academic education in the temples. Among these were physicians, lawyers, scribes, and of course priests.
It is believed that the training of pupils was both theoretical and practical. Medical training was probably extended to treating of local patients that came seeking the help of the physician priests, and perhaps students of law had to sit in at disputes to learn to practice their discipline.
The most important discipline was of course theology and religion. Great care was taken to keep the knowledge about the Creation Myths alive, something which was the foundation of the whole societal system. Theories about man and his place in creation were subject to much thought and consideration, and were developed by the priesthood and became spread depending on which center of education held the most power in a certain time period.
But it would be wrong and misleading to call it religion, because the modern day connotations of that word do not fit in well with the ancient Egyptian system of thought.
One very important difference is that in those days in the House of Life they did not only study one basic set of text which was considered inspired by the gods but new texts were continuously created as a result of thought and ponderings of the ancient ones, and these new ones had the same value.
So the Egyptian theologians kept on creating a cosmological system, which could not be thrown away or disregard, as modern man often does with religion today. For the ancient Egyptian religion was part of life and as necessary for existence as much as the air is for breathing. While the practice of religion was very different from the priesthood to the worship of everyday man, still the cosmological system and the creation myths permeated all of society.
And this was the most important of the knowledge that was kept in the House of Life.
Although many and diverse disciplines like astronomy, medicine and history were studied and taught, the total body of knowledge was empirical and not especially systemized or theorized in the way that is done today.
Mathematics was studied as well as astronomy because it was important for architectural measurements and for the keeping of time. History was used frequently, but not for finding out exactly how things had been, rather they embellished and glorified events, to make them fit into their ideology.
Medicine has been found on frequent papyrii, and shows great knowledge about the human body. Even specialists seem to have existed, someone for women, another one specialized on eye disease and there was even a special title for dentists.
Papyrii for chemistry, physics and geography has not been found so far, but findings speak for that they had quite some empirical knowledge. Especially their travels are represented in different ways, like
Hatshepsut´s expedition to Punt which is told about on reliefs etc.
House for Life
A vast curriculum, encompassing widely different topics, a central for administrative and economic management, the main center for worship of the god - all these functions were regarded as belonging together, constituting that body of knowledge which kept life on societal and individual levels within the frames of a theocratic ideology. The ancient Egyptians did not separate between the disciplines, they all were related to the gods. Religion was as much inherent in the interpretation of dreams as it was in curing a disease or in the crafting of a beautiful statue or relief. In fact, the word religion was unknown to the Egyptian mind, to them life was of divine origin, and as such it was the duty of humans to revere divinity in whatever for or function it appeared.
Thus the temples and the House of Life within them filled the important function of a meeting place between heaven and earth, they became the backbone and central of society, whether it was the ritual performed by Pharaoh, or the small offering brought by one of its humblest peasants, whether it was the teaching of the children of the nobles or the counting of the grocery that was brought for the feeding of its artisans. In this respect one might as well call it the House for Life as well as the House of Life.
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