Egypt, sacrifice, religion


Despite gaping holes in our knowledge of ancient Egyptian laws and punishments, the sheer amount of data available for that long-lasting culture dictates that we limit our study of punishments both topically and temporally. This article will investigate the topic of ritual-associated killing from the Old Kingdom through the Libyan era. Earlier phases of Egyptian history yield evidence of ritual killing, such as the retainer burials associated with Early Dynastic kings or the labels of Aha and Djer (fig. 1), that seem to depict ritual slaughter. Whatever the nature of these seeming programs of ritual slaying, we cannot trace a continuation into the Old Kingdom. This does not mean they did not survive in some form, only that they are not attested clearly in the surviving sources. Additionally, for the time period under study there are almost certainly instances, and perhaps even programs, of sanctioned ritual violence that do not have a manifestation in the sources currently available to us. As a result, we cannot say what forms of ritual violence did not happen. Instead we will focus on looking for patterns in the available evidence for what did happen. Given the extant corpus, it appears that institutionally sanctioned ritual violence centered around two main ideas: interference with cult, and rebellion. Murder sometimes also elicited ritual punishment.

Original Publication Citation

Muhlestein, Kerry. "Sacred Violence: When Ancient Egyptian Punishment was Dressed in Ritual Trappings." Near Eastern Archaeology 78.4 (2015): 244-251.

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date


Permanent URL


American Schools of Oriental Research




Religious Education


Ancient Scripture

University Standing at Time of Publication

Full Professor

Included in

Religion Commons