Agents of Apophis

Climate change and systems collapse part 1

The great serpent had no eyes, no ears, indeed no senses at all. All it had was a mouth with which it screamed unendingly into the eternal night of the netherworld. This is how ancient Egyptians imagined the demon Apophis; Lord of Chaos; a malevolent entropy-like force that forever threatened to wear down the mechanisms of the state and bring about the collapse of civilisation. To combat Apophis’ erosive force, the priesthood undertook elaborate daily rituals to ward off the demon, in Temples that were to them engine rooms of cosmic stability, operated by the user interface of word-magic and sacrament.

Mentions of Apophis first appear in the First Intermediate Period” (2181–2055 BCE) the century long span between the collapse of the Old Kingdom and the emergence of the Middle Kingdom. And while Egyptians may have blamed supernatural forces for the collapse of the former, we with a few thousand years hindsight might call it the first “failed state”. It is now thought that the Old Kingdom suffered from what we’d now term “systems collapse”; a complex interplay of social, economic and environmental events that resulted in the breakdown of the organisation of society and collapse into chaos. Professor Colin Renfrew of Cambridge University gives systems collapse the following, broad characteristics.

  1. The collapse of central administrative organisation
  2. The disappearance of of the traditional elite class
  3. The collapse of a centralised economy
  4. A settlement shift and population decline
Depiction of Apophis in the burial chamber of Ramesses V

This erosive process, according to Renfrew, could unfold over a period of a century or more and the Old Kingdom seems to be classic examples of it. We know, for instance, that the final Pharaoh of this period, Pepi II, is thought to have ruled for anywhere between 64 and 94 years, making it the longest reign of any monarch in history. Because Pharaoh’s were expected to be warriors and judges as well as just Kings, his extreme old age is thought to have been seen as a destabilising factor; his decrepit state leading rival aristocracies to smell blood and make their move. This may indicate that we can tick box (2) or Professor Renfrew’s criteria; “The disappearance of of the traditional elite class”. There are indications in later texts from the Middle Kingdom, such as the Prophecies of Neferti and the Admonitions of Ipuwer, that there may also have been significant social upheaval. The the Prophecies of Neferti, paints a lucid picture of what would happen if society failed once more;

The beggar will gain riches
The great will rob to live
The poor will eat bread
The slaves will be exalted
What has been made is as though
It had never been made
A man’s possessions are taken from him
And are given to an outsider
Fragment of the Prophecies of Neferti

Similarly, in the Admonitions of Ipuwer;

Behold, no offices are in their right place, like a herd running at random without a herdsman.
Behold, cattle stray and there is none to collect them, but everyone fetches for himself those that are branded with his name.
Behold, a man is slain beside his brother, who runs away and abandons him to save his own skin.

To modern eyes, it almost sounds as if it these were written to glorify the intermediate period as a revolution against of the original “1%”, who were overthrown and got their comeuppance. Indeed, there did appear to be a degree of “wealth redistribution” during the period; it is widely believed that this is when the Great Pyramids were looted. A “collapse of the central administrative organisation” — Renfrew’s point (1) — would seem to have occurred.

We should be cautions however, as these texts, though colourful and informative, should not be mistaken for an objective history of the First Intermediate Period; they are pieces of political propaganda from a later date to justify the existence of state that emerged from the ruins of the Old Kingdom. In his book “Chaos, Cosmos and the World to Come”, The British historian Professor Norman Cohn writes that they;

“Reflect the anxieties of the privileged, their sense of living on a tiny island of order and civilisation amidst a sea of disorder and barbarism. And they reflect, too, the need that the privileged felt for a strong King to hold social chaos at bay.”

To understand the collapse of the economy, we first have to understand how the state itself was taxed, and how closely it was related the the environment. Though the use of “Nilometers”, priests could measure the amount of floodwater in the Nile each year, and in turn, calculate the harvest amounts, and from this calculate an appropriate tax rate. It was an ingenious system, and one designed to ensure tax was fair from year to year. However in the Prophecies of Neferti we get hints of a time when;

Dry is the river of Egypt
One crosses the water on foot
Men will seek water for ships in order to navigate it

In both texts there are mentions of Libyan and “Asiatic” bowmen in Egypt, and with apparent outrage, Bedouin nomads grazing cattle near the Nile. Importantly, there are also references to high taxation despite the drought, hinting at the “collapse of the centralised economy” — point (3) and also, with the sighting of what may be famine and climate refugees, a “settlement shift and population decline” — point (4). As mentioned previously, we should not simply trust these later texts, but there is corroborating evidence of a significant drought. The US Geological Survey and the University of Pennsylvania recently studied fossil pollen deposits in the Nile, and discovered evidence of what they termed a “Mega drought” 4200 years ago, coinciding precisely with this period.

Chaos, order and divine law

That there was a period of strife caused by a convergence of environmental, environmental and social crises during this period seems beyond dispute. A “systems collapse” did indeed occur. What is interesting though is how the society came to terms with this dramatic period, such as the mythology of Apophis. To appreciate this fully, some background is required on how the ancient Egyptians thought the cosmos worked. To them it was believed that order, characterised by the Gods, emerged from the oceanic primordial chaos of the Nun at the beginning of time. This order was overseen on earth by the God-King — the Pharaoh — via a set of divine laws called Ma’at (meaning “base”) which embodied not just legal framework of society, but by being obeyed, the motion of the stars and planets and the rhythms of nature itself, such as the live-giving floodwaters of the Nile. As such, the rule of law for them was fundamentally intertwined with their conception of the cosmos, and it’s stability.

When an Egyptian died, their heart was weighed against the “Feather of Ma’at” to see if they were worthy of access to the afterlife.

The laws of Ma’at meant that the Pharaoh was obliged — in theory at least — to protect the needs of the downtrodden and impoverished from exploitation, in the hope of preserving social and therefore cosmic order. As part of this project of maintaining social stability, Ra’s laws extended to women’s rights, to a degree at least. Remarkably, given the extreme antiquity of the society, women were entitled to buy, sell and own property, run businesses and gain high office, something that cannot be said of some modern societies. (Ma’at was later personified as a woman). Theologically, men and women from all walks of life were judged the same at the gates of the afterlife, where their heart was weighed against the Feather of Ma’at. Unless you were the Pharaoh, the Jackal-headed god Anubis cared not for your sex or social status.

This is not to say that Ancient Egypt was somehow fair or politically progressive — far from it — indeed Professor Bob Brier at Long Island University described as the most conservative society that has ever existed. One of the most remarkable aspects of classic Egyptian culture is that it changed so little over such an immense timespan. Ancient Egypt, in other words, was a Luddite’s paradise that viewed any form of novelty or innovation as potentially destabilising. Those advocating change were viewed as agents of Apophis; opening a Pandora’s box of destabilising forces of technology and behaviour that could knock the cosmos itself out of whack. According to Cohn;

“Hostile nations, rebels, troublemakers of every kind were not simply transgressors against ma’at; they were accomplices and instruments of superhuman powers of chaos.”

Of course, the rituals performed by the priests, such as the symbolic melting of wax figures of the demon God, and the Pharaoh’s micromanagement of society, did nothing to impact the actual climatic events that caused droughts. However, they did help preserve an organisational system that could withstand them. By attempting to optimise the state against some imagined platonic form outlined by Ra, it maintained a social end economic system that was resistant to all but the most extreme environmental fluctuations. This hard fought stability though, came at the cost of technological and social evolution, and left them as a culture frozen in time.

Banner photo by Van Middleton