The First Priest of Maat
David E. Hughes
They spoke it in the kitchens. They spoke it in the whorehouses. They spoke it the slave pits, the papyrus fields, the embalming tents, and the palace. Everywhere a servant toiled, the refrain echoed: There is no rest for the servant of a king.
I refused to believe it. As King Zoser's vizier, I'd ordered concubines quietly killed, abased myself to appease offended dignitaries, designed temples and pyramids, whispered the customs of foreigners into the King's ear, and so much more. The work seemed endless, but my daily toil had been filled with a certainty that one day my rest would come. Now, it was finally here.
Fifty feet beneath the sun-beaten Egyptian desert, I experienced the first moment of rest I'd had since I was a boy. Death was everything I'd imaged it to be. The cold darkness nourished me, and, because my tomb was sealed to keep out robbers, I had no fear of interruption.
"Imhotep!" A voice boomed through the chamber. "Come, Imhotep!"
White light filled the tomb. I couldn't believe it. I'd hardly had the chance to get comfortable, and now I was being summoned. I discarded the idea of just ignoring the voice. Whoever was calling me didn't sound like he'd take disobedience lightly.
I tried to move in the same way as I had before I died. It didn't work. My legs had been emptied of their fluids during the embalming process, along with my vital organs. But there must be some way to obey the summons. I willed myself toward the voice. My ba lifted out of my body. Part of me, my ka, remained implanted in my mortal remains, but my ba was a soul with wings. I flew toward the source of the light, filled with regret about leaving my cold, isolated tomb.
Among the scrolls, toilet articles, cosmetics, oil, perfumes, and wigs strewn about my tomb, I spotted a shabits looking back at me. It looked like Rehu, my most trusted servant, except that it was only eight inches tall and carved of wood. I'd learned long ago that extra hands never hurt.
"Follow, Rehu," I said, and the doll-like servant jumped after me-or rather my ba-on its little wooden feet.
I glided though a hallway of white light as fast a hawk. Rehu kept up, his legs fluttering like a bee's wings. The hall opened into a huge stone chamber lined with polished granite columns reaching higher than I could see. The walls were covered with blue, red, and green hieroglyphics that sparkled like jewels. The work was impeccable, every character precise yet beautiful. Did Thoth, the ibis-headed god of writing, compose a death poem for every soul that passed through this chamber? Considering the amount of writing that covered the endless walls, I thought it possible.
I discovered the source of the voice calling my name. Near the front of the chamber, a figure held a staff with a weeping eye symbol emblazoned on it. Elaborate gold armbands encircled his muscular biceps, and he wore a pear shaped white crown topped by a boxy red crown: the double crown of upper and lower Egypt. A short, sharp beak served as his mouth. He had brown feathers for hair, and his right eye was obsidian. A black eye patch covered his left eye.
"Ah. There you are, Imhotep," he said. The voice was low and deep.
"Horus?" I asked.
He nodded with his falcon head. The scribes never showed Horus' eye patch in their drawings. Perhaps they were afraid they would offend the god if they showed this flaw.
As a vizier, I was supposed to know all of the protocols for polite greetings of visiting dignitaries, but how was I to address a god? Rehu knelt prostrate on the ground, his face pressed into the marble floor, and I couldn't find fault with the gesture. I began easing myself down, wondering if my ba would also have bad knees.
"No need for formalities," said Horus. "Come walk with me for a moment."
"Yes, Great One," I said.
We walked between the columns; Rehu's wooden feet clicked on the polished stone floor as he followed.
"In case you haven't surmised," said Horus, "you're in Maat's chamber of souls. All humans come here after they die to participate in the Weighing of the Heart. Look."
He pointed at several bas lined up beside a golden scale. I recognized the ba at the front of the line. Djadjaemankh had served Zoser well as an attendant in the royal stables. He was a good and loyal servant who had died not long before I did. His serene face indicated he had little to fear. Bronze-limbed and kohl-haired Maat, a goddess more beautiful than any of King Zoser's wives, placed the ostrich feather from her simple crown on one side of the scale and Djadjemankh's heart on the other. The scale dipped, lowering the heart and raising the feather. Maat picked up the poor man's heart and threw it to Ammit the Devourer, a hideous beast with the head of a crocodile, the forequarters of a lion, and the hindquarters of a hippopotamus. As Ammit snapped up the heart and furiously worked its jaws, an awful grinding and slurping sound echoed through the chamber. Djadjemankh's ba winked out of existence.
Horus shook his head. "Poor Djadjermankh. His heart was not sufficiently empty of evil and hate to weigh less that Maat's feather. Instead of entering paradise, Djadjermankh went to Ammit."
Ammit finished chewing and eyed me with its crocodilian eyes, almost as if it knew I would be its next meal. I shuddered, imagining its sharp teeth ripping into my soul. Frankly, this was part of the afterlife I had not been counting on. I had thought I'd spend my death in the cool darkness of my mastaba. The idea of Maat weighing my heart had seemed far-fetched. Now I'd to have to rethink things.
I turned to Horus. "I understand why I'm here, but I don't understand why you're here, Your Worship."
Horus cocked his head and his eye twinkled. It seemed like his version of a smile. "I've been watching you, Imhotep. You were an excellent vizier, with a mind sharp enough to solve even the most difficult problems presented to you by your king. I'd like your help."
I tried to smile, but I was burning inside. Horus, of course, was correct. My mind was Zoser's tool, just like the spears of his infantryman, and the old king has used it to his best advantage.
"What kind of help?" I asked.
"In the world of the living, a priest named Mebora resides in my Temple. He recently performed several miracles, but I was not the source of those miracles. I want you to find how he did it."
I had made it a practice to stay away from clerics; I didn't trust them. Perhaps that was one of the reasons I'd lived so long. So, the idea of returning to the world of the living to spy on a priest capable of performing miracles didn't appeal to me. On the other hand, it probably wasn't a good idea to say "no" to a god.
"Almighty Horus, your power and bravery are known throughout Egypt. Why send a humble servant like me rather than undertaking the task yourself?"
"If I returned to the world of the living, certain others may know of it. I need more information before I take a definitive step."
Clearly, I didn't have the whole story, but it wasn't hard to see what was going on. It appeared that no one-not even the gods-could escape politics. "Oh Great One, I'm honored you think me capable of such a mission. Had I not died, I'm sure I could have fulfilled your request with all due speed. Alas, I'm unsure what I can do since I'm no longer of Mebora's world."
"Your ba can return to the World of the Living. You can accomplish this task without the use of your corporeal form."
So, the technical argument wasn't going to work. Still, I need to find a way out. What would Horus do to me if I simply returned to my sarcophagus? Would he whip me as Zoser had done when he was displeased? "I am gladdened by your confidence, Magnificent One. However, I am very tired and desire to rest now that I'm in the afterlife. Could I possibly decline?"
Too easy. I sensed a trap. "What would happen if I did?"
Horus shrugged. "Maat will put your heart on the scale."
I was a good servant of my king just as Djadjermankh had been. Was it possible that being a good servant wasn't enough? I suddenly felt as if the King's cold hand had reached out and grabbed me by the throat. What of the poisonings, the secrets that I whispered that had gotten people killed, the letters I'd written that sent men to their deaths? Would those deeds weigh in my heart as if Zoser was standing on Maat's scale with me?
I was beginning to get the picture. If gods acted anything like kings, the game was always fixed in their favor. My choice was really this: help Horus or have my soul devoured by Ammit. No wonder the beast had eyed me with such eager anticipation. But perhaps this was the chance I needed. If I could prove myself by completing Hours' task perhaps Maat's scale would favor me. Or maybe Horus would allow me to stay in my tomb and avoid the scale altogether.
"I've decided to help you," I said.
"Excellent," said Horus. The chamber burst into a flash of white light, and I was back in my tomb, reunited with my ka. I wondered if it had all been a dream. Do the dead dream?
"Good sir," someone said.
"Good sir!" It was my shabits, Rehu, tapping his little hand on my sarcophagus. Very annoying.
"Yes-what is it?" I asked.
"So sorry to disturb you, but hadn't you better embark on your mission from Horus?"
If Rehu remembered Horus, then I certainly hadn't been dreaming. Good. I would prove myself once and for all and be rewarded with true rest.
I freed my ba from my body and took a closer look at my spirit form. My head seemed the same as it was in life: full lips, narrow nose, bald head. But the rest of my body looked like a golden eagle. I had long, bronze colored wings, short, clawed legs, and a beautiful feathered tail.
Experimentally, I touched my wing to the wall of the tomb. It passed through the cold stone and into the surrounding earth, as if I were dipping into water.
"Easy enough," I muttered. Thankfully, I didn't have to walk anymore. I had a terrible case of useba, the old man's disease, and for the last several years of my life, each step had become increasing painful. I willed my body upwards, passing through the sealed roof of the burial chamber, up the well to the flat-topped mastaba, and into the hot, bright desert air.
My mastaba, like those of the most important nobility of the last few generations, was in Sakkara, a necropolis south of Inbhad. It was not more than a hundred feet from King Zoser's step-pyramid, which rose two hundred feet into the air. Just seeing it filled my heart with pride; no one before had managed such an engineering marvel. I wondered if the old king was having as much difficulty as I was in the afterlife. If Maat were truly just, Zoser's soul would be digesting in Ammit's stomach.
I flew east toward Inbhad and saw the small houses made of mud bricks and thatched roofs that surrounded the city. The dwellings were spread out upon a green patchwork of fields irrigated by canals. A russet line separated the area nurtured by the Nile and the harsh, lifeless desert beyond.
White stone walls surrounded Inbhad. Inside, many squat houses lined narrow, crowded streets. The palace-my old home-occupied the center of the city. Its high stone walls, carved and painted, sent a shiver of nostalgia through me. I was tempted to return to see what Zoser's successor, King Huni, had done with the place since I'd died, but I decided I'd better get to work.
The Temple of Horus was in the western part of the city. It was a white limestone building nearly as big as the palace. Two rows of thirty-foot tall obelisks lined the entryway, their pyramid-shaped tops capped with gold, and their sides carved with hieroglyphics proclaiming the greatness, wisdom, and power of Horus. A long line of people snaked from the doorway, between the obelisks, and down the nearby street. Many in the line appeared sick or disabled. Others quietly wept or stared vacantly in front of them.
Toward the middle of the line, two women in plain linen dresses conversed. "I've come to ask Horus to bless me with a child. My husband and I have been married for nearly a year and we have nothing to show for it. I've sought the blessings of the gods before, but now . . . "
"Yes, I have heard that Horus is smiling upon us," said the other woman, "that's why I'm here."
Horus had made it clear he wasn't smiling about any of this, but at least I knew why these people were to eager to enter the temple. Word in Inbhad traveled fast when it came to miracles. I guessed everyone could use a miracle now and then.
I flew through the broad double doors of the temple and followed the line of people to another door. An acolyte stood outside, letting miracle seekers in once they had paid the appropriate tribute. A large pile of gold, gems, handiwork, and food lay next to the acolyte's table. I shuddered, thinking about how unhappy King Zoser would have been if he had found so much tribute here. "I have no problem with the gods having their share," he would often say, "so long as theirs is much smaller than mine."
I flew through the wall and into the next room. It was dark, dimly lit by a fire pit in the center. The thick and cloying smoke from the fire smelled of sharp, spicy incense. A priest sat in a large wooden chair in front of the fire. A gold pendant that looked like an long-nosed pig lay against his bare chest. He wore a fine black wig and his eyes were lined with kohl. A white linen kilt was wrapped around his waist. He listened to a young woman who knelt before him. Even in the dim light, I could see that one of her hands was crippled.
". . . and so I ask that Horus grant me use of my hand," said the woman, her voice husky with emotion.
The priest took her hand in his lap and examined it. Other than the crackle of the fire in the room, it was quiet. Then, he looked into a dark corner of the room. A flicker of movement caught my eye.
"Horus, in his benevolence and mercy, shall grant your gift."
The woman's hand unfolded like a blooming flower. She gasped, held it in front of her eyes, and wiggled her fingers. "Oh! Horus! Oh! Oh!" She burst into tears.
The priest smiled half-heartedly. "Use your hand for the greater glory of Horus. Go and be well!" He gestured toward the door.
The woman scrambled to her feet and left the room, tears of joy wetting her face.
I flew to the dark corner where I'd seen the movement, but it was empty. Had I imagined it?
The priest followed the woman out the door. "No more today," he mumbled to the acolyte outside and scurried down a stone hallway. In all likelihood, this priest was Mebora, the man Horus wanted me to investigate. However, I had worked for Zoser long enough to learn an important lesson: follow the tribute.
As the long line of miracle-seekers crowding out of the temple expressed their frustration, I secreted myself in a shadow near the tribute pile. Before long, a group of hooded priests arrived and loaded the goods into several large papyrus baskets. Although each of them wore traditional white linen robes and golden donkey pendants, they looked more like stoneworkers than holy men. The muscles in their arms and shoulders were heavily developed, and the expressions on their faces were more gruff than serene.
I followed as they hefted the baskets down several stone hallways into the deep recesses of the temple. When they reached a gold-plated door, one of the priests chanted some unrecognizable words and the door glided open.
The men marched through the door and descended steep stone steps beneath the temple. The air became dank and cool, reminding me of my quiet tomb in Sakkara. They reached another door, which opened the same way as the previous one, loaded the loot into the room beyond, and left.
I flew through the door and froze with shock. The chamber was huge, at least ten times as big as the tomb beneath my mastaba. Every corner was stacked with valuables: gold, statues, wigs, fine clothes, and much more. At the far end of the tomb, a finely worked sarcophagus lay on a stone altar. Preening its feathers on top of the sarcophagus was a ba, an awfully familiar ba. His body looked like a large horned owl, with a white chest and brown wings. He wore a necklace with the pig pendant around his neck. His face was pinched, with small eyes that seemed too close to his nose and a large mouth with thin lips that curled down at the ends. It was a face I had hoped never to see again.
He looked up and called my name.
I considered flying away as fast as I could--surely I could out wing him, but I then I realized that this was just the opportunity I needed. I would find out how King Zoser's ba was connected to the miracles and then report back to Horus. If I betrayed my former king, it would show Horus, Maat, or anyone else who cared that I was simply a servant, and only my master was responsible for my deeds.
"Your Highness." I landed on one of the canopic jars and lowered my head.
Zoser smiled. "Imhotep. I'm so glad you've come. You've proven you are loyal to me even in the afterlife."
I bit my tongue.
"You're probably wondering why I'm not beneath the pyramid you designed for me." Zoser looked deceivingly wise with his visage attached to an owl's body. "Not to worry. I found no fault with the pyramid, but Sakkara is too far away. If I'm going to regain my throne, I need to be closer to the palace."
"Regain your . . . throne?" Even with my sharp mind, I couldn't quite comprehend what he was saying.
Zoser waved a wing at me. "I never wanted to die. The afterlife holds no attraction for me. I want to sit on the throne of Egypt where I belong. Plus, Huni's going to ruin everything I've built. He was always a willful child. Never listened to my advice."
"But how could you . . . come back?"
Zoser grinned. "Not an obstacle for a true king."
It didn't make any sense. I was usually the one that had figured out how to execute Zoser's devious ideas. How would he pull this off?
I heard a little tapping sound on the floor and noticed Rehu racing toward me. "Good sir!" he shouted in his little voice.
"Not now, Rehu." I turned to King Zoser. "Why are you telling me this?"
"I'll need my trusted vizier during my new reign."
No! My worst nightmare was coming true. Zoser would not allow me to rest, not even in death.
Rehu pulled on one of my talons. "Good sir!"
"Not now!" I looked at Zoser. "I will never be your vizier. I'm done."
Zoser narrowed his eyes. "Why?"
A shiver went through me when I realized I was finally doing what I'd wished I could do my whole life. I could finally tell the old king what was truly on my mind. "You're a selfish, disgusting old man with no sense of morality or fairness. A ten-year-old child would make a better king than you! But your taint, your stench, your immorality has washed off on me! My heart should be pure, but it is not-all because of you! The only reason I served you was because I had no choice, but now I do. I'm dead, you see. You can't touch me!"
"GOOD, SIR!" shouted Rehu. For a stick figure, he looked perturbed.
"What?" I said.
"Your body has been removed from your tomb."
"My . . . body?" I couldn't believe it.
"Yes, it's being carried here, to Horus's temple."
"But why? Who?"
I looked at Zoser, who seemed extremely amused. "Haven't you heard? Miracles are being performed in Horus's Temple."
I froze in shock. "No. You wouldn't."
"The greatest miracle of all will be performed today-resurrection of the dead! What a joyous day it will be when King Zoser will once again rule the world of the living with his trusted vizier, Imhotep, by his side!"
"You're crazy!" I shouted, leaping toward the ceiling and pumping my wings.
"Stop!" yelled Zoser. "I command you!"
I shot through layers of the temple until I was clear. When I got my bearings, I flew toward Sakkara yelling "Horus! Help! Horus!"
Horus listened. Before I made it back to Sakkara, the sky around me turned into a bright white hallway of light. In moments, I was in the giant stone room lined with the sparkling hieroglyphics. Maat's chamber of souls.
In the background, Maat and Ammit went about their business weighing a line of hopeful after-lifers. Ibis-headed Thoth chipped away at the wall with a hammer and chisel. Horus waited for me, his muscular arms crossed and his bird's head cocked to one side. "Back so soon, Imhotep?" he asked.
I landed in front of him, panting. "King Zoser is at the temple. He claims he's going to get resurrected and rule again."
Horus didn't look surprised at all. Then it hit me. Horus had known that King Zoser was involved in all this. That's why he'd sent me, not because he needed my great wisdom, but because of my connection with Zoser. Horus had manipulated me, used me as a tool, just as Zoser had in the mortal world. I was furious, but I struggled to keep my voice even when I spoke. "You knew I'd find him there."
Horus nodded. "I thought you would, but who was performing the miracles? Not Zoser."
Who? I was such an idiot. I should have played along with Zoser long enough to discover the truth. Instead, I'd been so terrified of the threatened resurrection that I'd lost sight of my true goal. And now I was in the worst position of all, caught between Horus and Zoser. If I didn't think of an answer quick, I'd be bathing in Ammit's digestive juices before I could say Zaphnathapaaneah.
"Do you have an answer or don't you?" Horus crossed his muscular arms.
The obvious answer didn't make sense. The temple, the miracle-seekers, even the priest's invocations pointed to Horus being behind the miracles. The strange part was King Zoser's ba, standing in that room full of treasure with his owl body and that stupid pendant around his neck. Wait, the pendant. Why had the King worn a pendant? He'd never done so before. He always been too vein to obscure his chest with jewelry. And the priest had worn the same amulet. Could it possibly be a religious symbol? I couldn't remember any of the gods favoring a pig. But maybe it wasn't a pig. Of course! An aardvark, the symbol of Set.
An invisible force tugged at me, as if my ba was a Nile hippo being pulled in by a harpoon.
"Where are you going?" asked Horus.
"Something's got me! I think my ba is being pulled back into my body!" I shouted. "Help me!"
"You still haven't told me who is behind the miracles."
I cursed under my breath. Horus wasn't going to help me until I helped him. I had to give him the answer he needed, or I would be of no use to him. Gods were no more righteous than kings.
"It's Set!" I yelled. "He's going to resurrect Zoser. He's behind the miracles!" I felt another pull on my ba, this time even stronger. "Help!"
Horus raised his staff. The light in the chamber flickered and dimmed. "Set!" intoned Horus. His voice rolled through the chamber like thunder. "Come to me-if you dare!"
The force stopped tugging at me, and Horus stood so still I couldn't see him breathe. The chamber was silent. Even Ammit was quiet.
Then Set materialized in the chamber. His body was toned and muscular like Horus', but his head resembled that of an aardvark, with a long, curved snout, beady little eyes, and high, misshapen ears. He wore an elaborate red headpiece, which matched his silken toga.
"Horus!" Set said. "It's been a long time. Have you grown tired of your one remaining eye? I'd be happy to remove it like I did the first one. Or shall I simply cut you into pieces, like I did your father?"
Horus ignored the barb. "What you were doing in my temple?"
Set twitched his nose. "At Zoser's resurrection, the priests will proclaim you dead and declare all recent miracles in my name. You will be forgotten. Your temple will become mine!"
Horus raised his staff high above his head, and the whole chamber began to tremble. "Your death will be slow and painful!"
"You always were a prideful little runt!" said Set. "It will be a pleasure destroying you!"
I didn't like the way this was going. A fight between two gods couldn't be good for humans-dead or alive. It was just like wars. They always seemed to make the kings richer and the peasants more miserable. As a vizier, I'd managed to stop a few wars with the right words whispered in the right ears. It was time to do my job again.
I looked around the chamber, trying to find someone-anyone-who could help. My eyes settled on Maat, who seemed mesmerized by the confrontations between Horus and Set. I sidled over to her throne next to the golden scales and whispered, "You'd better step in."
"What?" She took her stunning brown eyes away from Set and Horus and peered down at me.
"I can't imagine it would be good for anyone if those two started fighting," I said.
She frowned. Her face was so beautiful it made me want to melt. "I can't do anything."
"Yes, you can," I said. "Propose a compromise they both can live with."
She smiled at me, and then turned to the two gods. "Stop! Both of you!" She rose from her throne and walked over to stand between Hours and Set, who looked angry about the interruption.
"The two of you have got to stop!" said Maat. "The last time you fought, you were at it for twenty years!"
"But he--" began Horus.
"Hush." Maat held up a long, delicate finger. "I propose that Set be required to build his own temple and Horus' temple will remain. Horus and Set will agree to a truce, leaving each to operate his own temple in peace. And Zoser does not get resurrected."
"And if Horus and I don't agree to this proposal?" said Set.
Maat hesitated and looked at me. I rushed up and whispered in her ear.
"I will feed the loser of your battle to Ammit," said Maat. Ammit looked strangely complacent with his massive jaws not at work.
"But you can't do that," said Horus.
"I can. It's called justice."
Ammit looked eagerly from Set to Horus, as if hoping one or the other would refuse Maat's proposal.
"Agreed," said Horus.
"Agreed," mumbled Set.
Then Maat turned to me. "And what of you? Are you ready for my scale?"
I looked at the golden scale. I'd just averted a war between gods. That had to count for something. The question was, did it make up for a lifetime of serving Zoser's evil wishes? "Could I simply remain in my mastba?"
Maat shook her head, sadly. "All of the dead must face my scale."
"Then what choice do I have?"
"I appreciate what you have done for me, and I am willing to give you another chance. You may return to life and serve as King Huni's vizier."
I frowned. What kind of reward was that? I was looking for rest, not more work. "But then the next time I die I'll be in the same position as I am now."
Maat cocked her beautiful head. "Maybe. Here," she pulled the ostrich feather from her hair, "you, and all future viziers, will be known as `Priests of Maat.' You will be charged with assuring that justice is served in the world of the living-even if it means defying your king."
As I took the feather in my hand, I knew what I had to do. My next life would be a dangerous one, but it would be worth the risk. I would live a life of justice, and be ready for the scales when I returned.
"I accept," I said.
A burst of light filled the room. It was so bright I had to close my eyes.
When I opened them, the sun was shining. I felt fresh air on my face, smelled loaves baking in brick ovens, and heard the sweet song of a canary. I held an ostrich feather in my hands.
I was alive.
There would be rest for the servant of a king. I'd prove it this time.