Inscriptional and textual evidence indicates that there were several ancient Egyptian institutions associated with storing documentation. Among them were the ‘House of Life’ (pr anx), ‘House of Books’ (pr mDAt), and ‘Hall of Written Documentation’ (xA n sSw) – the latter serving as an archive for official state-related documents.
The role of the House of Life
One of the more intriguing of these foundations was the House of Life, a structure often alluded to in Egyptian texts, but a designation that remains difficult to define. Little is known about the House of Life’s physical layout or the organisation of its personnel. It has traditionally been referred to as an institution aligned with kingship in which papyrus texts were stored, and where scribes and scholars consulted, copied, interpreted, and worked with religious compositions and other documents, including some that may have related to medicine.
There are some suggestions that the House of Life functioned as a ‘school’ or training centre, but the evidence is not clear. However, considering the academic nature of the House of Life, and its function as a repository of knowledge, the documents that were being consulted and composed may have been used indirectly in a teaching capacity. It is also possible that personnel from the House of Life could have trained their own apprentices, utilising such texts.
As well as the practical composition and copying of texts, the House of Life had a prominent ritual function, as described below. In The Mind of Egypt (2003), Jan Assmann argues:
the House of Life was the centre of cultural endeavour to preserve and ensure the ongoing process of cosmic, political, and social life.
The establishment is recognised as far back as the Old Kingdom, but the only clear evidence during that period involves two decrees issued by Pepy II (c.2278-2184 BC). These declarations exempted the priests of the Temple of Min at Coptos from various obligations (corvée), one of which was the need to supply the ‘apparatus’ of the House of Life. Gardiner (1938), in his seminal paper relating to the House of Life, examined more than 60 attestations of the institution, and suggested that the apparatus in question included papyrus, reed-pens, and ink.
The Middle Kingdom is similarly sparing in its references, but two stelae record a certain Keku, who bore the title ‘scribe of the House of Life’, and beside him was a colleague, Ameny, who was a ‘chief physician’. The New Kingdom provides architectural evidence for the institution at Tell el-Amarna, where mud bricks stamped with pr anx were found. That structure is considered to have been a modestly sized set of mud-brick buildings (c.15 × 15 metres) situated behind the heart of the royal administration of the city and adjacent to the Records Office.
From the Nineteenth Dynasty, the House of Life is better attested, and additional titles for the staff begin to appear, among them Amenwahsu and his family, whose biographies provide further information as to the duties behind official titles. Amenwahsu, as well as his son Didja and grandson Khaemopet, bore the titles ‘scribe of the House of Life and scribe of the Sacred Books in the House of Amun’. In his tomb at Thebes (TT111), Amenwahsu describes copying a hymn on to the walls and completed the litany with the words:
this inscription was written in this tomb by the scribe of the House of Life, Amenwahsu, with his own fingers.
Amenwahsu bore the additional title of ‘scribe who copies out the annals of all the gods in the House of Life’ and ‘god’s father of Ra-Atum in the House of Life’; both of these titles are also accredited to his grandson Khaemopet.
During the Late and Ptolemaic Periods there is evidence for the House of Life being established in many cities, including Abydos, Akhmim, Amarna, Bubastis, Edfu, Esna, Coptos, and Memphis. It seems likely that the Houses of Life would have been associated with the temples, and possibly the palaces, but much of the evidence fails to specify a related centre.
Building and quarrying
There are isolated references to House of Life personnel being associated with building and quarrying. Carved on the eastern pylon of Luxor Temple is a building inscription by Ramesses II (c.1279-1213 BC). The text describes how, before commencing his building work, he consulted books from the House of Life:
he learned the offering prescriptions of heaven and every secret of earth.
Inscriptions of Ramesses IV (c.1153-1147 BC) from the Wadi Hammamat indicate that, prior to dispatching expeditions to this remote place, he consulted texts in the House of Life, before entrusting scribes with the planning and execution of the journeys. In c.1150 BC, the king instructed his chief scribe of the Royal Necropolis, Amennakhte, to draw up a map in preparation for one such expedition, fragments of which still survive. The map shows part of the route through the wadi, and depicts identifying features, such as hills, together with distances between quarries and mines. The use of various colours and textures for the different features with a descriptive legend was very innovative.
A graffito from the island of Sehel has a reference to Ramessesnakht, who was ‘scribe of the sacred House of Life, royal acquaintance of the Lord of the Two Lands, overseer of constructions in the Temple of Amun on the west of Thebes’.
Medicine and healing
The House of Life has been linked to medicine and healing, too. An inscription on the statue of Udjahorresnet in the Museo Gregoriano Egizio in Rome provides a biographical account of the end of the Saite Period, and the subsequent establishment of the Persian Twenty-seventh Dynasty.
From the text, it can be seen that Udjahorresnet held a number of titles, among which was ‘chief physician’, and that he was commanded by the ruler Darius I (c.522-486 BC) to restore the House of Life at Sais:
His majesty King Darius commanded me to return to Egypt… in order to restore the department of the House of Life [dealing with medicine] after they had fallen into decay… His majesty did this because he knew the virtue of this art to revive all that are sick…
I equipped them with all their ability and all their requirements which were on record in accordance with their former condition.
A similar, earlier inscription relates to the House of Life at Abydos where Peftauawyneith, also a chief physician, was entrusted with its restoration during the reign of Haaibra (Apries; c.589-570 BC).
Further evidence is provided by the Bentresh stela, discovered near the Khonsu temple of Ramesses III at Karnak, which dates to the Late or Ptolemaic Period, but purports to relate to events occurring during the reign of Ramesses II. The stela describes the story of Bentresh, daughter of the prince of Bakhtan, who fell ill and appealed to the king of Egypt for help. Staff from the House of Life, together with the council of the palace, were summoned to the king to give advice. The princess was eventually cured by a healing statue sent to Bakhtan by the Egyptian king.
Cult of Osiris
Another important function of the House of Life was the enactment of daily rituals, especially those associated with the cult of Osiris. This is attested in Papyrus Salt 825, dated to the Ptolemaic Period, which refers to the House of Life at Abydos. The document provides a detailed contemporary description of the institution, referring to it as a structure surrounded by gods, and served by the staff of the House of Life. This configuration may also have been relevant to other Houses of Life throughout Egypt.
The papyrus describes the purpose of the institution as being the preservation, provision, and protection of Osiris through the recitation of sacred texts. An example of this is inscribed on a stela of a prophet of Neith from Hawara, and is an address to Osiris:
Your glorifications are in the House of Life, and your name shall be pronounced by the staff of the House of Life in reading its glorifications. (Gardiner 1938: 169)
Papyrus Salt states, too, that it was essential to keep secret and defend the powerful magic that this involved, particularly from foreigners. Again, this is illustrated in a magic spell inscribed on a Ramesside stela, which includes the warning:
Do not reveal it to others, a true secret of the House of Life.
Thus, the objective of the institution was to maintain the cult of Osiris – and, by wider implication, the cults of Egypt in general and their representative, the pharaoh. Religious texts would have been stored there as well as in the House of Books, and these were referred to as the ‘Emanations of Ra’ (‘god’s words’). By writing, copying, and creating sacred texts, the scribes of the House of Life were assisting in maintaining life.
The Osirian and religious focus of the House of Life is therefore clearly emphasised in Ptolemaic times and, while there were some earlier references in the New Kingdom, it is uncertain whether this was the case in former periods. Finally, the dual function of the House of Life – that of scribal activities and the cult of Osiris – is expressed in the ‘Book of Thoth’, a fragmentary collection of Demotic texts from the later periods of Egyptian civilisation (c.330 BC-AD 400).
The magic that was associated with the House of Life was considered to have been very powerful, as illustrated by the events of the so-called ‘harem conspiracy’. This was a plot against the life of Ramesses III (c.1184-1153 BC), towards the end of the New Kingdom. This was a time of political instability, work strikes, foreign invasion, and the loss of foreign territories. Social instability and conflict of this nature are often preconditions for some form of challenge to the legitimate rule in a country. Such a challenge to Ramesses III’s rule did occur, and took the form of a conspiracy in which Queen Tiye, one of the wives of Ramesses, together with a number of court personnel, including lectors, attempted to murder the reigning monarch.
As part of the intrigue, the conspirators utilised magical practices to achieve their aims, and to this end they enlisted individuals who were recognised as knowledgeable in this field. Of the main protagonists, Messui and Shotmaadji were scribes of the House of Life, and Prekemef was a lector.
The collaborators in the crime were later arrested, tried, found guilty of treachery, and sentenced to death. Many of them were subsequently executed, but personnel associated with the House of Life were allowed to commit suicide. They were able to avoid the ignominy of a public execution, not only because of their higher status, but also because there was a fear that the magic that they were deemed to possess could be used against the judges and their potential executioners.
An important institution
By combining the functions of a repository of knowledge, a centre for the copying and distribution of texts, and the role of maintaining the life of the gods and kings, the House of Life was an important establishment in ancient Egypt. Religious and other texts were created, stored, consulted, and reproduced by the scribes of the House of Life. As an institution, the Houses of Life could have been attached to both temples and palaces, but detailed architectural evidence of the buildings is lacking.
Roger Forshaw is an honorary lecturer in Biomedical Egyptology at the University of Manchester and a former dental surgeon. He studied Egyptology at the University of Exeter and later obtained his MSc and PhD at the University of Manchester. He has published on the Saite Period, medical and dental care in ancient Egypt, and the role of the lector, including a recent paper in Priestly Officiants in the Old Kingdom Mortuary Cult (2022) published by the University of Alcala (Spain).
A H Gardiner (1938) ‘The House of Life’, JEA 24: 157-179.
R Jasnow and K-T Zauzich (2014) Conversations in the House of Life: A New Translation of the Ancient Egyptian ‘Book of Thoth’, Wiesbaden: Harrassovitz Verlag.
K Ryholt and G Barjamovic (eds) (2019) Libraries before Alexandria: Ancient Near Eastern Traditions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.