Notes on Legal Vocabulary (Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period)

By Etienne Vande Walle.  Published on Egyptological, Journal Articles, Journal Edition 5. August 14th 2012. Translated by Diana Gainer from the original French.



In approaching the study of sAb, I raised the issue of the purport of this title and proposed a hypothesis for its translation (Vande Walle 2011) which differs from the usual notion of judge.  In doing so, I collected some data on terminology concerning the act of judging and of the actors revolving around its implementation, which are the subject of this work.


wpi characterizes an opening (of the mouth, eyes, path), separation, division. In the tomb of Ibi at Deir el Gebrawi (Davies 1902, 17 and pl. XI), the verb applies to the action of a herdsman using a stick to vigorously separate two bulls confronting each other.  The same verb dramatically represents to litigate as a “legal battle” (Hannig 2003, 332, No. 7280: Streit zweier Personen, bes. Vor Gericht [dispute between two people, especially in court]).

At the Congress of the Australian Society for Classical Studies at the University of Auckland in 2011, Hamilton looked closely at the formula wp.n.(j) snw r in which “two brothers” are identified as litigants in a legal process where the verb means “to judge.”  In footnote 18 of his article he provides a partial listing of the formula’s occurrences, by making a distinction according to whether the owner of the tomb is or is not connected with the Old Kingdom legal system.

In the former category [i.e., connected with the legal system]:

  • the inscription of Hezi at Saqqara
  • the facade of the mastaba of Kagemni at Saqqara
  • a text from the tomb of Neferseshemre at Saqqara
  • the inscription of Izi at Edfu
  • the inscription of Pepyankhherib at Meir


Note that each of the persons cited by Hamilton holds the office of vizier at one time or another in his career (see Strudwick 1985, 112/88; Strudwick 2005, 340/246; Vande Walle, 2012: 04.48, 26.36, 26,126) and as such he has – along with Pharaoh – supreme power over justice.  Further, Philip-Stéphan (2008, 24) is of the opinion that the vizier could receive petitions personally.  The formula wp.n.(j) snw r is not confined to the mental sphere but is anchored in reality, which is also the case for:

nfrsSmptH/SSi/wDAHatti at Saqqara (6th Dyn., PM 3:2, 515-6; Strudwick 2005, 299/232; Sethe, Urk. I, 200 L.16; Vande Walle 2012: 26.68/52.02) who as a sAb aD mr exercises at least “the judicial powers delegated to administrators to resolve any disputes arising in the performance of their duties” (Philip-Stéphan, o.c. p. 54)

qAr mryranfr at Edfu (6th Dyn.; niche-Chapel JE 43371; Sethe, Urk. I, 255, L.7; Roccati 1982, 180 in fine), who was the judge over Upper Egypt as a whole (wpw n SmAw mi kd.f).

The question is not whether the formula is in the mind or “event-based” to use Hamilton’s term: what matters in the context of this approach is to note the use of the verb wpi to define the act of judging; it may be accompanied by the preposition Hna as in the case of stela CG 1651 (P.P.I.; Borchardt 1964, 112; Willems 1990, 35) which Hannig (2003, 332 No. 7284) translates by prozessieren mit, rechten mit (to take someone to court, to litigate).

I also point out the term of judge (wpw) in CG 43371 (qAr mryranfr supra: writing in Sethe Urk. I L.7 254) formed from the same root as the verb.

Returning for a moment to the inscription of Pepyankhherib mentioned by Hamilton, it is interesting to note that in the same text, on one hand, the formula iw wp.n(i) sn.nwy r Htp appears in which the nomarch is pleased to have judged the two parties so that they were satisfied, the verb being wpi, on the other hand, concerning legal proceedings of which he himself was the subject and in which he was cleared, the magistrates familiar with the case are designated collectively with the word srw.

I close this part by specifying that the formulas incorporating the verb wpi as a rule do not precede the Sixth Dynasty.

Gardiner: G43-Aa21-D36Gardiner sign Aa 21 represents, according to the latter, a carpenter’s tool (Grammar, ed., 1973, p. 542). Hannig (Groβes Handwörterbuch Ägyptisch – Deutsch, p. 1380) treats the object as a type of plane with two handles used in carpentry (Schabhobel).  So this is a sharp cutting tool that can also be read in German as Schabmesser (scraping knife).  Philip-Stéphan, commenting on the term wDa mdw, ascribes this meaning to the verb wDa: “what literally slices / cuts the word,” that is to say “what separates right from wrong, good from evil by pronouncing judgment” (2008, 57 note 180).

wDa, taken alone, has the meaning to judge [or adjudicate], as well as to split, cut or decapitate (see Hannig, p. 400). In this sense: ppinxt HqAib at Elephantine (6th Dyn.; PM V 237; Sethe, Urk. I, 133, L.4): inscription on the facade in terms of which the person concerned (n sp wDa sn.nwy….) denies ever having judged two parties so that a son was deprived of paternal property (see Roccati 1982, 209; also accessed 4/30 /2012, which – I believe – incorrectly gives the form of the title as judge attached to Nekhen).

wDa may be accompanied by the preposition Hna, as we saw in the case of wpi. Thus the formulas concerning the protection of tombs: ir rmT nbiw wDa Hna sn in nTr aA … (Frankfort, 1928, 235-6; Sethe, Urk. I, 263, L.10), ir s nbiw wDa Hna f in nTr aA (Sethe, Urk. I, 261, L. 6) or iw r wDa Hna sn in nTr aA … (Sethe, Urk. I, 256, L.2) where offenders are introduced by the preposition.  The construction with Hna is translated: I will be judged with him (by the great god) (see Roccati 1982, 149; Hannig 400, No. 46299: gerichtet werden mit (to be judged with); Faulkner 1988, 75: have judgment with).

The tomb of Hirkhouf at Qubbet el Hawa (Sethe, Urk. I, 122, L.16) contains a variant with Hr, in the context of approaching the burial place in an impure state, the offender having to be judged on this account by the great god (translation Roccati, 1982, 203 § 191).

Gardiner: Aa21-S43. wDa may go with the term mdw and generates a synonym of the verb to judge, which occurs several times in the Pyramid Texts. Sometimes it is next to the construction wp.f sn.nw(y) (see Spell 407, § 712c which Spencer translated in his time as that N. may judge [wDa-mdw] words, that he may separate [wpi] the two contenders).

wDa-mdw occurs outside of the Pyramid Texts, including in the expression bw nti wDa-mdw im which Roccati (1982, 149) translates “where one is judged” (see Sethe Urk. I, 35, L.3; also 14, L.10, 58, L.10 and 173, L.14 with Gardiner Y2 as the determinative of wDa-mdw) as well as in various expressions related to judging, including:

–          m bAh, in a letter from the 4th Dynasty kept in the Museum of Turin as No. CG 54002 (Wente 1990, 57/65) where the sender reports the initiation of legal proceedings (… r wDa-mdw m bAh …) before an authority that is no longer identifiable due to a gap (the entire text is reproduced in Roccati 1968, pl. IV A). The document interests us in that wDa-mdw is associated with the composite preposition m-bAh the presence of which I reported in the ddwsbk stele (Vande Walle 2011, 5, in fine) and which has the effect of determining the latter’s place in relation to the presiding Pharaoh,

–          Hna, in the inscription of Dnwn (Sethe, Urk. I, 73, L.5): wnn wDa-mdw Hna.f in nTr aA,

–          Hr in the mastaba of mrrwkA (Sethe, Urk. I, 87, L.15): wnn wDa-mdw Hr s.

Two other concepts revolve around wDa-mdw, or those of judge and judgment, the writing of all these terms evincing great similarities.

Gardiner: Aa21-S43-Y2. wDa-mdw  in its sense of “judge” appears either alone or associated with an institution.

Taking into consideration the first category, the mention among the titles of idw (see the sequence summoning the deceased in Simpson 1976, pl. 39 : Xry tp nswt, mdw rxyt, iwn knmwt, wDa mdw, sS a nswt xft Hr, imy-r sS mrt, smAa wDa mdw).  The complete titles include, in addition, imy-r wpt Htp nTr m prwy, imy-r Hwt wrt, Hm nTr mAat, Hry sStA n wDa mdw, xnty S mn-nfr-ppi, sS a nswt, sS mrt and sHD wabw.

Besides his function of wDa mdw,  idw has the qualifications of mdw rxyt, iwn knmwt,  Hm nTr mAat which are all markers of the legal sphere (see Philip-Stéphan 2008, 52). In addition, his titles include the term smAa wDa mdw which the latter author links with seeing to the enforcement of judgments (o.c. 50), as well as the title Hry sStA n wDa mdw to which Helck attributes a legal connotation.  Simpson translates wDa-mdw as determiner of disputes.

Noted in the second category:

–              wDa-mdw m HAyt

Etymologically the HAyt is a hall in which Pirenne in his time placed the judge’s seat (1934, 220), the term eventually coming to designate the court “chambers” over which he said the smsw HAyt presided. Hannig (2003, 1145, No. 28200) translates HAyt as “Eingangsportal” [entrance portal or main entrance], thereby placing the room near the entrance of a building.  He refines  (o.c. 745, No. 18800) his description with reference to a portico (viell lange, transversale Saülenvorhalle [very long, transverse porch with columns]) or a waiting room (see also many Middle Kingdom instances in Lexica 5, p. In 1555 and 2222 ).  Spencer (1984, 147 ff.) discusses the term in part of his study of the portal, and on this occasion mentions the synonyms arryt and sbxt.  They especially concern temples, while HAyt would refer to government buildings and royal palaces. The three terms have as their principal meaning a structure or an area immediately in front of a door without designating the entrance to the building. The “portal-HAyt” as part of the title smsw HAyt fits into the “standard legal sequence” reported by Philip-Stéphan (2008, 52) and appears in many Old Kingdom titles. There is also a “portal-arryt” at the same time, the frequency of which is much lower, but that is regularly encountered in the Middle Kingdom. wrxww (Hassan 1944, 238/14, Fig. 101 a) bears the title of wDa- mdw m HAyt, which Hassan translates He who judges in the Audience Chamber.  Against this, Hannig (2003, 401, n° 46510) transliterates wDa-mdw m wsxt and sees a Richter in der Breiten Hall [judge in the wide hall]. wrxww counts among his titles several containing sAb (Vande Walle 2012, 04.19) including the very rare sAb imy-r sS n Hwty wrt imy wrt nt Xnw.  He also held various positions in the management of requests of DADAt wrt (which Hassan translates Great Judicial Council) as well as various priesthoods among which was that of Maat.  His involvement in the legal world is not left in doubt.

– wDa-mdw m Hwt wrt

The lintel over the door of the funeral chapel of the mastaba of kAapr bears a partially incomplete inscription (Hassan 1936, 157) that Helck (1954, 74, note 52) reconstructing it, reads wDa mdw m Hwt wrt. The title of the person involved makes no other reference to the legal sphere, as kAapr held positions in the military and in the sphere of storehouses and distribution. Helck, based on the wording of the title, is of the opinion that kAapr had im Gericht zu Tun [had something to do with the courts].

-wDa-mdw StA n Hwt wrt

The full title sAb imy-r sS among the titles of stkA (Vande Walle 2012, section 8) forms a single title that Philip-Stéphan translates sAb director of the scribes of secret judgments of the Great Court.

-wDa-mdw mAa n Hry wDb

The title describes nianxra, Hassan (1943, fig. 108) translating it as real commander of the overseers of the distributions. Hannig takes it up again in his Ägyptisches Wörterbuch (401, No. 46498) as a single occurrence, and translates it “wirklicher Richter der Speisemeister” [real judge of the chief steward]. There is yet another mention in the mastaba of mAnfr (see Mariette, 1889, 266), with some writing differences, the title also being associated with xrp. Andrassy (2008, 74-5) examines the title as part of his study of the Old Kingdom institutions and sees a link with the judiciary, without specifying its strength, and it is not possible to specify further the matters of dispute with which the wDa mdw are involved.


Gardiner: Aa21-S43-D36:Y2. Hannig groups together under No. 9118 of the Ägyptisches Wörterbuch I a few occurrences of wDa-mdw to which he assigns the meaning “judgment” (Urteil).  Among these:

kAmnfrt (Hassan 1936, 124 and pl. 139) … m irt maAt m wDa-mdw: in doing right when judging (trans. Hassan)

nfr II (Junker 1944, 147 and pl. 60) … wnn wDa-mdw Hna.f in nTr: mit dem wird von dem Gott gerichtet werden [with them will be judged by god] (trans. Junker).


The author also refers to Shepsi’s letter to the dead (Petrie Museum UC16163) to illustrate the use of wDa-mdw (trans. Wente 1990, 212: if only you might decide between me and Sobekhotep) in the sense indicated. It is interesting to note that the same Museum hosts another letter to the dead (UC16244) which mentions ir n=k wp.t=k, read Render your judgment for you … (source: Rennes Egyptology), this time making use of wp, the two terms being equivalent.

Gardiner: S29-I10-G17-F21. A third pole around which the act of litigation and its actors rotate is sDm the primary meaning of which is that of listening, which may include the act of adjudicating, which constitutes a “technical aspect” as noted by Gardiner (1973, 273 § 357). The border between the two concepts may be permeable, which is likely to explain the fact that Philip-Stéphan (2008, 123), in his translation of the biography of Uni, keeps the option “to listen/to judge” to render sDm (Sethe Urk. I, 101, L.4 et 5). In Urk. I, 100, L.14 rdi Hm.f HAy r sDm wa.k is translated by the author, in contrast, as His Majesty saw to it that I alone should proceed to judge, while in 99, L.5 – sDm xt wa.k Hna TAty sAb TAty – the focus is on the joint hearing by the vizier and Uni.  Bonnamy & Sadek (2010, 615) mention the term sDmi (usually in the plural form of sDmyw) to denote the judge(s), with reference to examples subsequent to the Old Kingdom, which is also true for sDm m mabAyt (judge of the Court of the Thirty: Vande Walle 2011) in the Middle Kingdom.

Among the Old Kingdom titles including sDm(t) in the sense of a (legal) hearing, there is that of wrxww : sDm mdw m sStA nb (Hassan 1944, 242 and pl. 101a, which the author translates he who hears the words in every secret).  The deceased holds several titles which link him to the legal sphere, including that of judge in the HAyt (see above).  Valbelle (1992, 133) attributes to wrxww the title of (he) who judges in the wsxt-court (before) the shadow covers a cubit:  should this be seen as a distant precursor of a jurisdiction of summary procedure, acting for the sake of urgency?  We also note Hsi bearing the title of imy-r sDmt nbt which Kanawati (1999, 37-8, pl. 59b – titles: p. 11) translates Overseer of all hearings.  The person concerned, who rose to the position of vizier, also bore the titles imy-r wDa mdw StA n Hwt wrt sw, imy-r Hwt wrt, Hry sStA n wDa mdw which target his legal duties.

There is also a class of title focused on hearing “only what is intended”: see ptHSpss impy who is Hry sStA m sDmt wa m Hwt wrt sw (Philip-Stéphan 2008, 310/23 translating  in charge of secrets meant only for the Great Court of the Six).  In the First Intermediate Period inpwmHAt is sDm sDmt wa (Quibell 1936, 23-4, pl. 1).  Fischer (1992, 69-71) translates it judge of which one alone judges, Hannig (2003, 1276, n° 31853) der hört was nur einer hören darf [who hears what only one may hear], while Philip-Stéphan reads sDmt waty and translates celui qui entend/juge seal (he who hears/judges alone). The title also appears among the titles of kArnn (10th Dyn.), Russo (2010, 7-8) translating it one who hears what should be heard alone (sDm sDmt wa).

Gardiner: S29-D21-A21Borrowing the words of the late prof. Théodoridès, there remains the “problem of the sar.” The author examined the word sr(w) in depth in 1973, in an article entitled Les Egyptiens Anciens, «citoyens» ou «sujets», (The Ancient Egyptians, “citizens” or “subjects”), his analysis including the inscription of ppianxHrib read the Middle Pepiankh, buried at Meir, the person cited above by Hamilton.  The interest of Théodoridès focused at the time mainly on whether the srw were agents of the administration appointed by the king (and thus removable) or whether they were persons of standing. Along the way, the author examines the role of the srw and concludes “that to be a sar is not to perform a particular function, but to function in whatever position is attained in the administrative hierarchy”(o.c. 76) and that “sar is a generic term that applies to all officials and not to a single class of them” (o.c. 75, note 74).  He also notes that sr, in his official capacity was endowed with legal jurisdiction, and was empowered to administer justice in a collegial environment, in both civil and criminal areas (in our sense of the terms).  In other words, the srw were versatile officials who could be asked to preside over legal matters, without being professional magistrates like true judges. By examining the titles of ppianxHrib (Vande Walle 2012, 26.36), we note the absence of the title sr, while his biographical inscription refers to his activity as a judge.  Moreover, we observe the same gap with Uni in spite of the fact that he was the mainspring of the so-called trial “of the Harem,” at the express command of the Pharaoh.

As part of the research I have done on the niche of the sAb, I have only encountered two occurrences containing sr, one imy-r srw (Vande Walle 19.08) and the other sr m wDa mdw (o.c. 26.92), at different places and times, quite a negligible part.

sr would therefore not be the term chosen to refer to judges in the Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period.



In the introduction to Dire le Droit [Speak the Law], Philip-Stéphan (2008, 12) warns the translator of legal terminology against the danger of distorting ancient notions by transposing them without necessary precautions into our modern legal environment, taking as an example the term sr on which I just commented.  The same reasoning applies to other terms, such as sAb, which can too easily be denoted as “judge.”

The fact remains that the act of judging exists, that it must be qualified and it is important to be able to identify the legal actors.  We have seen that to adjudicate may take several meanings, primarily polarized around wpi, wDa (mdw), sDm(t) and that these “color” those who participate in the act of adjudication.  These meanings are organized around the notions of separation, deciding, but also listening.  These are integral parts of the genesis of the court decision, which requires a phase of instruction prior to the sentence which separates the litigants, those being heard.

The importance of listening in legal matters shows through in the inscriptions in the tomb of Rekhmire (TT 100): the vizier (and with him all those called to judge) will pay attention to the words  of the petitioner because “a petitioner is said to like attention being shown his affairs more than seeing what he came for judged.”  These are not empty precepts: water and wind bear all that he (the vizier / judge) does, and no one ignores his actions (Lalouette, 1984, 182 sq; Faulkner, 1955, 29).

Hearing and deciding go together, in a process the aim of which is to achieve Maât, by ensuring that the parties leave the tribunal with their hearts satisfied, according to a graffito by Hatnub.



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