Egypt Literature Part I

By | January 14, 2022

Egyptian literature has above all historical documentary value. It was handed down by two kinds of documents: inscriptions painted or engraved on the walls of tombs, temples, on steles, statues, on obelisks, etc.; texts mostly written on papyrus sheets (which even reach the length of forty meters), or on its substitutes, shards of vases, limestone splinters (ostraca), wood, skins. Some of the monuments are still on site, still in Egypt; another part is preserved in museums, of which the main ones are that of Cairo, Turin, the British Museum, Berlin, the Louvre, the Metropolitan of New York, that of Boston, Florence, Bologna, the Vatican and the Capitoline in Rome. According to Diodorus (I, 49) the libraries bore the beautiful title Ψυχῆς ἰατρεῖον “medicine of the soul”; but there is none some and no archives were received. They were under the protection of the goddess Śeš’ee and had special employees. The papyrus or leather rolls were kept in wooden boxes, which on the outside bore the indication of the contents. In the temple of Edfu you can still read the catalog of liturgical, magical, administrative books that the priestly library possessed.

The compositions are in prose, more or less refined, and in verse. These were regulated by the accents of the various parts; but that still remains a dark subject for us. The parallelism of the sentences is the outward sign that often makes us aware that we are dealing with poetry.

According to, the first work of ancient literature that Egyptology returned to us was a folk tale, to the great amazement of the scholars of the time. Many pleasant compositions were found; they are not lacking in ease and vivacity. A little literary gem is the “tale of Sinûhe”. It tells of the adventures of a courtier of that name, who flees to Syria on the death of Amenemḥê’e I; but this is a pretext to show the material and moral superiority of the civilization of the Egyptians over that of their Asian neighbors, their personal value (Sinûhe knocks down the champion who had won all the Syrian heroes in a duel) and to weave hymns to the omnipotence of the pharaoh. Faced with the refinement of style, which suited the subject treated in verse, the “story of the castaway”, preserved for us by a papyrus from Petersburg, it is of surprising simplicity. It seems to lack the principle. To console a prince of the unsuccessful expedition, one of the retinue tells of an adventure he suffered during a trip to the mines, the shipwreck on the island of the serpent, the return to his homeland. In the so-called Westcar papyrus of the Berlin museum, a series of stories has been copied, which the sons of King Cheops tell for fun to their father, about prodigies worked by famous ancient magicians. The last concerns an old powerful magician who lived at that time and, introduced to the pharaoh, foretells the divine birth of the kings of the fifth dynasty. Fragmentary is the story of the adventures of a shepherd who encounters a mysterious river goddess; another on the coming of the Asian goddess Astarte to Egypt; L’ adventure of a priest of Ammon with a spirit. One of the freshest in the empire, the “tale of the two brothers”, is very famous. The young Biti is persecuted by his brother Anûp’s wife for not wanting to comply with her wishes, and, after many adventures, he becomes the king’s son and ascends the throne of Egypt. It can be believed that the glorious exploits of the Asian conquest caused a cycle of folk tales to flourish around them. In fact, there remains the imaginative narration of the cunning way in which General Thute, at the time of Pharaoh Thutmóse III, managed to take over the city of Joppe (now Jaffa), the well-known port of Phenicia. Even the distant country of Nahrīn on the Euphrates, with which they had established more frequent contacts, becomes a place of adventures. A son was born to a king, predestined to be killed either by a crocodile, or a snake, or a dog. Having grown up, he leaves for Nahrīn, conquers the princess in a contest and manages to escape two of her destinies; but probably (the rest is missing) he dies at the hands of his own dog. The troubles that occurred (under the twenty-first dynasty) in Wenamôn are also novel, when he went to Lebanon to obtain the cedar necessary for the restoration of the boat of Ammon of el-Karnak. There also remains the beginning of a dispute that an Apôpe residing in Avaris begins with the Theban king Śeqnejwenrîe, it is not clear whether it was due to a channel belonging to the Hyksos or because the din of the hippos splashing inside it reached as far as Avaris. Of ancient Egyptian fables only a tablet from the Turin museum offers us one.

Egypt Literature 1