Literature in Ancient Egypt

By | May 22, 2019

The main features of ancient Egyptian written literature are already evident in the Old Kingdom (c. 2543–2120 BCE). Most of the literary texts we know of are probably written by men who belonged to the learned elite of society. The image we have of women and children in Ancient Egypt is thus drawn from the point of view of men. With the exception of autobiographies and some wisdom texts, most ancient Egyptian literary works are anonymous or attributed to a mythical sage. Many literary texts are found in several copies. They were written on stone, potsherds and papyrus and were classic texts used as models for school students throughout the Pharaoh period.

Literature in Ancient Egypt

The Ancient Empire (c. 2543–2120 BCE)

The oldest Egyptian literature dates from the Ancient Empire (c. 2543–2120 BCE). This literature consists of brief autobiographical texts by officials at the royal court, such as the autobiography of Harkhuf of the 6th Dynasty (c. 2305-2118 BCE), who was governor of Southern Egypt and led four expeditions to Nubia. Educational texts and wisdom texts such as Hardjedef’s teachings from the 4th Dynasty (c. 2543–2436 BCE) and Ptahhotep’s teachings again from the 6th Dynasty are among the first forms of expression of what would later become a very popular literary genre both in Egypt and throughout the ancient Middle East.

Religious texts occupy a considerable place in ancient Egyptian literature. The most famous religious texts of this time are the so-called pyramid texts. The pyramid texts consist of forms recited at royal funerals. The first written pyramid texts we know of date to the 5th Dynasty (c. 2435–2306 BCE) and are inscribed in Pharaoh Unas’ pyramid in Saqqara. These royal burial texts would serve as guides for the dead pharaoh and secure his journey into the realm of death. The style and form of the texts suggest that they rest on an older oral literary tradition that probably dates back to predynastic times.

During the first transitional period (c. 2118–1980 BCE), Egypt was divided into several small lordships, organized in a kind of feudal system. The literature from this period shows the social unrest that prevailed in the country. The autobiographies and educational texts, such as The Teaching of Prince Merikara, are characterized by a strong moralizing tone that shows a new understanding of the prince’s social role. According to the texts found, the princes have become more concerned with justice and are now more engaged in social issues than they were in the Old Kingdom. This development had a significant influence on the literature in the next period.

The Middle Kingdom (c. 1980–1760 BCE)

The Middle Kingdom (c. 1980–1760 BCE) is considered to be the classical period of Egyptian literature, and the language form and content of the texts were copied and imitated in posterity. As in previous periods, autobiographies, wisdom texts and educational texts in which ethical and societal issues are dealt with are still quite popular. In the Middle Kingdom this type of literature is often characterized by a prophetic tone, such as in Neferti’s prophecies and Ipuwer’s warnings. In this category we find royal teachings such as King Amenemhet 1’s teachings to his son Senussert 1. These texts sound like a testament from the aging king to his heir and consist of a collection of advice on how a king should behave.

In the same category we now find ironic texts that criticize the social conditions of the day, such as the eloquent peasant and the satire of the professions. Literature in the Middle Kingdom is generally more reflected than before. Existential problems such as the meaning of life are discussed publicly, for example in Den Lietstra’s speech with his Ba and the various versions of the Harp player’s song. From the Middle Kingdom we also have hymns in honor of the king and the gods. The changes in the concept of kings and the popularization of funerary rituals led to the development of the so-called coffin textswhich was painted on mummy chests. The coffin texts continue the tradition of the pyramid texts, but now more people could make use of the original royal texts. The coffin texts are divided into several chapters and each chapter has a title or an introductory sentence that was usually written in red.

A new genre of literature from this period is fairy tales and historical narratives, often based on the troubled transition period after the Old Kingdom. The history of Sinuhe is the most well-known example in this new type of literature. It is written in first person and tells of Sinuhe who fled from Egypt to Palestine because he was involved in the murder of the Egyptian king. In Palestine, he remained for many years among the Bedouins to avoid the wrath of the new Pharaoh. But despite the good life that Sinuhe lived in exile, he dreamed of returning to Egypt and being buried in his homeland. The story ends with Sinuhe being forgiven and having his wish fulfilled. Another adventure that seems to have been very popular isThe shipwrecked sailor, where a man describes his encounter with a giant snake on a imaginary island. This story is considered to be one of the first accounts of an experience that religious historians call mysticism.

The Second Transitional Period (c. 1759-1539 BCE)

The second transitional period (c. 1759–1539 BCE), also known as the Hyksos era, was regarded as little honor by the ancient Egyptians. Then a strange people ruled over Egypt, and it was never forgotten in the ancient Egyptian common memory. This is particularly evident in the political literature and in tributes to the Pharaohs of the New Kingdom until the end of the Pharaohic era. An example of this political literature is the poem of Pharaoh Hatshepsut in honor of his “father” the sun god Amon and the poem of Pentwer in honor of Ramses 2 and the Battle of Kadesh in Syria.

The New Kingdom (c. 1550–1069 BCE)

The new kingdom (c. 1550–1069 BCE) is considered to be the golden age of ancient Egypt. The kings built a great empire and there was a lot of contact and exchange with countries in the area. Literature is characterized by a new stream of universalist thinking that becomes particularly evident in the religious literature. In religious texts, Egyptian gods appear as universal gods, and all gods are considered aspects of the sun god. The new ideas were written in the form of tributes. The two best known are the Suti and Hors brothers in honor of the sun god and Pharaoh Akhenaten’s solar anthem. Probably the pharaoh himself had written this anthem during the religious reformation he led.

The Akhenaten sun hymn was written in a language close to the spoken language of the time. It is often compared to the later Psalm 104 of the Old Testament. After the time of the Akhenaten and up to the 5th century BCE. the vernacular was used in literature and in other documents. This language is known as Senegyptian. The classical (Middle Egyptian) language with Late Egyptian inscriptions was only used in official inscriptions on monuments. The myth of the dangerous goddess, also called the Destruction of Mankind, is among the most well-known religious texts of the New Kingdom. The religious literature of this period shows a deep personal religiosity among people of all walks of life. The new religiosity emphasizes qualities such as honor, modesty, calm and individualism. The teachings of Amenopeis a well-known example of such teaching and wisdom texts. Parts of chapters 22 and 23 of Solomon’s proverb are accurate reproductions of this doctrine.

The tradition of giving the dead protective texts was maintained by putting inscribed papyruses in the coffins. They were placed next to the mummy in the coffin and consist of formulas designed to protect the deceased in the realm of death. They were written both in italic hieroglyphs and in hieratic writing, and were adorned with pictorial vignettes. These texts are commonly referred to as the deadbook.

In the non-religious literature we find autobiographies, such as that of General Ahmose’s son to Abana, travel descriptions such as Wenamun’s report, fairy tales and moral narratives such as the History of Truth and Lies, The Damned Prince and The Two Brothers.

New genres in Egyptian literature from this period are school texts and poems. School texts were written on papyrus and used as books for school students. Different types of texts and administrative documents are included in these “books”. The second genre is poems, especially love poems, which were previously sung and recited and are now written down. Professionals today consider the many private letters that have survived as part of ancient Egyptian literature. In ancient Egypt, these were private documents that were not considered literature. Many of the letters were written by women.

Late Dynasty (722–332 BCE)

In the Late Dynasty (722–332 BCE), Egypt was dominated by many foreign rulers, including Nubians, Libyans, Persians and Greeks. What characterizes the literature of this time in particular is the idyllization of the past and the golden age. The language is very selective and often mimics the classic language of the Middle Kingdom. In many cases, the Greek-Hellenistic influence is evident in the literature. From this period we have tributes to the king, such as Pharaoh’s memorial stone, and hymns to the gods of honor, such as the Shabaka stone, and mythological stories, such as the myth of Isis and Osiris.

The political literature is characterized by a prophetic tone, proclaiming that a true Egyptian king will rise against the foreign ruler and free his people, as in the Democratic chronicle. Teaching and wisdom texts are still a popular genre, including Ankhsheshonq’s teachings and sayings in Papyrus Insinger. Fairy tales and fables that use a mixture of allegory and mythology are also very popular. They are longer and the actions are more angular than before, while animal shapes are more prominent, for example in the Setne Khaemwase cycle. Autobiographies are often written as lamentations. They are more sorrowful about the past and the injustice of death than mere biographical depictions, such as the Petosiris cycle. Religiousness, fatalism and pessimism characterize the Senegyptian literature. The philosophy is that no one can escape their destiny, and the tone is “enjoy the day.” No love poems or school books have been found from this time.

The Coptic period (from 300 AD)

From the end of the 300s onwards, the Egyptians went on to use Coptic as their written language, and a new period in Egyptian literature began. See Coptic Literature.