Literature in Ancient Egypt:
A Prominent Component of Civilization
By the Egyptian Government
Picture above: The Hall judgment after death, where the deceasedis sentenced to eternal destiny in Paradise or hell.
Of all the fields, of civilization literature figured high. Ancient Egypt was the source of great works written on papyrus or on the walls of temples, tombs, pyramids, obelisks, portraits and monuments. These works of art succeeded for many centuries. Over time many changes took place; many governments and civilizations, vanished and others appeared, but the ideals of the ancient Egyptian literature persisted even in our age. Besides, ancient Egyptian literature formed central elements in folkloric works of many nations. This shows how elevated ancient Egyptians moral and literary perceptions were, even before divine religions were revealed or even before the world knew great literary masterpieces.
Ancient Egyptian literature rose and grew in the bosom of religious beliefs, but it quickly evolved to deal with mans ordinary day-to-day life. Literary works occupied a distinguished position in the ancient Egyptian thought and civilization. The ancient Egyptians viewed literature as a source of spiritual nourishment and a unique way to elevate style of expression. Refined literary style was a source of pride for the writer and appreciation and enjoyment for the reader.
Ancient Egyptian literature tackled almost all aspects of life. Literary works were classified by subjects into various genres such as novels, short stories, poetry, folkloric tales, proverbs, wise-sayings, moral teachings, philosophical meditations and literary messages. The latter were divided into title, introduction, body and conclusion.
Literary debates involved opposite parties rendering them arguments and counter arguments.
Besides, ancient Egyptians wrote plays, dramatic poetry, songs, religious hymns and love poetry, in addition to description of nature, panegyrical poems to glorify their kings and their glorious battles, and songs for workers and farmers and others to be sung in parties.
Influence on world literature
In ancient Egyptian literature, there is a story dating back to the Middle Kingdom (2022 BC-1850 BC). This era witnessed a great number of writers and thinkers who left behind a number of works of art reflecting the elevated status of thinking and culture in ancient Egypt. The story is entitled The Sailor and the Wonder Island. It narrates the story of an ancient Egyptian sailor whose ship was wrecked with all on board drowned. As the only survivor, he lives on an isolated island, finds a treasure, returns home and the mysterious island sinks deep into the sea immediately after his departure.
Scholars of comparative literature maintain that the structure, plot and general theme of the source was inspired by many of the greatest and most famous novelists all over the world. The story had influenced many famous classical and romantic novels invoking adventures in search of valuable treasures and heroes who lived in isolated islands.
Robert Louis Stevensons Treasure Island is a good example. This novel narrates the adventures of the hero Jim Hawkens who found a map of a treasure buried in an isolated island. Another example is the French writer Alexandre Dumass Conte De Monte Cristo. This novel tells the story of Edmound Dante who suffers much and goes through a series of exciting adventures to find a buried treasure in the isolated island of Monte Cristo. At the end, he gets the treasure and returns home safe. Surprisingly enough, ship the hero's ship was named Pharaoh.
Critics of comparative literature state that the ancient Egyptian story of The Sailor and the Wonder Island had influenced Hay Ibn Yaqthan, a story written in the 12th century by the Arab Andalusian philosopher Abo Bakre Ibn Tafayl. Hay Ibn Yaqthan a philosophical story of a man who lives since his childhood on an isolated island. Through reasoning, he reaches philosophical conclusions proving the existence of Allah. This story had a wide influence on world philosophers and creative writers after being translated into many languages such as Latin, French, English, German and Dutch.
Divine Comedy versus Message of Forgiveness
Scholars and critics of comparative literature are at logger head on the extent of the influence of the Message of Forgiveness written by the great Arabic poet abul-Alaal- Maarri (973-1057 AD) on Dante Aligieris Divine Comedy. The central theme of both works is the description of heaven and hell in the hereafter.
A number of Impartial scholars believe that this theme has clear roots in ancient Egyptian literature which tackled this theme in many works. It was evident in The Book of the Dead, The Book of the Gates, and in the story Isis, Osiris and the World of Dead .
Ancient Egyptian writers expressed their imaginative vision of the journey of the soul after leaving the body to the sky until it reaches the court where the deceaseds heart is weighed against Maets feather that symbolizes justice, truthfulness, rightness and bounty. Then, the deceased is sentenced to eternal paradise or hell.
In heaven, called Iyarows fields, the deceased enjoys eternal youth without sickness, senility, or death. He is dressed in magnificent clothes that never wear out or get dirty, eats and drinks the most delicious food, fruits and fresh water. Besides, he enjoys eternal peace of mind, safety, and peace as there is no evil souls, snakes, beasts or insects.
In hell, the bad people are thrown, where they undergo eternal punishment in certain lakes full of water like fire flames, voracious crocodiles, snakes, and vipers. Besides, the guardians of these lakes are voracious beasts that inflict all sorts of torture on wicked hell residents.
Cinderella in ancient Egyptian literature
Cinderella's story with the same central themes appears in abundance in the folkloric and literary works of many nations all over world. The most famous writers who tackled the story were the German Grim brothers.
Cinderella's story with the same central themes can be traced in some literary works appearing on the ancient Egyptian papyri in different names and styles.
The first reference of this story dates back to the era of the fourth Dynasty in the 26th Century BC. Then, a copy of this story, dating back to the Modern Kingdom between 16th and12th centuries BC., was found. This copy contains a detailed description of the humiliation and torture inflicted on Cinderella by her step-mother. Another papyrus dating back to the Sixth Century BC. showed the same story.
The ancient Egyptians excelled in novel writing. This is reflected in the great number of stories left behind. In some of these stories, a well-traveled hero tells us about his adventures such as the story of the drowned sailor and the dangers he witnessed on the mythical island of snakes.
Another example is Snohi; story that became very famous for many centuries. It describes Snohis escape from Egypt, his stay in Syria for dozens of years , where he won the favor of the king. He become so close to the leader that he allowed him to marry of his elder daughter and gave him a plot of land. When Snohi grows old, he also grows homesick. He appeals to the king for permission to return to Egypt to see, as he says, the place that his heart is longing to see because the greatest thing in the world for a man is to be buried in the place of his birth. His hope was fulfilled and he honorably comes back to Egypt.
Another example of the marvelous stories is The Eloquent Farmer. It tells the story of an Egyptian farmer who was robbed and treated unjustly, so he submits eloquent complaint to the Pharaoh saying:
Look, you are the chief that hold the scales, Do not let it lose balance.
Your tongue represents that of the scales, Your lips the hub.
If you shut your eyes to the oppressor, Who else can rebuff.
It is you that make justice.
You do all good and destroy all evil.
You bring satisfaction; as you come, hunger-vanishes, You come like a calm sky after a wild storm.
You give warmth to those stricken with cold.
Your are like fresh water that quenches thirst.
Proverbs of Ptah Hutep
The oldest text in the ancient literature which expresses, in excellent literary style, the rules of good conduct is The Proverbs of Ptah Hutep. Ptah Hutep was an ancient Egyptian minister under King Asisi of the Fifth Dynasty (2670 BC) When he felt that he is getting older, he wanted to teach his son wisdom. So, he wrote a papyrus containing his directives and proverbs.
The preface of this 5000 years old- papyrus says that Here begin the wise sayings said by the prince, sacred father, Gods favorite, the true son of the king, ruler of the city; minister Ptah Hutep. He wrote it to educate the ignorant and to teach him styles of wisdom and wise sayings. Glory be to those who follow these teachings and shame be on those who neglect them.
Ptah Hutep addresses his son saying
Do not be arrogant of your knowledge. Consult with all: with the educated as well as the uneducated, as knowledge has no limits and no one can acquire all kinds of learning. If you hear someone, who is older and wiser than you, talking, listen carefully and bow to him. If he says something wrong, do not be angry: people will say what an ignorant!.
Somewhere else, Ptah Hutep advises his son saying, If you were a leader of a group of people, treat them well. Do not treat them unjustly; justice is something great.
Concerning table etiquette, Ptah Hutep teaches his son saying, "When you sit to the table of a dignitary, take, when he asks you, from what is immediately before you. Do not look at what is before him. Do not look too much at him. Do not look at him unless he salutes you. Do not talk unless he salutes you. Laugh when he laughs. This will make him delighted and satisfied with you because man does not know the reality of the heart.
Regarding destiny and divine decree and how to be satisfied with the gods judgment, Ptah Hutep tells his son, Let not a man with no children envy you. Do not step away from him making him sad and grieved. A farther with many children may be worried in spite of his high rank. Similarly, the mother of many children may have less time for rest. God creates man and predestines his share in life.
Urging his son to work and earn his living, he tells him, "Listen son, you can not be rich without exertion. If you work hard, the god will help you gain wealth. But if you keep lethargic and lax, the god will be always ready to inflict his wrath and punishment on you. If not lazy and dull, God will hardly punish you.
As for modesty, Ptah Hutep advises his son saying, When you rise from mean ranks to higher positions, grow rich after being poor, forget not your past. Do not be proud of your wealth and do not be arrogant but remember you are no better than your mates who had relapsed into poverty.
The Egyptian drama
In addition to novels, proverbs and wise sayings, the ancient Egyptians were the first to write drama. An Egyptian document dating back to king Menes (Narmer); of the 32nd Century BC shows the first dramatic text along mans history on earth. The document, kept at present at the British Museum in London contains dramatic philosophical dialogue between Egypts ancient deities on the process of creating the world and the cosmic system of things and creatures.
Therefore, historians, called this text a drama of the start of creation or the Memphis drama named after Memphis; Egypt's capital built by king Menes.
It is astonishing that dialogues between the gods were written in a style typically similar to that used in classical and contemporary drama. More interesting is that the text of this drama contains soliloquies by the reciting priest who plays a role similar to that of the narrator who interprets and comments on the events stage directions . Surprisingly enough, this text contains a number of similar to those used by classical and modern dramatists.
There is another dramatic text, inscribed on the walls of Edfu temple, called by historians a drama of Horus victory over his enemies. This text is considered one of the best and most complete dramatic text of the ancient Egyptian era. It is divided into five parts: introduction, three acts, and the end. Events evolve around the conflict between Horus and his followers and Sit and his followers. It ends with the victory of Horus, who represents good, truth, and justice, over Sit, who represents evil, injustice, and tyranny.
The ancient Egyptians excelled in writing romantic love poetry. In addition eulogies to Nile River and its merits, there were many love poems that expressed not only vehement poison surging the heart of a lover, but also delicate emotions. Sentiments of love were couched in beautiful similes derived from the aesthetic aspects of Egyptian environment. For example, a lover says to his beloved, My beloved is like a garden, full of beautiful papyrus blossoms and I am like a wild goose attracted by the taste of love.
Another lover says, My beloved is there on the other bank. We are separated by the floodwater. On the bankside, there is a crocodile lying in wait. But I am not afraid of it. I will swim through the water until I reach her and be delighted.
In another love song, two lovers exchange most refined expressions of love. The loving woman says, I will never leave you my darling. My only wish is to stay in your house and at your service. We will always be hand in hand, come and go to gather everywhere. You are my health; my life.
It is to be noted that in many of the love poems in ancient Egypt, the man calls his beloved as sister and the woman calls her lover as brother in order to show how each one of them highly appreciates the other and rises him.
A story from the Pharaonic era
Studies of ancient Egyptian literature have showed no trace of stories in the old Kingdom era. However, there were indications of legends and tales about deities dating back to pre-historic times. Stories that so far survived were handed down from the Middle Kingdom era. These reflect that this art had reached its climax during that era, but gradually deteriorated in later times. This is a normal and historically repetitive evolution. In Greek civilization Humers epics were the starting-point. Therefrom, a dramatic art started maturely enough with Aeschylious and Sophocles. in the same way, story writing began in the Middle Kingdom era as a natural outcome of the Ancient Kingdoms legends.
The most notable work of that era was the story of Snohit, written in 2000 BC during the region of the 12th Dynasty.
Snohit, hero of the story, was a celebrity during the region of King Amnemhat I . He held the titles of hereditary prince manager of royal estate in Asian lands, exclusive and most favored entertainer of the king.
When the King come to know that some Libyans in west Delta were regularly looting the area, he sent an army led by his eldest son Snosert conquered them and returned with my booties including captives and livestock. En route home, Snosest knew of the death of his father, and was the only one to be aware of this event. He proceeded briskly to keep his throne. however, Snohit received news that another son of the deceased King also came to know of his death and accordingly hurried back home. Snohit anticipated a conflict over the throne among the Kings sons. In view of his close relationship with prince Snosert, he felt terrified by the imminent struggle and accordingly decided to flee from Egypt. Heading towards Syria, he encountered many troubles. With no provision, he fell down due to fatigue and thirst and was starved almost to death. He was saved by a group of Bedouins. Being a well-known figure, they recognized him and therefore give him food and shelter. Then, he proceeded to Palestine whose prince warmly welcomed him when he recognized his status. He hosted him in his palace and let him marry his eldest daughter. He further offered him the best of his property, of which he chose a fine plot of land rich with crops, water and livestock.
Snohit later became ruler of one of the best tribes in the century. He lived there in peace and prosperity for a long time. As he grew older, he felt homesick for his motherland Egypt and wished to return home and be buried there. But how to do so, considering his earlier unjustifiable flight? The King must be angry at him. Taking this in consideration, Snohit sent an appeal to Snosert I, explaining his plight and excesses for his flight and begging for permission to return home.
I was a mouse that fled in time, but now I am being reported in the Kings seat. I was dwindling of hunger, but now I offer bread to my neighbor. My home is beautiful and spacious, and I am mentioned in the royal palace.
You god, whosoever you are, who had decreed that flight, have mercy on me and bring me back to the Kings seat. May be, you will allow me to see the place where my heart rests. More important is that my body be buried where I was born. Oh! how much I wish if the King of Egypt will have mercy on me so that I can live with blessing of his mercy.
When these messages reached King Sinosert 1 and having known the plight of his former servant, he reacted favorably and forgave him. He even sent gifts to him. Accordingly, the King issued a royal decree stating, "Come back to Egypt to see the Kings seat where you will die. Kiss the ground at both great doors and get your share among members of the court. Snohit actually returned to Egypt, where he was warmly welcomed by the King, his sons and entourage. He settled there and had a stone tomb erected among the tombs surrounding the Kings.
His tomb was surrounded with a garden in such a style that became the senior entertainer of the King. His statue, ordered to be made by King, was adorned with gold. No poor man has ever received such tender care up to his death, Snohit had enjoyed overwhelming royal favors.