Egypt: Wisdom Literature, A Feature Tour Egypt Story

Wisdom Literature

And Other Text of Ancient Egypt

Original Article by Marie Parsons

Revised by Jimmy Dunn

Books today categorize various types of documents and text that have come to us on papyri, ostraka, stelae, tomb paintings, and temple inscriptions. We can read personal letters such as those from Deir el-Medina, Hymns such as those to Thoth, Amun and Ptah, Autobiographies such as those of Weni and Harkhuf, Offering Formulae, and texts that are termed "Wisdom Literature." We even find love poems

Depiction from an ancient Book of the Neitherworlds

While there always seems to be some religious connotations in most Egyptian Literature, of course there was the purely religious writings of both a funerary, often a form of wisdom text in itself instructing the tomb owner in the magic of the netherworld like the Book of the Celestrial (Divine) Cow and non-funerary such as the Contendings of Horus and Seth. Funerary text gives us a very good idea of how the Egyptian religion evolved over time, taking us from conceptual compositions of a somewhat undefined nature, such as the Pyramid Text, to highly sophisticated compositions of later periods.

Of course, there is always secular documentation, that often provide us with a window into the world of everyday ancient Egypt as well as other spheres like warfare. For example, the Egyptian account of the Battle of Kadesh is one of the oldest records of large warfare, while the Victory Stele of Merneptah records the first usage of the term, Israel. Others give us insight into the events of specific periods, such as the Famine Stele or sometimes simply grip about the human condition, like we find in the Man Who Was Tired of Life. But we also find simple court records and information, often very specific to a specific time period.

A Detailed Examination of Wisdom Text

A better term for this category would be "didactic", rather than wisdom, literature. Didactic literature includes those texts the purposes of which are to inform, teach or persuade. "Instruction," or sb3yt, does not fully cover all the texts that are more accurately called didactic. The entire genre include the maxims such as Ptahhoteps, the complaints, such as the Eloquent Peasant, the laments, such as Ipuwer, the prophecy of Neferti, and the testament, such as that of Amenemhet.

Not all the texts that must have once been familiar to the ancient Egyptians have come down to us. We know some of the authors by name only, references in other later texts. A piece of literature, dating from the Ramesside Period, New Kingdom, laments the lack in that period of writers such as the sages of the past. This "Students Miscellany", as Gardiner named it, says in part

"s there one here like Hardedef? Is another like Imhotep? No one has come in our time like Neferti or Khety, their best. I will let you know the name of Ptahemdjedhuti and Khakheperseneb. Is another like Ptahhotep, or Kaires?They are gone, their names forgotten, but writings make them remembered."

If Imhotep truly wrote texts, we know not of it. Nor that of Ptahemdjedhuti. And some of the others that we do have are fragmentary.

More compositions of the wisdom literature type have been recovered than any other form of ancient Egyptian secular literature. Most of these writings survive in more than one copy, some written on papyrus by accomplished scribes, for preservation or for their own pleasure. The best of these date to the Middle Kingdom. Others were written on ostraka, flakes of limestone, as school exercises in copying a text or taking dictation. Often these were then filled with errors, making interpretation and understanding difficult.

The literature fall into three categories. The first and oldest are the maxims for living, in which the author records his advice to a son (e.g. Ptahhotep) for a proper and successful life. In the maxims category of the literature, the father is shown passing wisdom to his son. The father is old and famous, at the end of a successful career in public office, in the kings service. He wants to pass on the knowledge and experience he has gained to his son and to later generations. Since the speaker held public office, his experience is primarily in public matters, how to debate, how to be a successful member at court, how to win promotion, how to please a superior.

The maxims include a range of advice, from correct behavior in social situations to proper conduct toward superior and subordinates. Their purpose is the transmission of Maat, right and proper behavior, both for its own sake and as the key to a happy and successful life. The individual who lives according to Maat is often described as "the still man" or "the silent man" that is, the calm and effacing person or the knowledgeable man, as opposed to the fool. The antithesis of the "silent man" is the "heated man." The silent man is not so much taciturn as thoughtful, temperate, and judicious, one who insists upon taking a moment or more to reflect upon the situation before reacting to the words and actions of the "hothead" who confronts him. This is seen at its best in the Instructions of Amenemope.

The earliest of these are attributed to three officials of the Old Kingdom, though the actual extant manuscripts date only to the Middle Kingdom and are written in that form of the hieroglyphs. The first of these officials was an unnamed vizier instructing his sons, one of whom, named Kagemni, became vizier under King Sneferu in the 4th Dynasty.

The Instruction for Kagmeni is fragmentary. Only its conclusion survives. It is set in the time of Kings Huni and Sneferu of the 3rd and 4th Dynasties.

A portion of its text is herein: "the submissive man prospers, the moderate man is praisedthe place of the contented man is wide."

The second official was Hardjedef or Djedefhor, son of Sneferus successor Khufu.

The Maxims of Hordjedef/Djedefhor is a fragmentary text set in the time of King Khufu of the 4th Dynasty, composed by his son for his son. This text offered in part, "Reprove yourself in your own eyes, take care that another man does not reprove you."

Ancient Egyptian Literature

The third official was Ptahhotep, a vizier of King Izezi in Dynasty 6.

The Maxims of Ptahhotep is the most complete of these Maxims. It consists of a prologue, 37 maxims and an epilogue. Though the text is set in the Old Kingdom period, its provenance actually dates much later.) Ptahhotep advises on behavior toward ones wife, towards ones guests and as a guest, but perhaps the most intriguing and more philosophical portions concern conduct in a public forum. For example, a portion advises, "If you find a disputant arguing, a humble man who is not your equal, do not be aggressive against him in proportion as he is humble, let him alone, that he may confute himself. Do not question him in order to relieve your feelings, do not vent yourself against your opponent, for wretched is he who would destroy him who is poor of understanding."

The Instructions of Amenemope, dating also to the New Kingdom, is attributed to a high official in the ministry of agriculture. The father advocates a life of devotion to moral conduct and public service, grounded in religious belief. Portions of this text have been interpreted as having parallels to the Biblical Proverbs 22:17 and 24:22. Another portion therein says, "Something else of value in the heart of God is to stop and think before speakingThe hote-headed manmay you be restrained before him. Leave him to himself, and God will know how to answer him"

Several later instructions also belong in the advice category. One of these is the "Instruction of a Man for his Son", which apparently dates to the Middle Kingdom. It is fragmentary, ending abruptly, or at least missing its conclusion. But a part of it again extols the virtue of being "the silent man" "Acquire a good character without transgressing, for laziness on the part of the wise man does not happen. A silent just man, obedient and well disposed of mind"

Another is the Loyalist Instruction from the Sehetibre Stela. The Stela itself dates from the 12th Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom, though some of its extant copies date from the New Kingdom, and is attributed to a high-ranking noble addressing his children. It praises the king and advises the children to follow and serve him, and then gives advice on managing the servants on the estates. The text is notable for its extolling of the king, calling him by the names of the gods Re, Khnum, Sekhmet and Bast, as he cares for the Two Lands. It holds the king up as one who cares for those too who are obedient to him.

A third example herein is the Instruction of Khety, also known as the Satire of Trades. The speaker is accompanying his son to scribal school, and tells his son of the value of education for the betterment of his career and life. After he describes to his son the negatives of some other occupations such as fisherman, bricklayer, and sandalmaker (these are occupations, not careers, not professions, and they involve physical labor and working under some overseer), the father repeats advice given by Ptahhotep and Kagemni in their earlier works. He adds this, "Do not utter thoughtless words when you sit down with an angry man."

A second type of wisdom literature deals with the proper conduct of the kingship. This category includes two texts supposedly written by kings for their successors.

The Instruction for Merikare is addressed to a King of the 10th Dynasty by his father, and may date to the First Intermediate Period. It is a mixture of advice for the son in governing well, rewarding talent rather than noble blood, and is mixed with historical narrative, ending with a hymn to the Creator God. The text is notable for its possible reference to the myth of the Destruction of Mankind in the Book of the Divine Cow. It also extols the virtues of being wise in speech rather than in action. "Be skillful in speech, that you may be strongit is the strength of the tongue, and words are braver than all fighting."

The Instruction of Amenemhat contains advice of the first King of the 12th Dynasty, Amenemhet I, to his son and successor Senusret I. The Instructions for Amenemhet is also a royal instruction, but primarily takes the form of a testament. The "author" is the ghost of King Amenemhet I returning to speak to his son Senusret I on governing well, but mostly is a bitter justification of his fathers policies while alive and a jaundiced warning to trust no one. This latter is based upon a palace coup that may have resulted in his death. The text is fragmentary, with the third page of the manuscript having been destroyed except for the beginnings of the lines.

The third category of wisdom literature is called "admonitions." These texts are descriptions or prophecies of diverse times in Egypt, when the country is overrun by outsiders and the normal social order is turned upside down.

The earliest such text is The Prophecies of Neferti, set in the time of King Sneferu of the Old Kingdom. The text may in fact date from the 12th Dynasty, being simply a propaganda piece for the dynasty of the Middle Kingdom. The earliest extant copies date to the beginning of the 18th Dynasty and thus the New Kingdom. The Prophecy purports to predict the incursion of Asiatics into the Delta and the rise of a king from southern Egypt who will reunite the country and bring order and prosperity. The king is named Ameny, a nickname for Amenemhet, who brought unity and order back after the First Intermediate Period.

The text called the Admonition of Ipuwer has copies extant to the 19th Dynasty. It is similar in context to the Prophecies, though it contains no historical references. The Admonitions is difficult to date historically. It portrays the land in chaos, the poor exalted above the rich and lesser above the greater. The beginning and ending are missing, so it is unknown if the author proposed any solution to the chaos.

The Lamentations of Khakheperre-seneb, with its general complaints, also dates to the 18th Dynasty, and honors King Senusret II. The Lamentations is also a lament of the evils that have befallen the speaker and society, but only the prologue is given.

The Eloquent Peasant comes from the Middle Kingdom, lamenting the loss of justice, or maat. A peasant traveling to market is accosted by a corrupt bureaucrat who seizes his goods and donkey on a pretext. The peasant always protests his innocence and appeals to Maat, then appeals to the King, Amenemhet II, who eventually invites him to court to receive full restitution.

The single underlying theme of these three categories is that of Maat, how to behave in accordance with Maat in order to achieve happiness and success, how to govern well and wisely as king, how to promote Maat by not neglecting or ignoring the principle of order in the world. The texts all are concerned in one way or other with Ma'at, the ideal to be striven for. Its absence brings about the turmoil and chaos of social disorder. The king should rule by Maat, the political order mirroring the divine order instituted by the gods.

See Also:


  • The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt

  • Middle Egyptian by James P. Allen

  • The Literature of Ancient Egypt, edited by William Kelly Simpson

  • Ancient Egyptian Literature, translated by Miriam Lichtheim

Marie Parsons is an ardent student of Egyptian archaeology, ancient history and its religion. To learn about the earliest civilization is to learn about ourselves. Marie welcomes comments to