Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Reading ancient Egypt

A new anthology brings ancient Egyptian writings to the general reader

Reading ancient Egypt
Reading ancient Egypt

One of the best-known features of ancient Egypt is its hieroglyphic writing system, which in addition to its air of mystery – the language was not deciphered until the early 19th century – is also highly decorative. However, while the ancient Egyptian writing system is instantly recognisable as one of this civilisation’s best-known achievements, perhaps few people today can name even one work written in ancient Egyptian.

It is this situation that British academic Toby Wilkinson hopes to remedy in his new anthology Writings from Ancient Egypt. This provides a survey of what survives from the various genres of ancient Egyptian writing from the earliest times to the beginnings of the Ptolemaic period in the 4th century BCE presented in accessible English translations.

The surviving texts written in ancient Egyptian are very often either religious in character or are official records written down to serve some political or similar purpose. The ancient Egyptians did not have a highly developed conception of literature in the modern sense of the word – writings produced for pleasure as much as for other purposes – and anyone looking for the ancient Egyptian equivalent of the literature of the ancient Greeks or Romans is likely to be disappointed.

There is no ancient Egyptian “Euripides and Plato, Pliny and Virgil,” Wilkinson says in the introduction to his anthology. There is no ancient Egyptian Odyssey or Iliad. While he says that the ancient Egyptian Middle Kingdom (2010 to 1630 BCE) saw the introduction of material that “can properly be described as literature in the modern sense of the term,” this may not satisfy many modern readers.

However, reading ancient Egyptian writings can bring many rewards, especially for visitors to ancient Egyptian monuments who want to know more about the meaning of the strings of characters they see carved or painted on stone or plaster walls. While few may turn to these texts in the way they might to the writings of the ancient Greeks or Romans, there is still a good deal of ancient Egyptian writing to keep them interested, covering a variety of genres from battle narratives and autobiographical inscriptions to mortuary texts, tales and teachings.

Wilkinson says that this material has three main features. First, it is concerned above all with personal and national status. “The king stood at the apex of Egyptian society,” he writes, “and an individual’s status depended on membership of one of the circles of authority radiating out from the monarch.” Moreover, “self-belief at the national level… trumpet[s] Egyptian cultural superiority and promulgate[s] an official xenophobia directed against either invaders or foreigners in general.”

Second, it is concerned with the relationship between the human and the divine, with a doctrine of divine kingship underpinning “the government of Egypt for three thousand years” from the Early Dynastic Period (2950 to 2575 BCE) to the Ptolemaic Period (309 to 30 BCE) and built on the idea of “a contract between the king and the gods.”

The king’s role was to uphold the political and religious order, in return for which the gods would guarantee the continuation of his rule. “This quid pro quo is emphasised in all official texts, sacred or secular,” Wilkinson says. “Hymns and royal inscriptions alike explicitly reinforce the bonds between the royal and divine spheres.”

Third, the material is characterised by what Wilkinson calls “a penchant for bureaucracy.” He adds that “lists are everywhere” in ancient Egyptian writings – “lists of foreign tribute in battle narratives, lists of royal epithets in hymns, lists of sins not committed in declarations of innocence.” There is a “fondness for counting and accounting” in ancient Egyptian writings, and “scribes were taught at an early age to keep a tidy mind and apply this to the management of the country.”

Perhaps this tidiness also accounts for a fourth feature of ancient Egyptian writings, implicit in the first, which was its conservatism. While there were important changes over the three thousand years or so of ancient Egyptian civilisation, some of them mentioned in the anthology when they have to do with linguistic change, what may strike the modern reader most is the continuity of ancient Egyptian writings.

For modern readers accustomed to ideas of individual inspiration and constant innovation powering literary achievement, the ancient Egyptian emphasis on anonymity and tradition is almost jolting. In the same way that it can be difficult for the unpracticed eye to tell the difference between a Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom or Late Period work of ancient Egyptian art or architecture because of the continuity of forms or styles, individual features of ancient Egyptian literature can be difficult to appreciate.

It is these that Wilkinson’s anthology does most to help modern readers to understand,  particularly since ancient Egyptian literature acted as a vehicle for much the same ideas and served much the same purposes over the entire three thousand years of its existence. The three main features Wilkinson identifies serve as useful guides for readers trying to make sense of this rather homogeneous terrain, and he helpfully divides the writings as a whole into categories or genres.

Kinds of writing: The texts Wilkinson calls “autobiographical inscriptions,” for example, celebrate the personal status of named individuals, usually in formulaic terms.

His “battle narratives” continue the typically ancient Egyptian desire for commemoration, transferring ideas of status from the individual to the national level and from private individuals to political leaders and kings. The three texts Wilkinson translates from this category, spanning a period of some 800 years and including an account of the pharaoh Thutmose III’s victory at the Battle of Megiddo in 1458 BCE, “show remarkable similarities,” he says, “emphasising the essential conservatism of ancient Egyptian royal ideology and political authority.”

This is also emphasised in the “royal inscriptions” he includes in the anthology, these exemplifying what was always a main purpose of written texts during the entire span of ancient Egyptian civilisation. In a society where only a tiny minority could read and write, where writing was restricted to a small and privileged caste of scribes, and where there seems to have been an enormous gulf between written and oral forms of expression, it is easy to see that writing could be used to reinforce authority.

The writing one sees on the walls of ancient Egyptian temples today uses hieroglyphs (meaning “sacred writing”), the highest, most impressive form of ancient Egyptian script. Other texts, those less designed for monumental effect, were written in a cursive script called hieratic, and later there developed a demotic script for everyday use. Unsurprisingly, the royal inscriptions Wilkinson translates were written in hieroglyphs since they were originally written on the sides of monuments and were designed for maximum effect.

The anthology contains at least two texts from this category that are perhaps of special interest: the obelisk inscriptions of Hatshepsut, a “female king” who reigned from 1473-1458 BCE, and the “Restoration Decree” of Tutankhamun designed to mark the triumph of religious orthodoxy that came with the accession of the boy king to the throne in 1332 BCE. Wilkinson describes Hatshepsut’s reign as “one of the most remarkable and fascinating episodes in pharaonic history,” not least because this female pharaoh, having succeeded to the throne of her father Thutmose I and her husband Thutmose II, embarked on a remarkable building programme. The fruits of this can still be seen at the Temple of Hatshepsut on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor.

Tutankhamun needs no introduction even to those largely unfamiliar with ancient Egyptian history. His “Restoration Decree,” discovered on a slab of red quartzite found in Luxor in 1905 and now in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, emphasises Tutankhamun’s upholding of the political and religious order in a way familiar to all ancient Egyptian pharaohs. 

The “hymns,” “lamentations” and “mortuary texts” included in the anthology have a primarily religious content, and they were composed either to be part of religious ceremonies or to accompany the dead on their journey through the afterlife. The hymns were designed to be read or sung aloud, and one of them, “The Great Hymn to the Orb,” is perhaps better known as the Hymn of Aten. It may have been composed by the 18th-Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep IV (c. 1353-1336 BCE), father of Tutankhamun, who famously substituted his new religion of Aten for the official state religion of Amun, changing his name to Akhenaten in so doing.

“Ancient Egypt is often thought of as a civilisation obsessed with death,” Wilkinson comments of the mortuary texts included in the anthology, adding that most of its most impressive monuments, among them the Great Pyramids at Giza, were funerary in nature. Some of the oldest texts to survive from ancient Egypt, or from any human civilisation, are mortuary texts, among them the so-called “Pyramid Texts” inscribed on the walls of the tombs of the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom (2575-2125 BCE) to assist them in the afterlife.

The anthology includes examples of these, along with selections from the later “Coffin Texts” (because they were written on or inside coffins) and the New Kingdom “Book of the Dead,” a compilation of short texts or spells that could be adapted to the needs of the individual for whose tomb they were made. Wilkinson comments that some of these spells are rather strange, though they apparently “reflect the particular preoccupations of New Kingdom religious beliefs.”

There are spells “for repelling a beetle,” for example, as well as “for being transformed into any shape one may wish” and “for preventing a man from going upside down.” Wilkinson says they provide a summary version of ancient Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife. The “shabti spell” covers those who will do the work (a shabti was a spirit, literally an “answerer,” who performed manual labour), for example, and the “opening of the mouth spell” relates to a ritual that allowed the deceased to “breathe again” after death.

The “declaration spell” was recited by the deceased on his day of judgement when he was called upon to justify himself in front of a jury of the gods. This spell, Wilkinson says, provides intriguing details about the “seamier side of life in ancient Egypt” since it lists those things the deceased says he has not done, indirectly indicating that some people did do them at least. 

PRIVATE LIVES: While some of the mortuary texts are likely to be vaguely familiar to many readers, if only because they were introduced to the “Book of the Dead” and similar texts at school, other texts included in the anthology are likely to be far less so, including those gathered together as “letters,” “legal texts” and “teachings”.

These provide an intriguing glimpse into ancient Egyptian private life, or the lives of ancient Egyptian individuals, since they deal with personal or familial concerns. The letters translated in the anthology include those of Heqanakht, a landowner from the 12th Dynasty (c. 1230 BCE), to his steward, giving instructions on the management of his estates and other matters.

The legal texts include the “Edict of Horemheb” from the early years of the reign of Tutankhamun setting out the law on various matters and the will of a woman called Naunakht who drew up her final testament in 1147 BCE. She “makes it very clear that she intends to leave her property to be divided among the five of her eight children who looked after her in her old age,” Wilkinson says. She disinherits her three other children, offering “fascinating insights not only into ancient Egyptian family law, but also into the dynamics of one ancient Egyptian family.”

The texts Wilkinson calls “teachings” are particularly revealing of the ways in which ancient Egyptian society functioned. These texts – caste in the form of maxims, proverbs, school exercises and family letters – have an explicitly instructional content. “The wise man lives off the fool,” runs the 20th maxim in the collection called “The Teaching of Ani” attributed to a man called Ani who was a scribe during the rule of the New Kingdom pharaoh Ahmose (1539-1514 BCE). “Keep private what is said at home,” runs the second. “Do not make excuses to your superiors,” says the fourth.

“Ani’s words of wisdom reflect middle-class values,” Wilkinson says. “Ani’s advice is above all practical and pragmatic. No fewer than eight of his maxims deal with how to amass and keep wealth. Appropriate behaviour towards one’s superiors and family life are the subject of seven maxims apiece.”

Finally, there are the texts that are closest to modern ideas of literature, being those that relay predominantly fictional content and seem to have a fundamentally pleasurable aim. These texts, gathered in sections called “lamentations” and “tales” in Wilkinson’s anthology, explore personal crises (“lamentations”) and conjure up imaginary worlds.

“The Tales of Wonder,” dating from the 18th century BCE, is a series of fantastic tales apparently told to the pharaoh Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza, by his sons. “The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor,” a fantastic traveller’s tale dating from the 12th Dynasty, Wilkinson describes as an allegorical work reflecting “a world of unfairness and suffering in which facing up to calamity is best achieved by recounting it.”


Toby Wilkinson, Writings from Ancient Egypt, London: Penguin, 2016, pp337

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