Saturday,17 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1415, (25 - 31 October 2018 )
Saturday,17 November, 2018
Issue 1415, (25 - 31 October 2018 )

Ahram Weekly

Autobiography in ancient Egypt

What can be learned from reading the autobiographical self-presentations of the ancient Egyptians, asks Hussein Bassir

Prince Rahotep and his wife Nofret

The writing of the non-royal self, or life-writing, is one of the most ancient literary practices through which individuals wished to express their identity and leave their fingerprints on time to avoid forgetfulness and ensure survival. 

This genre of writing started early on in ancient Egypt. The traditions of Egyptian self-presentations were deeply rooted in ancient Egypt since the early Dynastic Period, and they differed in aspect, composition and themes from the beginnings of Egyptian history to the late Dynastic Period.

Self-presentation was the most ancient and crucial component of Egyptian high culture. Members of the non-royal elite presented themselves through language and art within the historical and archaeological setting of their periods. The elements of self-presentation varied with their protagonists in title, reign, profession, and overall background, and they all concentrate on the meanings and history of the self in the telling of a life story. 

The power of artworks and texts to reshape as well as to reflect history and cultural identity may be seen through the self-presentation of ancient Egyptian individuals. Text (language) and image (art) represent major components of constructing and reshaping the overall self-presentation of such individuals.

Documenting non-royal life saw many experiments to identify the patterns used by individuals when describing their lives. The first definitions include history, life events and life itself. Such autobiographies mainly state the life events of the subject of the biography in the first person, while there are also biographies indicating the life events of other people mainly written in the third person.

Ancient Egyptian self-presentations are not close in concept to what we know today as autobiographies, owing to the fact that such texts were written during the lifetimes or after the deaths of the protagonists. Moreover, the subjects of the self-presentations concerned may have participated in or even dictated the actual content of his or her self-presentation, though this is not certain.

The concept of autobiography was differently used in ancient Egypt, with there being no reference or linkage to our contemporary understanding of what this means in ancient Egypt. Hence, the term “biography” would be a more appropriate one to use when referring to ancient Egyptian self-presentations, since it covers a wider spectrum of the type of relationship between the text and its subject. 

The majority of ancient Egyptian self-presentations are written in the first person, which is why they are called “autobiographies” by scholars who have believed that the author of such self-presentations is its protagonist, though this may be different from what is known regarding biographies in western or Arab cultures. 

Based upon such misunderstandings or assumptions, both titles are commonly used: “autobiography”, though we may not be sure of the real author of the literary work, and “biography”, though we may not be sure that somebody else may not have written these self-presentations and not the actual subjects of the works.

Ancient Egyptian self-presentations were inscribed on statues, stelae, tombs and temples walls, and coffins and rocks starting from the Old Kingdom and going right through to the Graeco-Roman Period. 


Black granite cube statue of the Healer Djedhor, with Herupakhart, or Harpocrates, child deity with the sidelock of youth, mastering snakes, wild animals, and standing on a crocodile

HISTORIES OF THE SELF: The roots of such self-presentations go back to the beginnings of Egyptian history, maybe starting from the First Dynasty and including the Third-Dynasty wooden plates of Hesy-Re which are on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the self-presentations of Metjen that date back to the early Fourth Dynasty and handle legal matters. 

The first self-presentations that include a fictional tone include that of Debhen dating back to the end of the Fourth Dynasty. During the Fifth Dynasty, the protagonists of such self-presentations tell us much about themselves, and they can be categorised into two main genres: ideal self-presentations that agree with the moral concept of Maat and present their subjects in long-form sentences to show them as ideal; and event self-presentations that demonstrate the experiences of the subject and the events he or she witnessed, specifically those concerning the professional career from which dates can be deduced.

Starting from the end of the Fifth Dynasty, ancient Egyptian self-presentations begin stating the careers of their subjects in detail, including the regnal periods and the circumstances of the kings that were being served. These are called “career” or “professional” self-presentations, and they continued through the Sixth Dynasty. 

The self-presentations of the Fifth Dynasty display the reactive relationship between the king and the elite member concerned, the subject of the self-presentation. The self-presentations of the Sixth Dynasty reflect the achievements of their protagonists, and they are related to the introduction of the self-presentations of the First Intermediate Period, such as that of Qar at Edfu. 

The self-presentations of the First Intermediate Period reflect the political fragmentation that Egypt saw at the time. During the Middle Kingdom, a new trend of self-presentation appeared based upon moral values. The self-presentations from the New Kingdom include a range of historical events due to Egypt’s expeditions into Asia and Africa at the time, though self-presentations from the Amarna Period are scarce. The self-presentations from the Ramesside Period show a great respect for funerary beliefs, and this trend continued throughout the Third Intermediate Period and the Late Period.

The self-presentations were written in a form that fused together literary genres such as narrative, wisdom literature, funerary literature and wishes for the afterlife. Such self-presentations highlighted the milestones and prominent situations of their protagonists’ careers. A huge number of ancient Egyptian officials recorded such self-presentations, including priests, artists, physicians, ministers, civil and military officials of different ranks, as well as the administrative officials who supervised the royal court, the Egyptian borders and Nubia. 

There were many different ranks in ancient Egypt that included first-class officials in addition to officials from the lower ranks. However, all the self-presentations that have come down to us relate to only the first rank of officials, and self-presentations of commoners and women were not documented until the Late Period.

 

AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL THEMES: The main theme of such self-presentations was to represent their subject in accordance with the beliefs of the elite class, and the main idea was to highlight the pious devotion of the protagonist before his or her deities, family, community and future generations so he or she would remain commemorated.

It was important that his or her record of achievements should be remembered and venerated and that the family should enjoy the privileges that had come from it. They should enjoy what he or she had enjoyed during life and should rejoice in the eternal afterlife through the supply of physical offerings of food and beverages that should continue to be left in the tomb. 

Within these self-presentations the subjects were represented as a reflection of the cultural and social lives that existed in ancient Egypt. Through these self-presentations light is thus shed on the social, political and economic life of ancient Egypt. They present individuals in moral, social and cultural contexts that are totally different from our contemporary understanding of self-presentation. The broad style of writing typical of ancient Egyptian literature, specifically that relating to the funerary context, represents the deceased as an ideal image and as a mediator to allow him to go on to paradise.

In general, these self-presentations depend on patterns that contain the titles and attributes of the protagonist, his genealogy and appeal to the living, a relationship to existing wisdom literature, and wishes for the afterlife. Main parts include an appeal to the living that was embedded within offering supplies to the dead. If the deceased did not receive the expected offerings, he would call on the living passing by his tomb to pray for him in a prayer like the following: 

“O, you who live upon earth,

Who shall pass by this tomb

Going north or going south,

Who shall say, ‘a thousand loaves and beer jugs’

For the owner of this tomb,

I shall watch over them in the necropolis.”

 

A later evolution of such appeals to the living is known as a “verbal speech” in which the deceased assures the living that he needs nothing from them, rather than repeating a call to them, highlighting the importance of this act as being more important than the offerings themselves. 

The formula can be found in the following text: 

 

“A thousand types of bread and beer, oxen and fowl, ointment and clothing, incense, unguent and all kinds of herbs, all kinds of offerings on which a god lives, for the ka of the revered prince, count, royal seal-bearer, beloved of his lord, favoured sole companion, deputy chief seal-bearer, Sehetep-ib-re, the justified, son of Dedet-Nekhbet, the justified.” 

The context inscribed on the tomb walls of the deceased also highlights the high rank of the owner, expressing and framing it in a manner different from the images portrayed on the walls. Such verbal formulas include traditional phrases that refer to the origins and social status of the deceased, as well as his or her moral beliefs and contributions to society. For example: 

“I have come here from my city, 

I have descended from my nome”. 

Or:

“I gave bread to the hungry,

Clothing to the naked,

I brought the boatless to land.”

The self-presentation of the Sixth-Dynasty official Harkhuf is inscribed on the façade of his tomb at Aswan and is considered to be one of the best and most important examples of self-presentations from the Old Kingdom. It is rich in detail, excitement and suspense, displaying life outside Egypt and its external role towards Nubia by the end of the Old Kingdom. 

Most probably the most elaborate element in this self-presentation is the part in which the child-king Pepi II sends a message to Harkhuf recommending him to take care of a dwarf he has brought. The phenomenon of enclosing messages from the king within the self-presentations of officials is a new trend during the Old Kingdom. 

Moreover, this self-presentation demonstrates the development of the genre. The traditional introduction includes “an offering which the king gives and Osiris”, as well as the name and titles of the deceased:

“I have come here from my city, 

I have descended from my nome;

I have built a house, I set up (its) doors,

I have dug a pool, planted sycamores. 

The king praised me,

My father made a will for me. 

I was one worthy…

One beloved of his father,

Praised by his mother,

Whom all his brothers loved.”

 

LATER SELF-PRESENTATIONS: From the Middle Kingdom, one can refer to a segment of the 12th-Dynasty self-presentation of Ikhernofret inscribed on his stela, number 1204, in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin in Germany. 

In this self-presentation, Ikhernofret describes the mission he was ordered by king Senwosret III to undertake from his royal court at Lisht in Lower Egypt to Abydos in Upper Egypt to restore a statue of the god Osiris and other statues related to him. In addition, Ikhernofret brought the materials necessary for the rituals and accomplished the procedures requested to finish them at Abydos. He says: 

“I did all that his majesty commanded in executing my lord’s command for his father, Osiris, Foremost-of-the-Westerners, lord of Abydos, great power in the nome of This. I acted as ‘his beloved son’ for Osiris, Foremost-of-the-Westerners. I furnished his great bark, the eternal everlasting one. I made for him the portable shrine that carries the beauty of the Foremost-of-the-Westerners, of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, bronze, ssnDm-wood, and cedar wood. The gods who attend him were fashioned, their shrines were made anew. I made the hour-priests [be diligent], at their tasks; I made them know the rituals of every day and the feasts of the beginnings of the seasons.”

The 18th-Dynasty self-presentation of Ahmose, son of Abana, is considered to be one of the best self-presentations from the New Kingdom. It is inscribed in his tomb at Al-Kab in Upper Egypt. The importance of this self-presentation is that it is a historical document relating the history of the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt from an Egyptian point of view in which the subject was an eyewitness and participated in contending against the Hyksos. 

Ahmose, son of Abana, says in this regard: 

“Now when I had established a household, I was taken to the ship ‘Northern’ because I was brave. I followed the sovereign on foot when he rode about on his chariot. When the town of Avaris was besieged, I fought bravely on foot in his majesty’s presence. Thereupon I was appointed to the ship ‘Rising in Memphis’. Then there was fighting on the water in the ‘Pjedku’ of Avaris. I made a seizure and carried off a hand. When it was reported to the royal herald gold of valour was given to me”.

The 19th-Dynasty self-presentation of Bakenkhons is inscribed on his block statue at the Egyptian Museum in Munich in Germany and was originally at the Karnak Temple in Luxor. Bakenkhons was the highest priest of the god Amun for almost 20 years starting from the third decade of the reign of Ramses II. 

He says: 

“I am one truly silent, effective for his god, 

who trusts himself to his every action... 

For [I am a humble man] whose hands are together upon the steering rope,

acting as a helmsman in life.

For I am happier (nfr) today than yesterday,

at dawn he will increase my happiness.”

The Saite 26th Dynasty self-presentation of Payeftjauemawyneith displays the activities of restoration and heritage management of the ancestors which were practised during the 26th Dynasty. At the end of the Saite Period, Payeftjauemawyneith came from Lower Egypt on a royal mission to restore and rebuild the temple of the god at Abydos and Thinis in Upper Egypt. 

This self-presentation is inscribed on his block statue number (A93) now on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris. At the end of his self-presentation Payeftjauemawyneith mentions that: 

“His majesty praised me for what I had done. 

May he give life to his son, Amasis son of Neith, 

May he give me favours from the king,

And reveredness before the great god! 

O priest, praise god for me! 

You who come from the temple of the blessed, say: 

May the high steward Peftuaneith, 

Born of Nanesbastet, be in the god’s bark, 

May he receive eternal bread at the head of the blessed!”

Such self-presentations thus had very old roots in ancient Egypt. This literature displays the lives of the elites and vividly represents their beliefs, culture and expectations for the afterlife. It also displays their wish to be remembered and not to be forgotten after death. It displays their eagerness to be commemorated by the living to avoid the possibility of a miserable afterlife.


The writer is director of the Antiquities Museum at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. 

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