Ancient Egyptian Literature

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Ancient Egyptian literature is characterized by a wide diversity of types and subject matter; it dates from the Old Kingdom (c. 2755-2255 BC) into the Greco-Roman period (after 332 BC). Such literary devices as simile, metaphor, alliteration, and punning are found.

Range of Literary Forms

The religious literature of ancient Egypt includes hymns to the gods, mythological and magical texts, and an extensive collection of mortuary texts. The range of secular literature includes stories; instructive literature, known as wisdom texts; poems; biographical and historical texts; and scientific treatises, including mathematical and medical texts. Notable also are the many legal, administrative, and economic texts and private documents such as letters, although not actually literature. The individual authors of several compositions dating from the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom (2134-1668 BC) were revered in later periods. They came from the educated class of upper-level government officials, and their audience was largely educated people like themselves. Indeed, many literary compositions of the Middle Kingdom were composed as political propaganda, to teach the students who learned to read and write by copying them (on tablets and ostraca) to be loyal to the ruling dynasty. Many of these same wisdom texts were still copied by New Kingdom (1570-1070 BC) schoolchildren more than 500 years later, along with more contemporary texts designed to undermine the glamour of the new military profession. Some of the stories include elements of mythology and may owe much to an oral storytelling tradition.

Old Kingdom

The oldest literature preserved, the Pyramid Texts, are mortuary texts carved inside the pyramids of kings and queens of the later part of the Old Kingdom; they were designed to ensure the dead ruler's rightful place in the afterlife. These texts incorporate mythology, hymns to the gods, and daily offering rituals. Many autobiographical inscriptions from private tombs recount the deceased's participation in historical events. Although no stories or wisdom texts are preserved from the Old Kingdom, some Middle Kingdom manuscripts may be copies of Old Kingdom originals; an example is The Instruction of the Vizier Ptahhotep, composed of maxims illustrating basic virtues (such as moderation, truthfulness, and kindness) that should govern human relations and describing the ideal person as a just administrator


First Intermediate Period

Following the breakdown of the Old Kingdom, the Pyramid Texts were appropriated by private individuals; supplemented with new incantations, these texts were painted on coffins, from which the name Coffin Texts is derived. Private individuals also continued to have their tombs inscribed with autobiographical texts, which often recounted their exploits during this time of political unrest. To this First Intermediate period (c. 2255-2035 BC) are attributed various laments over the chaotic state of affairs. One of these, The Dialogue of a Man with his Ba (soul), is a debate on suicide; another, the earliest example of the songs sung by harpists at funerary banquets, advises Eat, drink, and be merry, before it's too late!

Middle Kingdom

In addition to Coffin Texts, Middle Kingdom religious literature comprises numerous hymns to the king and various deities including a long hymn to the Nile and ritual texts. Private autobiographies containing historical information continued to be inscribed, and rulers began setting up stelae (stone slabs) on which their important deeds were recorded. From both the First Intermediate period and the Middle Kingdom come instructional texts, each written in the name of a reigning king, telling his son and successor how various specific historic events influenced the kingship and how the son should profit by the father's mistakes. The Satire on Trades stresses the bad aspects of all possible occupations in contrast to the easy life of the scribe. Among the stories composed during the Middle Kingdom are The Story of Sinuhe, a palace official who fled to Syria at the death of King Amenemhet I and became a rich and important man there; The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, a man who made such eloquent pleas for the return of his stolen donkeys that he was kept in protective custody for some time so that the officials in charge could enjoy his orations; The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor, which recounts a fabulous encounter with a giant snake on a lush island; and The Story of King Khufu and the Magicians. The earliest preserved medical and mathematical papyri also date from this period.

New Kingdom

New Kingdom mortuary texts, especially one called the Book of the Dead, were written on papyrus for inclusion in tombs. Among the most famous hymns from the period are those from the reign of Akhenaton dedicated to the sun god as sole deity. King Kamose (reigned about 1576-1570 BC), at the end of the Second Intermediate period (1720-1570 BC), recorded the early stages of driving the Hyksos out of Egypt (1600 BC). After the early New Kingdom, the number of such royal historical inscriptions increased greatly, while private autobiographical texts gave way to religious texts. Thutmose III recorded his various wars in Syria both on a freestanding stela (called the Poetical Stela) and on the walls of the temple at El-Karnak. Both records describe how the king calls in his advisers, apprises them of the difficulty of their situation, is advised to try the easy solution, and proceeds to tell them that he is not afraid and will dare the more dangerous route; the king of course succeeds. Late New Kingdom rulers, especially Ramses II and Ramses III, also left extensive records of their military exploits; both poetic accounts and chronicles of the deeds of Ramses II at the Battle of Kadesh against the Hittites have been preserved. The instructive texts, now directed at lower ranks in the bureaucracy, were no longer based on the assumption that right thinking and just action automatically lead to wordly success, but instead counsel contemplation and endurance. Among the many stories that involve mythological characters are The Contendings of Horus and Seth; The Destruction of Mankind, in which human beings are spared from annihilation by getting the goddess Hathor drunk on blood-colored beer; and The Tale of the Two Brothers, a story of a good younger brother betrayed by his suspicious elder brother. The Report of Wenamun recounts the trials and tribulations of an envoy sent to purchase wood in Byblos. Several collections of love poems exist from this period as well.

Late Period

From the subsequent centuries, into the Greco-Roman era, examples from the full range of Egyptian literary forms are known; these include new religious compositions, private and royal historical records, instructions, stories, and scientific treatises such as medical, mathematical, and astronomical papyri. The Instructions of Onchsheshongy, a collection of largely pragmatic maxims, many of which sound like proverbs, and The Instructions of Papyrus Insinger, which portrays the wise person as being moral and pious, contrast sharply with the earlier expressions of belief in rewards in this life. Stories were written in this period about the adventures of various magicians, as was a cycle recounting the exploits of a legendary king, Petubastis. One largely mythological tale consists of a series of animal fables. Contacts with contemporary Greek literature are evident both in the epic cycle and the fables, in Egyptian texts (including prophetic literature) translated into Greek, and in a range of magical texts known in both Greek and Egyptian.



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