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The Teaching of King Amenemhat

Introduction

Teachings are one of the most important genres of Egyptian literature. They are instructions in wisdom addressed by an elderly father to his eldest son and other children, who are about to succeed him; these testaments of a lifetime's experience give advice on the means of success in public life, and articulate the continuity of ethical and social values. They are, however, fictional, and do not give practical injunctions for real life, although the teacher is often a historical figure of rank, and, in the case of the present teaching, a king. In royal teachings, narrative and reflection have a larger role than in the Teachings of non-royal officials, relating as they do to the specific events of individual reigns and to the central role of kingship in articulating Egyptian culture. Their commands, therefore, have less immediate relevance to the lives of the audience.

The Teaching of King Amenemhat is spoken by the founder of the Twelfth Dynasty for his son and successor, Senwosret I; in The Words of Neferti Amenemhat I was acclaimed as an idealized restorer of order, but this poem gives a more intimate, and strikingly dark, portrait. The king is speaking to his heir from the grave: father and son are separated by death. Amenemhat was clearly not the actual author of the poem, which may have been ‘ghostwritten’ some time after his death. Some 700 years later, New Kingdom scribes attributed it to a master scribe called Khety.1 P. Chester Beatty IV 6.11–7.2. Text: A. H. Gardiner, Hieratic Papyri in the British Museum, 3rd ser., Chester Beatty Gift, ii, pp. 20–1.

The historical Amenemhat I died after a thirty-year reign (c.1938–1908 BC), a death which is described as unexpected in The Tale of Sinuhe (q.v.). In his Teaching he appears to his son in a dream and tells him of an attempted assassination, which the poem implies caused his death. The conspiracy seems to have originated in the royal harem; the family of the Vizier Intefiqer, who subsequently fell from favour, may have been implicated. From historical evidence, it seems that there was a ten-year co-regency between the king and his son, but the poem represents things otherwise and emphasizes the perils of sudden succession. At the start of the Twelfth Dynasty, co-regency was a new institution which, although it had obvious practical advantages, was difficult to reconcile with belief in a single king who was both unique and divine; the poem rewrites political history in order darkly to affirm the royal succession in a manner uncompromised by the awkward reality of the co-regency.2 There is also no mention of any political difficulties Amenemhat may have encountered in originally seizing the throne; opponents of the new dynasty could have interpreted the assassination as retribution on the new king.

The Teaching's stated aim of instructing the prince in how to rule is disingenuous, for much of it is reflective rather than didactic in tone, and addresses an audience of all mankind. The poem has clear political overtones, and it can be read as a veiled justification of coregency or of reprisals following the old king's death. However, it primarily explores the wider issues of the humanity and divinity of the king, and of the duties of rulers. The theme of the interregnum between two rules embodies broad Egyptian concerns about the instability of order and the threat of chaos, ones not restricted by the policies or intrigues of the Twelfth Dynasty. Manuscripts of the poem show that it was still being read in the fourth century BC.

The title states that the late king appears to his son as the latter is about to ascend the throne, and tells him of the duties and responsibility of kingship. In the first five stanzas he warns against trusting anyone, and alludes to his own fatal experience of humanity's treachery. This pessimistic attitude is not just determined by the specific and dramatic situation, but is part of the generally negative Egyptian concept of human nature, in which society was viewed as tending to the wild, and man as needing to have order imposed on him from above. It was a royal duty to re-enact the creator's imposition of order on the cosmos at creation. Many of the stanzas are dominated by repetitive syntax, giving an air of imposed force and monumentality, while antithetical statements express the sudden eruption of disorder, and many verses have a prominent caesura. The first thematic section ends with impassioned pleas to mankind to benefit from the king's bitter experience.

In a central section Amenemhat describes his assassination in intimate and human detail: even within the circle of the court this would have been a deeply shocking passage for the original audience—the sordid death of someone whose role was that of a god. The narrative account explains the reason for the king's cynicism, but also provides a justification for his fallibility in allowing himself to be surprised by his enemies. In his defence he cites the unexpected nature of the attack, while the detail that he was overcome at night-fall adds a cosmic dimension to the disaster: sunset was a time of universal danger. The traumatic death of the old king and the accession of the new is presented as part of a cosmic struggle against chaos, and an instance of the pattern of death and rebirth, sunset and sunrise: Amenemhat's day is done.

In a third section, the king moves to his positive achievements. It was, paradoxically, his invincible achievement that made the attack unexpected, and this legitimizes his apparent fault of lack of foresight. His success as the defender and sustainer of the country makes him an epitome of Egyptian kingship. This self-presentation recalls the language of monumental commemorative inscriptions and non-royal autobiographies, and culminates in a description of his memorial, a magnificent funerary temple. This image of stability is, however, undercut by a vision of disorder in the streets, which is part of the unrest of the interregnum. In a dramatic manner the king departs from his son with a final address, halfdespairing, half-triumphant, in which the new king is assured of his right to office, and of his father's intention to have him rule. The true culmination of Amenemhat's reign is this succession rather than his assassination.

The Teaching begins and ends with the theme of the king rising to divinity, and includes both his divinity and his humanity. To the ancient audience it would have provided a discussion of the nature of kingship, the centre of Egyptian culture; to a modern audience, it offers a rare and dramatic insight into the uneasiness of ancient kings.

There are many New Kingdom copies of the work, but the most complete manuscripts are the New Kingdom P. Millingen (now lost) and P. Sallier II (P. British Museum EA 10182). Numbers give the stanzas of Wolfgang Helck's edition (letters indicate the lines of these sections), with the page and line numbers of P. Millingen in parentheses.

1 P. Chester Beatty IV 6.11–7.2. Text: A. H. Gardiner, Hieratic Papyri in the British Museum, 3rd ser., Chester Beatty Gift, ii, pp. 20–1.

2 There is also no mention of any political difficulties Amenemhat may have encountered in originally seizing the throne; opponents of the new dynasty could have interpreted the assassination as retribution on the new king.

Notes:

1 P. Chester Beatty IV 6.11–7.2. Text: A. H. Gardiner, Hieratic Papyri in the British Museum, 3rd ser., Chester Beatty Gift, ii, pp. 20–1.

2 There is also no mention of any political difficulties Amenemhat may have encountered in originally seizing the throne; opponents of the new dynasty could have interpreted the assassination as retribution on the new king.

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