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The Words of Neferti

Introduction

The Words of Neferti is a prophecy spoken by an Old Kingdom sage named Neferti. The poem opens with a simple narrative, similar to that of The Tale of King Cheops’ Court. King Sneferu (c.2575–2551 BC) asks for entertainment in a jolly manner, his boredom leading to a spontaneous disruption of etiquette. His courtiers offer a provincial but learned priest, an individual who has earned his position by his merit. The poem was probably composed when written literature was a recent phenomenon and, perhaps significantly, deals with textualizing an oral performance: Sneferu himself writes down Neferti's speech. Although this setting is obviously fictional, it is the closest we can come to a description of the actual social context of literature in the Middle Kingdom, and the rank of the sage may well reflect, in some way, that of the actual authors.

When Neferti is introduced to the court, he asks the king what he wants, and then provides not the royal eulogy that is characteristic of such courtly settings, but a doom-laden prophecy addressed to his own heart. There is a sharp contrast between the tone and style of the two sections of the poem. The first half is relatively lighthearted, composed in simple language, in long, episodic, and repetitive stanzas with a high proportion of dialogue. The prophecy itself is in a more elaborate style, and in short stanzas. It is a tightly organized complaint about the vicissitudes of life, that interweaves various signs of chaos, such as invasion, geographical confusion, and social unrest. These are all features that occur in official descriptions of the interregnum, and they would have been topical concerns at the probable time of composition, which seems to have been soon after the troubled start of the Twelfth Dynasty (as is revealed later in the poem). The Discourse is, however, essentially a reflective text which mourns for the loss of culture, wisdom, and virtue. Such pessimistic meditations are an important genre of Middle Kingdom literature, and their form suggests that they developed from funeral elegies.

The prologue makes it clear that Neferti is speaking a prophecy, but he presents his complaint as an immediate reality. The lament is expressed with dualities, as is much in Egyptian thought: chaos versus order, anarchy versus authority, foreigners versus Egypt, social upheaval versus the established hierarchy (in which the rise of the poor is a sign of social anarchy and a usurpation of positions of authority). The ‘inventories’ of woe embrace both the general and the particular. Neferti portrays himself as an isolated wise man who is alone in perceiving the state of the land in which all order and wisdom (including proper speech) has perished.

Cosmic, social, and personal chaos are interwoven, and various phrases recur, like refrains, scattered across the stanzas. A sense of continuity is also provided by the repetition of words from the end of one stanza at the beginning of the next. Despite this pattern of thematic complexity, the style is consistently and elegantly antithetical, and generalizing. In its use of repeated motifs, images, and individual words, the style is similar to that of the petitions of The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, but without the dramatic aspect of that poem.

The sage's questioning lament ends with a description of Egypt as a godless land, prey to murder. His despair then vanishes, as he suddenly turns to prophesy the quasi-miraculous appearance of an ideal king, who will redeem the chaos, banish enemies, and set all to right. In this final part, there are strong eulogistic elements which suit the courtly setting of the whole; the style is here more regular and formal, and less flowing than in the lament. In official texts, court eulogies acclaim and commemorate their royal audience by name; this one, however, acclaims not Sneferu, but a future king called Ameny, ‘the Hidden one’. The specific detail of ‘The Walls of the Ruler’ suggests that he represents the founder of the Twelfth Dynasty, Amenemhat, who is elsewhere described as the builder of this fortress. It is as if the history of the period between the Fourth Dynasty and the Twelfth is rewritten as a giant interregnum between two ideal kings, Sneferu and Amenemhat. The composition of the whole poem has thus been attributed to the reign of Amenemhat I, and it does have evident propagandistic elements; the new king may have needed validation, since he was of nonroyal descent and may have come to power in a palace coup. The prominent concern with the north-east may reflect actual political problems of the period, since the capital moved to the north at that date. The general significance of the poem is, however, not limited by its historical inspiration.

The prophecy ends by foretelling how the contemporaneous audience will pay homage to the sage: the poem is guaranteed, both in textual terms and in its obviously fictional claim to be an ancient prophecy, by the royal authority of the person who transcribes it. The lament is given supreme state authority and accommodated within the orderly decorum of Sneferu's court: the chaos is confined by the agent of its recording and the setting in a golden age, as well as by the explicit resolution of the prophecy. This containment is enacted in the narrative prologue, where Sneferu's act of transcribing the poetry brings disorder under the king's hand. Nevertheless, the chaos is described much more extensively than the resolution, in nine stanzas—a number symbolic of multiplicity. It escapes confinement by being indefinite in its historical placement somewhere between Sneferu and ‘Ameny’, and by Neferti's being unspecific in his foretelling.

The state of the land and its regeneration is described without drawing any directly didactic moral. The poem provides a reflection on the nature of order and chaos which extols the virtue of authority, but in which the portrayal of the dark side of life predominates. It is notable that a king could consider such a searing and dark lament as ‘entertainment’, and the poet's art has a central role in this; it makes the ‘undone’ chaos into something ‘perfect’, and the imperfection of life and history becomes a source of aesthetic pleasure.

There are many Ramesside partial copies of the work, but the most complete manuscript is P. St Petersburg 1116B from the Eighteenth Dynasty. Numbers give section numbers of Wolgang Helck's edition (letters indicate the lines of these sections); the line numbers of P. St Petersburg 1116B are given in parentheses.

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