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The Dialogue of Ipuur and the Lord of All

Introduction

The Dialogue of Ipuur and the Lord of All is dominated by descriptions of social woe, but the poem is not historical and its laments are—so far as they are preserved—addressed not to a particular king, but to a generalized representative of authority. It is a reflective Dialogue in which the difficulties of existence in the mutable world are debated. Its composition has been dated to the late Middle Kingdom on the basis of various internal features and allusions.

At least one page (about 40–50 verses) is lost from the start of the single surviving manuscript, and many other sections are damaged. The poem probably began with some introduction, perhaps a brief prologue or a title, before a sage named Ipuur started speaking. Details of his speeches show that he is speaking to a king in the presence of the royal court. He addresses the king in his most divine aspect, as the deputy and representative of the creator-god, with the title ‘Lord of All’, which was variously applied to both the king and the creator-god as lord of the universe. Ipuur himself has no title in what survives, but he features as an ‘Overseer of Singers’ in a later list of kings and famous ancestors from Memphis. It seems likely that he was introduced as a court poet or orator, who challenges his king with a lament, which he speaks on behalf of all humanity.

Ipuur's first surviving speech opens with a description of social chaos, and comprises a series of short stanzas describing the ‘destruction of the land’. These are marked by refrains and are full of savage indignation. The speech is long, virtuosic, and baroque, a highly evolved example of its genre. The sage desires a return to the traditional status quo and, in a denunciation of social anarchy, laments the rise of the poor and the overthrow of the rich. It is a purely descriptive speech and of a single tone; it is also repetitive and very formally consistent, and the subject matter is restricted to social disruption. The long sequence of concise vignettes of specific disasters (interspersed a few times with slightly longer stanzas) gives a sense of the proliferation of evil, and, although occasionally selfcontradictory, it is not rambling: some verses repeat individual words from the preceding stanza or are linked by association of ideas to produce a magnificently strong impression of the world spiralling out of control. The formal regularity of the poetry contains and encompasses a vision of chaos.

Immediately after this oration there follows a second lament, which describes the ‘changes of mankind’ and is essentially in the same compact style as the first. It increases the impact of the first, although it is a little shorter and has a different, slightly blunter, refrain. These two laments occupy most of the surviving poem. They are both patterned by strong antithesis between ‘then’ and ‘now’, between the ideal and the actual, between what should be and what is, as manifested in social change. This lyrical form is derived from laments for the dead, such as one preserved in a later tomb:

You who had many people—you are now in the land that loves loneliness! You who had much fine linen, who loved clothing now sleep in yesterday's rags!1 Tomb of Neferhotep, late Eighteenth Dynasty; text: E. Lüddeckens, Mitteilungen des Deutschen Instituts für Ägyptische Altertumskunde in Kairo, 11 (1943), 111–14.

The effect is of a forceful elegy for the life-in-death that humanity is forced to lead. Although the poem laments the woes of the privileged élite, there is a strong element of sympathy for the lower levels of society. As the audience were members of the élite group, the reversals in men's social standing will have been a warning against trusting in the security of their position, and the sage at one point wishes that the Lord would experience this misery himself (see n. 105). These descriptions of reversals were, in part, a rhetorical way of exposing the privileged audience to feel what wretches feel.

After these two major sections, the sage turns from describing the state of the land to urging action, and calls for the destruction of the enemies of the Royal House. Once again he speaks in short stanzas with refrains. A second injunction in similar style follows, in which he turns to positive motifs, urging the Lord to ‘remember’ the good times of the past. This provides a welcome moment of calm after the unremitting wasteland of what has gone before. The regretful contrast between present woes and past happiness precipitates the next section.

The injunctions lead into more discursive verses that articulate a complaint to the Lord of All as the representative of divine authority. These passages do not have refrains and develop arguments to present a more direct denunciation of the Lord. The sage directly questions the justice of god, who has allowed imperfection to predominate in creation, and asks why he created humanity. This central complaint grows out of the past speeches: it opens like a stanza from one of the preceding laments, and a note that was sounded earlier—the inefficacy of offerings to the gods—is here brought to the fore. The universal questioning and complaint are interwoven with specific instances drawn from the preceding laments (especially the depleted numbers of mankind), which become justifications of this speech. The use of questions and opposing statements creates a sense of desperately searching for and despairingly destroying ways of justifying the state of things. The sage moves on to accuse the Lord of direct responsibility for society's suffering, and to wish that he would feel some of the suffering himself so that he would act responsibly and restore order on the world.

A series of short stanzas then presents a description of a perfect society, which contrasts sharply with the earlier view of the world. This section is placed in structural symmetry with the earlier section urging the ‘remembrance’ of good things, which it echoes; this concentric symmetry is unlike the additive patterning of the laments. The problem of lacunae is extreme from this point on, and it is uncertain whether these verses are the sage reminding the Lord of how things should be, or the Lord answering the sage's second injunction and presenting an alternative, positive, view of the world. Up to now the Lord has made no reply.

This section is followed by a discursive reflection, which is certainly spoken by the Lord. He seems to argue that the conflict in the land is the fault not of external enemies, such as the sage earlier urged him to destroy, but of the populace itself; he implies that the Egyptians are their own enemies, and that any blame does not belong to society's leader or creator. In a theodic statement included in contemporaneous funerary texts, the creator-god himself declares:

I made every man like his fellow; I did not ordain them to do evil, but their own hearts destroyed my pronouncement.2 Coffin Text spell 1130; see p. 151 n. 1.

This refers to the myth that the world was created perfect but humanity rebelled, forcing the gods to withdraw, leaving an imperfect, sundered world, full of conflict (see n. 95). The creator-god's royal representative seems to advance a similar argument here. The poem, however, does not assert the ways of god to men as absolutely as the funerary text, but uses oblique and allusive arguments.

In his reply to this, Ipuur seems to reject the Lord's speech disclaiming responsibility. He recounts a parable, which apparently tells how mankind can suffer even when it is blameless. He turns from grandiose elegies to a simple tale of a child, which provides the most detailed example of innocent suffering, the implications of which are inescapable.

The extant text breaks off as the Lord replies in a similar vein to his preceding speech. His speeches, which are much shorter than the sage's, seem increasingly pessimistic in their subject matter, and increasingly denunciatory. The end of the manuscript is lost, but there is space for some forty verses after the start of this speech (see n. 122); this may not, however, have been the original end of the poem. The Dialogue is unlikely to have concluded with a narrative section, or to have been resolved with a sudden action. It is probable that the two disputants will have reached a reconciliation, formulated in a short final speech by one of them (as in The Dialogue of a Man and his Soul), and that the Lord's reply will have won the sage over to a stoic acceptance of the imperfection of the world.

The Dialogue is preserved on the recto of a single fragmentary papyrus of the Ramesside Period (P. Leiden I.344), of which parts of seventeen pages survive; the start and the very end are lost, and the fragmentary state makes the interpretation of much of the poem uncertain. On the other side are (unrelated) New Kingdom hymns to the god Amun. Numbers give page and line numbers of the manuscript.

1 Tomb of Neferhotep, late Eighteenth Dynasty; text: E. Lüddeckens, Mitteilungen des Deutschen Instituts für Ägyptische Altertumskunde in Kairo, 11 (1943), 111–14.

2 Coffin Text spell 1130; see p. 151 n. 1.

Notes:

1 Tomb of Neferhotep, late Eighteenth Dynasty; text: E. Lüddeckens, Mitteilungen des Deutschen Instituts für Ägyptische Altertumskunde in Kairo, 11 (1943), 111–14.

2 Coffin Text spell 1130; see p. 151 n. 1.

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