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Approaching Ancient Egyptian Literature

From antiquity, Ancient Egypt exerted a fascination as a land of strange gods, impenetrable symbols, magicians, and tyrants, and it was only in the 1820s that decipherment revealed that hieroglyphs were not allegorical mysteries, but a practical script used for a wide range of writings, including literature. Ancient Egyptian poems, with their frivolity and pessimism, challenged the scholars’ preconceptions about that civilization, and still have an allure for us as the voices of the dead speaking their thoughts and feelings with enduring artistry.

The rediscovery of Ancient Egyptian literature can be dated precisely to the 22 July 1828, when Jean-François Champollion, the decipherer of the hieroglyphic script, viewed the collection of François Sallier on his way to Egypt, and saw Papyrus Sallier II (now in the British Museum), which contains a copy of The Teaching of King Amenemhat, composed c.1900 BC. However, he did not recognize its literary character, since at that date preclassical literature—with the exception of the Bible—was little regarded. Until quite recently, Egyptian poems were read largely for their adventitious historical interest and their supposed documentary information, and they are a strange mixture of the familiar and of elements that now seem very unliterary. Literature is not only older than is often assumed, but more varied.2 For example, The Teaching of King Amenemhat was still being copied in Egypt when Sappho was composing her more familiar-sounding lyrics.

Egyptian writing is very rich, and the poems translated here are a small section belonging to a larger tradition much of which has literary or poetic qualities. No criticism survives from Ancient Egypt, nor any explicit indications of how the Egyptians assessed ‘literature’, for which there was no specific Egyptian term. In an attempt to define literature, one is left with deductions from the contexts of the manuscripts and from the works themselves. The extant literary corpus existed side by side with a much larger and rather better preserved body of religious texts, which it often resembles in style and in density of meaning. From various features, one can suggest that literature is an institution which is defined and created by its culture; whether a text is part of the institution or not is determined by formal criteria—that is, by genres. A linguistic approach is also valuable in identifying features that are characteristic of literature, if not unique to it.

Egyptian literary texts exhibit various distinctive features: they mingle the general and the particular; they are self-conscious and concerned with self-definition and expression; they are not bound to any context or situation; aesthetic considerations are of central value; the speaker–hearer relationship is dramatized with framing devices. Perhaps most importantly, they are fictional. This last feature distinguishes them from commemorative texts, which were intended to be accurate—if idealized—accounts, and from religious texts, which were intended to be authentic reflections of the universe. Fiction, however, allows its audience a vision of a different reality and an experience of alternative possibilities. Egyptian literature was also a predominantly secular mode of discourse, being concerned with the ‘here and now’, but it was one which spanned various spheres, and crossed the secular–sacred and royal–private divides; it was not limited to a particular single function. This feature is reflected in its physical mobility: it was copied on privately owned rolls of papyrus, not stelae, or tomb or temple walls. Literature was not like the funerary texts, whose numerous copies drew—with local variants—from a fairly restricted set of religious utterances; the literary papyri are the results of individuals choosing to copy individual works. Most ancient settlements are now under cultivation and waterlogged, so that usually only those papyri that were placed in dry tombs or stored in some other desert location have survived. These papyri are often little more than scraps, and very few copies are free from major gaps.

After three millennia, the survival of any manuscripts is remarkable. Thirteen poems are translated here, of the thirty-five or so works that are preserved to any extent and can be dated to the 300-year period of the Middle Kingdom, c.1940–1640 BC. This is equivalent in length to the period in English history between the birth of Chaucer and the composition of Paradise Lost, or from the birth of Shakespeare to the death of Charlotte Brontë, although Egyptian society was much smaller, less literate, and less productive of literature than the English society of these periods. It is unknown how many works are lost; whole genres may not have survived, but the relative coherence of what remains makes this unlikely, even though there is not a single complete copy of some types of text. The relative chronology of the compositions also remains uncertain. As excavations continue, and museum collections are studied in greater detail, new texts will appear that are bound to modify current analyses.

Contemporaneous papyri are not the only sources. Some Middle Kingdom works became established classics in the following New Kingdom (c.1550–1070 BC), and some survive only in later papyri. In addition, short excerpts were copied onto flakes of limestone, often by apprentice scribes for whom the classic works were set texts. This practice increases the textual problems for the modern scholar, not only because young scribes made errors in copying a poetic language that was by then far distant from everyday language, but also because they sometimes had no access to a coherent or comprehensible textual tradition.3 For textual reasons, the fragmentary Teaching of a Man for his Son, which is being reassembled by H.-W. Fischer-Elfert, is excluded; see pp. 292–3. The Teaching of Khety, for example, was the most copied work on the syllabus as it extolled the profession of the scribe, but all the copies are so corrupt that it must have been virtually unintelligible. It is tempting to think that the texts of which numerous copies are known, such as The Tale of Sinuhe, were held in some particular esteem. It would be some consolation to the modern researcher to suppose that the surviving copies represent the major ancient classics, but a New Kingdom Miscellany text listing sages of wisdom literature makes it clear that some of the most famous works have not survived,4 See n. 24. while the chances of preservation are so random that a poem's survival in a single manuscript does not mean that it was not highly regarded.5 Such as The Dialogue of a Man and his Soul.

Philology still has a central role in providing the critic with the means to shape expectations and assess the probability of competing interpretations, and is crucial in attempting any evaluation. Problems attend the most basic questions of translating and interpreting what survives. Many details of grammar and vocabulary remain obscure and controversial. After surviving so much, the poems remain confined by these academic difficulties, and have not yet become, as early Egyptologists once hoped, ‘a part of the stockin-trade of literary criticism’.6 S. R. K. Glanville, quoted by G. Posener in J. R. Harris (ed.), The Legacy of Egypt2 (Oxford, 1971), 220. Despite these difficulties, the artistry of the poems retains the power to fascinate; we can read them together with people who have been dead for more than 3,000 years.

Notes:

2 For example, The Teaching of King Amenemhat was still being copied in Egypt when Sappho was composing her more familiar-sounding lyrics.

3 For textual reasons, the fragmentary Teaching of a Man for his Son, which is being reassembled by H.-W. Fischer-Elfert, is excluded; see pp. 292–3.

4 See n. 24.

5 Such as The Dialogue of a Man and his Soul.

6 S. R. K. Glanville, quoted by G. Posener in J. R. Harris (ed.), The Legacy of Egypt2 (Oxford, 1971), 220.

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