Let's go way back to the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, specifically the reign of the Ramesside pharaohs (roughly 1305-1080 BC). To put the era in its proper historical perspective, this was half a millennium before the blind Greek poet Homer composed The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Literature, mainly for moral instruction or in praise of deities, already thrived in the days of the pharaohs. We have some poems and stories inscribed on papyri and ostraca (bits of pottery or limestone). There are temple inscriptions. In terms of size, the most impressive achievement is The Book of the Dead, a bewildering mish-mash of myth and ritual incantation which remains essential reading for morbid-minded folks till today.
Ancient writing can seem intimidating and arcane to our impatient modern sensibilities. There are all these references to gods and demi-gods, whose hierarchic structure and tangled web of familial relations would put any soap opera to shame. You feel that you should just chuck it all aside and down a few cappuccinos instead.
But wait! We have with us today about 60 secular love poems,translated from Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics by the American John L. Foster. They are delightfully accessible, and more entertaining than a month of TV dramas. Some of these poems were discovered in archeological digs conducted just a few decades ago. What's even more amazing is that they read as if they were written not in the 12th century BC but yesterday.
Yes, the poems are all about love. But this isn't the hackneyed,soppy mush that you can get today. This is love not just as sweetness 'n' light but as game-playing and subterfuge, as sexual warfare, as delicious torment. In terms of psychological complexity, they match the blues and torch songs recorded early in our own ravaged century. There's no moralising here. Foster's book is called Love Songs of the New Kingdom (1974) but it could have been tagged "Papyri Don't Preach".
Instead of being goody-goody, love poetry should acknowledge the violence, kinkiness and deception which exist in any reasonably interesting relationship. The Ancient Egyptians knew this, for they were wise.
An example? Listen to this young man's melancholic cry:
"I think I'll go home and lie very still / Feigning terminal illness / Then the neighbours will all troop to stare / My love, perhaps among them / How she'll smile when the specialists / Snarl in their teeth! - / She perfectly well knows what ails me."
Appreciate the startling, passive-aggressive psychodrama being played out here. Although the authors in all cases are unknown, their works range freely through the human sensorium. The agony and the ecstasy brought about by lust, affection, jealousy and longing get full play.
The poetic personae are men and women but, unlike in some ancient Greek and Persian poetry, entirely heterosexual. Despite this handicap, there's a whole lot of kinkiness going on. Check out this guy's sado-masochistic relationship with his dominatrix girlfriend:
"How clever my love with a lasso / She'll never need a kept bull! / She lets fly the rope at me / (from her dark hair) / Draws me in with her come-hither eyes / wrestles me down between her bent thighs / Branding me hers with her burning seal / (cowgirl, the fire from those thighs!)"
Something even more delightfully perverse can be found in this straight man's transvestite fantasy, which reminds me of the great Prince song If I Was Your Girlfriend:
"I wish I were her Nubian girl, / one to attend her (bosom companion), / Confidante, and a child of discretion: / Close hidden at nightfall we whisper / As (modest by day) she offers / breasts like ripe berries to evening - / Her long gown settles, then, bodiless, / hangs from my helping hand."
This touching fantasy reminds me of the way I spent Valentine's Day ... but I digress.
Poetry from the Ramesside period is significant as the oldest extant literature spoken by non-deitic females. Some of the personae are worldly and sexually explicit ("Would your fingers follow the line of my thighs/ Learn the curves of my breast, and the rest?") but others are artfully naive and ingenuous, like this voyeuristic girl who is "accidentally" at the right place:
"I just chanced to be happening by / in the neighbourhood where he lives / His door, as I hoped, was open - / and I spied on my secret love."
Some of the poems may seem sweet and simple, but they already use striking similes ("Love of you is mixed deep in my vitals/ Like water stirred into flour for bread"). Nature, represented by flowers,gardens, orchards and, of course, the Nile, also provides poetic settings and metaphors in a way which anticipates the Western pastoral literature that emerged centuries later.
The fact that the poets are so good is surprising without being surprising, if you catch my drift. I mean, their ancestors built the Pyramids (in the era known as, ahem, The Old Kingdom), which are structures of such weirdness, ingenuity and complexity that we still haven't found out everything about them.
The poems, too, are creatures of remarkable engineering. They teach us about the twisty, turbulent, uncanny mysteries of love and lust, which still survive in today's blessedly pagan pop culture. Read them instead of writing to newspaper agony-aunts about your tacky little problems. The poets show us that love is a battlefield, sex is a weapon, and we all sleep alone. Confused? But that's the story of, that's the glory of, love.