The tales, discourses and teachings in this anthology of literature of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (1940-1640 BC!) sound still all too familiar to us today. Their themes are politics (war), justice (corruption), speech (partial), social upheaval, taboos, art and the nature of man; in one word: the way of our world.
Political and social issues
‘Sinuhe’ is a political tale about a man who fled his country because of its life threatening instability. Now, he wants to go back. It is also a war story: ‘I plundered its cattle and carried off its inhabitants.’
In ‘Neferti’ there is social upheaval: ‘the great will beg to exist; only the poor will eat bread, while forced labourers are exultant.’ But, in ‘Khakheperreseneb’ ‘the pauper has no strength to save himself from the powerful man.’
‘King Cheops’ Court’ is partially a tale about a taboo: an adulterous love between a noble woman and a commoner.
Ruling, justice, corruption, speech
‘King Merikare’ is Egypt’s counterpart of Machiavelli’s ‘Il Principe’: be a ruthless, but righteous ruler. ‘Vizier Ptahhotep’ exhorts to ‘punish promptly! Instruct absolutely!’, while the Loyalist teaches: ‘do not make a field-worker wretched with taxes’.
In ‘The Eloquent Peasant’ ‘the officials are doing evil; the lawful leaders now command theft, and the standard of speech is now partial.’
In ‘Khakheperreseneb’ ‘honest speech is abandoned’, while in ‘A Man and his Soul’ ‘mercy has perished, there are no just men and the land is left to the class of injustice.’
The nature of man
‘Neferti sees a world where ‘every mouth is full of ‘I want’, all goodness has fled.’ In ‘Khakheperreseneb’ ‘there is no person free from wrong.’
In ‘Ipuur and the Lord of All’, ‘if three men go out on a road, only two men can be found, the many kill the few’ (a brilliant image).
In ‘King Amenembat’, the message is ‘make for yourself no intimates.’ The fall can be terrible: ‘I had become like a worm in necropolis.’
In “Man and his Soul’ ‘the friends of today do not love; hearts are selfish’. Man prefers to die: ‘Death is to me like a man’s longing to see home.’
For ‘Vizier Ptahhotep’, fate is all: ‘he is someone on whom doom was imposed in the womb! The one whom they leave boat-less cannot find a crossing.’
Art, literature, writing
‘The Shipwrecked Sailor’ is a tale within a tale within a tale. The author sees art as a remedy for the suffering of the world: ‘his speech turns anger away’.
‘The Eloquent Peasant’ lauds brilliant eloquence, while in ‘Merikare’ ‘the strong arm of the king is his tongue.’
For ‘Khety’ the all important craft is writing. The scribes are the masters, for ‘one cannot call a field-worker a man.’
This superb anthology with formidable notes and introductions by R. B. Parkinson is a must read for all lovers of world literature.
on 9 October 2011
This is a collection of several stories taken from the papyri. They are apparently the sort of tales ancient Egyptians listened to. Because of the state of the original material, not all are complete, but are quite fascinating. The editorial apparatus is very useful, drawing attention to matters an ordinary reader would miss, and providing explanations. For the non-specialist this is a very intriguing insight into the Egypt of long ago. The comparison with such as the literature of Greece, or Mesopotamia, is fascinating. This is early, early stuff.
on 16 September 2010
"...I was a follower who followed His Lord..." Aren't we all? This is a wonderful, atmospheric poem from the Middle Age of the Pharoahs. It is not a classic in terms of language or its beauty, but it is unparrelled in its honesty and reflection of the lives and beliefs of the pharoahs. Mysticism, religion and hope are central in this tome, and though the reader may smile and doubt the story told, he/she will feel the strength of belief in the writing of this earliest of our poetic offerings. You do not have to be an egyptologist to enjoy this poetry. Just open your mind to the fact that our ancestors acted and thought exactly as we do, but with different beliefs. This is an essential read.