Ancient History & Civilisation

7. Literature

Texts and libraries—The Egyptian Sinbad—The Story of Sinuhe—Fiction—An amorous fragment—Love poems—History—A literary revolution

Most of the literature that survives from ancient Egypt is written in hieratic script. Little of it remains, and we are forced to estimate it from the fragments that do it only the blind justice of chance; perhaps time destroyed the Shakespeares of Egypt, and preserved only the poets laureate. A great official of the Fourth Dynasty is called on his tomb “Scribe of the House of Books”;142 we cannot tell whether this primeval library was a repository of literature, or only a dusty storehouse of public records and documents. The oldest extant Egyptian literature consists of the “Pyramid Texts”—pious matter engraved on the walls in five pyramids of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties.*143 Libraries have come down to us from as far back as 2000 B.C.—papyri rolled and packed in jars, labeled, and ranged on shelves;145 in one such jar was found the oldest form of the story of Sinbad the Sailor, or, as we might rather call it, Robinson Crusoe.

“The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor” is a simple autobiographical fragment, full of life and feeling. “How glad is he,” says this ancient mariner, in a line reminiscent of Dante, “that relateth what he hath experienced when the calamity hath passed!”

I will relate to thee something that was experienced by me myself, when I had set out for the mines of the Sovereign and had gone down to the sea in a ship of 180 feet in length and 60 feet in breadth; and therein were 120 sailors of the pick of Egypt. They scanned the sky, they scanned the earth, and their hearts were more . . . than those of lions. They foretold a storm or ever it came, and a tempest when as yet it was not.

A storm burst while we were yet at sea. . . . We flew before the wind and it made . . . a wave eight cubits high. . . .

Then the ship perished, and of them that were in it not one survived. And I was cast onto an island by a wave of the sea, and I spent three days alone with mine heart as my companion. I slept under the shelter of a tree, and embraced the shade. Then I stretched forth my feet in order to find out what I could put into my mouth. I found figs and vines there, and all manner of fine leeks. . . . There were fish there and fowl, and there was nothing that was not in it. . . . When I had made me a fire-drill I kindled a fire and made a burnt-offering for the gods.146

Another tale recounts the adventures of Sinuhe, a public official who flees from Egypt at the death of Amenemhet I, wanders from country to country of the Near East, and, despite prosperity and honors there, suffers unbearably from lonesomeness for his native land. At last he gives up riches, and makes his way through many hardships back to Egypt.

O God, whosoever thou art, that didst ordain this flight, bring me again to the House (i.e., the Pharaoh). Peradventure thou wilt suffer me to see the place wherein mine heart dwelleth. What is a greater matter than that my corpse should be buried in the land wherein I was born? Come to mine aid! May good befall, may God show me mercy!

In the sequel we find him home again, weary and dusty with many miles of desert travel, and fearful lest the Pharaoh reprove him for his long absence from a land which, like all others, looked upon itself as the only civilized country in the world. But the Pharaoh forgives him, and extends to him every cosmetic courtesy:

I was placed in the house of a king’s son, in which there was noble equipment, and a bath was therein. . . . Years were made to pass away from my body; I was shaved (?) and my hair was combed (?). A load (of dirt?) was given over to the desert, and the (filthy) clothes to the sand-farers. And I was arrayed in finest linen, and anointed with the best oil.147

Short stories are diverse and plentiful in the fragments that have come down to us of Egyptian literature. There are marvelous tales of ghosts, miracles, and other fascinating concoctions, as credible as the detective stories that satisfy modern statesmen; there are high-sounding romances of princes and princesses, kings and queens, including the oldest known form of the tale of Cinderella, her exquisite foot, her wandering slipper, and her royal-hymeneal dénouement;148 there are fables of animals illustrating by their conduct the foibles and passions of humanity, and pointing morals sagely149—a kind of premonitory plagiarism from Æsop and La Fontaine. Typical of the Egyptian mingling of natural and supernatural is the tale of Anupu and Bitiu, older and younger brothers, who live happily on their farm until Anupu’s wife falls in love with Bitiu, is repulsed by him, and revenges herself by accusing him, to his brother, of having offered her violence. Gods and crocodiles come to Bitiu’s aid against Anupu; but Bitiu, disgusted with mankind, mutilates himself to prove his innocence, retires Timon-like to the woods, and places his heart unreachably high on the topmost flower of a tree. The gods, pitying his loneliness, create for him a wife of such beauty that the Nile falls in love with her, and steals a lock of her hair. Drifting down the stream, the lock is found by the Pharaoh, who, intoxicated by its scent, commands his henchmen to find the owner. She is found and brought to him, and he marries her. Jealous of Bitiu he sends men to cut down the tree on which Bitiu has placed his heart. The tree is cut down, and as the flower touches the earth Bitiu dies.150 How little the taste of our ancestors differed from our own!

The early literature of the Egyptians is largely religious; and the oldest Egyptian poems are the hymns of the Pyramid Texts. Their form is also the most ancient poetic form known to us—that “parallelism of members,” or repetition of the thought in different phrase, which the Hebrew poets adopted from the Egyptians and Babylonians, and immortalized in the Psalms.151 As the Old passes into the Middle Kingdom, the literature tends to become secular and “profane.” We catch some glimpse of a lost body of amorous literature in a fragment preserved to us through the laziness of a Middle Kingdom scribe who did not complete his task of wiping clear an old papyrus, but left legible some twenty-five lines that tell of a simple shepherd’s encounter with a goddess. “This goddess,” says the story, “met with him as he wended his way to the pool, and she had stripped off her clothes and disarrayed her hair.” The shepherd reports the matter cautiously:

“Behold ye, when I went down to the swamp. . . . I saw a woman therein, and she looked not like a mortal being. My hair stood on end when I saw her tresses, because her color was so bright. Never will I do what she said; awe of her is in my body.”152

The love songs abound in number and beauty, but as they celebrate chiefly the amours of brothers and sisters they will shock or amuse the modern ear. One collection is called “The Beautiful Joyous Songs of thy sister whom thy heart loves, who walks in the fields.” An ostracon or shell dating back to the Nineteenth or Twentieth Dynasty plays a modern theme on the ancient chords of desire:

The love of my beloved leaps on the bank of the stream.

A crocodile lies in the shadows;

Yet I go down into the water, and breast the wave.

My courage is high on the stream,

And the water is as land to my feet.

It is her love that makes me strong.

She is a book of spells to me.

When I behold my beloved coming my heart is glad,

My arms are spread apart to embrace her;

My heart rejoices forever . . . since my beloved came.

When I embrace her I am as one who is in Incense Land,

As one who carries perfumes.

When I kiss her, her lips are opened,

And I am made merry without beer.

Would that I were her Negress slave who is in attendance on her;

So should I behold the hue of all her limbs.153

The lines have been arbitrarily divided here; we cannot tell from the external form of the original that it is verse. The Egyptians knew that music and feeling are the twin essences of poetry; if these were present, the outward shape did not matter. Often, however, the rhythm was accentuated, as we have seen, by “parallelism of members.” Sometimes the poet used the device of beginning every sentence or stanza with the same word; sometimes he played like a punster with like sounds meaning unlike or incongruous things; and it is clear from the texts that the trick of alliteration is as old as the Pyramids.154 These simple forms were enough; with them the Egyptian poet could express almost every shade of that “romantic” love which Nietzsche supposed was an invention of the Troubadours. The Harris Papyrus shows that such sentiments could be expressed by a woman as well as by a man:

I am thy first sister,

And thou art to me as the garden

Which I have planted with flowers

And all sweet-smelling herbs.

I directed a canal into it,

That thou mightest dip thy hand into it

When the north wind blows cool.

The beautiful place where we take a walk,

When thy hand rests within mine,

With thoughtful mind and joyous heart

Because we walk together.

It is intoxicating to me to hear thy voice,

And my life depends upon hearing thee.

Whenever I see thee

It is better to me than food or drink.155

All in all it is astonishing how varied the fragments are. Formal letters, legal documents, historical narratives, magic formulas, laborious hymns, books of devotion, songs of love and war, romantic novelettes, moral exhortations, philosophical treatises—everything is represented here except epic and drama, and even of these one might by stretching a point find instances. The story of Rameses II’s dashing victories, engraved patiently in verse upon brick after brick of the great pylon at Luxor, is epic at least in length and dulness. In another inscription Rameses IV boasts that in a play he had defended Osiris from Set, and had recalled Osiris to life.156 Our knowledge does not allow us to amplify this hint.

Historiography, in Egypt, is as old as history; even the kings of the predynastic period kept historical records proudly.157 Official historians accompanied the Pharaohs on their expeditions, never saw their defeats, and recorded, or invented, the details of their victories; already the writing of history had become a cosmetic art. As far back as 2500 B.C. Egyptian scholars made lists of their kings, named the years from them, and chronicled the outstanding events of each year and reign; by the time of Thutmose III these documents became full-fledged histories, eloquent with patriotic emotion.158 Egyptian philosophers of the Middle Kingdom thought both man and history old and effete, and mourned the lusty youth of their race; Khekheperre-Sonbu, a savant of the reign of Senusret II, about 2150 B.C., complained that all things had long since been said, and nothing remained for literature except repetition. “Would,” he cried unhappily, “that I had words that are unknown, utterances and sayings in new language, that hath not yet passed away, and without that which hath been said repeatedly—not an utterance that hath grown stale, what the ancestors have already said.”159

Distance blurs for us the variety and changefulness of Egyptian literature, as it blurs the individual differences of unfamiliar peoples. Nevertheless, in the course of its long development Egyptian letters passed through movements and moods as varied as those that have disturbed the history of European literature. As in Europe, so in Egypt the language of everyday speech diverged gradually, at last almost completely, from that in which the books of the Old Kingdom had been written. For a long time authors continued to compose in the ancient tongue; scholars acquired it in school, and students were compelled to translate the “classics” with the help of grammars and vocabularies, and with the occasional assistance of “interlinears.” In the fourteenth century B.C. Egyptian authors rebelled against this bondage to tradition, and like Dante and Chaucer dared to write in the language of the people; Ikhnaton’s famous Hymn to the Sun is itself composed in the popular speech. The new literature was realistic, youthful, buoyant; it took delight in flouting the old forms and describing the new life. In time this language also became literary and formal, refined and precise, rigid and impeccable with conventions of word and phrase; once again the language of letters separated from the language of speech, and scholasticism flourished; the schools of Saïte Egypt spent half their time studying and translating the “classics” of Ikhnaton’s day.160 Similar transformations of the native tongue went on under the Greeks, under the Romans, under the Arabs; another is going on today. Panta rei—all things flow; only scholars never change.

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