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The Tale of Sinuhe

Introduction

The Tale of Sinuhe is a tale of adventure in foreign lands, but one which encourages reflection on the nature of Egyptian life, particularly on an individual's relationship to the king. The king was quasi-divine, the political and ideological centre of Egyptian culture, and the representative of all its values. The king was the direct heir of the creator-god, who, according to one (possibly contemporaneous) religious text, had appointed him to rule

for judging men, for appeasing the Gods, for creating Truth, for destroying Evil.1 Text: J. Assmann, Der König als Sonnenpriester: Ein kosmographischer Begleittext zur kultischen Sonnenhymnik in thebanischen Tempeln und Gräbern (Abhandlungen der Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts Kairo, 7; Glückstadt, 1970); also M. C. Betrò, I testi solari del portale de Pascherientaisu (BN2) (Saqqara, 3; Pisa 1990), 27–50. Recent translation: R. B. Parkinson, Voices from Ancient Egypt (London, 1991), 38–40.

Sinuhe was composed in the first half of the Twelfth Dynasty, probably shortly after the end of the reign of Senwosret I (c.1875 BC). The earliest surviving manuscripts date from the reign of Amenemhat III, and later copies show that it was read for at least 750 years.

The Tale is presented as a funerary Autobiography from the start of the Twelfth Dynasty. In these commemorative tomb inscriptions the dead man addressed the passer-by with an idealized description of his virtues, as manifested in his life and career, in order to preserve his reputation and his funerary cult. Sinuhe is, as his inscription immediately makes clear, a royal courtier, but for him the usual pattern of an official's ideal life was destroyed by a moment of panic in which he fled from Egypt, and most of the Tale describes experiences away from the court that are often extremely untoward. From the moment of his panic, the style moves away from that of an Autobiography, and encompasses a wide range of genres and techniques: narratives of conquest and combat, eulogies of the king, a royal decree, meditative prayers, and ceremonial lyrics, culminating in the description of the tomb in which Sinuhe's Autobiography is supposedly inscribed. The narrative of Sinuhe's flight from Egypt and his return matches the form of the Tale, in which the Autobiographical style is shattered by his flight, and is only firmly re-established as his life returns to order in the final stanzas. Instead of commemorating an ideal life ‘in truth’, the literary Tale deals with ‘dreams’, ‘half-truths’, and things that are ‘unrepeatable’. The Tale displays a perfection of form, as well as spare and concise composition; the manuscripts divide the text into forty stanzas, and these form five concentric groups. The Tale's virtuosity is manifest in allusions and self-echoes rather than in florid diction, although this is elegant and rather recherché in idiom. Throughout, there is a constant tension between the ideal and the actual, and a questioning of Sinuhe's motivation that is unparalleled in actual Autobiographies.

In the opening lines of the Tale Sinuhe speaks from his tomb in Egypt: the ending of his life is thus implicit in the beginning of his tale. The calm elevated style appropriate to an Autobiographical narrative is gradually broken down in the first part of the Tale (R 1–B 34) as Sinuhe leaves Egypt. He overhears that the old king has unexpectedly died, is struck by a blind panic, and flees his homeland with what is, in effect, an unwitting renunciation of all its values. The horror of this moment is described in detail, and images of night-time suggest its broader significance: the Egyptian world-view was fundamentally pessimistic; chaos was thought to be ever present and waiting to overwhelm the ordered cosmos, and Sinuhe's terror is an experience of this.2 This episode has been the subject of much fruitless discussion among Egyptologists, who have often tried to interpret the Tale as if it were a historical document (referring to a palace conspiracy) or a novel with modern characterization (providing a single unspoken rational motivation for Sinuhe's flight): see Select Bibliography.

Sinuhe abandons the fixed security of Egypt for the impermanence of life amidst the nomadic ‘sandfarers’. This fatal transition is symbolized by his near death from thirst, from which he is rescued by a passing sheikh, and he ends up being carried off by a Palestinian prince, Amunenshi.

In the second part of the Tale (B 34–92), narrative gives way to discourse as Sinuhe converses with his foreign rescuer, and Amunenshi asks why he has come to Retjenu. The dialogue is dominated by Sinuhe's lengthy answer, which is a eulogy of the new king Senwosret; this establishes Sinuhe's continued loyalty to the Egyptian king, despite his flight. He extols the king's fearsomeness against foreign lands, dramatically enacting his terror of the king's ferocity towards deserters such as himself. In this exchange, Amunenshi is presented as pseudo-Egyptian, and he rewards Sinuhe's praise song with generosity, as if he were the Egyptian king. His land is described as a place where Sinuhe tries to find a substitute Egypt, and to replace the life he has lost. The settings of the Tale form a symmetrical pattern of Egypt–Retjenu–Egypt, and this is reinforced with many ironic verbal echoes and contrasts, which combine to heighten the difference between the real with the substitute life, his true and substitute identity. As R. A. Brooks has remarked of the Aeneid, the Tale is a ‘web of antithetic symbols, of tensions and oppositions never finally resolved’.3 ‘Discolor Aura: Reflections on the Golden Bough’ in Steele Commager (ed.), Virgil: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1966), 158.

Abroad, Sinuhe attempts to rationalize and overcome the consequences of his fatal panic, and the third part (B 92–177) relates his struggles to establish a social identity in the midst of an alien herd. This includes a duel with a local challenger, which is structurally the central incident of the Tale, and the turning-point of the plot. It embodies the conflict between the real and the substitute, between Egypt and the desert. His victory in this armed combat brings him greater wealth but also, ironically, an awareness of his alienation, and it leads to an inner conflict. He recounts his triumph in a lyrical manner, and in doing so he attempts finally to distance himself from the consequences of his flight, to deny that he is a fugitive in exile. His speech initially echoes the Autobiographical style with measured parallel cadences and motifs, but, at the very moment of apparent self-justification, he collapses into a desperate prayer. It is a dramatic interior monologue, leading to a realization of his true state: life outside Egypt is meaningless. The third part of the Tale ends with the almost miraculous statement that the king has heard of Sinuhe's state and has sent an answer to his private prayer.

Just as the second part was the conversation between Sinuhe and Prince Amunenshi about the king, the fourth part contains his correspondence with the true king (B 178–243). It opens directly with a copy of the royal decree summoning him home. In the letter the king restates the problem of Sinuhe's motivation more forcefully, and asks directly for the reason for his flight. Sinuhe has already proved himself unable to explain his actions, and his unaccountable, unintentioned fault raises broader questions about whether the gods can be just: for how could the powers above allow an innocent man to transgress and still be just? The king is a representative of the gods and in some sense a god himself, and in his letter he distances himself from any responsibility for Sinuhe's suffering and assigns all responsibility to the man's own fallible heart.

The climax of the reassuring letter comes as the king enjoins Sinuhe to return for burial in Egypt. This is a joyous description of a transition to eternal verity—an ultimate homecoming. The juxtaposition of death and joy would have been to the original audience a happy paradox. A contemporaneous harpist's song describes the tomb as a home

built for festival, planned for happiness.4 Stela Leiden V.68; text: K. Sethe, Ägyptische Lesestücke2 (Leipzig, 1928), 87, ll. 1–2.

A later harpist's song extols the ‘land of eternity’ as ‘righteous and just’, elevated from all ‘strife’.5 Text: R. Hari, La Tombe thébaine du père divin Neferhotep (TT 50) (Geneva, 1985), pl. 4, ll. 4–5. The otherworld is a refuge from the struggles of life, and the home of the absolute and ideal.

The inclusion of a royal letter is a motif of Autobiographical inscriptions and marks the start of a gradual reassertion of order on a formal level. Sinuhe's receipt of the letter is briefly narrated, and then a copy of his reply follows. In this he denies conscious responsibility for his flight, and abandons himself to the king's grace. The letter's profusion of stately wishes for the king's well-being recalls his earlier eulogy spoken to Amunenshi.

The fourth part of the Tale ends as Sinuhe travels to the border of Egypt, and the fifth part (B 244–311) returns him to the court and the enduring security of the state, in a vivid and climactic scene. Sinuhe at last finds himself face to face with the king who has been the centre of all his preceding narration. The meeting is marked by a panic ‘like that which created the fated flight’, and his re-entry into Egyptian life is marked by a death-like collapse, similar to that which marked his leaving Egypt. This time, however, his unconsciousness is banished not by nomads, but by the royal children, who are reintroduced to their long-lost attendant. Despite moments of humour, as they fail to recognize him, there is a break with the tone of the preceding stanzas as Sinuhe enters the realms of royalty and divinity. The princesses enact a ritual of renewal with a song to the king that is intensely religious, lyrical, and erotic. In the song the princesses beg grace for Sinuhe, whom they describe as ‘a barbarian born in the Homeland’; they articulate the Tale's central paradox of how an Egyptian can be a foreigner, and how a virtuous man can find himself a traitor and deserter. This is a final summation of the Tale's theme of the problematic justice of the gods. Sinuhe's irrational panic was the incursion of chaos which underlies the whole plot, and the antithesis of the order of the court, but here it is accommodated within that order. His panic is rearticulated as a ‘fear’, which is a natural, orderly response to the king's ‘fearsomeness’. The king dismisses the chaos and the preceding events with the words ‘he shall not fear’, and Sinuhe is recreated as a courtier.

He is then cleansed and rejuvenated, and the final stanzas lead the audience swiftly from this moment of revelation through a series of courtly dwellings, into a description of the tomb which the king bestows as a sign of his favour. The Tale ends as it began, with Sinuhe in his tomb, addressing the tomb-visitor.

The profusion of genres in the Tale gives an encyclopaedic feel, suggesting a full range of human experience, but all run parallel to the basic plot in terms of form. In tone, however, the whole is more complex, because of the richness with which Sinuhe's experiences abroad are described. The modulations of the patterns of the Egyptian official text par excellence, the Autobiography, articulate a questioning of Egyptian culture. In one sense, nothing has happened—the trip to Retjenu is a ‘dream’, and Sinuhe is purged of his experiences abroad—and yet everything in the Tale has happened in this dream. The horror of the nightmare that is Sinuhe's life is vividly expressed with a poetry that makes it for the audience an entertaining reverie as well as a disturbing narrative. The Tale reassuringly presents the value of the Egyptian way of life, but the possibility of a world elsewhere lingers in the audience's mind, as does the question of his motivation: how can the gods allow the heart of man to be so unstable that it can lead him astray so unintentionally? This ambivalence is reflected in the setting of the Tale in a tomb, which is a link between the imperfect world of men and the perfection of the otherworld.

Four papyrus copies are known from Middle Kingdom, and, along with The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, Sinuhe is one of the bestattested works in manuscripts from that period. There are some twenty-eight later copies. It is now widely regarded as the masterpiece of Egyptian literature. The numbers in the text give line numbers of the principle manuscript available at that point: R (P. Ramesseum A h P. Berlin 10499), then B (P. Berlin 3022).

1 Text: J. Assmann, Der König als Sonnenpriester: Ein kosmographischer Begleittext zur kultischen Sonnenhymnik in thebanischen Tempeln und Gräbern (Abhandlungen der Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts Kairo, 7; Glückstadt, 1970); also M. C. Betrò, I testi solari del portale de Pascherientaisu (BN2) (Saqqara, 3; Pisa 1990), 27–50. Recent translation: R. B. Parkinson, Voices from Ancient Egypt (London, 1991), 38–40.

2 This episode has been the subject of much fruitless discussion among Egyptologists, who have often tried to interpret the Tale as if it were a historical document (referring to a palace conspiracy) or a novel with modern characterization (providing a single unspoken rational motivation for Sinuhe's flight): see Select Bibliography.

3Discolor Aura: Reflections on the Golden Bough’ in Steele Commager (ed.), Virgil: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1966), 158.

4 Stela Leiden V.68; text: K. Sethe, Ägyptische Lesestücke2 (Leipzig, 1928), 87, ll. 1–2.

5 Text: R. Hari, La Tombe thébaine du père divin Neferhotep (TT 50) (Geneva, 1985), pl. 4, ll. 4–5.

Notes:

1 Text: J. Assmann, Der König als Sonnenpriester: Ein kosmographischer Begleittext zur kultischen Sonnenhymnik in thebanischen Tempeln und Gräbern (Abhandlungen der Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts Kairo, 7; Glückstadt, 1970); also M. C. Betrò, I testi solari del portale de Pascherientaisu (BN2) (Saqqara, 3; Pisa 1990), 27–50. Recent translation: R. B. Parkinson, Voices from Ancient Egypt (London, 1991), 38–40.

2 This episode has been the subject of much fruitless discussion among Egyptologists, who have often tried to interpret the Tale as if it were a historical document (referring to a palace conspiracy) or a novel with modern characterization (providing a single unspoken rational motivation for Sinuhe's flight): see Select Bibliography.

3Discolor Aura: Reflections on the Golden Bough’ in Steele Commager (ed.), Virgil: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1966), 158.

4 Stela Leiden V.68; text: K. Sethe, Ägyptische Lesestücke2 (Leipzig, 1928), 87, ll. 1–2.

5 Text: R. Hari, La Tombe thébaine du père divin Neferhotep (TT 50) (Geneva, 1985), pl. 4, ll. 4–5.

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