We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Select Bible Use this Lookup to open a specific Bible and passage. Start here to select a Bible.
Make selected Bible the default for Lookup tool.
Book: Ch.V. Select book from A-Z list, enter chapter and verse number, and click "Go."
:
OR
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result

The Tale of King Cheops’ Court

Introduction

This entertaining Tale tells of wonders from the fabulous past, some seven centuries before its composition in the late Middle Kingdom. It consists of a cycle of tales within a single framing tale concerning the Fourth Dynasty builder of the Great Pyramid, King Cheops, and the birth of the kings who are to succeed his line. Its description of the origin of the Fifth Dynasty is very different from historical fact, even though the solar cult's increased prominence in that period may lie behind the role of the Sungod in the Tale. The portrayal of Cheops reflects the attitudes of the Middle Kingdom, rather than any historical reality. The high seriousness of other Tales is here avoided in favour of lighter qualities. The audience is told of the boredom of everyday life (felt by Sneferu and Cheops) and various senseless losses (of jewellery and of a wife's fidelity); through the act of storytelling these become sources of carefreeness, and sequences of events which create an enjoyable anticipation and suspense. Everyday life becomes full of ‘wonders’.

About seventy verses may be lost from the start of the Tale, but it probably began with a statement that

There was once a time when the Dual King, Cheops, the justifiedwas the worthy king in this entire land

and then related how one day the king went around every chamber of his palace to find some ‘relief’ from his boredom, and, having failed, summoned his princes to entertain him.1 This reconstruction is based on the start of the second tale told to Cheops (see n. 16), and on the opening of The Words of Neferti. The episodes in the palace at Memphis are almost a parody of the court scenes that feature in commemorative inscriptions, in which the king is eulogized as he sits among his courtiers. Here, a prince tells Cheops a tale about a ‘wonder’ that happened under his ancestor King Djoser—but only the king's appreciative response is preserved. One tale was obviously not enough to satisfy him, and a second prince tells another tale of similar antiquity, about adultery. Then another prince tells one about Cheops’ own good-natured father King Sneferu. This time the wonder is a more cheerful one, but no less bizarre. Each tale ends with a formal pious response from Cheops, who orders funerary offerings for the kings and their wonderworkers, and these set up an expectation of continuity.

These fantastic reports are, however, dismissed by the next son, who is Hordedef, famous in the Middle Kingdom and later as a wise man. He offers a wonder which Cheops can witness himself, and which will be performed by a contemporary commoner called Djedi, as opposed to dead priests. When the commoner and the king meet, it becomes clear that the commoner is more humane and aware of the king's responsibilities than is Cheops himself. Three wonders are performed, but Cheops’ impatient presumption is still not satisfied, and he desires a wonder involving restricted knowledge that lies beyond his access. Djedi foretells the birth of the person who can bring him what he desires, but also tells him that he is someone who will oust Cheops’ descendants from the throne.

A second strand of the narrative starts as the scene shifts and the audience hears the most marvellous wonder—the birth of three children of the Sungod to a mortal woman. This supernatural birth was part of Egyptian doctrine, in which each king was the son of the Sungod, but his direct paternity of these children implies that Cheops’ line is not the true royal line. This wonder surpasses even the golden time of Sneferu, with a reality that excels the slightly frivolous masquerade of his reign; in the earlier wonders there were parodic allusions to myth and ritual, but these are now replaced with the real thing. There is also a change of setting: the Tale moves from the court to a wider world that includes both the court of the Sungod and the house of a private priest, and moves from the fantastic past into a present that is more wonderful and yet also more familiar, as the divine children are born into an increasingly troubled everyday world. At this point the manuscript breaks off.

The Tale offers its audience a sequence of wonderful episodes. The tales within the Tale are episodic and very different from those of the more elegantly and symmetrically patterned Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor. The style is consistently simple, always describing actions and deeds, and interspersed with rapid dialogue. It is descended from the folk-tale-like style employed in the narrative sections of The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, but here the simplicity seems less studied; the construction of the Tale is as loose in details as the manuscript itself is careless. The language is more colloquial and ‘prosaic’ in style than in other tales, and the verse is less tightly structured, and less regular. The style is repetitive, and this has the virtue of creating and maintaining expectation—for example, in the second tale's narrative leading up to the transformation of the crocodile—and a sense of events developing. Recurring details draw attention to parallels between various incidents.

The Tale is more ‘sexy’ than other serious moralizing tales; it is amusing, with subjects including adultery, voyeurism, and the straightforward exotica of the priests’ conjuring tricks. There are, however, underlying serious topics: the most frivolous incident, which sounds like the invention of fishnet tights, alludes to rituals for the goddess Hathor. Such esoteric allusions, however, are incidental (unlike the theological allusions of The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, which are central to its meaning and structure), and they are presented for enjoyment, with parody and without much emphasis on edification. Nevertheless, they reinforce the impression that the Tale is not just an adventure about changing dynasties; the princely contest of who can demonstrate the nature of a true ‘wonder’ is part of a narrative about true and false things—the reputed as opposed to the witnessed wonders—and these include the central institution of kingship. A major contrast is drawn between the imperfect king Cheops and the good king Sneferu, both through the figure of Djedi, who spans both reigns, and through the various parallel episodes, such as the two rowing expeditions. The Tale also contains contrasts between a true and a false wife, between two crocodiles, and between groups of court beauties and goddesses in disguise. The series of comparable incidents helps to characterize the various protagonists, whose actions are described objectively and without explicit commentary, although the characterization is not unambivalent (see n. 66).

Many of these minor incidents serve to reinforce the main contrast between Cheops and the divine kings of the Fifth Dynasty, who were venerated as royal ancestors by the Middle Kingdom rulers. Later texts show a belief that the gods would cut short the reigns of impious kings, and this is the general implication here, but it is uncertain how the Tale would have ended. In the last episode set in the court, Cheops plans to visit the children's birthplace, perhaps with hostile intentions, and the manuscript breaks off as a malicious plot to inform him about the children fails. The arrival of a crocodile suggests that any further attempts to cause trouble for the children would not have passed unhindered by their divine father. This final extant episode may have helped lead the main narrative back to describing Cheops’ actions, and the Tale may have continued to tell how he made his planned visit. The audience will have known, from history, that any attempt by Cheops to delay the succession of the three children would fail, and the Tale may have ended with his being reconciled to the fate of his dynasty, possibly through the intervention of the Sungod or Djedi.

The Tale is preserved on a single papyrus, now in Berlin, from c.1600 BC (P. Westcar h P. Berlin 3033). The beginning is badly damaged, and at least one page is lost. On the recto there are nine pages, and on the verso three further ones; after the third of these the copy ends abruptly, and the final episodes of the Tale are lost (see n. 67). Numbers give page and line numbers of the manuscript.

1 This reconstruction is based on the start of the second tale told to Cheops (see n. 16), and on the opening of The Words of Neferti.

Notes:

1 This reconstruction is based on the start of the second tale told to Cheops (see n. 16), and on the opening of The Words of Neferti.

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2014. All Rights Reserved. Privacy policy and legal notice