The Instructions of Ankhsheshonqy is the name given to a collection of aphorisms preserved in a Demotic manuscript dating to the first century BCE (British Museum EA 10508). The text was found near Akhmim in Middle Egypt. Comprising twenty-eight columns of writing, it is divided into two parts: the aphorisms proper and an introductory narrative that purports to describe the circumstances in which these were set down.

The introduction identifies the author of the maxims as a man named Ankhsheshonqy, the son of Tjanefer. It recounts how a group of conspirators plotted to murder the king. Ankhsheshonqy learned of their plan but did not inform the authorities. The plot failed and the conspirators were duly executed. Ankhsheshonqy was punished for his silence by a sentence of imprisonment. Realizing that he would be separated from his son, he requested the authorities to allow him to write down a series of instructions for the youth's moral guidance.

This account takes up the first five columns of the British Museum manuscript. The remainder of that roll is devoted to the actual maxims that Ankhsheshonqy is supposed to have composed for his son's benefit. These mix advice on practical matters relating to agriculture, with guidance on behavior toward the gods, one's superiors and inferiors, as well as the members of one's family. Although the tone of the aphorisms is often cynical, revealing a somewhat jaundiced view of human nature, what underlies them, in common with other Wisdom Literature written in Demotic script was a belief in a principle of causality—the idea that there is a fixed and certain connection between a deed and its effect: good acts result in good for the doer, and evil acts in evil, in accordance with the laws of maat (principle of justice and harmony).

Some of the maxims are preserved in other Demotic papyri, not always in their order of occurrence in the British Museum manuscript. The earliest date to the second century BCE. This raises the question of whether the British Museum text is an original work or a compilation of existing sayings from various sources. A slightly different version of the narrative prologue is attested in a manuscript from Tebtunis in the Faiyum written in the second century CE. It omits the actual maxims. Some think that the prologue and the collection of aphorisms that it introduces may originally have been separate works. Others maintain that the two were composed by the same person, as parts of a whole. Opinion is also divided as to when this might have happened. On the basis of the names of certain characters who figure in the prologue, some would date the text's genesis as early as the sixth century BCE. Whereas others view it as a product of the late Ptolemaic period. If the prologue and the body of the text were written at separate times, then an early date of composition for the prologue would not preclude a later date for the rest.

Whatever the case, with a manuscript tradition extending over four centuries, the Instructions of Ankhsheshonqy was evidently an important work for the ancient Egyptians. For us, the text is significant as well, since it and the nearly contemporary Insinger Papyrus are the two longest and best-preserved specimens of Demotic Wisdom Literature extant.

Bibliography

  • Glanville, S. R. K. The Instructions of ʿOnchsheshonqy (British Museum Papyrus 10508). Catalogue of Demotic Papyri in the British Museum, 1. London, 1955. Standard edition of the text.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. Late Egyptian Wisdom Literature in the International Context. A Study of Demotic Instructions. Orbus Biblicus et Orientalis, 52. Freiburg and Göttingen, 1983. Most recent English translation, with discussion of the work's main themes, on pp. 13–92.
  • Smith, H. S. “The Story of ʿOnchsheshonqy.” Serapis 6 (1980), 133–156. (Re-edition of the initial columns of the text.
  • Smith, M. “Weisheit, demotische.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 6: 1200–1201. Wiesbaden, 1986. Annotated list of editions, translations, and studies of the text (in English).

Mark Smith