During the Old and Middle Kingdoms, the prevalent terms for letters were mḏʾt (“papyrus document”) and (“writing”). By the New Kingdom, the customary word for a “letter” had become šʿt, derived from the verb “cut”; literally meaning “piece,” this reflects the practice of cutting off a sheet from a papyrus roll for the purpose of writing a letter. For royal and official letters of the New Kingdom the term wḫʾ (“directive,” “rescript,” or “inquiry”) conveyed the notion of the writer's authority, whereas a letter sent to the king was called wsty (“report”). Throughout pharaonic times, letters from the king were “royal decrees,” which also designated formal edicts emanating from the palace. Yet administrative orders from the vizier were not called “decrees.”

Expressions having to do with the writing of letters reflect the situation in which the writer dictated the letter to a scribe. Thus, in addressing the recipient, the verb “say” commonly appears at the beginning of communications. Just as a person might employ a scribe to write a letter from dictation, so it was frequently assumed that the recipient would have the communication read aloud by a secretary. If there was no third party to recite the letter, a literate recipient would still read it aloud. The oral aspect of reading is also indicated by the frequent use of the verb “hear” in reference to the addressee's taking note of a letter's contents. In a very few instances, which are not beyond dispute, the verb “see” may have referred to visual reading of a communication. Evidence indicates that the fifth dynasty King Izezi was literate, and a letter of Amenhotpe II to his viceroy of Nubia is expressly stated to have been made by the king's own hands. Since princes received a scribal education at court, it is probable that most pharaohs were literate, although the king generally made use of a “pharaoh's letter-writer,” his secretary.

Some sort of messenger service was available for the transmission of official correspondence. Dispatch-carriers might be entrusted with a number of letters to be delivered to various destinations, and occasionally such a courier might even carry a private letter. Generally, however, private correspondence was transmitted informally. Frequently a trusted retainer or acquaintance simply hand-delivered the letter. Sometimes replies to letters were requested to be sent by the hand of anyone who happened to be coming in the right direction. External addresses on letters, when present, do not usually indicate the location of the addressee. There was no general postal system in the modern sense.

Once received and read, a letter might be retained by the recipient for future reference. In New Kingdom letters written on papyrus, the addressee is often urged to preserve the letter so that it might be used as evidence or authorization at some later date. The handwriting of a letter-writer occasionally served to demonstrate a letter's authenticity. Official letters were frequently copied into journals maintained by state and temple administrative units.

The epistolary conventions and formulas of letters from the Old and Middle Kingdoms generally exhibit more awareness of the relative social status of writer and addressee than do New Kingdom letters. In older letters, a superior recipient is commonly referred to as “lord,” while the inferior writer, who may call himself “servant of the estate” in the salutation, often refers to himself in the body of the letter by using a third person expression equivalent to “your humble servant.” Although in the formulaic introduction of New Kingdom letters a superior recipient might still be called “lord,” formal expressions indicating relative status are generally lacking in the body of the letter, where first and second person pronouns are used for writer and addressee regardless of social status. When writer and addressee are of equal status, the writer may refer to himself politely as “your brother” in older letters.

The invocation formulas of the Old and Middle Kingdoms tend to be more tightly phrased than in the New Kingdom, when writers employ a freer style that reflects an intimate relationship between a person and the deities, whose blessings are invoked on behalf of the recipient. Such invocations, however, are generally absent in letters from a superior to an inferior. During the Ramessid period, often lengthy appeals to local deities for the addressee's well-being reflect the increase in personal piety that characterized the religion of that age.

Sources.

There are various sources for correspondence, the originals of which were invariably written in the cursive Hieratic script. Longer letters have been preserved on papyrus, which could be conveniently folded and tied with a string, to which a mud seal was applied to ensure the confidentiality of the contents. Papyrus letters were provided with simple external addresses and were easily transportable. Some royal letters were considered to be so important to the recipient as expressions of honor that they were carved in stone in hieroglyphs on the tomb or stela of a high official. Such permanent copies from Old Kingdom tombs preserve the format of the original papyrus letters.

Many letters, generally brief, were written on flakes of limestone or potsherds, called “ostraca.” Some of these letters are copies or drafts of letters that were written on papyrus, but many short communications on ostraca were themselves hand-delivered. There was no way of sealing them to ensure the confidentiality of the message. The addressee was indicated by either naming the recipient at the beginning of the communication or simply telling the letter-carrier to deliver it to a particular individual.

Many papyrus letters are palimpsest; that is, the papyrus on which the letter was written had been cut off from a previously inscribed roll and the earlier text erased to provide a blank sheet. This common practice, as well as the use of limestone flakes or potsherds, indicates that although new papyrus was not exorbitantly expensive, the cost and availability of a papyrus roll must have figured in the choice of writing material.

Groups of Letters.

Although many letters stand isolated in content and provenience, there are several groups of letters from specific locations that are worthy of note. The Hekanakhte Letters, found discarded in a Theban tomb of the early Middle Kingdom, relate to the affairs of a mortuary priest who was also a gentleman farmer. These letters reveal his concern for members of his household, especially as regards their food rations, and the economics involved in renting land for the cultivation of emmer wheat and barley. Hekanakhte appears as a miserly individual who is seeking to accumulate fluid capital that could ultimately be used for his burial expenses, according to Baer (1963).

From the second half of the twelfth dynasty come the Semna Dispatches, which were copied on a papyrus roll found in Western Thebes. These letters relate to the movement and activities of Nubians in the vicinity of the western Semna fort in Nubia. Of similar date are letters from the valley temple and the adjoining pyramid town of the deceased king Senwosret II at Illahun. While the letters from the valley temple deal largely with temple affairs, those from the pyramid town are more varied and often personal, covering such matters as farming, rations, household affairs, shipping, conscripts, fishing, weaving, and the education of a slave.

Among the subjects treated in a group of letters involving a scribe Ahmose, who was active during the reign of Hatshepsut, are the building of a house and litigation over a maidservant. Two fragmentary letters from an unguent preparator living at Tell el-Amarna provide important evidence for a commoner's ability to pray to the god Aten directly, without the intermediation of Akhenaten. They also contain the earliest occurrence of epistolary formulas that were subsequently in vogue during the Ramessid period.

Several letters of the standard-bearer Maisety treat interference with a god's personnel, improper arrest of laborers, and mobilization of prisoners in the reign of Sety I. Nine letters involving the family of Ramesses II and its entourage at the Nile Delta capital of Piramesse shed light on the activity of princes. In one of them, the term “general” is applied to Ramesses II, expressing his human nature rather than the divine nature generally stressed in more formal inscriptions. Among several letters that were discovered pasted together, there is a missive of Ramesses IX reprimanding the high priest of Amun-Ramessesnakhte for providing inferior galena (a blue-gray mineral) for the king's eye-paint. The same high priest penned a letter of congratulation to Nubian troops for routing nomads who had been creating trouble for gold-washing teams in the Eastern Desert. In speaking of this action, the high priest by convention attributes the victory to the king's energetic arm, even though the king was not actually involved. These letters are important for evaluating the relationship of the king to the high priest in a period of declining royal authority.

From the Ramessid workmen's village of Deir el-Medina, the residence of the families of artisans employed in the excavation and decoration of the royal tombs, and from the royal necropolis of Western Thebes, derive many letters, mainly ostraca. Some of those documents are concerned with the progress of work on the royal tomb and with administrative matters relating to the crew's wages and supplies; others deal with more personal affairs, including illness, death, marital problems, disputes, consumer needs, and transactions. The communications on ostraca tend to be brief and usually lack the epistolary formulas found at the beginning of more formal letters.

Because of Deir el-Medina's vulnerability to attacks by marauding Libyans at the end of the twentieth dynasty, the community moved within the fortified enclosure of Ramesses III's mortuary temple at Medinet Habu. From this period there exist more than fifty papyri that constitute a corpus now known as the Late Ramessid Letters. Most were written or received by the aging necropolis scribe Dhutmose, whose various activities included the collection of taxes in grain to supply the workmen, the preparation of materials for warfare in Nubia, and his own dangerous trip into Nubia. These letters are among the liveliest documents from ancient Egypt; although they are partly official, they also abound in expressions of concern for the well-being of Dhutmose and the men and women of his family and community. Through the exchange of letters one can trace the course of events in the last years of Ramesses XI's reign, when southern Egypt was under the military control of a general who assumed the function of high priest of Amun. In what was probably the final year of Ramesses XI's reign, General Piankh conducted a military campaign against a former viceroy of Nubia. In one of his letters, sent from Nubia to Dhutmose, occur these treasonous words: “Regarding Pharaoh, how will he ever reach this land (Nubia)? Regarding Pharaoh, whose superior is he after all?” The subject matter of this letter is the political assassination of two policemen. In the Late Ramessid Letters, Piankh is first and foremost a general, whose military activities entirely overshadow his secondary role as high priest of Amun; this supports the view that the downfall of the New Kingdom was due more to the military strength of generals, who commanded Libyan mercenaries, than to the power of the Amun priesthood.

The latest extant letters of pharaonic times are from the succeeding twenty-first dynasty, whose kings and high priests were of Libyan origin. These, written mostly by priests, concern such matters as fugitive servants, horses and warriors, fowlers, and the illness of the high priest of Amun, who bore the Libyan name Masahert.

Model Letters.

An important instrument in the education of Egyptian scribes was the model letter. The earliest of these is a composition in epistolary form, known as Kmyt, which was composed in the early Middle Kingdom and often copied by students in the New Kingdom. The most significant corpus of model letters is on papyri of the Ramessid period. Today referred to under the rubric “Late Egyptian Miscellanies,” some of these papyri were anciently called “instructions in letter-writing” and contained model letters composed for educational purposes. The student is exhorted to be assiduous in his studies and to avoid dissipation. Many model letters elevated the profession of scribe by describing the pleasant life of a bureaucrat—refined in his attire, esteemed by society, and wealthy in his villa estate; by contrast, other occupations were denigrated. Other letters were concocted to acquaint the student with unusual vocabulary. Also included in the Miscellanies are original letters that the teacher apparently extracted from his files to serve as models.

The letters in the Miscellanies provide a mass of information on state and temple administration, economics, and society. Particularly important are references to agricultural matters, such as the demarcation of fields, tenant farmers, and the collection and transport of the harvest tax. These Miscellanies inform us that the scribe was not taxed but rather saw to the assessment and collection of revenues for the state and temples. Included in this corpus are complaints about excessive taxation, the illegal seizure of people by unauthorized individuals, and the corvée, whereby people were conscripted to perform agricultural labor or work on building projects.

Apart from the Miscellanies, there exist two literary letters. The longest is Papyrus Anastasi I, composed early in Ramesses II's reign and frequently copied on ostraca by student scribes. This lengthy epistle includes such matters as the rhetoric of composition, engineering problems, calculations of supplies for the army, and the geography of the Near East. The writer employs sarcasm and irony as means of improving the quality of the student's mind beyond rote memorization of facts. The epistolary form was also used to frame the fictional narrative of Papyrus Pushkin 127, which describes the tribulations of a wandering priestly outcast of Heliopolis at the end of the New Kingdom.

Letters to the Dead.

As early as the late Old Kingdom, we find the practice of writing letters to the dead. These documents were often written on pottery vessels that were deposited in the deceased's tomb-chapel. Offerings in the vessels served to placate the dead person's spirit (ʒḫ). Other letters to the dead were inscribed on such materials as linen, papyrus, or limestone flakes. In these letters, a number of which were written by or addressed to female relatives, the writer complains about unfortunate circumstances that he or she believes were caused by the dead relative or by some other individual in the beyond. In the latter case, the writer implores the spirit of the deceased relative to take legal action against the dead offender in the netherworld tribunal, composed of spirits of the dead and presided over by the great god.

Although letters to the dead possess a legalistic flavor, the writer's emotions often intrude. In one such letter, on a stela of the First Intermediate Period, the writer explains how carefully he has performed ritual spells on his dead wife's behalf and expresses his hope to see her in a dream contending and interceding on his behalf—the earliest evidence for the incubation of dreams in ancient Egypt. In a long letter to the dead from the nineteenth dynasty, the writer stresses how devoted and faithful he has been to his wife both before and after her death. Another such letter from the twenty-first dynasty, addressed by the grieving Butehamon to his dead wife, expresses the common fate of all beings—gods, kings, and the rest of humanity; it states, “There is no one who shall stay alive, for we shall all follow you [the dead wife].” In general, letters to the dead reflect the high esteem that women enjoyed in ancient Egypt.

Letters Involving Women.

Prior to the New Kingdom, few letters have survived that involve a female writer or addressee. In the several Middle Kingdom examples of such letters, appropriate epistolary greetings are directed to the female recipient, and in an Illahun letter from a woman to her lord about the weaving of clothing, she employs the same epistolary formulas that men use and even complains about the lord's neglectfulness. In the Ramessid period, when introductory formulas and prayers to gods on the recipient's behalf became more common, it is noticeable that letters addressed to chantresses in the time of Ramesses II utilize extended greetings. Model letters even existed in the Miscellanies for female writers, and these also contain introductions with intercessions on behalf of the recipient.

Approximately 14 percent of the Deir el-Medina letters involve women either as writers or recipients. Men tended to write to women twice as often as the reverse; and one-fourth of the letters are between family members. Communications to or from women deal with transactions, complaints about the recipient's conduct, family matters, and errands of various sorts. Absent from letters sent by women of Deir el-Medina are petitions to higher authorities, such as men might write to the vizier. Elsewhere, however, women of high status communicated in writing to higher authorities, including the king—as is evident from a letter addressed to Sety II by a lady in charge of women weavers at the harem of Miwer in the Faiyum area.

Particularly difficult to resolve is the question of female literacy. There is some meager evidence that a very small percentage of women were literate; and given the generally favorable status of ancient Egyptian women, it is possible that some of the Deir el-Medina women were capable of penning a short letter. In the Late Ramessid Letters, the authority wielded by some of the ladies does suggest that they may have been literate. It has been argued that one letter of this archive is in the distinctive handwriting of the chantress of Amun-Henuttawy and that certain linguistic features of this letter indicate feminine authorship. In general, however, letters involving women as writer or recipient resemble letters involving men.

Conclusion.

In addition to many diverse subjects treated in correspondence, letters have contributed significantly to our understanding of the history of the Egyptian language. Perhaps more than any other type of document, they reflect the living colloquial language as it evolved; this is particularly true of genuine letters, whereas model and literary letters tended to retain older features of the language.

Bibliography

  • Baer, Klaus. “An Eleventh Dynasty Farmer's Letters to His Family.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 83 (1963), 1–19. Discusses the economic aspects of the Hekanakhte Letters.
  • Baines, John, and C. J. Eyre. “Four Notes on Literacy.” Göttinger Miszellen 61 (1983), 65–96. Treats literacy in the population, including kings and women, and the literacy rate at Deir el-Medina.
  • Bakir, Abd el-Mohsen. Egyptian Epistolography from the Eighteenth to the Twenty-first Dynasty. Bibliothèque d'Étude, 48. Cairo, 1970. Offers a comprehensive discussion of epistolary style and formulas during the New Kingdom.
  • Caminos, Ricardo A. Late-Egyptian Miscellanies. Brown Egyptological Studies, 1. London, 1954. Provides translations of New Kingdom model letters, with commentary.
  • Caminos, Ricardo. A Tale of Woe: From a Hieratic Papyrus in the A. S. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. Oxford, 1977. Publication of the literary letter on Papyrus Pushkin 127.
  • James, T. G. H. The Hekanakhte Papers, and Other Early Middle Kingdom Documents. Publications of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Egyptian Expedition, 19. New York, 1962. The basic publication of the Hekanakhte Letters.
  • Janssen, Jac J. “A Notable Lady.” Wepwawet: Research Papers in Egyptology 2 (1986), 30–31. Discusses the literacy of a late Ramessid lady, Henuttawy, who performed administrative duties on her husband's behalf.
  • Janssen, Jac J. “On Style in Egyptian Handwriting.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 73 (1987), 161–167. Analyzes the handwriting of individual scribes of the Late Ramessid Letters and suggests that the women of Deir el-Medina may have inscribed their own letters on ostraca.
  • Janssen, Jac J. Late Ramesside Letters and Communication. Hieratic Papyri in the British Museum, 6. London, 1991. Publication of recent additions to the corpus of Late Ramessid Letters.
  • Sweeney, Deborah. “Intercessory Prayer in Ancient Egypt and the Bible.” In Pharaonic Egypt: The Bible and Christianity, edited by Sarah Israelit-Groll, pp. 213–230. Jerusalem, 1985. Considers the introductory formulas of Ramessid letters as they relate to prayer.
  • Sweeney, Deborah. “Women's Correspondence from Deir el-Medineh.” In Sesto Congresso Internazionale di Egittologia: Atti, vol. 2, pp. 523–529. Turin, 1993. Includes a cautious appraisal of the problem of female literacy at Deir el-Medina.
  • Sweeney, Deborah. “Women and Language in the Ramesside Period.” In Abstracts of Papers: Seventh International Congress of Egyptologists, Cambridge. 3–9 September 1995, edited by Christopher Eyre, pp. 180–181. Oxford, 1995. Suggests that the letter of Henuttawy exhibits peculiarities of language that identify the writer as female.
  • Wente, Edward F. Late Ramesside Letters. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, 33. Chicago, 1967. Provides a discussion of the chronology of the Late Ramessid Letters, translations, and commentary.
  • Wente, Edward F. Letters from Ancient Egypt. Writings from the Ancient World, 1. Atlanta, 1990. After an introduction treating the writing of letters and their transmission, provides translations of many real letters from the fifth dynasty through the twenty-first, as well as those of Kemit, the Papyrus Anastasi I, and some letters to the dead; comprehensive bibliography.

Edward F. Wente