Literary texts written in the Egyptian Demotic script survive from a period of about six centuries, with the earliest material from the fourth century BCE. These are the Saqqara Demotic Papyri, excavated during the 1960s and 1970s in the Sacred Animal Necropolis, part of the necropolis at Memphis. They include narrative texts, but no fragments of Wisdom Literature. The latest material comprises texts on magic from the third century CE, all found at Thebes (but a wide range of texts had been copied or written down in the previous century). A large proportion of known texts have been dated to the first and second centuries CE; hundreds of them, even if some are very fragmentary, are known from temple contexts in the Faiyum. Most were associated with the community of priests at Dime and that at Tebtunis. Before that, from Ptolemaic times, there are only a small number. A coherent picture of the development of Demotic literature is therefore difficult to establish.

From the early Roman period, many types of text are known. Wisdom Literature and narratives, including mythological and cosmological narratives, are probably the best-represented types. A few other texts might have as good a claim as these to belong among literary works, or belles-lettres. The Harpist's Song (or Poème Satirique) is a metrical work in which abuse is poured upon an unfortunate harpist. Another metrical text, Papyrus Carlsberg 69, rejoices in good eating and drunkeness, and it invokes the goddess Bastet. If “literature” is understood in a wider sense, then scientific, magical, and religious material might also be taken into account. Scientific papyri include mathematical, astronomical, and medical texts. Examples are known of astrological handbooks and manuals for the interpretation of dreams and omens. Although magic plays a role in several types of text, the substantial surviving papyri generally referred to as the Demotic magical papyri—dealing with spells and divination—all date from the very end of the history of Demotic literature. There is, as well, a wide and complex variety of funerary literature in Demotic.

From the Demotic Wisdom Literature, two substantial and well-preserved texts survive along with two shorter texts and a number of small fragments. The Insinger Papyrus one of the two major works, became damaged after its modern discovery, and lacks the first five of its twenty-five sections, as well as any introductory matter that it may once have had. Apart from this chief manuscript, a number of other more fragmentary copies of the text survive. This might suggest that the text was something of a classic, at least in Roman times. Of the second major work, the Instructions of Ankhsheshonqy, which was some-what shorter, only one manuscript survives. Like some earlier Egyptian instructional texts, Ankhsheshonqy has an introductory narrative section, part of which is preserved. (A variant version of part of that narrative, in very different wording, is preserved in Copenhagen, with no indication that it was ever accompanied by the Wisdom material.) Whereas the Insinger Papyrus is organized in a highly elaborate and systematic fashion, Ankhsheshonqy at best includes some groupings of material—and often it is difficult to detect any connected thread of thought.

As a whole, the Demotic Wisdom texts display considerable similarities. In form, there are significant changes from the earlier Egyptian instructional tradition. Complex metrical structures are no longer used; the texts are generally agreed to be written in prose; and they are largely constructed of separate maxims, which the manuscripts lay out with each on a separate line. In content, the Demotic material has much in common with earlier Egyptian Wisdom Literature. The emphasis on certain topics, however, differs from that in earlier material; some scholars have stressed that the Egyptian texts need to be seen in the context of the Wisdom Literature throughout the whole of the ancient Near East, especially in a period when influences passed from culture to culture.

The Demotic texts address the individual. In Ankhsheshonqy, the narrative introduction specifically presents the text as advice from a father to his son—dealing with finding his proper place in society, with not acting or speaking out of turn. A contrast is made between the behavior of the wise man and that of the fool. The Insinger Papyrus is more concerned than other texts with fate and the uncertainties of life, whereas Ankhsheshonqy has a proverbial flavor, and concentrates on pragmatic self-interest. The similarities among the Demotic material are far greater than any differences.

Demotic narrative texts form a body of literature that shares many features of language, form, and subject matter. From the early Roman period, with no parallel in earlier Egyptian literature, are the “cycles” of stories—a series of stories that involve the same character or set of characters, and which have certain themes in common. Only two such cycles have so far been securely identified. One is the Setna Khaemwase Cycle, with the plots in the surviving texts all following a remarkably similar pattern, as far as judgment can be made from the fragmentary condition.

The other is the Inaros-Petuabastis Cycle, which deals with the fortunes of the very extensive “family” of a military leader and hero named Inaros. The first two texts of the cycle that came to light involve a king Petuabastis (there were several Late period kings of this name in Egypt), who is depicted as maintaining an unhappily precarious authority over an Egypt effectively divided into a number of separate princedoms. Some details suggest a historical setting in the seventh century BCE, but there are also echoes of other periods from the eighth to the sixth century, and even later. In these two texts, as in most but not all of the others known, Inaros himself is already dead, and it is difficult to see a consistent historical original for the figure of Inaros; his death is an event that must have provided some sense of a chronological sequence in the stories, but it is not yet apparent that the individual texts make any reference to one another, as each seems to be designed with a separate, independent plot.

The first text of the cycle to come to light, edited by Krall at the end of the nineteenth century, was “The Struggle for the Armor of Inaros” (preserved upon the Krall Papyrus in Vienna). The beginning of the papyrus is damaged, but a fragmentary parallel to the first surviving pages has recently been identified in Copenhagen. The plot is set in motion by a council of the gods, where it is decided to instigate strife in Egypt. Demons are sent down to earth to put a determination to fight in the hearts of two heroes, one belonging to the family of Inaros, the other to an opposing faction. The cause of the ensuing series of battles and duels is a dispute over the possession of the splendid armor of the dead Inaros. Many have argued that a number of ideas for the plot of this text and those of others belonging to the cycle have been adopted as a result of some kind of knowledge of Greek epic (not just knowledge of the two Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey), although this is not universally accepted. Preserved on the Spiegelberg Papyrus of the first century BCE is “The Struggle for the Priesthood of Amun.” The greater part of this papyrus is housed at Strasbourg, and there are a number of fragments elsewhere. Several fragmentary examples of other manuscripts of the text are among collections with material from Tebtunis. Among Demotic narratives—and indeed among Demotic literature as a whole—this text is the one of which we have most evidence for multiple copies. Like “The Struggle for the Armor of Inaros,” the text involves duels between heroes, often preceded by taunts and boasting. The dispute in this text, however, concerns the very Egyptian idea of the contested succession to a priestly office and to the enjoyment of its income. The son of King Petuabastis has taken possession of the office of “First Prophet of Amun” at Thebes. A young priest of Horus, from Buto in the Delta, goes to Thebes and comes before the king to lay claim to the priesthood, assisted by thirteen “herdsmen” (this term places them as outsiders, as ferocious warriors). They do not appear to play a role in any other texts of the cycle. After seizing and occupying the sacred bark of the god Amun, they capture in turn the king's son and his chief ally and imprison them on the boat. Amun has revealed to the king in an oracular response that the only hero who can overcome the “herdsmen” is Pamu, a member of the family of Inaros. He is part of a faction that bears a grudge against the king and his son, because they had not been invited to a festival. Pamu agrees to come to Thebes, but the very end of the story is lost, and the precise outcome unclear. The text perhaps involves some serious reflections on Egyptian religious and political institutions, which certainly would be hard to comprehend for anyone unfamiliar with the culture.

The story about the “Egyptians and Amazons” is preserved in two similar copies (housed at Vienna), probably of a late second century CE date. The hero Petekhons, a member of the family of Inaros, leads an Egyptian military expedition into the Near East. They encroach upon the territory of Serpot, “the pharaoh of the land of women” (the term Amazon is not used), and her army of women. Serpot sends her sister to spy on the Egyptian encampment. The queen then inspects her warriors and delivers a speech of encouragement, after which the women inflict a great slaughter upon the Egyptians and their allies. Next day, Petekhons and Serpot fight in single combat. Unlike the tragic encounter of Achilles with Penthesilea, this duel ends with a truce. The two proceed to fall in love, and that leads to an alliance.

Among the plentiful material of the early Roman period, the Setna Khaemwase Cycle and the Inaros-Petuabastis Cycle seem to predominate (although it should be mentioned that their early discovery and well-preserved texts concentrated scholarly attention). Some fragmentary material is known for many individual texts, which do not seem to belong to any cycle; these involve quite different characters or sets of characters, set in a wide range of historical periods. Their themes may be seen as having some resemblance to the magical and heroic preoccupations of the two cycles discussed above.

In assessing the nature of Demotic narratives in earlier periods, there is only questionable evidence that any text existed directly relating to (and involving the same characters as) the cycles. From Ptolemaic times comes the Demotic Chronicle, preserved on a single papyrus (housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris). The longest text on this papyrus is hardly a narrative; it comprises a series of obscure oracular statements, which are each given an interpretation and serve to reflect on the stature or deficiencies of the Egyptian kings who had reigned from the late fifth century BCE onward. The opposite side of the same papyrus (the verso) preserves, among other material, the beginning of a story concerning King Amasis of the twenty-sixth dynasty: to the dismay of his courtiers, the king insists upon drinking a large quantity of wine and, therefore, the next morning suffers a terrible hang-over. For relief, he demands to be told a story. Before the manuscript breaks off, a priest begins to relate a tale which was probably about to take a ribald turn. Whether or not the story eventually came to point a moral is uncertain.

The Saqqara Demotic papyri, plausibly the earliest examples of Demotic narrative, include several fragmentary mythological texts: one is an otherwise unknown episode of a Horus and Seth text, much in the New Kingdom style of the Contendings of Horus and Seth (including the manner in which the character of Seth is depicted). The text relating the story about Nanefersakhmet includes elements of romance and surprise meetings; it tells of the tribulations suffered by a priest cheated of his priesthood and the wanderings of characters who had to go into hiding. There are many individual details that are paralleled in later, Roman-era material, but the plot seems very different.

In the 1940s, the Demotic narratives seemed to Egyptologists very remote from the stories expressed in Late Egyptian language, written in Hieratic script, and preserved from the New Kingdom. At that time, the latest Hieratic story known was the Misfortunes of Wenamun, from about 1000 BCE, and the earliest Demotic was from the third century BCE; it could then even be suggested that narrative as a genre needed to be reinvented in Ptolemaic times. New material has changed scholarly perceptions. A wider range of textual types is now known, making the two narrative cycles from the Roman period less predominant. Evidence for Demotic narratives now extends back into the fourth century BCE. Hieratic manuscripts (of scientific and Wisdom texts, as well as narratives) have been discovered or published, which begin to bridge the chronological gap between the New Kingdom and Ptolemaic times. Demotic narratives, in their use of prose, their exploitation of the story within a story, their high proportion of direct speech, and their shadowing of the style of oral literature, can be seen as belonging to the same tradition as the stories of the New Kingdom. Just how this tradition operated, however, remains a topic of investigation and debate. The apparent flowering of Demotic literature in early Roman times can be understood as part of a general and deliberate program in Egyptian priestly circles, an attempt to keep traditional Egyptian culture alive in written form during a time of cultural change. Such a context surely did not obtain for earlier stages of Egyptian literature.



  • Betz, Hans Dieter, ed. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells. Chicago, 1986.
  • Depauw, Mark. A Companion to Demotic Studies. Papyrologica Bruxellensia, 28. Bruxelles, 1997. Includes a survey of Demotic literature, pp. 85–121, with the most up-to-date bibliography of text editions and of studies.
  • Kitchen, K. A. The Third Intermediate Period in Egypt. 2d ed. Warminster, 1986. See “Notes on the background of the story-cycle of Petubastis,” pp. 455–461. The story “Naneferkasokar and the Babylonians” is not now believed to belong to the cycle.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings, vol. 3: The Late Period. Berkeley, 1980. Includes English translations of a selection of texts, with introduction and notes.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. Late Egyptian Wisdom Literature in the International Context: A Study of Demotic Instruction. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis, 52. Göttingen, 1983. Includes translations.
  • Posener, G. “Literature.” In The Legacy of Egypt, 2d ed., edited by J. R. Harris, pp. 220–256. Oxford, 1971.
  • Tait, W. J. “Demotic Literature and Egyptian Society.” In Life in a Multi-cultural Society: Egypt from Cambyses to Constantine and Beyond, edited by J. H. Johnson, pp. 303–310. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, 51. Chicago, 1992.
  • Tait, W. J. “Egyptian Fiction in Demotic and Greek.” In Greek Fiction: The Greek Novel in Context, edited by J. R. Morgan and R. Stoneman, pp. 203–222. London, 1994. A survey and basic bibliography of narrative texts.

John Tait