The “Tale of the Doomed Prince” is preserved solely on the verso of the Hieratic Papyrus Harris 500 (BM 10060), inscribed in the reign of Sety I or Ramesses II. The story, the end of which is lost, is written in Late Egyptian and was probably composed in the late eighteenth dynasty, just before the collapse of the kingdom of Mitanni. The simple narrative style and the consistent motivation of the characters put this work in the genre of fairy tale.
The story begins with the birth of a crown prince to the Egyptian king. At his birth, the Hathor goddesses determine his fate: death by a snake, a crocodile, or a dog. Initially, the child lives a protected existence, but he is given a young hound for a pet, and eventually, accompanied by his dog, he leaves his home on a journey to the Near East. Although the reader knows of the prince's royal background, his true identity is not revealed to the princes with whom he competes for the hand of the daughter of the king of Naharin (Mitanni). They have been told by the prince that he is the son of a chariot warrior, and he has fled Egypt because of his stepmother. After considerable reluctance, the Mitannian king sanctions the marriage of his daughter to the Egyptian hero, who has won the competition. The prince, still claiming to be the son of a chariot warrior, informs his new wife of his three fates, and she becomes protective of him. Although she kills the snake, both the crocodile and the hound remain. When the dog states that he is the lad's fate, the prince flees into a lake, only to be seized by the crocodile, which had been engaged in fighting with a water spirit. The crocodile soon releases the hero, thus leaving the dog to be his fate. Here the tale breaks off, giving rise to opposing interpretations. Some have suggested a tragic ending, but the fairy-tale nature of the story suggests that the conclusion was a happy one, with the hero revealing his true identity and succeeding to the throne of Egypt.
“The Doomed Prince” is important for its treatment of the concept of fate in ancient Egypt. It is the prophecy's imprecision regarding the manner of the prince's death that makes fate seem less inexorable than in neighboring Near Eastern cultures. From other New Kingdom texts we know that the fated span of one's life might be altered by requesting of a god a longer life than was initially predetermined. The flexibility of fate thus removes “The Doomed Prince” from being a tragedy and allows for a resolution that is less strictly predetermined. Indeed, there is a deity superior to the fate-decreeing Hathors, and it is the piety of the hero toward his god, as well as his good qualities, that governs the eventual outcome, overriding the destinies given at his birth. It is quite likely that the dog did not kill the young prince, since the sun god is the ultimate arbiter of an individual's destiny.
- Gardiner, Alan H. Late-Egyptian Stories. Bibliotheca Aegyptiaca, 1 Brussels, 1932. Offers a convenient transcription of the Hieratic text of “The Doomed Prince.”
- Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature, a Book of Readings. vol. 2. Berkeley, 1976. Provides a translation of “The Doomed Prince,” with bibliographical references.
- Möller, Georg. Hieratische Lesestücke für den akademischen Gebrauch. 2d rev. ed. Leipzig, 1927. Presents a facsimile copy of the Hieratic text of “The Doomed Prince.”
- Posener, G. “On the Tale of the Doomed Prince.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 39 (1953), 107. Suggests a happy ending for the story and some mythological connotations.
- Simpson, William Kelly, ed. The Literature of Ancient Egypt. New ed. New Haven, 1973. Provides a translation of “The Doomed Prince,” with comments on the tale's treatment of fate.
Edward F. Wente