The centrality of the institution of kingship within ancient Egyptian society made it imperative for the royal palace to engage in active propaganda to bolster the ruler's reputation and stature. Thus were developed royal encomia, “hymns” sung in honor of the ruling monarch. Little activity of this kind came from the Old Kingdom palace. Not much is known from the royal house itself, except for poorly preserved royal mortuary temples. The nobles' autobiographies describe the king in the vaguest of terms. One exception, from the tomb-chapel of an official named Metjetji, extols the virtue of following and obeying the king:
"Oh you living, who are upon the earth, adore the king as long as you live. Be vigilant of his work, and protect his command(s). Do as he wishes, and [it] will go well [for] the one who accomplishes what is praised. … The one beloved of the god [i.e., the king] will be an honored one. He will be hale under it, and his plans will go well as long as he lives."
This passage is later echoed in much longer compositions. This paucity of royal encomia cannot easily be explained, unless the kings of the Old Kingdom simply felt secure enough to do without the approval of their subjects. Was the king too remote from his subjects to feel the need to publish hymns of praise to himself at this time?
It took a catharsis like the fall of centralized power at Memphis and the difficulties of a civil war during the First Intermediate Period to force the new monarchs to reassess their predecessors' confidence. The eleventh dynasty kings, who won the civil war and reunited the country to begin the Middle Kingdom, felt the need to claim meritorious behavior in their inscriptions. The twelfth dynasty rulers—upstarts from the southernmost region of Egypt—wrested the throne away from the eleventh dynasty incumbents and elevated the art of praising the majesty of the king to a high degree.
From this period comes the Story of Sinuhe. Probably composed by court poets during the early twelfth dynasty, it is full of exciting adventures couched within timeless literary themes. The flow of the narrative is twice interrupted, however, by songs of praise for the new king, Senwosret I. The first of these portrays him as a fierce warrior before whom no one could stand, while the second, recited by the royal children toward the end of the story, paints him as a forgiving monarch and a shepherd to his people. Set as they were within a thrilling tale, these varied descriptions of the ruler could not have failed to stir contemporary audiences. The twelfth dynasty palace introduced another genre of text, the so-called Königsnovelle, a royal tale in which the king is the protagonist; seated in the palace, the king presents an idea to the assembled courtiers, who declare their awe at his wisdom and their appreciation of his constant vigilance for their well-being. Yet another literary genre, the so-called Loyalist Instruction, clearly identifies loyalty and subservience to the king as the way to advance in society. These new compositions are long catalogs that glorify various characteristics of the king and expand the themes of the Old Kingdom text quoted earlier. A series of hymns composed in honor of Senwosret III of the late twelfth dynasty extol his defense of the country and his fierceness during battle. Because some of these hymns are written in anaphoric patterns, they must have been sung, and they were probably performed during the king's triumphal return from a military campaign. The songs' poetic style, with couplets and repeated choruses, would have ensured their success as propagandistic pieces, since a mostly illiterate population could have memorized them easily. Middle Kingdom texts praise other qualities of the king besides warlike ones. Panegyrics present the king's roles as intermediary between the gods and man, emulator of divine actions and attributes, beneficent ruler of Egypt, and provider of good inundations.
Similar themes were continued by the kings of the New Kingdom. Recalling earlier portrayals of the ruler as a fierce warrior, early eighteenth dynasty kings described themselves as “a mighty king” and “a strong ruler,” who “acted with his own arms” and “seized the land by force.” Coming as they did after a war of liberation that rid the country of foreign intruders, it is easy to understand the use of such phrases, which were disseminated throughout the realm on triumphal stelae set up in Egypt and abroad. This highly militaristic spirit pervaded many New Kingdom royal compositions; it should be noted, however, that although epithets applied to a specific king often arose from the events of the time, they joined the standard royal phraseology once they were seen to be effective.
A striking example of a royal encomium of the eighteenth dynasty is the so-called Poetical Stela of Thutmose III. The text consists of a speech by the god Amun-Re, hailing the king's military victories. The poetic section, framed by an epilogue and a prologue, comprises ten quatrains, each with two couplets introduced by anaphoras. Noteworthy is the layout of the poem on the stela itself: each quatrain is carved on a single line, and the anaphoric phrases are placed one below the other, occupying the beginning and middle of the line respectively. A similar format was employed by the court poet who hailed King Amenhotpe III's achievements; after praising the king's building activities, the text has Amun-Re celebrating his own benefactions toward Amenhotpe III, with the first line of each stanza repeated in anaphoric pattern.
An unexpected example of a royal encomium comes from the Amarna Letters. One of the missives sent by Abimilki, prince of Tyre, to Akhenaten contains introductory stock phrases praising the Egyptian king. Of interest are the themes Abimilki chose to pursue in his homage to Akhenaten: not only are there phrases similar to the latter's hymn to the sun god Aten, but some passages also stress Akhenaten's belligerence and might. Given Akhenaten's general lack of enthusiasm for military campaigns, these sentiments indicate the effectiveness of the royal court's propaganda.
The Ramessid period produced more royal encomia. King Sety I emulated Thutmose III's and Amenhotpe III's victory poems, especially borrowing from the latter's anaphoric phrasing, where the god is said to turn to all cardinal points to do wonders for the king. Ramesses II's court composed two hymns in his honor: the first, from the temple of Abu Simbel, generally extols the king's military might, while the second is the well-known poem celebrating Ramesses II's bravery at the Battle of Kadesh. The latter was so important in the young king's propaganda program that he had the tale of his prowess carved on a number of temple walls as well as written in Hieratic script on papyrus. Victory hymns were also composed for the benefit of Merenptah and Ramesses III, IV, V, VI, and VII. The compositions in honor of the last two kings, probably coronation hymns, are noteworthy for having been written on papyrus, using thick dots—called “verse points” by modern scholars—to indicate the ends of lines, and terminal signs (actually the word for “end,” or “cessation”) to indicate the ends of stanzas. Both sets of markers were written in red ink to differentiate them from the rest of the text.
The New Kingdom also saw the continued use of the Königsnovelle. Most of these texts have a military setting, as Kamose, Thutmose III, and Ramesses II convene war councils in the respective tales of their prowess and wisdom. Each king presents a bold plan of attack to his startled generals, who begin by expressing doubt about the likelihood of success were they to follow their monarch's plan. But the plot of each tale is the same: the king browbeats his generals into submission and eventually wins the day. Another theme pursued within this genre is the royal audience (lit. “royal sitting”). The monarch sits in the audience chamber, presenting his decision to mount a trading expedition to a faraway land—for example, Queen Hatshepsut's famous expedition to the land of Punt—or to ensure that men sent to gold mines have an adequate supply of water. Here the monarch is presented as a decisive but caring ruler, who, with the proper divine guidance, always ensures the well-being of his subjects.
Not every one of these statements should be taken at face value. Royal encomia were products of the palace and were meant to propagate the official dogma about the king. Their authorship is also open to question. The king must have participated in the process, but one suspects that the final product came from court poets. What is not in doubt, however, is the fact that these encomia succeeded in reaching the population at large, as shown by a statement praising Thutmose II—“The commoners rejoiced.… They gave praise to the Lord of the Two Lands and they honored this beneficent god”—and by a declaration about King Merenptah: “His victories are recounted (sedjed) in every land.”
- Bleiberg, Edward. “Historical Texts as Political Propaganda during the New Kingdom.” Bulletin of the Egyptological Seminar 7 (1985/86), 5–13. Presents a number of examples of propagandistic texts and the reason for their success within the ancient Egyptian context.
- Condon, Virginia. Seven Royal Hymns of the Ramesside Period: Papyrus Turin CG 54031. Berlin, 1978. Full publication of two of the texts discussed above.
- Grimal, Nicolas-Christophe. Les Termes de la propagande royale égyptienne: De la XIXe dynastie à la conquête d'Alexandre. Paris, 1986. An unsurpassed study of the words and phrases used by the pharaohs to propagandize themselves; excellent bibliography.
- Loprieno, Antonio, ed. Ancient Egyptian Literature: History and Forms. Leiden, 1996. More than thirty articles, in English, French, and German, by leading experts in the field of ancient Egyptian literature; several discuss topics mentioned in this article; lengthy bibliography.
- O'Connor, David, and David P. Silverman, eds. Ancient Egyptian Kingship. Leiden, 1995. A comprehensive discussion of various topics on kingship in pharaonic Egypt.
- Spalinger, Anthony J. Aspects of the Military Documents of the Ancient Egyptians. New Haven, 1982. A discussion of the Königsnovelle; various phrases used by the court poets to introduce the action are on pages 101–114.
Ronald J. Leprohon