Continuing the Old Kingdom genre of the instruction into the Middle Kingdom, the Instructions for Merikare gives a twist to the old formula: this is a royal instruction, from a king to his son. Rather than simply providing guidelines on how to live a life according to the precepts of justice, temperance, and proper action, one finds here the addition of how to rule while practicing these virtues. Thus, this text is the first of a genre that continued throughout Egypt's history and even into the Islamic period.
Since it is known that the pharaoh Khety III preceded Merikare as ruler of Egypt during the Herakleopolitan period, it is assumed that the author of the text was Khety III. As is the case with other examples of didactic literature, the text may be pseudepigraphical, but it was most probably composed in the court of Khety III during the tenth dynasty. It survives in three copies dating to the eighteenth dynasty.
The Instructions for Merikare resembles other didactic texts in outlining the rules by which one should live. In its expression of the rules by which one should govern, the text centers on how to be a worthy leader while adapting the advice found in other texts. As in the Old Kingdom's Instruction of Ptahhotep, one learns to employ good speech and conservative action in order to receive respect and practice true justice. The reference to the “hothead” (ḫnn ib) as someone to avoid, found in the Instructions for Merikare, will recur in later examples of Wisdom Literature.
Expanding on the theme of serving one's public, a personal narrative interwoven in the text appears in which the king tells of events in his lifetime. This is a device that will appear later in the Instructions of Amenemhet. In Merikare's Instructions, we see reference to the expulsion of foreigners and a description of civil war, a portrait of an Egypt now divided into nomes that before was ruled centrally. Its author mentions the destruction of the nome of This and reports that destroying architecture is a great evil. Since the North and South are at peace during the writing of this text, Merikare receives the advice to continue peace with the South and to strengthen the border of the North against seminomadic Near Easterners. The author goes into great detail in describing this “lowly Asiatic” (a Near Easterner), referring to both his poverty and his wandering.
There is also an abstract reference to “the god,” perhaps signifying all divinities rather than a specific god in this text, as well as in the Instruction of Ptahhotep and the Instructions of Kagemni. However, this “god” plays a more central role in determining the course of a person's life and is a personal deity who guards over humankind and shines, through nature, for all. The text ends with Khety's advice to heed his words in order to live peacefully and happily, both personally and politically.
- Assman, Jan. Weisheit, Schrift und Literature im alten Ägypten. Munich, 1991.
- Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature. Vol. 1. Berkeley, 1973.
- Shupak, Nili. Where Can Wisdom Be Found? The Sage's Language in the Bible and in Ancient Egyptian Literature. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis, 130. Leiden, 1993.