an early Middle Kingdom work, written probably not too long after the reign of Amenemhet I, founder of the twelfth dynasty. Its author is unknown. It survives in several New Kingdom papyri and writing tablets, and in a great many New Kingdom ostraca from Deir el-Medina, written as exercises by the boys in the local school. (The basic text occurs on Papyrus Millingen, now lost but copied by J. Lopez.) The ostraca, having been copied by schoolboys, are full of errors and misreadings (or mishearings), but they sometimes help with individual words or phrases. The ending of Papyrus Millingen is missing but can be supplied from alternative sources to complete the text with some reliability.

This piece is termed a sbʒyt by its author; hence its traditional title of “instructions,” that is, a didactic piece purporting to pass on some sort of wisdom or teaching from the author to his audience. The didactic genre of Egyptian literature comprises a fairly wide range of writings. In fact, this work is really a kind of testament or apologia by a dead father (Amenemhet) to his son (the heir apparent, Senwosret)—thus presenting a variant on the basic situation of the sbʒyt: the wisdom of a father (usually gained from high office and public service) passed on to a son.

In this piece, the speaker is the late King Amenemhet I, who has apparently been assassinated in a palace coup. He speaks to his son, Senwosret, from beyond the grave, much like the ghost of Hamlet's father. The burden of his words and the reason for his appearance are his desire to communicate to his son the circumstances of his death. He presents an extended justification for his reign and his good deeds, as well as a veiled but fairly circumstantial description of the coup that resulted in his death while the son was away from the palace. His tone is bitter and disenchanted: Do not trust anyone, he says, implying that the conspiracy began in the harem. The apparition concludes his visit with words of encouragement to Senwosret, who will reign with the dead king's spirit at his side, helping him to rule.

Because of this situation, the piece has sometimes been described as propaganda supporting the throne and in favor of Senwosret I as successor to the dead king. This may well be; but it is also important to remember that the “testament” is a piece of literature, written in verse, and shaped to make a point, whether for the purpose of persuasion or not. Its presentation of the historical situation is molded by literary concerns and should not be relied on, without confirmation, as historically true. The “facts” of this piece, indeed, do not agree with the purported situation at the beginning of the Story of Sinuhe. As literature, the account is particularly rich in imagery, in colorful and concrete phrasing, and in the drama of the situation.

All in all, the Instructions of Amenemhet is a fine piece of Middle Kingdom literature, “complete,” and giving momentary insight into events in the palace toward the beginning of the twelfth dynasty.

Bibliography

Texts

  • Foster, John L. “The Conclusion to The Testament of Amenemhat, King of Egypt.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 67 (1981), 36–47; pl. 4–11.
  • Helck, Wolfgang. Der Text der “Lehre Amenemhets I, für seinen Sohn. Kleine Ägyptische Texte. Wiesbaden, 1969. Parallel text edition.
  • Posener, Georges. Catalogue des ostraca hiératiques littéraire de Deir el Médineh. Vol. 3. (nos. 1267–1675). Documents de Fouilles, Institut français d'archéologie orientale du Caire, 20. Cairo, 1977–1980. Supplement to the Helck edition.

Translations

  • Foster, John L. Echoes of Egyptian Voices. Norman, Okla., 1992. See pp. 36–39.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature. Vol. 1. Los Angeles, 1973. See pp. 135–139.
  • Parkinson, R. B. The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940–1640 B.C. London, 1997. See pp. 203–211.
  • Simpson, William Kelly. The Literature of Ancient Egypt. 2d ed. New Haven, 1973. See pp. 193–197.

John L. Foster