Wisdom Literature, often referred to as “didactic literature” or simply “instructions,” spans the history of ancient Egypt from the Old Kingdom to the Late period. This genre consists of a series of instructions, generally given from father to son. The purpose of the texts also remains the same throughout the history of Egypt: to guide the recipient of the texts to live the “correct life,” in order to prosper both in this life and in the afterlife. Although the Wisdom Literature generally offers the names of both author and recipient, it is agreed that the texts are probably pseudepigraphical.
Representing the earliest known example of Wisdom Literature in Egypt, the brief Instructions of Hordjedef provides its recipient with basic advice to be used in everyday life. Only the beginning survives, and even this was pieced together from various ostraca dating from the New Kingdom, as well as from one wooden tablet dating from the Late period. The numerous though fragmentary examples of this text evidence its popularity throughout the ages and support the theory that it may have been used as a common scribal text. Miriam Lichtheim has dated the text's composition to the fifth dynasty, based on its archaic language and stylistic qualities.
From what can be gleaned from the text, it was important to establish oneself in order to establish the household. The text advises the reader to choose a suitable wife to raise a family, one who is a “mistress of her heart.” One takes a suitable wife in order to raise a son for inheritance and to continue the traditions of the family.
One must also prepare for burial, because eternal life holds a higher importance than temporal existence. The text devotes more attention to death and the preparation for death than any other topic, adding that the funerary priest was important to the maintenance of the tomb. These themes appear again in the Instructions for Merikare, as well as in other examples of Egyptian literature.
Supposedly, the text was written by Hordjedef, the son of Khufu of the fourth dynasty, for his son, Au-ib-re. Hordjedef, whose unfinished mastaba is situated in the Giza necropolis, had the reputation of a man of letters during his lifetime. His character took on somewhat mythical stature through Egyptian history; he is involved in many literary episodes relating to the period of Khufu. He is perhaps best described in Papyrus Chester Beatty IV, dating from the New Kingdom, where he is remembered as a great writer.
Although Egypt was rich in its Wisdom Literature, it must be noted that this genre is not confined only to Egypt. Similar sentiments surface as well in the Wisdom Literatures of Mesopotamia and in the Bible's Book of Proverbs.
- Assman, Jan. Weisheit, Schrift und Literature im alten Ägypten. Munich, 1991. A good overview of Wisdom Literature in ancient Egypt.
- Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature. Vol. 1. Berkeley, 1973. Currently the definitive translation of the Hordjedef text.