The fragmentary Wisdom text represents the conclusion of a more lengthy instruction, now lost. The identity of its author is also lost, but the text refers to a man named Kagemni, whose name matches that of a vizier during the reign of Sneferu who was buried near the pyramid of Teti at Saqqara. Like other examples of the Wisdom Literature, such as the Instructions of Hordjedef and Instruction of Ptahhotep, this text is probably pseudepigraphical.
Only the concluding portion of the text survives; it is preserved in the Prisse Papyrus, now in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and this papyrus also includes a version of the Instruction of Ptahhotep. Although The Instructions of Kagemni dates to the Middle Kingdom, the actual composition of the instruction may date to the latter part of the sixth dynasty.
The surviving portion of the text shows Kagemni receiving instruction on the benefits of restraint and the disadvantages of impropriety. According to the instruction, one should refrain both from idle chatter and from gluttonous behavior at the table, for modesty is the key to prosperity. The text also advises the reader to eat with economy when company is present in order to give the appearance of self-sufficiency. Likewise, the instruction guides proper behavior when eating with a glutton and drinking with a drunkard and advises one to act gently in order to win favor with those considered to be harsh. This behavior would not only lead one to be well liked among his peers but also win respect from them.
Curiously, the author adds that no one knows what action god chooses when he punishes. Although Egypt was a society in which its people believed in many gods, we see “god” rather than “gods” here. Perhaps this refers not to a singular god but rather to a divine principle. This abstraction surfaces in other examples of Wisdom Literature, such as in the Instructions for Merikare and the Instruction of Ptahhotep.
The play on opposites found in this text (modesty and moderation versus gluttony and pride) sets the groundwork for future examples of Wisdom Literature in which opposite forms of behavior are prominent in describing the “happy man,” the man who chooses to avoid the pitfalls of life and live virtuously. Furthermore, there is in this text the appearance of the “silent man” as having virtue. This “silent man” also appears in the Instruction of Ptahhotep but becomes much more established in the Wisdom Literature, particularly in the Instruction of Amenemope, dating to the New Kingdom.
The final portion of the text narrates what happened after the instruction was received. The vizier, who may be either the author or Kagemni, summoned his children and told them to follow the teachings given to them. The last line reveals that Kagemni was made mayor of the city and vizier after Sneferu became king.
- Federn, W. “Notes on the Instruction of Kagemni.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 36 (1950), 48–50.
- Gardiner, A. H. “Kagemni Once Again.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 37 (1951), 109–110.
- Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature. Vol. I. Berkeley, 1973. The standard translation of this work.