The Dialogue of Ipuwer and the Lord to the Limit is known from a fragmentary nineteenth dynasty manuscript from Saqqara, containing seventeen columns of about fourteen lines each (Papyrus Leiden I.344 recto). It is uncertain how many lines are lost at the end (possibly no more than eight), and the manuscript may not have been a complete copy of the composition. At least one column is missing from the start. The extant composition comprises around 650 metrical lines. A sage, Ipuwer, is mentioned as a protagonist in the surviving manuscript, but without title, although a nineteenth dynasty tomb relief (the “Daressy Fragment”) mentions an “Overseer of Singers Ipuwer.” He is presumably a fictional character rather than a historical figure.
The poor preservation and publication of the manuscript have hindered interpretation, and the unity of the text and the identity of the speakers have been controversial issues. The date of composition has been disputed, largely because the text has often been considered a reflection of historical events of either the First or Second Intermediate Period. Internal evidence suggests a date in the thirteenth dynasty, although, according to some scholars, the text may have been subjected to redactional criticism.
The text is a lament about the state of the land, a well-attested literary genre in the Middle Kingdom. Ipuwer is addressing the “Lord to the Limit,” who replies with at least two speeches. The dialogue apparently takes place before an audience—perhaps the Lord's entourage—who are also addressed by the sage. The “Lord” is apparently the king, although an identity as the creator god has been proposed; the text's concerns are theodic, but the Lord is probably a representative of the creator god rather than the god himself.
The extant text opens with two long laments in short stanzas, describing the reversals in society:
"Look, he who was loafless is a lord of a storeroom;"his storehouse is furnished with the property of someone else.
Injunctions to destroy the enemies of the country and to remember happier times follow, and then Ipuwer speaks a discursive complaint about the creator's justice in allowing such disorder to flourish:
"Look, why did He seek to shape [mankind],"when the meek are not set apart from the savageso that He might have brought coolness upon the heat?
After another nostalgic section describing social calm, with the refrain “It is so good when…,” the Lord replies, but Ipuwer seems to dismiss his attempted justification with a parable. The manuscript ends as the Lord replies once more. To judge by better preserved examples of the genre, the debate probably continued until a positive resolution was reached.
The Dialogue's description of mankind's vicissitudes throws incidental light on social attitudes of the period, as well as on wider cultural concerns. The Dialogue has usually been discussed for its presumed historical aspects, but it is arguably an ahistorical composition dealing with the well-attested Middle Kingdom literary theme of theodicy; there has been little discussion of its literary quality, which is considerable.
- Barta, Winfried. “Das Gespräch des Ipuwer mit dem Schöpfergott.” Studien zur Alatägyptischen Kultur 1 (1974), 19–33.
- Fecht, Gerhard. Der Vorwurf an Gott in den “Mahnworten des Ipu-wer.” Abhandlungen der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, Phil.-hist. Kl., 1. Heidelberg, 1972. Detailed study of parts of the composition, with new readings.
- Gardiner, Alan H. The Admonitions of an Ancient Egyptian Sage, from a Hieratic Papyrus in Leiden. Leipzig, 1909. Standard edition of the text.
- Helck, Wolfgang. Die “Admonitions” Pap. Leiden I 344 recto. Kleine Ägyptische Texte. Wiesbaden, 1995. Recent edition of the text, but incorporating speculative emendations and restorations; generally unreliable.
- Otto, Eberhard. Der Vorwurf an Gott: Zur Entstehung der ägyptischen Auseinandersetzungsliteratur. Vorträge der Orientalistischen Tagung in Marburg: Ägyptologie. Hildesheim, 1951.
- Parkinson, R. B. The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940–1640 BC. Oxford, 1997. Recent translation, see pp. 167–199.
R. B. Parkinson