Ancient Egyptian literature—written through all the various phases of the Egyptian language (Old, Middle, and Late Egyptian, Demotic, and Coptic)— can be documented for a period of almost three thousand years, from the Pyramid Texts of the fifth and sixth dynasties (c.2300 BCE) to the pieces written in Coptic during the early Christian era. This article will consider Egyptian literature only through the end of the New Kingdom.
It is necessary to distinguish between two definitions of literature: (1) anything written down, and (2) belleslettres, or writings that include an imaginative and creative dimension, even though their primary purpose may be more utilitarian (a prayer, a letter, a moral instruction). This article will confine itself to the second definition, with the understanding that what was “literary” to the ancient Egyptian reader and what is literary to the modern reader do not necessarily coincide; and the boundaries between Egyptian literature falling under the first definition and that falling under the second are not yet clear. That is, one asks where the tomb biography should be placed, for it certainly is a major kind; and a similar question applies to the letter, since examples exist that are certainly literary. Thus, while certain kinds of ancient Egyptian literature seem to correspond with modern genres—lyric, narrative, and hortatory or didactic (the wisdom texts)— others may need to be included. Similarly, some texts are currently misplaced by modern scholars, for example the “magical texts,” which are after all lyric pieces with the specific purpose of protecting a person against maleficent forces or beings.
Egyptian literature is a literature in ruins. Much survives—enough to appreciate, evaluate, and comment on it—but surely what now exists must be only a fraction of what was written, and there is no way to tell how much has been lost. There are probably multiple representatives of all the major kinds of literature undertaken by the ancient writers; but in no case do we really have a fullness of examples appearing steadily from the Old Kingdom until the end of the New (and on into the Late, Classical, and Coptic periods). The lyric is well represented, particularly by hymns and prayers; there are moral instructions (“teachings”) from all three kingdoms; yet the narrative, once it appears in the Middle Kingdom, is represented by few examples, many of them fragmentary. Nevertheless, among this literature occur masterpieces that can be set without shame beside those of other ancient literatures: Sinuhe, the Shipwrecked Sailor, Akhenaten's Hymn to Aten, and the Instructions of Amenemope. And others might be cited.
Finally, Egyptian literature is largely an anonymous literature. No authors' names are attached to most of the pieces, nor does any named author for certain have multiple titles attributed to him (except possibly Khety of the Middle Kingdom). The lyrics and narratives, in particular, are not attributed to any authors (except for Akhenaten's hymn, which need not have been composed by the king). It is the instructional (or “wisdom”) pieces that bear names; there are at least two lists of authors' names, both from the New Kingdom, one from a papyrus and the other from a stone block. The first of these includes the names of Imhotep, Hordjedef, Neferti, Khety (“the best of them”), Ptahemdjehuty, Khakheperresonb, Ptahhotep, and Kaires; these, in fact, form a list of the sages of ancient Egypt. Some of them can be connected with surviving works, while others cannot. The stone block depicts two registers of such famous men, including some of those just named and adding lpuwer to the list; but most do not have writings attributed to them. Thus, there is only a partial match between the famous men named in ancient Egyptian sources and the list of surviving pieces of literature. An author as famous as Imhotep has no surviving text attributed to him, and most texts are now anonymous.
The problem of attribution is compounded by the fact that the surviving pieces attributed to specific authors may well be pseudonymous, since connecting compositions with famous names made for wider circulation; and disentangling genuine from pseudonymous works becomes a very difficult undertaking. Names often appear at the ends of compositions; but they are those of the copyist, and most texts clearly say so.
Did the ancient Egyptian writers think and compose in terms of genre? The answer to this question is yes. Although it is not yet clear whether some of the familiar forms used by the ancient Egyptians (again, the tomb biography) were thought of as “literature” (in the sense used here), there are well represented types of literature that modern readers can distinguish as familiar genres. These are the lyric, the narrative, and the instruction (i.e., the wisdom literature). Modern disagreements tend to center on whether or not a piece is literary and not on which genre it belongs to. This confusion has been increased until recently by the tendency of some scholars to omit most of the pieces in the lyric genre from consideration as literature.
Confusion also arises through modern terms applied to some of the ancient texts. Perhaps the best example is the Pyramid Texts (PT). They are a mélange of various kinds of writing; but the locale is constant (royal pyramids), and their purpose throughout is to aid the “dead” king in his journey to the otherworld to live forever with his siblings, the gods. But among the individual spells— all with the same overarching purpose—are lyric poems (like PT 261 or PT 216). Both pieces are small units that are complete in themselves, imaginative, metaphoric, and lyric: the first likens the king to a bolt of lightning flashing across the sky, and the second places the king in the protecting arms of Atum in the otherworld as the dawn light causes the stars—the king, Orion, and Sothis—to disappear. The overall purpose of the Pyramid Texts should not be confused with the form of their discrete parts (a dictum that applies also to “magical texts,” some of which are lyrics in form while embodying the purpose of asking protection).
A similar problem of genre occurs with the tomb biographies, which sometimes contain narrative (cf. those of Weni and Harkhuf in the Old Kingdom) but seem (to modern eyes) not to be literary in the way that the narrative of Sinuhe is. Most tomb biographies, of course, tend to be lists of titles and accomplishments; but the “Catalogue of Virtues” seems to be literary, however stereotypic.
Examination of the three major ancient genres reveals a practice of the ancient Egyptian writers which, for want of a better term, can be called “embeddedness.” This well-known practice has important implications. It is the practice of including (“embedding”) material which by itself would belong to one genre in the context of another. The practice does not occur so much among lyric pieces; but in some instructions and in several of the narratives it is quite apparent, and it sometimes makes the primary genre of a piece of literature questionable. Perhaps the best example of embeddedness is the Tale of Sinuhe. Its primary genre is, of course, narrative. But within this discourse (it is, after all, a “telling”—ḏd.f) occur letters from and to the king, an encomium (also of the king), a song of victory at the defeat of the hero of Retenu, and a prayer of supplication by the princesses. These pieces from the lyric and epistolary genres take up a good portion of the total work; they are embedded in the narrative.
Another example occurs with the piece usually called the Eloquent Peasant. Here it is more difficult to decide whether the work should be called a narrative or an instruction. The enveloping story is of the peasant taking his goods to market and encountering obstruction, with the subsequent happy outcome. But the bulk of the work consists of the peasant's nine pleas for justice, which certainly belong to the instructional or didactic literature. In this case, the embedded material seems to be the reason for the framing narrative. We also see the remnants of such embedding in the Shipwrecked Sailor.
There is also the issue of subtypes of literature, or subgenres. These are usually quite clear. For instance, the great bulk of the lyric genre consists of hymns and prayers—they form the majority of pieces of surviving ancient Egyptian literature. But there are clearly other kinds of lyrics: love songs, harper's songs, praises of the king (encomiums) and other persons, fragments of work songs, and perhaps others.
There is a similar variety in the instructions. The basic kind is the teaching, which consists of a series of moral observations, or maxims—the wisdom of a father gathered and passed on to a son (Ptahhotep, Amenemope). But the genre is by no means limited to this. We have the so-called instruction of King Amenemhat, which in fact is not a series of maxims but rather a kind of apologia for his life, a testament for his son. There is the Man Who Was Weary of Life, which is a philosophical probing of the value of life here and beyond. Or there is the Prophecy of Neferti, which is a wise man's vision of the disasters to overcome Egypt preceding the Middle Kingdom. Or, the “instruction” by Khety for his son Pepy, which in fact urges the son to study hard at school and consists of a series of portraits of the misery of those in humble occupations (the “Satire on the Trades”), and provides only a few of the traditional maxims toward the end.
Finally, there is variety in the narratives as well. These include stories of the gods (myths), and a division of the tales that seems to group them into stories of the mundane or everyday, characterized by verisimilitude (Sinuhe, Wenamun); and there are stories of the marvelous and faraway (the Westcar Tales, the Contendings of Horus and Seth, the Shipwrecked Sailor). In almost every case the narratives are stories of adventure.
There are other genres or subgenres: the tomb biography; the letter, some examples of which are certainly literary (those in Sinuhe, the Lament of Menna, and the “literary letter” of Papyrus Anastasi I); and the “schoolboy writings,” a mixture of prayers, encomiums, descriptions, and observations on the life of the student.
Finally, indications of genre do exist, but they are not used carefully enough by the ancient authors to be entirely useful to modern scholars. That is, not all works of a given kind bear the same identifying tag, and sometimes the tag occurs where it is misleading. The instructional literature usually bears the tag sbʒyt (“teaching”), but not always; and some other pieces are called by this name. Narratives often are identified by ḏd.f, but not all of them; and many kinds of “nonliterary” pieces do have this tag. Lyrics can have the word dwʒw (“praising”), to identify hymns and prayers, or sḫm-ἰb (“heart's delight”), which appears for certain love-songs along with ḥst (“song”). Unfortunately, none of these terms is fitting in every case.
Egyptian literature, in the sense used here and based on surviving examples, develops only during the late Old Kingdom (sixth dynasty), with the lyrics embedded in the Pyramid Texts and certain of the narrative tomb biographies (if these turn out to be “literary”). It continues with more and more examples of the main genres on through the Middle and New Kingdoms (and on into the later periods of Egyptian history).
The main genres are not, however, all steadily enriching streams. Certainly the lyric genre is there from the beginning of known Egyptian literature; and one sees this genre developing from the desire to “speak” the king into the otherworld. It is religious activity of this sort that seems to bring forth the earliest Egyptian lyrics—attempted manipulation of the gods and their world. From that time on lyrics, especially in the form of hymns and prayers, are abundant.
The instructional literature may or may not go back to the late Old Kingdom, depending on whether the early instructions are composed by the authors whose names are attached to them (like Hordjefef, Kagemni, or Ptahhotep), or whether these instructions are in fact pseudonymous. It is extremely difficult to determine; and as with several pieces of major Egyptian literature, there is still disagreement on dating of texts. At any rate, the instructions seem to have their source in the desire to make permanent the ways of the fathers. The genre is well documented from both the Middle and New Kingdoms. The instructional literature is, in fact, the written repository of the wisdom of the culture, hence the honor of having one's name attached to such a work.
Literary narratives are not met with until the Middle Kingdom, when some of the finest are written (Sinuhe, the Shipwrecked Sailor. This genre also continues into the New Kingdom, although many of the later examples are fragmentary and seem to be lesser efforts than those of the Middle Kingdom. As the form of Sinuhe suggests, the literary narrative could have stemmed as readily from the tomb biography as from a love of adventure and storytelling for its own sake.
It should be reiterated that Egyptian literature is rife with problems of date and authorship. Dating a piece of literature can depend on internal evidence, like the use of language or the mention of specific happenings (but note the backdating of the Westcar Tales and Neferti), or on the dating of the papyrus, ostracon, or wall on which the piece was found. And authorship is often plagued (as mentioned before) by the problems of pseudonymous attribution.
Egyptian literature is apparently a verse literature, although the assertion is still in dispute. This conclusion stems from the use of the “verse points” (the red dots marking the text at intervals in many of the papyri and ostraca). If one attempts to reconstruct a viable eclectic text from many surviving copies—as occurs, for instance, with the Hymn to the Nile, one of the most copied texts surviving from antiquity—one places all copies of like passages together in a parallel-text version of the work, lining up the verse points. This process is well known, of course; and the positioning of like passages in parellel aids in deciding which of alternate readings is the better or more nearly corresponds with the ur-text. If one then places the lines one under the other, each line ending in a verse point—that is, sets the text as verse—one discovers that each verse-pointed line is a grammatical clause, and that two such clauses complete a sentence. These are the “thought couplets,” whose structuring is the basis of ancient Egyptian verse; and the couplet thus is seen to be the ancient Egyptian verse sentence.
There are variations in the couplet structuring, in the narrative genre in particular and less often in the lyric and instructional genres. The couplet can be varied by occasional use of triplets, quatrains, single lines, and two-element lines; but in no case do these variations overwhelm the basic couplet structure so as to destroy the underlying couplet rhythm. This structural patterning pervades the works of literature from beginning to end.
Here the concept of embeddedness becomes especially relevant. It has been difficult for scholars to determine which pieces are constructed in verse and which in prose, and there is still a good deal of disagreement about the boundaries of the two kinds of literature. First of all, there has been a tendency to limit ancient Egyptian “poetry” (i.e., verse) to the lyric genre—songlike works—with the other two major genres being relegated to prose construction. If one takes an ancient Egyptian lyric (like the Hymn to the Nile, which can be shown to be written in couplets, or verse), and then moves to establish the patterning of, say, Sinuhe, one finds that exactly the same general patterning of the couplet pervades this narrative. The idea of embeddedness becomes useful because of the several lyric passages embedded in Sinuhe's narrative. The structuring of the tale continues unchanged from the enveloping narrative through the lyric passages (and even the letters) and back to the narrative. All genres are found to be composed in this couplet form.
It is possible that the mdwt nfrwt (“fine speech” or “elegant expression”) often met with in conjunction with the Egyptian literary texts may refer to just this structuring in terms of the thought couplet, joined with all the traditional usages of literary embellishment.
The style of ancient Egyptian literature is as varied as the purposes of its authors. Nevertheless, there are some characteristics that can be mentioned as playing a fundamental role in the formation of ancient Egyptian literary works. First of all, there is the ancient division into recognizable genres, even though the boundaries of those genres are not perfectly clear to the modern eye. Then there is the structuring device of the thought couplet. The couplet is not merely a verse sentence that is two clauses long; it also can organize meaning—basically within the couplet, but also continuing into larger structures consisting of couplets—in terms of similarity and contrast, of likeness and difference, between the two halves of the couplet. An earlier (and not quite accurate) term for this is “parallelism of members.” In the couplet form the author could express likeness and difference in terms of sound values, word choice, grammatical constructions, and rhetoric. Several of the characteristics of Egyptian verse stem from this basic twoness of the couplet. Such elegant playing with language can be clearly seen in the nine complaints of the Eloquent Peasant as he tries to formulate his conception of justice. The nine set pieces seem repetitious and overblown to the modern reader, who wants to get on with the story, until he realizes that the peasant is working all the variations on the implications of the couplet form as he tries to utilize the mdwt nfrwt to persuade Rensi of the justice of his cause.
Egyptian verse utilizes all the literary armament of most world literatures: careful word choice, word play (punning), simile and metaphor, alliteration (and thus, presumably, assonance), and the other devices of belles-lettres. Word play is an especially common device, often used to work the variations on a single word or closely related group of words, as in the peasant's eighth complaint, where he explores the single word maat (mʒʿt): “Do justice for the Lord of Justice, who is the justice of his justice!” A like emphasis is given the word sḏm in the Instruction of Ptahhotep, where the author plays on the various meanings of the word in its meanings of “to hear” and “to obey.”
Comparisons (especially simile and metaphor) are also freely used. The Man Who Was Weary of Life is full of this imaginative language. In fact, the man's third song, toward the end of the piece, is entirely a series of comparisons attempting to define his longing for death: it is “like the fragrance of myrrh” or “like a clearing sky.”
The style of Egyptian pieces, as one would expect, is more a function of the individual author's intention than a set of predetermined rules. At one end of the spectrum of style there are highly patterned passages like those just mentioned, but at the other end there is a spare and unadorned style, though still structured by the couplet. A good example of the spare style would be the section early in Sinuhe, describing his flight from home to the relative safety of Amunenshi's court in Retenu; the passage is characterized stylistically by a series of sḏm.n.fs, but little more.
There are one or two other devices that are characteristic of ancient Egyptian style. The first is intermixture— apparently haphazard—of discourse in the second and third persons. This seems to occur only in the lyric genre and may be limited to hymns. A god will be addressed directly (as, for instance, in the opening “you”-form of Leiden Hymn 90), and then the presentation will turn to the third person (the “he”-form). Direct address is followed by third-person description within the single poem, an interchange that occurs rather regularly.
A second aspect of this phenomenon has been called the “participial style” and is contrasted with the “verbal style.” That is, new stanzas (as indicated by rubrics in the ancient texts) often open with a participle (the “who”-form) rather than a verbal form such as either the sḏm.f or the sḏm.n.f. The verse lines of the participial style are augmented by non-verbal clauses. Whichever form is chosen by the author, it is continued for the balance of the stanza.
Although special tags indicating the genre or type of a given piece (sbʒyt, dwʒw, etc.) are erratically used, there is one characteristic form of some consequence. This is the sḏm.n.f, which has long been called the “narrative verb form”; it seems indeed to be employed for the purposes of narration, but limited in literature to the narrative genre. Its use is rare or absent in the lyric and instructional genres.
The tone (the attitude of the author toward his work) of Egyptian literature is as various as the authors composing it—that is, the tone is specific to the purpose of the individual work. This is a truism, but the range of tone is quite extensive in surviving Egyptian literature. There is the debilitating despair of the Man Who Was Weary of Life; there is the pedagogical stance of most of the maxim texts; the excitement of adventure and far places in many of the stories; the humility of the prayers; and the awe and joy expressed in the hymns, reaching to near-ecstasy in Akhenaten's Hymn to the Sun. Given what is at most a pitiful remnant of what ancient Egyptian literature must have been, there is still a rich range of attitude and emotion in the pieces we have.
Finally, there seem to have been no radical changes in style in Egyptian literature as it unfolded from the Old Kingdom through the New. There were some changes in the language itself from Old Egyptian to Middle Egyptian; and there was a marked change from Middle Egyptian to Late Egyptian. Yet the Egyptian style was more a function of the individual author's purpose—within the limits of the thought couplet, with its patterning of likeness and difference—than of changes in the language.
How much of ancient Egyptian literature survives? That is impossible to tell. So often the Egyptian texts are fragmentary: papyri are tattered, hardly legible, and ridden with lacunae; ostraca (which were often used for “scrap paper” by both workmen and schoolboys) are faded, abraded, and broken; and the walls on which the hieroglyphic signs were once carved are razed, broken, or fallen. Even so, every now and then pieces of ancient texts appear—usually only fragments—the readings of which will fill lacunae in known texts or offer confirmations or variants of known readings. Rarely, an entire new text will appear. New material, some of it literary, is regularly recovered from the sands and tombs of Egypt and offers the prospect of further study.
Modern scholars are limited by what has been recovered, by the vagaries of preservation, and by the physical condition of the items. While there is no way to assess the amount of missing literary work, one can determine the find-spots and the places in which literature was preserved by the ancient Egyptians. The surviving literature seems to derive from court, temple, schoolroom, and tomb. In addition, there must surely have been a rich oral tradition in Egypt, but by its very nature it no longer exists, except for tantalizing hints in the written literature.
The more affluent Egyptians were buried with a copy of the Book of Going Forth by Day (the Book of the Dead), a New Kingdom compilation of prayers, hymns, and spells (much like the royal Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom) which were meant to facilitate the deceased's passage to the otherworld and to ease his journeying within it. There are innumerable copies of this work, and they exhibit many variants in both wording and choice of spells. Another source, from Deir el-Medina in Western Thebes, consists of a large cache of New Kingdom ostraca from the scribal school, numbering in the thousands, which was the trash heap for writings no longer wanted and thus disposed of in a large pit. The recovered pieces include many passages, usually fragmentary, of the literary texts the schoolboys were set to copying as they became literate and familiar with the Hieratic script. Among these were some entirely new texts (e.g., Menna's Lament, a letter to his wayward son) and many fragments of what must have been the classics of the Egyptian tradition—at least according to the teachers at Deir el-Medina. There have also been small collections of papyri, from tombs and temples especially, with more or less complete copies of other literary texts. In many cases the find spot is unknown or undocumented, since the papyri were purchased rather than excavated under controlled conditions.
Egyptology, as a field of scientific study, is not much more than a century and a half old. The hieroglyphs were deciphered in 1822 by Jean-François Champollion, and the tomb of King Tutankhamun was discovered in 1922. The study of the Egyptian language during this time has been somewhat overshadowed by the stunning finds of the archeologist and the visual splendors of the ancient civilization. Nevertheless, students of the language have been working with the rules of grammar, the range of meanings of words (which often have had to have their very denotations established), and the sequences of sentences in the language. This is an ongoing effort. But because of this effort to rescue the language, and because of the similar effort to establish the facts of the history of ancient Egypt—from its own point of view—ancient Egyptian literature has tended to be the handmaid of Egyptian linguistics and history. If one looks at the early translations of Egyptian literary works, one finds them halting and often inaccurate. Improvement has come with the establishment of a tradition of translating these works so that previous attempts can provide comparative readings for later scholars to work with. Only in the past twenty-five or thirty years has there been a burst of activity centering on Egyptian literature itself, and this has resulted in a wide-ranging investigation of the specifically literary texts and the literary language in which they are expressed.
- Note: Bibliographical details, sources, and critical commentary for ancient Egyptian literature can be found in Lexikon der Ägyptologie, edited by Wolfgang Helck, Wolfhart Westendorf, and Eberhard Otto. 7 vols. Wiesbaden, 1975–1992. For parallel texts, see volumes in the series Kleine Ägyptische Texte, edited by Wolfgang Helck.
- Blackman, A. M. The Story of King Kheops and the Magicians. Edited by W. V. Davies. Reading, 1988.
- Koch, Roland. Die Erzählung des Sinuhe. Bibliotheca Aegyptica, 17. Brussels, 1990.
- Parkinson, R. B. The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant. Oxford, 1991.
- Foster, John L. Love Songs of the New Kingdom. New York, 1974; reprinted, Austin, Tex., 1992.
- Foster, John L. Echoes of Egyptian Voices. Norman, Okla., 1992.
- Foster, John L. Hymns, Prayers, and Songs: An Anthology of Ancient Egyptian Lyric Verse. Atlanta, 1995.
- Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature. 2 vols. Los Angeles, 1973–1978.
- Parkinson, R. B. The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940–1640 BC. Oxford, 1997.
- Parkinson, R. B. Voices from Ancient Egypt. Norman, Okla., 1991.
- Simpson, William Kelly ed. The Literature of Ancient Egypt. New ed. New Haven, 1973.
- Burkard, Günter. Überlegungen zur Form der Ägyptischen Literatur. Wiesbaden, 1993.
- Loprieno, Antonio, ed. Ancient Egyptian Literature. Leiden, 1996. Includes an excellent, extensive, and up-to-date general bibliography.
- Mathieu, Bernard. La poésie amoureuse de L'Égypte ancienne. Cairo, 1996.
John L. Foster