the recounting of events, in Egyptian literature, have consisted primarily of the telling of myths and stories. Narrative can be said to occur first in the late Old Kingdom—not as a separate literary kind or genre, but embedded in tomb inscriptions. One notes particularly those of Weni or Harkhuf of the sixth dynasty, where the narrative form is used in the recollection and commemoration of a life, usually in terms of public service and the king's favor. Narrative also appears occasionally in the Old Kingdom in what has come to be called the “Catalog of Virtues,” as in the sixth dynasty tomb of Neferseshem-re:

I came forth from the city,

I descended from the nome;

I did justice for its lord,

I pleased him in whatever he desired.

Here is the beginning of the connected telling of events that becomes elaborated in the tomb autobiography and in the historical or commemorative inscription. [See BIOGRAPHIES.]

Early Narratives.

Extended narratives as self-contained “fictions” or stories first appear in the record during the Middle Kingdom. Their sophistication and the skill with which many of them are told testify to a long tradition of such narrative expression, now lost through the vagaries of preservation. Three Middle Kingdom tales survive at present: the Story of Sinuhe, the Shipwrecked Sailor, and the Westcar Tales.

Story of Sinuhe.

This narrative is preserved entirely or in part on both papyri and ostraca, so that a complete eclectic text of good quality can be recovered. Of the papyri, Berlin 3022 (B) and Berlin 10499 (R) are the major copies and date from the Middle Kingdom; there are other, fragmentary papyri. Of the ostraca, the major pieces are Ostracon Ashmolean (1945.40, in Oxford) and the Cairo Ostracon (CG 25216); there are about twenty more ostraca.

The tale is widely considered to be the gem of ancient Egyptian literary narrative. It is cast in the form of an autobiography recounting the life of a courtier, Sinuhe, who served in the harem of Queen Neferu and was active during the reigns of Amenemhet I and Senwosret I. Whether the account is based on a historical character is currently unknown. The narrative opens with the death of King Amenemhet and finds Crown Prince Senwosret leading the army in the field in the western Delta. Sinuhe is a member of the expedition and overhears an apparently treasonous conversation, which points to an attempted coup back at the capital. He flees into Syria-Palestine, into the area of Upper Retenu, where he is received by the local king, Amunenshi. After hymning the praises of Senwosret, Sinuhe is welcomed to the court, married to Amunenshi's daughter, and settled on his own land. There he happily spends decades as his children appear and grow up, serving as a vassal to Amunenshi and acting as his military leader. When Asiatics encroach on the little kingdom, Sinuhe neutralizes them; and when the surrounding local tribes are stirred up through envy of Sinuhe's favored status, he defeats their champion in single combat. He is now at the height of his power and reputation. But he begins to long for home. He sends a letter to King Senwosret, asking to return, and is overjoyed at the king's reply, which absolves him of any wrongdoing and urges him to return to Egypt. The tale concludes with Sinuhe's return, with the royal reception he is given, and finally with his death and burial as a favored courtier.

With the inclusion of a variety of literary kinds—lyric, epistle, encomium—all embedded in the underlying narrative structure, the tale nevertheless is cast in verse and structured by the “thought couplet,” though not all scholars would agree with this assertion. Sinuhe reflects many of the values of ancient Egyptian civilization. The first of these is loyalty to the king. This is particularly seen in Sinuhe's praise of Senwosret when the fugitive first arrives at Amunenshi's court. The eulogy testifies to his loyalty to the throne; at this stage in his story, Sinuhe does not know that Senwosret survived the plotted attempt on his life and kingship. The portrait the author draws of the king shows him as a benign as well as powerful monarch. He is forgiving and understanding of Sinuhe's situation (Sinuhe had thought of himself as a traitor, though he was not); he fully reinstates Sinuhe at the court (with the help of a plea of intercession by the royal princesses); and he awards Sinuhe a tomb within the walls of the royal pyramid complex. Loyalty to this king is richly rewarded.

Sinuhe's longing for home and his return embody the Egyptian's valuation of his civilization. One must not be buried abroad, in Asia, in a sheepskin. Rather, the rites of burial in Egypt must be performed for the soul to rest easy in the next world. And there are other touches: the affection shown by the royal family, the awe toward royalty Sinuhe exhibits when he faints in the presence of the king, and the king's high regard abroad shown by Amunenshi. In sum, the tale fundamentally is about the proper relationship between a sovereign and a valued courtier, all brought to a head when the courtier momentarily loses faith and then spends a lifetime regaining his self-respect while in exile.

Shipwrecked Sailor.

The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor is preserved on a single manuscript, Papyrus Leningrad 1115, dating to the earlier Middle Kingdom. The story is complete, but there are hints that it is part of a larger work, perhaps consisting of several stories. Unlike the Story of Sinuhe, which purports to be an actual autobiography, the Shipwrecked Sailor introduces the world of the exotic and marvelous. Where the former strives for verisimilitude and a realistic presentation of the events surrounding its main character, the Sailor is a comic story (though with a serious background), full of exaggerations, tall tales, and a never-never land setting. The tale opens with the safe return of an expedition to Nubia. But the expedition has apparently been unsuccessful, because the sailor is attempting to cheer its commander as the latter goes to face his sovereign. He narrates his own earlier experience of shipwreck and being washed ashore on a magic island ruled by a huge talking serpent, who turns out to be friendly and kindly, listening to the sailor's account of his misfortune and, in turn, narrating his own story of the destruction of all his friends and relatives by a falling star. The serpent can forecast the future and tells the sailor that a ship will come from Egypt to rescue him, and he loads the sailor with an abundance of goods from the exotic island (which will disappear as soon as the sailor leaves). The sailor returns home, has his audience with the king, and is heaped with honors and wealth.

The comic irony of all this is that the sailor's own tale is totally inappropriate to his commander's situation—the sailor prospered, while his commander seems to be returning to his king with empty hands. The sailor himself is a comic character—blustery, stretching the truth, a little dim-witted, making inappropriate moves in his desire to look good. Devices like comedy and irony are difficult to detect in narratives so ancient (witness the lack of “satire” in the so-called Satire on the Trades); but in this tale there seem to be enough instances of inappropriate language or action for the modern reader to see the entire tale as light-hearted, with the comedy directed by the unknown author at the figure of the sailor himself.

Westcar Tales.

The Westcar Tales are preserved in a single copy on papyrus, now in Berlin (Papyrus Berlin 3033). The story was evidently composed in the twelfth dynasty, but this papyrus is from the Hyksos period.

This little collection of interrelated tales is also known by the title King Khufu and the Magicians. It is set in the reign of Khufu. The sons of the king—Khafre, Baefre, and Hordjedef are known, while the first teller's name is lost in a lacuna—each tells a tale of a marvel performed by a magician in a past reign. The first tale is lost. The second treats of the infidelities of a magician-priest's wife and of the priest's fashioning a wax crocodile which becomes alive, seizes the lover, and carries him to the depths of a nearby lake; the wife is burned, though the point of the story lies in the magical power of the priest. The third tale concerns a boating party for the amusement of the king, set in the time of Sneferu. The crews consist of young women dressed in nets, one of whom loses a piece of her jewelry. The king's magician parts the waters of the lake, piling one side upon the other, in order to recover the piece. The fourth tale is set in the fictional present, with Hordjedef acquainting Khufu with a living magician who is also a prophet. The man, Djedi, is brought to court, where he refastens the severed heads of several animals to their bodies and tells Khufu the place of certain hidden chambers the king had been seeking. He then turns to prophecy: Khufu will be succeeded by his son and grandson, but then a new line of kings will come to the throne of Egypt—sons at that very moment being born to Redjedet, wife of a priest of Re. These children will belong to the fifth dynasty. The final tale is actually a continuation of the Hordjedef situation; but the court fades out and the narrator turns to the actual birth of Redjedet's three sons, assisted by Isis, Nephthys, Meshkhenet, and Heket, in the guise of singing-girls, along with their “servant” Khnum. Shortly after the births, the papyrus breaks off.

New Kingdom Narratives.

Several literary narratives also survive from the New Kingdom. The most significant of these, all preserved in their entirety, are the Contendings of Horus and Seth, the Story of the Two Brothers, and the Battle of Kadesh.

Contendings of Horus and Seth.

This tale is preserved on a single papyrus (Papyrus Chester Beatty I, now in Dublin), which also contains love songs, hymns, and other writings. It dates to the later Ramessid period. The tale consists of a series of quarrels between the gods Horus and Seth over the throne of Egypt. According to Egyptian tradition and myth, Horus, as son of the murdered Osiris, succeeded to the kingship. In this tale Seth repeatedly refuses to accept the decision of the Ennead; and in this version he is unaccountably abetted by Re-Horakhty, king of the gods. The Ennead are continually confused by Seth's rebellion and do not know how to bring the quarrel to a conclusion. One authority after another is invoked—Neith, Atum, Osiris—until finally Osiris, who of course favors Horus, threatens to unleash otherworld demons upon the All-Lord and the Ennead. They give in, and Horus is awarded Egypt while Seth is adopted by Re-Horakhty.

The story is simple—even simple-minded. Events follow one another without clear causation (other than to perpetuate the quarrel for the delight of the audience); and the conclusion occurs without a climax. The humor is sometimes broad and even coarse: the All-Lord tells Horus his breath smells bad; Baba tells the All-Lord his shrine is empty, and there are sexual jokes involving the disrobing of Hathor before Re to entice him to return to the conclave after he leaves with hurt feelings, or the attempted sodomizing of Horus by Seth. The story is apparently meant to be humorous, and certainly the conduct of the gods is indecorous—they are portrayed as silly, indecisive, and quarrelsome. All these things point to the humble milieu and origins of the story.

Story of the Two Brothers.

This story is preserved in a single manuscript (Papyrus British Museum 10183, also known as Papyrus D'Orbiney) dating to the twentieth dynasty. The brothers of this story are Anubis and Bata, the first married and the second living with his elder brother and his wife. Life is harmonious, with the two men working in the fields and the wife at home, until one day Anubis's wife attempts to seduce Bata (the later Potiphar's Wife motif). When Anubis returns, his wife says that Bata attempted to rape her; Anubis lies in wait to kill Bata, but Bata's cattle, who can speak, warn him of his brother's plans. Bata runs off, tells his brother his own version of the incident, emasculates himself, and leaves for the Valley of the Pine. There Bata prospers, and a beautiful wife is fashioned for him by Khnum at the behest of the Ennead. A lock of her hair, taken by the sea, is washed up among pharaoh's washermen, and the perfume from it captivates the king. He brings her back to Egypt as his consort, while Anubis searches for Bata, who has placed his heart on the pine tree. After several transformations of Bata, involving the faithlessness of his wife, he is restored to life and prosperity by pharaoh; his wife is executed, he is reunited with his brother, and first he and then his brother become kings of Egypt.

The Story of the Two Brothers is a folktale moving in a realm of events more symbolic and metaphorical than realistic. Marvels occur one after the other, and their significance is not always apparent. Yet the incidents are vividly presented. Certainly the two wives are drawn in dark shades—their actions bring misery and estrangement to the brothers and also result in their own deaths. This world is one of mysterious turns of event, where normal causation does not operate, and where, despite death and estrangement, there is a happy ending for the central characters.

Battle of Kadesh.

This complex piece has three parts that all commemorate the same event: there are the “Bulletin,” the “Poem,” and the wall reliefs. The event is commemorated in the temples of Karnak, Luxor, Abydos, and Abu Simbel, and above all in the Ramesseum. It also appears on three papyri. For present purposes, only the “Poem” will be considered as a piece intended as literature.

The Battle of Kadesh is especially interesting because it is a narrative of events, as witness the beginning and end of the poem. Yet the piece is so centered on the valor of King Ramesses II in battle that the narrative of external events is overwhelmed by the thoughts, attitude, and actions of the king himself during one crucial incident during the battle, when he stands alone to fight off hordes of enemy chariotry—and wins. The poem is a psychological narrative or a dramatic monologue by the main character of the drama, though neither characterization fits the ancient narrative exactly. There is a narrator who briefly describes the enemy facing Ramesses and continues with a laudatory description of the king as a surpassing warrior. This is followed by a description of the situation as Ramesses takes the field. At this point, the third-person narration changes to first-person, with Ramesses himself describing the desertion of his troops, praying to his father Amon, and attacking the enemy. He also describes the second day of battle, when he defeats the Hittite coalition. Then the narration returns to the third person to describe the prince of Khatti suing for peace, as well as the return of Ramesses' army to Egypt.

The tone of the unknown author in the poem is probably intended to be “high style” or heroic, as, for example, in the later epics of Greece. This accounts for what to the modern reader are the exaggerations and boasts of both the third-person account and its main character. But this poem—in tone, in situation, and in the portrayal of Ramesses—is proto-epic, and the main character is drawn as a hero. The point to be made here is that the poem is a piece of literature, not merely a historical document, and the exaggerations contribute to the heightened style.


This piece is preserved on a single papyrus (Papyrus Moscow 120), originally from el-Hibe and dated to the twenty-second dynasty. It is uncertain whether this narration is intended as a piece of literature (fiction) or as a report (and thus a historical document). The narration is set in the declining phase of the late New Kingdom when Egypt is but a shadow of its former power and wealth. Wenamun, a priest of Amun, is sent to the Syrian coast to obtain timber to refurbish the bark of Amun. The narration describes Wenamun's difficulties with Prince Beder and the Tjeker ships—his goods are stolen and Beder procrastinates, refusing to help him. A picture is painted of an Egypt weakened and earning little respect from former vassals and allies. Wenamun finally leaves with a partial shipment of wood for the royal bark and sails to Cyprus, where he meets with more difficulties from the queen of Cyprus. At this point the narration breaks off.

Shorter narratives.

Other New Kingdom narratives exist, but they are shorter pieces and for the most part fragmentary.

The Destruction of Mankind is written in Middle Egyptian and thus may go back to the Middle Kingdom. It is a myth comprising the first portion of the Book of the Heavenly Cow (copied on the walls of several New Kingdom royal tombs), in which an aging Re convokes the Ennead and Nun to discuss the rebellion of mankind. They determine to send the Eye of Re as Hathor to destroy them. She partly accomplishes this but is deterred from completing her task. In the second portion of the book, Re, tired of governing the world, withdraws to the sky, leaving the other gods to rule.

The Doomed Prince, preserved on Papyrus Harris 500, is a fragmentary tale in which a newborn prince is fated to die by a crocodile, a snake, or a dog. When the boy grows up, he set off for Naharin, where he wins and marries a princess. She tries to protect him from his fate, but he is seized by a crocodile—at which point the story breaks off.

Truth and Falsehood, preserved on Papyrus Chester Beatty II (Papyrus British Museum 10682) is an allegorical tale of two brothers and a marvelous dagger which the jealous younger brother claims the elder brother has taken and failed to return. Falsehood has Truth blinded, and even attempts to kill him; but he survives in the humble position of a gate attendant. A noble lady sees him and conceives a son by him, who in time rescues his father and brings Falsehood to justice, whereupon the latter is blinded, receiving the same punishment he falsely had visited upon Truth.

The Taking of Joppa, also preserved in Papyrus Harris 500, is the fragmentary end of a battle narrative in which the Egyptian general devises a strategem to gain his troops entry into a city. They are sewn into sacks and carried within the gates, then freed. The piece is a precursor to the Trojan Horse motif.

Other tales exist—Apophis and Sekenenre, General Sisenet, The Pleasures of Fishing and Fowling, The Sporting King, A Mythological Story, a tale of a king and a goddess, another of a shepherd and a goddess, still another concerning Astarte, and a ghost story, among others—but they are in very fragmentary form and their purport is all but impossible to determine.

Narrative Characteristics.

Half a dozen more or less complete tales, along with another dozen fragments of narrative, surviving from more than a thousand years of ancient Egyptian literary history, does not make for confidence in attempting generalizations or drawing conclusions about the nature of the narrative genre. The following observations, therefore, are tentative.

First of all, the surviving tales seem to fall into two groups. On the one hand, we have artfully worked narration which is the result of consciously used artistic devices by an experienced literary craftsman (Sinuhe, Shipwrecked Sailor, Battle of Kadesh, and Wenamun, if the last is indeed fiction). On the other, there is the folktale with its more easygoing narrative, frequent repetitions, marvels, and general artlessness, which may well go back to an oral tradition preceding the surviving written form (Westcar Tales, Horus and Seth, and Two Brothers).

Judging from the surviving tales—and drawing most on those that are most complete—the ancient Egyptian literary narrative was primarily a story of adventure, often accompanied with marvels and/or divine appearances. There are exceptions (cf. the locale of the Westcar Tales, or what can be deduced from the several very fragmentary New Kingdom examples); but, by and large, the events of the tale take place outside Egypt. Sinuhe narrates his experiences after living in exile and away from the court which he sadly misses; the shipwrecked sailor is thrown up on the shore of a mysterious island, where he meets a mysterious talking serpent—all this taking place down the Red Sea coast of Africa somewhere near the land of Punt; the two brothers, Anubis and Bata, begin their adventures (or misadventures) in a domestic context, but soon the younger flees to the Valley of the Pine; the Battle of Kadesh is fought in Syria-Palestine; Wenamun, in a later age, voyages to the same area for timber, only to end up in what is probably Cyprus as the manuscript breaks off. Of the complete or nearly complete tales, only the Westcar Tales are set in Egypt, though backdated to a romanticized fourth dynasty in the time of Khufu, and Horus and Seth is set in the realm of the gods.

Similarly, the kinds of events that happen to the characters, even in the fairly straightforward narratives, partake of the adventurous, the daring, the hazardous, and even the heroic. Sinuhe flees in fear of his life, nearly dying of thirst; he faces the hero of Retenu in single combat; and he serves as commander of Amunenshi's military forces. Ramesses II in the Battle for Kadesh is deserted by his infantry and chariotry; with the help of Amun, he singlehandedly routs the enemy through his personal heroism. The magician Djedi is able to restore the severed heads of various creatures and bring them back to life in the court of Khufu. That is, the things that happen to the characters, and their careers, are out of the ordinary.

Thus, one can say that for the Egyptian tale realism and verisimilitude are not primary criteria. Of the narratives where the purport of the story is clear, perhaps only Sinuhe and Wenamun (again, if it is fiction) present events in a realistic manner; and one notes that both pieces are sometimes claimed to be nonfiction, the one an autobiography and the other a travel report, largely because of this quality of verisimilitude. The marvelous events—miracles, epiphanies, and supernatural occurrences—are too common in most of the tales to mention in detail. But we can note the Island of the Ka in the Shipwrecked Sailor, which will disappear after the sailor leaves; or the serpent himself, some 15 meters (50 feet) long and rearing like a royal cobra. In Horus and Seth, Isis transforms herself into a beautiful young woman to seduce Seth; Horus becomes angry with Isis and cuts off her head; the semen of Horus is born out of Seth; and the two contestants have a naval battle in ships made of stone. In The Two Brothers, speaking cattle save Bata's life; Bata emasculates himself; he removes his own heart and places it in a blossom of the pine tree. In some of the fragments a deity appears to a person, whether king or a shepherd.

In terms of the kinds of characters presented, the Middle Kingdom literary narratives offer the first examples in Egyptian literature of human characters. Earlier pieces, like the Pyramid Texts, had dealt with the king and the gods, and the hymns and prayers had similarly addressed either royalty or deity. The one exception to this lies in the genre of wisdom literature like the Instructions of Ptahhotep, where, in a very limited and specific context, a father passes on the wisdom of his years in public office to a son; both are human characters, but ancillary to the wisdom being promulgated.

Even so, most of the narratives still deal either with the gods (Horus and Seth, the Destruction of Mankind) or with the divine king and the royal court (Kadesh, Westcar Tales, or even the Doomed Prince). And of these characters, most are rather one-dimensional; that is, the emphasis of the story is not so much on their thoughts, feelings, and attitudes as on what happens to them. The two brothers, Anubis and Bata, despite the folkloric interest of the story as well as its several marvels, are counters moved about— after the initial abortive domestic situation—by the author's sense of adventure and the sense of the symbols he uses. As in many of the surviving stories, whether of kings, courts, or deities, they are presented not for who they are but for what happens to them. Emphasis is placed rather more on events rather than on character.

A few of the human characters are more complex— not, perhaps, the princes and magicians of the Westcar Tales, who, though certainly human, are seen more as a framework for the marvelous tales of the magicians. Yet if one looks, for instance, at the Battle of Kadesh, Ramesses II is the focal point of the narrative; and in fact his personal account of his situation, prayer, and personal victory all but overwhelm the narrative that encloses the speech of the king. Nevertheless, Ramesses is given the traits of courage, valor, and piety, which characterize him as a heroic person. Of course, he is a divine king of Egypt, son of Amun, and thus is presumed to have these traits, as well as the lust for battle, victory, and invincibility. But the author endows him with the qualities of a hero and has him act the part of the god-king, which Egyptian tradition had assigned to the pharaoh.

A character who is all too human (as opposed to gods and kings) is Sinuhe. His story is one of flight, exile, and ultimate return to the king and culture that had formed him. But there is a more complex dimension to the tale, and in it one finds the beginnings of literary characterization in the Egyptian narrative tradition. Perhaps the form of the autobiography was the proper genre for the Egyptian author to tell his tale, because such first-person presentation of a life would be the most likely place for “character” to develop, idealized or not. In Sinuhe himself, we find one who was a member of the innermost circle of the court, who panics and flees in a moment of crisis, and who then spends a lifetime in exile regaining his self-confidence and self-esteem. He had seen himself as a coward and a traitor to his king and country. But his song in praise of Senwosret early in the tale demonstrates his loyalty, and the single combat with the hero of Retenu similarly demonstrates his courage. It is then that he thinks back on life in the palace. The point of this is that the unknown author seems to have intended these moments of characterization: there are crises surmounted by Sinuhe that reveal his character and the nature of the man. And the conquest of adversity—which Sinuhe himself caused by running away—earns him the right to return to his country and be forgiven for a lapse which the king graciously says never occurred.

Perhaps the finest surviving example of characterization is that of the shipwrecked sailor. Whereas Sinuhe is an essentially noble person who has a momentary lapse which costs him a lifetime of atonement, the sailor is a mere crew member of a ship returning from an unsuccessful expedition into Nubia. We admire Sinuhe, but the author has us smile, if gently, at the sailor. The tale, of course, is a sailor's yarn, a tall tale exaggerated by the marvelous, reminding one of the later Sindbad. But the comedy that the reader or hearer understands is directed at the sailor himself. The author makes him a figure of fun—not denigrating him or cutting him down, as would be the case in satire, but rather pointing up his foibles, pretensions, and downright stretching of the truth. Perhaps the most revealing of these comic authorial touches lies in the inappropriateness of the story the sailor chooses to relate to his downcast commander. Elsewhere, the sailor brags of the crew who sailed with him on the earlier voyage, how brave they were, what experts they all were at seamanship; in the next line of the story, a storm wrecks them and drowns them all except the main character. Also, the sailor claims he never stretches truth; and then he narrates a yarn about a magic island and a huge talking serpent, complete with relatives, friends, and a little daughter. The sailor is brash and egotistical without being at all aware of himself; and it is this treatment of his character—the comic gap between his idea of himself and the reality—that makes the tale a joy to read. Along with Sinuhe, it is the culmination of surviving ancient Egyptian literary narrative.



  • Foster, John L. Echoes of Egyptian Voices. Norman, Okla., 1992.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature. 2 vols. Los Angeles, 1973, 1978.
  • Loprieno, Antonio, ed. Ancient Egyptian Literature. Leiden, 1996. Includes an excellent, extensive, and up-to-date general bibliography.
  • Parkinson, R. B. The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems. 1940–1640 bc. Oxford, 1997.
  • Simpson, William Kelly, ed. The Literature of Ancient Egypt. New Haven, 1973.

John L. Foster