Attested in twenty-two New Kingdom copies, the Prophecy of Neferti is an example of the literary genre of political lamentation characteristic of the preceding Middle Kingdom. Paralleling the frame story of Papyrus Westcar, the Prophecy is set in the yet earlier Old Kingdom court of Pharaoh Sneferu (c.2649–2609 BCE), who seeks distraction by “fine words and choice phrases.” At the recommendation of his courtiers, Sneferu summons the priest and sage Neferti, who offers to regale the monarch with tales of the past or future. Dismissing the past as irrelevant, the king takes writing equipment in hand and personally records the inspired prophecy that comprises the remainder of the tale. This striking role reversal, in which the king acts as scribe for a commoner, is in keeping with the informal and human portrayal of Sneferu in Egyptian popular sources.
Despite this Old Kingdom setting, however, the true date of the composition is evident not only from its classical grammar, but also from the contents of the prophecy itself. Adopting many of the clichés of Middle Kingdom lamentations, Neferti's prophecy bemoans a land in distress from political and cosmological upheaval. Great families no longer rule; the sun refuses to shine; the Nile evaporates and the winds are at war. Paradox is rampant. Though the land withers, the rulers proliferate; harvest is low, yet taxes increase; nobles are reduced to robbing while beggars and slaves become wealthy; the dead multiply, but mourning is supplanted by indifference. In these literary reminiscences of the turbulent First Intermediate Period (c.2206–2041 BCE), Neferti's text assigns particular blame to roaming Near Eastern Bedouin, described as “strange birds” infesting the northern Delta, harassing the harvest, and plundering the wealth of the Nile. If the north is the source of Egypt's weakness, its salvation will derive from a “man of the south.” Hailing from the region of Aswan, a king named Ameny will assume the crown and reunite the kingdom, erecting a strong border fortress to halt the Near Eastern infiltration. Chaos will yield to order and misery to joy.
The Ameny of the text is readily identifiable as Amenemhet I (c.1991–1962 BCE), founder of the prosperous twelfth dynasty, and it is to the early years of his reign that one may assign the composition of this propagandistic narrative disguised as ancient prophecy. The optimism of the piece is in stark contrast to the Instructions of Amenemhet, written at the conclusion of the reign, when court intrigue rather than Asiatics threatened the stability of the reinvigorated nation. Composed in a mixture of prose and poetry, the prophecy employs the standard literary device of thematic couplets, in which parallel clauses form the structure of the verse.
The primary manuscript is Papyrus Petersburg (Leningrad) 1165B, dating to the eighteenth dynasty (reign of Amenhotpe II, c. 1454–1419 BCE). It is supplemented by two contemporary writing tablets (Cairo 25224 and British Museum 5647) and nineteen Ramessid school ostraca from Deir el-Medina. The continued popularity of the text in the New Kingdom may reflect a perceived relevance of its concerns for the later Near Eastern (Hyksos) infiltration of the Delta in the Second Intermediate Period, which was ended by yet another southern Ameny, Amenhotpe I.
- Blumenthal, Elke. “Neferti, Prophezeiung des.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 4: 380–381. Wiesbaden, 1982.
- Helck, Wolfgang. Die Prophezeiung des Nfr.tj. Kleine ägyptische Texte, 2d rev. ed. Wiesbaden, 1992 (1970). The standard text edition.
- Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature. Berkeley, 1973. See pages 139–145.
- Parkinson, Richard B. Voices from Ancient Egypt, Norman, Okla., Selections appear on pages 34–36.
- Parkinson, Richard B. The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940–1640 bc. Oxford, 1997. For the Prophecy, see pages 131–143.
- Simpson, William K., ed. The Literature of Ancient Egypt. 2d rev. ed. New Hanen, 1973. See pages 234–240 by Raymond O. Faulkner.
Robert K. Ritner