A number of recent commentators on Egyptian literature have suggested that its origins lie in oral tradition. The challenge is to define the material's characteristics that betray this origin. Some assistance in the task comes from the work done on orality, oral tradition, and performance in other cultures from the ancient world, like Greece and Israel, as well as from discussions of modern oral cultures.

By definition, orality and oral mean “spoken,” and they assume aurality and aural, or “heard.” The latter implies the presence of an audience that hears the speaking, whether the speaking is simple narration, instruction, rhetoric, ritual invocation, or song of some kind—in other words, performance. Because performance occurs in a time and place, the concept of orality also incorporates an ephemerality, at least for the individual act. With regard to the specific oral performance, such ephemerality is absolute; but with the inclusion of tradition, as in the traditional content of performance, a sense of stability comes into play.

Tradition includes the transmission of any kind of cultural communication, spoken or otherwise, from generation to generation. The idea thus embodies the sense of an unbroken line with the past which projects into the future by means of the heirs of the present-day carrier of the tradition. One must understand tradition as a document belonging to the time of its bearer, however, as well as containing the past. For example, the Pyramid Texts were the prerogative of Old Kingdom royalty, whereas during the Middle Kingdom, nobles and officials used variants of many of them on their coffins; during the New Kingdom, other variants of these same texts appeared as parts of the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead), commonly considered available to any who could afford them. Even more dramatic is the use of parts of the Underworld Books from New Kingdom royal tombs in the mythological papyri of the Third Intermediate Period by those who could afford them. Tradition, then, is not the rote transmission of the past but, rather, the past in the context of the present and thus affected by that context to a greater or lesser extent. One must therefore approach tradition as dynamic, not static, noting that it includes conservation of the past while reflecting the effects of the present. Thus, when one finds written material from an oral narrative—for example, a recorded folktale—what is present represents one instance of performance for one particular audience. This performance brings to this audience the story as told many times before by many different narrators, but it also presents the story in response to this particular audience in this particular time and place.

Performance also includes what the audience brings to it. The language and words used resonate with the audience as they actively involve themselves in the performance. This involvement may be evident in overt actions of the audience, such as accompanying a singer with song, clapping, appreciative sounds, and the like; more significant, however, are the values, traditional understanding, and knowledge that the performer activates in the audience through words and actions. In a way, the performance itself is incomplete if viewed simply in terms of the performer; only the audience can complete it.

Much of the study of oral tradition in written form has revolved around the identification of formulas and themes that recur within a given traditional genre, such as epic or folktale. Since we lack a significant corpus of any given genre, or even a clear identification of what the genre identification is, of many Egyptian materials, we must look for alternative kinds of markers of oral tradition in order to ascertain the presence and extent of such a tradition in ancient Egypt. One of these markers appears in the ancient Egyptians' sense of the power inherent in a name. Arguably the best narrative example comes from the tale in which Isis tricks Re into revealing his name. The fact that in this revelation, only she (and, through her, Horus) learns the name—the audience gets no clue—delineates the ancient Egyptians' concept of the power of the name: if one knows an individual's name, one has power over that person. The name of a person designates that individual's essence. Consequently, a person is called into life by name and, correspondingly, can be annihilated by the loss of his or her name. The Egyptians' use of theophoric names—personal names incorporating the name of a deity—also speaks to the power of the name, in this case relating the person to the god.

Written materials often betray their roots in oral traditional culture in the appearance and treatment of the actual writing. An example is the attenuation or “cutting” of parts of various Egyptian hieroglyphs, such as the talons of an owl or the mouth of a wild dog, in order to eliminate the danger that the animation of the animal or bird represents. Writing was thus perceived as more than representation: it was active magic, a characteristic understanding of people who live in an orally based culture. Similarly, the gestures visible in many hieroglyphs related to humans and gods reveal the somatic nature of oral tradition translated into writing, while the actual written form of the texts in writing also speaks to an oral tradition underlying ancient Egyptian culture. Especially in the earlier writings, there is no distinctive separation between adjacent words, sentences, or thoughts. In later texts, rubrics written in red and red dots in the text may be present to provide such differentiation, but even then, the presence of such helps is inconsistent. This lack further characterizes writing in an oral culture.

The absence of abstract thinking in ancient Egypt, so often observed by Egyptologists and others, comprises yet another marker of Egypt as a culture based on oral tradition. The goddess Maat provides perhaps the best example of this idea: she represents order, sometimes seen as truth, justice, or balance, but she appears in very concrete form, even being presented by the king to the gods. Similar deities include Hu, divine utterance, Sia, divine knowledge, and Heka, magic.

The presence of word play, or paronomasia, in ancient Egyptian writings provides more evidence of the oral nature of their world. Word play is an aural feature; by definition, one does not see it in writing but hears it in speech. In reading such word play, one can totally bypass the fun the narrator is providing; in hearing the same words, it is virtually impossible to miss. A well-known example is the Egyptians' word for themselves, rmt, which they often juxtaposed with the word for “tears,” rmṯ, in telling about the creation of the Egyptians from the tears of a god.

The dialogic nature of some texts similarly suggests roots in oral tradition; here, Coffin Text Spell 335 and the related chapter 17 of the Book of Going Forth by Day come to mind. Even if one considers these two corpora of texts as largely written, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the question-and-answer form of these two spells goes back to an oral model. One might even suggest the same for various literary texts, such as A Man's Dispute with His Soul and The Eloquent Peasant, both readily imagined in performance.

Another piece of evidence attesting to the presence of oral tradition in the ancient Egyptian culture, even concomitant with the written word, is the formulaic and repetitive nature of much textual material. The Pyramid Texts show much repetition and parallelism, along with an additive progression of ideas and a lack of enjambment—that is, the carryover of an idea from one line to the next. When found together, these characteristics provide good evidence of the oral basis of the material under examination. The so-called Cannibal Speech, Pyramid Utterance 273–274, provides some excellent examples:

The sky is overcast,

The stars are darkened,

The bows of heaven quiver,

The bones of the earth-gods shake,

They cease from moving,

For they have seen the King appearing in power,

A god who lives on his fathers

And feeds on his mothers;

It is the King who lives on their magic

And swallows their spirits,

Their big ones are for his morning meal,

Their middle-sized ones are for his evening meal,

Their little ones are for his night meal.

From this evidence one surmises that initially the spells were orally presented rituals, known to those carrying them out. Placing the ritual texts on the walls of the pyramid's burial chamber permitted the ritual to be spoken on behalf of the inhabitant throughout eternity, further attesting to the Egyptians' sense of the magical nature of the word.

Ancient Egyptian materials provide various other clues which point to their oral origins, among which is the use of orally related words in their writing. For example, text after text from the pyramids begins with direct address (“O Atum”), a command (“O Osiris the king, dance”), or the king's introduction of himself (“O Geb, Bull of the sky, I am Horus …,”). All these conventions suggest an oral basis. In a similar fashion, ancient Egyptian magical spells attest to an oral tradition with their frequent concluding words, such as “to be said …,” followed by explicit instructions about how and over what, and the number of repetitions required to be effective. These spells, which generally exist in single copies and mostly date in written form from the Middle Kingdom and later, also provide us with the earliest comprehensive mythic narratives, excellent evidence of the oral tradition that underlies many Egyptian written texts. Although the mortuary texts hint at the content of a particular myth, such as the fight between Horus and Seth, they do not relate the details, suggesting common and oral knowledge of these narratives. These allusions also suggest a performance venue, possibly ritual, for which the writing might have served as a mnemonic device. Correspondingly, the brief allusions, notwithstanding the elusive factor of decorum, likely represent the whole, under the magical pars pro toto principle.

Many other kinds of material reveal the presence of an oral tradition in ancient Egypt, among them the so-called Wisdom Literature or Instructional texts, to which parallels exist in neighboring cultures. There appears to be no doubt that the ancient Egyptians contributed to and drew on a widespread body of material concerned with the management of a “wise” life—one in which a person was successful according to contemporary standards in relation to peers, superiors, inferiors, and the deity or deities of the culture. The similarities among Egyptian materials, and similarities between them and some from Hebrew scriptures, suggest oral transmission. In addition, the nature of these materials, with their short, pithy couplets and verses, parallel lines, and vivid depictions which are easily recalled, suggests an oral basis that reminds one of modern proverbs, which, though found in writing, are usually learned orally. Similarly, one can imagine the oral transmission to apprentices of medical remedies and diagnoses of the kind found in the Ebers Papyrus or the Edwin Smith Papyrus. Although experienced medical practitioners were quite likely literate, the logistical problems of working with material written on a roll of papyrus—owing both to its bulk and to difficulty in locating the needed reference—suggest an oral tradition for medical practitioners. Furthermore, some contents of these papyri anticipate the common oral remedies, diagnoses, and cures found in oral traditions of modern times. One might place in a similar category the so-called dream books, which purport to analyze a person's night-time sleep activity.

Among other types of Egyptian writings deriving from an oral basis, one must include tales of heroic kings. For example, the poem about Ramesses II's Battle of Kadesh quite plausibly could have been part of a court singer's repertory. Even more certainly, hymns, both divine and royal, form part of Egyptian oral tradition, since music, including singing, was one of the traditional skills transmitted through apprenticeship; love songs, too, fall into this category. Also to be included here are the autobiographies found in private tombs from the Old Kingdom and appearing as Königsnovellen in later royal writings. At the core of the autobiography lies a praise song, quite likely with oral antecedents; like various mortuary texts, such songs attest to the power of the word as the deceased asserts that he practiced ethical behavior during life in order to gain entrance to the otherworld. Prayers, too, were of an oral nature, and their committal to writing, or even to the notable “hearing ear” stelae, suggests an attempt to make permanent the transitoriness of the spoken word, thus betraying an active oral tradition in the sense of the magic of the word.

The oral background of ancient Egyptian narratives appears clearly exemplified in Papyrus Westcar's cycle of stories, reminiscent of the frame narrative beloved in oral tradition everywhere. Embedded in the tale are constant reminders of the oral basis of the written material. For example, the narrative of Djedi the magician opens with the words: “The king's son Hardedef stood up to speak [mdt], and he said [ḏd.f].” Virtually the entire episode is narration, thin on description and heavy on action—both prominent characteristics of oral composition. The Story of Sinuhe, relating the self-exile of a member of the royal court, is similarly characterized by easily recalled short episodes, the presence of hymnic and poetic material, and action rather than extended thought. As a concrete, situational story, it exalts Senwosret I while presenting basic ideas of Egyptian thinking: the lands outside Egypt are living death; the king and queen can be gracious and forgiving; the king is a god; and the hero prevails. In sum, it contains all the components of a good story, welcome to its audience.

Several New Kingdom tales resonate with the folktale genre of oral tradition. One of the best examples appears in the Story of Two Brothers, in which the audience finds not only formulaic phrases such as “now when the land was light” and “now many days after this,” but also speaking animals, extraordinary outside help, life without a soul (heart), omens of trouble, revival of the apparently dead, lack of character development, and intensification and building tension—all characteristic of typical orally based folktales. One can imagine a performer telling this tale, embellishing it here and elaborating it there, depending on the audience, each time it was told.

The ability to deduce that an active oral tradition existed in ancient Egypt, even in the presence of writing, is owed to that scribal tradition, paradoxical as that may seem. Only from the work of largely anonymous scribes can we know what little we do of Egyptian literary materials.

See also LITERACY.


Primary Sources

  • Borghouts, J. F. Ancient Egyptian Magical Texts. Leiden, 1978. An excellent collection of magical texts, providing many mythic details unavailable elsewhere and also showing their active oral nature through directions for their use.
  • Foster, J. L., trans. Hymns, Prayers, and Songs: An Anthology of Ancient Egyptian Lyric Poetry, edited by Susan Tower Hollis. Atlanta, 1995. A readily available collection of materials from various time periods, translated with poetic sensibility and attention to the thought couplets characteristic of oral traditional forms.
  • Lichtheim, M. Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings, vol. 1: The Old and Middle Kingdoms; vol. 2: The New Kingdom; vol. 3: The Late Period. Berkeley, 1973–1980. Standard translations of ancient Egyptian texts from all periods.
  • Parkinson, R. B. Voices from Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Middle Kingdom Writings. Norman, Okla., 1991. A broad variety of texts from, or thought to date to, the Middle Kingdom, the so-called classical period of Egyptian writing. Includes an excellent discussion of Egyptian genres, with short, helpful introductions to each text and an emphasis on the oral basis of many Egyptian writings.
  • Simpson, W. K., ed. The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, and Poetry. New Haven, 1973. Standard one-volume collection of materials from all periods, with short introductions for each text.

Secondary Discussions

  • Dijk, J. van. “Myth and Mythmaking in Ancient Egypt.” In Civilizations in the Ancient Near East, edited by J. Sasson, vol. 3, pp. 1697–1709. New York, 1995. Short overview with a current bibliography of primary sources and secondary discussions.
  • Foley, J. M. The Theory of Oral Composition: History and Methodology. Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1988. A classic in the field.
  • Foley, J. M. “Word-Power, Performance, and Tradition.” Journal of American Folklore 105 (1992), 275–301. Brings together different strands of discussion of oral tradition.
  • Hollis, S. T. The Ancient Egyptian “Tale of Two Brothers”: The Oldest Fairy Tale in the World. Norman, Okla., 1990. A “thick description” of the New Kingdom tale in its Egyptian and ancient Near Eastern context, suggesting the kinds of thinking an audience might have brought to a performance of the tale.
  • Lord, A. B. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, Mass., 1960. The classic work on oral composition that forms the basis for any discussion of the topic.
  • Lord, A. B. Epic Singers and Oral Tradition. Ithaca, 1991. Collection of Lord's papers, some refining the work presented in 1960. The opening essay, “Words Heard and Words Seen,” is particularly relevant to the present discussion.
  • Muhawi, I., and S. Kanaana. Speak, Bird, Speak Again: Palestinian Arab Folktales. Berkeley, 1989. Examples of contemporary oral folk-tales collected from illiterate and semiliterate narrators, accompanied by an excellent discussion explaining and setting the tales in their contemporary context.
  • Niditch, S. Oral World and Written Word: Ancient Israelite Literature. Louisville, 1996. Excellent discussion of biblical materials as originating in an oral culture.
  • Ong, W. J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London and New York, 1982. Discussion of the psychodynamics of orality, and theory about the impact of writing and eventual literacy on oral cultures.
  • Redford, Donald B. “Ancient Egyptian Literature: An Overview.” In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, edited by J. Sasson, vol. 4, pp. 2223–2241. New York, 1995. Fine overview with a short introductory section paying special attention to oral composition and transmission.
  • Vansina, J. Oral Tradition as History. Madison, Wis., 1985. A classic in the field.

Susan Tower Hollis