The document known as Papyrus Westcar (P. Berlin 3033, named after its collector) preserves the only extant copy of the Tales of the Court of King Khufu. Its provenance is unknown; the manuscript is usually dated to the Second Intermediate Period on the basis of the Hieratic hand, but it may be slightly later. The date of composition is uncertain but is perhaps at the end of the Middle Kingdom.

Twelve columns survive, of around twenty-six lines each, and there are probably at least two columns missing from the start. The extant text opens with a series of tales set in various Old Kingdom courts (Djoser, Nebka, Sneferu), which are being told to King Khufu by his sons. The first tale is lost apart from Khufu's response, but it was probably preceded by a narrative prologue in which the king requested entertainment to avoid boredom. Each of the tales involves a magical wonder performed by a lector-priest, such as the movement of a body of water.

Instead of a fourth tale, there is a narrative about wonders done in the presence of Khufu himself by a commoner called Djedi, in which Khufu's behavior is less than ideal. Khufu is seeking some esoteric information for use in his great pyramid, but he is told that access to this is possible only for the eldest of three children of the sun god, who will be born to a woman and who will succeed Khufu's dynasty. After this comes an account of the birth of the first three kings of the fifth dynasty. The end of the tale is lost; the manuscript breaks off in the middle of the episode recounting the events following the triplets' birth. The manuscript is incomplete, although the lost final portion may have been short.

The royal characters are historical (although the identity of one prince, Bauefre, is problematic). With one exception, the nonroyal characters are otherwise unknown and are presumably fictional: the actual mother of the first two fifth dynasty kings was Khentkawes, while in the Tales the mother is the wife of a priest, Rudjdjedet. The Tales rewrite history, but apparently in order to entertain rather than for propagandistic motives.

The Tales are usually analyzed as prose, but they are probably loosely structured verse; the extant text comprises around 530 metrical lines. The language and style suggest a later date than that of other Middle Egyptian fictional narratives, such as the Story of Sinuhe, but the looser structure and the “lower,” more frivolous tone may represent a contemporaneous tradition of narrative art that was more culturally peripheral, and that is otherwise attested only in small fragmentary papyri. Many elements of parody have been detected, including allusions to the royal birth-cycle of kings, rituals of the goddess Hathor, and royal commemorative inscriptions. Nevertheless, the Tales also include the themes of good as opposed to bad kings, and of true as opposed to false wonders, although the serious aspects of these are not fully developed. In many respects, the Tales can be seen as a forerunner of the Ramessid late Egyptian stories.

Bibliography

  • Blackman, A. M. The Story of King Kheops and the Magicians: Transcribed from Papyrus Westcar, Berlin Papyrus 3033. Edited by W. V. Davies. Reading, 1988. Standard edition of the text.
  • Goedicke, H. “Thoughts about the Papyrus Westcar.” Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache und Alterumskunde 120 (1992), 23–36.
  • Parkinson, R. B. The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940–1640 BC. Oxford, 1997. Recent translation, pp. 102–127.
  • Simpson, William K. “Pap. Westcar.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 4: 744–746. Wiesbaden, 1982.

R. B. Parkinson