Among the Demotic literary texts of the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, there survive narratives belonging to two “cycles.” Each text of the Setna Khaemwase cycle has as its main character the historical figure of Khaemwase, son of King Ramesses II, who bore the priestly title of sm or stm, the Demotic form of which has traditionally been rendered as “Setna.” The individual texts do not make reference to one another or form a recognizable chronological sequence, but they all seem to follow the same pattern of plot, in which Setna comes face to face with the spirit of a powerful magician of the distant past. Two stories are relatively well preserved. One of these is often called simply “the first Setna story” (or “first Khaemwase”), but has the ancient title “The Story of Setna Khaemwase and Naneferkaptah and His Wife Ahweret and Her Son Merib.” The second story tells of Setna and his son, Siosiris. Other, more fragmentary texts appear to belong to different stories, except that one of a number of brief passages of narrative inscribed on jars, published by Wilhelm Spiegelberg, Demotische Texten auf Krügen (Leipzig, 1912), tells of the birth and education of Siosiris, but in wording different from that in the second Setna story.

The date of composition of the stories remains a matter of conjecture. The earliest surviving manuscripts that certainly belong to the cycle are of Ptolemaic date. One of the North Saqqara papyri, possibly from the fourth century BCE, involves a character “Ptahhotpe the Setna,” but there is no reason to see any link with the later Setna cycle. It is not yet clear whether the Setna stories stemmed from an oral tradition. It is conceivable that they belonged in a long-standing written tradition. However, one possible line of speculation is that the first story assumed its present written form within the Ptolemaic period, while the second did so in the early Roman period.

The beginning of the first story is lost, but it is evident that Setna Khaemwase has encountered the spirit of a magician of the remote past, Naneferkaptah, in his tomb. The spirit of the magician's wife explains how her son, she herself, and her husband all paid with their lives for the theft of a magical book that the god Thoth had written with his own hand. Setna accepts a challenge from the magician to gamble for the book. After Setna has lost three times, his amulets nevertheless allow him to escape from the tomb, taking the book with him. However, he is soon punished by a nightmare episode: at the temple of Ptah he catches sight of the beautiful daughter of a priest, and becomes so infatuated that he signs away all his possessions to her, disinheriting his existing children, and finally ordering their deaths. Awakening, he returns the book to Naneferkaptah, and is able to give the magician's family a proper burial together in one tomb.

In the second story, Setna's own son is the reincarnation of a magician who has begged Osiris to be allowed to return to earth in order to rescue Egypt from the threats of a Nubian sorcerer. Before unmasking and destroying his rival magician, he conducts his father Setna on a tour of the underworld, demonstrating that a poor but virtuous man may be honored there, while the rich may be punished.

The first story is remarkable for a subtlety of plot and of characterization beyond that of most Demotic literature, and happens to allude to a number of aspects of Egyptian society not mentioned elsewhere. The disputed magical book may seriously reflect Egyptian funerary concepts, and, despite evident touches of humor, the story makes a number of moral points. The underworld episode in the second story has been much discussed, both as showing the absorption of Greek ideas into an Egyptian view of the afterlife, and as revealing Egyptian ideas that may have passed into Christianity.


  • Fowden, Garth. The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind. Cambridge, 1986. See pp. 59–68, on “Books of Thoth and Technical Hermetica.”
  • Griffith, F. L. Stories of the High Priests of Memphis: The Sethon of Herodotus and the Demotic Tale of Khamuas. 2 vols. Oxford, 1900. Remains the standard edition of the two best-preserved texts.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings. Vol. 2, The Late Period. Berkeley, 1980. The latest full English translations of the two best-preserved texts, with introduction and notes, pp. 125–151.
  • Piccione, P. A. “The Gaming Episode in the Tale of Setna Khamwas as Religious Metaphor.” In For His Ka: Essays Offered in Memory of Klaus Baer, edited by D. P. Silverman, pp. 197–204. Chicago, 1994.
  • Tait, W. J. “P. Carlsberg 207: Two Columns of a Setna Text.” In The Carlsberg Papyri I: Demotic Texts from the Collection, edited by P. J. Frandsen, pp. 19–46. Carsten Niebuhr Institute Publications, 15. Copenhagen, 1991.

John Tait