The late nineteenth dynasty narrative generally known as the Tale of the Two Brothers, found on the d'Orbiney Papyrus (British Museum 10183), and written in Late Egyptian, was first announced in 1852, exciting the interest of Egyptologists, biblical scholars, and folklorists virtually from the outset. At that time, no one dreamed that ancient Egypt could have produced a narrative such as Two Brothers, in which the hero is persecuted, exiled, and returned to heroic glory in a fashion similar to the European folktale or märchen. Furthermore, the existence of this narrative suggested strongly to nineteenth-century folklore scholars that märchen did not originate solely in the Indo-European arena, as then believed.

Biblical scholars were fascinated by the appearance in the first part of the story of the so-called “Potiphar's wife” episode that they knew from Genesis 39: the wife of the hero's older brother attempts unsuccessfully to seduce him. Egyptologists too were originally attracted to the biblical parallels present in the tale, but they were also interested in its Egyptian nature and origin. Unfamiliar with the study of folk narrative, however, Egyptologists have not generally viewed the story as a unity but rather as an awkward melding of disparate parts. In fact, a recent study of the narrative shows that it is structurally a well-integrated tale and that it, along with Doomed Prince, another Egyptian narrative from about the same period, presents the oldest example of märchen known to the world today. Because the protagonist and his brother in the Story of the Two Brothers carry gods' names, respectively Bata, an ancient mortuary deity, and Anubis, an even older mortuary deity related to royalty, one might question whether the narrative is truly märchen, but the actions of the tale suggest that it is, with at least eleven identifiable folktale motifs and four clear and different folktale types.

The multiple reincarnations and transformations of the hero, the location of the middle part of the tale in the Syrian-Palestinian area, where it appears as the Egyptian “otherworld,” the similarities of parts of the narrative to the Osirian tale, and the reflection of various aspects of Egyptian life and kingship make this narrative a rewarding work to study. The inclusion of named deities suggests that tales about gods could degenerate into folktales, as some folklorists suggest, but it is more likely that his tale spoofs Egyptian deities and royalty. The Tale of the Two Brothers may also fill a political role, hinting at a royal transition that is less than regular, and placing the role of women in an unfavorable light. This narrative is, without question, a rich, complex, and unified tale.

Bibliography

  • Goldman, S. The Wiles of Women, The Wiles of Men: Joseph and Potiphar's Wife in Ancient Near Eastern, Jewish, and Islamic Folklore. Albany, 1995. A discussion of the theme of attempted seduction, in its Near Eastern manifestations.
  • Hollis, S. T. The Ancient Egyptian “Tale of Two Brothers”: The Oldest Fairy Tale in the World. Norman, Okla., 1990. Places the narrative in its ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian context, including discussions of characters, the relation of parts and motifs to their ancient Egyptian context, especially mortuary and other narrative materials, and its folkloristic implications; includes a translation and discussion of its relation to parts of the Ptolemaic Papyrus Jumilhac.
  • Hollis, S. T. “Ancient Israel as the Land of Exile and the ‘Otherworld’ in Ancient Egyptian Folktales and Narratives.” In Boundaries of the Ancient Near Eastern World. A Tribute to Cyrus H. Gordon—Four Score and Eight, edited by M. Lubetski et al. Sheffield, 1997. Discusses the Syrian-Palestinian area as a site of exile and/or the “otherworld” in several Egyptian narratives, including Two Brothers.
  • Lichtheim, M. Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings. Vol. 2, The New Kingdom Berkeley, 1976. A readily accessible translation of the narrative, but without commentary.

Susan Tower Hollis