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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Egyptian Literature
Critical Introduction by Francis Llewellyn Griffith (1862–1934) and Kate Bradbury Griffith (1854–1902)
THE ADVANCE that has been made in recent years in the decipherment of the ancient writings of the world enables us to deal in a very matter-of-fact way with the Egyptian inscriptions. Their chief mysteries are solved, their philosophy is almost fathomed, their general nature is understood. The story they have to tell is seldom startling to the modern mind. The world was younger when they were written. The heart of man was given to devious ways then, as now and in the days of Solomon,—that we can affirm full well; but his mind was simpler: apart from knowledge of men and the conduct of affairs, the educated Egyptian had no more subtlety than a modern boy of fifteen, or an intelligent English rustic of a century ago.  1
  To the Egyptologist by profession the inscriptions have a wonderful charm. The writing itself in its leading form is the most attractive that has ever been seen. Long rows of clever little pictures of everything in heaven and earth compose the sentences: every sign is a plaything, every group a pretty puzzle, and at present, almost every phrase well understood brings a tiny addition to the sum of the world’s knowledge. But these inscriptions, so rich in facts that concern the history of mankind and the progress of civilization, seldom possess any literary charm. If pretentious, as many of them are, they combine bald exaggeration with worn-out simile, in which ideas that may be poetical are heaped together in defiance of art. Such are the priestly laudations of the kings by whose favor the temples prospered. Take, for instance, the dating of a stela erected under Rameses II. on the route to the Nubian gold mines. It runs:—
          “On the fourth day of the first month of the season of winter, in the third year of the Majesty of Horus, the Strong Bull, beloved of the Goddess of Truth, lord of the vulture and of the uræus diadems, protecting Egypt and restraining the barbarians, the Golden Horus, rich in years, great in victories, King of Upper Egypt and King of Lower Egypt, Mighty in Truth of Ra, Chosen of Ra, 1 the son of Ra, Rameses Beloved of Amen, granting life for ever and ever, beloved of Amen Ra lord of the ‘Throne of the Two Lands’ 2 in Apt Esut, appearing glorious on the throne of Horus among the living from day to day even as his father Ra; the good god, lord of the South Land, Him of Edfû 3 Horus bright of plumage, the beauteous sparrow-hawk of electrum that hath protected Egypt with his wing, making a shade for men, fortress of strength and of victory; he who came forth terrible from the womb to take to himself his strength, to extend his borders, to whose body color was given of the strength of Mentu; 4 the god Horus and the god Set. There was exultation in heaven on the day of his birth; the gods said, ‘We have begotten him’; the goddesses said, ‘He came forth from us to rule the kingdom of Ra’; Amen spake, ‘I am he who hath made him, whereby I have set Truth in her place; the earth is established, heaven is well pleased, the gods are satisfied by reason of him.’ The Strong Bull against the vile Ethiopians, which uttereth his roaring against the land of the negroes while his hoofs trample the Troglodytes, his horn thrusteth at them; his spirit is mighty in Nubia and the terror of him reacheth to the land of the Kary; 5 his name circulateth in all lands because of the victory which his arms have won; at his name gold cometh forth from the mountain as at the name of his father, the god Horus of the land of Baka; beloved is he in the Lands of the South even as Horus at Meama, the god of the Land of Buhen, 6 King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Mighty in Truth of Ra, son of Ra, of his body, Lord of Diadems Rameses Beloved of Amen, giving life for ever and ever like his father Ra, day by day.” [Revised from the German translation of Professor Erman.]
  As Professor Erman has pointed out, the courtly scribe was most successful when taking his similes straight from nature, as in the following description, also of Rameses II.:—
          “A victorious lion putting forth its claws while roaring loudly and uttering its voice in the Valley of the Gazelles…. A jackal swift of foot seeking what it may find, going round the circuit of the land in one instant…. his mighty will seizeth on his enemies like a flame catching the ki-ki plant 7 with the storm behind it, like the strong flame which hath tasted the fire, destroying, until everything that is in it becometh ashes; a storm howling terribly on the sea, its waves like mountains, none can enter it, every one that is in it is engulphed in Duat.” 8
  Here and there amongst the hieroglyphic inscriptions are found memorials of the dead, in which the praises of the deceased are neatly strung together and balanced like beads in a necklace, and passages occur of picturesque narrative worthy to rank as literature of the olden time. We may quote in this connection from the biographical epitaph of the nomarch Ameny, who was governor of a province in Middle Egypt for twenty-five years during the long reign of Usertesen I. (about 2700 B.C.). This inscription not only recounts the achievements of Ameny and the royal favor which was shown him, but also tells us in detail of the capacity, goodness, charm, discretion, and insight by which he attached to himself the love and respect of the whole court, and of the people over whom he ruled and for whose well-being he cared. Ameny says:—
          “I was a possessor of favor, abounding in love, a ruler who loved his city. Moreover I passed years as ruler in the Oryx nome. All the works of the house of the King came into my hand. Behold, the superintendent of the gangs 9 of the domains of the herdsmen of the Oryx nome gave me 3,000 bulls of their draught stock. I was praised for it in the house of the King each year of stock-taking. I rendered all their works to the King’s house: there were no arrears to me in any of his offices.
  “The entire Oryx nome served me in numerous attendances. 10 There was not the daughter of a poor man that I wronged, nor a widow that I oppressed. There was not a farmer that I chastised, not a herdsman whom I drove away, not a foreman of five whose men I took away for the works. 11 There was not a pauper around me, there was not a hungry man of my time. When there came years of famine, I arose and ploughed all the fields of the Oryx nome to its boundary south and north, giving life to its inhabitants, making its provisions. There was not a hungry man in it. I gave to the widow as to her that possessed a husband, and I favored not the elder above the younger in all that I gave. Thereafter great rises of the Nile took place, producing wheat and barley, and producing all things abundantly, but I did not exact the arrears of farming.”
  Elsewhere in his tomb there are long lists of the virtues of Amenemhat, and from these the following may be selected both on account of picturesqueness of expression and the appreciation of fine character which they display.
          “Superintendent of all things which heaven gives and earth produces, overseer of horns, hoofs, feathers, and shells … Master of the art of causing writing to speak … Caressing of heart to all people, making to prosper the timid man, hospitable to all, escorting [travelers] up and down the river … Knowing how to aid, arriving at time of need; free of planning evil, without greediness in his body, speaking words of truth…. Unique as a mighty hunter, the abode of the heart of the King…. Speaking the right when he judges between suitors, clear of speaking fraud, knowing how to proceed in the council of the elders, finding the knot in the skein…. Great of favors in the house of the King, contenting the heart on the day of making division, careful of his goings to his equals, gaining reverence on the day of weighing words, beloved of the officials of the palace.”
  The cursive forms of writing—hieratic from the earliest times, demotic in the latest—were those in which records were committed to papyrus. This material has preserved to us documents of every kind, from letters and ledgers to works of religion and philosophy. To these, again, “literature” is a term rarely to be applied; yet the tales and poetry occasionally met with on papyri are perhaps the most pleasing of all the productions of the Egyptian scribe.  6
  It must be confessed that the knowledge of writing in Egypt led to a kind of primitive pedantry, and a taste for unnatural and to us childish formality: the free play and naïveté of the story-teller is too often choked, and the art of literary finish was little understood. Simplicity and truth to nature alone gave lasting charm, for though adornment was often attempted, their rude arts of literary embellishment were seldom otherwise than clumsily employed.  7
  A word should be said about the strange condition in which most of the literary texts have come down to us. It is rarely that monumental inscriptions contain serious blunders of orthography; the peculiarities of late archaistic inscriptions which sometimes produce a kind of “dog Egyptian” can hardly be considered as blunders, for the scribe knew what meaning he intended to convey. But it is otherwise with copies of literary works on papyrus. Sometimes these were the productions of schoolboys copying from dictation as an exercise in the writing-school, and the blank edges of these papyri are often decorated with essays at executing the more difficult signs. The master of the school would seem not to have cared what nonsense was produced by the misunderstanding of his dictation, so long as the signs were well formed. The composition of new works on the model of the old, and the accurate understanding of the ancient works, were taught in a very different school, and few indeed attained to skill in them. The boys turned out of the writing-school would read and write a little; the clever ones would keep accounts, write letters, make out reports as clerks in the government service, and might ultimately acquire considerable proficiency in this kind of work. Apparently men of the official class sometimes amused themselves with puzzling over an ill-written copy of some ancient tale, and with trying to copy portions of it. The work however was beyond them: they were attracted by it, they revered the compilations of an elder age and those which were “written by the finger of Thoth himself”; but the science of language was unborn, and there was little or no systematic instruction given in the principles of the ancient grammar and vocabulary. Those who desired to attain eminence in scholarship after they had passed through the writing-school had to go to Heliopolis, Hermopolis, or wherever the principal university of the time might be, and there sit at the feet of priestly professors; who we fancy were reverenced as demigods, and who in mysterious fashion and with niggardly hand imparted scraps of knowledge to their eager pupils. Those endowed with special talents might after almost lifelong study become proficient in the ancient language. Would that we might one day discover the hoard of rolls of such a copyist and writer!  8
  There must have been a large class of hack-copyists practiced in forming characters both uncial and cursive. Sometimes their copies of religious works are models of deft writing, the embellishments of artist and colorist being added to those of the calligrapher: the magnificent rolls of the ‘Book of the Dead’ in the British Museum and elsewhere are the admiration of all beholders. Such manuscripts satisfy the eye, and apparently neither the multitude in Egypt nor even the priestly royal undertakers questioned their efficacy in the tomb. Yet are they very apples of Sodom to the hieroglyphic scholar; fair without, but ashes within. On comparing different copies of the same text, he sees in almost every line omissions, perversions, corruptions, until he turns away baffled and disgusted. Only here and there is the text practically certain, and even then there are probably grammatical blunders in every copy. Nor is it only in the later papyri that these blunders are met with. The hieroglyphic system of writing, especially in its cursive forms, lends itself very readily to perversion by ignorant and inattentive copyists; and even monumental inscriptions, so long as they are mere copies, are usually corrupted. The most ridiculous perversions of all, date from the Ramesside epoch when the dim past had lost its charm, for the glories of the XVIIIth Dynasty were still fresh, while new impulses and foreign influence had broken down adherence to tradition and isolation.  9
  In the eighth century B.C. the new and the old were definitely parted, to the advantage of each. On the one hand the transactions of ordinary life were more easily registered in the cursive demotic script, while on the other the sacred writings were more thoroughly investigated and brought into order by the priests. Hence, in spite of absurdities that had irremediably crept in, the archaistic texts copied in the XXVIth Dynasty are more intelligible than the same class of work in the XIXth and XXth Dynasties.  10
  In reading translations from Egyptian, it must be remembered that uncertainty still remains concerning the meanings of multitudes of words and phrases. Every year witnesses a great advance in accuracy of rendering; but the translation even of an easy text still requires here and there some close and careful guesswork to supply the connecting links of passages or words that are thoroughly understood, or the resort to some conventional rendering that has become current for certain ill-understood but frequently recurring phrases. The renderings given in the following pages are with one exception specially revised for this publication, and exclude most of what is doubtful. The Egyptologist is now to a great extent himself aware whether the ground on which he is treading is firm or treacherous; and it seems desirable to make a rule of either giving the public only what can be warranted as sound translation, or else of warning them where accuracy is doubtful. A few years ago such a course would have curtailed the area for selection to a few of the simplest stories and historical inscriptions; but now we can range over almost the whole field of Egyptian writing, and gather from any part of it warranted samples to set before the reading public. The labor, however, involved in producing satisfactory translations for publication, not mere hasty readings which may give something of the sense, is very great; and at present few texts have been well rendered. It is hoped that the following translations will be taken for what they are intended,—attempts to show a little of the Ancient Egyptian mind in the writings which it has left to us.  11
  We may now sketch briefly the history of Egyptian literature, dealing with the subject in periods:— 12  12
I. The Ancient Kingdom, about B.C. 4500–3000

  The earliest historic period—from the Ist Dynasty to the IIId, about B.C. 4500—has left no inscriptions of any extent. Some portions of the ‘Book of the Dead’ profess to date from these or earlier times, and probably much of the religious literature is of extremely ancient origin. The first book of *‘Proverbs’ in the Prisse Papyrus is attributed by its writer to the end of the IIId Dynasty (about 4000 B.C.). From the IVth Dynasty to the end of the VIth, the number of the inscriptions increases; tablets set up to the kings of the IVth Dynasty in memory of warlike raids are found in the peninsula of Sinai, and funerary inscriptions abound. The pyramids raised at the end of the Vth and during the VIth Dynasty are found to contain interminable religious inscriptions, forming almost complete rituals for the deceased kings. Professor Maspero, who has published these texts, states that they “contain much verbiage, many pious platitudes, many obscure allusions to the affairs of the other world, and amongst all this rubbish some passages full of movement and wild energy, in which poetical inspiration and religious emotion are still discernible through the veil of mythological expressions.” Of the funerary and biographical inscriptions the most remarkable is that of *Una. Another, slightly later but hardly less important, is on the façade of the tomb of Herkhuf, at Aswân, and recounts the expeditions into Ethiopia and the southern oases which this resourceful man carried through successfully. In Herkhuf’s later life he delighted a boy King of Egypt by bringing back for him from one of his raids a grotesque dwarf dancer of exceptional skill: the young Pharaoh sent him a long letter on the subject, which was copied in full on the tomb as an addition to the other records there. It is to the Vth Dynasty also that the second collection of *‘Proverbs’ in the Prisse Papyrus is dated. The VIIth and VIIIth Dynasties have left us practically no records of any kind.
II. The Middle Kingdom, B.C. 3000 to 1600

  The Middle Kingdom, from the IXth to the XVIIth Dynasty, shows a great literary development. Historical records of some length are not uncommon. The funerary inscriptions descriptive of character and achievement are often remarkable.
  Many papyri of this period have survived: the *Prisse Papyrus of ‘Proverbs,’ a papyrus discovered by Mr. Flinders Petrie with the *‘Hymn to Usertesen III.,’ papyri at Berlin containing a *dialogue between a man and his soul, the *‘Story of Sanehat,’ the ‘Story of the Sekhti,’ and a very remarkable fragment of another story; besides the ‘Westcar Papyrus of Tales’ and at St. Petersburg the *‘Shipwrecked Sailor.’ The productions of this period were copied in later times; the royal *‘Teaching of Amenemhat,’ and the worldly *‘Teaching of Dauf’ as to the desirability of a scribe’s career above any other trade or profession, exist only in late copies. Doubtless much of the later literature was copied from the texts of the Middle Kingdom. There are also *treatises extant on medicine and arithmetic. Portions of the Book of the Dead are found inscribed on tombs and sarcophagi.  15
III. The New Kingdom, etc.

  From the New Kingdom, B.C. 1600–700, we have the *‘Maxims of Any,’ spoken to his son Khonsuhetep, numerous hymns to the gods, including *that of King Akhenaten to the Aten (or disk of the sun), and the later *hymns to Amen Ra. Inscriptions of every kind, historical, mythological, and funereal, abound. The historical *inscription of Piankhy is of very late date. On papyri there are the stories of the *‘Two Brothers,’ of the ‘Taking of Joppa,’ of the *‘Doomed Prince.’
  From the Saite period (XXVIth Dynasty, B.C. 700) and later, there is little worthy of record in hieroglyphics: the inscriptions follow ancient models, and present nothing striking or original. In demotic we have the *‘Story of Setna,’ a papyrus of moralities, a chronicle somewhat falsified, a harper’s song, a philosophical dialogue between a cat and a jackal, and others.  17
  Here we might end. Greek authors in Egypt were many: some were native, some of foreign birth or extraction, but they all belong to a different world from the Ancient Egyptian. With the adaptation of the Greek alphabet to the spelling of the native dialects, Egyptian came again to the front in Coptic, the language of Christian Egypt. Coptic literature, if such it may be called, was almost entirely produced in Egyptian monasteries and intended for edification. Let us hope that it served its end in its day. To us the dull, extravagant, and fantastic Acts of the Saints, of which its original works chiefly consist, are tedious and ridiculous except for the linguist or the church historian. They certainly display the adjustment of the Ancient Egyptian mind to new conditions of life and belief; but the introduction of Christianity forms a fitting boundary to our sketch, and we will now proceed to the texts themselves.  18
List of Selections
    The Shipwrecked Sailor
    The Story of Sanehat
    The Doomed Prince
    The Story of the Two Brothers
    The Story of Setna
    The Stela of Piankhy
    The Inscription of Una
    Songs of Laborers
    Love Songs
    Hymn to Usertesen III.
    Hymn to Aten
    Hymns to Amen Ra
    Songs to the Harp
    From an Epitaph
    From a Dialogue Between a Man and His Soul
Moral and Didactic:
    The Negative Confession
    The Teaching of Amenemhat
    The Prisse Papyrus
    From the Maxims of Any
    Instruction of Dauf
    Contrasted Lots of Scribe and Fellâh
    Reproaches to a Dissipated Student
Note 1. The italicized phrases represent the principal names of the King. [back]
Note 2. The temple of Karnak. [back]
Note 3. Horus as the winged disk of the sun, so often figured as a protecting symbol over the doors of temples. [back]
Note 4. The coloration or configuration of his limbs indicated to the learned in such matters his victorious career. Mentu was the god of war. [back]
Note 5. The southern boundary of the Egyptian empire. [back]
Note 6. Baka, Meama, Buhen were in Nubia. [back]
Note 7. The castor-oil plant (Ricinus communis). [back]
Note 8. The underworld. [back]
Note 9. The fellâhîn herdsmen of the time seem to have clubbed together into gangs, each of which was represented by a ganger, and the whole body by a superintendent of the gangs. [back]
Note 10. Corvée work for the government. [back]
Note 11. I.e., he did not impress men (wrongfully?) for the government works, such as irrigation or road-making. [back]
Note 12. An asterisk (*) attached to the title of a text indicates that a translation of part or all of it is printed in below. [back]

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