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The Literature of Ancient Egypt

Lately, at our Dickensian flea market, there’s been a man with a table full of books about ancient Egypt. He’s got books on history, on art, on myth, on language. It’s a full collection, somebody’s entire library. I wonder how it all ended up here. I imagine a Tintin character, a scholar with a long white beard and round glasses, an Egyptologist, who gives it all up, sells all his books, and goes on an   adventurous journey down the Nile. I bought a beautiful book called The Literature of Ancient Egypt. I will freely admit to you that I didn’t even know such a thing existed. Of course I knew about the myths and the gods, but I didn’t know there were stories and poems, that we could still read lengthy narratives from all those years ago.

And how strange and beautiful they are! They alternate between the completely human and recognizable and the fantastically bizarre. There’s a ghost story that isn’t spooky at all because “death for a deceased Egyptian who had undergone the rites of beatification was an extension of life…and rapport between the living and the dead was by no means always a gloomy affair.” There’s The Shipwrecked Sailor, which is a story within a story within a story, one of them told by a golden snake.

And the love poems are crazy, intimate and yearning. In a context I only remotely understand, maybe there’s a sense that the people who describe themselves as belonging to another actually belong to the other as property, but if you’ve ever been in love you know how it feels to belong with someone, and in this context, these speak to me. Listen to this love poem:

The voice of the turtledove speaks out. It says:
day breaks, which way are you going?
Lay off, little bird,
must you so scold me?

I found my lover on his bed and my heart was sweet to excess.

We said:

I shall never be far away from you
while my hand is in your hand,
and I shall stroll with you in every favorite place.

He set me first of the girls
and he does not break my heart.

and this one…

A dense growth is in it,
in the midst of which we become ennobled

I am your best girl:
I belong to you like an acre of land
which I have planted
with flowers and every sweet-smelling grass.

Pleasant is the channel through it
which your hand dug outdoor refreshing ourselves with the breeze,
a happy place for walking
with your hand in my hand.

My body is excited, my heart joyful,
at our traveling together.

Many of the passages dole out advice, mostly to sons, some from fathers who are already dead. My favorite is The Maxims of Ptahhotpe. He’s not yet dead, but he’s aging, which he describes in a Sappho-worthy passage.

The Eyes are dim, the ears are deaf, strength is perishing because of my lassitude, the mouth is silent and cannot speak, the mind has come to an end and cannot remember yesterday, the bones suffer all over, good is become evil, all taste has gone…

His advice is sometimes strange and sexist (how to deal with the women you own), but sometimes beautifully generous and still very pertinent today. He says not to judge anyone by their position, and not to be arrogant because of your knowledge, but to confer with the ignorant man as with the learned, for “Good speech is more hidden than malachite, yet it is found in the possession of women slaves at the millstones.” Anybody is worth speaking to, if you give them the chance to speak! He says that you shouldn’t pay any attention to a man who is speaking ill of others, you should be silent because he ” will be dubbed an ignoramus when your self-control has matched his prolixity.” And he says “Do not inspire terror in men…for no terror of man has ever been effective…plan to live in peace, and what men give will come of its own accord.” And most mysterious and most lovely, “Follow your desire as long as you live and do not perform more than is ordered, do not lessen the time of following desire, for the wasting of time is an abomination to the spirit; do not use up the daytime more than is necessary for the maintenance of your household.”

It’s so strange to read words from an almost incomprehensible time ago, when it’s hard to imagine how people lived, and find truth in them that still resonates today. I’m not always the biggest fan of human beings in general, but sometimes in the bright round mystery of our history, we’re remarkable and beautiful and persistently true.

The center-piece of the book is a “remarkable Middle Kingdom text” called The Man Who Was Tired of Life. It’s a dialogue between a man and his soul. I know what you’re thinking, plenty of people have written dialogues between body and soul. There’s Andrew Marvel’s A Dialogue Between the Body and the Soul, and Yeats A Dialogue between Self and Soul. But this is early, this is from the middle kingdom of Egyptian literature, and that’s…that’s…well, I honestly have no idea when that was, but it’s really early. And this man is so strangely relatable. I imagine most people have felt like this at one time or another. He’s feeling down. Partially in the “I think I’ll go eat worms,” way. “Behold, my name is detested, Behold more than the smell of vultures/ On a summer’s day when the sky is hot.” (More than the smell of vultures!) But he’s also feeling discouraged about people, about all of humanity.

“To whom can I speak today?/ Faces are averted,/ And every man looks askance at his brethren.

To whom can I speak today?/ Hearts are rapacious/And there is no man’s heart in which one can trust.

To whom can I speak today?/ There are no just persons/And the land is left over to doers of wrong.”

It recalls thirteen-year-old Kolya speaking to Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, “Honest People are terribly scarce here, so that there’s really nobody one can respect…We are all adventurers nowadays…they are all money-grubbers, every one of them.”


If you read the news, especially lately, it’s hard not to get down about humanity, it’s hard to keep from being discouraged and cynical and pessimistic. But it’s important to remember that for every piece of tragic news, we can cling to hope in the response of most of the people who hear it: in the outpouring of sympathy and love and even anger, all of these things that will combine to push us towards justice. The soul persuades the Man Who Was Tired of Life to carry on, and to “Cast complaint upon the peg,…and cleave to life.” And Myshkin, who notices everything and understands everything, says, “What could I teach you? At first I was simply not dull; I soon began to grow stronger. Then every day became precious to me, and more precious as time went on, so that I began to notice it. I used to go to bed very happy and get up happier still. But it would be hard to say why.” We have to cleave to hope, even if we can’t say why.

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