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Ancient Egyptian Literature

Ancient Egyptian Literature
An Anthology

Poetry, stories, hymns, prayers, and wisdom texts found exquisite written expression in ancient Egypt while their literary counterparts were still being recited around hearth fires in ancient Greece and Israel; this anthology offers an extensive sampling of all the major genres of ancient Egyptian literature.

June 2001
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304 pages | 6 x 9 | 13 line drawings |

Poetry, stories, hymns, prayers, and wisdom texts found exquisite written expression in ancient Egypt while their literary counterparts were still being recited around hearth fires in ancient Greece and Israel. Yet, because of its very antiquity and the centuries during which the language was forgotten, ancient Egyptian literature is a newly discovered country for modern readers.

This anthology offers an extensive sampling of all the major genres of ancient Egyptian literature. It includes all the texts from John Foster's previous book Echoes of Egyptian Voices, along with selections from his Love Songs of the New Kingdom and Hymns, Prayers, and Songs: An Anthology of Ancient Egyptian Lyric Poetry, as well as previously unpublished translations of four longer and two short poems. Foster's translations capture the poetical beauty of the Egyptian language and the spirit that impelled each piece's composition, making these ancient masterworks sing for modern readers. An introduction to ancient Egyptian literature and its translation, as well as brief information about the authorship and date of each selection, completes the volume.


Recognition for Paperback Cover DesignSouthern Book Competition

  • List of Hieroglyphic Passages
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • The Poems
    • Akhenaten's Hymn to the Sun
    • The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor
    • "Why, just now, must you question your heart"
    • "I love you through the daytimes"
    • "My love is one and only"
    • "Love, how I'd love to slip down to the pond"
    • "Love of you is mixed deep in my vitals"
    • "I think I'll go home and lie very still"
    • Songs of the Birdcatcher's Daughter
    • The Instruction for Little Pepi on His Way to School
    • Longing for Memphis
    • "Oh, I'm bound downstream on the Memphis Ferry"
    • Rebuke Addressed to a Dissipated Scribe
    • Menna's Lament
    • Thc Debate between a Man Tired of Life and His Soul
    • The Resurrection of King Unis
    • Prayer to the King to Rise Up
    • Hymn to the King as a Primordial God
    • Hymn to the King as a Flash of Lightning
    • Prayer of the King as a Star Fading in the Dawn
    • The Prophecy of Neferty
    • The Testament of Amenemhat
    • Two Spells
      • Spell for Causing the Beloved to Follow After
      • Power from the Four Winds of Heaven
    • The Greatness of the King
    • Prayer of King Ramesses II
    • For a Portrait of the Queen
    • Hymn to Osiris
    • Hymn to the Nile
    • Hymn to the Rising Sun
    • In Praise of Amun
    • Lament to Amun
    • The Tale of Sinuhe
    • From The Leiden Hymns
    • The Prayers of Pahery
    • From the Tomb of King Intef
    • The Harper's Song for Inherkhawy
    • From The Eloquent Peasant
      • The Peasant's Eighth Complaint
    • From The Maxims of Ptahhotep
    • The Instructionfor Merikarê
    • The Wisdom of Amenemopet
    • The Immortality of Writers (Epilogue)
  • Chronology
  • Glossary
  • Sources of the Texts
  • Bibliography

John L. Foster was a Research Associate at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, where he studied, translated, and wrote about ancient Egyptian literature from 1966 until his death in 2011.




The following pieces are gathered from earlier volumes of my translations of ancient Egyptian literature: the entirety of Echoes of Egyptian Voices (1992), and selections from Love Songs of the New Kingdom (1974; 1992) and Hymns, Prayers, and Songs: An Anthology of Ancient Egyptian Lyric Poetry (1995). In addition, there are four longer poems: The Instructionfor Little Pepi, The Prophecy of Neferty, The Instructionfor Merikarê, and The Wisdom of Amenemopet, as well as two new shorter poems. The result is a representative selection of ancient Egyptian literature.


All this began when, as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, I came across a translation of a Harper's Song from ancient Egypt hung on the wall above a sarcophagus in the hallway of the Kelsey Museum. The words struck me as surprisingly lively coming from a civilization that was so in love with death (the usual misinterpretation). I finished my work in American literature and modern poetry and went on to a teaching career in English. But I pursued the interest engendered by that Harper's Song, did post-doctoral study at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, and for the past thirty-five years have worked at translating ancient Egyptian literature into English in a way that treats the pieces as poems while attempting to preserve their fidelity to the original language.




The two great hindrances to any proper appreciation of the literature and civilization of ancient Egypt are the Bible and the glory that was Greece. These two sources—and the civilizations that produced them—are the twin bastions of our Western culture; and since they have so undeniably formed us and the very ways we think, it is no wonder we approach other cultures in terms of what they have taught us. Our view of ancient history is conditioned by what we understand as true from ancient Greece and, particularly, Israel. Indeed, our very idea of what constitutes ancient history is filtered through the accounts of Genesis and Exodus.


What has happened to Egyptology in the century and a half since Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphs, back at a time when one studied ancient Egypt only for confirmation of biblical attitudes? The difference has been the partial recovery, during the past 150 years, of the languages, histories, and cultures of the high civilizations of the ancient Near East; and these enable us to study and understand a country like Egypt from its own documents and monuments and from its own point of view. This increased knowledge has demonstrated that the version of ancient history that we have been brought to know and cherish has been a very much oversimplified and parochial one, projecting the viewpoint, at the earliest, of an ancient Israelite author during the united monarchy, some time later than 1000 B.C.


Egyptian writing, on the other hand, began some two millennia earlier, around 3000 B.C.; and civilization had been proceeding in high gear over the entire Fertile Crescent for at least that same two-thousand-year period before King David. We need to realize that some forty percent—almost half— of recorded human history occurred before King David. The selections in this volume are all from that earlier time, some of them from the earliest time, composed toward the dawn of writing, of literature, and of history itself.


Because of our classical-Christian value system we have traditionally accepted the biblical account of ancient history as true and tried to fit evidence from extra-biblical sources into that system. This no longer works. Notice that the classical authorities, those upon whom the earliest students of ancient Egypt relied—Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, and Strabo—lived and wrote even later than the Yahwist and Elohist of Israelite tradition. Herodotus lived during the fifth century B. C., and the other two were both first century figures. Even Manetho, from whom we take our division of Egyptian dynasties, only lived as far back as the third century B. C. Such writers—classical and Israelite alike—knew an Egypt that was but a shadow of its former self, that had long since ceded its greatness to later, more youthful empires.


There is another consequence of this unfortunate earlier perspective. Because we in the West have valued the contributions of the ancient Greeks and Hebrews as fundamental to our very being, we have lovingly preserved whatever was written in both languages. Not too long ago a university education centered on a study of the Greek and Roman classics and was often augmented by the study of Hebrew. The result has been over two millennia of careful attention to these ancient texts: the Hebrew because they were the sacred Word of God, and the Greek because they were the fountainhead of our Western literature and philosophy. Because of this high valuation, there has developed over the centuries a rich tradition of translating these relics of our origins. Translators can turn to the past to weigh how a passage was understood by many kindred spirits over time; and this slow process has improved and polished the results.


Now let us turn to the case of Egypt. Egyptian hieroglyphic is a dead language. Its meaning only began to be recovered when Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphs in 1822. And it was not until the last quarter of the nineteenth century that a tradition of translating the hieroglyphs into English could even begin to develop. Translation of ancient Egyptian literature is barely a century old, only four or five generations of Egyptologists have had a chance to work on the language, and most of the effort has of necessity been devoted to basics—vocabulary, word order, and sentence patterns. These efforts of earlier language scholars have been absolutely fundamental to, and necessarily preceded, any attempt to recover ancient Egyptian literature as literature and as poetry.


Our cultural traditions, along with loss of the key to the hieroglyphic language for so many centuries, have blinded us to the value of what has survived from the literature of ancient Egypt. It has riches thus far largely unrealized.




When one considers ancient Egypt, the first images that come to mind are of the pyramids at Giza, or the Sphinx, or the dried mummies in their coffins, or the consummate gold work of the treasure of Tutankhamun, or the huge statues of Ramesses II. Egypt, indeed, was one of the first lights of civilization, and these images remind us of that fact. When we ponder its surviving buildings and monuments, its carvings and paintings, its gold work and jewelry, its statues and figurines, we cannot help but be impressed by the primacy of ancient Egyptian culture. These survivals guarantee the perennial fascination the world has with that ancient civilization. And as we look into the faces of Egyptian statues and figurines—which are usually generic and idealized, but lifelike—we wonder what went on in the minds of their owners, in the minds of those Egyptians the statues and figurines were meant to embody. We ask what went on behind such eyes. What world did they see? What gave those faces their expressions?


Indeed, one wonders what a society that could create such excellence in architecture, in painting, in precious metal and stone, and in statuary—what did, or could, it similarly create in words? What Mind stood behind those hands that created the visual masterpieces of ancient Egypt? And how did that Mind express itself verbally? As one first trained in English and American literature, I have been intrigued by this aspect of Egyptian civilization for over thirty-five years. And I would argue that the splendor of pharaonic visual art has its worthy parallel in Egyptian literature: it is indeed a full-blooded verbal equivalent to the richness, elegance, vitality, and variety of Egypt's visual remains. Egyptians honored the Word as it became flesh in hymns and prayers, instructions, stories, and even love songs; and Egyptian writers—the poets particularly—delighted in working (or playing) with the nuances of words and meaning, and in the sounds and images of the language.


Yet the works of ancient Egyptian literature and their authors are less well known than the works of art and architecture. This is partly due to problems in deciphering the details of the language and partly due to the condition of the surviving texts. But it also stems from the fact that the nonspecialist must read the literature, not merely see a slide of Egypt or view it on a tour. And in trying to read, he or she must also try to visualize the images and culture conveyed in the text—which is no easy thing to do. At any rate, far from appearing in their rightful place at the fountainhead of world literature, the classics of Egypt remain out of the mainstream, covered in darkness.


What can be said about that literature? First of all, the Egyptian language is old and venerable—known from the beginning of dynastic history (ca. 3100 B.C.) and lasting until the fourth century A.D., when the last hieroglyphic inscription was carved on the walls of the temple at Philae. By the time commemorative titles and tomb biographies became widespread during the Old Kingdom, we can see that a long history of hieroglyphic writing had preceded them. Hieroglyphic signs at Saqqara from the tomb of King Djoser in the Third Dynasty (ca. 2645 B.C.) already show the language in almost classic form. The ancient Egyptian language, then—from the unread earliest signs, through Old, Middle, and Late Egyptian, and on through Demotic and Coptic—had a documented career of almost 3,500 years. By contrast, English— as we can read it without too much aid—has so far survived for only 500 years (that is, back to Chaucer) and spans at best a thousand years, if we go back to Anglo-Saxon, which must be studied as a foreign language.


In addition to this long tradition of written Egyptian, it is important to realize we have physical evidence from these very ancient historical periods: there are pot marks, incised kings' names, and inscriptions carved in stone, wood, and ivory, going back to the very earliest dynasties; papyri (which are extremely fragile) still survive, generally in fragments, some from the Old Kingdom; and ostraca (stones or potsherds with writing or drawing on them) are numerous from the New Kingdom and later. Egyptian literature is known to us, let us say, from originals. The text may not have been the author's hand copy, but it does originate from the time when pharaonic Egypt was still vital, and often dates to the period in which the author wrote. We need not rely— as is the case, for instance, in biblical studies—on traditions only later written down or on several centuries of oral transmission.


During the past two decades much has been learned about the nature of Egyptian literature. It was known all along that, as with the literatures of other ancient cultures, the literature of Egypt was almost exclusively religious. Ancient peoples seemed not to have atheism, agnosticism, or skepticism as options in the constellation of their beliefs. But it has now become apparent that ancient Egyptian literature is also almost entirely a verse literature. Very few of the compositions that we would term "literary" (i.e., belles lettres) were written in prose—perhaps some of the New Kingdom stories, at best. Rather, all the primary genres—the didactic or "wisdom" texts (instructions, admonitions, and laments), the hymns and prayers, and most of the tales (fiction and myths)—were composed in verse.


The nature of this verse—the style of ancient Egyptian poetry—has also become clearer in recent years. For their poems ancient Egyptian poets used a couplet form: the lines of the poems were grouped in twos, and each pair of lines completed a verse sentence. There were variations upon this basic form (triplets and quatrains), but the generalization is fundamental to understanding the structure of the poems. The verse line was clausal and syntactic: each line consisted of either a dependent or an independent clause; and the pair made up the full sentence. As I said before, the Egyptian poet loved to savor and play with words, since he so respected eloquence and fine language. All the devices of major poetry were employed to enhance the poem: nuances in the vocabulary (connotations of words); imagery (the special images of the Nile Valley, of nature there, and of the special crafts, occupations, professions, and recreations of the people); figurative language (similes and metaphors occurred regularly to enrich meaning); and sound repetition (which was pervasive—for the Egyptian poet richness of sound harmonies was as important as collocations of ideas and images and symbols). In fact, ancient Egyptian poetry was most emphatically not a folk poetry (composed by splendidly intuitive untaught artists) but a sophisticated, artful court and temple poetry composed by authors skilled in a long tradition of the craft. The love of words was enriched by a similar love of all the devices used to enhance meaning and effect.


The major remaining gap in our knowledge of ancient Egyptian poetics concerns prosody. The ancient Egyptians did not write the vowels of their words; and since the language died out, these so far are lost to us: we cannot for certain pronounce the language, even though we can understand and translate it. Because of the lack of vowels, and thus pronunciation, we are unable to scan the Egyptian verse line—we do not know for sure if it was composed of feet or if it employed some freer means of determining accents and stresses. I would suggest the verse line was analogous to the free verse of Walt Whitman or the modernist American poets. In fact, I think the stylistic texture or flavor of ancient Egyptian poetry can best be described as a fusion of the free-verse rhythms of those poets just mentioned with the rhetorical and structural regularities—the strict attention to patterns of likeness and difference—of Alexander Pope's eighteenth-century heroic couplets (without the end-rhyme or meter). This combination of stylistic and structural qualities I have termed the "thought couplet"; and the following selections are translated with that style and structure of Egyptian poetry in mind.




The wonder, however, is that we have any ancient Egyptian literature at all. The surfaces upon which the author wrote had to physically survive the ravages of time, enduring from two to five thousand years. We are fortunate in two ways: many compositions were written on stone or pottery (which lasts better than, for instance, human bones); and the hot, dry climate of Egypt helps to preserve not only bones and other perishable objects but papyrus as well, upon which many of the more valued texts were copied to keep them for their own day.


Even so, much of ancient Egyptian literature is a matter of bits and tatters: ragged papyri with holes in them, crumbling into dust when handled; or splinters of stone and bits of pottery containing irritating and tantalizing fragments of text—keys which fail to unlock anything. Written in the margin of one papyrus we have, "When the wind comes, it veers toward the sycamore; / When you come . . ." And the rest is lost.


It is a long journey from the decaying fragments of stone and papyrus upon which ancient Egyptian literature is written to finished translations of that civilization's classics. Shown only the shattered pieces, one is bound to ask, with Ezekiel, can these bones live? Can these bits and pieces, these hints of old poems written three and four thousand years ago, poems and stories and wisdom from the time of Moses and before—from before even Abraham, predating his mythic wandering figure by centuries—can these fragments ever, through some miracle, come alive again to illuminate the thought and feeling—the consciousness—of their time, the days of their creators? Can they show us after so many centuries how men and women living in one of the first high civilizations—back at the very dawn of recorded history and conscience—thought, felt, and acted? Can they reveal to us how the human mind worked so long ago? Can not only the letter but also the spirit of the words be resurrected?


The answer, I think—admitting that the journey from stone to poem is dotted with pitfalls and that recovering Mind is much chancier than recovering stones and potsherds—the answer is largely "yes." We can "come upon the ancient people" (as Ezra Pound tried to do in his Cantos for over half a century: "to gather from the air a live tradition"); we can recover to a good degree the consciousness behind the shattered remnants of the words and literature of a great and enduring civilization. Though so often the texts, as we now have them, are fragmentary, many are, or can be made, almost or entirely complete; we can determine a hieroglyphic text upon which to base a translation; and we do know enough of the Egyptian language—its grammar, vocabulary, clause structure, and, for poetry especially, its style—to derive a believable English translation from the original.


How do we proceed? If a complete text is available, say, on a clean, untattered, neatly written papyrus, then one proceeds directly to transcribing the hieratic handwriting into hieroglyphs; and from there, one begins a literal translation of the text into English. But much Egyptian literature must be reconstructed; it must be slowly and painstakingly put together from small pieces. The process is analogous to completing a jigsaw puzzle—with the added complication that for the same final picture we have pieces from different copies, all cut differently and all in the same horrendous pile to be sorted out and made sense of. And usually we have too many pieces that fit in one part, overlapping and confusing each other, while there are all too often pieces missing from other parts.


If the scholar is fortunate enough to possess multiple copies of a text, then the quality of each copy must be ascertained and an "eclectic" text developed, a single final text composed of the best readings from all the individual copies. Only then is the piece ready for translation.


This stage too is often laborious. Here the scholar aims at what is called a "literal" translation, transforming the hieroglyphs into English on a more or less word-for-word basis. Opinions differ as to just how free such a translation should be; my own practice has usually been to keep to the word-for-word version, including most of the Egyptian word- and clause-order, so that the next scholar can determine the choices I have made in the transfers from one language to another. This literal translation is the most important single stage of the progress from broken stone to final poem. Unfortunately, at this stage there is also no poem. The literal translation has not, and should not pretend to have, any literary value. Lovers of literature and poetry in English would recoil in horror at the butchery done to the language in many such translations; a late colleague has characterized this idiom of scholarly literality as "King-James-ese."


With the literal translation, then, we have only a skeleton of meaning: the poems are still dry bones, with no flesh upon them and no breath of life breathed into them. The text is still the document of the philologist and not yet the living creature of the poet, not yet possessing, as is often said in literary studies, an independent life of its own—as the masterwork outlives its creator. How does one go that last stage of the journey? How to move from literal to literary? How to transmute a "text" into a "poem"?


In this final stage the translator must shift his or her value system from that of the scholar—cautious, meticulous, analytic, skeptical, scientific—to that of the poet—spontaneous, synthetic, imaginative, emotional, and whatever other qualities one may wish to attribute to the creative artist. The translator-poet, of course, begins with a text whose words and literal meaning must be respected, else new poems are created instead of poetic translations of meaning from another language.


And what interests the poet-translator in that literal text are the same facts and qualities we seek in reading modern poems. We want to know who is speaking the poem, who the characters are, where the situation takes place, and what happens. We also want to know the thoughts and feelings of the persons in the poem, their attitudes and emotions. And we look for words well-placed and things excellently said; that is, we also look for quality in the poet's use of tools, and we thus want excellence of workmanship and style. In a word, we want to be treated to a single, unified, compelling moment (or series of moments) of human experience. And for an Egyptian poem translated into English, that means an attempt to recover patches of human experience from three and four thousand years ago. The speakers of these poems must stand alive before us once again to show us why those now-anonymous Egyptian poets wanted to put their times and people into words. In this way, the life of an exile, Sinuhe, in the pharaonic Egypt of the twentieth century B.C. can be recovered to enrich the lives of those in the twenty-first century A.D.


So, as the translator-poet works on these texts, he or she looks for the incident or emotion or mood that seems to have inspired the original poem, from which it grew in the Egyptian poet's imagination. And the translator looks for images and turns of phrase and connotations attached to the literal words, listening, as Dylan Thomas once said, in order "to hear words whispering to one another." And it is from such elements, and from the recreative imagination, that the modern translator revivifies the poem: it becomes the text transfigured. And if the translator is lucky, talented, experienced in the original language, and has worked hard at the craft of words in English, then, perhaps, the result is a poem which can delight and even illumine the modern reader or hearer. The literal translation communicates only one kind of meaning, the "intellectual." But there are other kinds—emotional meaning; imaginative meaning; and the meaning conveyed by tone, images, metaphors, and symbols, all of which contribute to the "multidimensional" language of poetry. In the literary translation, these other kinds of meaning are included; more is attempted, and when successful, more is recovered from the dust-heaps of the past.




What is the rightful place of ancient Egyptian literature in world literature? Along with the Sumero-Akkadian literature, it is the world's first—the earliest expression of humankind's experiences and hopes and dreams; of the human encounter with nature and the gods, with other persons, with people of other nations—sometimes hostile—with daily life, with miracles, with the ups and downs of society and politics, and with our own inner, sometimes turbulent or bewildered, selves. It is, even now, a rich literature, despite the fact that it lies before us in ruins. Enough remains for us to insist flatly that its masterpieces belong at the beginning of our traditions of world literature— as the fountainhead—preceding the contributions of Greece and Israel. An entire era of our human venture—lasting approximately two millennia—produced sometimes brilliant literary pieces; and of this era we know very little. Fascinated as we are by pyramids and mummies, we know almost nothing of Egypt's verbal heritage. Yet that inheritance is ours also; and we have been too long blinded by our own formative traditions to appreciate the older, sometimes deeper, and now alien excellence of Egypt and the other high cultures of the ancient Near East.


Finally, all translators worth their salt want, with Pound, to "make it new" for their own times and languages. Yet, in closing, I also want to stress that these translations are meant to be a critical reading of the ancient Egyptian poetic texts in the original—a reading Egyptologists, too, I trust, can address with profit. The poems result from an affection for the culture, people, language, and poetry of ancient Egypt that is of many years' standing; and my intent is that these echoes of the ancient voices ring true.



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