Ancient Egyptian literature

Ancient Egyptian literature

Ancient Egyptian literature comprises texts written in the Egyptian language during the pharaonic period of Egypt. Writing first appeared in association with kingship on labels and tags for items found in royal tombs. By the Old Kingdom, this tradition of writing had evolved into the tomb autobiography, such as those of Harkhuf and Weni. The genre known as "Sebayt" ("Instructions") was developed to communicate teachings and guidance from famous nobles; the Ipuwer papyrus, a poem of lamentations describing natural disasters and social upheaval, is an extreme example of such an instruction.

During the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom, the prose style of literature matured, with The Story of Sinuhe perhaps being the classic of Egyptian literature. [Lichtheim p. 11] Also written at this time was the Westcar Papyrus, a set of stories told to Khufu by his sons relating the marvels performed by priests. [Lichtheim p. 215] Towards the end of the New Kingdom, the Story of Wenamun was written. It tells the story of a noble who is robbed on his way to buy cedar from Lebanon and of his struggle to return to Egypt; the text also shows the end of united Egypt and the start of the tumultuous Third Intermediate Period.

Proto-dynastic period and Old Kingdom

Writing had its beginnings in inscriptions associated with kingship, labels and tags for items found in royal tombs, etc. This developed by the Old Kingdom into religious literature (Pyramid Texts), autobiographical tomb inscriptions, theological treatises (The Memphite Theology on the Shabaka Stone - 12th Dynasty), and possibly the first works of didactic literature (The "Instruction of Hardjedef", the "Instruction of Kagemni", and the "Instruction of Ptahhotep"). [Lichtheim, "op.cit.", vol.1, pp.58ff.] These were texts written with the intention of providing guidance, often purportedly authored by famous sages.

First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom

During this period the Egyptian language and its literary style evolved, becoming the classical language of literature people attempted to emulate in later times. The genre known as "Instructions" continued to evolve. The "Admonitions of Ipuwer", a poem of lamentations describing natural disasters and social upheaval, is an example of an instruction thought to have been conceived during the unsettled times of the Intermediate Period. This time also brought forth many monumental inscriptions in private tombs. Songs (e.g. the harpers' songs) and hymns (e.g. the hymn cycle to King Senusret III) were composed. Prose became widely used in literature, with the probably pseudo-biographical "Story of Sinuhe" perhaps becoming the classic of Egyptian Literature. [cite book |last= Lichtheim |first=Miriam|title=Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol 1|publisher=University of California Press|year=1975|location=London, England|isbn=0-520-02899-6|pages=11] Tales set in historical times are contained in the Westcar Papyrus and the "Tale of the shipwrecked sailor" is one of the first examples of a fairy tale.

New Kingdom

This period saw a flourishing of romantic love poetry ("Papyrus Harris 500"), of hymns of the "Book of the Dead". The tradition of the "sebayt" was continued with the "Instruction of Ani" and the "Instruction of Amenemope". Prose tales, among them the "Tale of Two Brothers", "Truth and Falsehood", were conceived. Towards the end of the New Kingdom, the "Story of Wenamun" was composed which tells the tale of a priest robbed on his way to buy cedar from Lebanon, and his struggle to return to Egypt, and describes the end of the united Egypt at the start of the Third Intermediate Period, a period of turmoil known as Era of the Renaissance.

First millennium BCE

Texts continued to be written in the classical language: tomb inscriptions (the inscriptions in the Tomb of Petosiris, many statue inscriptions), hymns (a "Hymn to Imhotep" at Karnak, "Hymns to Hathor" in the Temple of Dendera), royal proclamations ("The Victory Stela of King Piye", "A Victory Stela of King Psamtik II", "The Naucratis Stela of King Nectanebo I"), and pseudoepigraphical writings ("The Bentresh Stela", "The Famine Stela"), but, since the eighth century BCE, [Michel Chauveau, "Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra: History and Society Under the Ptolemies", Cornell University Press 2000, ISBN 0801485762, p.185 ] increasingly demotic became the tool used to compose tales (the stories of Setne Khamwas), fables ("The Lion in Search of Man") and instructions ("The Instruction of Ankhsheshonq", "The Instruction of Papyrus Insinger"). Late Period literature, whether classical or demotic, is often hearkening back to earlier ages, reasserting native Egyptian traditions against the encroaching Greek influence. [Barbara Watterson, "The Egyptians", Blackwell Publishing 1997, ISBN 0631211950, p.225]

Roman Period

Egyptian literature during this period was written in demotic and later Coptic, the vernacular of the day. The use of an adapted Greek alphabet was a further break with the native writing tradition.


* Miriam Lichtheim, "Ancient Egyptian Literature", 3 volumes, University of California Press
* John Tait, "Egyptian Fiction in Demotic and Greek", in Morgan (1994), pp.201ff.


Further reading

*cite book|title=Poetry and Culture in Middle Kingdom Egypt: A Dark Side to Perfection|first=Richard|last=Parkinson|publisher=Continuum|year=2002|location=London, New York|id=ISBN 0-8264-5637-5
*cite book|first=Miriam|last=Lichtheim|title=Ancient Egyptian Literature|volume=3 volumes|publisher=The University of California Press|date=1973-1980
*cite book|title=Greek Fiction: The Greek Novel in Context|first=John Robert|last=Morgan|publisher=Routledge|date=1994

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