Sources. Egyptian love poems provide a rare view of human feelings in the ancient world. Four collections of love poems survive from ancient Egypt. They are known as Papyrus Chester Beatty I and Papyrus Harris 500 in the British Museum in London, Papyrus Turin 1966 in the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy, and Cairo Ostracon 2518 in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt. They all date to Dynasty 19 (1292–1190 b.c.e.) but might have been composed somewhat earlier.
Poetic Structure. Egyptian poetry did not have end rhyme or meter as does most English poetry written before the twentieth century. Instead, Egyptian poets organized verses into structures called couplets, triplets, and quatrains. A couplet has two related phrases, a triplet has three related phrases, and quatrains have four related phrases. The relationship between and among these phrases is a single thought expressed in variations either two, three, or four times. For example, a poem in Papyrus Chester Beatty I begins, “My love is one and only, without peer, / lovely above all Egypt’s lovely girls.” Here the poet expresses the same thought in two ways. The relationship might also use parallel grammatical structures in a poetic fashion. Presumably there was a definite pause after each couplet, triplet, or quatrain when the poem was recited.
Themes. The themes of Egyptian love poetry would be familiar to lovers of all time periods. They describe the beloved’s beauty, tricks used by both sexes to gain the attention of a desired lover, a plea to Hathor—goddess of love—to return a lost love, and the opposition of parents to a desired match.
John L. Foster, ed., Echoes of Egyptian Voices: An Anthology of Ancient Egyptian Poetry (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992).
Foster, ed., Love Songs of the New Kingdom (New York: Scribners, 1974).
Barbara Hughes Fowler, Love Lyrics of Ancient Egypt (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).
Raymond A. McCoy, The Golden Goddess: Ancient Egyptian Love Lyrics, translated by McCoy (Menomonie, Wis.: Enchiridion Publications, 1972).